Kevin Drum

Russia Offers Deal on Ukraine -- Maybe

| Fri Apr. 25, 2014 9:41 AM EDT

Here's the latest on Ukraine:

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, appears to have offered a deal to resolve the crisis in eastern Ukraine, suggesting that if the country's government clears out the nationalist protest camp in Kiev, then pro-Moscow separatists will lay down their arms.

....Lavrov's comments came as the Ukrainian government launched further military operations against some of the pro-Russian separatists who have seized government buildings across eastern Ukraine, having killed up to five rebels on Thursday.

He said the pro-Russian militias in the east "will be ready" to lay down arms and vacate the buildings "only if Kiev authorities get down to implementing the Geneva accords, clear out that shameful Maidan [Independence Square] and liberate the buildings that have been illegally seized".

This sort of gives the game away, doesn't it? It's not as if anyone in the world believes the Russian denials that they're behind the militant actions in eastern Ukraine, but they've been resolutely denying it anyway. Now, though, they've as much as admitted that they can tell the pro-Russian militias to stand down if they want to. I'm glad we cleared that up.

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Another Criminologist Takes On the Lead-Crime Hypothesis

| Thu Apr. 24, 2014 11:40 PM EDT

Mark Kleiman points me today to a critique from criminologist Phil Cook of the lead-crime hypothesis. Unlike some others, however, this is a sensible one:

Even a fairly casual glance at the data demonstrates that whatever the cause of the crime surge, and then the crime drop, it was not associated with particular cohorts. It was an environmental effect — 10 cohorts were swept up in the crime surge simultaneously, and the drop has the same correlated pattern.

There is a natural inclination to assume that the reason the murder rate is increasing is because there are more murderers, and the reason we have fewer is that there are fewer murderers. It’s not that I rule out such explanations — I’m open to the idea of lead removal and abortion legalization — it’s just that I don’t think it explains the actual pattern of the youth violence epidemic, either up or down. More generally, my instinct is to look to the social and economic environment to explain large shifts in population outcomes.

Cook is arguing that because ambient lead levels changed over time (rising from 1945-70 and then falling after that), different age cohorts were affected differently. This means we should see different crime rates from different age groups. In fact, we see rises and then falls in lots of cohorts at the same time.

I've scanned through Cook's paper (originally published in 2002) but I haven't read it thoroughly. However, it's focused primarily on the mid-80s through the mid-90s, which might skew things since there are quite a few age cohorts during that era which suffered from pretty severe childhood lead poisoning. It's also worth pointing out that lead poisoning affected every age cohort born from about 1950 through 1980, and the differences in lead exposure between those cohorts are significant but not overwhelming. The crime wave that started in the 60s got steadily worse through the early 90s not just because 18-year-olds got progressively more poisoned (though they did) but because more and more age cohorts were suffering the effects of childhood lead exposure at the same point in time. In other words, seeing a rise and fall in multiple age cohorts is about what you'd expect to see if the lead hypothesis is correct.

That said, I'd emphasize, as I often do, that crime is a complex affair and lead is only a part of the story. We shouldn't expect any single theory to explain the data perfectly. There are just too many moving parts for that.

In any case, don't take my response to Cook's critique too seriously. I'm an amateur, and it needs attention from experts who can evaluate his argument more rigorously. However, a few days ago I was complaining about the low quality of critics of the lead hypothesis, and now I have a high-quality critic. So I wanted to pass it along.

Why Was the Right Caught Flat-Footed By Cliven Bundy's Cranky Racism?

| Thu Apr. 24, 2014 1:32 PM EDT

By now I assume you've all heard about Cliven Bundy's remarks to the New York Times yesterday? In case you've been vacationing on Mars, here they are:

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

I don't have anything to add that (a) isn't obvious and (b) hasn't already been said by someone else, but I do share Paul Waldman's reaction: "Is anyone surprised that Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has become a Fox News hero because of his stand-off with the Bureau of Land Management, turns out to be a stone-cold racist?"

That's a good question. Is anyone on the right surprised by this? (I think it's safe to say that exactly zero lefties are surprised.) That's not a rhetorical question on my part. Look: conservatives should never have rallied around Bundy in the first place, but if they're even minimally self-aware about his particular niche in the conservative base, surely they should have seen something like this coming and kept their distance just out of sheer self-preservation. But apparently they didn't. They didn't have a clue that a guy like Bundy was almost certain to backfire on them eventually. They seem to have spent so long furiously denying so much as a shred of racial resentment anywhere in their base that they've drunk their own Kool-Aid.

On a tangential note, as near as I can tell Paul Ryan never embraced Bundy publicly. Does anyone know if that's right? It's one reason I think he could be a dangerous presidential candidate. Despite his "inner city" gaffe of a few weeks ago, he's smarter about this stuff than most folks who have managed to stay on the right side of the tea party.

Aetna CEO: Obamacare Pretty Much On Track

| Thu Apr. 24, 2014 1:06 PM EDT

Aetna is one of America's biggest health insurers, and it's currently operating in 17 different Obamacare exchanges. On a call this morning, CEO Mark Bertolini passed along a couple of interesting factlets:

Bertolini said about half of the company's premium increases, whatever they turn out to be, will be attributable to "on the fly" regulatory changes made by the Obama administration. He cited as an example the administration's policy of allowing old health plans that were supposed to expire in 2014 to be extended another three years if states and insurers wanted to.

....Aetna has added 230,000 paying customers from ACA exchanges, and it projects to end the year with 450,000 paid customers. It said it can't yet draw a "meaningful conclusion" about the population's overall health status.

The first is interesting because it suggests that Aetna's premium increases won't be based on fundamentals. That is, they aren't rising because the customers Aetna signed up were older or sicker than they expected. That's good news, even if the regulatory shakeouts of Obamacare's early days are causing a bit of pain.

And the second is interesting because Aetna apparently expects to double its Obamacare customer base by the end of the year. That's roughly what the CBO projected earlier this year, and this is a bit of evidence suggesting that they got it right.

Here's a Great Argument for Easing Up on Professional Licensing Restrictions

| Thu Apr. 24, 2014 12:00 PM EDT

Adrianna McIntyre has a fascinating little tidbit up today about how Medicaid expansion affects access to health care. Here's the question: By increasing demand for doctors, is it likely to result in longer wait times for everyone?

A trio of researchers took a look at dental care to get an idea. Some states cover it for adults, some don't. So what happens in states where adult Medicaid is expanded to cover dental care? The first-order answer is surprising: more dentists participate; their incomes go up; and wait times barely budge. But how is that possible? The second-order answer is even more interesting:

Dentists accomplish this mainly by making greater use of hygienists: following the expansion of public coverage, dentists employ a greater number of hygienists and hygienists provide about 5 additional visits per week. As a result, dentists’ income increases following the adoption of Medicaid adult dental benefits by approximately 7 percent. These effects are largest among dentists who practice in poor areas where Medicaid coverage is most prevalent.

We also find that these coverage expansions cause wait times to increase modestly [less than a day, on average]. However, this effect varies significantly across states with different policies towards the provision of dental services by hygienists. The increased wait times are concentrated in states with relatively restrictive scope of practice laws. We find no significant increase in wait times in states that allow hygienists greater autonomy.

Licensing and "scope of authority" restrictions are sort of a hot topic these days, and this is a pretty good example of why. I haven't yet dived into the whole thing enough to have a settled opinion, but it's becoming fairly common to believe that licensing restrictions are far too strict in some professions, acting more as a way of propping up salaries than as genuine public safety measures. Nurses and hygienists could be given more autonomy, for example, but this is often resisted by doctors and dentists who don't want to give up a lucrative monopoly on the services they provide.

The arguments are sometimes arcane, but this example brings it down to earth. Ease up on the restrictions placed on hygienists, and dental practices can provide more and better service to the poor—and, in the end, do it without sacrificing income. That's worth knowing.

Here Are Baseball's 2 Least Loved Teams

| Thu Apr. 24, 2014 10:26 AM EDT

Over at The Upshot, a crack team of researchers has put together an interactive map showing which baseball teams are preferred in which regions of the country. The overall results are pretty predictable, of course, but the authors make a few interesting points about exactly where the geographical dividing lines are between traditional rivalries. I thought the most intriguing part was which teams were left out completely. Here's the map:

There is not a single zip code in the entire country that favors the New York Mets. Even in 11368, the home of Citi Field, fans prefer the Yankees by 53 to 25 percent.

And the Oakland A's have it even worse. In 94501, the home of the Oakland Coliseum, fans prefer the San Francisco Giants by a whopping 59 to 18 percent. This is spectacularly embarrassing. The Mets, after all, are at least in the same city as the Yankees, so divided loyalties are natural. The A's are in Oakland, a different city with a culture of its own. Sure, maybe there's no there there, but that's a culture! And yet, even the working-class East Bay has apparently been so taken over by yuppified San Franciscans escaping sky-high rents that the A's can't get any love even after being canonized by Michael Lewis and Brad Pitt as the champions of Moneyball. Sad.

(The Toronto Blue Jays aren't on the map either, but I assume that's because the map doesn't include Canada. I draw no conclusions about Toronto's fan base, though I suspect we can assume it's pretty minimal too.)

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Meet the New Super Working Class

| Thu Apr. 24, 2014 9:24 AM EDT

Via Counterparties, a new study suggests that we now have a "superordinate" working class: highly paid professionals who are so dedicated to their professions that they'd rather work in the office than engage in leisure or vacation time:

The best educated men used once to work much shorter hours for pay, an echo, still in the 1960s, of the end-of-19th century leisure-class ideology. But by the beginning of the 21st century they are working the longest hours in their exchange-economy jobs. And the best-educated women in each of the regime types, show an even more decisive differential movement into paid work.

Now add these trends together and we see, unambiguously, the 21st century reversed education/leisure gradient, with the best educated, both men and women, working, overall, a much larger part of the day than the medium-level educated, who in turn do more than the lowest educated. At least from the 1970s onwards, we see no decisive decline in overall work time, perhaps the slightly the reverse, with a small historical increase, particularly for the best educated, in the range 530 to 550 minutes per day. Industrious activities are transferred out of the money economy, and, replacing the 19th century leisure class, we find a 21st century superordinate working class.

The basic evidence is on the right. I guess I find it only modestly convincing. In 1961, highly educated men in the corporate world worked similar hours to their less-educated peers. By 2005, they were working a bit more, but their total work hours were actually down from their peak. Conversely, although it's true that highly educated women have very plainly outpaced the working hours of their less-educated peers, this is hardly surprising given the immense change in opportunities allowed to women since 1961, as well as the vastly higher pay that well-educated women can now expect in the corporate world.

So yes: highly-educated professionals are working more than they used to. Are they working themselves into a new, 21st-century frenzy, though? The evidence for that seems fairly modest. The big story here seems to be a more prosaic one: women are basically catching up to men, which hardly comes as a surprise. Beyond that, though, the evidence for a rising Veblenesque warrior class that views long hours as a status symbol strikes me as weak. Obviously it exists in places like Wall Street and Silicon Valley, but I suspect that its broader impact is fairly limited.

Ukraine Beginning to Spiral Out of Control?

| Thu Apr. 24, 2014 8:29 AM EDT

Events in Ukraine are starting to spin out of control:

Ukrainian security forces killed “up to five” pro-Russian activists Thursday in the restive eastern part of the country, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry said, as Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned any use of the Ukrainian military against its own citizens.

....Putin spoke forcefully against the military action as the clashes were underway. “If the Kiev regime has started to use the army against the population inside the country, it, beyond any doubt, is a very serious crime,” Putin said at a media forum in St. Petersburg.

President Obama sounded glum about the prospects for peace in Ukraine and told reporters this morning that the US has "teed up" a new round of sanctions that could be implemented against Russia if they move troops across the border. This will have a limited impact since US trade with Russia is relatively small, but Reuters reports that EU leaders "have asked the EU executive arm, the European commission, to propose economic, trade and financial restrictions on Crimea for rapid implementation." If they're serious, that would hurt Putin considerably worse than anything we could do on our own.

Stay tuned.

Not Everyone Needs to Learn Programming, But Every School Should Offer It

| Wed Apr. 23, 2014 8:27 PM EDT

From the Washington Post:

In a world that went digital long ago, computer science is not a staple of U.S. education, and some schools do not even offer the course, including 10 of 27 high schools in Virginia’s Fairfax County and six of 25 in Maryland’s Montgomery County....Across the Washington region’s school systems, fewer than one in 10 high school students took computer science this academic year, according to district data.

That first stat surprises me. My very average suburban high school offered two programming courses way back in 1975 (FORTRAN for beginners, COBOL for the advanced class). Sure, back in the dark ages that meant filling in coding sheets, which were sent to the district office, transcribed onto punch cards, and then run on the district's mainframe. Turnaround time was about two or three days and then you could start fixing your bugs. Still! It taught us the rudiments of writing code. I'm surprised that 40 years later there's a high school in the entire country that doesn't offer a programming class of some kind.

The second stat, however, doesn't surprise me. Or alarm me. It's about what I'd expect. Despite some recent hype, computer programming really isn't the kind of class that everyone needs to take. It's an advanced elective. I'd guess that no more than 10 percent of all students take physics, or advanced algebra, or art class for that matter. Ten percent doesn't strike me as a horrible number.

Net Neutrality Finally Dies at Ripe Old Age of 45

| Wed Apr. 23, 2014 5:38 PM EDT

Apparently net neutrality is officially dead. The Wall Street Journal reports today that the FCC has given up on finding a legal avenue to enforce equal access and will instead propose rules that explicitly allow broadband suppliers to favor companies that pay them for faster pipes:

The Federal Communications Commission plans to propose new open Internet rules on Thursday that would allow content companies to pay Internet service providers for special access to consumers, according to a person familiar with the proposal.

The proposed rules would prevent the service providers from blocking or discriminating against specific websites, but would allow broadband providers to give some traffic preferential treatment, so long as such arrangements are available on "commercially reasonable" terms for all interested content companies. Whether the terms are commercially reasonable would be decided by the FCC on a case-by-case basis.

…The FCC's proposal would allow some forms of discrimination while preventing companies from slowing down or blocking specific websites, which likely won't satisfy all proponents of net neutrality, the concept that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. The Commission has also decided for now against reclassifying broadband as a public utility, which would subject ISPs to much greater regulation. However, the Commission has left the reclassification option on the table at present.

So Google and Microsoft and Netflix and other large, well-capitalized incumbents will pay for speedy service. Smaller companies that can't—or that ISPs just aren't interested in dealing with—will get whatever plodding service is left for everyone else. ISPs won't be allowed to deliberately slow down traffic from specific sites, but that's about all that's left of net neutrality. Once you've approved the notion of two-tier service, it hardly matters whether you're speeding up some of the sites or slowing down others.

This might have been inevitable, for both legal and commercial reasons. But that doesn't mean we have to like it.