Kevin Drum

The Counterintuitive World

| Thu Sep. 30, 2010 2:06 PM EDT

Back during World War II, the RAF lost a lot of planes to German anti-aircraft fire. So they decided to armor them up. But where to put the armor? The obvious answer was to look at planes that returned from missions, count up all the bullet holes in various places, and then put extra armor in the areas that attracted the most fire.

Obvious but wrong. As Hungarian-born mathematician Abraham Wald explained at the time, if a plane makes it back safely even though it has, say, a bunch of bullet holes in its wings, it means that bullet holes in the wings aren't very dangerous. What you really want to do is armor up the areas that, on average, don't have any bullet holes. Why? Because planes with bullet holes in those places never made it back. That's why you don't see any bullet holes there on the ones that do return. Clever!

On a related note — related because it involves both an air force and some counterintuitive statistical reasoning — Henry Farrell writes about a passage from Justin Fox's Myth of the Rational Market involving the great behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman. Here is Kahneman reacting to an Israeli Air Force flight instructor who told him that whenever he chewed out a student he got better performance the next time out, but whenever he praised a student he got worse performance:

As a man trained in statistics, Kahneman saw that of course a student who had just brilliantly executed a maneuver (and was thus praised for it) was less likely to perform better the next time around than a student who had just screwed up. Abnormally good or bad performance is just that — abnormal, which means it is unlikely to be immediately repeated. But Kahneman could also see how the instructor had come to his conclusion that punishment worked. “Because we tend to reward others when they do well and punish them when they do badly, and because there is regression to the mean,” he later lamented, “it is part of the human condition that we are statistically punished for rewarding others and rewarded for punishing them.”

Likewise, we tend to go to the doctor only when an illness has become really bad. Sometimes, though, that just means the illness is at its lowest point and has nowhere to go but up. And sure enough, after we see the doctor we get better. But it's not always because of something the doctor did. Sometimes it's just a natural consequence of when humans choose to see them.

Finally, on yet another related note — related this time solely because it involves counterintuitive statistical reasoning, not because it involves an air force — check out Nate Silver's brief seminar on how weak most of us are at calculating how much variance there is in the things we do every day. There's a lot of natural variance in everyday life, and there's not always a reason for it. But we like to make up reasons anyway. Statistics is a profoundly unnatural enterprise for most of us.

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The Foreclosure Scandal

| Thu Sep. 30, 2010 12:09 PM EDT

I haven't posted yet about the news that thousands of delinquent homeowners are being booted out of their houses in special "expedited" courtrooms using flimsy and often fraudulent documentation produced by foreclosure mills that handle thousands of cases with factory-like efficiency. Part of the reason is that lousy documentation aside, it wasn't clear to me how many people were actually being unfairly evicted. Mike Konczal sets me straight:

I was raised by a family in law enforcement, and as such, I tend to think people who are arrested are usually guilty. And I think that the people who are ending up inside the Florida bankruptcy courts are usually going to be people that shouldn’t be in their homes.

It’s because of the fact that I and others usually believe this to be true that I think due process and the trust in the process of our courts is so incredibly important. It’s necessary to force the parties at hand to marshall evidence that they swear is true, and to present it to an impartial judge to render judgment after full consideration. This is America, where everyone gets a chance before the court. If this breaks, the weak and the innocent are the ones who suffer.

This is right. It's precisely when we're absolutely sure that someone is guilty that we need to be most careful about making sure we actually prove it. Beyond that, as Mike points out in the rest of his post, virtually all of these foreclosure problems could probably be resolved quickly and fairly amicably if banks were simply willing to share the loss with the homeowner. But they're not, and neither Congress nor the president has been willing to change the law to encourage this. It's all about protecting the banks, not anyone else.

Read the whole thing, and then click the links to read a bit more. I think Obama probably gets more flack for his economic policies than he deserves — for the most part they've been about as good as they could have been under the circumstances — but when it comes to home foreclosures the administration and Congress have been cynical and derelict in the extreme. It's a disgrace, whether Rick Santelli likes it or not.

Outraged!

| Thu Sep. 30, 2010 11:41 AM EDT

The New York Daily News reports that city residents are "outraged" because silly federal bureaucrats have ordered all their street signs to be changed from all-uppercase to upper-and-lowercase. Go down nine paragraphs, however, and you get this:

The mixed upper- and lowercase rule was adopted in 2003, but municipalities were given until 2018 to comply completely, Hecox said....The additional cost to the city, if any, will be "marginal" because it receives a steady stream of state funding for routine sign repairs and replacement, DOT spokesman Seth Solomonow said. The life of a typical sign is about a decade, so most of the city's signs would be replaced in the next few years anyway, Solomonow said.

So this rule was adopted in 2003, cities have until 2018 to comply, it improves safety, and it won't actually cost much of anything at all. Count me as disappointingly non-outraged.

The Latest Healthcare Non-Story

| Thu Sep. 30, 2010 11:29 AM EDT

Last night, in the latest evidence that the Murdoch-ization of the Wall Street Journal proceeds apace, the WSJ reported that McDonald's was threatening to cancel its employee health insurance, calling it "the latest indication of possible unintended consequences from the health overhaul."

Yawn. Put this one in the same bucket as the student health insurance scare a few weeks ago. As Aaron Carroll points out, there's nothing either new or unintended about this. As Igor Volsky points out, both McDonald's and the Obama administration said this morning that the story was overblown. "Wrong," said HHS. "Completely false," said McDonald's. And as Jon Cohn points out, this whole manufactured story is about crappy health plans that provide almost no benefit in the first place:

The policies in question are so-called mini-med plans with very limited benefits. In the case of McDonald's, according to the Journal, there are two options: Employees who go with the minimum plan pay $14 a week for a policy that won't cover more than $2,000 in medical bills a year. Employees who opt for the "generous" option pay about $32 a week for a policy that maxes out at $10,000.

To call that "insurance" is to distort the definition, since these policies would do very little to help people with even moderately serious medical conditions. (You can blow through $10,000 in medical care with one emergency room visit.)....In the long run, McDonald's employees need policies that protect them in case of serious medical problems. And they need policies they can afford. They'll get those policies thanks to the Affordable Care Act — but not until 2014, because the administration and Congress couldn't come up with enough money to implement the full scheme sooner.

To summarize: ACA requires health insurers to spend 80-85% of premium dollars on actual patient care. The mini-med folks claim they can't possibly meet this target. (They're probably blowing smoke, but leave that aside.) HHS knows all about this and is working on phase-in rules to accomodate problems. McDonald's says they have no plans to drop coverage. And the entire thing is a short-term transition issue, since crappy mini-med policies will hopefully be replaced by actual useful coverage when ACA fully kicks in in 2014.

But other than that, it was a great story.

How the Game is Played

| Thu Sep. 30, 2010 1:55 AM EDT

The Senate confirmed a bunch of Obama appointees before it recessed today, including a couple of Federal Reserve governors (though not Peter Diamond, who's presumably still held up in Richard Shelby hell) and such dignitaries as Nancy Lindborg as Assistant Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance Bureau. Yes, really. Senate confirmation is required for the post of Assistant Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance Bureau. We are all insane.

There are still loads of nominees still pending, of course, but hey — Obama can always give a few of them recess appointments. Right? In a word, no:

Senate Democrats agreed Wednesday night to a Republican demand to block President Obama from making recess appointments while Congress is out of town campaigning for the midterm elections. Democratic leaders have agreed to schedule pro-forma sessions of the Senate every week over the next six weeks, a move that will prevent Obama from making emergency appointments, according to Senate sources briefed on the talks.

....Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had threatened to send Obama’s most controversial nominees back to the president if Democrats did not agree to schedule pro-forma sessions, according to a senior GOP aide....Under Senate rules, the chamber may only carry over pending nominees during an extended recess if senators agree by unanimous consent. Senators rarely invoke this rule, but McConnell threatened to object unless Democrats agreed to prevent Obama from making recess appointments.

Now, that's some hardball from the Republicans. Was there anything Harry Reid could have done to stop it? I think so. Obama can make recess appointments if the Senate is out of session for as little as a week, while the carry-over rule applies only to recesses of 30 days or more. So if Reid had scheduled pro-forma sessions every two weeks, current nominees would have been carried over automatically but Obama still would have retained the option of making some recess appointments.

Now, maybe Obama didn't ask for that. Who knows? Or maybe I'm reading the Senate rules wrong. But if I have it right, Reid didn't have to give in to this extortion.

Gold Bugs

| Wed Sep. 29, 2010 5:52 PM EDT

CJR's Ryan Chittum picks up on one of my pet peeves:

The Wall Street Journal goes page one with a misleading story about gold, splashing this headline across four columns atop the page:

       Gold Vaults to New High

Gold hit $1,306 an ounce yesterday, which is a nominal record. Emphasis on nominal. That doesn’t mean anything, really. The real record was set thirty years ago at $2,318 in 2010 dollars. The Journal, incredibly, doesn’t mention this once in its story. This isn’t just an institutional knowledge failure, it’s one of numeracy.

With rare exceptions, inflation-adjusted prices should always be considered the baseline when you're reporting on trends. I know that it can make for clumsy writing, but that's life. It's the right thing to do, and nominal prices should be the ones in parentheses if you need to include them. Adjusted for inflation, gold peaked 30 years ago at a daily fix of about $2,300 and a monthly average of about $1,800. We're still quite a ways from that record.

However, this is an excuse for me to ask about something else: what is the deal with gold, anyway? I understand that historically it responds to panics, which explains why gold prices have been rising for the past couple of years. But why did it double between 2001 and 2008? Those were nice, low-inflation times, not the kind of environment that's usually friendly to gold bugs. What's the story here?

UPDATE: Via comments, a reminder that not everything is about us. China deregulated gold ownership in 2001, and since then demand in both China and India has boomed. So perhaps that's (part of) the answer.

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Who is Obama Allowed to Assassinate?

| Wed Sep. 29, 2010 5:10 PM EDT

National Review editor Kevin Williamson once again tries to persuade his fellow conservatives that the American government should not have the right to assassinate American citizens:

I am not a lawyer, but it seems clear to me that the state of our law is such that anybody with sufficient legal training can make a reasonably strong-sounding argument for any policy he chooses, and that if his argument is wrong, it is likely to be wrong in ways that are non-obvious....So, set aside the legal questions for a second. The Awlaki case speaks to something even more fundamental than law: Decent nations do not permit their governments to assassinate their own citizens. I am willing to give the intelligence community, the covert-operations guys, and the military proper a pretty free hand when it comes to dealing with dispersed terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and its affiliates. But citizenship, even when applied to a Grade-A certified rat like Awlaki, presents an important demarcation, a bright-line distinction in our politics.

....If Awlaki were to be killed on a battlefield, I’d shed no tears. But ordering the premeditated, extrajudicial killing of an American citizen in Yemen or Pakistan is no different from ordering the premeditated, extrajudicial killing of an American citizen in New York or Washington or Topeka — American citizens are American citizens, wherever they go. I’m an old-fashioned limited-government guy, and I am not willing to grant Washington the power to assassinate U.S. citizens, even rotten ones.

Actually, I'd like to know if the Obama administration really does believe that it has the authority to assassinate U.S. citizens in Washington or Topeka in the same way it believes it has the authority to assassinate them in Sanaa and Karachi. And if not, why not?

Unfortunately, they've declared the entire thing to be a state secret, so we'll never find out. But as far as any of us are allowed to know, their official stand is that the entire world is a battlefield in the war against terrorism, and therefore killing terrorists is fair game anywhere in the world. Even if Williamson is right that a good lawyer can defend pretty much any proposition, I'd sure like to see the legal justification for that. At a bare minimum, you'd think that in a free democracy we'd all have the right to hear at least that much.

Glenn Beck and Fox News

| Wed Sep. 29, 2010 3:24 PM EDT

From Mark Leibovich's profile of Glenn Beck today:

When I mentioned Beck’s name to several Fox reporters, personalities and staff members, it reliably elicited either a sigh or an eye roll. Several Fox News journalists have complained that Beck’s antics are embarrassing Fox, that his inflammatory rhetoric makes it difficult for the network to present itself as a legitimate news outlet.

Look, I'm willing to blame Glenn Beck for a lot of things. But making it difficult for Fox to present itself as a legitimate news outlet? That's a bridge too far. You really can't tie that one around Beck's neck, folks.

Yet Another Nannygate

| Wed Sep. 29, 2010 2:35 PM EDT

Well, we have another nanny scandal in California. Meg Whitman's former nanny and housekeeper, Nicky Diaz Santillan, now represented by Gloria Allred, says she worked for Whitman for nine years, during which she was "exploited, disrespected, and humiliated." Her story: she was hired in 2000 and was never asked if she was here illegally. But she claims Whitman knew her status and received multiple letters from the Social Security Administration asking about it, none of which she responded to. Instead, she told Diaz to "check on this" but never did anything further. Then, in June 2009, when Diaz asked Whitman to help her legalize her status, she was fired. She believes it was because Whitman had announced her run for governor and could no longer afford to employ an undocumented worker.

Ben Smith reports that Whitman agrees on the broad outlines of the story, but says she was deceived by Diaz and never knew her status. She fired Diaz only after she found out. So far this story is pretty sketchy on both sides, so stay tuned.

Diaz's actual legal claim, by the way, is for wages that she claims she wasn't paid during her employment. Obviously, though, the damage to Whitman is primarily the accusation that she knowingly employed an undocumented worker.

Was Keynes Right?

| Wed Sep. 29, 2010 1:35 PM EDT

Tyler Cowen on problems with the theory underlying contemporary Keynesian economics:

Aggregate demand macroeconomics works in many cases and it almost always "works" (predicts well) when the macro forces are pointed toward destructive ends. We are not sure why it works at all, or if it always works, and yet we see a great fervor of belief in it and a demonization of those who are skeptics.

Am I misunderstanding this? Right now macro forces are indeed pointed toward destructive ends, aren't they? So if AD macro almost always works in those cases, doesn't a great fervor of belief in it make sense even if we're not 100% sure why it works?