Kevin Drum

Good News from the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report

| Fri Nov. 28, 2014 1:01 PM EST

Everyone's favorite CDC publication, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, passes along some great news today: cigarette smoking is down. Among Americans 18 and older, only 17.8 percent now smoke cigarettes, down from 20.9 percent in 2005. What's more, the proportion of daily smokers declined from 16.9 percent to 13.7 percent, and among daily smokers the number of cigarettes smoked also declined. By region, the highest level of smoking is found in the Midwest, followed by the South, the Northeast, and the West. Poor people smoke more than non-poor, and generally speaking, those with less education smoke more than those with more education.

In case you're unpersuaded by all this, I've appended a trivial chart on the right showing the overall prevalence of smoking. It's down. Are you persuaded now?

In any case, you're probably not surprised by this news. So here's something a little more interesting: it turns out the prevalence of smoking is considerably higher among the gay population than the straight population (26 percent vs. 17 percent). Is this common knowledge? Maybe, but I didn't know it, and I sure wouldn't have guessed it. Of course, all the gay people I know are well-educated West Coast folks, who probably have a very low rate of smoking regardless of sexual orientation. So I suppose I'm just too cloistered to have any clue about this.

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Everyone Loves Charts! Except For Those Who Don't.

| Fri Nov. 28, 2014 11:54 AM EST

This post is going to end up being insufferably nerdly, so bear with me. It comes via Justin Wolfers, who tells us about a new study showing that if you present information, it's more persuasive if it includes a chart. Since my Wikipedia entry says I'm known for "offering original statistical and graphical analysis," this is thrilling news—especially since I've never really believed that my charts have influenced anyone who didn't already believe what I was saying in the first place.

So let's go to the source. First off, I love the title of the paper:

Blinded with science: Trivial graphs and formulas increase ad persuasiveness and belief in product efficacy

Trivial graphs! Roger that. And sure enough, the researchers' first experiment suggests that if you tell people a drug reduces illness by 40 percent, they're more likely to believe it if you include a bar chart that shows one bar 40 percent lower than the other. Unfortunately, this conclusion comes via a tiny, non-random sample, and the responses are weirdly contradictory. On a scale of 1-9, the chart group rates the drug only slightly more effective than the non-chart group. But on a question that directly asks if the drug works, the chart group is far more positive. What's up with that?

But this isn't yet the truly nerdly part. I'm just picking the usual statistical nits. Next up, the researchers tried to find out if the chart group is more persuaded simply because the chart helps them remember the information better. Long story short, that's not the case. Everyone remembers the information about equally well. But wait: this group is even worse: it's a tiny, non-random sample of university freshman lab rats, who are very much not typical of the population, especially when it comes to assessing quantitative information. What's more, assuming I'm interpreting the typo-laden concluding sentence correctly, the chart group displays 79 percent retention vs. 70 percent for the non-chart group. That sure sounds like a possibly significant difference. It's only the tiny sample size that makes it worthless. But frankly, the tiny sample size probably makes this whole study worthless.

But this still isn't the truly nerdly part. Here it is, and I'm going to excerpt directly from the study:

Say what? This molecule allegedly has 29 (!) helium atoms? Come on, man. I took one look at that and just laughed. Then I looked at the fake chemical formula, and they got it wrong. It's got 29 hydrogen atoms. Or does it? Who knows. Now, it's true that the group for this study was recruited at a shopping mall, and I'll grant that your average mall rat isn't too likely to notice this. Still. WTF? That's at least two typos; a ridiculously small and non-random sample; and contradictory results depending on how the participants were queried.

I'm going to keep using charts because they convey a lot of information efficiently to people who like charts. Plus, I like charts. But are these charts actually persuading anyone of anything? I'm unpersuaded.

After a Year Off, the Triumphant Return of My Annual Black Friday Post

| Fri Nov. 28, 2014 10:00 AM EST

According to the retail industry, "Black Friday" is the day when retail profits for the year go from red to black. Are you skeptical that this is really the origin of the term? You should be. After all, the term Black ___day, in other contexts, has always signified something terrible, like a stock market crash or the start of the Blitz. Is it reasonable to think that retailers deliberately chose this phrase to memorialize their biggest day of the year?

Not really. But to get the real story, we'll have to trace its origins back in time. Here's a 1985 article from the Philadelphia Inquirer:

[Irwin] Greenberg, a 30-year veteran of the retail trade, says it is a Philadelphia expression. "It surely can't be a merchant's expression," he said. A spot check of retailers from across the country suggests that Greenberg might be on to something.

"I've never heard it before," laughed Carol Sanger, a spokeswoman for Federated Department Stores in Cincinnati…"I have no idea what it means," said Bill Dombrowski, director of media relations for Carter Hawley Hale Stores Inc. in Los Angeles…From the National Retail Merchants Association, the industry's trade association in New York, came this terse statement: "Black Friday is not an accepted term in the retail industry…"

Hmm. So as recently as 1985 it wasn't in common use nationwide. It was only in common use in Philadelphia. But why? If we go back to 1975, the New York Times informs us that it has something to do with the Army-Navy game. The gist of the story is that crowds used to pour into Philadelphia on the Friday after Thanksgiving to shop, they'd stay over to watch the game on Saturday, and then go home. It was the huge crowds that gave the day its bleak name.

But how old is the expression? When did it start? If we go back yet another decade we can find a Philly reference as early as 1966. An advertisement that year in the American Philatelist from a stamp shop in Philadelphia starts out: "'Black Friday' is the name which the Philadelphia Police Department has given to the Friday following Thanksgiving Day. It is not a term of endearment to them. 'Black Friday' officially opens the Christmas shopping season in center city, and it usually brings massive traffic jams and over-crowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to closing."

But it goes back further than that. A couple of years ago I got an email from a Philadelphia reader who recalled the warnings he got from the older women at Wanamaker's department store when he worked there in 1971:

They warned me to be prepared for the hoards of obnoxious brats and their demanding parents that would alight from the banks of elevators onto the eighth floor toy department, all racing to see the latest toys on their way to visit Santa. The feeling of impending doom sticks with me to this day. The experienced old ladies that had worked there for years called it "Black Friday."

"For years." But how many years? Ben Zimmer collects some evidence that the term was already in common use by 1961 (common enough that Philly merchants were trying to change the term to "Big Friday"), and passes along an interview with Joseph Barrett, who recounted his role in popularizing the expression when he worked as a reporter in Philadelphia:

In 1959, the old Evening Bulletin assigned me to police administration, working out of City Hall. Nathan Kleger was the police reporter who covered Center City for the Bulletin. In the early 1960s, Kleger and I put together a front-page story for Thanksgiving and we appropriated the police term "Black Friday" to describe the terrible traffic conditions. Center City merchants complained loudly to Police Commissioner Albert N. Brown that drawing attention to traffic deterred customers from coming downtown. I was worried that maybe Kleger and I had made a mistake in using such a term, so I went to Chief Inspector Albert Trimmer to get him to verify it.

So all the evidence points in one direction. The term originated in Philadelphia, probably sometime in the 50s, and wasn't in common use in the rest of the country until decades later. And it did indeed refer to something unpleasant: the gigantic Army-Navy-post-Thanksgiving day crowds and traffic jams, which both retail workers and police officers dreaded. The retail industry originally loathed the term, and the whole "red to black" fairy tale was tacked on sometime in the 80s by an overcaffeinated flack trying to put lipstick on a pig that had gotten a little too embarrassing for America's shopkeepers. The first reference that I've found to this usage was in 1982, and by the early 90s it had become the official story.

And today everyone believes it, which is a pretty good demonstration of the power of corporate PR. But now you know the real story behind Black Friday.

UPDATE: And what's the future of Black Friday? Global domination! According to the redoubtable folks at eDigitalResearch, three-quarters of UK consumers have now heard of Black Friday. And they're treating it with the same respect we do. From Marketing magazine today: "Black Friday is living up to its ominous name, with police being called to supermarkets across the UK, websites crashing and at least two arrests being made for violent behaviour, as bargain-hungry shoppers vie for the best deals." Boo-yah!

 

Thanksgiving Cat Blogging - 27 November 2014

| Thu Nov. 27, 2014 12:00 PM EST

This year we have new catblogging stars, and thus new cats dreaming about the traditional turkey clipart. In case you're curious, no, I didn't pose Hilbert. This is his natural way of sleeping.

Have a nice day, everyone, and please avoid doing any shopping. Tomorrow is early enough. Happy Thanksgiving.

I'm Pretty Thankful This Year. Here's Why.

| Thu Nov. 27, 2014 6:00 AM EST

You might not expect someone who was diagnosed with cancer a few weeks ago to be feeling especially thankful right now. And it's true that I'm not excited about either the cancer itself or the fairly miserable effects of the weekly chemotherapy that's treating it. Nevertheless, this episode of my life has gotten me thinking about thankfulness, and it's been on my mind for a while now. I know this is a little out of character, but allow me to share this with you in my usual bloggish way today.

The whole thing started on the evening of October 17th, when I sneezed hard and injured my back. On the morning of Saturday the 18th I couldn't move enough to get out of bed. Here's what happened next.

Marian called 911. Within ten minutes a troop of firefighters and paramedics were at our door. They hauled me downstairs on a stretcher, and ten minutes later I was in the emergency room. Over the next couple of hours I was tended to by an attentive staff of nurses and doctors. Blood was drawn, X-rays were taken, painkillers were administered. By a little after noon, a preliminary diagnosis of possible multiple myeloma had been made and I was admitted to the hospital.

The hospital was clean and efficient. My room was comfortable and private and had plenty of room for visitors. Over the course of the next few days, a rotating squadron of nurses took care of me. Biopsies were done. Medication was prescribed. A kyphoplasty was performed to stabilize my back. The myeloma diagnosis was confirmed on Thursday, and I was started on chemotherapy a few hours later. It was superb, unstinting care.

The day after I was released from the hospital, Marian and I went shopping and spent several thousand dollars on new furniture that my back could tolerate. A few days after that we got an enormous bill for the hospital stay, but it was nearly entirely paid for by insurance. The balance was something we could easily afford.

In short, everything that happened after that fateful sneeze has demonstrated just how lucky I am. I got immediate, skilled treatment. I have great health insurance. I have a good job and no money problems. I work at home and can set my own hours—and I even have a job I like so much it actually helps me weather the treatment. I work for editors who are completely understanding about what I'm going through and want only for me to recover. I have family and friends who care about me and are endlessly willing to help. And most of all, I have a wife who loves me and is always, always, always there for me.

There is nothing more I could want. I'm even thankful for the sneeze. It hurt like hell, but it's the thing that got me to the hospital in the first place. Without it, I wouldn't be recovering as I write this.

So sure: cancer sucks. But how many people who go through it have all this? Not many. Some have money problems. Some have work problems. Some are on their own. Some have lousy or nonexistent health insurance. Some get inadequate treatment. I have none of those problems. I am lucky almost beyond belief.

And one more thing: health care is suddenly a lot more real to me than ever before. Sure, I've always favored universal health care as a policy position. But now? It's all I can do to wonder why anyone, no matter how principled their beliefs, would want to deny the kind of care I've gotten to even a single person. Not grudging, bare-bones care that's an endless nightmare of stress and bill collectors. Decent, generous care that the richest country in the richest era in human history can easily afford.

Why wouldn't you want that for everyone? It beggars the imagination.

In any case, that's what I got—that and a lot more. And I am thankful for it. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Europe Wants To Make Its Memory Hole Global

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 11:51 AM EST

Europe's infamous right to be forgotten is on track to become truly Orwellian:

Europe’s privacy regulators want the right to be forgotten to go global. In a new set of guidelines agreed Wednesday in Brussels, the body representing the EU’s 28 national privacy regulators said that search engines should apply the bloc’s new right to be forgotten to all of their websites.

....Google may consider a way to apply the ruling on Google.com without applying it globally [...] by returning different results depending on whether the person is searching from an Internet Protocol address located within the EU. But it is unclear if such a move would satisfy regulators, as it would only make it harder to sidestep the ruling inside the EU, not globally.

“These are fundamental rights. My rights don’t go away at the border,” one data-protection official said of the idea of using IP addresses to apply the rule.

I understand that the EU has a more expansive view of personal privacy than the US and other countries. What's more, I'm generally on their side in this battle when it comes to truly personal information. Both corporate and government collection of personal buying habits, internet browsing patterns, and so forth deserve to be reined in.

But here we're talking about largely public information. It's bad enough that the EU is insisting that people not only have a right to control genuinely personal data, but also have a right to shape attitudes and perceptions that are based on public record. It's even worse that they're now trying to impose this absurdity on the entire planet. If they insist on having a continent-wide memory hole, I guess that's their business. But they sure don't have the right to foist their insistence on artificially altering reality on the rest of us. Enough's enough.

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Under Pressure From Obama, France Delays Warship Sale to Russia

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 10:38 AM EST

I confess that I'm surprised to read this:

France has put on hold a controversial deal to supply Russia with two high-tech amphibious assault ships following international concern over Moscow's military involvement in Ukraine

....After months of wait-and-see messages from the French, Hollande's declaration Tuesday was at least clear: It would not be appropriate to deliver the control-and-command vessels given the current conflict between Moscow-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine, he said.

....In June, Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, had insisted that the contract had been signed and sealed and had to be honored. On Tuesday, following months of pressure from the United States, Fabius appeared to have changed his mind.

Huh. I guess the weakling Obama really is working quietly behind the scenes on stuff like this, and really does still have some clout on the international stage. Who knew?

Obama Has Really Gotten Inside the GOP's Head

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 9:50 AM EST

Jeremy Peters writes in the New York Times today that the tea party has morphed from an enraged bunch of economic populists to an enraged bunch of anti-immigration zealots. And by cracky, they want Republicans to crush the tyrant Obama for his immigration insolence, and they want it done now:

Satisfying the conservative base will be difficult. Tea Party activists are not likely to sit patiently while a lawsuit works its way through the courts. And many have already expressed skepticism about the Republican leadership’s willingness to see through a fight over appropriations.

....“Yes, there’s a risk to overreacting, but there’s a risk to underreacting as well,” said Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. “And I fear that’s the way the congressional leadership is leaning.” Mr. Lowry suggested one way Congress could react. “If I were John Boehner,” he said, referring to the House speaker, “I’d say to the president: ‘Send us your State of the Union in writing. You’re not welcome in our chamber.’ ”

Oh man, I can't tell you how much I wish they'd actually take Lowry up on his suggestion. Can you imagine anything that would strike middle America as pettier and more pointlessly vindictive than this? Anything that would seem feebler and more futile? Anything that could possibly be more evocative of a five-year-old throwing a tantrum?

I guess you could if you put your mind to it. But it would be hard. Obama is really inside their heads, isn't he?

(Via Steve Benen.)

GOP Takes Revenge Over Immigration Order in Tax Bill. Obama Tells Them to Pound Sand.

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 11:59 PM EST

Danny Vinik describes the tax extender package currently wending its way through Congress:

Imagine somebody asked you to imagine the worst possible deal on taxes. It'd probably have the following qualities:

It would be bad for the environment.

It would be bad for the deficit.

It would give short shrift to the working poor.

And it would be a bonanza for corporations.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to conjure up such a package. Congressional Republicans already have. And for some unfathomable reason, Senate Democrats including Harry Reid seem inclined to go along—although the White House has vowed to veto such a deal if Congress goes ahead and passes it.

Actually, there's nothing all that unfathomable about what's going on. The tax extender bill may be a dog's breakfast of legitimate tax provisions running interference for a long laundry list of indefensible giveaways and corporate welfare, but it's always been supported by both parties and it would have passed long ago if not for an outbreak of routine sniping over amendments and 60-vote thresholds last spring. That aside, the whole thing is a perfect bipartisan lovefest. Republicans and Democrats alike want to make sure that corporations continue to get all their favorite tax breaks.

In fact, the only thing that's really new here is the nature of Obama's veto threat. He's made the threat before, but primarily because the extenders weren't being paid for and would add to the deficit. The fact that middle-class tax breaks might not also be extended was sort of an afterthought. Now, however, that's front and center:

The emerging tax legislation would make permanent 10 provisions, including an expanded research and development tax credit....a measure allowing small businesses to deduct virtually any investment; the deduction for state and local sales taxes....tax breaks for car-racing tracks....benefits for racehorse owners.

....Left off were the two tax breaks valued most by liberal Democrats: a permanently expanded earned-income credit and a child tax credit for the working poor. Friday night, Republican negotiators announced they would exclude those measures as payback for the president’s executive order on immigration, saying a surge of newly legalized workers would claim the credit, tax aides from both parties said.

So there you have it. This bill is the first victim of Republican frothing over Obama's immigration order. As revenge, they left out Democratic tax priorities, and Obama is having none of it.

This is all part of the new Obama we've seen since the midterm election, which seems to have had an oddly liberating effect on him. Over the course of just a few weeks he's been throwing sand in Republican faces with gleeful abandon: cutting climate change deals with the Chinese; demanding full net neutrality regulations from the FCC; issuing an executive order on immigration; and now threatening to veto a Republican-crafted bill unless they include expanded EITC and child tax credits. It's as though he's tired of their endless threats to go nuclear over every little thing and just doesn't care anymore. Go ahead, he's telling them. Make my day.

A Nuclear Deal With Iran Probably Won't Happen

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 5:56 PM EST

Over at Foreign Affairs, Aaron David Miller and Jason Brodsky run through four reasons that we failed to reach a nuclear deal with Iran by this weekend's deadline. This is the key one:

An internal IAEA document that was prepared in 2009 detailed an April 1984 high-level meeting at the presidential palace in Tehran in which Khamenei — then president of Iran — championed a decision by then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to launch a nuclear weapons program. According to the account, Khamenei said that "this was the only way to secure the very essence of the Islamic Revolution from the schemes of its enemies, especially the United States and Israel."

....The fact is that Iran knows what it wants: to preserve as much of its nuclear weapons capacity as possible and free itself from as much of the sanctions regime as it can. The mullahs see Iran’s status as a nuclear weapons state as a hedge against regime change and as consistent with its regional status as a great power. That is what it still wants. And that’s why it isn’t prepared — yet — to settle just for what it needs to do a deal. Ditto for America. And it’s hard to believe that another six months is going to somehow fix that problem.

This is why I'm skeptical that a deal can be reached. Iran wants to have nuclear weapons capability. The United States wants Iran to verifiably abandon its nuclear ambitions. Everything else is just fluff, and it's hard to see a middle ground here.

This doesn't mean an agreement is impossible. Maybe there really is some halfway point that both sides can live with. It sure isn't easy to see it, though. The disagreement here is just too fundamental and too definitive. One side wants to be able to build a bomb, and the other side wants exactly the opposite. How do you split that baby?