Joe the Plumber: about 2 minutes left

Joe the Plumber's 15 minutes are rapidly coming to a conclusion.  Yesterday's Post had a brilliantly scathing description of his Washington DC book-signing of which all of 11 people showed up.  Something tells me, it won't be long before you can get Joe the Plumber: Fighting for the American Dream for a couple of bucks in the remainder bin.  Some highlights:

About 11 people wandered into the rows of seats set up hopefully in the
basement of a downtown Border's bookstore to hear Joe speak. Joe
addressed them from behind a lectern and with a microphone, but that
seemed unnecessarily formal…

 Now, only a few months later, he's kind of like a vestigial tail, a
leftover artifact from a forgotten time. He's Clara Peller, Willie
Horton or Gennifer Flowers — names that are the questions in a
"Jeopardy!" category called "Presidential Campaign Distractions."…

Joe replied that he believes "our American heritage is being torn
apart" by flag burners, critics of the military, and those who mock
Christian values. He expressed his admiration for patriotic immigrants,
and said he dislikes terms like African American and Asian American
("We're all Americans," he said). For some reason, he concluded by
saying, "America has always been a kick-butt, take-names kind of

Wurzelbacher was scheduled to speak and sign books for three hours,
but the Joe Show was over in 55 minutes. Total copies of "Joe the
Plumber" sold: five.

I almost feel sorry for him.  


The budget

How great to read about a president's budget and actually get excited.  Universal health care by making really rich people pay more taxes, who would've thunk?  I'm short on time, but Paul Krugman's got a spot-on take today.


Sexist men?

Salon's Rebecca Traister has a great takedown of some new research that shows, astoundingly, that men objectify women in bikinis!.  The horror.  Traister:

Researchers performed brain scans on 21 heterosexual men and found that
such sexy images light up the part of their brains associated with
tools or other things that "you manipulate with your hands" (like,
boobs!). Lead researcher Susan Fiske of Princeton University said
"it's as if they immediately thought to act on theses bodies" and
observed, "They're reacting to these women as if they're not fully

The study doesn't suggest that men philosophically determine all
scantily clad women to be "things," treat bikini-wearing women like
objects or are incapable of seeing women as both sexual and
animate. It simply found that a barely there get-up meant to display
the female body tends to trigger in men a simplistic sexual response…

Another of the study's the-sky-is-blue findings is that of the array of
images shown to the men — including shots of fully clothed men and
women — they most remembered the photos of the half-naked women. Also
unsurprising, although interesting nonetheless, is that men who were
deemed to be "hostile sexists" based on their answers to a
questionnaire showed no activity in the region of the brain associated
with "social cognition" when viewing snapshots of the beach-ready
women. In other words: Men with loads of anger toward the opposite sex
"are not thinking about [the women's] minds," said Fiske. Sadly, much
of the media coverage I've seen has generalized that finding to suggest
that it was generally true for the male subjects.

There's been lots of really interesting research on the brain and sex and differences in response between men and women (see Bonk by Mary Roach), but this particular research, seems to tell us little other than the authors' political agenda. 

Angry White Men

My Congressman, David Price of NC's 4th District, has been holding a series of Town Hall meetings this week, so I thought it would be interesting to head to the meeting in Cary last night.  It was fascinating as both a Political Scientist and amateur sociologist.  My observations:

  • As you might gather from the title of this post, if there was any overall theme, it was lots of middle-aged and older angry white men.  The typical questioner of Rep Price was a white guy much more interested in a libertarian rant against government than asking any questions.  I was surprised nobody asked about the gold standard.
  • A little learning is a dangerous thing.  What was so fascinating and disturbing was the number of people who had just picked up on GOP talking points from Rush, Sean Hannity, etc., but had actually no idea what they were talking about.  "This stimulus is just the first step to the government taking over our health care!"  As any intelligent reader of this blog knows, we need way more government involvement in health care, but the stimulus bill's funding of comparative efficacy research is not exactly that (see this one of Ezra Klein's many great posts on the matter).  If I had asked Price a question it would have been, "how can you keep listening to these morons and be so civil about it?"
  • Cary is not the most diverse community around, but it was pretty amazing to see a room of roughly 400 people and probably no more than 5% non-White.  It was also interesting that while
  • Though the questions actually were mostly from angry men, the audience was probably 30-40% men, but no more than 20% of the people in line to ask questions were women.  Just thought the willingness (or desire) to ask a question in this environment showed an interesting gender difference.  

I had brought a magazine in case I got bored, but it was really interesting just listening to all this and seeing how Price responded.  Some of the questioners were really quite obnoxious and I was surprised at the amounts of both boos and cheers I heard from the audience.  All around great political fun.


Watching Walmart grow

This is really cool– shows the opening of Walmart stores over time.  I enjoyed pinpointing the opening of the Lubbock, TX stores I used to shop at.

There's also a map of the growth of Target.  It is quite interesting to see the different approaches of the two companies.  

Textbook prices

It so happens that on the very same day I came across Andrew Gelman's musing on outrageous textbook prices I received a brand new examination copy of an American Government textbook by FedEx overnight.  There was absolutely no time pressure on my receiving this book and I didn't even ask for one.  Furthermore, I know several other people who also got there overnight 5 pound textbook.  Surely, that's not chearp.  There's all sorts of reasons textbooks are so expensive– I think one of the biggest is that so many faculty pay little attention to cost when assigning books.  I'm not perfect, but given that there are probably at least a dozen truly high American Government textbooks out there, cost is among by highest considerations for that class, which has the most expensive books.  (They always seem to stick it to students with Intro level books).  One of Gelman's commenters actually links to an interesting report on textbook prices.  Anyway, the wasteful spending of publisher's marketing divisions has to surely be up there as reasons for the outrageous prices.    Not that I'll be turning down my free lunch from a publisher tomorrow :-). 


Faith-based policy

I'm teaching Public Policy this semester, so I've been thinking more than usual about the pathologies of policy-making in this country.  What I think Congressional Republicans have indisputably demonstrated with the stimulus bill is that their fundamental approach to public policy is "faith-based" not evidence-based.  They simply take it as a matter of faith that tax cuts are the solutions to all economic problems when elementary policy analysis quite obviously shows this not to be the case.  The evidence is simply overwhelming that government spending targeted towards those with low incomes and towards infrastructure is far more stimulative than tax cuts for the well-off (e.g., "fixing" the alternative minimum tax, which benefits wholly the upper middle class and above).  Yet, all we hear is tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts.  Harold Meyerson had a great take on this in the Post on-line yesterday:

 The current form of Republican inflexibility dates to the
dissolution of the Soviet Union: With the end of the Cold War, the
GOP’s signature issue — anti-communism — was no more. Republicans
quickly discovered that the only other issue they all agreed on was
cutting taxes.

So George W. Bush called for tax cuts to deal with the dangerous
budget surpluses that Bill Clinton had been running, and then called
for tax cuts to close the deficit his earlier tax cuts had created. He
proposed tax cuts to finance his war in Iraq. And in that same spirit,
defeated presidential nominee John McCain, in his Republican
alternative to the Democrats’ stimulus bill, called for nothing but tax
cuts to remedy the current meltdown and complained that the Democrats
were calling for spending, not stimulus. Never mind that no reputable
economist believes that tax cuts get money into circulation as
effectively as government spending does. The Republicans’ belief in tax
cuts is beyond the realm of empirical argument. Data do not daunt them,
nor facts compel reflection.

Of course, there are many other areas of policy where Republicans are not interested in letting facts or data get in their way (e.g., global warming, health care, everything), too, but this is certainly the most obvious case right now.  

Pharmaceutical companies are evil (Part MCXII)

Apparently the stimulus bill includes just over a billion in funding to study the comparative efficacy of medical treatments.  Makes perfect sense in a sensible world– i.e., let's focus our resources on treatments that work best and not waste resources on less effective treatments and drugs.  Of course, that's anathema to the pharmaceutical industry and apparently they are doing all they can to stop it (h/t Kevin Drum).  They'd prefer we keep wasting our money on less effective drugs as long as they can sell them for a profit.  

Of course, what's seriously disturbing is that even when we clearly know which treatments are more effective, the drug lobby can still have their way (via Ezra Klein a while back):

The study cost $130,000,000 and included 42,000 patients. It compared
the effectiveness of four types of blood pressure drugs: a calcium
channel blocker, an alpha blocker, an ACE inhibitor, and a simple
diuretic. The diuretic performed best. It was the sort of finding
worthy of celebration. Health costs are too high, and rising too quick.
Our flabby society gets bad readings when it straps on the blood
pressure cuff, and soon enough we'll all be on these drugs. And here
were study results saying that the diuretic, a generic drug which sells
for pennies, outperformed its pricey, patented competitors. So what
happened? Not a whole lot…

Diuretics sales jumped, but only by a few percentage points. "[They]
should have more than doubled," says Curt Furberg, who chaired the
study. And in a world where doctors prescribe medications based on a
simple reading of the latest evidence, maybe they would have doubled.
But we don't live in that world. We live in a world where
pharmaceutical companies have big budgets and sophisticated public
relations teams…

 The basic reality was this: The pharmaceutical companies had a skilled
team and a lot of money promoting their drugs. No one was promoting the
generic diuretics. Folks looking to things like comparative
effectiveness review to save the health care system should take the
story seriously. Evidence is only effective if physicians use it.

Obviously, a lot needs to be done to reign in the power of the pharmaceutical companies.  They do, of course, do a lot of good (my son Alex would have daily seizures if not for them), but put far too much effort in creating a worthless new drug, E.g., Clarinex, because the previous version, Claritin, just went generic. 

Fair and Balanced

Of course no serious person takes Fox News seriously, but the degree to which they are truly little more than the media arm of the Republican party is breathtaking.  To wit (via Media Matters):



Fox passes off GOP press release as its own
research — typo and all

Summary: In purporting to "take a look back"
at how the economic recovery plan "grew, and grew, and grew," Fox
News' Jon Scott referenced seven dates, as on-screen graphics cited various
news sources from those time periods — all of which came directly from a
Senate Republican Communications Center press release. A Fox News on-screen
graphic even reproduced a typo contained in the Republican press release.

I guess the primary reason to get your news from Fox news instead of RNC press releases is that at least you get video to go with it.  



Centrism and stimulus

I haven't been following the stimulus debate quite as closely as I should, but from all accounts it is pretty clear that the Senate "compromise" worked out by the "centrists" is 1) probably dumb and 2) certainly arbitrary.  I'll farm it out to Ezra Klein:

But the gang of job-cutters — to steal Dean Baker's elegant formulation
— hasn't justified their cuts on grounds of either size or efficacy.
Why is $900 billion a stimulus package they would have to oppose, but
$800 billion is a stimulus package they can support? There's been no
explanation for the superiority of $800 billion against $600 billion,
or even against $1.2 trillion. Nelson has not argued that the likely
output gap over the next two years has been overstated in CBO estimates
— and way overstated by Goldman-Sachs' estimates — and thus the stimulus is too large for our purposes.

Nor have they argued that the $40 billion in state aid and $20
billion in school construction will be less stimulative than the $70
billion Alternative Minimum Tax patch, of which exactly 0.5% goes
towards the bottom 60 percent of the income distribution (which are, of
course, the folks most in need of relief, and most likely to spend it

In fact, they haven't really argued anything at all. Rather, it's
been a dazzling display of the most analytically bankrupt strain of
centrism: The belief that the right answer lies, by definition,
somewhere between the answers that are already on the table. The
Nelson-Collins bill hasn't been justified in terms of virtues so much
as in terms of abstract numerical positioning. It's a neat trick, and
widely applicable. If one party announced a bill mandating that all
Americans must bathe themselves in mud and brambles, and the other
party opposed the "Mud and Brambles Bathing Act of 2009," Collins and
Nelson would be right there to explain that the American people are
tired of dogma and interest group politics and they have brokered a
compromise mandating that all Americans take a monthly mud and brambles
shower instead.

Ezra also links to this comic which wonderfully sums it up:


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