Kevin Drum

Why Is the Abortion Rate Down Since 2008?

| Tue Jun. 17, 2014 12:23 PM EDT

National Review's Michael New is unhappy with Guttmacher's latest report on the abortion rate:

Last week, the Guttmacher Institute released an analysis of the recent decline in the incidence of abortion. Overall, the abortion rate declined by an impressive 13 percent between 2008 and 2011 and reached its lowest level since 1973. This Guttmacher analysis joins a chorus of pundits — including Andrew Sullivan — who were quick to credit contraception for this decline in the abortion rate. And like most Guttmacher studies, this analysis is quick to downplay pro-life laws and other pro-life efforts.

…There is less than meets the eye here, however. The author finds that fewer women under 30 at risk for an unintended pregnancy were forgoing contraception. Yet the decline was slight — only three percentage points.

…The author makes a fair point that the abortion decline was fairly consistent throughout the country....However, the study presents a false dichotomy between either crediting legislation or crediting contraceptives for the falling abortion numbers....The link between abortion attitudes and abortion incidence is not well documented. That said, the shift in public opinion is still worth considering.

Well, look: the abortion rate in America has been steadily declining since 1980. Trying to figure out why it dropped specifically between 2008 and 2011 is a mug's game. There's just nothing unusual going on that even requires an explanation. It's true that the post-1973 decline continued at a rate that was slightly higher than before—but so slightly that it's just as likely to be statistical noise as anything else.

Both sides should probably stand down in the face of the long-term evidence. Most likely, neither contraceptives nor state laws nor public opinion played a substantial role that was any different from the role they've played since 1980. Over the long term, there's less teen pregnancy, more use of contraceptives, and, as near as I can tell, barely any change in public opinion at all. Beyond that, who knows?

UPDATE: I misread the chart and originally said the abortion rate had been dropping since 1973. It's actually been dropping only since 1980. I've corrected the text.

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Lead and Crime: Schoolyard Fighting Edition

| Tue Jun. 17, 2014 11:44 AM EDT

If lead exposure in childhood produces more aggressive behavior later in life, you'd expect lead exposure to be highly correlated with later rates of violent crime. And it is. But you'd also expect to see increases in violent behavior all along the spectrum. Not just rapes and murders, but ordinary bar fights and punching out kids in school hallways. Unfortunately there's not much data on this stuff. Unless it rises to the level of cops being called and charges being filed, bar fights just aren't tabulated anywhere.

But it turns out that schoolyard fights are. And guess what? They've been steadily decreasing ever since 1993, just as you'd expect. It's too bad we don't have earlier data, so we could see if high-school fighting rose in the 60s and 70s, but this is still an interesting data point that supports the lead theory. It's not just the most violent crime that's declined over the past two decades, it's also the more prosaic types of less intense violence.

Yet Another IRS Scandal That Isn't

| Tue Jun. 17, 2014 11:15 AM EDT

Jonah Goldberg is outraged that there continues to be no outrage over the endless IRS "scandal." Most of his column is the usual collection of misleading innuendo, but there is one new item: the IRS's claim that Lois Lerner's computer crashed in 2011 and thousands of her emails were lost. That does sound pretty fishy:

So now the IRS claims that a computer crash has irrevocably erased pertinent emails (an excuse I will remember when I am audited). National Review's John Fund reports that the IRS' manual says backups must exist. If emails — which exist on servers, clouds and elsewhere — can be destroyed this way, someone should tell the NSA that there's a cheaper way to encrypt data.

Far be it from me to doubt the word of John Fund, but perhaps Goldberg should instead have read the Washington Post yesterday. The explanation for the crash, perhaps surprisingly, turns out to sound pretty plausible. Basically, the IRS keeps six months worth of email backups on tape, so when congressional investigators started asking for email records in mid-2013, backups were available only through late 2012. Lerner's computer crashed in mid-2011, so everything prior to that was lost because it existed only in local files on her PC. The IRS has since tried to recover Lerner's emails from the PCs of people she sent emails to, but that was only partially successful.

Nothing here sets off alarm bells to me. The key question, I think, is whether the IRS has contemporaneous documents showing that Lerner's computer crashed in 2011 and attempts to recover her hard drive failed. And they do. This is well before the scandal broke, so it would take a pretty Herculean brand of conspiracy theorizing to imagine that this was somehow related to the scandal. Either Lerner deliberately crashed her hard drive because she suspected her actions might prompt an investigation two years later, or else the IRS has faked a bunch of emails from 2011 between Lerner and the IT team trying to recover her hard drive.

There's also, as Steve Benen points out, the fact that Congress is mostly concerned with Lerner's behavior in the election year of 2012. If the IRS were involved in a cover-up, faking a hard drive crash that destroyed emails from 2010 and 2011 is a pretty incompetent way of doing it.

So, anyway, that's where the outrage is. Most of us concluded long ago that regardless of whether IRS policies were correct, the evidence pretty strongly suggests that they were bipartisan, targeting political groups on both left and right. There's just no scandal there. At most there's bad judgment, and probably not even that. Likewise, Lerner's hard drive crash might turn out to be a scandal, but so far it sure doesn't look like one.

Housekeeping Note

| Mon Jun. 16, 2014 7:00 AM EDT

The longer my mystery disease remains a mystery, the more annoying and intrusive the tests become as we keep trying to figure out what's wrong. I'll be out all day today for yet another one. I should be back Tuesday, but if not, I'll be back on Wednesday for sure.

LATE AFTERNOON UPDATE: Well, everything went fine. Today's festivities involved running a catheter up one of my veins into my heart to check out the pressure in various chambers. It turns out that my pressure is A-OK.

So we're back where we started. After an astonishing battery of tests, we've concluded that my lung volume is excellent; I don't suffer from asthma; I'm inhaling plenty of oxygen; exhaling plenty of CO2; my blood is fully oxygenated; I have no blood clots; no interstitial damage; and no apparent inflammation; there are no holes in my heart; nor any shunts; my ejection volume is terrific; and my arteries—much to my surprise—appear to be as wide open as the Amazon river.

In other words, I'm getting loads of oxygen, and my heart is distributing it properly to the rest of my body. I am the picture of cardiopulmonary health.

Except that I have a hard time breathing.

Sentences I Did Not Expect to Read Anytime Soon

| Sun Jun. 15, 2014 11:01 PM EDT

Here's the latest on the ISIS insurgency in Iraq:

The Obama administration said it is preparing to open direct talks with Iran on how the two longtime foes can counter the insurgents.

The U.S.-Iran dialogue, which is expected to begin this week, will mark the latest in a rapid move toward rapprochement between Washington and Tehran over the past year....Iranian President Hasan Rouhani said on Saturday that his government was open to cooperating with the U.S. in Iraq and that he exchanged letters with President Obama.

Um, what?

Friday the 13th Black Cat Blogging - 13 June 2014

| Fri Jun. 13, 2014 2:55 PM EDT

Last night I found myself idly wondering what the deal was with that iPhone ad featuring a song about chicken fat. In our glorious modern era, of course, even the idlest curiosity can be satisfied in a few seconds, so after the Miami Heat had slunk back to their locker room I came out and googled it. It turns out that I'm just barely too young to remember its origins. It was written by Meredith Willson (of Music Man fame) as part of John F. Kennedy's physical fitness program in the early 60s and performed by Robert Preston. The idea was to send recordings to schools across the country, where it could be played for our nation's youth in an effort to get them to shape up.

So that's that. But in my googling I came across a few other comments about the revival of this song. I wanted to share this one from Danger Guerrero:

Okay, so there are two things going on here. The first thing is that Apple is promoting the fitness-assisting capabilities of its fancy new product by using a quirky, notable fitness-related song from over 50 years ago.

....The second and much more important thing is that apparently John F. Kennedy commissioned the creator of The Music Man to write a song that would inspire pudgy children to do push-ups, and that guy went back to Kennedy at some point after that with a song riddled with lyrics like “Nuts to the flabby guys! Go, you chicken fat, go away!,” to which Kennedy replied, presumably, “Perfect. Ship it to every school in America.” This is incredible. And can you even imagine the left-right poo-flinging that would take place on cable news if this happened today? It would be chaos. Hannity’s head might literally explode on-camera. I vote we try it.

So now you're probably wondering what this has to do with Friday Catblogging. Nothing, really. I suppose I could make up some connection, but there isn't one. I just felt like mentioning it. But now your patience is rewarded. Today you get to see what greets me every time I get out of the shower in the morning. A cat. Just sitting there waiting for me in the most inconvenient possible spot, so I have nowhere to step out. In other words, typical feline behavior. She seems very pleased with herself, and I think she was especially pleased today when she forced me to step over a black cat on Friday the 13th. Apparently no one has told her that if I get hit by a meteor, the cat food gravy train dries up.

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Chart of the Day: There's Still No Wage Pressure in the US Economy

| Fri Jun. 13, 2014 2:33 PM EDT

This is just a reminder from Jared Bernstein, who analyzed five different measures of wage growth to produce the chart below. Ever since the end of the Great Recession, wage growth has been under 2 percent. It's still under 2 percent, and shows no signs of increasing. This is yet another indication that the recovery is weak, the labor market has a lot of slack, and there's no inflation in sight.

Quote of the Day: "We Had It Won....We Had It Won....We Had It Won."

| Fri Jun. 13, 2014 2:19 PM EDT

From John McCain this morning, speaking about the resurgent civil war in Iraq:

We had it won. Thanks to the surge and thanks to Gen. David Petraeus, we had it won....The fact is we had the conflict won, and we had a stable government, and a residual force such as we have left behind ... but the president wanted out and now we are paying a very heavy price.

John McCain is now the Donald Sterling of foreign affairs: old, angry, retrograde, and only barely in touch with the real world. This is the same guy who declared Iraq safe after taking a carefully staged stroll through a fruit market in Baghdad seven years ago, and he hasn't been willing to engage with reality any more seriously ever since. He's just sure that we had it won, that American troops had victory in their grasp, and now it's all turned to ashes. And since the actual politics of the region seem to be beyond him, all he can do is rage at President Obama for somehow ruining his lovely pretend victory.

It's a little sad in a way, and perhaps sadder still that the media continues to give him the means to keep embarrassing himself on national TV. It's time to move on, guys.

Adding a Private Option to VA Health Care Is Going to Cost a Bundle. We Should Study Whether It Works.

| Fri Jun. 13, 2014 1:00 PM EDT

As part of the deal to fund new VA facilities in underserved areas, Democrats agreed to a Republican proposal that would allow veterans to seek private health care if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or if they have been waiting more than 30 days for an appointment. Here's what the CBO has to say about that:

Maybe this is a good thing. Better access to health care means more people will sign up for health care, and they'll do it via private providers. That's the basic idea behind Obamacare, after all. Of course, it's also possible that this might be a bad thing. As Phil Longman points out, outsourced care lacks the very thing that makes VA care so effective: "an integrated, evidence-based, health care delivery system platform that is aligned with the interests of its patients."

Because the VA truly is a system, it can coordinate among all the different specialists and other health care providers who are necessarily involved in patient care these days. And because it operates as a system, the VA can also make sure that all these medical professionals are working from a common electronic medical record and adhering to established, evidence-based protocols of care—not inadvertently ordering up dangerous combinations of drugs, or performing unnecessary surgeries and tests just to make a buck.

So which is it? Beats me. That's why I sure hope someone is authorizing some money to study this from the start. It's a great opportunity to compare public and private health care on metrics of both quality and cost. It's not a perfect RCT, but it's fairly close, since the people who qualify for private care are a fairly random subsegment of the entire VA population. If we study their outcomes over the next few years, we could learn a lot.

And that's important, because this isn't cheap. As CRFB points out, if this policy is extended beyond its initial pilot period it will cost more than we saved from the entire defense sequester and more than Medicare Part D. This is an opportunity that shouldn't be passed up.

The Latest From California: Obamacare is Working

| Fri Jun. 13, 2014 11:17 AM EDT

California's biggest health insurer says there won't be any Obamacare rate shock next year:

In the strongest indication yet where Obamacare rates are headed, industry giant Anthem Blue Cross said its California premiums for individual coverage will increase less than 10% on average next year....[Anthem Blue Cross President Mark Morgan] said the age and projected medical costs of new enrollees are in line with the company's expectations thus far.

California is a big state that had a successful Obamacare rollout, and there's no telling if we'll see the same kinds of rate hikes in other states. But it's telling that Morgan said the demographic profile of its new Obamacare enrollees was about what they were expecting. Presumably, they're also seeing new enrollees pay their first premiums at about the rate they expected.

Note that these are no longer just vague predictions. Anthem and other insurers filed their rate increase applications with the state last week, and final rates will be set a few weeks from now.

Obamacare got off to a rough start. But despite endless hysterics from an endless stream of conservative talking heads—enrollment numbers are low, there aren't enough young people, nobody is paying their premiums, blah blah blah—Obamacare is working. It's not perfect, and it could be better if Republicans were willing to allow improvements. But it's working.