Ed Glaeser is unhappy that we provide so much in-kind aid to the poor instead of simply giving them cash. The following is a mouthful, but bear with me:

Over the past 40 years, in-kind programs have grown steadily more important than cash transfers. In 1968, the last year of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, the federal government spent $1.61 billion ($10.5 billion in 2012 dollars) on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (the predecessor of Temporary Aid to Needy Families); it spent $1.81 billion ($11.8 billion in 2012 dollars) on Medicaid and $505 million ($3.3 billion in 2012 dollars) for food and nutrition assistance. There was no Earned Income Tax Credit or housing vouchers, so the ratio of in-kind aid to cash transfer was 3 to 2.

The 2013 budget contains $293 billion for Medicaid, $112 billion for food and nutrition service (food stamps) and $28 billion for tenant- and project-based rental assistance, which includes housing vouchers. That is a total of $433 billion of in-kind transfers from these three primary programs.

By contrast, the budget includes only $17 billion for the Administration for Children and Families (which administers Temporary Aid to Needy Families). The Earned Income Tax Credit paid out $59.5 billion in 2010, and Obama’s proposal would eventually increase its generosity by about $1.5 billion a year. Considering just these programs, the ratio of in-kind assistance to cash aid is now to 5.6 to 1. In 1968, the in-kind share of assistance was 60 percent; now it is 85 percent.

Glaeser goes through the various justifications for relying so much on in-kind aid and dismisses each of them, but he forgets one big one: the increase here is driven mostly by Medicaid. If Medicaid had stayed at the same level as in 1968, the percentage of in-kind aid would have changed from 60% to 66%. That's still up, but it's not up that much.1

And Medicaid, of course, is the one program that really can be justified as in-kind aid. It's insurance that pays out at unpredictable intervals and in unpredictable amounts, so it can't really be replaced by a simple monthly check. That's why healthcare insurance is the usual way of paying for medical services in the first place. If insurance companies were required by law to sell insurance to all comers at a price set by the government, then a monthly check might work OK. But that's not the case right now.

Medicaid aside, there are some good arguments for getting rid of the rest of our crazy quilt system of in-kind aid and simply mailing checks to poor people. It would sure be a lot more efficient. Unlike Glaeser, though, I think some of the arguments for keeping in-kind aid also make sense. All in all, though, his column is worth a read as long as you keep in mind that once you account for Medicaid, the increase in in-kind aid over the past 40 years isn't quite as dramatic as he suggests.

1It's also worth keeping in mind that the 2013 numbers Glaeser cites for in-kind aid are artificially high compared to 1968 because of the current economic downturn. They'll go down once the economy recovers.

My colleague Tom Philpott reports on a study suggesting that diet soda is bad for you:

Known as the Northern Manhattan Study and housed at Columbia University, the project enrolled thousands of people from the community and subjected them to medical testing while recording their food consumption habits.

Among its results, a surprising one has emerged []: People who drink at least one diet soda a day are 43 percent more likely to experience a "vascular event"—i.e., strokes and heart attacks—than people who drink none....Crucially, this study accounted for factors like weight, diabetes, high blood pressure, and intake of calories, cholesterol, and sodium, study author and University of Miami epidemiologist Hannah Gardener told me in a phone conversation. In other words, nonoverweight diet soda drinkers showed significantly more risk of heart attack than nonoverweight people who don't drink diet soda.

I ran across this study a while ago, and I'd urge caution for a couple for reasons. First, the sample size was pretty small: only 116 participants drank diet soda daily. Second, there was no dose-response finding. If you drink six diet sodas per week, you're fine. If you drink seven or more, you need to get measured for a coffin. This suggests fairly strongly that something else might be going on. For example, the results might be driven by a small number of very heavy diet soda drinkers, or it might be that people who drink diet soda daily are making up for other parts of their diet that are the actual root of the problem. Even Gardener is wary of drawing any firm conclusions:

Gardener acknowledged some limitations of the diet soda study, including the use of self-reported dietary data at a single time point, and concluded that the findings are "too preliminary to suggest any dietary advice."

"If and only if the results are confirmed can we suggest that diet soda may not be an optimal substitute for sugar-sweetened beverages, which have been shown to have various health consequences," she said.

In any case, I drink three or four diet sodas a week, so I guess I'm good. Aside from that, I find that water is a pretty good hydration tool. Cheap, too.

Larry Kudlow tweets a promo for tonight's show: 

I'll have more to say about this tomorrow morning, but for now I just want to make one point: gasoline isn't shooting up to $5 per gallon. If you look at the most expensive grade, in the most expensive formulation, in the most expensive state, at the most expensive gas station, then a gallon of gas comes close to $5. But the EIA publishes the average price of gasoline on a weekly basis, and as of this week it's.....

$3.78.

Not five bucks. The price of gas is indeed up, and that's bad news, but it's not up that much, and it's not at record-breaking highs either. As recently as last April, it was even higher. So everybody take a deep breath, OK?

Paul Waldman, in the final installment of his epic series about guns and the NRA (nickel summary: the gun lobby isn't as influential as you think), provides us with a surprising chart. For the last 30 years, it turns out, gun ownership has dropped steadily. Today, only about 30% of households own a gun. Most of this is due to demographics. Apparently there was a big spurt in gun ownership in the generation born between 1920 and 1960, and then the spurt went away. Cohorts born in later years all own guns at substantially lower levels.

It's hard to square this up with gun sales because (a) nobody seems to reliably track overall gun sales, and (b) the vast majority of new gun sales are made to a smallish number of big customers, such as police forces and militaries. Still, unit gun sales seem to have gone up pretty explosively between 2005-10, doubling from around 5 million per year to 10 million per year. FBI background checks, a proxy for gun sales to individuals, have gone up too.

So I'm not sure what's going on. Gun sales to individuals seem like they've increased a fair amount over the past decade, but the number of households reporting gun ownership has decreased a bit. Does this mean that fewer households own guns, but the ones that do own guns have more and more of them? More data please!

It's never been clear to me that we could actually do a substantial amount of damage to Iran's nuclear program merely by engaging in a few days of bombing runs. Even eight years ago, the best guess among national security types seemed to be that it would take a couple of weeks of concentrated effort, and it must be harder by now. I guess we could still do it, but surely we're talking about a fairly long-term mission. Several weeks at best, maybe even months.

But even if I'm wrong about that, Robert Wright argues that the inevitable endgame for all this is a ground invasion anyway:

According to experts I've talked to, Iran would probably react to bombing not by burying its nuclear facilities deeper, but by dispersing them much more widely....So even if we were willing to make additional bombing runs on an annual basis ("mowing the lawn," as some call it), we could never be confident that Iran wasn't producing a nuclear weapon. The only path to such confidence would be to invade the country and seize the instruments of state.

Would we actually do that? Probably. In justifying the initial bombing, President Obama will have driven home how unacceptable an Iran with nuclear weapons is, thus establishing as a kind of doctrine that America will never let Iran acquire them....Doctrines can be abandoned, of course, but only at some political cost. And this one would be an especially unlikely orphan when you have a president who (being a Democrat) is insecure about his national security credentials and, on top of that, is insecure about his pro-Israel credentials. Of course, if Obama loses in November, then, one or two years down the road, it won't be the creator of this doctrine who is in the White House. But in the event of a Republican presidency, adherence to such a doctrine is pretty much assured anyway.

Maybe so — though this begs the question of how we'd launch a ground invasion. We've already pulled out of Iraq, and within a few years we'll be out of Afghanistan too. So where do we launch this ground invasion from? Marine landings via the Arabian Sea? That would be a helluva job even for the biggest navy in the world. It seems like there's a missing step or three here. How is this all supposed to play out in the end?

Conservative gadfly Andrew Breitbart died suddenly today of natural causes, age 43. Oddly enough, I actually have a memory of him. I happened to sit next to him once a few years ago on a panel set up by a friend who was teaching a journalism class, and as near as I could tell he was keeping up about four or five streams of independent thought at once. He had his laptop open, and was (a) watching a baseball game—really watching, it seemed, (b) reading the news, (c) updating his website, and (d) responding very cogently and intelligently to questions from the students. There may have been some emailing and messaging going on, too, but I'm not sure. Just following the panel discussion sucked up most of my attention.

Pretty remarkable. Obviously I didn't care much for his politics or his tactics, but I think he was one of those rare people who really could multitask productively without losing effectiveness at any of his individual tasks. Whatever else you can say about him, he was a force of nature.

Why did Olympia Snowe suddenly decide to quit the Senate? Jonathan Weisman provides this take:

Georgia Chomas, a cousin of the senator who described herself as more like a sister, said social conservatives and Tea Party activists in Maine were hounding her at home, while party leaders in Washington had her hemmed in and steered the legislative agenda away from the matters she cared about. 

“There was a constant, constant struggle to accommodate everyone, and a lot of pressure on her from the extreme right,” Ms. Chomas said from her real estate office in Auburn, Me. “And she just can’t go there.”

It's easy to say that this is suicidal behavior on the part of tea partiers. They've hounded out a senator who's more moderate than they'd like, but her replacement is highly likely to be a Democrat, which just makes things even worse from their point of view.

But it's not just tea partiers. The left base of the Democratic Party is up in arms over the reemergence of Bob Kerrey in Nebraska, and the story there is pretty much the same. Sure, he's infuriating, but if he doesn't run a Republican is almost sure to win the seat. No matter what kind of lefty politics you have, it's hard to see how that's an improvement.

Back in the day — by which I mean five or six years ago — you had guys like Karl Rove defending RINOs like Lincoln Chafee because he knew that Republicans were lucky to have anyone on their side from a blue state like Rhode Island. Further back, William F. Buckley famously urged conservatives to support "the most conservative candidate who is electable." Political pros still think this way, I assume, but they're being overwhelmed by the party bases. This cost Republicans pretty dearly in the 2010 Senate race, where they lost at least three winnable seats because they nominated unelectable crackpots.

I dunno. Maybe we've reached a point where we're all so bored and so fundamentally satisfied with things that we don't really care all that much about winning anymore. What we want out of politics is entertainment, and insisting on gladiator-like duels to the death, egged on by howling mobs, is pretty entertaining. It all beats me.

Via Tyler Cowen, the economics profession has finally answered one of today's most burning questions: did Oprah's book club really get Americans to read more? Answer: No. It got them to buy more books endorsed by Oprah, but fewer of everyone else's books. Craig Garthwaite of the Kellogg School explains:

In the 12 weeks following an endorsement, weekly adult fiction book sales decreased by a statistically significant 2.5 percent....All of the estimates show greater sales decreases, suggesting that a Club endorsement had a business stealing effect....Following an endorsement, the sales of classics rose by 3.5 percent []. In contrast, there were statistically significant decreases for mysteries and action/adventure novels. Romances also saw a sales decline....These estimates demonstrate that while the endorsements had no effect or even decreased overall sales, they caused a substantial shift in the types of books being purchased.

So what happened?

Club selections were longer and more difficult than the bestselling titles in the genres that were popular among consumers likely to respond to the endorsement. Assuming that longer and more difficult books will take more time to read, the difference in estimated grade level combined with the genre-level sales shifts help explain the pattern of aggregate sales declines in the main results....Taken together, these estimates suggest that the difficulty of the endorsed titles contributes to the aggregate sales decline.

Roger that. While millions of Oprah fans were pretending to slog their way through Faulkner and Tolstoy, they were too drained to read their usual light fare. So the beach reading genres suffered. And if my cynical view is correct, the net effect was to reduce the total amount of reading among America's households. We read less crap, but probably didn't make up for it by actually reading the doorstops endorsed by Oprah. Most of us probably plowed our way through a chapter or two, then slowed down to a page here and there, and finally gave up in exhaustion. But I admit that this is a dim view. Perhaps Garthwaite's next paper should tackle the question of whether people who bought Oprah's recommended books actually read them.

The BEA announced today that GDP in the fourth quarter of 2011 went up 3.0%, not 2.8%. That's good news, but nothing super special. It's a pretty small correction, really.

However, the BEA also announced a correction to its estimate of income growth, and it was considerably more spectacular. Over at his official blog, Mark Doms, the chief economist at the Department of Commerce, provides his take on this:

While the upward revision to GDP was welcome news, there was even better news in revisions to the income data....Personal income growth was revised upward, from 0.8% to 3.2% in Q3, and from 2.6% and 3.2% in Q4.

As consumer spending wasn’t revised, this extra income implies that the personal saving rate was also revised upward in both quarters: from 3.9% to 4.6% in Q3, and from 3.7% to 4.5% in Q4.

These revisions to income and savings are significant because of the story they tell about the sustainability of the recent strength of consumer spending. The old story line was that some of the growth we saw in consumer spending in the second half of last year was fueled by a decrease in the saving rate. A challenge we then faced was the sustainability of future growth (since one can only lower the saving rate for so long). Today’s data show that the saving rate didn’t fall much and that the growth was instead fueled by higher incomes. I realize this is getting into the weeds a bit, but it really is quite good and important economic news.

This is good news. If growth is being driven by consumers spending down their savings, that's unsustainable. This is yet another sign that the economy may really be on the mend this time around.

VIDA has once again counted up the bylines in a variety of literary and political magazines in order to compare the contributions of men and women, and the news remains pretty bleak. Among the mainstream magazines (as opposed to the purely literary journals), the most and least egalitarian are the New York Times Review of Books, where 45% of the contributors are women, and the New York Review of Books, where a dismal 13% of all articles are written by women:

This comes via E.J. Graff, who asks:

Why is this important? Because the news purports to be objective, to tell it like it is. The media help create our image of the world, our internal picture of what’s normal and true. And when the news is being written by men about men, a significant part of reality is missing from view.

....We've all had plenty of fun mocking [Darrell] Issa's all-male panel on contraception—er, religious freedom. But you know what? That wasn't an outlier. The fact that Issa's panel was about lady business made it particularly egregious. But check out the world around you. All-male and 90-percent male panels convene every day. Sometimes they're called "Congress." Sometimes they're called your newspaper. And they're giving you a false picture of your world. 

More at the link. Here's a complete list of the mainstream magazines covered by the VIDA project, from best to worst. Sadly, Mother Jones wasn't part of the project. Perhaps some enterprising intern can leaf through our 2011 issues and come up with a count.

  • 45% — New York Times Book Review
  • 40% — The Nation
  • 31% — Boston Review
  • 26% — New Yorker
  • 26% — Atlantic
  • 25% — New Republic
  • 17% — Harper's
  • 14% — London Review of Books 
  • 13% — New York Review of Books

UPDATE: Ask and ye shall receive. Samantha Oltman checked through MoJo's 2011 archives and discovered that we ran 41 pieces bylined by men and 41 pieces bylined by women. Not bad! Click the link for more details.