Kevin Drum

More on Early Childhood Education

| Tue Aug. 24, 2010 12:07 PM EDT

Dylan Matthews interviews Harvard professor Raj Chetty about a subject I blogged on a couple of weeks ago. Better early childhood education, it turns out, might not directly affect scores on standardized tests (or on things like IQ tests), but it apparently does affect other behaviors that are strongly related to higher incomes later in life:

One thing I found interesting about the effect of test scores as relates to earnings is that it seems like some of the gains you find in early childhood, that might not show up on later test scores, later emerge when you're looking at earnings data.

Yes, and that's in fact, I think, the most striking finding....[Test scores] fade out over time. So kids who had better teachers and were in smaller classes in kindergarten aren't doing all that better, really, on tests in middle school and high school. But what's surprising is that those effects reemerge in adulthood. And I can talk about why we think that is.

Why do you think that is?

One explanation for this fadeout and then reemergence of the impact of kindergarten is through non-cognitive channels. [...] For a limited subset of the students we have measures of non-cognitive ability in eighth grade. So what that means is measures like, they ask teachers to evaluate whether the students are being disruptive in class, whether the students are putting in a lot of effort, whether they're motivated and so on. Now, we find persistent effects of your kindergarten class on these non-cognitive measures. There's no fadeout, or very little fadeout on the non-cognitive stuff.

So one potential explanation of all of the findings together is, a good kindergarten teacher teaches you the material that you're tested on in kindergarten, and so you do well on kindergarten tests. That same good teacher also imparts non-cognitive skills, like they teach you how to be a disciplined learner, how to put in a lot of effort, how to be patient....It's quite intuitive that these non-cognitive skills matter when you're an adult. It helps to get a good job and to do well in general if you're a disciplined person, if you're perseverant and so on.

Bottom line: school matters, and the way it matters doesn't get picked up entirely via standardized testing. In modern society, there are lots of behavioral traits that are just as important as IQ and subject matter knowledge. But we only test for subject matter knowledge, and so it gains an outsize importance.

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Playing Fair With Climate Science

| Tue Aug. 24, 2010 11:47 AM EDT

A few weeks ago I wrote about a Nature article that suggested we were in the middle of a long-term decline in the volume of phytoplankton in the world's oceans. I had a bit of email back-and-forth with Stuart Staniford about whether the results in the paper were really robust, but the upshot was unclear and the paper was, after all, in Nature, not some C-list journal. What's more, the decline was pretty substantial. It was probably real.

But now comes another climate-related piece of research, this time in the equally respected Science, and this time Stuart's skepticism is on much firmer ground. For the last decade scientists have been collecting information on terrestrial vegetation coverage using the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on board NASA’s Terra satellite. Their conclusion: vegetation coverage is down, which means plants are pulling less carbon out of the air, which means we have yet another positive feedback loop causing an increase in atmospheric carbon levels.

The problem is that there are only ten annual data points so far, and they bounce around like a pogo stick. The trend over the past decade is slightly down, but the variance is so large that it's almost imposssible to tell if this is just normal noise or a real decline. It's still worthwhile information to share, except that the writeup in Science appears to go out of its way to avoid acknowledging the problem:

There is a whole long history in science of how to assess this kind of thing — to test whether a particular number or trend is statistically significant, as opposed to the situation where it could well just be a fluke. It's a normal part of doing science that one analyzes the statistical significance of trends, and analyzes the likely range of uncertainty around a particular estimate. However, in this paper, there is no analysis in the paper of whether the reduction in NPP is statistically significant, and, as I noted, no error bar is provided for the "0.55 petagram" reduction.

So Stuart emails the authors, and they concede that their results aren't yet robust ("Some research findings are so important that society really cannot afford to wait another 10+yr for 95% or 99% statistical confidence"). Stuart is unhappy:

Ok. So here we have a statistically non-robust result, that the authors are well aware is not statistically robust, being published because it's of "high policy significance". However, and critically, the authors included no discussion whatsoever of the statistical limitations of the evidence. The "-0.55" in the abstract is not "-0.55 +/- 1.1" or something like that to give the reader a heads up that there is a lot of uncertainty here. There is no calculation of the "p-value" of that trend (how likely it was to occur by chance), even though the rest of the paper is littered with p-values of subsidiary results. They know perfectly well how to calculate this, they know it's not statistically significant, but they chose to put their readers in a position where we have to take the data off the graph and do our own statistical analysis to realize what's really going on.

And the refereeing and editorial process at Science allowed the paper to be published like that.

I think that sucks.

Stuart is no climate skeptic, just someone who thinks data ought to be presented clearly and transparently. I agree. Especially in the current post-Climategate atmosphere, the climate community needs to be purer than Caesar's wife about this kind of thing. There's no reason to withhold this satellite information, but it should be clearly labeled as preliminary, non-significant, and with error bars attached.

Fed to Unemployed: Drop Dead

| Tue Aug. 24, 2010 1:51 AM EDT

Jon Hilsenrath of the Wall Street Journal apparently got a detailed briefing about the most recent meeting of the Federal Reserve, and he reports that there was a considerable amount of dissension about even the puny action they ended up taking. The Fed's technical staff had told them that their portfolio of mortgage-backed securities "was about to begin shrinking much more rapidly than anticipated," which would likely have a contractionary effect and should have rung alarm bells given the current parlous state of the economy. But Ben Bernanke's proposal to offset this enough merely to keep the Fed's balance sheet stable — not shrinking and not growing — met with a fair amount of resistance:

Fed governor Kevin Warsh [...] worried that a decision to reinvest mortgage proceeds into Treasurys would confuse investors and lead many to believe the Fed was paving the way to resume major purchases before it had decided to do so....Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Fed, and others expressed a concern that Fed moves might be ineffective, arguing that businesses weren't using already ample, cheap credit to fund investments because they were uncertain about many other problems, including government deficits and new financial regulations.

Narayana Kocherlakota, president of the Minneapolis Fed, argued that a large part of today's unemployment problem is caused by issues the Fed can't solve, such as the mismatch between the skills of jobless workers and the skills that employers wanted....The president of the Philadelphia Fed, Charles Plosser, who has had misgivings before about Mr. Bernanke's initiatives, deemed the latest move premature because, though the Fed was lowering 2010 growth estimates, it wasn't significantly ramping down its estimates for growth in 2011 and beyond. Two other frequent dissenters, Thomas Hoenig of Kansas City, and Jeffrey Lacker of Richmond, Va., also objected. Fed governor Betsy Duke, a former commercial banker, also expressed reservations, according to participants.

This doesn't bode well. If Hilsenrath is right, it means that there are no more than two or three Fed governors who are currently in favor of more aggressive action as long as the economy doesn't go completely off the cliff. For the time being, then, we have a Fed that's plainly not going to do anything expansionary on the monetary side and a Republican Party that's hellbent on keeping anything from being done on the fiscal side. Lost decade, here we come.

Red State, Blue State

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 4:26 PM EDT

Mark Krikorian takes a vacation in Michigan and reports back:

Amidst the big-picture stuff, two things at the Ford museum stuck out: The map showing the outcome of the 1976 election had the red and blue states as they’re supposed to be — the Democrats in red and the Republicans in blue. Has anyone tried to dig out which graphic artist or art director at one of the networks decided to change this in 2000? It has to have been a considered decision by a leftie who didn’t think the Democrats should be portrayed as the reds, but I’ve never seen the name(s) of the specific person or persons responsible.

Nah. Nothing so sinister. Here's the answer:1

Since the advent of color TV, there has been a formula to avoid charges of giving any party an advantage by painting it a "better" color. Here is the formula: the color of the incumbent party alternates every 4 years.

In 2000 the formula produced blue for Gore and red for Bush, and shortly after that the famous electoral map showing blue coasts and a vast swath of red everywhere else made its debut. This prompted everyone to start talking about red states and blue states, and ever since then it's stuck. Something tells me this is an explanation that's going to have to be repeated every few years.

1The best answer I've been able to come up with, anyway. However, state colors have varied over the years, and not all networks and print outlets followed this formula perfectly. But it seems to have been pretty common, and in any case it was just a coincidence that Democrats got colored blue in 2000 and that was the election that produced a famous map. Just luck of the draw.

A Bidding War For Bloggers?

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 2:16 PM EDT

From the Daily Caller:

“It’s standard operating procedure” to pay bloggers for favorable coverage, says one Republican campaign operative. A GOP blogger-for-hire estimates that “at least half the bloggers that are out there” on the Republican side “are getting remuneration in some way beyond ad sales.”

In California, where former eBay executive Meg Whitman beat businessman Steve Poizner in a bitterly fought primary battle in the campaign for governor, it sometimes seemed as if there was a bidding war for bloggers.

This comes via Conor Friedersdorf, who says "there isn't anything earth-shattering in the piece," and he's right. Basically, they have one example of a blogger taking money from the Steve Poizner campaign and getting fired from the site he wrote for. And it's not even clear if he got fired for taking money, or merely fired for taking money from the wrong side.

More please! If there really was a "bidding war" for conservative bloggers in California this year, I want to hear about it. Sounds juicy.

UPDATE: Just to be clear: The piece does have some other examples of bloggers taking campaign cash (though not many). However, there's only one related to California's supposed bidding war. That's what I want to hear more about.

The Rich and Their Discontents

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 1:27 PM EDT

Paul Krugman on the Republican jihad to extend the portion of the Bush tax cuts that affect the rich:

This has nothing to do with sound economic policy. Instead, as I said, it’s about a dysfunctional and corrupt political culture, in which Congress won’t take action to revive the economy, pleads poverty when it comes to protecting the jobs of schoolteachers and firefighters, but declares cost no object when it comes to sparing the already wealthy even the slightest financial inconvenience.

So far, the Obama administration is standing firm against this outrage. Let’s hope that it prevails in its fight. Otherwise, it will be hard not to lose all faith in America’s future.

What really gets me about this whole thing is that conservatives are barely even trying to defend their position. As Krugman says, they talk a bit about the impact on small business owners, but this is so transparently flimsy you can almost sense their embarrassment when they bring it up. And then there's sort of a pro forma insistence that raising taxes a few percentage points on the wealthy would stall the economic recovery, but there's virtually no evidence for this. In fact, just the opposite. A small tax increase on the rich would probably have the smallest economic effect of practically any revenue-raising policy you can imagine. It would barely be measurable.

There really is, literally, no reason to favor extending Bush tax cuts for the rich except purely as a gift to the rich. As the Tax Policy Center chart below shows, the million-dollar crowd would get a 3.3% income boost and the ten-million-dollar crowd would get a 5.8% boost in their incomes. And the deficit would increase by the better part of a trillion dollars. That's it. That's all that would happen if the top end cuts were extended.

I sure wish there were a political movement that cared as much about the $50,000 crowd as the conservative movement does about the million-plus crowd. I wonder what we'd call it?

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Karen Hughes and the Mosque

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 12:55 PM EDT

Over the weekend, former Bush aide (and longtime pal) Karen Hughes wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post suggesting that although Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has the right to build a community center and mosque anywhere he wants, she thinks he would be wise to voluntarily choose a different location that's farther away from Ground Zero:

I recognize that I am asking the imam and his congregation to show a respect that has not always been accorded to them. But what a powerful example that decision would be. Many people worry that this debate threatens to deepen resentments and divisions in America; by choosing a different course, Rauf could provide a path toward the peaceful relationships that he and his fellow Muslims strive to achieve. And this gesture of goodwill could lead us to a more thoughtful conversation to address some of the ugliness this controversy has engendered.

This all sounds very calm and reasonable. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. But I think Hughes has skipped at least a couple of bases here.

First, this isn't a matter of asking Rauf to take into account a spontaneous wave of pain and raw feelings generated by his project. If it were, Hughes' proposal would at least be understandable. But the Park51 project produced no reaction when Rauf first announced it. Opinion leaders thought it was fine, ordinary citizens thought it was fine, and planning commissions thought it was fine. But months later a lunatic bigot named Pam Geller managed to get the attention of a few columnists, and then Fox News and Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich weighed in and suddenly it was a massive affront to dignity and a sign of Muslim triumphalism on hallowed ground. Responding to real emotion is one thing, regardless of whether the emotion is justified. Anybody with a heart at least gives it consideration. But responding to a wholly ginned up controversy that's driven by ideologues and partisan politics? That's just capitulation to the mob.

Second, would it be a powerful example? I don't see how. I wonder what Hughes thinks the reaction of the mosque opponents would be if Rauf took her advice? Would they all calmly praise Rauf for his statesmanlike stance and lead their flocks in demonstrations of support and interfaith harmony? Or would they scream war whoops and declare a historic victory over the infidel hordes at the metaphorical gates of Vienna? Do I even need to ask?

The mosque controversy is no grass roots movement. It's a cynical political ploy, and giving in to it merely provides strength to the next one that the right decides to gin up. It's a bad idea. Better to simply stand up for what's right and ask the cynics to stand down instead.

Bad Mood Blogging

| Sun Aug. 22, 2010 11:26 PM EDT

Well, I fell off the bottom rung of a stepladder a couple of hours ago and bent my ankle about 30 or 40 degrees further than nature intended. The good news is that it turned out not to be broken. (Bonus good news: the emergency room was quiet tonight and they got right to me.) The bad news is that it hurts like hell and I'm going to be on crutches for the next week. Needless, to say, this puts me in a terrible mood.

Which shouldn't go to waste! By Monday morning I should be in a nice, foul temper indeed, ready to vent righteously on anybody or anything that crosses my path. So go ahead and leave your requests in comments. Who or what would you like me to skewer?

Friday Cat Blogging - 20 August 2010

| Fri Aug. 20, 2010 2:52 PM EDT

I had my camera set to macro, the cats showed up, so I started clicking. And here's what we get: closeups of cats. It was around dinnertime when I took these pictures, and Domino is obviously looking longingly toward the kitchen while Inkblot is hoping that the evil eye will prompt me to quit fooling around and open a can of cat food now now now. So I did. Have a good weekend, all.

The News Fire Hose

| Fri Aug. 20, 2010 1:25 PM EDT

Ezra Klein bemoans the life of the modern infovore today. But since all the rest of us are frenzied infovores too, here's the telegraphic version:

Like a lot of people I know, I spend a fair amount of time on Twitter....It's like an instant-pleasure button....I'm reliant on RSS feeds. Full RSS feeds, to be more specific. My information consumption is overwhelmingly biased toward outlets I can read fully in Google Reader....[This] biases me in favor of blogs and against newspaper articles, magazines and so forth.....You lose a lot in this trade-off: Blogs make for quick reading, but — with some exceptions — less deep understanding. But they're easier to read, and updated constantly, and so it's almost always easier to scroll through some blogs then pick up a book. That's particularly true during the workday, when I need to find grist for my next post now....And let's not even get into how often I uselessly click over to Gmail while doing other things. My mental commentary is almost goldfishlike: "Hey look: an e-mail! Hey look: an e-mail! Hey look: an e-mail..."

You get the idea. In fact, this kind of lament has practically become a genre in its own right these days. But I keep thinking: are things really that different? Especially for someone in Ezra's profession?

I don't want to make a maximal case here, but think for a minute about what life was like for reporters in, say, the 60s and 70s. There was no Twitter, no email, and no blogs, obviously. But there were televisions in every newsroom. There was obsessive checking of the two or three or four wire service machines clattering away in the corner. There was the phone ringing off the hook. There was reading all your competitors — newspapers and magazines — which might have been a little less frantic back then but actually sucked up more time. There were endless newsletters and tout sheets to keep up with. There was the same round of face-to-face interviews on Capitol Hill or Wall Street or wherever your beat was that we have today. There was mail — you know, the kind written on paper — to read and possibly respond to. Deadlines were still deadlines, and the technology of the time made meeting them every bit as stress-inducing as it is today.

Things are more frenetic today. But I have a feeling we all overplay just how much more frenetic they are for people in the news business. A couple of weeks ago I read My Paper Chase, a memoir by former London Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, and his blow-by-blow description of working on a breaking news story at an ordinary small town daily outside Manchester in 1952 (it's on pages 153-59 if you're interested) is, if anything, more harrowing than the information firehose we put up with today. I don't think journalism was any better for your blood pressure then than it is today.

Again: I'm not trying to make a maximal case here. We surely have a bigger, faster flood of information at our fingertips than we did 40 years ago. On the other hand, we also have pretty awesome tools for classifying it, skimming it, and verifying it. I can use Google to check a fact in 30 seconds that would have taken minutes or hours just a couple of decades ago.1 And that RSS feed that shovels so much stuff at me also allows me to ingest it and search it and outline it and save it with just a few keystrokes.

And books? Yeah, it's hard to find the time. But seriously, does anyone think the ink-stained wretches of fifty years ago spent luxurious hours perusing the latest policy tomes from the UC Press and then thinking deep thoughts about them? Nah. They glanced at them between phone calls and tried to pick out interesting tidbits here and there, just like we do. The species of stress we endure may have changed over the years, and it's probably increased, but I don't think the change is quite as dramatic as we sometimes make it out to be. News is news, and it's always had a fire hose quality to it.

1In fact, I just did. That breaking news story from Evans' book? The Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash, October 8, 1952. It took ten seconds to find. That kind of capability is an underappreciated stress reducer.