Kevin Drum

Quote of the Day

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 5:55 PM EDT

From Fox News anchor Jon Scott, flailing around trying to describe my employer:

There's a recent article in Mother Jones magazine, not exacty a....uh....magazine that is....what....how to put it?....against lightening up on marijuana laws....

Nice save, Jon!  This was just before quoting an excerpt from my marijuana piece — and needless to say, they chose practically the only paragraph in the entire story that had much of anything negative to say about marijuana legalization.  But I guess all PR is good PR as long they spell my name right, isn't it?  And they did spell my name right....

UPDATE: Hmmm.  Bad day for Fox anchors.  Apparently Brian Kilmeade is upset because in America "we keep marrying other species and other ethnics."

Other species?

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Overtreated

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 3:04 PM EDT

David Leonhardt's column today suggests that maybe I'm not quite as out of touch as I thought I was about the realities of healthcare for most people.  His piece is about slow-growing, early-stage prostate cancers, and to make a long story short, it turns out there are lots of different treatments for it but pretty much zero evidence about which one works best.  However, the price tags range from about $2,000 for doing nothing ("watchful waiting") to $50,000 for the latest whiz bang proton radiation therapy.

But here's the tidbit that caught my eye:

A fascinating series of pilot programs, including for prostate cancer, has shown that when patients have clinical information about treatments, they often choose a less invasive one. Some come to see that the risks and side effects of more invasive care are not worth the small — or nonexistent — benefits. “We want the thing that makes us better,” says Dr. Peter B. Bach, a pulmonary specialist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, “not the thing that is niftier.”

When I read about healthcare, pretty much the only thing I hear is that everyone wants infinite amounts of it.  And they always want the latest and greatest stuff.

Not me.  My motto is, "That healthcare is best that cares the least."  Or something like that.  Basically, I prefer to get the minimum reasonable amount of healthcare possible, and I have a strong preference for the simplest, oldest, best-known treatments.  I'm not exactly a fanatic about this, but generally speaking I think that most new treatments turn out not to be nearly as effective as we think, and the more time you spend around hospitals the better your chances of catastrophe.

Does that make me an outlier?  It seems like it.  But maybe the difference is just information: I read an awful lot about this stuff, and it's convinced me that there are dangers to overtreatment just as there are dangers to undertreatment.  Leonhardt's "fascinating series of pilot programs" suggests that with better information, more people might agree.

Torture For Thee, But Not For Me

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 1:47 PM EDT

Glenn Greenwald was on NPR yesterday to talk about their policy of refusing to call torture by its proper name, and while he was waiting to go on he listened to NPR's ombudsman explaining their policy:

She also said — when the host asked about the recent example I cited of NPR's calling what was done to a reporter in Gambia "torture" (at the 20:20 mark) — that NPR will use the word "torture" to describe what other governments do because they do it merely to sadistically inflict pain on people while the U.S. did it for a noble reason:  to obtain information about Terrorist attacks.  That's really what she said:  that when the U.S. did it (as opposed to Evil countries), it was for a good reason.

Jeez, that Glenn.  Always exaggerating.  For the record, here's what she actually said about NPR's piece on Gambia:

In that case, these were strictly tactics to torture him, to punish him, versus in the United States, and the way that it's used, these are tactics used to get information.  The Gambian journalist was in jail for his beliefs.

Wow.  She really did say that, didn't she?  When other people do it for other reasons, it's torture.  When we do it for our reasons, it's not.

You don't usually find people willing to say this quite so baldly.  Congratulations, Alicia Shepard.

No Agreement on Climate

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 12:36 PM EDT

Apparently the G8 meeting in Italy won't produce any agreement on climate change:

As President Obama arrived for three days of meetings with other international leaders, negotiators dropped a proposal that would have committed the world to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by midcentury and industrialized countries to slashing their emissions by 80 percent.

.... The breakdown on climate change underscored the difficulty in bridging divisions between the most developed countries like the United States and developing nations like China and India. In the end, people close to the talks said, the emerging powers refused to agree to the limits because they wanted industrial countries to commit to midterm goals in 2020 and to follow through on promises of financial and technological help in reducing emissions.

“They’re saying, ‘We just don’t trust you guys,’ ” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group based in the United States. “It’s the same gridlock we had last year when Bush was president.”

The basic problem isn't the 80% reduction by 2050, which is supported by both Obama and congressional Democrats.  The problem is the 2020 goal.  Right now, the Waxman-Markey climate bill requires a 17% cut by 2020, but that's from a baseline of 2005.  Depending on how you crunch the numbers, that works out to a cut of only 0-4% from 1990 levels.

The Europeans, conversely, want to see a 20% cut from 1990 levels by 2020.  Obama, presumably, sees no chance at all of getting Congress to agree to that, and the Europeans aren't willing to compromise their more stringent goals.  So for now, no agreement.  And Copenhagen is only five months away.

Healthcare in Extremis

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 11:58 AM EDT

Megan McArdle argues that if healthcare reform includes a public plan, it might mean a reduction in service for a lot of people with severe problems:

Surely the point of worry is that many millions of people will be forced into the public system, because its existence will encourage their employers to dump their health care plans.  Since private systems have so far found it virtually impossible to deny many treatments for long, this will mean that millions of budget constrained people will find themselves with less available treatment than before.

....This is not a crazy worry.  What America is best at is delivering a lot of complicated care in extremis, and "quality of life" treatments.  What European countries are best at is delivering a lot of ordinary care for the sorts of things that afflict people from 0-50, which is why most of the Europhile journalists writing about Europe genuinely have very good experiences to report.  I'd rather be here to have a hip replacement, but I might rather be in the Netherlands to have a baby.  Doing something moderately ordinary here is a hassle.  Doing something extraordinary there is often not possible for the overwhelming majority of citizens, though that depends on what, and in what system.

Boy, I'd sure like to see some backup for that.  If by "extraordinary" Megan means the most extreme 0.001% of procedures, then maybe she's right.  Maybe.  But nothing I've read about Western European healthcare systems makes me believe that there's any substantial difference between the way they treat severe illnesses and the way we do it.  And no systematic difference in success rates for such treatment either.  Nor should this come as a surprise, since most extreme medicine is practiced on older patients, who are covered by a public plan both here and in Europe.

No system is better at everything than any other system.  There are always tradeoffs.  But the overall evidence is crystal clear: European state healthcare systems, taken as a whole, provide better care than America's hodgepodege system at about half the price.  If we adopted their approach and combined it with American funding levels, we'd have a system better than either.  And rich people who wanted to pay for massive amounts of special care not covered by the state would still be free to do so.

Anyway, speaking of healthcare, the 24-hour bug I thought I had yesterday seems to be more like a 72-hour bug.  Blah.  Blogging will probably be a little light today again.

Speculating on Oil

| Tue Jul. 7, 2009 6:08 PM EDT

The New York Times reports that the Obama administration plans to take a more proactive position toward speculation in the oil market:

In a big departure from the hands-off approach to market regulation of the last two decades, the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Gary Gensler, said his agency would consider new limits on the volume of energy futures contracts that purely financial investors would be allowed to hold.

The agency also announced that it would pull back part of the veil on the oil and gas markets, publishing more detailed information about the aggregate activity of hedge funds and traders who arbitrage between domestic and foreign energy prices.

....Oil prices have swung wildly in the last year, hitting about $145 a barrel last summer, then plunging to $33 in December before rising to about $70.

....A growing number of critics have blamed some of the extreme volatility on the role of purely financial investors — those who are simply betting on the direction of energy prices, as opposed to those who actually use such products, like airlines....Non-commercial traders accounted for almost a fifth of the activity in several major oil and gas products for the week that ended June 30, according to data compiled by the commodities agency.

One of the interesting aspects of this is that it demonstrates the genuine difficulty in identifying asset bubbles.  The housing bubble was relatively easy to spot: it took place over a long period of time and prices shot up way, way past their historical trendline.  But oil?  That's harder.

Take a look at the chart on the right, courtesy of Calculated Risk.  It shows oil prices over the past couple of decades, and what you see is moderate stability from 1985-1999 followed by a slow rise starting around 2000 and a sharp jump between 2004-2006.  Was that a bubble?  Prices dropped for a few months after that, and then, over the space of 18 months, tripled from $50 to $150.  Was that a bubble?

To this day, I don't think there's any consensus about this.  Given growing demand and flat supply, prices should have gone up after 2000 — and the sharper rise in 2004 was no big surprise either.  That's not a bubble, it's just the free market at work.  But how about that second spike?  Was it driven by speculation?  Or was it also driven by demand fundamentals, which cratered naturally when the global economy went into recession in mid-2008?  And even if it was a bubble, it only lasted 18 months.  What are the odds that anybody could have identified it and targeted it fast enough to keep it under control?

Beats me.  But although I continue to think that supply and demand fundamentals were behind much of the price rise, I began to wobble on this during the first half of 2008. The oil market really did start to look pretty bubbly, and in August the CFTC begain to produce some persuasive evidence that financial speculators were having a substantial effect on prices.  This speculative bubble couldn't last very long (eventually speculators run out room to store their oil), but there's good reason to think that even a 12-month spike did a lot of damage to the world economy.

So what now?  Oil has been on the rise recently despite the recession, causing a few analysts to suggest that speculation is once again temporarily inflating prices.  And me?  I don't know.  As I've said before, though, one thing we can count on now that demand for oil is bumping up against fundamental supply limits is lots of price volatility.  Given that, trying to keep a lid on speculators creating even greater frenzy in the oil market makes a lot of sense.  The CFTC is probably doing the right thing here.

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MoJo Mix: 7 July 2009

| Tue Jul. 7, 2009 3:13 PM EDT

Hey, it's Laura again. Kevin says it's okay if I drop by every few days with some MoJo stories we think you'll like. Don't worry, he'll be back in the next post.

I can't vouch for his cats, but Kevin Drum is one incredibly nice teetotaler in person. All the more reason his non-dirty-hippie's guide to marijuana legalization is well worth a read. And when you're done weeding that (sorry), here are three more stories readers are liking today:

1) This reporter fled the Mexican Army. Spread the word and you could save his life.

2) Drug War Quiz: Do you know which anti-pot ad campaign findings the White House buried in 2004? Dust off your short-term memory and test your drug war knowledge.

3) The latest Palin ethics complaint: She allegedly collected per diem payments for living in her Wasilla home. Palin ethics bingo, anyone?

Laura McClure writes the MoJo Mix and is the new media editor at Mother Jones. Read her investigative feature on lifehacking gurus in the latest issue of Mother Jones.

Raw Data

| Tue Jul. 7, 2009 2:12 PM EDT

The Michael Jackson tribute is currently being aired on 18 separate channels on my TV.  Just sayin'.

Pricking Bubbles

| Tue Jul. 7, 2009 1:21 PM EDT

Alan Greenspan famously argued that the Fed shouldn't pay attention to asset bubbles.  They're hard to identify, he said, dangerous to prick, and can be better dealt with after they deflate.  This was, roughly speaking, the "Greenspan put," which served to make the recent housing bubble worse than it otherwise would have been, since investors knew the Fed would do nothing to stop the party while it was underway and would always be around afterward to help clean up.

Via Simon Johnson, I see that recently appointed New York Fed chairman William Dudley, a longtime bubble hawk, gave a speech a few days ago taking issue with Greenspan's claims:

Relative to this, I would argue that:

1. Asset bubbles may not be that hard to identify — especially large ones. For example, the housing bubble in the United States had been identified by many by 2005, and the compressed nature of risk spreads and the increased leverage in the financial system was very well known going into 2007.

2. If one means by monetary policy the instrument of short-term interest rates, then I agree that monetary policy is not well-suited to deal with asset bubbles. But this suggests that it might be better for central bankers to examine the efficacy of other instruments in their toolbox, rather than simply ignoring the development of asset bubbles.

3. If existing tools are judged inadequate, then central banks should work on developing additional policy instruments.

Let’s take the housing bubble as an example. Housing prices rose far faster than income. As a result, underwriting standards deteriorated. If regulators had forced mortgage originators to tighten up their standards or had forced the originators and securities issuers to keep “skin in the game”, I think the housing bubble might not have been so big.

I think that this crisis has demonstrated that the cost of waiting to clean up asset bubbles after they burst can be very high. That suggests we should explore how to respond earlier.

The basic proposition here — namely that letting bubbles run their course might not be such a great idea after all — is no longer especially controversial.  But Dudley's second and third points are the important ones here.  Even now, many economists still argue that hiking interest rates and producing a recession is too high a price to pay every time someone thinks an asset bubble is forming.  But if that's the case, it means that the Fed needs to be more aggressive about applying more targeted tools to prick bubbles, or, if their tools are inadequate, asking Congress to give it better ones.

Johnson is skeptical that Dudley is really serious about this.  If he is, the next step is to put some meat on the bones of this speech: specify how asset bubbles should be identified and what kinds of tools are needed to fight them.  Stay tuned.

Raw Power

| Tue Jul. 7, 2009 12:31 PM EDT

In a speech today in Russia, Barack Obama said  that "the pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game."  Dan Drezner isn't so sure:

If he had said, "The pursuit of prosperity is no longer a zero-sum game," I'd be fine with the passage.  I still think power is a zero-sum concept, however.  The two ideas are linked but hardly the same. 

I suppose that's true.  Even in a Thomas Barnett-ish world where all the big players gang up to police the world, it's prosperity and security that are positive sum, not raw power.  Anyone care to try and come up with a counterexample?