Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has gotten a lot of press for his campaign to get CEOs to halt all political contributions until politicians in Washington, DC, stop their insane bickering. Except it's not really bickering that he and his fellow corporate titans are upset about:

More than 100 business leaders have signed onto Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s pledge to stop making donations to incumbents until Washington gridlock eases, sending a message to lawmakers that they must make real progress in reining in deficit spending.

…In all, more than 100 business leaders have agreed to the pledge, which not only has leaders agreeing to stop campaign contributions until lawmakers “strike a bipartisan, balanced long-term debt deal that addresses both entitlements and revenues,” but also has the leaders agree to find ways to accelerate job growth in their companies and the economy as a whole.

I'm not sure that spending their personal fortunes on mansion upgrades instead of political contributions is quite the cri de coeur these guys seem to think it is, but whatever. As a PR device—and what is politics besides PR?—it seems to be getting some attention. So more power to them.

As usual, though, I'm sort of flummoxed by the substantive thinking on display here. I mean, I assume these guys are all bright and politically aware. Which means they must know perfectly well that one party in Washington is already willing, however grudgingly, to cut a debt deal that addresses both entitlements and revenues. In fact, the leader of this party has spent the last several months leading his own PR campaign to sell precisely this "balanced approach."

And then there's the other political party in Washington. This one relentlessly mocks the "balanced approach" as yet another big government giveaway. Its presidential candidates unanimously agree that they'd oppose a deal that includes $10 in real spending cuts for every $1 in increased revenue. Its leader in the House walked away from several opportunities to strike an ambitious deal based on an 85-15 split of cuts vs. revenue increases. Its leader in the Senate declared himself delighted with the debt ceiling debacle, saying his party learned it's "a hostage that's worth ransoming." And the rest of its congressional leaders have all sworn blood oaths not to compromise on their pledge to never ever raise taxes under any circumstances.

This description of recent events isn't really controversial or especially inflected by partisan hackery on my part. Everyone knows this is how the deal went down earlier this month. Republicans are pretty proud of it, in fact. So in exactly what way are Schultz and his fellow boycotters seeking a "bipartisan" agreement? They aren't. What they really want, if their own words are to be taken seriously, is for the Republican Party to agree to tax hikes as part of any future debt deal.

And for some reason they've decided that Republicans will cave in on this if they announce their intention to withhold all political contributions to both parties this year. Seriously? My guess is that the GOP leadership is laughing its ass off over this. If this kind of strategic thinking is typical of these rock-jawed titans of American industry, it's no wonder our country is in such trouble.

Steve Jobs

I've never been susceptible to the Steve Jobs reality distortion field. The only time I ever used an Apple product was in the late 80s, when my company bought a bunch of Mac SEs. I hated mine and was delighted when we finally gave up on them.

So my admiration for the guy is completely dispassionate. But genuine nonetheless. He was largely responsible for the Apple II, the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. That's five dazzling, smash hit products in four completely different product areas. Toss in Pixar and it's six huge successes in five areas. I'm honestly not sure that any other businessman/inventor/product designer in the past century has a record quite that brilliant. We're not likely to see his equal anytime soon.

Hey, it's Texas Miracle time again! The latest analysis comes from Goldman Sachs, which concludes that Texas is indeed a positive outlier when it comes to employment. In the chart on the right, where the gray blob represents the normal range of state employment, Texas is the gold line just above the normal range. That's good news for Texas, but sadly, it's where the good news stops for Rick Perry's claim to economic superstardom. The report concludes that three factors are overwhelmingly responsible for good employment performance over the past three years:

  • Lack of a housing bubble. Texas really does have something to teach us on this score — namely that sensible government regulation of the mortgage market is a pretty good idea — but this is not exactly something Perry is eager to preach about. (And he wasn't responsible for it anyway.)
  • An oil industry. 'Nuff said. Lucky is lucky.
  • Lots of high-end services and technology. Actually, I suspect Texas has done fairly well on this score over the past decade, but it's still not a leader of the pack. Texas-wise, housing and oil are the big story here.

And what wasn't responsible for strong employment performance? Here's the list:

  • State income tax rates
  • State property tax rates
  • State spending as a share of the economy

Goldman analyst Zach Pandl's conclusion:

For the national economy we see two main lessons. First, because housing and mortgage credit are central to the weakness around the country, these issues should probably continue to receive attention from policymakers. Second, because the outperformance of a few states is closely related to natural resource exposure it is not easily replicable elsewhere.

Roger that. Fix the housing mess and — well, that's about it, unless we suddenly discover oil in Arizona and Florida. Since that's not likely, how about if we just focus on the housing mess instead?

John Derbyshire responds to my post about science yesterday:

I see from that Kevin Drum piece that our own Kevin [Williamson] linked to, that at least one liberal has already sold the pass, or at least half of it, on the heritability of intelligence. (Though Drum, along with the rest of liberaldom, is still clinging for dear life to the dubious Turkheimer paper I had some words for here.) What price, then, those grand liberal plans to Fix The Schools, Kevin (Drum)?

These National Review guys sure are weird. I'm pretty sure that none of them read me regularly — and there's no reason they should — but first Williamson and now Derbyshire seem awfully sure that they know all about me anyway. What's the deal with that? Liberal I may be, but I've been writing about the genetic basis of cognitive traits for years and have been a skeptic of school reform plans nearly as long.1 They can disagree with me all they want, but if they're going to do any more than that they should at least have the courtesy of figuring out what I actually think about stuff.

1Though I am a fan of intensive early interventions.

Michael Grunwald commends to our attention the latest release of the Green Scissors report on "wasteful and environmentally harmful spending":

[The report] is practically a laundry list of my governmental pet peeves. The groups share my contempt for corn ethanol, “the granddaddy of wasteful alternative fuels,” as well as farm subsidies in general and a particularly egregious giveaway to Brazilian cotton farmers in particular. They also tee off on my favorite bureaucratic target, the Army Corps of Engineers, singling out my favorite Corps flood-control boondoggle, my favorite Corps lock expansion boondoggle, and an equally egregious Corps boondoggle that I don’t even joke about, because it’s wasting more than a billion dollars just a stone’s throw from the flimsy Corps levees that failed during Hurricane Katrina.

We’re also on the same page when it comes to the nuclear industry’s cradle-to-grave government support, as well as those ridiculous rural airport subsidies that Congressman John Mica took hostage during a recent standoff with Senate Democrats over FAA funding. Unfortunately, the hostages didn’t get shot this time.

Green Scissors is an amalgam of liberal, conservative, and good-government groups, and you won't likely agree with every one of their recommendations. But after skimming through the report I found a lot to like. They claim to have found $380 billion in wasteful spending over five years, and even if only half of their recommendations are worthwhile that still amounts to nearly $40 billion per year. The entire report is here. The table below shows just their targeted cuts in fossil fuel subsidies. They've also got sections for nuclear energy, alternative energy, agriculture, transportation, and land management. Bon appetit.

A few days ago I wrote about the perennial popularity of raising the retirement age for Social Security and Medicare. It's a bad idea that doesn't save very much money, is savagely unfair to the poor, and in the case of Medicare, does nothing to rein in cost growth, which is our biggest problem. But it's an easy sound bite, so it sticks around forever even though there are loads of better ways of addressing entitlement spending.

Here's a nice little chart from CBPP (based on data from the Kaiser Family Foundation) that illustrates this for Medicare. Here's what it shows:

  • If the Medicare eligibility age were raised to 67, it would produce net savings of $5.7 billion. That's a whopping 1% of total Medicare spending. The reason the number is so low is that a lot of 65-66 year-olds would end up on Medicaid or in Obamacare's subsidized healthcare exchanges. The feds pay either way.
  • But wait! Although the federal government would save a bit of money, employers would end up spending $4.5 billion more and seniors themselves would spend $3.7 billion more.
  • In the end, the federal government would end up with only tiny savings, and those savings would be more than made up by higher spending elsewhere. The net effect on the healthcare system as a whole would be an increase of $5.7 billion, not a decrease.

This is just a bad, bad, zombie idea. It might be worth arguing over the methodology here if the numbers were big enough to matter, but they aren't. Even in the best case, raising the Medicare eligibility age would have an insignificant effect on the federal budget.

The more time we spend on this, the less time we're spending on ideas that might actually accomplish something. It's time to move on.

Via Atrios, I see that doctors in Britain want to change the way they measure blood pressure:

More than a quarter of patients may have been misdiagnosed for high blood pressure, a finding that will see the way doctors identify hypertension changed for the first time in more than a century....Currently patients have a number of appointments to have their blood pressure checked, and it is estimated that 25% suffer from "white-coat hypertension" — a syndrome in which people show elevated blood pressure in a surgery or hospital but nowhere else.

....Although there is no debate over the existence of white coat syndrome, some researchers argue that even mild exercise can influence readings and patients should be at home when an assessment is made.

I can vouch for both of these. I have mild hypertension,1 but it turns into severe hypertension whenever I'm in a doctor's office: my blood pressure routinely registers 20 points higher there than anywhere else. The effect is so reliable that I don't even react anymore when attendants record my blood pressure before a visit and produce their usual startling results. Likewise, I discovered years ago that if I walked up to the local drugstore, my blood pressure registered 10-15 points lower on their machine compared to readings after driving over.

The British answer, apparently, is to make people wear a blood pressure monitoring system for a full day. My answer is to own a blood pressure monitor that's been checked and calibrated by my doctor. This works great and it only cost 50 bucks. But it only works great if you actually use it, and I guess that's a common problem. Perhaps 24-hour blood pressure boxes are in all our futures.

1Nicely controlled at the moment, thanks for asking.

From Felix Salmon, refereeing a skirmish in the ed wars between Steven Brill and Diane Ravitch:

As a general rule, anybody who thinks that anything about education reform is “simple and obvious” is wrong.

Words of wisdom. It's not unions, it's not teachers, it's not the curriculum, it's not funding, it's not charter schools, it's not poverty, it's not testing, and it's not poor parenting. It's all those things. Anyone who gets too obsessed with only one or two pieces of the ed system is just guaranteeing that they'll never understand what's going on.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Karl Smith points out today that, even during the depths of the Great Recession, we were wealthier than we were in the '90s; we consumed more than in the '90s; and we had more average net worth than in the '90s. So why do we all feel so crappy about things? Answer: because one thing we aren't is more secure in our jobs than in the '90s. A lot more of us are unemployed, a lot more of us are underemployed, and a lot more of us who still have jobs are afraid that we might be next:

Lack of jobs is why everyone feels bad, not because they have less or are poorer or the country isn’t producing or consuming as much. And, not to get too meta — in what I hope is an easily readable post — but an economy that makes lots of people feel bad is by definition a bad economy.

Moreover, the feeling that you have now about the economy is not the feeling of lack of value creation. It's not the feeling of socialism....[In a socialist economy] it's not that you are afraid of losing what you have or that budget constraints are pinching. It's that the stuff which is available to you sucks. It — in extreme cases — is a world where everyone has a job but where no grocery store has fresh milk. It’s a world where everyone gets a pay check but no one can find shoes that fit.

....The Great Recession: that’s a problem with jobs, with labor. And, it's very different in kind. When we think about what’s going wrong here and how to fix it, we have to keep that squarely in mind.

All true. But I'd point out one other thing that's worse than it was in the '90s: household debt. The chart on the right shows total household debt as a percentage of GDP, and as you can see, it's come down a bit since its peak in 2008. Still, it needs to drop by about a sixth just to get back to its long-term trend line, and it needs to drop by a full third to get back to the same absolute level as 1995. Even with interest rates low, that kind of debt overhang makes people feel very bad indeed, and puts a serious crimp in their ability to buy goods and services.

Still, point taken. There's not that much intrinsically wrong with the fundamentals of our economy. In the immediate term, we don't have big worries about inflation or government debt or technological stagnation. We need to deleverage, and once we do that people will start to spend again. Regardless of our longer-term prospects, we should be addressing this much more vigorously—and in the meantime, our focus should be on monetary and fiscal stimulus focused on getting people back to work. It's criminal that we aren't doing it.

Just for the record, I want to say that I love the headline atop the stock market story on the right. Not because the market is doing well, but because it says, simply, that stocks are up "3 percent."

Not that the Dow Jones was up 322 points. Or the S&P was up 38 points. Or Nasdaq was up 100 points. None of which means a thing to non-experts. Just a nice, simple "3 percent."

I'd like this to become the new standard for nonspecialist publications. On first reference, and in headlines, describe market ups and downs in percentage terms. Then provide the exact numbers later in the text. Everyone would get used to this really fast, and it would convey the rough magnitude of the change way better than raw numbers. Who's with me?