Friday, April 18, 2014

Down Is Up at Reuters

Did you hear about the odd chart that ran on Business Insider, though it was created by a Reuters graphic artist?

This graph accompanied a BI story about gun deaths in Florida after the passage of the nation's first Stand Your Ground law. The text of the story makes it clear that deaths went up suddenly after the law passed. But looking at the chart, you would think just the opposite happened.

That's because the Y axis runs in the opposite direction than it does conventionally. Here's a version submitted to BI that fixes it:

Oh, right, there's a spike after the law passes, not a decline.

Was this just a ploy to make it look as though the law decreased violence, kind of like the Fox News graph that truncated the ACA enrollments so it looked like hardly any had happened?

No, it appears to be a case of an incompetent graphic artist. Reuters designer Christine Chan said on Twitter that she was inspired by this graphic, which depicts the death toll of the Iraq war:

(click to see it larger)

Which would be all well and good, except for several major differences:

  • The Iraq art is a bar graph, not a fever graph. The many bars, with their rounded ends, look like dripping blood, which of course goes down, not up, and therefore makes the inversion make sense. Chan's fever graph, with its black line and big black dots at the data points, doesn't look like blood. There's no reason for it to be upside down.
  • The Iraq graph puts the Y axis labels at the top to call the reader's attention to it and make the inversion more obvious. Chan's does not.
  • The Iraq graph puts other graphs, in gray, over the white space, making it clear that white = background and red = foreground. On Chan's Stand Your Ground graph, it's reasonable for readers to see the white as foreground since there is no reason not to, given the usual up-down conventions used in graphs. 
 This is where an editor should have stepped in and required changes to the graph.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Hoping for a Speedy Recovery, Diane Ravitch

Education historian Diane Ravitch, author of Reign of Error, took a fall a few days ago and is probably going to have to have total knee replacement. She's cancelling pretty much all of her public schedule for the next few months.

Get well soon, Diane!

In the meantime, a photo of two of my favorite hell-raising women together in February:

(This way we can be sure they are not the same person. Except Photoshop. Hmmm.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

More on the Case for Government Programs

If you haven't yet taken the bait from one of my recent posts mentioning writer Matt Bruenig, here's another chance. He recently published a piece called The one part of the charity vs. social welfare argument that everyone ignores.

It's about status quo bias and the effect it has on policy debates. Basically, it's harder to take away a benefit than it is to prevent one from being given because "the way things are" has a lot of power with the human brain.

My favorite quote:

If you believe, as most claim to, that the aged and infirm should not die hungry on the streets, why exactly would you want to take their existing public benefits from them, give the money to other people instead, and then hope that those other people give it right back to the aged and infirm through charity? Even if it did somehow work out as planned, it would be a whole bunch of work to arrive at the same outcome.
That's based on not only status quo bias, but also on the efficiency argument.

A couple of other recent pieces on the question of the best way to provide a humane life to the most people:

Does Christianity really prefer charity to government welfare? "While often overlooked, there is a strong Christian case for their coexistence." By Elizabeth Stoker.

The Voluntarism Fantasy. "Conservatives dream of returning to a world where private charity fulfilled all public needs. But that world never existed—and we’re better for it." By Mike Konczal.
...the Great Recession offers the perfect case study in why the voluntary sector can’t solve these problems. If people like [Utah Congressman] Mike Lee are correct, then the start of the Great Recession would have been precisely the moment when private charity would have stepped up. But in fact, private giving fell as the Great Recession started. Overall giving fell 7 percent in 2008, with another 6.2 percent drop in 2009. There was only a small uptick in 2010 and 2011, even though unemployment remained very high. Giving also fell as a percentage of GDP (even as GDP shrank), from 2.1 percent in 2008 to 2.0 percent in 2009 through 2011.
The problems of philanthropic insufficiency were on parade in that example. But there are also philanthropic particularlism (giving to the "deserving" is common, for instance) and philanthropic paternalism. "As the judge Richard Posner once wrote, a charitable foundation “is a completely irresponsible institution, answerable to nobody” that closely resembles a hereditary monarchy. Why would we put our entire society’s ability to manage the deadly risks we face in the hands of such a creature?"

Plus my earlier ruminations on the question of private charity vs. government programs.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

These Problems Are About Policy

The first time I read Eli Saslow's now-Pulitzer-winning article on a family that gets by using government programs, including SNAP (food stamps), I was a bit depressed by the reality of it. The family just seemed like they weren't trying to get out of the trap they were in.

The second time I read it, though, several passages stood out that are both more important and more actionable. The mother in the family, Raphael Richmond, who is 41, has six children of her own (ages 11 to 25) and also feeds other kids from the neighborhood and her extended family.

Only once, when [Raphael] was in her early 30s, had she lived without government assistance. She had moved her children into a two-bedroom apartment near the Southwest waterfront and signed a lease for $925, working as a home health aide during the day and as a prep cook at RFK Stadium at night. "Climbing the ladder," she said, but then came the reality of what that meant. The increase in her income disqualified her from food stamps, and buying food with cash left nothing to pay the gas bill, and cutting off the heat made the winter seem endless, and the combination of the cold house and the 60-hour workweeks aggravated her arthritis, damaged her heart and compelled her to quit work and apply for disability.

After nine months, she packed three duffel bags and took a bus to the homeless shelter. Her family spent two months in the shelter and two years in transitional housing and then received a voucher for a four-bedroom house in Anacostia with a leaky ceiling and a front-porch view of a highway underpass. The subsidized rent was $139 a month.
This bit of detail points up a problem that is fixable. Why don't we figure out how to better cushion those transition points when benefits cut out, so people can continue to make progress to self-sufficiency, rather than driving them back to survival mode?

The other passages concern Raphael's daughter Tiara:
For 22 years, Tiara had successfully avoided what she referred to as the "ghetto woman traps." She had arrived at adulthood single and childless, a talented musician with a high school diploma and a clean record - "a miracle," Raphael called her. And yet none of those successes had earned her anything like stability, and she had little in her life that qualified as support. Her mother, fearing the next trip to the emergency room, had made her the default guardian for four younger siblings. Her absentee father, a Puerto Rican, had given her nothing but smooth brown skin, soft dreadlocks and, with some reluctance a few years earlier, a phone number where he could be reached in case of emergencies. Believing her life consisted of one long emergency, Tiara had called him the next day, only to learn the number was fake.

At the moment, the only "options" she could list for her caseworker were the new EBT card with her name on it and a food training class hosted by DC Central Kitchen. The class was free, but it was also three months of training that didn't guarantee a job. The class flier had been sitting on the kitchen table for weeks. "Must be able to lift 50 pounds," it read. Must stand for hours. Must work in a noisy environment.
The ads made it sound so easy to get a job in the budding economic recovery of 2013—"Hiring now!" one read; "Start tomorrow!" promised another—but recent experience made Tiara believe she had better odds "playing lotto," she said. The unemployment rate in Ward 8 was 24 percent, triple the national average, and there were an estimated 13 job seekers for every open position. She had been offered a security job, but first the company wanted $500 to train her. Marriott had openings at a new hotel, but the application required her to submit a background check online. So she had gone to the police station and paid $9 for a form showing that she had no criminal record. And then enrolled with a nonprofit group that gave out free computers and scanners, since the ones at the nearby library always seemed to be broken. And then learned that she could only pick up the computer in Rockville, four bus transfers and a Metro ride away.

The latest advice from a caseworker assigned to help with her job search was to "make a list of options" and "stay prayerful"...
Yeah, stay prayerful, Tiara. That'll help. But not as much as if we were using the federal tax dollars that go to subsidize oil companies, agribusiness, and other big corporations to instead fund a jobs program like CETA.

These problems are about policy. As Matt Bruenig points out, single motherhood doesn't have to cause child poverty. That's something we as a society let happen.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Immigration Detention: An Invisible Assault

A young woman named Cynthia Diaz is on a hunger strike in front of the White House. She's going hungry to protest the detention and incarceration of her mother, who was picked up by Immigration and Customers Enforcement in May 2011.

Watching this interview with Diaz on Melissa Harris Perry's show Saturday was painful. Did you know that mothers with legal-resident and citizen children and husbands are being held in prisons for nothing more than having come into the country or overstayed a visa?

Adding to the Diaz story was the report in Sunday's Star Tribune that ICE in Minnesota contracts with jails that put detainees in with the general jail population, including the case of one 18-year-old man who was housed with a sex offender who repeatedly molested him.

Sherburne County, a northern exurban county, makes money by renting its underutilized (taxpayer-funded) jail space to ICE. It has 85 ICE detainees, 183 other federal prisoners, and 136 state (not county) prisoners. Sherburne County is paid over $11 million a year for all this incarceration, with about $900,000 in profit. Who needs private prisons when counties can make the profits instead, right?

According to the Strib,
The 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, which passed Congress unanimously, set a “zero-tolerance standard” for prison rape. It created guidelines to hold correctional facilities accountable for protecting inmates.

Until recently, though, the rules didn’t govern immigration detention facilities overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.
The story goes on to say,
ICE does not prohibit the mingling of its detainees with prisoners, including at its contracted facilities like those in Minnesota.... Pat Carr, Sherburne County’s jail commander, said the jail’s classification officers make a determination about who can be put in the same cell.

Carr said the staff will take action if informed that detainees are threatened. Detainees can report threats or accusations of abuse directly to staff, through a telephone hot line, through ICE grievances and communication forms, Sherburne County grievance forms, and in letters to the jail administration or to ICE.
Yet the young man in this case was left in the same sell with sex offender for eight days after he complained of the abuse, according to the Strib.

The 2 millionth person to be "detained" since Barack Obama became president was picked up last month, according to 1,010 people per day. That's more than were picked up in all the years of George W. Bush's presidency.

This all-but-invisible assault on common decency has to stop. It not only does no good, it actively does harm to millions of people and their families.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

An ACA Anecdote

At dinner last night with a friend I haven't seen in about 10 years, the conversation turned to the effects of the Affordable Care Act. She's been self-employed for decades, so I wondered what she had done since the launch of MNsure.

She signed up in October, she said, having some trouble with the website, but not having any difficulty figuring out which plan she wanted. So she contacted the company directly and signed up, no problem. That way of signing up is possible for anyone who isn't eligible for subsidies. Because of her method, she's not sure if she's been counted in the state's enrollment numbers.

She had been paying $400 a month for a plan with a 20 percent deductible. Because she is about to turn 55, she had been told that the cost under her old plan would be going up to $700 a month.

Her new coverage under the ACA still has the 20 percent deductible, but costs her $325 a month. So she's saving either $75 a month or $375 a month, depending on how you look at it.

That's my contribution to the "plural of anecdotes equals data" effort.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Dinosaurs Afloat

From the National Geographic Twitter account @theretronaut:

Showing a barge moving the Sinclair Oil dinosaur statues that populated the company's display at the 1964 World's Fair in New York.

I was 4 years old during the fair, and was a fan of the Sinclair "brontosaurus."


An earlier encounter with the World's Fair.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Few Recent Photos

A few glimpses of life from recent weeks.

It hadn't occurred to me before how much those magnetic pseudo-ribbons look like the stolls that are often part of religious vestments.

An honor, I'm sure. Seen in downtown Saint Paul.

It's not clear to me which is worse, the typo or the line break that gives us Organic Granny / Smith Apple.

The beautiful entrance sign to the Walker Art Center's Jim Hodges exhibit.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What to Think About that 77 Percent Figure

In all the discussions recently about the wage gap between men and women, the figure 77 cents on the dollar is often cited, including by President Obama this week.

Many commentators (examples: this guy from the Washington Post and Josh Barro on MSNBC) have said the 77 percent number is wrong because it doesn't compare the salaries of people working at the same job. Women take time off to take care of children, women don't go into lucrative careers, and so on, so it's apples and oranges.

Three researchers from the Institute for Women's Policy Research explain here why 77 percent is a reasonable number to use. It's not the most conservative way to look at it, no. But there are lots of other ways to compare wages that come out much worse -- one that finds women earn as little as 38 percent of what men earn.

What the 77 percent number compares is women and men who work full time, all year, including bonuses. It's not the only way to talk about it, but it is a reasonable way.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Canning the Logo

Well, the proposed Austin logo is no more. After a hearing Monday, the city council canned it (pun intended).

According to the Star Tribune, the mayor said he's never had as many calls on any other issue. Good to know the citizens of Austin have their priorities straight. Or maybe it's just a really well-run place where nothing important ever goes wrong.

The story also had a few more details on the logo they were trying to replace when they started this whole thing. It not only has a tree, but also features the enticing tag line, "Growing Together." Wow, that sure sets them apart from other cities.

Instead of adopting the proposed design, the city plans to have a contest to create a new logo.

Oh, boy. Can't wait to see what that results in.


Here are my earlier thoughts on the Austin logo.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Chalk Up Another One to Pareidolia

Am I the only one who sees a face in this bag?

And a grim clowny face it is.


My previous mention of pareidolia.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Tabs Tabs Tabs

The drugging of the American boy from Esquire. "By the time they reach high school, nearly 20 percent of all American boys will be diagnosed with ADHD. Millions of those boys will be prescribed a powerful stimulant to 'normalize' them. A great many of those boys will suffer serious side effects from those drugs. The shocking truth is that many of those diagnoses are wrong, and that most of those boys are being drugged for no good reason—simply for being boys. It's time we recognize this as a crisis."

The function of black rage by Mychal Denzel Smith from the Nation. "What some call depression or pessimism, I would call impatience and rage. Our impatience and rage is what has produced progress. That we are still impatient and angry reflects not black people’s failing but how far America still has to go. My question/challenge to white people who claim to be on the side of equality and justice: when will you get just as angry that these things have been done in your name?"

What I Learned About Stop-and-Frisk From Watching My Black Son from the Atlantic. "If we truly believe that a tax [like stop and frisk] must be imposed in order to control crime, then we should all share in the burden of that tax. We should not take the easy and unfair route of imposing the tax on someone else—especially when that someone else is already overburdened." Counterbalance that with another Atlantic article, Is Stop-and-Frisk Worth It? The author of the second article was on MPR's The Daily Circuit today. He came off as more pro-stop-and-frisk on the radio than he seems in the article, which conveniently made no mention of the lead poisoning/crime connection. It was 45 minutes that were bad for my blood pressure, although the callers were a bright spot.

How to shave $1 trillion out of health care from the New York Times blog by Victor Fuchs, professor emeritus of economics and health research and policy at Stanford. Fuchs enumerates the good we could do if the U.S. paid the same percent of its GDP for health care as other developed countries. With just half of the trillion dollars, we could:

  • Increase expenditures on highways, bridges, tunnels, and other infra-structure by 50 percent. Annual cost: $100 billion
  • Increase annual salaries of K-12 teachers by an average of $25,000. Annual cost: $100 billion
  • Fund a two-year apprenticeship program for one million men and women ages 17-24. Annual cost $80 billion.
  • Provide a first-class pre-school experience for all four-year olds. Annual cost: $80 billion
  • Provide additional teachers for arts, music, math and physical education in K-12 and expand counseling in high schools. Annual cost: $70 billion.
  • Fund R&D for renewable sources of energy. Annual cost: $40 billion.
  • Fund R&D for waste disposal (including nuclear) and reduction of pollution. Annual cost: $20 billion
  • Fund after school sports programs for young people 8-18. Annual cost: $10 billion.
The big myth about income inequality that just won't die by Matt Bruenig. "Conservatives want you to believe other people's wealth doesn't affect you. It does."

And finally, I've been waiting to write something about Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty is a French economist who has spent decades studying capital accumulation. His book was recently published in English. Its basic finding is that people who make money from money will always come out ahead of everyone else when national economic growth is relatively low. And that the divergence of the wealthy from everyone else is bad for democracy. The book had gotten a lot of attention and some critique:
Here's another link to a Piketty post, this one by Matt Yglesias on the new Vox site. Yglesias does a nice job of summarizing the book, including these four main points:
  • The ratio of wealth to income is rising in all developed countries.
  • Absent extraordinary interventions, we should expect that trend to continue.
  • If it continues, the future will look like the 19th century, where economic elites have predominantly inherited their wealth rather than working for it.
  • The best solution would be a globally coordinated effort to tax wealth.