Raw Data: Projected Poverty Among the Elderly

The current rate of poverty among the elderly is 9.8 percent, compared to 15.7 percent for those under age 65. But what about the future? The Social Security Administration projects that poverty rates will continue to decline for the elderly. About 7 percent of depression babies, who started retiring in 1990, currently live in poverty, compared to a forecast of 5.7 percent for Gen Xers, who will begin retiring in 2030. However, these averages hide some stark differences:

Not all groups are expected to do so well. Among high school dropouts, poverty rates are projected to increase from 13.5 percent to 24.9 percent...before declining to 18 percent for [GenXers]....Given the projected increase in minorities and immigrants, as well as the historic increase in women’s labor force participation, retirees with low labor force attachment are increasingly low-educated, low-skilled, and disabled. Not surprisingly, those retirees are projected to have very high poverty rates.

By 2030, SSA forecasts that poverty will be all but eradicated for every income group except one: the very poorest. This is unsurprising but nonetheless far-reaching in its policy implications: If you are poor during your working career you will continue to be poor when you retire. If not, then not. Our retirement programs should be set accordingly.

In case you've ever wondered about the value of a narrow 5-point win in a state you were expected to take easily, just take a look at today's headlines. The margin of victory doesn't matter. The headlines in all four of our biggest daily newspapers were clear as a bell: Hillary won and her momentum is back. That's the story everyone is seeing over their bacon and eggs this morning.

Jeff Stein makes a potentially important point today:

On Saturday, about 80,000 voters participated in Nevada's caucus — roughly two-thirds of the total that came out in 2008....Low turnout in Nevada wasn't an outlier. New Hampshire saw 10 percent fewer voters in 2016 than it did eight years ago. In Iowa, turnout was also down — from 287,000 in 2008 to 171,000 this year.

....Sanders thinks "the core failure" of Obama's presidency is its failure to convert voter enthusiasm in 2008 into a durable, mobilized organizing force beyond the election. Sanders vows to rectify this mistake by maintaining the energy from the campaign for subsequent fights against the corporate interests and in congressional and state elections.

The relatively low voter turnout in the Democratic primary so far makes this more sweeping plan seem laughably implausible. Three states have voted, we've had countless debates and town halls, and there's been wall-to-wall media coverage for weeks....And yet ... we have little evidence that Sanders has actually activated a new force in electoral politics. If he can't match the excitement generated by Obama on the campaign trail, how can he promise to exceed it once in office?

Of course, it's one thing to say that Sanders hasn't generated huge turnouts in a primary against a fellow Democrat, but that doesn't mean he couldn't generate a huge turnout against a Trump or a Cruz. The problem, of course, is that Hillary Clinton would quite likely generate a huge turnout as well. The prospect of either Trump or Cruz in the Oval Office would do wonders for Democratic panic no matter who the nominee is.

Sadly, turnout is a red herring. The real lesson of this year's election is that candidates have learned there are no limits to what they can promise. Campaigning is always an exercise in salesmanship, and salesmen always overpromise. This year, though, we have two candidates who cavalierly and repeatedly promise the moon without making even a pretense that they have the slightest notion of how to accomplish any of it. And voters love it! Trump's crowds go wild over the idea of Mexico paying for a wall and Sanders' audiences go equally wild over his plan to blow away the entire American health care system and replace it with the NHS. This is the year that fantasy sells, and it sells big.

The conventional wisdom is that this is happening because voters are uniquely angry this year and attracted to outsiders who say they're going to blow up the system. Maybe so. But I've heard that story pretty much every year for nearly my entire adult life, and weak economy or not I don't really buy it. What's different this year isn't the electorate, it's the candidates. American voters have always had an odd habit of simply believing whatever presidential candidates say, regardless of plausibility or past record, and this year two candidates have tested this to destruction. And guess what? It turns out that a lot of Americans will almost literally believe anything. I mean, China bashing and Wall Street bashing have always been good for some cheap applause, but this year we're hearing blithe claims about crushing China by taxing them to death and smashing big banks into little bitty pieces, and the crowds are applauding even harder.

Trump and Sanders have shown that you can take overpromising to a far higher level than anyone ever thought possible. Is this unique to 2016? Or will others learn this lesson too? I guess we'll have to wait for 2020 to find out.

General Relativity: Not So Hard After All!

Yesterday I tackled a vexing problem: Is general relativity really that hard to understand? In one sense, of course it is. But when it receives the treatment that most scientific theories are given, I'd say no. For example, here's how Newton's theory of gravitation is usually described for laymen:

  • All objects with mass (for example, the earth and the moon) are attracted to each other. The bigger the mass, the stronger the attraction.
  • The attraction decreases as the objects get farther apart. If they're twice as far apart, the attraction is one-fourth. If they're three times as far apart, the attraction is one-ninth. Etc.

Easy peasy! Objects are attracted to each other via certain mathematical rules. But hold on. This is only easy because we've left out all the hard stuff. Why are massive objects attracted to each other? Newton himself didn't even try to guess, famously declaring "I frame no hypotheses." Action-at-a-distance remained a deep and profound mystery for centuries.1 And another thing: why does the gravitational attraction decrease by exactly the square of the distance? That's suspiciously neat. Why not by the power of 2.1 or the cube root of e? And nothing matters except mass and distance? Why is that? This kind of stuff is almost never mentioned in popular descriptions, and it's the reason Newton's theory is so easy to picture: It's because we don't usually give you anything to picture in the first place. Apples fall to the earth and planets orbit the sun. End of story.

Well then, let's describe Einstein's theory of gravity—general relativity—the same way:

  • Objects with mass are attracted to each other.
  • The attraction decreases as the objects get farther apart. Einstein's equation is different from Newton's, so the amount of the decrease is slightly different too.
  • In Einstein's theory, gravity isn't a property of mass. It's caused by the geometry of the universe, so it affects everything, including energy.
  • Light is a form of energy, so beams of light are slightly bent when they travel near massive objects like stars.
  • Einstein's equations predict that time runs slower near objects with high gravitational fields.
  • Sometimes an object can have such a strong gravitational field that light can't escape and time stops. These are called black holes.
  • Plus a few other intriguing but fairly minor deviations from Newton's theory.

Not so hard! Once again, there's nothing to picture even though this is a perfectly adequate lay description of general relativity. The trouble starts when we do what we didn't do for Newton: ask why all this stuff happens. But guess what? In any field of study, things get more complicated and harder to analogize as you dive more deeply. For some reason, though, we insist on doing this for relativity even though we happily ignore it in descriptions of Newton's theory of gravity. And this is when we start getting accelerating elevators in space and curved spacetime and light cones and time dilation. Then we complain that we don't understand it.

(By the way: if you study classical Newtonian gravity, it turns out to be really complicated too! Gravitation, the famous Misner/Thorne/Wheeler doorstop on general relativity, is 1200 difficult pages. But guess what? Moulton's Introduction to Celestial Mechanics pushes 500 pages—and it only covers a fraction of classical gravitation. This stuff is hard!)

Relativity and quantum mechanics are both famously hard to grasp once you go beyond what they say and demand to know what they mean. In truth, they don't "mean" anything. They do gangbusters at describing what happens when certain actions are taken, and we can thank them for transistors, GPS satellites, atom bombs, PET scans, hard drives, solar cells, and plenty of other things. The mathematics is difficult, but often it looks kinda sorta like the math for easier concepts. So quantum mechanics has waves and probability amplitudes because some of the math looks pretty similar to the math we use to describe ocean swells and flipping coins. Likewise, general relativity has curved spacetime because Einstein's math looks a lot like the math we use to describe ordinary curved objects.

But is it really probability? Is it really a four-dimensional curve? Those are good ways to interpret the math. But you know what? No matter how much you dive in, you'll never know for sure if these interpretations of the math into human-readable form are really correct. You can be confident the math is correct,2 but the interpretations will always be a bit iffy. And sadly, they won't really help you understand the actual operation of these theories anyway. Objects with mass attract each other, and if you know the math you can figure out exactly how much they attract each other. Calling the path of the objects a geodesic on a 4-dimensional curved spacetime manifold doesn't really make things any clearer. In all likelihood, a picture of a bowling ball on a trampoline doesn't either.

But we keep trying. We just can't help thinking that everything has to be understandable to the h. sapiens brain. This makes interpreting difficult math an excellent way to pass the time for a certain kind of person. It's a lot like trying to interpret the actions of the Kardashian family. Lots of fun, but ultimately sort of futile if you're just an ordinary schmoe.

1General relativity and quantum mechanics finally put everyone's minds at ease by showing that the action wasn't actually at a distance after all. Unfortunately, they explained one mystery only at the cost of hatching a whole bunch of others.

2We hope so, anyway. But then, Newton's math looked pretty damn good for a couple of centuries before it turned out to be slightly wrong. That may yet happen to general relativity and quantum mechanics too.

UPDATE: I've modified the third bullet of the relativity list to make it more accurate.

Hillary Clinton Wins Nevada

Well, it looks like Hillary Clinton won Nevada after all. Only by about five points, probably, but that's enough. It means she avoids a crippling week of headlines declaring her a loser and anointing Bernie Sanders with all the momentum.

That's why even a few points can make all the difference. Clinton is 25 points ahead in South Carolina, and now she'll probably be able to keep most of that lead, which will produce yet more good press heading into Super Tuesday. If she runs the table there or even comes close—which she has a good chance of doing—it's pretty much over for Sanders.

Apple-FBI Spat Enters the Twilight Zone

What in God's name is this all about? In its motion filed Friday to force Apple to create a special version of iOS that would allow the FBI to crack the San Bernardino attacker's iPhone, a footnote revealed that Apple and the FBI had discussed several options for obtaining information on the phone:

The four suggestions that Apple and the FBI discussed (and their deficiencies) were....(3) to attempt an auto-backup of the SUBJECT DEVICE with the related iCloud account (which would not work in this case because neither the owner nor the government knew the password to the iCloud account, and the owner, in an attempt to gain access to some information in the hours after the attack, was able to reset the password remotely, but that had the effect of eliminating the possibility of an auto-backup).

With the iCloud password changed, the iPhone can't connect to the iCloud account and do a backup. But Apple says it wasn't Syed Farook who changed the password:

Apple executives said the company had been in regular discussions with the government since early January, and that it proposed four different ways to recover the information the government is interested in without building a backdoor. One of those methods would have involved connecting the iPhone to a known Wi-Fi network and triggering an iCloud backup that might provide the FBI with information stored to the device between the October 19th and the date of the incident.

Apple sent trusted engineers to try that method, the executives said, but they were unable to do it. It was then that they discovered that the Apple ID password associated with the iPhone had been changed. (The FBI claimed earlier Friday that this was done by someone at the San Bernardino Health Department.)

Friday night, however, things took a further turn when the San Bernardino County’s official Twitter account stated, “The County was working cooperatively with the FBI when it reset the iCloud password at the FBI’s request.”

This is pretty bizarre. Why did the FBI say it was Farook in their court filing if they knew it wasn't? And how did the San Berdoo Health Department change the iCloud password, anyway? You need the old password to do that. But if they know the old password, why can't they change it back? Very mysterious.

UPDATE: Apparently there are a couple of ways this could have happened. If the Health Department knew Farook's email account, they might have been able to use the "Forgot my password" option to reset it. Alternately, if the phone was MDM managed, they might have been able to reset the passcode remotely. However, that seems unlikely since they would have had other, better options if they had been using MDM.

Why did the Health Department have the phone, anyway? I'm surprised the police or the FBI didn't snatch it instantly.

Companies and things Donald Trump has started boycotting in the past few months:

  1. Oreo cookies
  2. Carrier air conditioners
  3. iPhones and all other Apple products
  4. Starbucks
  5. Macy's
  6. The Republican debate, for a while anyway
  7. Traveling to Mexico
  8. HBO
  9. Univision

Typically, the reason for the boycott is some kind of personal feud (5, 6, 8, 9); companies making things overseas (1, 2); companies doing things he disapproves of (3, 4); and countries doing things he disapproves of (7).

In fairness, he's on the business end of plenty of boycotts too. He might personally be responsible for last quarter's lousy economic growth.

Bob Somerby is reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Albert Einstein, which he calls "a pleasure to read." Except for one thing: Isaacson's description of the theory of relativity is incomprehensible. For example:

The passage shown below comes from Isaacson's Chapter One.

The general theory of relativity...can be described by using another thought experiment. Picture what it would be like to roll a bowling ball onto the two-dimensional surface of a trampoline. Then roll some billiard balls. They move toward the bowling ball not because it exerts some mysterious attraction but because of the way it curves the trampoline fabric. Now imagine this happening in the four-dimensional fabric of space and time.

We'd have to call that passage bafflegab. No one has the slightest idea what Isaacson means when he refers to "the four-dimensional fabric of space and time." We all can picture that trampoline—but none of us knows how to imagine that "four-dimensional fabric!" Nor does Isaacson give us the tools to do so, or notice that he has failed.

Somerby is complaining about a big problem here. But it's not Isaacson's fault. Or even the fault of science writers in general. It's a defect in the universe itself.

As it turns out, explaining the "fabric" of spacetime isn't hard. Yes, it's four-dimensional. But all this means is that you define it using four numbers. If you described me via my age, weight, height, and IQ, that would be a "four-dimensional" representation of Kevin Drum. It's not a big deal.

Now suppose you want to describe an event. You need to specify where it happened and when it happened. Take, for example, the airplane crashing into World Trade Center 1. It happened at 40.71º latitude, -74.01º longitude, and 6,371 kilometers (relative to the center of the earth) at 13:46:30 GMT on 11 September 2001 (relative to the common era calendar). As an event in spacetime it's represented by an ordered 4-tuple:

There are other events that happened at the same time in other places (me saying "oh shit" in California); at the same place in other times (breaking ground on WTC 1 in 1966); and entirely different times and places (the Battle of Gettysburg). If you collect every possible location of an event ever—that is, every combination of four numbers specifying times and places in the universe—that's all of spacetime. Physicists are likely to call it a manifold or a Minkowski space. For laymen, fabric is fine.

This is all pretty simple. You might not know the mathematics for dealing with arrays of four numbers at a time, but it's well developed. And if you combine that with a few other concepts—like the idea that the speed of light is always constant—you'll eventually end up with the theory of gravitational attraction that's called general relativity.

Unfortunately, "eventually" is a long way away. I can teach you to add and subtract, and "eventually" that will lead you to the theories of financial derivatives that we lovingly called rocket science when they were helping the economy implode in 2008. I can teach you the color wheel and eventually you might become the next Rembrandt. I can teach you to read and eventually you might tackle Kant or Wittgenstein.

So what's a science writer to do? General relativity is a set of mathematical equations. Plug in the numbers and it turns out to predict the way gravity works with astonishing precision. But can someone who doesn't understand the math picture in their head what those equations "mean"? Well, what does a Rembrandt mean to a blind person? What do derivatives mean to someone who doesn't understand the Black-Scholes model? What does Kant mean to someone who's never studied philosophy? You can do your best to find some kind of analogy that kinda sorta gets these ideas across, but none of them will ever be simultaneously comprehensible and truly accurate to a layman.

I said earlier that this was a defect in the universe. Here's the defect: the universe is hard! Humans have a hard time understanding it if they aren't willing to study diligently. (And sometimes even if they are.) There's really no way around this. In the case of science, there's no law that says the universe has to work in ways that the overclocked ape h. sapiens can make intuitive or visual sense of. You can read an article in Discover and get a glimpse. A really talented writer can give you a slightly better glimpse. If you get a PhD in physics you'll get an even better glimpse. You'll start to grasp simultaneity, light cones, stress-energy tensors, geodesics, world lines, Riemannian geometries, and frame dragging. But will you ever truly understand? Will you ever truly be able to picture it? Probably not. You might eventually be able to manipulate the algebra deftly, but at a visceral level our brains evolved to understand spear throwing and baby raising, not differential equations or tensor analysis. Welcome to the universe, you allegedly sentient being, you.

Next: In part 2, I explain general relativity so you can understand it. No joke. It's not that hard at all! Though I admit that I'm going to cheat.

The machinery of the EU is awesomely trifling. I was reading earlier today about David Cameron finally reaching an agreement that allows Britain some special privileges designed to keep them from exiting the union. But it was odd. One of the concessions he won appeared to give Britain "a national veto over EU legislation," and yet every news report treated this like a minor afterthought. So I got curious and tried to figure out what was going on. Here's the provision Cameron got:

  • If the EU proposes a new law, it is required to send out a draft to all member countries for a 12-week review.
  • If 55 percent of the member countries object, the Council will "discontinue the consideration of the draft legislative act in question" unless they choose to amend it.

OK. That's something, I guess. So what was the rule before? Feast on this:

  • If a third of the member countries object to a new law, it will be reviewed. But that's it. No action is required.
  • If half of the member countries object, the new law will not only be reviewed, but the EU Commission will have to explain why it thinks the law is OK.
  • After that, the Council and the European Parliament are required before the first reading to "consider whether the legislative proposal is compatible with the principle of subsidiarity."
  • If 55 percent of the Council Members (or a majority of the European Parliament) believe the proposed law is incompatible with subsidiarity, it will be shelved.

So under the old rules, if half the member countries object to a proposed law and 55 percent of the Council subsequently agrees, it's shelved. Under the new rules, if 55 percent of the member countries object, it will be shelved immediately.

It would take a high-power microscope to see the difference here. The new rules eliminate the Council vote, but that would only rarely make a difference. You have to figure that if 55 percent of the member countries object, they're also going to vote against it in Council—and no law can pass with only 45 percent approval anyway. You've needed 55 percent for the past couple of years. I suppose that eliminating the Council vote eliminates time to pressure folks into changing their minds, but that's about it.

It is stuff like this that greases the gears of the EU. Veteran EU watchers will snicker at me for being captivated by this, but captivated I am.

A couple of days ago I blasted the Bernie Sanders campaign for touting a stupendously optimistic study by economist Gerald Friedman of how their domestic spending plans would supercharge economic growth. This was based on a simple fact: the projections were far higher than anything in postwar US history.

But I got to pondering this a bit more. The Friedman study projected very high GDP growth, which is just a combination of workforce growth and productivity growth. You can increase GDP by having more workers, or by keeping the same number of workers and making them more productive. The study suggested that Sanders' programs would increase workforce participation by a huge amount, but I figured I'd let that go for now. I was more interested in the 3.18 percent average annual productivity growth over a decade. That's was pretty wild: we've never done that since World War II, and we've only come close twice. So how does Friedman justify this? Here it is in its entirety:

Higher demand for labor is also associated with an increase in labor productivity and this accounts for about half of the increase in economic growth under the Sanders program.18

18There is a strong positive correlation between productivity growth and levels of unemployment and rates of GDP growth; the R2 in a regression for productivity growth and real GDP growth is 0.65. Higher GDP growth explains all of the higher productivity growth projected here. The association of higher productivity growth and low unemployment is sometimes called “Verdoorn’s Law”....

That didn't sound very promising. Friedman is projecting historically unprecedented productivity growth based on some old papers that examine an association proposed in 1949 between long-run GDP growth and productivity—which seems a bit circular for our purposes even if it's true. That's pretty thin.

Still, I was curious. Then on Thursday economist Jamie Galbraith mocked a severely critical letter from former CEA chairs because it roasted Friedman's study without doing any actual analysis of his forecasts. Now, Galbraith was rather careful not to suggest that he actually thinks Friedman is right, but he nonetheless conceded only that one might "quibble" with Friedman's productivity numbers. Overall, he said, Friedman's methods were thoroughly mainstream. "When you dare to do big things, big results should be expected. The Sanders program is big, and when you run it through a standard model, you get a big result."

Maybe so, though I continued to be pretty skeptical of Friedman's rosy projections. So I decided to take another look at historical productivity figures to back myself up. This turned out to be far more difficult than I expected. You can get productivity figures from the BLS, the OECD, and from various academic estimates, and they're all different. And none of them go back further than 1950 or so. Still, after an eye-blurring bit of work powered by dexamethasone, I came up with fairly reasonable estimates averaged from a few sources, including my own homebrew calculations. Then I broke them up into 20-year buckets, because you frequently see productivity fall and then make up ground when you look at more than just a few years at a time. For the final bucket, I averaged actual numbers from 2006-15 with Friedman's estimate for 2016-25. You can see the result on the right.

And it turns out that...Friedman isn't projecting anything wildly out of the ordinary after all. However, I'd caution about two things. First, my productivity numbers might be wrong. Probably not by a lot, but maybe by a modest amount. Second, the final figure for 2006-25 assumes that Sanders' programs can make up for the unusually dismal productivity numbers of 2006-15. I think there are good reasons to doubt that. Nonetheless, given past history it's not insane to think it might happen if we implemented a pretty massive spending and stimulus program.

I dunno. Maybe you're interested in this, maybe not. I'm still pretty skeptical myself since different ways of looking at the data make Friedman's projections look a lot less plausible. In any case, I'm sure that qualified economists will weigh in with more sophisticated evaluations fairly soon. But I set out to take another whack at these projections, and I didn't really get what I expected. So I figured I should share.