Gregg Easterbrook:

Obama said last year that itemized deductions for the wealthy should be phased out — then on his own tax return, claimed a huge itemized deduction. Until those who advocate higher taxes for the well-off practice what they preach, the national debt situation may only get worse.

This is one of the most annoying tropes in existence, on both the left and the right. The point of laws is to provide a level playing field, and no one is a hypocrite for following existing law even if they think it should be changed. That goes for congressmen who accept earmarks even though they think earmarks should be banned, it goes for drivers who park for free on city streets even though they think parking meters should be installed, and it goes for rich people who pay taxes at the current rate even though they think that rate is too low.

No one is obligated to be a sucker. The whole point of taxation is that it's a collective enterprise: I'm willing to pay my taxes for the common good as long as everyone else is doing it too. But until then, there's no reason that I should impoverish myself (or my constituents) while everyone else is merrily taking full advantage of current law. Fairness matters, and that ain't fair.

After writing a couple of posts about multitasking, I'm curious about something: how good are you at multitasking? Which is to say, how good do you think you are at multitasking? And what kinds of things to you multitask at?

The reason I'm curious is because I feel like I'm sort of on the extreme non-multitasking end of the spectrum. I'm as good as the next guy at juggling a long task list (at least, I was back when I had a job where I had a long task list), but that didn't mean I multitasked. I was just fairly diligent about spending time on things I had to get done. And of course, I fiddle around checking email or looking at my Twitter feed as much as anyone.

But I can't multitask at all. For example, I can't listen to music and write at the same time. It's too distracting. I don't comment on TV news much because I don't watch TV news. Partly that's because TV news rots your brain, but mostly it's because I can't write while the TV is on in the background. Too distracting. And when I write long form pieces for the magazine, I work on them almost exclusively on weekends. I just can't task switch effectively between blogging and article writing during the day.

Of course, this is only true for cognitive tasks. Like anyone, I can work out and watch TV at the same time, or carry on a conversation while I'm cooking dinner. That's multitasking, I guess, but it's not really cognitive multitasking.

So what about you? What kinds of things do you feel like you can multitask? What kinds of things demand quiet time? And how confident are you that when you multitask, you're doing it effectively?

The Semantics of Taxes

Solving our long-term deficit problem will require both spending restraint (mainly in healthcare) as well as tax hikes. I've suggested a couple of times this week that in addition to letting the Bush tax cuts expire, the tax part of this will amount to an additional 5-6% of GDP over the next couple of decades, which I've described as moderate. Megan McArdle says it's anything but:

A tax hike of 5-6% of GDP doesn't sound like much. But that's a big tax hike if your baseline is 19% — it means that everyone's taxes go up by about a third....These aren't little adjustments. They're huge changes in the overall tax burden, and they will have big effects on peoples lives, and the economy.

This is an example of how our choice of language has a huge impact on how we think about taxes. Raising taxes by a third really does sound like a lot. But let's take a look at what that really means.

Page 65 of this CBO document provides estimates for how much income tax various people pay. The median family gets dinged for 3% of its income. A one-third increase means their income taxes would go up by....1% of their income. That's not so much.

How about a family with twice the median income? That is, someone who's pretty well off. They pay 13% of their income. A one-third increase means their taxes would go by 4% of their income. Again, this is far from catastrophic, especially since we're talking about an increase phasing in over the course of many years.

Are these numbers the right ones? I don't know. It all depends on what happens to spending and on how we decide to allocate the burden of higher taxes. If payroll taxes go up, it might hit the middle class a little harder. If we choose to increase capital gains taxes or institute a financial transaction tax, it would hurt them less. Or maybe we'll choose a consumption tax or a carbon tax instead. Who knows? Still, it's likely that more than three-quarters of all taxpayers would end up paying no more than an additional 5% of their income in taxes. That's not painless, and no one will enjoy it. But over the course of a decade or two it's just not a "huge change."

From the Wall Street Journal:

Investors again demonstrated the power of positive thinking on Wednesday, driving U.S. stocks near three-year highs....After a shaky start to the week, when Standard & Poor's issued a warning on the U.S. credit rating, stocks have rebounded. The Dow Jones Industrial Average soared 186.79 points, or 1.52%, to finish at 12453.54, its highest close in nearly three years.

That was quick! It took a grand total of two days for investors to decide that America is in great shape after all.

So here's the thing: if you had a substantive theory1 about why S&P's announcement on Monday cratered the stock market — any theory at all — it was wrong. It doesn't matter if your causal mechanism was related to treasury rates, our broken political system, the value of the dollar, the price of gold, investor fear of company earnings, or anything else. It was wrong.

Either that or it was right for seven hours on Monday and then produced the precise opposite reaction two days later, even though nothing about America's financial condition has changed. But if you think that's the case, now you have to explain that. Good luck.

1As opposed to a nonsubstantive theory. For example: investors are idiots and they panicked. Or: investors figured that other investors were idiots and would panic, so they decided they'd better sell first. Or something like that.

Nate Silver notes that a CNN poll this week shows 51% of Americans in favor of same-sex marriage. And this isn't just an outlier: "This is the fourth credible poll in the past eight months to show an outright majority of Americans in favor of gay marriage." The chart below shows how much things have changed over the past couple of decades. Another few years and support for same-sex marriage will creep above 60%, approximately the number where things usually go fully mainstream. Social conservatives are plainly fighting a losing battle here.

And you know what will happen to American culture after they finally and completely lose? Pretty much nothing.

Greece has no realistic chance of ever paying its external debt. So it needs to default restructure. But if it restructures, German and French banks are screwed. What to do?

Answer: dither some more. But dithering won't help. Greece is a time bomb waiting to go off, and it doesn't look like there's any realistic hope of defusing it.

Reality and Taxes

Ross Douthat has responded to my post on taxes, and I want to respond back. I know this kind of back-and-forth can get tedious quickly, so I'll try to keep it relatively brief. But I'd like to make five points:

  • I said that federal taxes had averaged 21% of GDP over the past 30 years, and Ross correctly points out that it's federal spending that's averaged 21%. On a macro level this might or might not matter ("to spend is to tax"), but it does matter if we're trying to figure out how voters will react to an increase in the total tax take. However, I continue to believe that the impact would be much less than Ross thinks. The federal tax take was around 20% of GDP during the Clinton era, so here's what we're talking about: letting the Bush tax cuts expire in a couple of years and then raising tax rates by about four or five points of GDP over the next 20 or 30 years. Done reasonably and fairly, I just don't believe that an increase this gradual would be wildly oppressive.
  • In any case, what choice do we have? Spending has averaged 20-21%, and it's just not plausible that we can actually cut that while the nation is rapidly aging. The best we can realistically do is rein in the growth rate. I think we'd be better off facing that reality and planning a decent tax code to handle it, rather than waiting for catastrophe and whatever disastrous tax plan would likely come out of it.
  • Am I happy about asking middle-class families to pay more taxes during an era, as Ross says, of middle-class wage stagnation and growing income inequality. Nope. And obviously I'd like to attack that inequality at its roots. Still, Social Security and Medicare are fundamentally middle-class programs, and I think it's fair to ask the middle class to pay for them. The rich should pay too, but they shouldn't be turned into welfare programs supported by the rich for the benefit of others. That's corrosive in a lot of ways, and like FDR, I don't support this.
  • Should Medicare be means tested so the taxes of the middle class aren't supporting healthcare for the rich? Maybe. I'm wide open to a lot of proposals for reining in healthcare costs, including some conservative ones. But even if we do a great job on this, Medicare costs are still going to go up. There's simply no plausible path that points in any other direction.
  • Would higher tax rates hurt economic growth? Both Ross and Reihan Salam say they would, but the evidence is slim to nonexistent. All taxes carry deadweight losses, but there's very little evidence that they affect growth rates noticeably at the levels we're talking about here. And Scandinavia — small, culturally homogeneous, and well educated — isn't the only reason to think that higher tax rates aren't economically destructive. Countries like Japan, Germany, and France have also done fine, and they're all large countries with widely varying tax rates and rates of ethnic diversity.

Needless to say, a lot of our disagreement is simply irreconcilable. We just have different views of what the social safety net should look like and how it should be funded. But really, the most discouraging part of all this is how pointless the conversation is. If I were put in a room with Ross and Reihan and we had to hammer out some kind of grand Medicare/taxing/spending/deficit plan, we might be able to do it. It would be pretty bloody, but maybe we could come up with something we all preferred to doing nothing. Unfortunately, Ross and Reihan are at the extreme fringe of the conservative movement. Any real-life deal has to go through real-life conservatives, and they're not willing to concede even Ross's modest view that "taxes will probably go up somewhat relative to the post-World War II average." They don't even think taxes should stay where they are today. They want to cut taxes in the face of an aging population, and they're still resolutely dedicated to this fantasy-based proposition, come what may. Liberals just don't have any negotiating partners here.

Would healthcare costs in the United States be controlled better if people had more "skin in the game"? That is, if instead of insurance picking up the tab for everything, we had to pay more for medical services ourselves, making us a little more selective about what medical care we need and what medical care we don't? There's some evidence that says the answer is yes, and if it's implemented in a smart way (as in France, for example, where copay amounts vary depending on the value of the treatment) there might be a place for this. The problem, as Aaron Carroll pointed out a few days ago, is that Americans already pay more for medical services than residents of most other countries, but our healthcare costs are going up faster anyway.

But why do Americans pay so much? Part of the reason is that published averages include the uninsured, who have high out-of-pocket expenses. But that's not all. Even the insured, it turns out, have pretty high out-of-pocket expenses. Via Catherine Rampell, here's a chart from the Labor Department that shows coverage of various conditions by private sector health plans. It includes everything that's even partly covered, and as you can see, it leaves a lot to be desired. Sure, office visits and basic hospital costs are covered. But if you need an organ transplant or kidney dialysis or diabetes care? You're probably out of luck. Hell, even maternity care and physical therapy are a crapshoot. But just remember: America has the best healthcare in the world, baby. Don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise.

Everybody agrees we need to restrain the growth of Medicare. Unless, of course, someone proposes an actual way to restrain the growth of Medicare.

We are ruled by idiots. Bipartisanly, of course.

Is it rude to be constantly checking messages while you're socializing with someone else? That's a matter of opinion. But a professor friend emails to remind me that rudeness is actually the least of the problems with the perpetual multitasking of the smartphone generation:

This is the way kids these days think. My administration calls it "the millennial student" and apparently we are supposed to cater to their habits. Fully half of my 60 person general physics class this semester sits in the back of the room on either phone or laptop. They're not taking notes. The good ones are working on assignments for other classes (as if being present in mine causes the information to enter their pores). The bad are giggling at Facebook comments.

....But here's the thing: there is convincing evidence that this inveterate multitasking has a serious, measurable and long lasting negative effect on cognitive function. Look up Stanford psychologist Clifford Nass sometime. There's a lovely episode of Frontline from a year or so ago featuring him. He has shown that multitaskers are not only bad at multitasking, but they are also worse than nonmultitaskers on every individual one of the tasks.

That's the millennial student and it isn't something to be catered to. Put the damn iPhone down before you make yourself stupid.

I should have remembered that! Nass has been studying "high multitasking" for years, and his results are pretty unequivocal. Here's the Frontline interview:

What did you expect when you started these experiments?

Each of the three researchers on this project thought that ... high multitaskers [would be] great at something, although each of us bet on a different thing.

I bet on filtering. I thought, those guys are going to be experts at getting rid of irrelevancy. My second colleague, Eyal Ophir, thought it was going to be the ability to switch from one task to another. And the third of us looked at a third task that we're not running today, which has to do with keeping memory neatly organized. So we each had our own bets, but we all bet high multitaskers were going to be stars at something.

And what did you find out?

We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They're terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they're terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they're terrible at switching from one task to another.

....We were at MIT, and we were interviewing students and professors. And the professors, by and large, were complaining that their students were losing focus because they were on their laptops during class, and the kids just all insisted that they were really able to manage all that media and still pay attention to what was important in class -- pick and choose, as they put it. Does that sound familiar to you?

It's extremely familiar.... And the truth is, virtually all multitaskers think they are brilliant at multitasking. And one of the big new items here, and one of the big discoveries is, you know what? You're really lousy at it. And even though I'm at the university and tell my students this, they say: "Oh, yeah, yeah. But not me! I can handle it. I can manage all these," which is, of course, a normal human impulse. So it's actually very scary....

....You're confident of that?

Yes. There's lots and lots of evidence. And that's just not our work. The demonstration that when you ask people to do two things at once they're less efficient has been demonstrated over and over and over. No one talks about it — I don't know why — but in fact there's no contradictory evidence to this for about the last 15, 20 years. Everything [as] simple as the little feed at the bottom of a news show, the little text, studies have shown that that distracts people. They remember both less. Studies on asking people to read something and at the same time listen to something show those effects. So there's really, in some sense, no surprise there. There's denial, but there's no surprise.

The surprise here is that what happens when you chronically multitask, you're multitasking all the time, and then you don't multitask, what we're finding is people are not turning off the multitasking switch in their [brain] — we think there's a switch in the brain; we don't know for sure — that says: "Stop using the things I do with multitasking. Focus. Be organized. Don't switch. Don't waste energy switching." And that doesn't seem to be turned off in people who multitask all the time.

Italics mine. So here's the thing: whether it's rude or not, multitasking is probably ruining your brain. You should stop. But if you can't do that, you should at least take frequent breaks where you're fully engaged in a single task and exercising your normal analytic abilities. So why not do that while you're socializing? It's as good a time as any.