• Friday Cat Blogging – 23 February 2018

    Hilbert is not amused.

  • Quote of the Day: Next Time, Health Care Reform Will Be a Real War

    From Harold Pollack, mild-mannered professor at the University of Chicago, on the strategy for health care reform when Democrats return to power:

    Democrats will be much more ruthless the next time around.

    Pollack explains this further in more academic tones, but I’m not sure he needs to. Basically, Republicans waged a relentless 7-year war against a program even as moderate and market-friendly as Obamacare. It’s obvious that being moderate and market-friendly buys you nothing these days, so what’s the point? Why not just give the public what it really wants: a simple, universal health care system funded by taxes? How much worse can the war be?

    This is all in response to a new proposal from the Center for American Progress called Medicare Extra for All. This is not the most euphonious name ever invented, but I suppose it gets the point across. MEFA basically does this:

    • Makes Medicare better.
    • Provides it to anyone who needs it.
    • Allows private plans to stay around as long as they provide care pretty similar to MEFA.

    The cost of enrolling in MEFA would be zero for families under 150 percent of the poverty level (currently $25,000 for a family of four), and on a sliding scale ranging from 1-10 percent of income for everyone above that level. Employers could continue to offer private insurance or could pay to enroll their workers in MEFA. There would be cost controls and various funding sources. Here is CAP’s summary:

    Roughly speaking, this is national health care (everyone is insured) but with premium payments for some people instead of just funding the whole thing through taxes. It’s still more complicated than it needs to be, and I assume this is because the CAP authors want to keep the cost down and the extra taxes minimal. In other words, perhaps Democrats still aren’t being ruthless enough. But I suppose that’s easy for me to say.

  • Hooray for Alina Zagitova!

    Russian figure skaters Evgenia Medvedeva (left) and gold medal winner Alina Zagitova.Jon Olav Nesvold/Bildbyran via ZUMA

    Alex Abad-Santos is a huge fan of Russian figure skater Evgenia Medvedeva, who lost last night by a single point to her teammate Alina Zagitova. According to the score sheets, Medvedeva executed her program better (she got lots of perfect tens in her component scores), but Zagitova won anyway. Abad-Santos explains:

    The best explanation of Zagitova’s win lies in the current figure skating scoring system — which favors jumps — and Zagitova’s ability to hit the most difficult jumping combination in the women’s field: a triple lutz–triple loop….Zagitova had another advantage in the free skate: taking full advantage of the point system. Zagitova stacks all her jumps in the second half of the program. By doing this, she takes advantage of a detail of the scoring system that awards a 10 percent bonus to the base value of jumps that are performed during the second half of a skater’s program

    ….Because the scoring system favors strong jumpers and Zagitova tailored her routine and her strengths to maximize the number of points she could earn, she ultimately came out on top….Both women skated spectacularly, with Zagitova taking gold and Medvedeva taking silver. But even though the numbers can explain why that outcome wasn’t reversed, something about the system still feels imperfect.

    Well, now, I don’t know about that. It sounds like Zagitova demonstrated more skill, better endurance, and a more aggressive use of the scoring system. That doesn’t sound imperfect. If Medvedeva can’t pull off the 3Lz+3Lo¹ and doesn’t have the strength to do her jumps in the second half of the program, it sounds like Zagitova is just the better athlete—last night, anyway. Even accounting for the fact that I have the soul of an engineer, surely I’m not the only one who tires of ice skating commentary that blathers on about how one skater “surrenders herself to the music” and another “skates with her heart, not her brain”? Like it or not, this is exactly the kind of quirky nonsense that the current scoring system was designed to eliminate.²

    Any time you win a sporting event by half a percentage point, it’s basically a tie. In some sense, the actual winner is basically a coin flip. Still, Abad-Santos has convinced me that this time it wasn’t really a coin flip. Zagitova deserved to win.

    ¹Note my use of the abbreviation to make it look like I’m an expert. Don’t try this at home, though. I’m a professional.

    ²Along with corrupt judging, of course.

  • We’re Headed For a Showdown Over Emotional Support Animals

    Shelly Yang/TNS via ZUMA

    Over at Vox, Brian Resnick interviews Molly Crossman, an expert on emotional support animals. She confirms what an awful lot of people only mutter under their breath:

    Resnick: Overall, what are the strongest claims we can make about animals and mental distress?

    Crossman: Well, I’ll qualify it first by saying that most of the research in this area is on dogs. There is some on horses as well, and a few studies on other species. But in terms of the dog studies, we can say that, probably, interactions with animals don’t make stress-related symptoms worse. So that’s good. It also seems they convey sort of small to medium reductions in stress and stress-related symptoms. That’s the strongest thing I’m willing to say….We actually don’t know that it’s the animals specifically that are producing these small to medium reductions in stress. It might be other components of the interventions in which they’re evaluated.

    So: they don’t make things worse. They might make things slightly better, but we can’t even say that with any clarity.

    Then there’s stuff like this, which happened last night. There’s a backlash brewing against emotional support animals, and their supporters better figure out how to address it before state legislatures start doing it for them.

  • Who Approved the Russian Mercenary Attack on American Forces?

    Samer Bouidani/DPA via ZUMA

    The Washington Post reports on the source of an attack by Russian mercenaries on US troops a few weeks ago in Syria:

    A Russian oligarch believed to control the Russian mercenaries who attacked U.S. troops and their allies in Syria this month was in close touch with Kremlin and ­Syrian officials in the days and weeks before and after the assault, according to U.S. intelligence reports.

    A Russian oligarch? A businessman is commanding mercenary troops in Syria?

    In intercepted communications in late January, the oligarch, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, told a senior Syrian official that he had “secured permission” from an unspecified Russian minister to move forward with a “fast and strong” initiative that would take place in early February….Among his various enterprises, U.S. intelligence believes that Prigozhin also “almost certainly” controls Russian mercenaries fighting in Syria on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad.

    ….The attack marked the biggest direct challenge to the U.S. military presence in eastern Syria since U.S. Special Operations forces began deploying there in 2015….A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive issue, described the episode as “worrisome.” The official added that “it’s striking how the Russians themselves have been quick to distance themselves” from what he described as an operation “under Syrian command and in response to Syrian directive.”

    Very strange. The betting money, of course, says that Prigozhin would never have attacked US troops without a green light from Vladimir Putin himself. But why would Putin approve something that’s both so reckless and so pointless? In the end, all he got were a lot of dead mercenaries.

  • Teenagers Are Pretty Awesome These Days

    High school students are protesting guns, and that’s prompted some folks to dredge up a decade-old tweet from NRA flack Dana Loesch:

    They can be annoying, all right, especially when they’re protesting guns. But all jokes aside, it’s worth being in awe of just how much better today’s teenagers are than those of Loesch’s era. Naturally, I’ve got a chart:

    Bad behaviors have declined substantially since the mid-90s and good behaviors have increased. It’s pretty astonishing how widespread this is. They may annoy us with their smartphones and insistence on doing good works, but they’re in a helluva lot better shape than us Boomer/Gen X folks ever were.


    • Cigarettes: National Survey on Drug Use and Health (1995 here, 2016 Table 2.2B here). 12-17 year-olds reporting cigarette use in past month: 4.2% vs. 20%.
    • Arrest rate: Dept. of Justice here. Raw arrest rates, 1995-2016: 2,553 per 100,000 vs. 8,228 per 100,000.
    • Teen pregnancy: Dept. of Health & Human Services here. 15-19 year-olds, 1995-2014: 24.2% vs. 56%.
    • Drunk driving: CDC National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 1995 here, 2015 here: 7.8% vs. 15.4%.
    • School fights: NYRBS. Physical fight within past 12 months: 22.6% vs. 38.7%.
    • Alcohol use: Same as cigarettes.
    • Drug use: National Survey on Drug Use and Health (1995 here, 2016 Table 1.2B here). 12-17 year-olds reporting any illicit drug use in past month: 8.8% vs. 11%.
    • Carried a weapon: NYRBS. Carried a weapon at least once in past 30 days: 16.2% vs. 20.0%.
    • NAEP reading: Long-term NAEP assessment here, 17-year-olds, 2012 vs. 1994: 289 vs. 288. Note that two points were added to 2012 scores to compensate for assessment format changes.
    • NAEP math: NAEP. Scale scores: 308 vs. 306.
    • Attend college: National Center for Education Statistics here. Percent of recent high school completers enrolled in college: 69.8% vs. 61.9%.
    • School sports: NYRBS. Played on at least one sports team run by school or community group: 57.6% vs. 50.3%.
    • High school units: NCES here, 1987-2009. Average number of Carnegie units earned by public high school graduates: 27.15 vs. 23.00.
  • It Pays to Be Technically Literate

    I see that Paul Manafort is now in even deeper trouble than before. Robert Mueller has filed new charges against him, this time involving tax fraud, and they show the depth and sophistication of the techniques Mueller uses to go after his targets:

    That’s more or less what tripped up John Lott too. They say that if most criminals weren’t idiots, we’d never catch any of them, and apparently that’s correct.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    Our house in Caherdaniel was at the top of a hill near two cemeteries. The newer graveyard was, as you might expect, boring. I passed it twice a day as I drove out each morning and in at night, but I never bothered looking around. The old graveyard, however, was great. It was thickly overgrown, foggy at times, and full of ruined old church buildings. I was pretty careful when I walked around in it, but not careful enough: I tumbled completely into a hole covered by brambles and vines one time. I sustained no damage other than a few scratches, but for a while I wondered how I was going to get back up. I was suspended entirely by plants, and there was no obvious way to lift myself into a sitting position, let alone a standing one. But eventually I did, and after that I was even more careful.

    Anyway, here’s a Celtic cross at sunset over one of the graves.

  • Here’s Why People Are Working Less

    Via Andrew Van Dam, a new paper tries to estimate why there are fewer people working than in the 90s. Much of this is due to the aging of the workforce, but even among prime working-age people the employment rate is down. Here’s the employment-population ratio for those aged 25-54 since the mid-90s:

    The peak of the dotcom boom is probably not the right comparison, but even if you use the mid-90s more generally as a baseline, about 2-3 percent of the working-age population has dropped out of the workforce over the past two decades. Why? Here’s what the authors came up with:

    For practical purposes, the entire story is China and automation. The other three factors had a minimal effect, and the following things had no effect:

    • SNAP (food stamp) expansions
    • Obamacare/Medicaid
    • More generous EITC
    • Increased rates of spousal employment
    • Increased difficulties due to lack of family leave
    • Expanded immigration
    • Decline in unionization

    The China effect is a one-off phenomenon, and it’s pretty much over. We’ve lost all the jobs we’re going to lose. Automation, however, is just getting started. I don’t personally expect it to have a big impact in the near future, but starting in the mid 2020s I think it will. This is the biggest economic challenge of the next few decades.

  • The Stock Market Depends on Consumer Spending, Not Just Tech

    Yesterday the Wall Street Journal said the stock market would be sucking if not for the tech sector:

    Three technology titans have powered nearly half of the S&P 500’s advance this year, a worrying sign for investors expecting a strengthening economy to lift shares of manufacturers, oil companies and other firms whose fortunes typically improve with growth.

    The S&P 500 technology sector has driven more than three quarters of the index’s gains, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices. The next biggest contributor is the consumer-discretionary sector—which includes tech-focused Amazon and Netflix—with more than a third of the advance.

    If you look at a few weeks of performance, you’ll always find something to worry about. Here’s what a few S&P sectors look like for the past six months:

    Tech is doing great, but so are financials and the consumer discretionary sector—which does include Amazon, but is overwhelmingly standard consumer stuff like Disney and Comcast and McDonalds. And consumer durables have been kicking ass for the entire past year.

    I don’t know how long this will keep up, but the market isn’t about to crater as soon as tech stocks come back down to earth. It’s going to crater if the Fed doesn’t allow middle-class earnings to rise and consumers stop spending. This is one sense in which the stock market really is a proxy for the entire economy.