Quick hits (part II)

1) In Madison, Wisconsin they actually invested in replacing in lead pipes before they caused any trouble.  Alas, most cities are not willing to make the investment until it’s too late.

2) Terrific interview with a food safety expert.  I especially resent the way in which public health is held hostage to interest group politics in this area:

If salmonella is so problematic, why hasn’t the government protected consumers from it? 

There’s a case that goes back to the 1970s, American Health Association (AHA) vs. Earl Butz, who was the secretary of agriculture under President Nixon. The AHA didn’t even know about E. coli 0157, the kind that gets people really sick, back then. They were focused on salmonella, and they wanted to put a label on it that said ‘hey consumer, you need to cook this,’ and the meat industry went nuts, they said no way we’re not going to do this. So the AHA sued the government because they thought it was necessary, and the government sided with the industry, and in essence said it was a naturally occurring bacterium on meat, which is untrue, and housewives—this is actually in the case, I swear—know how to cook it, what to do to make this food safe. That mentality is just below the surface in the meat industry, whether it’s the beef, chicken, or any other facet. That sort of mentality that there’s really nothing we can do about it, and it’s really the consumer that is at fault if anybody gets sick, it’s their problem. This is exactly the argument that the industry waged in 1994, with E. coli, but there the government changed its tone because there were 700 people who got sick and 4 children who died, and it was kind of hard to ignore that.

3) On the “ag gag” law in North Carolina.  Damn it, business should be free to do any sort of horrible thing they want without fear that somebody might surreptitiously record them doing so and thereby possibly face accountability.  Thanks to NC Republicans for standing up for important values.

4) You don’t need me to tell you how amazingly unserious Republican presidential candidates are on foreign policy.  But Fred Kaplan will.

5) Just some social science showing that men are (not surprisingly) absurdly over-confident, as compared to women.

6) Howard Dean and Iowa will remain one of my favorite anecdotes to explain the role of expectations and media coverage for years to come.  So many people just don’t get what happened.  Nate Silver and friends do.  Good stuff.

7) Republicans seem to think high-deductible health plans are cure-alls for health care costs.  Evidence strongly suggests otherwise (when has that ever affected Republican legislators?).  That said, we can be much smarter about how we use deductibles.  Nice piece in the Upshot:

Some health economists say the solution to the problem may be smarter but more complicated forms of health insurance that provide patients with important care free, but charge them for treatments with fewer proven benefits. Mr. Chernew, for one, argues that ordinary deductibles are too “blunt” an instrument, but smarter insurance plans could harness economic incentives to reduce wasteful health spending without discouraging needed care. If such plans held down costs as well as deductibles, they could keep insurance affordable without as many risks. The theory behind such plans is compelling, but given how bad people are at shopping for health care, more empirical evidence is needed to know how well it works in practice.

8) What were the people at Simon Fraser University in Canada thinking when they thought this video was remotely appropriate?

9) Digging into the Iowa polls suggests trouble ahead for Ted Cruz.

10) Nice Op-Ed about the current government in NC and among other things, their disdain for public education.  And and N&O Editorial on our “teacher shortage by design.”

 

11) Interesting essay on how we shouldn’t judge people with “tramp stamps” and how we definitely shouldn’t call them that.  Am I a bad person if I’m not convinced?  Anyway, this statistics was really suprising:

For the first time in decades, women are more likely to have tattoos than men. In 2013,47 percent of women under 35 reported having a tattoo, compared with only 25 percent of men. And this rising demographic isn’t solely due to the trendiness of tattoo culture.

12) Lee Drutman reviews Rick Hasen’s new book on campaign finance and suggests we really need to move away from “corruption” and re-think about how we conceptualize the problem.

13) On how Hillary Clinton actually properly used social science in her get-out-the-vote efforts in Iowa (unlike Ted Cruz).

14) This summary of evidence on learning says highlighting and re-reading is a waste of time.  I’m very familiar with the evidence that says testing yourself is the best way to study (and I emphasize this to my students), but I cannot imagine pulling off the grades I did without marking (in the margins, actual highlights take way too long) and re-reading key passages in texts.

15) Vox interviewed some political scientists on the electability of Cruz and Trump.  Masket says Cruz is more electable than Trump, and I’m with him:

Masket said he recognized that Trump is more moderate on some issues than Cruz. But while Cruz may have more extreme policy positions, he is the better candidate, because Trump could really drive away Republican elites and voters.

Masket pointed to several issues in particular on which this group regards Trump as fundamentally unreliable: the social safety net, the military, abortion, and taxes.

“A large number of more ‘establishment’ Republican elites may bolt the party and support a third party candidate should Trump win a majority of delegates. Even if that doesn’t happen, a sizable number of Republicans might simply not vote,” Masket said in an email.

He didn’t argue that Cruz is a great general election candidate. But since Cruz has proven consistently conservative, he would at least be able to unite the Republican Party and ensure that its voters go to the ballot box.

“[Cruz] is basically in line with the party on most of its key issues,” Masket said. “Nominating him could put them at a slight disadvantage due to his extremism, but there’s little chance of him actually splitting the party.”

I sure would love for it to be either of them, though, because no doubt they would fare worse than Rubio (or anybody else from the “establishment” lane).

16) This Vox article on potential mosquito eradication frames it as bad news that the best estimates suggesting we could have the biotechnology for widespread mosquito eradication in 3-5 years.  WTF?  That kind of technology within even 10 years would be unbelievable awesome and save so many lives.

17) Beautiful example of motivated reasoning in action.  Somehow, most all Democrats are better off than 8 years ago today and most Republicans are worse off.  I actually am better off.  Or maybe I’m only imagining it because I’m a Democrat.

Chart of the day

Interesting recent Wonkblog post on how the gap in school performance between boys and girls (girls outperforming boys K-12 has been a widely documented phenomenon) shrinks dramatically as the quality of the school improves:

It’s obvious from this chart that test scores are higher at the better-ranked schools. That’s why the dots slope upward to the right. The better the school, the higher the test scores.

What’s striking is the difference between the test scores of boys and girls, and how it widens at lower-quality schools. At the best schools in Florida, boys and girls are on equal footing. At the worst schools in Florida, the boys fall behind the girls…

To prove that the school environment itself has been causing boys to fall behind, the economists compared brothers and sisters who went to the same school. Siblings are more similar than strangers, since they usually grow up in the same household, were exposed to the same things, and had access to the same resources.

Furthermore, since their previous research has shown that boys are more sensitive than girls to family disadvantages, the economists also controlled for that fact in their statistical tests. They accounted for how poverty, low mother’s education, bad neighborhood quality, and a slew of other factors widen the gender gap. They also examined families that moved school districts to see how the same children fared at different schools.

After stripping away all the alternative explanations, the economists found that the schools themselves do deserve some of the blame for causing boys to suffer academically compared to girls. There’s something about the way that class is conducted at Florida’s worst schools that disadvantages boys. It may have to do with how students are disciplined, or the way that lessons are taught… [emphasis mine]

It’s unlucky enough to be born to a poor family, to grow up in a poor neighborhood and attend bad schools. As recent research shows, it’s doubly unlucky to be a boy facing those circumstances.

Fascinating.  What to do about this?  Unclear.  But recognizing that this is part of the problem is a good start.

 

Quick hits (part II)

1) Vox’s Amanda Taub has come to the same conclusion as me… Trump is using “political correctness” as an excuse for just being a jerk.

2) When you consider how common wisdom teeth extraction is, it almost has to be an overused medical procedure (I had mine out when I was 23 and it took me out of commission for the better part of a week).  What I really want to know is what are the outcomes in poor countries where people are not routinely having these teeth removed (though, surely there’s a lot of confounds with that).  Still, I cannot believe this many Americans have been this poorly served by evolution.

3) Loved this column on how the lead in Flint problem is a direct result of “small government” ideology.

4) Really interesting summary of a new book that focuses on American slavery as a slave breeding industry.

5) Michael Tesler on what a new poll shows about the populist appeal of Trump.

6) NPR story on the new research finding systematic bias against women in teaching evaluations.  I don’t doubt this is a genuine problem we should think about, but I’m still waiting for professors who get good evaluations to say they are worthless and professors with poor evaluations to admit maybe there is some value to them:

“That the situation is Really Complicated,” Philip Stark writes in an email to NPR Ed, and, he adds, it won’t be easy to correct for it. In fact, the authors titled their paper “Student Evaluations of Teaching (Mostly) Do Not Measure Teaching Effectiveness.”

These results seem pretty damning, but not everyone is convinced.

Michael Grant is the vice provost and associate vice chancellor for undergraduate education at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He says there’s a lot of research supporting the effectiveness and usefulness of student evaluations.

“There are multiple, well-designed, thoughtfully conducted studies that clearly contradict this very weakly designed study,” he says, citing this study from 2000 andthis study conducted at his own university. His personal review of student ratings from one department at CU Boulder over nine years did find a bias in favor of men, he says, but it was very small — averaging 0.13 on a 6-point scale.

7) Teller of Penn & Teller was a high school Latin teacher before becoming a famous magician.  His take on how teaching is like performing magic.

8) Some common-sense recommendations for being more humane with how we wean cows.  Good for the cows; good for the farmers; good for the conscience of conflicted meat-eaters.  We really should do far more to ensure that our meat food supply is generated in a humane manner.

9) Really interesting piece on the evolution of single-sex bathrooms:

Today’s most-prominent arguments against inclusive restrooms are remarkably consistent with the Victorian notions that led to sex-segregated bathrooms in the first place. When the ideology of separate spheres for male and female, public and private, the market and the home reigned, the growth of women’s presence in public life led to the desire to protect women from the crude dangers of the male world. Among the legal effects was the 1873 Supreme Court holding in Bradwell v. Illinois that it was not unconstitutional for a state to deny women admission to the bar on the basis of their sex, with a famous concurring opinion that stated, “Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.” The same separate-spheres paternalism led to the designation of certain physical spaces for women apart from those for men, including bathrooms in public venues. These were safe spaces, if you will, tucked in a world in which women were vulnerable. As our society is currently experiencing a resurgence of paternalist concern about women’s sexual vulnerability—especially in the context of that great equalizer, education—it is no surprise that there would also be a new emphasis on the Victorian phenomenon of separate restrooms.

10) Great story on the Virginia Tech professor who was crucial to uncovering the Flint water problems.

11) I’m planning on reading Neurotribes and I expect to learn a lot from it.  That said, based on articles about the book and interviews with the author, the book seems to very much elide how substantially and severely very many people and families are affected by autism.

12) Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on foreign policy of Republican presidential aspirants:

Robert Gates , a Republican stalwart and former US defence secretary who served under eight presidents, has derided the party’s election candidates for a grasp of national security issues that “would embarrass a middle schooler”.

An ex-CIA director who first joined the White House under Richard Nixon, Gates joked that if frontrunner Donald Trump wins the presidency, he would emigrate to Canada. He condemned the media for failing to challenge candidates from both parties on promises he believes are unaffordable, illegal or unconstitutional.

“The level of dialogue on national security issues would embarrass a middle schooler,” Gates said of the Republican contenders at a Politico Playbook event in Washington on Monday . “People are out there making threats and promises that are totally unrealistic, totally unattainable. Either they really believe what they’re saying or they’re cynical and opportunistic and, in a way, you hope it’s the latter because God forbid they actually believe some of the things that they’re saying.” [emphasis mine]

13) Can’t say I’m all that surprised to learn that exercise far surpasses all other treatments in effectively reducing back pain.

14) Loved this John McWhorter piece on how it is not at all simple to separate a language from a dialect.  I had no idea.  It’s been sitting in an open tab deserving it’s own post for too long:

I have a Swedish pal I see at conferences in Denmark. When we’re out and about there, he is at no linguistic disadvantage. He casually orders food and asks directions in Swedish despite the fact that we are in a different country from his own, where supposedly a different “language”—Danish—is spoken. In fact, I’ve watched speakers of Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian conversing with each other, each in their own native tongues, as a cozy little trio over drinks. A Dane who moves to Sweden does not take Swedish lessons; she adjusts to a variation upon, and not an alternate to, her native speech. The speakers of these varieties of Scandinavian consider them distinct languages because they are spoken in distinct nations, and so be it. However, there is nothing about Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian in themselves that classifies them as “languages;” especially on the page, they resemble each other closely enough to look more like dialects of one “language.”

15) Nice Pew summary with cool charts of demographic trends affecting politics.

16) Good piece on how Trump represents a disappearing America from Heather Digby Parton.

17) I want my genetically-modified mosquitoes!  A great way to fight mosquito-borne disease, but facing great resistance from un-trusting populations.  Yes, there’s uncertainties and things could go wrong.  If I lived in an area where people were regularly facing death and debilitation from tropical disease, I’d take the chance.

18) Just finished re-reading Animal Farm for the first time in about 30 years.  What an absolutely delightful and brilliant book.  My only complaint is that it was too short– I didn’t want it to end.

19) Nice Wonkblog summary on what scientific research can tell us about marijuana.  Short version: not a lot to worry about.  There is a reasonable debate to be had about legalizing drugs such as heroin and cocaine (and I’m increasingly of the legalize everything perspective), but with marijuana, it’s hardly even a reasonable debate anymore.  In a country where alcohol is legal, it is preposterous that marijuana is not. Also, the Wonkblog post on the research suggesting that marijuana does not, after all, affect IQ from teenage use (not that I’ll be giving it to my own teenagers any time soon).

20)And your Sunday long-read– terrific piece from John Judis on Trump, Sanders, and the meaning of populism in America.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Maybe we should be prescribing more medical marijuana and less opioids.  Seriously.

So the evidence suggests marijuana is good for treating chronic pain without any huge side effects.

What about opioids? While there is research that opioids effectively treat acute pain, there is no good evidence for their treatment of chronic pain.

2) I was annoyed at this piece arguing that there’s no such thing as a “healthy” food, only “nutritious” food where the author claimed this was not just a semantic distinction.  No, really it is.  In common usage, kale is healthy and sugar cookies are not and we all know what that means.  So, sure a zoologist might complain when you say that a snake is “poisonous”– it’s not, it’s venomous, but we all know to stay away from the bite.

3) A critic’s tour of David Bowie’s musical changes.  Yes, Bowie did some really good stuff, but from my FB feed, you would have thought all the Beatles and Rolling Stones died at one time.

4) Here’s actually my favorite David Bowie appearance ever.  From the much under-appreciated Extras.

5) Max Fisher on Bernie Sanders’ problems on foreign policy.

 

6) Drum argues that Republicans are going way too easy on Donald Trump.  He seems to have a point.

7) It’s become quite the truism that NFL coaches are way over-cautious.  Still, an enjoyable analysis looking at recent playoff games.  And the last minutes of the Green Bay game in regulation was amazing.

8) Carly Fiorina turns pre-school field trip into anti-abortion event.

9) There’s so many damn https://news.ncsu.edu/2016/01/bertone-home-arthropod-2016/ in your home (and probably even more in mine).  NC State behind this cool research.

10) Drum on Trump and “two Corinthians”

Now, nobody with a brain has ever believed that Donald Trump is a Christian in any serious sense. I don’t think he could pass a third-grade test of Bible knowledge. But today’s gaffe, as trivial as it seems, suggests more: that he literally has paid no attention to Christianity at all. In fact, given how hard that is in a country as awash in religious references as the United States, it suggests much more: Donald Trump has spent most of his life actively trying to avoid religion as completely as possible. And yet, apparently evangelicals love him anyway. Go figure.

11) And some first-rate Trump satire.

12) The myth of limited resources to support NC education.

13) Maybe Gillian Anderson getting offered less money than David Duchovny for the new X Files is sexism.  Maybe he’s a more bankable star because of work since the X Files first aired.  I’m not sure, but don’t assume the former without at least addressing the latter.

14) Loved this NYT feature on scientific research on the origins of dogs:

Modern dogs are different from modern wolves in numerous ways. They eat comfortably in the presence of people, whereas wolves do not. Their skulls are wider and snouts shorter. They do not live in pack structures when they are on their own, and so some scientists scoff at dog-training approaches that require the human to act as pack leader.

Wolves mate for the long haul and wolf dads help with the young, while dogs are completely promiscuous and the males pay no attention to their offspring. Still, dogs and wolves interbreed easily and some scientists are not convinced that the two are even different species, a skepticism that reflects broader debates in science about how to define a species, and how much the category is a fact of nature as opposed to an arbitrary line drawn by humans.

15a) A look at Jane Mayer’s new book on the Koch brothers.

15b) And Mayer’s piece on their re-branding in the latest New Yorker.  I actutally had thought they were sincere about criminal justice reform.  Now I’m not so sure.

16) Haven’t watch Making a Murderer yet, but I find the controversy fascinating.  I really liked this piece in Slate:

So, it’s not bias that unsettles me. Rather, it’s bias posing as impartiality that makes me uneasy. Because so much seems to have been left out, I now have lingering doubts that the directors of Making a Murderer ever gave the other side a genuinely fair hearing.

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the directors of the superb Paradise Lost trilogy, were consistently upfront about the injustices they felt were committed against the West Memphis Three, yet they were still able to secure interviews with the investigators who wanted to keep the three behind bars. It was largely because of the global attention the trilogy received that those injustices were (at least partially) corrected when Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were released from prison in 2011. Sometimes, artistic advocacy is a very good thing, but only when it feels complete.

Whether or not you loved or hated the evidentiary back-and-forth of Serial, Sarah Koenig excelled as an investigative reporter when it came to putting all her cards on the table. The detectives and prosecutors involved in Adnan Syed’s conviction declined to speak with her, but Koenig still managed to give the prosecution’s theory of the crime real consideration, as the jury in his trial would had to have done. That added depth and dimension to her story.

17) Loved this three-way loser ending of Jeopardy.  Seriously, nobody thought to save at least $1?!

18) Seth Masket on how Republicans can stop Trump.

19) Such a good little idea on programming your phone.  I went right ahead and did this.

20) How Charlottesville, VA moms got Whole Foods to enforce their no guns policy.

21) Had an open tab on this one for too long.  How poor parents raise their kids differently than middle-class parents.

22) Can we cure unpleasant emotional memories (and PTSD, etc.) with a drug?  Maybe.

23) Great Tom Edsall piece on the nature of Republican orthodoxy today.

Hillary’s “problems with women”

Horrible article in the NYT today about how new attention (thanks to Trump) to Bill Clinton’s sexual scandals and Hillary’s role in defending him back in the 90’s is harming Clinton among women voters.  Now, to be fair there’s some useful ground covered here, but the main problem is this:

The conversation, relayed by several people with knowledge of the discussion who would speak about it only anonymously, captures the deeper debate unfolding among liberal-leaning women about how to reconcile Mrs. Clinton’s leadership on women’s issues with her past involvement in her husband’s efforts to fend off accusations of sexual misconduct. [emphasis mine]

Okay, interesting, but here’s thing thing… what’s the evidence for this struggle among liberal leaning women to reconcile this?  Three things– Lena Dunham (who still strongly supports Clinton), a 17-year old feminist blogger, and the fact that Hillary has been sliding among young women voters.

Sorry, but this is a story in search of evidence.  I don’t doubt that there are indeed some older feminists (I’d have to estimate at least 50 and above, for the most part) who actually remember what Hillary did during the 90’s and are troubled by it, but to actually paint a picture, as this article does, of Hillary struggling with support from liberal women over this issue is to create a narrative largely out of whole cloth.

Lena Dunham and a single blogger and anonymous “conversations” are anecdotes. To make assertions that HRC is struggling with women voters (as opposed to all voters), I expect data.  The fact that the best the author can do is cite Hillary’s problems among young women is far from persuasive.  Not only are these the women least likely to have any memory or knowledge of Hillary in the 90’s, young women are, you know, young, and therefore right in Bernie’s sweet spot of support.  Now, show me that Hillary’s support declined especially much among young women relative to young men and maybe we’re onto something.  Even, then, though, I find it highly unlikely it is because of how young women view Hillary’s actions as first lady.

Anyway, part of me feels silly writing this much about a single NYT article, but damnit, the NYT owes us better than this.  And, of course, it is more proof that all media sources– regardless of the bent of the editorial page– are interested in what they consider a good story rather than helping liberal politicians.

Quick hits (part I)

And we’re off…

1) The conservative case for solar subsidies (hmmm, given that there’s a good conservative and a good liberal case, we really ought to have solar subsidies).

Of course, conservatives will respond that their core objection remains: Solar functions only because of government subsidies. But there are a couple of issues to consider…

For one thing, not all subsidies are created equal, and the government actually has a good track record in promoting new energy technologies. New developments often face two market gaps that can potentially delay or even kill them: the “technological valley of death,” in which promising advances hit a technical brick wall, and the “commercialization valley of death,” in which an effective technology can’t get to market. Government research labs and subsidies have supported a number of forms of energy — from nuclear energy, to hydraulic fracturing, to photovoltaic solar — through these troughs.

And there’s nothing unique about the government’s support for solar. According to the Congressional Research Service, total government support for the oil and gas sector over the years dwarfs the amount of support for the solar industry.

2) I didn’t watch Nikki Haley’s SOTU response originally, but I quickly learned her teeth were the talk of the internet.  A little googling and I ended up on this take complaining it’s all about sexism.  That’s too bad.  But, no, then I watched.  It’s like she’s talking with her jaw wired shut.  It was truly bizarre.  It would be weird not to comment about it.  Of course sexism is a problem, but damn I hate the damage people to do feminism when they reach the point that virtually any non-policy critique of a female politician is sexism.

3) Greater Chronicle of Higher Education article on The Monkey Cage blog and how it has become so influential.

4) Dahlia Lithwick on the Supreme Court and public sector unions.

5) Just one small bit of Trump’s inanity (and seemingly endless macho bs posturing), but I do get a kick out of him arguing that football players should cause themselves brain injuries for our entertainment:

What used to be considered a great tackle, a violent head-on [tackle], a violent — if that was done by Dick Butkus, they’d say he’s the greatest player. If that were done by Lawrence Taylor — itwas done by Lawrence Taylor and Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke, right? Ray Nitschke — you used to see these tackles and it was incredible to watch, right?

“Now they tackle. ‘Oh, head-on-head collision, 15 yards.’ The whole game is all screwed up. You say, ‘Wow, what a tackle.’ Bing. Flag. Football has become soft. Football has become soft. Now, I’ll be criticized for that. They’ll say, ‘Oh, isn’t that terrible.’ But football has become soft like our country has become soft. [Applause] It’s true. It’s true.

6) What can you learn about the history of liberalism in America from the recent problems of The New Republic?  So much in the capable hands of political scientist Jonathan Ladd.  This is really, really good.

7) I truly do recognize that college teaching evaluations are seriously flawed.  That said, I do get a kick out of seeing that my friends/colleagues who most zealously share the stories on the matter are those who might be somewhat suspect in the teaching department.  I’m guessing they are pretty sure the bias is against them.  One thing is for sure is the bias based on gender is, sadly, quite potent.  The authors of the latest research say there’s no way to correct for this?  Really?  How about just comparing faculty to each other within gender?  Not perfect, but that would go along way.

8) Oh, and how’s this, at least in the discipline of Economics, when men and women publish together, men get pretty much all the credit.  I really want to know how well this holds up across disciplines.  I particularly wonder how it may impact the work of Laurel and me, especially as our work is so focused on gender.

9) Shankar Vedantam on hierarchical versus egalitarian ideologies, inequality, and drunkenness.

10) Is this how multi-cellular life on earth got it’s start?  Maybe.  Cool stuff.

11) The Upshot with the case for why the Powerball winners should take the annuity.

12) James Downey on how the supposed mainstream GOP completely enables the fringe:

The difference is that now, between Cruz, Trump and Ben Carson, the “everything is awful” portion of the GOP is a clear majority, not limited to the fringe.

Frankly, though, Haley and company shouldn’t be surprised. Though her speech may not have been as hyperbolic, it still subtly fed the fears that sustain that “Make America Great Again” anger. There is “chaotic unrest in many of our cities,” she said.  America faces “the most dangerous terrorist threat our nation has seen since September 11th, and this president appears either unwilling or unable to deal with it.” Democrats are “demonizing” American success. In short, Haley said, “we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory.”

If all of these things are true, and if as Haley said, the GOP must admit that it has “played a role in how and why our government is broken,” why should the conservative base trust the Republican establishment? Why shouldn’t they be fearful of where the United States is going? Isn’t anyone not standing firm against such “threats” endangering America?

13) Obviously our current drug policy is a disaster, but Drum on how the problems with opiates strongly suggests we exercise appropriate caution in thinking about how to decriminalize or legalize drugs.

14) A week late, but a really good piece to help understand what’s going on with Saudi Arabia and Iran.

15) Of course cops get held accountable for their misbehavior.  At least when that misbehavior is to properly apply the law and refuse to arrest somebody their superior tells them to.

16) Really enjoyed this Atlantic piece arguing that, not, consciousness really is not that mysterious:

The consciousness we describe is non-physical, confusing, irreducible, and unexplainable, because that packet of information in the brain is incoherent. It’s a quick sketch.

What’s it a sketch of? The brain processes information. It focuses its processing resources on this or that chunk of data. That’s the complex, mechanistic act of a massive computer. The brain also describes this act to itself. That description, shaped by millions of years of evolution, weird and quirky and stripped of details, depicts a “me” and a state of subjective consciousness.

This is why we can’t explain how the brain produces consciousness. It’s like explaining how white light gets purified of all colors. The answer is, it doesn’t. Let me be as clear as possible: Consciousness doesn’t happen. It’s a mistaken construct. The computer concludes that it has qualia because that serves as a useful, if simplified, self-model. What we can do as scientists is to explain how the brain constructs information, how it models the world in quirky ways, how it models itself, and how it uses those models to good advantage.

17) The ancient Romans really tried to make an effort with public hygiene.  Alas, their total misunderstanding of what actually caused disease meant that their efforts (public toilets, baths, etc.) did not make them any healthier .

18) Nate Silver on three theories of Trump’s rise.

19) Michael Cooper on how the Democratic party in the South has changed.

20) And finishing off with a longer Politico piece making the case for the importance of Obama’s domestic policy legacy.

The tampon tax and the devilish details of “simple” policy

I first learned about the “tampon tax” last semester when some students directed me to a post about how feminine hygiene products all over the country were being taxes as a “luxury good.”  What??!  Oh, don’t you love click-bait internet headlines.  Well, in many states the sales tax code has exemptions for necessities– typically food and clothing– and then every thing else is, in this bureaucratic sales tax language a “luxury good.”  That’s obviously not the common usage, as nobody sees toothpaste or toilet paper or Advil or whatever as luxuries.  In short, most states do not carve out an exemption for feminine hygiene products, much like they don’t carve out an exemption for most drug store health items like OTC medicine, bandages, etc.  It’s a little ridiculous to portray this as sexism.  Now, if the whole HBA section of the store was tax exempt except for tampons and pads, then we’d be onto something.  But that’s not the case.

Anyway, a movement to repeal this “tampon tax” is catching on, but, as with so many things, the devil is in the details.  Very nice piece on the matter in the Upshot:

“It’d be nice if necessities weren’t taxed, but necessity is subjective,” says Joseph Henchman, who oversees state policy for the Tax Foundation, a conservative think tank that generally opposes sales tax exemptions. He notes that the nuanced arguments about what constitutes necessity have often led to very complicated sales tax rules.

For example, the idea of exempting groceries from sales tax sounds simple enough, but most states want to continue collecting taxes on takeout and other prepared foods, on the grounds that having someone else cook for you is a luxury.

As a result, they need to lay out rules explaining what is, and is not, a prepared food.

So in 2010, Wisconsin’s revenue department released a 1,400-word memo titled “Sales of Ice Cream Cakes and Similar Items.” As the memo describes, sometimes an ice cream cake in Wisconsin is a tax-free baked good; in other cases, it’s a taxable prepared food. The question hinges on several factors, including the size of the cake, who decorated the cake, whether a majority of the cake’s layers contain flour and whether the seller provides utensils along with the cake…

Complex definitions have also driven repeated changes in the taxation of tampons in at least one state. In 1990, the Illinois Supreme Court ruledtampons met that state’s definition of a “medical appliance” and thus deserved a tax exemption then being withheld by the city of Chicago, but the state subsequently narrowed the exemption, and tampons are taxed at the full rate again.

Unlike Illinois, most states restrict their tax exemptions for consumer medical products to prescription drugs. This may seem like an odd distinction (why does a prescription painkiller deserve better tax treatment than Advil?), but you can see why other states make it when you read Illinois’s seven-page regulation setting out the new, tampon-exclusive definition of “medication” and “medical appliance.”

It turns out, it’s surprisingly hard to define the place where toiletries end and medication begins. Unlike most states, Illinois needs a rule saying that medicated lip balm is not medication, and neither is dandruff shampoo — not even the kind that smells like an industrial byproduct.

The California bill proposed by Ms. Garcia, a Democrat, and Ling Ling Chang, a Republican colleague, avoids this ambiguity by simply creating an exemption for “sanitary napkins and tampons,” rather than a broad category of necessary medical or personal care products. Still, it would be added to a list of over 100 existing exemptions to the state’s sales tax.

Mr. Henchman noted one other reason to be wary of a tampon tax break: Sales taxes that exclude necessities and services tend to end up relying heavily on restaurant meals and durables like electronics and furniture, which are categories of spending that consumers cut back on when the economy weakens. This makes sales tax receipts more volatile, worsening the budget crises that arise in recessions.

Of course tampons are a necessity.  But so are soap and toilet paper (and I would argue a good number of additional HBA products).  Once you start carving out exceptions on an item by item basis, where does it stop?  Yes, sales taxes are regressive, but right now they are an important part of state revenue and if state income taxes are not going to be going up (they’re not), we need to be careful with eating further into this tax base.  As discussed more extensively elsewhere in the piece, as painful as it is, we really need to be expanding the tax on services such as auto repair, veterinary care, etc.

Anyway, maybe we should stop taxing tampons.  Maybe we shouldn’t.  What I do know is that public policy does not benefit from facile debates over complex issues.

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