Is Contraception Really Key?

Sarah Kliff reports today that the teen birthrate has plummeted over the past decade. That's not news. The interesting question is why the teen birthrate has plummeted, and a new paper in the Journal of Adolescent Health says the reason is better access to contraceptives. That sounds reasonable, but Kliff backs up this idea with the following chart, taken from data in the paper:

This is a problem. Contraception use dropped slightly between 2009 and 2012. Sexual activity stayed about the same. And yet teen pregnancies declined by an astounding 20 percent over the same period. This does not fit with the notion that contraception is key.

Plus there's longer term data. The chart below shows the teen pregnancy rate since 1990. It's been dropping steadily since 1992, despite no change in contraceptive use. I've subbed in contraceptive use from the new paper for 2007-12 (dashed line), and it doesn't really seem to correlate with teen pregnancy rates either:

So count me skeptical about the contraception theory. Teen pregnancy has been dropping for 25 years, and any explanation needs to account for this. But what could it be?

Jay Mathews has been covering local education for the Washington Post since 1996. Alexander Russo asked him what his biggest mistake has been in those past 20 years:

I think my major mistake was giving too much credit to the jump in achievement scores and the appointment of new principals under Michelle Rhee in the DC schools. The scores proved to be largely the result of test tampering and many of the new principals weren’t as good as they needed to be.

Has the cult of Michelle Rhee finally run its course? We can hope.

I remain agnostic about the 1996 welfare reform act, simply because I haven't studied it enough. But Ron Haskins, a former Republican congressional staff director, points out one very conspicuous failure:

Haskins said the reform has had important successes — improving day-care programs, helping local authorities collect child-support payments from absent fathers, establishing the value of work in American culture with an unequivocal statement by Congress and the president.

At the same time, Haskins said, the reform has done too little to help the worst off. Clinton's reform gave states authority to use federal money to help parents train and find work, but many states used the money for other purposes, he said.

"This group of moms at the bottom needs help," he said. "It's disappointing to me that the states have not tried harder."

I assume Haskins is sincere, but this is what happens when you leave social welfare programs up to the states, as Republicans have been hellbent on doing for decades. This usually takes the form of "block grants," where federal programs are eliminated and money is instead given to states with only moderate strings attached.

Because of they way they're funded, block grants are a handy way of ensuring that spending on the programs will never increase much: in the case of TANF, funding for the block grants was fixed forever at $16.5 billion. In inflation-adjusted terms, this means that funding has decreased from $21 billion to $16 billion since 1996. Even during the Great Recession, TANF funding only barely rose—for two or three years—to 1996 levels. This was despite the fact that the number of poor during the Great Recession far exceeded the number in 1996.

But that's not all. Block granting also allows states more freedom to do what they want, and the plain truth is that there are a lot of states that don't really want to do anything. So they do their best to game the system in every possible way, spending their block grant money on anything except helping the poor. As the CBPP chart on the right shows, only about 26 cents of every block grant dollar goes to cash assistance for the poor, and only half goes to core welfare programs at all.

This is especially ironic in the case of welfare reform, which was largely the result of experiments by states in the late 80s and early 90s. Some of those experiments had been pretty successful, which allowed the states to argue that they could handle welfare programs better than the sluggish federal bureaucracy. But once welfare reform was passed, the experiments ended. Instead, many states began pushing the envelope as hard as they could to redirect their block grant money away from poor people and into other programs. They argued—and continue to argue—that these programs help the poor more than actual welfare programs do, but in most cases this is obvious sophistry. They're just plugging budget holes with welfare money and telling the poor to pound sand.

Of course, there are other ways states can show their contempt for the poor even more transparently. Obamacare allowed states to expand Medicaid for virtually no cost. It was a no-brainer. But lots of states didn't want to help the poor, and when the Supreme Court gave them the opportunity to reject the free federal money, they did. This hurt their hospitals and hurt their economies, but no matter. Their hatred for spending money on the poor is so red hot that they pulled out of the expansion program anyway.

Whatever else you think about welfare reform, there's one clear lesson we've learned: federal programs should remain federal programs. Lots of states actively hate spending money on the poor, and if you give them money they'll do everything they can to avoid spending it on the people it's designed to help.

There was another stampede at an airport Sunday night, when passengers at LAX wrongly thought they heard guns being fired:

A loud noise mistaken for gunfire led to rumors that spread at blazing speed in person and on social media, setting off a panic that shut down one of the nation’s busiest airports, as passengers fled terminals and burst through security cordons, and as the police struggled to figure out what was happening and to restore order.

Far from being an isolated episode, it was essentially what had happened on Aug. 13 at a mall in Raleigh, N.C.; on Aug. 14 at Kennedy International Airport in New York; on Aug. 20 at a mall in Michigan; and on Aug. 25 at a mall in Orlando, Fla.

Spreading panic over terrorism has real effects. This is one of them. We are being turned into a nation of babies.

The number of terrorist attacks in the US is minuscule. The number of people in the US who die from terrorist attacks is minuscule. But I suppose the political advantage from scaring the hell out of people about terrorism is fairly substantial. And that's all that counts, isn't it?

Menstrual Syncing Is Baloney

Simon Oxenham busts a myth today:

Another popular theory is that when women live together, their menstrual cycles align. The idea has become a popular example of how pheromones can control us, but over time many studies have failed to replicate and confirm the finding. But for some reason, this idea is particularly resilient to debunking, living on in an abundance of newspaper articles and anecdotal conversations between friends.

I can propose one possible reason this idea resists debunking: Nobody is debunking it. I learned about this in college in the late 70s, when it was believed to be true. In the intervening 45 years, this is the first time I've heard that it's wrong. That might be understandable if I didn't read a lot, but I do. And I've never heard until now that the menstrual syncing theory hasn't held up.

Eventually, I suppose, my generation will die off and younger generations will never have been exposed to this idea, but that process sure takes a while. In the meantime, we are all prisoners of the fact that fascinating scientific results always get a lot of media attention, while the slow work of falsifying them—which is rarely done in a single blockbuster study—ends up buried in academic journals.

Because of this, I think we need a new academic journal: The Journal of Popular Myths and Delusions, or some such. They would tackle things in two ways. First, when a popular theory gets to the point where it's widely discredited in the scientific community, they'd write an article about it that would give news organizations a hook to report it. Second, they would annually commission a survey of known scientific falsehoods and then spend the following year debunking the most popular ones. I recommend they start with the whole eight glasses of water thing.

Today Ron Fournier bids farewell to Washington with a column declaring Donald Trump unfit for the Oval Office:

There's Simply No Equivalence
Hillary Clinton has her problems, but Donald Trump is unfit for the presidency.

....On one hand, Clinton. On the other hand, Trump. That’s the unfortunate choice facing voters in a system rigged heavily in favor of the two major parties. But there’s no equivalence.

On one hand, Benghazi and email and lies.

On the other hand, mendacity, bigotry, bullyism, narcissism, sexism, selfishness, sociopathology, and a lack of understanding or interest in public policy—all to extremes unseen in modern presidential politics.

I don't mean to criticize Fournier for anything here, but he uses a formulation that I've seen all too often and it puzzles me. Critics of Hillary Clinton always mention that she "lies." But Trump? It's all bigotry, ignorance, and narcissism. Why? Trump lies practically every time he opens his mouth. Without getting into the question of how often or how seriously Hillary lies, there's really no question that Trump outclasses her about a thousand to one on this score.

Fournier actually does better than some, since he at least mentions "mendacity" in his list. But why not just say Trump is a liar? And not just any liar. By a wide margin Trump is the most consistent, brazen, serial liar in presidential campaign history. He's so far off the charts it's hard to even describe what he does. This really deserves to be called out more often.

After Donald Trump spent a week waffling and "softening" over his immigration policy, I said, "The only thing left is for him to casually tell us that 'build the wall' was meant kind of metaphorically all along, and most of it will end up being a 'virtual wall' of drones and security cameras." Ha ha. Just a little joke. Trump would never back down on—what's that, NBC News?

Sigh. I wonder if someone finally told Trump that it's not possible to build an actual concrete wall across every mile of the border? But if so, why would he have listened this time? It's not like he's ever shown any deference to reality in the past.

Anyway, maybe there's nothing to this. I guess we'll have to wait for Trump's big immigration speech on Wednesday. (Yes, another one.) At the moment, he's too busy tweeting about Hillary Clinton's low IQ to have time for anything else.

Huma Abedin Has Finally Had Enough

After the latest humiliating public news of her husband Anthony Weiner's sexting obsession, Huma Abedin is calling it quits:

Jesus. She has a laughingstock for a husband, and spent four years trying to fend off the odious Doug Band while she was working for Hillary Clinton at the State Department. What a life. She deserves better, and I hope she gets it.

Our Automotive Overlords Are Coming Soon

Vox has polled America about driverless cars, and the truth has emerged: if you are skeptical of self-driving technology, you are probably the same kind of oldster who scoffs at Snapchat and Instagram. Which....um, is probably pretty reasonable. But older folks also tend to watch Fox News and vote Republican. You don't want to be part of that demographic do, you? Besides, you might not have any choice:

If self-driving technology saves as many lives as its supporters hope, we could eventually have a different debate: whether to allow people to drive their own cars at all....A slight plurality of those under 30 said they would favor a ban, 43 percent to 42 percent. In contrast, those over 65 were opposed by a wide margin, 58 percent to 22 percent.

Millennials will be taking over the world soon, and they're wide open to banning human drivers. This makes sense. Our grandchildren will probably be appalled when we tell them that once upon a time humans were actually allowed to pilot these 2-ton death machines. Your future automotive overlords are knocking on the door and I, for one, welcome them.

UPDATE: The original version of the chart in this story showed that only 2 percent of the elderly were ready to give up their cars. The actual number is 9 percent.

When I picked up my copy of the LA Times this morning, I was greeted by the headline on the right. It's about someone you may have heard of: Gilbert Chagoury, a billionaire from Nigeria.

Chagoury is a prominent example of the nexus between Hillary Clinton’s State Department and the family’s Clinton Foundation, which has come under renewed scrutiny during her presidential run. The organization, founded as a way for the Clintons to tap their vast network for charitable works, has tackled some of the steepest challenges in the developing world, including rebuilding Haiti and fighting AIDS in Africa. It has also come under fire for its willingness to accept money from foreign governments with interest in swaying U.S. policy during Clinton’s time as secretary of State, and the controversial histories of some donors.

A nexus! So what's up with Chagoury? Here's a snapshot:

Chagoury was born in 1946 in Lagos to Lebanese parents....During the rule of Gen. Sani Abacha, who seized power in Nigeria in 1993, Chagoury prospered....tried to influence American policy to be more friendly to the regime....Abacha turned out to be “one of the most notorious kleptocrats in memory,” stealing billions in public funds....After Abacha’s death in 1998, the Nigerian government hired lawyers to track down the money. The trail led to bank accounts all over the world — some under Gilbert Chagoury's control. Chagoury, who denied knowing the funds were stolen, paid a fine of 1 million Swiss francs, then about $600,000, and gave back $65 million to Nigeria; a Swiss conviction was expunged, a spokesman for Chagoury said.

OK. Chagoury is rich, powerful, connected, and maybe a little shady. Next:

In 1996, he gave $460,000 to a voter registration group steered by Bill Clinton’s allies....attended Clinton's 60th birthday fundraiser....contributed $1 million to $5 million to the Clinton Foundation....the Chagoury Group’s Eko Atlantic development — nine square kilometers of Lagos coastal land reclaimed by a seawall — was singled out for praise.

....By last summer, U.S. diplomats had selected a 9.9-acre property at Eko Atlantic as the preferred site for a new Lagos consulate, State Department documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times show. Two months ago, James Entwistle, then the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, wrote to Washington, asking permission to sign a 99-year lease.

The Eko Atlantic stuff is small beer, and happened after Hillary Clinton left the State Department anyway. So what's her connection to all this? That's a little hazy:

[Doug] Band, Bill Clinton’s aide, pushed for new access for Chagoury after Hillary Clinton took over at the State Department. In 2009, Band wrote his friends in the department. “We need Gilbert Chagoury to speak to the substance guy re Lebanon. As you know he's key guy there and to us and is loved in Lebanon. Very imp.” Huma Abedin, a longtime aide and confidante to Clinton and now vice chairwoman of her presidential campaign, suggested [former Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey] Feltman....But no meeting ever happened, according to both Feltman and Chagoury’s spokesman. Chagoury wanted only to pass along insights on Lebanese politics, Corallo said, adding that “nothing ever came of it” and that Chagoury never talked to anyone at the State Department.

And...what? This is followed by a description of Chagoury's run-ins with US security officials, all of which happened after 2009. However, the story is written in such a way that this is unclear unless you read carefully.

So as near as I can tell, Chagoury (a) is tied up in some of the less savory aspects of Lebanese politics, (b) has contributed to the Clinton Foundation, and (c) wanted to discuss Lebanon once with someone at State, but never did. Later on, he had trouble getting a US visa thanks to suspicions of past connections with Hezbollah, which Chagoury denies.

Am I missing something? How did this end up as the lead story in today's LA Times?