Today's outrage of the day is PolitiFact's announcement that the 2011 Lie of the Year is the Democratic claim that "Republicans voted to end Medicare." This was a reference to GOP support for Paul Ryan's budget plan, which would have changed Medicare from a government-run program to one that provides vouchers for seniors to buy insurance on the private market. Those vouchers would have increased in value very slowly, which means that within a couple of decades seniors would probably have to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket in order to purchase Medicare policies.
Does this count as "ending Medicare"? Matt Yglesias, former philosophy major, parses it this way:
Mitt Romney, for example, lauded the plan as reflecting "the need to fundamentally transform Medicare." If friends of the plan describe it as fundamentally transforming the program, can it really be wildly illegitimate for its foes to describe it as ending Medicare? That doesn't make sense to me. According to Mitt Romney, we're fundamentally transforming Medicare. According to the DCCC we're ending Medicare and replacing it with a fundamentally different program. This is a hair-splitting disagreement, not a gaping void of factual error and deliberate deception.
I guess I wish we lived in a world where it was possible to believe multiple things at once about highly charged subjects. Should PolitiFact have chosen this as its Lie of the Year? Not a chance. Ryan's plan was an existential change to the current program, which guarantees essentially unlimited medical coverage to all seniors in return for a nominal annual premium. Ryan's plan doesn't, and describing that as an entirely different kind of program is perfectly legitimate. Hell, even some conservatives agree that PolitiFact made an elephant out of a mouse.
But does that mean Democrats were justified in describing the Ryan plan as "ending" Medicare? I know we all have our tribal loyalties here, but come on. There's no question that this is intended to mislead people into thinking that medical coverage for seniors will literally go away entirely. But it wouldn't. Ryan's intention is that growth caps plus privatization will lower costs so that his vouchers will remain sufficient to purchase coverage similar to today's. Meanwhile, low-income seniors would receive subsidies if they couldn't afford the premiums even with a voucher. It's a terrible plan, with virtually no evidence to support its central idea, and it would turn Medicare into a far stingier program than it is today. You can quite accurately say that the Ryan plan "privatizes" Medicare, that it "eviscerates" Medicare, or that it abolishes Medicare's guaranteed coverage.
But ends Medicare? No. This means that there are two things to say about all this. (1) PolitiFact made a ridiculous choice. They elevated a real but modest rhetorical difference into the biggest lie of the year, and it just isn't. (2) Nevertheless, Democrats shouldn't say that Ryan's plan "ends" Medicare. It doesn't, and there are plenty of short, punchy ways of making the same point more accurately.
In theory, any woman 17 or older can buy the Plan B emergency contraceptive over the counter. Younger teens can't, and the Obama administration's recent decision on Plan B keeps it that way despite the unanimous recommendation of an FDA panel.
But at least 17-year-olds have easy access to Plan B, right? Not so much, it turns out. In a new study published in JAMA, researchers posing as 17-year-olds called pharmacies to see if they could get Plan B that day. As Aaron Carroll reports, about 20% of the time they couldn't:
It gets worse. If they did have the drug available, which occurred 759 times, once callers revealed they were 17 years old, almost 20% were told that they couldn’t have emergency contraception. Legally, of course, they could have. But they were “misinformed.” Further analysis looking at the relative income of people living near the pharmacy found that people who lived in poorer neighborhoods were more than 60% more likely to be incorrectly told they couldn’t have the drug because they were too young than people who lived in more affluent neighborhoods.
So let’s recap. Plan B is either unavailable or “hidden” in 20% of pharmacies. When it is available, people at the pharmacy are misinforming 17 year olds that they can’t have it anyway 20% of the time. They seem more likely to do so in poor neighborhoods, where a disproportionate number of teen pregnancies occur. All of this would be improved if the drug were just known to be available over-the-counter for everyone.
This is just pesky "evidence," of course. I imagine there's no need to give it any kind of serious consideration.
Andrew Samwick says the Republican presidential candidates have been almost invisible in New Hampshire this year. He's got a few possible explanations for this, but even so, I find this pretty interesting:
It is surprising how little role that money is playing in this contest. The top candidates are not spending money on large media buys. Television advertising has not been overwhelmed by political ads. An unmet need to raise money has not been a reason for candidates to drop out of the race and focus the remaining candidates on distinguishing themselves from each other. More generally, we are in the low-fundraising, low-spending equilibrium in which candidates are responding to weak campaign efforts by their opponents by conserving their own resources, including their time and travel. That won't continue to be the case later in the primary season, but it is certainly the case now.
Fundraising has been pretty sluggish for all the Republican candidates this year, and apparently that's not changing. What's more, Iowa seems to be sucking up everyone's attention to a surprising degree. For the first time in decades, nobody cares about New Hampshire.
James Pethokoukis writes today that Mitt Romney has a problem: his tax plan isn't crazy enough to convince Republicans that he's really one of them:
He would keep the Bush tax cuts, eliminate investment taxes — but only for those making under $200,000, kill the death tax, and cut the corporate tax rate to 25 percent. Solid but kinda “meh.”
Romney's plan, Pethokoukis reports, needs to be much friendlier to the rich and much more infused with supply-side voodoo. The glut of nutball flat-tax plans from the rest of the GOP field has raised the bar, and merely endorsing $5 trillion or so in tax cuts just doesn't cut the mustard anymore.
The case decided Monday involves the technology that lets you tap your finger once on the touchscreen to call a phone number that is written inside an e-mail or text message. It also involves the technology that allows you to schedule a calendar appointment, again with a single tap of the finger, for a date mentioned in an e-mail.
There you go. A single tap is clearly such a singularly brilliant innovation that no one else on the planet should be able to use it. So instead HTC and others will have to use a double tap. Or a swipe. Or a tap and a popup menu. Or one of the other dozens of butt obvious ways to do something like this.
The field of finger gestures on touch screens is a microcosm of the entire farcical realm of software patents: obvious ideas getting tied up forever by whoever happens to be the first guy to write them down. If we had any brains at all, software patents would be consigned to the ash heap of history, where they belong.
Earlier today, having nothing better to write about, I wondered how many people believe that it's warmer in summer because the earth is closer to the sun. In a highly unusual display of how the blogosphere is often alleged to work but usually doesn't, Michael O'Hare provides an answer. Or close to an answer anyway: Back in 1987, a documentary filmmaker asked 23 graduating Harvard seniors why summers are so hot, and 21 of them thought it was because the earth was closer to the sun than during winter.
The cynical among you might figure that if 9% of Harvard seniors get this right, maybe the general population would clock in at something more like 20%. But probably not. Most likely, it means that 5% or less of the broad public has any idea why we have seasons.
Interestingly, Mike then brings up an analogous scientific question that I was going to mention because I got it wrong for a very long time myself. Namely, how does an airplane wing work? I had long been under the impression that it had something to do with air traveling faster over the top surface, thus producing a vacuum and generating lift. But just like the orbit of the earth, which is quite obviously not a good explanation for the seasons since it's summer in Australia at the same time it's winter in London, this is quite obviously a lousy explanation for lift since planes can fly upside down.
I felt less bad about this, though, when I realized I was wrong and went looking for the correct explanation. It turns out it's fearsomely complicated. As Mike says:
Unfortunately, a real model of lift involves some very hairy differential equations. If you calculate the pressure difference between the top and bottom of a conventional wing from Bernoulli’s equation, and the implied velocity difference, you do not get the lift on a unit length of wing; you get a meaningless number. The simple model allows something that looks a lot like science (it has an actual quadratic equation!), but this teaching convenience requires students to build a wall between what they know to be true from real observation and what’s expected on the exam.
If you're curious, go here for the common but incorrect (or at least woefully insufficient) explanation of how a wing works. Then go here for a long, but nonmathematical, version of the correct explanation. Oddly enough, both come from the same site. Alternatively, you can watch the video above, which has almost comically exciting Michael Bay-esque production values but is sadly no more accurate than your typical Transformers flick.
Another example of an incorrect but common scientific model is the Bohr atom, in which electrons are treated like planets in orbit around a nucleus. Unfortunately, as wrong as it is, it has some genuine pedagogical usefulness, and I find myself occasionally resorting to it because I know that trying to explain what electron orbitals really look like is just a hopeless task in a casual conversation. I once had a chemistry textbook that showed the shapes of the first dozen or so orbitals on its inside cover, and I wish I still had it. Those pictures are handy, and I've never found them in a convenient place anywhere else.
But does any of this matter? Mike thinks it does:
Very few people have occasion to intervene in aeronautic design or planetary motion [or quantum mechanics –ed.], but there’s a lot more science, like heat transfer in and out of your house, that can hurt you if you don’t really get it, and still more, like climate science, that will hurt all of us if we go on voting in profound ignorance. Teaching science like religion is a practice embedded both in the curriculum and the pedagogy, not to mention how easy it is to test without, like, having to find out whether any actual learning has occurred.
I wish I agreed with this. And of course, I do agree with it. Sort of. But the plain fact is that most of us know virtually nothing, and we've been voting in profound ignorance for a very long time. What's more, I'm aware of very little evidence that a better educated electorate produces better overall governance. But I sure would love to see some. It might restore some of my faith in democracy.
Fred Shapiro, associate librarian at Yale Law School, has released his sixth annual list of the year's best quotes. Enjoy.
"We are the 99 percent." — slogan of Occupy movement.
"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you! But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for." — U.S. Sen. candidate Elizabeth Warren, speaking in Andover, Mass., in August.
"My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress." — Billionaire Warren Buffett, in a New York Times op-ed on Aug. 15.
"I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy." — Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman in an Aug. 18 tweet.
"Oops." — Presidential candidate Rick Perry after unsuccessfully attempting to remember the third federal agency he would eliminate during a Nov. 9 debate.
"When they ask me, `Who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan?' I'm going to say, `You know, I don't know. Do you know?"' — Then-presidential candidate Herman Cain in an interview by Christian Broadcasting Network on Oct. 7.
"I am on a drug. It's called `Charlie Sheen.' It's not available because if you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body." — Actor Charlie Sheen in a February interview with ABC News.
"Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow." — Apple co-founder Steve Jobs' last words on Oct. 5, as reported by his sister Mona Simpson in her eulogy.
"I can't say with certitude." — Then-U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner on June 1 when he was asked whether a lewd photograph was in fact him.
"Instead of receiving the help that she had hoped for, Mr. Cain instead decided to provide her with his idea of a stimulus package." — Lawyer Gloria Allred on Nov. 7 discussing Herman Cain's alleged sexual harassment of her client.
Big companies like General Electric, Philips and Osram Sylvania spent big bucks preparing for the standards, and the industry is fuming over the GOP bid to undercut them....Manufacturers are worried that the rider will undermine companies’ investments and “allow potential bad actors to sell inefficient light bulbs in the United States without any fear of federal enforcement,” said Kyle Pitsor, the trade group’s vice president of government relations.
I have multiple reactions to all this:
This law was surely accompanied by the worst PR campaign in recent human history. How many people know, even now, that it didn't ban incandescent bulbs and force us all into a Stalinesque hellscape of flickering, antiseptic CFLs? That all it did was set new efficiency standards for incandescent bulbs? Practically no one, judging from the endless wails on the internet.
On the other hand, I confess that the unanimous support for these standards from the lighting industry gives me pause. Industries only support laws that will improve their profitability in one way or another, so I assume that this law does exactly that. This is, obviously, not inherently good for consumers.
But put that aside for the moment. Here's what I really want to know, but can't seem to get a firm grip on no matter how hard I try: were these new energy efficient incandescents really going to be available for mass consumption by January 1? Philips EcoVantage bulbs seem to have gotten positive reviews, though they're expensive and it's not clear just how widely they're available. But what about the others? Here's a brief paragraph from LEDs Magazine:
The legislation will initially impact lamps with 1700-lm output (typical of 100W-incandescent lamps) beginning in January, requiring 30% more efficiency. Incandescent lamps would not likely meet those guidelines, making LED-based solid-state lighting (SSL) or compact-fluorescent lamps (CFLs) the primary consumer choice on store shelves.
What's the real story here? Can anyone tell me? If the new bulbs were on track to be available from lots of manufacturers at a reasonable price, then delaying the new law is probably dumb. But if they're not, then delay was probably justified. Here in the real world, what's the skinny?
Brad DeLong reprints this old piece of dialogue from Calvin and Hobbes:
Calvin: Since September it’s just gotten colder and colder. There’s less daylight now, I’ve noticed too. This can only mean one thing — the sun is going out. In a few more months the Earth will be a dark and lifeless ball of ice.
Dad says the sun isn’t going out. He says it's colder because the earth’s orbit is taking us farther from the sun. He says winter will be here soon.
Isn’t it sad how some people’s grip on their lives is so precarious that they’ll embrace any preposterous delusion rather than face an occasional bleak truth.
Just out of curiosity, I wonder how many people believe that the reason it gets colder in winter is because the Earth is farther away from the sun? This despite the well-known fact that it's currently getting warmer in Australia.
I would like someone to do a survey on this topic. Thank you very much for your consideration.
The spectacle of President Obama practically having to beg Republicans to approve a tax cut beggars the imagination. So when I read last night that the House GOP had decided to turn down the latest payroll tax compromise, I was left speechless. Thus the silence on the blog. This morning, then, I'll turn over the mike to Greg Sargent, who's made of sterner stuff than me:
Conservatives have a variety of explanations for opposing the compromise. One is that it’s only two months. But as Ezra Klein and Steve Benen point out, they won’t agree to a clean year-long extension, which is why the shorter-term one had to be negotiated in the first place. Another claim is that the Senate deal isn’t really a compromise, as GOP Rep. Tom Cole put it. But Republicans got their number one priority — the Keystone XL pipeline — included in the deal, while Democrats dropped their number one demand, i.e., that the extension be paid for by a millionaire surtax. Senate Republicans overwhelmingly supported the deal. If this deal isn’t a compromise, then the word has lost all meaning for conservatives, which may be the real story here.
A third reason is that a two-month extension is bad politics for Republicans. On a conference call, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy reportedly argued against the compromise partly because it would allow Obama to again browbeat Republicans into extending the tax cut during his State of the Union address in January. Such balanced priorities!
In any case, my advice is the same as always: just pass the tax cut without paying for it. That's both the best and the easiest option. You'll be doing the country a favor and you'll be home in time for the solstice.