A Spicy Stew of Economics, Politics, Data, Food, Carpentry, etc.
UPDATE: 100,000 Killed in Iraq War?
I see that Fred Kaplan at Slate has scooped me (see my previous post
), speaking with Beth Osborne Daponte, who also doesn't believe the Lancet estimates
of 100,000 dead since the beginning of the Iraq War:
Daponte (who has studied Iraqi population figures for many years) questions the finding that prewar mortality was 5 deaths per 1,000. According to quite comprehensive data collected by the United Nations, Iraq's mortality rate from 1980-85 was 8.1 per 1,000. From 1985-90, the years leading up to the 1991 Gulf War, the rate declined to 6.8 per 1,000. After '91, the numbers are murkier, but clearly they went up. Whatever they were in 2002, they were almost certainly higher than 5 per 1,000. In other words, the wartime mortality rate—if it is 7.9 per 1,000—probably does not exceed the peacetime rate by as much as the Johns Hopkins team assumes.
Kaplan buries the Daponte critique, and emphasizes -- to my mind, overemphasizes -- questions about the Lancet study's large confidence interval. It is worth noting that Daponte's take on this study is extremely
, a respected demographer at Carnegie Mellon, had her 15 minutes of fame in 1992 when she publicly challenged the first Bush administration's estimate of civilian casualties. Daponte used demographic methods much like those in the Lancet study, and found that 158,000 Iraqis (military and civilian) died during the Gulf War and its aftermath. For her efforts, Daponte was fired
by the Census Bureau, though her job was eventually saved after she initiated legal action and drew strong support from her colleagues and the academic community. She has sinced published her findings about Iraqi mortality in prestigious academic journals.
In other words, Daponte is an expert on the issue and would certainly not be afraid to challenge the Bush administration and endorse the Lancet study if she thought it were correct. I'd guess she'd probably be eager to support the Lancet findings. But she doesn't think those findings are correct.
100,000 Killed by Iraq War?
According to a new study by Roberts et al published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, the Iraq War has resulted in about 100,000 "excess deaths,"
mainly due to violence.
If the Iraq War has truly resulted in an additional 100,000 deaths over a year and a half, that would greatly undermine what I had thought was an important justification for the war. Specifically, I had hoped that the war would allow us to end the sanctions that were killing 50,000 Iraqi children
a year, according to an earlier study in The Lancet (by Ali & Shah).
The Roberts et al study finds that the death rate increased from a pre-war 5.0 to 7.9 per thousand after the invasion (excluding Falluja). Roberts et al exclude Falluja from most of their results because the extremely high death rate there is estimated very imprecisely with their methods. Given Iraq's population of 24 million, this increase in the death rate amounts to an additional 70,000 deaths per year, or 105,000 over the 18 months between the invasion and the study.
Roberts et al Estimates of Mortality in Iraq (Lancet 2004)
(per 1000) 5.0 12.3
Excluding Falluja 7.9
(per 1000) 29 57
I doubt these estimates are correct.
The problem is that the pre-conflict figures are not consistent with other, better, studies. Ali & Shah's 2000 study of infant mortality in Iraq interviewed a sample 40 times larger. The World Health Organization and US Census Bureau have also published estimates of pre-war mortality in Iraq. These other studies show much higher pre-conflict death rates.
Roberts et al's a post-war death rate of 7.9 per 1000 is only slightly higher than the WHO's pre-war estimate of 7.6 or the Census Bureau's estimate of 6.4. These differences are within the margin of error, suggesting that any change has been too small to measure with the 1000-household Roberts et al survey.
The closest that Roberts et al come to discussing other pre-war estimates is when they state:
The preconflict infant mortality rate (29 deaths per 1000 livebirths) we recorded is similar to estimates from neighbouring countries. 
This is true enough. An infant mortality rate of 29 per 1000 is in line with the levels found in places like Egypt, Jordan, and Iran. But it's hardly relevant, since pre-war Iraq was in much worse shape than these other countries. In fact, if you go to the web page
cited in the Roberts et al footnote, you find Iraq's pre-war infant mortality rate listed as 107! They make no mention of this.
The Roberts et al post-war infant mortality rate of 57 is in fact much lower than the pre-war rate of 108 estimated by Ali & Shah (although it's not much different from the rate of 62 estimated by the WHO and Census Bureau). If we believe the Ali & Shah figure, which is the basis for the claim that sanctions were killing 50,000 Iraqi children a year, it turns out that most of these deaths have been eliminated. The war, by ending the sanctions, has resulting in about 40,000 fewer Iraqi children dieing each year.
Alternate Estimates of Pre-Conflict Mortality in Iraq
Ali & Shah WHO US Census
1994-99 2000 2000
(per 1000) -- 7.6 6.4
(per 1000) 108 62 62
in Autonomous Areas
(Northern Iraq) 59 --
Source: Ali & Shaw, Lancet, 2000. WHO. U.S. Census Bureau.
Have Voter Registration Drives Paid Off the The Democrats?
Political consultant James Carville is famously skeptical of appealing to new voters: "You know what they call a candidate who's counting on a lot of new voters? A loser
." He's basically right.
Polling figures suggest that this year's massive voter registration drive will likely increase increased Kerry's margin by a percentage point or two. Nothing to sniff at, but still relatively modest. Let's go through the calculations.
Voter registration rates have increased by 5.3 percentage points over the rate four years ago, comparing Pew surveys
from October 2000 to October of this year. A total of 82.4 percent of American adults are now registered. If the newly registered vote at the same rate as others, 6.5% of all voters will be new registrants (5.3/82.4).
The Pew figures may be low. At the beginning of the month, an ABC poll
reported bigger registration gains than Pew. More recently, Gallup reported an 11 percentage point
gain in registration, compared to four years ago. Both surveys have much smaller sample sizes than the Pew figures cited above though.
Polling data on registration rates have one major advantage over the numbers reported by state election boards that have been widely reported: they avoid double-counting. Many state election boards are slow to purge non-voters, so many remain on the rolls long after they've died or moved. I'm pretty sure that I'm still registered at every address I ever lived at in New York state. And reported figures make no distinction between new registrations and people who are just re-registering after a move.
The poll figures don't provide a partisan breakdown, but some recent surveys suggest that new voters are strongly pro-Kerry, by a margin of 59-40 (Gallup
) or 60-35 (Ipsos
). Combining the Pew figures on new registrants with the new voter polls suggests a net gain of 1.3 points for Kerry (5.3% of the 25 point Ipsos lead), or perhaps 1.0 points (Gallup). If the Gallup registration gain of 11 ponts is right, these figures would double.
So, Democratic gains from voter registration drives are relatively modest. For one thing, much of the gain is presumably just offsetting new voters signed up by the Republicans. Still, every little bit counts: the election could easily be decided by a percentage point or two.
Click on "####" for the table.
End Date of Poll Adults RV %RV
---------------- ------ ----- ----
28-Jun-00 2,174 1,673 77.0
23-Jul-00 1,204 918 76.2
10-Sep-00 2,799 1,999 71.4
8-Oct-00 1,331 1,009 75.8
22-Oct-00 1,263 997 78.9
29-Oct-00 1,963 1,508 76.8
5-Nov-00 2,254 1,829 81.1
TOTAL 12,988 9,933 76.5
TOTAL October 4,557 3,514 77.1
13-Jun-04 1,806 1,426 79.0
10-Aug-04 1,512 1,166 77.1
14-Sep-04 2,494 1,972 79.1
21-Sep-04 1,200 989 82.4
26-Sep-04 1,200 948 79.0
3-Oct-04 1,233 1,002 81.3
TOTAL 11,013 8,810 80.0
TOTAL October 2,801 2,309 82.4
Source: Pew, "About the Survey".
French Wine Boycott Fails
Curious about why Australian wine seems to be permanently on sale at the delis I frequent, I found an article by Frank Vannerson called "Wine, Francophobia and Boycotts
," on the Liquid Assets
web site. (Liquid Assets is a newsletter for investors in high-end win run by Princeton labor economist and oenophile Orley Ashenfelter).
In January, 2003, just before the Iraq War, anti-French sentiment heated up. As you may recall, french fries were briefly renamed freedom fries. French toast became liberty toast. The makers of French's Mustard felt compelled to point out that they weren't really French at all. French wine sales fell, leading to some early reports of success for the boycott.
I clipped the figure below out of the Vannerson paper. The graph shows the share of the US wine market captured by French, Italian, Australian, and other producers. The data is from supermarkets, so it's mostly limited to low-end wines, under $10 a bottle. The figure shows that sales of French wine have been plummeting while sales of wine produced by our ally Australia have soared. At first blush, this seems to suggest that the boycott was successful.
However, the figure makes clear that French wine sales had been falling steadily for over a year before the boycott, and the post-boycott fall was merely a continuation of the trend. Vannerson's article demonstrates this statistically. At the same time, Australian wine sales have been increasing, by about 80% in less than two years (again, in line with pre-boycott trends).
According to the Worlds of Wine
(sort of a wine blog, written by a wine historian) wine imports, at least at the low end, rise and fall with exchange rates.
With the problems in the American economy (deficits, massive trade imbalances), the U.S. dollar has lost value dramatically against the Euro, the currency now common to the biggest European wine-producing states, France, Italy and Spain...As a result, French and Italian wine imports to the U.S. fell 15 per cent in 2003....No surprise that it's the Australians who've hopped in to fill the gap created by falling European imports.
So where the boycotters failed to hurt French winemakers, Bush succeeded -- by running up the deficit and weakening the US dollar.
Source: Adapted from Vannerson, Liquid Assets
National Sales Tax Hits the Big Time
I'm heartily sick of the Presidential election. So let's talk about the South Carolina Senate race instead, where a major issue has been the Republican candidate's support for a national sales tax
Democratic attack ads against GOP House candidates who support a 23 percent national sales tax are causing a stir in several states, with Republicans demanding that TV stations drop them.
The ads, running in seven House districts, target Republicans who support HR 25. The bill would eliminate the federal income tax, estate tax and payroll taxes and replace them with a 23 percent sales tax. The issue has been a mainstay in the Senate race in South Carolina, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's ads have expanded it to three House districts in Texas and one each in Georgia, Indiana, Kansas and North Carolina.
Indeed, if you look at Inez Tenenbaum's web page
(she's the Democratic candidate for Senate in SC), most of the ads criticize her opponent for supporting a national sales tax. Here's a typical excerpt:
My opponent, Jim DeMint, has a big idea. A new 23 percent federal sales tax on just about everything we buy. Like milk, bread and groceries. Clothing, new tires, going to the movies. Even prescription drugs. What we really ought to do is cut taxes on middle class families.
DeMint, along with Tom DeLay and over 50 Republican members of Congress, has endorsed a national sales tax
that would replace almost all federal taxes. Tenenbaum's ads are a little misleading, because they don't mention that DeMint envisages eliminating other federal taxes. (she has a press release
that's more accurate). On the other hand, she doesn't challenge DeMint's 23% figure, even though most experts
say a rate of 50-60% would be needed for a "revenue-neutral" replacement tax.
Also, her implication that the sales tax really amounts to a tax increase is basically correct. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a revenue-neutral sales tax would amount to a 16% average tax increase
[pdf] for South Carolinians, an additional of $1,731 per year. The ITEP is a liberal-leaning think tank, but this conclusion is hard to dispute. The sales tax is regressive, and South Carolina is a relatively poor state. So even if taxes stayed the same on average in the country as a whole, South Carolina and other low-income states would be pay a bigger share.
The regressivity of the Republican consumption tax proposal is truly breathtaking. According to the ITEP, the poorest 20% of families would see their taxes rise from $455 to $4,432, almost a 10-fold increase. The wealthiest 1% would see their tax bill fall by almost two thirds (from $213,000 to $77,000). The increase for the poorest 20% is almost literally breathtaking -- taking your breath away is ultimately suffocating, after all -- since the poorest 20% in South Carolina currently get by on an average of $8,245 after federal taxes. Under the Republican's sales tax plan, they'd have to squeeze by with $4,268.
One More Progressive Criticizes Cole
has called on his readers to defend Professor Joseph Massad of Columbia University, under attack from "a concerted campaign..by the American Likud, aimed at getting him fired." It's not so clear what makes Massad's critics -- the NY Daily News, NY Sun, and Congressman Tony Weiner -- "American Likud," but we'll let that slide.
To his credit, Cole doesn't defend Massad's ideas, only his academic freedom. I agree that Massad shouldn't be denied tenure because of his political views -- although he's someone who's political views hardly seem distinguishable from his scholarship, which is what tenure reviews are supposed to be about. Looking at some of Massad's writings on the web, my favorite quote is this (from a newspaper column):
"Such practices [as the torture of Abner Louima by NYC police] clearly demonstrate that white American male sexuality exhibits certain sadistic attributes in the presence of non-white men and women over whom white Americans (and Brits) have government- sanctioned racialised power."
Progressive blogger Stuart at the New Appeal to Reason
has more, particularly noting the irony that Massad's leading defender (who runs the web site Cole links to) is someone who banned Israelis
from serving on the editorial board of her academic journals.
Flu Snafu: Rampant Price Gouging
Many conservatives and libertarians charge that price gouging laws have contributed to the flu vaccine shortage. It turns out, though, that price-gouging laws aren't very effective. In fact, according the the Washington Post, there are actually firms that specialize in price gouging
A recent survey
The larger [distributers] are also free to sell to smaller distributors, who then sell to even smaller suppliers that are willing to place orders for flu vaccine early in the season at high prices on the chance that they will be able to resell it for even more when the flu season hits hard. That bet pays off particularly well when dramatic shortages occur.
A salesman for Stat, in a Sept. 13 e-mail sent to pharmacy buyers, predicted this year's turn of events, saying that it was "my favorite time of the year! Hospital beds are filling up" and "all the little darlings are back in school coughing up their diseases . . . " Chiron was having production problems, he wrote, and if that continued, wholesalers "can pretty much ask and get what ever the old market will bare," a copy of the e-mail shows.
[CEO] Alley said his salesman was writing tongue-in-cheek, and that "no one wants to see kids hacking." But the pricing comments, he said, are "the truth. It's happened for the last seven flu seasons."
found that 80% of hospitals had been contacted by a company offering to sell the vaccine at $30 or more a dose (four times the price charged by the manufacturer); 20% were offered vaccine at $80 or more a dose (10 times the manufacturer's price). Only about a quarter of hospitals responded to the survey, so these figures are probably overestimates (if hospitals receiving inflated price quotes were more likely to respond to the survey).
The price gougers may actually do some good, if their purchases of vaccine early in the season encourage the manufacturers to make more: they're providing a buffer stock.
But whether price gouging laws are good or bad, I take these two articles as evidence that they aren't that effective. There's an active secondary "speculative" market in flu vaccine, and most hospitals have access to to high-priced vaccine, if they want it. It's like ticket scalping: illegal many places (though not everywhere) but still common as concerts.
The Ownership Society
My weekly post, with my continuing attempt to understand why Bush designs such horrible policies is up at the Angry Bear
Libertarians on the Flu Snafu
I've come across a lot of libertarians blogging about the flu. The best libertarian flu post, by the way, is on Cafe Hayek
, mocking the multiple explanations offered for the shortage. Marginal Revolution
has a good post too, discussing why drugs offer manufacturers a better opportunity to price discriminate than vaccines.
In general, though, there are two basic problems with the libertarian posts. First, they want to claim that there are price controls or something similar on flu vaccine, though this isn't true (see libertarian one
) . Second, although many of them discuss vaccines in general, none of them make the obvious libertarian argument against mandatory vaccination.
Let's take mandatory vaccination first. The government requires vaccination for many childhood diseases (though not the flu), which is enforced by keeping unvaccinated children out of school. The obvious reason for this is that these diseases can be transmitted from child to child, so an unvaccinated child may catch the disease and spread it to others. Hence, vaccinations have positive externalities and ought to be subsidized, which the government approximates by requiring them and providing cheap vaccination shots to children.
One implication is that, for most vaccines, the government is strongly intervening to increase demand, presumably to the benefit of vaccine manufacturers. And yet we've had several recent shortages of childhood vaccines, just as we've had shortages of flu vaccine.
From a libertarian point of view, one would think that mandatory vaccinations are a blow to liberty. Even if libertarians don't think young children should be able to make their own decisions about vaccines, you'd think they would object to parents being forced to vaccinate their children. So why aren't the libertarians screaming about "forced vaccinations" or "vaccination slavery" or at least decrying this reduction in our freedom to go unvaccinated? I'm just wondering.
Second, libertarians and others want to claim that there are price controls on flu vaccines. The strongest counterargument is that the price of flu vaccine has gone up by almost a factor of five
since 1996. Many conflate price gouging laws with price controls. But price gouging laws apply to all products, not just flu vaccine. So if these laws are so important, why do they cause shortages only of vaccines, and not other products?
Others conflate large government purchases with price controls. The government does make large purchases of many vaccines, often buying half the supply, which it does by putting contracts out for bid. However, it does not do this for the flu vaccine, despite many claims to the contrary. (Alex Tabarrok
initially implied that the government is a major purchase of flu vaccine, but to his credit, has since corrected it). According to the GAO
"Most influenza vaccine distribution and administration are accomplished within the private sector, with relatively small amounts of vaccine purchased and distributed by CDC or by state and local health departments."
However, even for the childhood vaccines, where the government is a large purchaser, it is not at all obvious that government action, taken as a whole, reduces the demand for vaccines. To repeat the obvious: the government makes childhood vaccination mandatory
. Surely this offsets at least some of the price reduction caused by the government's large purchases.
Black Box Voting
My prediction for the Presidential election is: Kerry wins in a landslide, and then right-wingers spend the next four years charging ballot fraud.
That's what seems to be happening in Venezuela. Today, a friend emailed me an essay about the latest round in the battle over Venezuela's Presidential recall
vote of two months ago. Venezuela's election was conducted using a mix of paper ballots and electronic voting. The electronic voting machines produced a paper trail, a print-out of the voter's choice that was deposited in a ballot box. The election was observed by the Carter Center, which, among other things, conducted an audit comparing a large random sample of the paper print-outs to the votes recorded in the machines.
In other words, the election seems to have been run a whole lot better than most US elections. And the result was a landslide, meaning that minor, Florida-style glitches wouldn't matter. And yet the Venezuelan opposition
, and US right
, have been screaming about electronic ballot fraud.
There's even been a battle of the econometricians (incumbent
). The opposition first charged that there were a suspicious number of polling places where multiple machines showed the same number of "yes" votes. That is, in one polling place two machines might have both recorded 283 "yes" votes; in another, two machines might have both recorded 391 "yes" votes; this was alleged to have happened too many times. The charge has since been refuted, with both sides' statisticians agreeing that the ties were coincidence, not evidence of fraud.
My impression is that the claim about suspicious ties was absurd on its face, and yet it generated several months of heated charges and counter-charges. And of course, now there's a new charge, with the opposition and their statisticians claiming that the Carter Center's audit wasn't truly random. I don't know whether the new charge is true or not, though I'm inclined to believe the Carter Center, which says the elections were fair
But either way, I wouldn't be surprised if Venezuela's ongoing fight over ballot fraud (or lack thereof) is in our future. After all, US right-wingers have already been practicing up for the battle.
Chat with Cook
I've been meaning to post something about last week's Washington Post online chat with astute political observer Charles Cook
. Here's a few excerpts that relate to recent blog posts of mine, but Cook has sharp comments on almost every poll topic that's come up this year.
"My advice to people is to not pay too much attention to any one poll, there is a temptation to cherry pick, to focus on the one or two polls that tell you what you want to see happen the most, and ignore all others as methodologically flawed. I would look at the averages of polls that are published in various places, an average of many polls is most likely to give you a truer picture than any one."
The Best National Polls Trump the State Polls
"Given that a quarter of [state-level] polls are complete garbage and another quarter fairly suspect, I think that [counting electoral votes] is very problematic. Unless someone happens to be privy to the much more sophisticated (and expensive) polling that is being conducted for the two parties, the chances of anyone accurately calling all of the 11 states that we are calling toss ups (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wisconsin) are pretty slim. If the margin in this race is more than one percentage point, the Electoral College vote won't matter, if it is inside of one percent, then there are too many states that are too close and the state level polling, even the good ones, won't be of much use, much less these three-dollar state polls that are flying over the internet....
"...stick to polls that are done over the telephone (NOT internet) and conducted by real live people, not "push #1 for Bush, #2 for Kerry...) like Rasmussen or Survey USA. They have no idea of they are interviewing nine years old or not."
I think Cook's argument for ignoring the state polls is very compelling: if the national margin is over one percent, the electoral votes will follow. If the national margin is closer than that, the state polls will also be too close to tell you anything.
Still, I can't restrain myself from checking electoral-vote.com
Flu Vaccine: "A Very Attractive Business"
Via Political Animal
and Denise Gellene of the LA Times
, I learn that two new companies hope to enter the US flu vaccine market. Apparently they see great profit opportunities in the US.
GlaxoSmithKline, the largest vaccine maker in the world, and ID Biomedical, a small Canadian company, have announced plans to sell flu shots in the U.S. ID Biomedical could enter the market as soon as next year.
That would reduce the nation's reliance on two vaccine makers — and the odds of another massive shortage.
The competitive interest in making flu vaccines could dispel the notion that there is no money to be made in the business. In fact, over the last five to six years, the wholesale price of a flu shot has jumped to more than $8 from less than $2, far outpacing increases in production costs. What's more, the market is growing. Demand has risen to about 80 million doses annually from half that in the mid-1990s. U.S. public health authorities aim to vaccinate 150 million Americans annually by 2010.
"It is a very attractive business," said Anthony Holler, ID Biomedical's chief executive.
A very attractive business? No doubt that will come as a big surprise to readers of the mainstream media or conservative blogs
, which have subjected us to an endless stream of nonsense like the following:
[Wyeth's] exit is part of a long, slow industry-wide flight away from flu vaccine, which has simply become more trouble than it's worth...Even under the best circumstances, vaccines have never been very attractive investments. [David Brown, "How U.S. Got Down to Two Makers Of Flu Vaccine."]
Readers of Ragout, of course, have known all along just how dubious these claims about unprofitability really were. Two weeks ago
I cited flu vaccine maker Chiron's pre-contamination optimism:
[The newpaper article's] claim that it's hard to make money selling vaccines is also disputed by a surprising source: Chiron, which says that flu vaccine prices have risen enough to justify substantial investment in the U.S. market. Chiron's president testified before Congress earlier this year, "Pricing of influenza vaccines has reached a level that allows manufacturers to invest in maintaining facilities to meet FDA standards and in expanding manufacturing capacity in order to meet the increased demand." Prices have risen in the past few years because 3 of the 5 former manufacturers have left the U.S. market.
Perhaps the mainstream reporters can be forgiven for not uncovering these facts. After all, I relied on hard-to-find, almost secret sources of information
Survey USA and the Virtues of Transparency
A correspondent takes me to task for being too hard on SUSA, one of the five firms that produce most of the state-level polls. I didn't mean to be. In fact, I think that they're probably the best of the five. (Zogby, another of the five, has a very good reputation, but their state polls are based on internet panels, not telephone polling).
I assume that SUSA is the best of the group because they release by far the most information about their polls, which I think is a very strong indicator of quality. For one thing, it shows they have confidence in their work. For another, and I think this is more important, releasing this kind of information probably helps SUSA understand how well their methods are working so they can catch errors and improve their methods.
This works in other fields too
: "We've generally found over the years that it's a good sign when a label gives you a great deal of information about a wine," report some experts (p. 191).
Vaccines, Vitamins, Vegetables, and Price-Fixing
What does the flu vaccine shortage have to do with rotten vegetables, overpriced vitamins, and price-fixing? Perhaps more than you'd think. Find out more by reading my weekly post at the Angry Bear
According to an ABC News poll
, 88 percent of Bush supporters expect him to win. Most Kerry supporters have the opposite forecast: 67 percent expect Kerry to win.
Why the disconnect? I think it's because people tend to pay attention only to information that confirms their prior beliefs, and ignore news that conflicts with their beliefs
. For example, if you look at conservative blogger Instapundit's front page today, the only horse race poll mentioned shows Bush with a big eight-point lead
. The liberal Atrios, meanwhile, cites two polls, one showing Kerry up by three
, another showing Bush up by only two
This practice of trumpeting good news and ignoring or downplaying bad news is also found, to a lesser extent, on sites more focused on the nuts and bolts of the campaign. If these sites mention bad news, they quickly dismiss it. Bad news polls always seem to be taken on the wrong day, have the wrong mix of Republicans and Democrats, have the wrong likely voter model, or something. The Republican Redstate.org tends to dismiss polls showing Kerry gaining; the liberal Donkey Rising and DailyKos tend to dismiss polls showing good news for Bush.
This week's prize for wishful thinking goes to the conservative ex-warblogger Steve Den Beste
, who has an elaborate analysis of how the polls have been manipulated by the liberal media to show a Bush lead. No, that's not a typo: Den Beste believes that the polls were manipulated by a dozen or so separate "liberal" media organizations in September to show a Bush lead:
The [poll] data for September, however, is clearly an anomaly. The data is much too consistent. Compare the amount of jitter present before September to the data during that month. There's no period before that of comparable length where the data was so stable.... In September, I think there was a deliberate attempt to depress Kerry's numbers, so as to set up an "October comeback". Of course, the goal was to engineer a bandwagon....
No collusion was needed because everyone knew "the script" for September ("temporary Republican convention bounce") and for October ("Kerry comeback because of the debate").
Den Beste's case hinges on the fact that the polls were less noisy in September, which he thinks proves that they were manipulated in some way. But perhaps there's some alternative explanation, that doesn't involve charging every polling organization with fraud? Den Beste is plotting a moving average of polls, and as we get closer to the election, more polls are conducted, more frequently. So an alternate theory is that as we get closer to November, the moving average is based on more underlying data, and so tends to be smoother.
Nah, couldn't be. If the polls are accurate, Kerry's gaining. And all good conservatives know that's impossible.
UPDATE: Tim Lambert, John Lott's nemesis from Down Under, is also skeptical
. He shows that the variation in the September polls is about what you'd expect from averages of half a dozen 1000-person polls. One more strike against Den Beste's poll rigging charge.
The Best National Polls Trump the State Polls
The web is swimming in state-level polls this year. The spiffyest is electoral-vote.com
, but they're everywhere. Slate
has a state poll map, as does Real Clear Politics
, the Wall Street Journal
, and no doubt many others. Sam Wang at Princeton
does some complicated calculations combining all the polls (he currently gives Kerry a 27% chance of winning).
The state polls are a lot of fun. But I think the national polls are the ones to watch.
In theory, state-level polls should be better. Even though each one typically has about half the sample size of the national polls, their combined sample size is big. And, after all, it's state electoral votes that determine the President (at least usually). But in polling, having a truly representative sample usually outweighs sample size. Overall, the state polls have weaker methodologies than the best of the national polls, and I suspect their samples are less representative.
Five polling companies put out most of the state polls: Rasmussen, Survey USA, American Research Group, Zogby Interactive, and Strategic Vision. All have flaws. Strategic Vision
put out very little information about their methodology, which is a big strike against them in my book. Strategic Vision is a Republican consulting firm, which also raises warning flags.
, the state poll reported in the WSJ, is an internet poll of a panel selected by Zogby to be representative. (Zogby puts out a national telephone poll too). Zogby claims that 90% of likely voters are on-line and that their weighting allows them to produce results similar to traditional telephone polls, but still this is still a new, relatively untested methodology.
are automated "robo-polls," that use a recorded voices and accept touch-tone responses. Here's SUSA's description:
SurveyUSA surveys are conducted in the voice of a professional announcer. SurveyUSA is the first research company to appreciate that opinion research can be made more affordable, more consistent and in some ways more accurate by eliminating the single largest cost of conducting research, and a possible source of bias: the human interviewer.
It goes on, and is fairly convincing, as far as it goes. Rasmussen says pretty much the same, arguing that their recorded voice is actually better than old-fashioned humans.
What neither mention is how they sample within households. The best polling firms take pains to choose someone at random, for example by asking to speak to the adult with the most recent birthday. Neither Rasmussen nor SUSA claim to do this, and I highly doubt that they do. They just "speak" with whoever answers the phone.
Second, SUSA gets a response rate of about 10%, probably because people are more likely to hang up on a robo-voice than a human being. Rasmussen doesn't say, but their response rate is probably similar. For comparison, the best of the national polls get response rates of 25-30%
Finally, to make up for their less representative samples, all three firms have to weight more intensively than many national polls. In particular, Zogby and Rasmussen weight by party ID. SUSA doesn't say, but my guess is that they do too. Although this methodology has some supporters, the weight of opinion
(including mine) is against it.
Since I think the big national polls -- ABC/WaPo (but not their tracking poll), NBC/WSJ (but not their state polls), Democracy Corps (despite their partisanship), CBS/NYT, Gallup/CNN/USA Today, Fox, Pew, and the LA Times -- have the most representative samples, I'll take them over the state polls any day.
Inequality Soars Under Bush's Strong Leadership
At last! The debates finally featured some discussion of poverty and inequality. Kerry went out of his way to bring up the issue towards the end. Looking over the transcript, he didn't seem to be responding to any question in particular, but he made a strong statement:
The American middle class family isn't making it right now, Bob. And what the president said about the tax cuts has been wiped out by the increase in health care, the increase in gasoline, the increase in tuitions, the increase in prescription drugs.
The fact is, the take home pay of a typical American family as a share of national income is lower than it's been since 1929. And the take home pay of the richest .1 percent of Americans is the highest it's been since 1928.
These figures are very likely from the recent comprehensive study by Piketty and Saez
, which would make them figures for 2000. I don't mean to criticize: this study is currently the gold standard of inequality research and I'm impressed that Kerry (or one of his advisors) is talking about it. In contrast, I rarely have any idea where Bush's figures could possibly come from.
The most recent figures available
[big pdf] are from the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey (table A-3). They don't cover the truly rich, like the Piketty and Saez study, but they're informative about the trend in inequality. Since Bush took office, the situation has continued to deteriorate.
The figure below shows two common measures of inequality: the ratios of the 90th and 95th percentiles of household income to the 10th percentile. After increasing for 15-20 years, inequality began to level off in the late 1980s. But since Bush took office, it's been on the upswing.
In 1995, a few years into the Clinton recovery, the 10 percent of households lived on $10,501 or less (in 2003 dollars), while the 95th percentile household made 12.9 times more: $135,448. By 2003, the 10th percentile household had advanced by only $35, while those at the 95th percentile enjoyed an extra $18,672 per year, now making 14.6 times more than the lower-income households.
Final Presidential Debate: Instant Analysis
Kerry wins narrowly. Bush's worst moments were the three times he tried to dodge the question and change the subject to education.
* Jobs being outsourced? Education.
* Higher minimum wage? Education.
* Affirmative action still needed? Education.
It's worth mentioning that the federal government plays a relatively minor role in funding education
, covering only about 10% of the costs. The rest is paid for by state, local and private sources. So Bush's 49% increase in federal funding for education, even if true, only amounts to about a 5% increase in the country's spending on education. That's hardly enough to be the solution to all the problems Bush claims will be solved.
Oh, and I noticed during the hugs at the end that Bush is wearing his [back brace/posture support/battery pack/evil alien overlord] or whatever it is, again. Salon has a picture of Bush wearing it while driving on his dude ranch, which leads me to believe that it's a back brace or something similar (it leads Salon to conclude that it's a radio transmitter).
How to Lie With Budgets
One trick politicians use is to shift money from one budget line to another, and then boast about how much one line-item has been cut or how much the other has increased, as the case may be. It's like an alcoholic boasting about how much less beer he's drinking, without mentioning his newfound taste for whiskey.
Bush is a master at this kind of budget switcheroo. For example, he likes to boast
, "we will double the number of people served by our principal job training program." But he doesn't mention that at the same time he's cutting every other job training program
by even more.
In my weekly post on Angry Bear, I discuss how Bush seems to be doing pretty much the same with homeland security
Bush Admits Tort Reform is Unimportant
In the 2nd Presidential Debate
tonight, Kerry said that tort reform (to keep down the cost of lawsuits) was worth doing, but that Bush tries to make it seem more important than it is. "It's less than 1 percent of the total cost of health care," Kerry said.
Bush, making what he seemed to think was a devastating rebuttal, replied
He says that medical liability costs only cause a 1 percent increase. That shows a lack of understanding. Doctors practice defensive medicine because of all the frivolous lawsuits that cost our government $28 billion a year.The total cost of health care
is about $1.6 trillion. A little math shows that Bush's reply is really just a quibble. While Kerry says lawsuits raise health costs by 1 percent, Bush, with his self-proclaimed greater understanding, knows that it's really 1.8 percent!
Republican Social Engineering
Last week Atrios posted some thoughts about how the tax system encourages people to hold their wealth in extremely illiquid assets
...The tax system encourages people to hold their money in real estate through the home mortgage interest deduction (and other various programs which encourage people to buy). It also encourages people to save in various investment accounts which can't be tapped without serious penalty until retirement (or, for a couple of other purposes)....The net effect of all of this is, among other things, that even people with relatively decent incomes and who are actually managing to accumulate some wealth, still feel they are living "paycheck to paycheck" (once they've sent their mortgage payment and thrown a few bucks into their retirement account) because most of that wealth can't be converted into cash as needed.
I've long thought that the point of encouraging homeownership is to make people more conservative. The canonical example being that homeowners band together to keep out undesirables -- Blacks, the poor, and so on -- who might lower their property values. Renters don't do this kind of thing. But overall, my thoughts are pretty half-baked.
Conservatives, however, have been doing some deep thinking about how to keep Republicans in power through social engineering. George Will wrote yesterday,
Bush's "ownership society" is another step in the plan to reduce the supply of government by reducing the demand for it...Hence Bush's menu of incentives for private retirement, health, education and savings accounts.
Conservatives hope such measures will encourage aptitudes that will make the welfare state compatible with traditional American individualism and self-reliance. And conservatives hope such aptitudes will result in Republican attitudes, especially among the elderly and other people with portfolios of equities.
Will praises a recent exposition of conservatives' long-run plan to "reduce the demand" for government and create a more Republican electorate by Jonathan Rauch (National Journal, July 26, 2003). I've only skimmed it, but I was struck by this quote from Republican activist and bane of the Greatest Generation
, Grover Norquist:
"Twenty years from now...who's demanding extra government if I have a 401(k) medical savings account, I've pre-saved for my old age, I have control over where I send my kids to school? Investing in smaller demand for state power down the road is a rational position."
Uh, maybe the demand for more government will come from people whose investments didn't pan out and face spending their retirement in poverty? So, I'm not sure if Norquist's schemes will pay off, but I am sure that it's important to understand them.
Juan Cole, Conspiracy Theorist
Middle East expert Juan Cole claimed today that the U.S. is violating international treaties, and common decency, by manufacturing biological weapons.
Juan Cole writes that Saddam Hussein "had to be at least a little afraid of US retaliation, and it actually does have nuclear and biological weapons
." As far as I can tell, "it" refers to the U.S. This is a remarkably serious charge to toss off so casually, without any elaboration, citation, or evidence or any kind. Cole is fond of this kind of wild accusation
. Last August, he suggested the Israel has stocks of biological or chemical weapons (it wasn't clear which).
Of course, I don't know what kind of secret weapons production facilities the U.S. or Israel might have. But neither does Cole. He's making incredible claims about secret programs, without demonstrating that he has access to the secrets. That's the very definition of a conspiracy theorist.
Flu Vaccine Shortfall, Yet Again
Yesterday, Chiron corporation, which supplies about half of all U.S. flu vaccine
, announced that it was suspending production, due to contamination problems uncovered by British regulators. Although this year's shortage will be particularly severe -- the CDC is calling for those at low risk of flu to voluntarily forgo flu shots -- it isn't unusual. There was also a shortage of flu vaccine last year and in 2000. Other vaccines are also regularly in short supply
, writing in Newsday, attributes the shortages to the fact that "only two major companies in the world manufacture flu vaccines...Experts say making vaccines is not a good business." Actually, however, there are only two companies licensed
to sell flu shots in the U.S. Britons, for example, obtain their flu vaccine from six different companies
, and so aren't expecting a shortfall.
Bernstein's claim that it's hard to make money selling vaccines is also disputed by a surprising source
: Chiron, which says that flu vaccine prices have risen enough to justify substantial investment in the U.S. market. Chiron's president testified before Congress earlier this year, "Pricing of influenza vaccines has reached a level that allows manufacturers to invest in maintaining facilities to meet FDA standards and in expanding manufacturing capacity in order to meet the increased demand." Prices have risen in the past few years because 3 of the 5 former manufacturers have left the U.S. market.
Last time around, Conservatives blamed this situation on price controls and legal liability issues
, and no doubt they will again. Both of these explanations are truly a triumph of ideology over facts. First, there are no price controls on vaccines in the U.S. The government does buy about half of some vaccines, at discounted prices, and distribute them cheaply, but this isn't a price control. Manufacturers aren't forced to sell, for one thing. For another, the government purchases only small amounts of the flu vaccine (see this GAO testimony
Liability issues are also a red herring. Vaccine manufacturers managed, almost two decades ago, to persuade Congress to exempt them from liability laws (see the GAO report
). People who are harmed by vaccines can be compensated through an arbitration process, but can't win sky-high damage awards. Manufacturers continue to complain that lawyers are able to find loopholes in the exemption, and bring their cases to court. But this is minor, compared to liability issues with pharmaceuticals or other products.
UPDATE: I learn from Mark Kleiman
that flu vaccine isn't included in the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program that removes injury cases from the courts for some vaccines. But this is largely because there's been relatively little litigation, and vaccine manufacturers aren't that interested in being included
I see three possible causes of the persistent shortages, one near and dear to conservatives hearts, two more popular with progressives:
* Misregulation, with the FDA making it too hard to become licensed in the U.S., and closing plants with unpredictably shifting regulations. (See the GAO report).
* Monopoly power. With so few suppliers, it's natural to expect that they would try to raise prices by restricting supply. Remember the California energy crisis of a few years ago, or the world-wide vitamin price fixing case.
* Positive externalities. When deciding whether to get immunized, people don't consider the social benefits: flu-free people can't spread the disease to others. Economists usually call for subsidies to overcome this problem.
I have no idea which of these three problems are the most important.
White House Becomes Bush Campaign Headquarters
Labor blogger Nathan Newman complains that Bush has turned the OMB web page into a campaign commercial
. "It looks just like a campaign site. Democrats should demand that Bush compensate the public for the staff work spent on this design," Newman writes.
Of course he's right. I've spent a lot of time poring over Kerry's campaign web site. But I quickly realized that WhiteHouse.gov is a much better place to look for campaign literature than the Bush's official campaign page.
Check out this page on the WhiteHouse.gov, "President George W. Bush: Record of Achievement
." It's not particularly different in tone than that equivalent page on his campaign web site
. The White House page is actually a more informative campaign document than the GeorgeWBush.com version, and doesn't have the annoying background music
And then there's the federal budget document, which is now filled with full-color pictures of Bush
signing bills, Bush with happy children, Bush saluting the flag, etc.
And then there's the $300 tax rebate in 2001, which came with government funded direct mail letter praising Bush
"We are pleased to inform you that the United States Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, which provides long-term tax relief for all Americans who pay income taxes."
And then there's Bush's $13 million taxpayer funded advertising campaign
touting the Medicare changes, that reminded many observers of a campaign ad.
This can't be legal, can it?
Cheney Bashes Small Business
Overall, it seemed to me that Cheney lied a lot less than he usually does, probably expecting close scrutiny of his remarks. But one lie did leap out at me.
that rolling back Bush's tax cuts for the rich would also raise taxes for 900,000 small businesses, forcing them to lay off employees. This claim has already been thoroughly debunked by Factcheck.org
and the Brookings-Urban Tax Policy Center
. The real figure is about half of what Cheney claimed.
Bush frequently makes the same claim
on the campaign trail, praising small businesses as "job creators," and charging that Kerry's plan will raise their taxes: "Ninety percent of small businesses pay tax at the individual income tax rate, because they're either subchapter-S corporation or a sole proprietorship."
So it was more than a little hypocritical when, later in the debate, Cheney charged that Edwards had used a "special tax loophole" to avoid taxes during his days as a lawyer. The loophole? Incorporating under subchapter-S, of course!
In their stump speeches, subchapter-S corporations are virtuous job creators, but when their opponent starts a perfectly typical corporation of this type, he's a tax dodger. What a cheap shot.
NOTE: I've re-written this post since the first version was too long-winded.
UPDATE: It looks like I missed some lies
. Who'd of thought Cheney would lie about meeting Edwards? Still, I don't think it was more than 4 or 5 lies. So I stand by my original claim: a relatively honest night for Cheney.
230,000 New Registrations in Cleveland: Is That a Lot?
With voter registration deadlines starting to bite, there's been a spate of articles about swelling voter rolls
. Most of these articles cite figures that aren't that easy to interpret, such as Cleveland's total this year of "230,000 new registrations, more than double the number in 2000." We don't know how this compares to the total number of voters in Cleveland, how many people registered twice, how many people were re-registering after a move, or how many people left the rolls as they died or moved out of the state.
Buried at the end of their report, ABC reports some more useful figures
What's ultimately essential is who votes, and current polling suggest higher-than-usual turnout. Interest is high, and registration drives across the country may be having an effect. Compared to an ABC News/Washington Post poll at this time in 2000, Americans are six points more likely to say they're registered to vote; and registered voters are six points more likely to say they're certain to vote, and 18 points more likely to be following the election very closely.
ABC's poll had a sample of 1800 adults, so we have a gain of 6 points (+/- 2.6). Pew always reports figures for the percent registered, so their data is available for a larger sample (although just what period to look at is a judgment call). Pew finds that voter registration rose from 77 to 80 percent in the last four years (+/- 1.6).
In other words, between 4% (Pew) and 7% (ABC) of voters this year will be new additions to the rolls, resulting from the intense registration efforts of the parties and the 527s and the high interest in this election. This assumes, of course, that the newly registered vote as the same rate as the rest of the electorate. The ranks of the newly registered are presumably higher in the swing states, where the registration drives are concentrated and voter interest is strongest.
Polls of registered voters will presumably capture these new additions. But there's a good chance that polls of likely voters are screening them out. With the race looking like it will be tight this year, 4-7% is a large number of voters, plenty big enough to swing an election.
Click on "####" for the table.
End Date of Poll Adults RV %RV
---------------- ------ ----- ----
23-Jul-00 1,204 918 76.2
28-Jun-00 2,174 1,673 77.0
10-Sep-00 2,799 1,999 71.4
8-Oct-00 1,331 1,009 75.8
22-Oct-00 1,263 997 78.9
29-Oct-00 1,963 1,508 76.8
5-Nov-00 2,254 1,829 81.1
TOTAL 12,988 9,933 76.5
TOTAL October 4,557 3,514 77.1
13-Jun-04 1,806 1,426 79.0
10-Aug-04 1,512 1,166 77.1
14-Sep-04 2,494 1,972 79.1
21-Sep-04 1,200 989 82.4
26-Sep-04 1,200 948 79.0
3-Oct-04 1,233 1,002 81.3
TOTAL 9,445 7,503 79.4
TOTAL Sept/Oct. 6,127 4,911 80.2
Source: Pew, "About the Survey".
Conservatives' Turn to Bash the Pollsters
A couple weeks ago, Kerry was behind in the polls, and liberal
rushed to attack the pollsters, charging that the Republicans' gain in Party ID proved that the polls' methodology was defective. Even MoveOn joined the chorus, taking out an ad to attack Gallup
. Since this shift showed up in half a dozen of the most respected polls, there seem to be an awful lot of incompetent pollsters out there.
Now Kerry is surging in the polls, and it's the conservatives' turn to denounce the pollsters. Wishful thinker John Fund
, writing in the Wall Street Journal, spouts exactly the same argument as the liberals did a few weeks ago.
If you buy Newsweek's methodology, one out of nine voters has changed their party affiliation in the last month. That might explain why the poll found that one out of eight voters changed their mind on how they will vote too. But how many people do you know who have switched parties and/or changed their mind on the presidential race in the last month? Frankly, the Newsweek poll is more volatile than any electorate could be.
Fund's article comes highly endorsed by Donald Luskin, so it's no surprise that the reasoning is "poor and stupid," with the claim about the volatility of the electorate backed with no evidence at all. Fund just knows better than the data, using the Jimmy Breslin "common sense" technique, I suppose.
In fact, researchers who have actually looked at the data have found that to have 1 in 9 voters change their answer to a Party ID question over the course of a month isn't at all unusual
. Pew researchers on several occasions have re-interviewed poll respondents soon after a presidential election. It turns out that when you ask the same people the same question about party affiliation, between 1 in 4 and 1 in 6 give a different answer than they had a month or two prior to the election.
Bush: Election Year Moderate
My weekly post on Angry Bear discusses Bush's attempts to cast himself as a moderate by recycling his broken promises on health care
Regular posting will resume this week on Ragout. I hope to evaluate Bush's newfound love of community colleges and job training programs, figure out exactly what those "community health centers" that Bush keeps promising are, give the lowdown on soaring voter registration, and maybe even discuss my position on the Iraq war, as one commentator has requested.