Archive for May 24, 2012

MarketWatch’s Rex Nutting On Obama Spending (Infographic)

It’s been going around Facebook and the Twitters.

It’s been rated “mostly true” by Politifact.

It is the MarketWatch piece on how Obama hasn’t really increased spending all that much.

And I’m damn tired of picking it apart 140 characters at a time, so I put together this sarcastic infographic showing exactly how sloppy this piece really is.

(Correction: An earlier version of this infographic incorrectly identified the $3.8 Trillion 2013 as a CBO projection. That is the spending request from President Obama 2013 budget.)

UPDATED (05/24/12, 3PM):

There are three things in this infographic that should be called out more explicitly.

First, much of the debate here centers around who exactly should catch the blame for FY 2009 spending. This is actually a very tricky question and I think compelling cases can be made for both sides of this debate.

My personal position is that it’s really complicated. But one thing is for certain: in hindsight the CBO January 2009 estimate is so obviously wrong that using it should be called out and mocked.

The January 2009 CBO estimate might have been a “best estimate of what Obama inherited”, but only in January 2009 when spending data was *very* hard to predict. January 2009 marked the worst part of the recession and the uncertainty was very high. Only a few months later, Obama’s budget estimated 2009 spending would be $400 billion higher than the CBO estimate.

But now we can look at the data, not the estimates. And we should. The spending data ended up $20 billion lower than the CBO estimate… and that included the stimulus spending (which Nutting says was $140 billion, but I’m still trying to track that number down). If that is the case, the high-end estimate for Bush’s fiscal year is  $3.38 trillion. If we compare that to Obama’s 2013 budget proposal ($3.80 trillion), that’s an increase of 12.5% (3.1% annualized). Which isn’t that high, but it’s also using a baseline that is still filled with a lot of what were supposed to be 1 time expenses (TARP, Cash for Clunkers, the auto bailout, the housing credit, etc).

Second, Nutting uses the CBO baseline in place of Obama’s spending. This is easily verified and I can’t think of a serious economic pundit who would say this is OK. I can think of two reasons for doing this: Either a) Nutting is a monstrously biased ass who (rightly) figured no one in the liberal world would fact check him so he could use whatever the hell number he wanted to use or b) Nutting had no idea that the CBO baseline isn’t a budget proposal. I’m actually leaning toward the second explanation. Nutting uses so many disparate sources it seems clear he doesn’t know his way around federal finance.

Congrats, Mr. Nutting. I don’t think you’re a huge jerk, only that you’re hilariously unqualified for your job.

Finally, my biggest goal here was to point out the inconsistencies in the analysis. Nutting wants to use the 2009 CBO estimates, but only one column (only for attacking Bush on spending). He wants to compare estimates from one year to actual spending from other years to the CBO baseline from this year. And, as if he is a magical cherry-picking elf, he manages to pick just the right numbers to give him just the right data. This could be an accident. Stranger things have happened. But it seems more likely that he intended to squash a talking point by any means necessary and he went looking for the best data to do that.

I will be accused of massaging the data by people who don’t understand what I’m doing here. I’m pointing out the data massaging on Nutting’s side and calling him on it. I’m saying “If you’re going to use the CBO estimate, use the f***ing CBO estimate!” Don’t use just the part you want and then pretend like the rest of it doesn’t exist. Commit yourself to the data you’re using and follow it, even if it doesn’t go where you want it to go.

OK… references:

Bush requested $3.107 trillion, but the final budget of $3.52 trillion was passed by the Democratic Congress and signed by President Obama on March 12, 2009.

For actual spending, I used the monthly Treasury Reports, which have spending and revenue for every month since 1981 in an Excel file.

For the CBO fiscal year 2009 estimates.

The CBO baseline (which was referenced by Nutting for the $3.58 trillion number) is found here.

President Obama’s actual 2013 budget

And just for kicks, here is the CBO analysis of the President’s Budget which pegs Obama’s 2013 spending at $3.717 trillion.

The Republican Brain (or How Liberal Journalists Distort Science To Confirm Their Biases)

I don’t normally allow guest blog posts because… well, mostly because I’m a jerk and I like to keep my blog all to myself. But then I read this post on Chris Mooney’s upcoming “The Republican Brain”. It’s part of an on-going liberal “Science says that Republicans (or conservatives or religious people) are dumb (or driven by fear or some other negative neuro-psychological phenomena)” talking point.

So I asked my brother (a neuroscientist entering med school this fall) to take a look at the piece and comment on it. What you’ll find below is his response. If you look at nothing else, check out the chart where he suggests other liberal/conservative conclusions based on the same “evidence” Mooney uses to bolster his “science-y” nonsense.

Enjoy!

Political Neuroscience

Whenever I see a study claiming “science proves XYZ about conservatives (or liberals)”, I roll my eyes and sigh. There is currently a problem of misuse and mis-referencing academic and peer-reviewed articles for the purpose of substantiating an argument or point-of-view that is already held by those offering up these studies. For those who use scientific results to convince their audience as part of a job, this amounts to nothing short of inherent bias, a position that is staunchly avoided and rejected by reputable scientists. Pervasive ignorance is nothing new, but with the advent of the internet the ignorant have easy access to science that is outside their area of expertise (or amateurism for that matter) and the misuse of science as a tool for manipulation has made the function and even purpose of the original studies grossly misunderstood.

Joshua Holland, Chris Mooney and The Republican Brain

Our example for today comes from an article published in Salon entitled “The Republican Fear Factor,” by Joshua Holland. In this article, Holland cites a recent study in Current Biology on the gray matter volume from individuals of different political persuasions. Holland points out that “the amygdala is an ancient brain structure that’s activated during states of fear and anxiety.” He then proceeds to interpret the results of aforementioned article (which finds that the amygdala is enlarged in conservatives compared to liberals) are evidence of conservatives living in a world of fear, even calling the world from a conservative’s perspective to be a “nightmarish landscape.”

The article continues in the now common, though still unpredictable, ramblings of the politically entrenched ideologues who are convinced all science (reason, common sense, credible faith, or any other citation used as a source of truth) supports their position. Often such overzealous ideologues attempt to discredit any source that contradicts their position, making manipulation of information their primary weapon for influence. This is not to say that idealists are categorically given to this tendency, nor is this any attack on ideals themselves. This critique is directed entirely at ideologues, i.e. those *blindly* committed to their belief systems who leave no room for discussion or counter-positions—these are the most common culprits.

While Holland and Mooney can be given credit for citing not just one, but two (TWO!) whole studies from reputable sources, their understanding of neuropsychology and scientific studies is patently flawed, evident from his misinterpretation of the findings. While I am by no means an expert in the field, I have an advantage over Holland: this actually *is* my field. I have five years of graduate/postgraduate experience in neuroscience research, with multiple publications in peer-reviewed journals. Holland’s handling of this study is such a far-cry from the kind of discussion these results would inspire in academic circles that addressing his article does not require an expert, just experience.

The Problem With Neuroscience and Journalists

While this is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis, I’ll identify some major, obvious problems with his interpretations. There is no brain structure that can be summarized completely in just a couple of sentences. Neither does there exist a higher-order brain structure to which we could attribute a complete understanding of its functions. It is true that the amygdala is activated in states of fear and anxiety. I’m not sure why Holland cites Chris Mooney, a journalist, for further explanation of the function of the amygdala. While Mooney works with scientists, it is in the art of communication; Mooney himself has no substantive background in science.

Holland could have found a renowned biologist and biochemist such as Leon Kass who pointed out that “the neuroscience area—which is absolutely in its infancy—is much more important than genetics,” Gerald D. Fischbach who said that “The brain immediately confronts us with its great complexity. The human brain weighs only three to four pounds but contains about 100 billion neurons. Although that extraordinary number is of the same order of magnitude as the number of stars in the Milky Way, it cannot account for the complexity of the brain,” or even an expert on information processing, such as the Emerson Pugh who wisely pointed out that the “If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

I suspect I know why he didn’t cite these scientists: neither Holland nor Mooney are out to educate the public with this article, to fill the world with knowledge. This article is about winning, about attacking the enemy until it appears as defeated, inferior and cowering in its own nightmarish landscape. Citing an ideologue who agrees with him is easier than citing a scientist who will readily tell you that things are more complex than that.

If We Accept That Logic…

The results of this study suggest that there is a correlation between conservatism of the individual and gray matter volume of the amygdala. Using peer-reviewed journal articles, let’s look at a few other things that have this kind of association…

If we interpret this in the same way that Holland did, by oversimplifying the brain into one concise function, then we can say that extroverts and those with bipolar-disorder are extra fearful and more likely to be conservatives. Similarly, those with narcolepsy, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, high-risk for alcohol dependence, Alzheimer’s, post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, and pedophilic tendencies have significantly reduced fear (and probably more likely to be liberal).

Do Republicans Live In A Nightmarish Landscape?

Allow me to emphasize one group: those with post-traumatic stress disorder have reduced gray matter volume. For those unfamiliar with the symptoms of PTSD, the most common include:

1. “Reliving the event, which disturbs day-to-day activity,” which including repeated nightmares of the event and strong, uncomfortable reactions to situations that remind you of the event.

2. Avoidance, which includes “Emotional “numbing, or feeling as though you don’t care about anything.”

3. Arousal, which can include “having an exaggerated response to things that startle you… feeling more aware (hypervigilance)… feeling irritable or having outbursts of anger.”(13)

Some of these sound remarkably similar to the perspective Holland is claiming conservatives live in with their increased gray matter volume in the amygdala. In other words, those with PTSD have reduced gray matter volume in the amygdala and can literally be experiencing a “nightmarish landscape,” while conservatives with their enlarged gray matter in the amygdala are, as Holland believes, are experiencing the same thing. Those with PTSD can be crippled by fear, so maybe an enlarged amygdala makes conservatives far superior to liberals in dealing with the fear they face… Or maybe the amygdala is just not that simple. If gray matter volume were a direct correlation to function and behavior, how much easier a neuroscientists job would be! Actually, it probably wouldn’t be that simple because everything would be figured out by now and they would be out of a job.

Using the same logic, one could just as easily argue that taller people are naturally better at basketball. Basketball players have shown increased volume in their legs and hands over the average population. Since the legs have been determined scientifically to be the primary source of jumping and running and the shooting hoops occurs predominately with hands, we can conclude…

I looked only at the amygdala here because I’m lazy (and because the blog owner didn’t want me to attack the Holland’s other issue with the of the anterior cingulate cortex in a single blog post).

Using Science To Prove Bias

The point (and truth) is that we’ve got a lot of good ideas about some areas of the brain. It is absolutely true that the amygdala is activated in fear and anxiety responses. However, to say that this is *the* function of the amygdala or that increases in the size of the amygdala indicate a worldview that is warped by fear is journalistic extrapolation based on a pre-determined bias, nothing more.

I am confident that conservatives may react to fear differently than liberals. As indicated in the second study, conservatives look toward fear while liberals look away (14). This may be somewhat related to the higher ratio of conservatives to liberals among our armed servicemen and women—those whose job it is to run toward dangerous, fear-inducing conflict rather than away. Is this tendency to focus on sources of fear a weakness?

As an aside, I find it unprofessional that Holland is citing a Huffington Post article about this study (written and interpreted by our journalist friend, Mooney) without any link/citation to the study itself.

The eagerness to use the results of these studies to justify his position would be laughable if the general population didn’t find neuroscience to be beyond their grasp. As it is, it can barely be said that a basic understanding of neuroscience is within the grasp of even today’s renowned neuroscientists—and they’ll tell you that themselves. The point is that interpreting science is difficult, answers are not easy to come by, and almost nothing is as simple as online political editorials would have you believe.

References:

1. Omura, Kazufumi; Todd Constable, R.; Canli, Turhan. Amygdala gray matter concentration is associated with extraversion and neuroticism. Neuroreport. 16(17):1905-1908, November 28, 2005.

2. Altshuler LL, Bartzokis G, Grieder T, Curran J, Mintz J. Amygdala enlargement in bipolar disorder and hippocampal reduction in schizophrenia: an mri study demonstrating neuroanatomic specificity. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1998;55(7):663-664.

3. Burgmer, Markus, Markus Gaubitz, Carsten Konrad, Marco Wrenger, Sebastian Hilgart, Gereon Heuft, and Bettina Pfleiderer. “Decreased Gray Matter Volumes in the Cingulo-Frontal Cortex and the Amygdala in Patients With Fibromyalgia.” Psychosomatic Medicine 71 (2009): 566-573.

4. Szeszko PR, Robinson D, Alvir JJ, et al. Orbital frontal and amygdala volume reductions in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1999;56(10):913-919.

5. Benegal, Vivek, Antony, George, Venkatasubramanian, Ganesan, Jayakumar, Peruvumba N. IMAGING STUDY: Gray matter volume abnormalities and externalizing symptoms in subjects at high risk for alcohol dependence. (2007) Addiction Biology. 12(1) 122-132. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1369-1600.2006.00043.x

6. J.C. Baron, G. Chételat, B. Desgranges, G. Perchey, B. Landeau, V. de la Sayette, F. Eustache, In Vivo Mapping of Gray Matter Loss with Voxel-Based Morphometry in Mild Alzheimer’s Disease, NeuroImage, Volume 14, Issue 2, August 2001, Pages 298-309, ISSN 1053-8119, 10.1006/nimg.2001.0848. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811901908481)

7. Mark A. Rogers, Hidenori Yamasue, Osamu Abe, Haruyasu Yamada, Toshiyuki Ohtani, Akira Iwanami, Shigeki Aoki, Nobumasa Kato, Kiyoto Kasai, Smaller amygdala volume and reduced anterior cingulate gray matter density associated with history of post-traumatic stress disorder, Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Volume 174, Issue 3, 30 December 2009, Pages 210-216, ISSN 0925-4927, 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2009.06.001. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0925492709001449)

8. Kaufmann, Christian MSc; Schuld, Andreas MD; Pollmacher, Thomas MD; Auer, Dorothee P. MD. Reduced cortical gray matter in narcolepsy: Preliminary findings with voxel-based morphometry. Neurology. 58(12):1852-1855, June 25, 2002.

9. LANGE,C. IRLE,E. Enlarged amygdala volume and reduced hippocampal volume in young women with major depression. Psychological Medicine. (2004) 34(6), 1059-1064. 10.1017/S0033291703001806 http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0033291703001806

10. Takeshi Yoshida, Robert W. McCarley, Motoaki Nakamura, KangUk Lee, Min-Seong Koo, Sylvain Bouix, Dean F. Salisbury, Lindsay Morra, Martha E. Shenton, Margaret A. Niznikiewicz, A prospective longitudinal volumetric MRI study of superior temporal gyrus gray matter and amygdala–hippocampal complex in chronic schizophrenia, Schizophrenia Research, Volume 113, Issue 1, August 2009, Pages 84-94, ISSN 0920-9964, 10.1016/j.schres.2009.05.004. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0920996409002199)

11. K. Schiltz, J. Witzel, G. Northoff, K. Zierhut, U. Gubka, H. Fellmann et al. Brain pathology in pedophilic offenders: evidence of volume reduction in the right amygdala and related diencephalic structures. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 64 (2007), pp. 737–746

12. A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia [Internet]. Atlanta (GA): A.D.A.M., Inc.; ©2005. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder; [updated 2005 Apr 30; cited 2005 Aug 12]; [about 4 p.]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001923/

13. Smith KB, Oxley D, Hibbing MV, Alford JR, Hibbing JR (2011) Disgust Sensitivity and the Neurophysiology of Left-Right Political Orientations. PLoS ONE6(10): e25552. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025552

Is the Labor Force Shrinking Due to Boomer Retirement? (Not Mostly)

Every month when the BLS releases the employment report, I dig into the data and tweet about it at length using the hashtag #BLSFriday. (Follow me on Twitter to catch this incredibly exciting data dive. The next one is on June 1st.)

If you’ve been following the job numbers closely, you’ll know that this recession we’ve seen a particularly sharp drop in labor force participation. Labor force participation measures how many people either have a job or are looking for a job as a percentage of the population. As of March 2012 labor force participation has dropped to 63.6%, the lowest point since December 1981.

Because the unemployment rate doesn’t measure people who aren’t in the Labor Force, many (especially conservatives) have noted that the unemployment rate is “artificially” low and that many have left the labor force, basically giving up even looking for a job.

One Twitter friend, @rizzuhjj, pointed out that the Chicago Fed has a paper that claims that half of the post-1999 decline in the labor force is due to long-term demographic trends, specifically, Baby Boomers aging.

Here is a chart of the labor force participation rate since it the last time it was this low. You can see that we’re at the point where Boomers are starting to retire, so surely that would be driving the massive drop in labor force participation and not due to the recession, right?

image

To test this, I decided to sift through the employment data by age, as provided by the BLS. In January 2008, the participation rate by age looked like this (click to enlarge).

image

(The outline is a rough approximation of where Baby Boomers land in the data. Which is OK because the Baby Boomers are an approximate age group anyway.)

You can see that the boomers are largely entering the age ranges where participation in the labor force drops off significantly. So, on the surface, this explanation makes sense.

This was my test: Take the participation rates for post-Baby Boomers (16-49 year old) and multiply them for the corresponding populations for those ages. That way we’ve isolated just the post-Baby Boomer labor force and can see if it is smaller now than it was 3 years ago. This is what I found.

image

Or, to make it a little clearer, this is the change in labor force participation by age since January 2008.

image

Apply the January 2008 participation rates to current population and this means we are missing 3.4 million post-Baby Boom workers from the labor force. These post-Boomers account for 68% of the “missing” work force.

If labor force participation was dropping only due to Baby Boomer retirement, the rate should have dropped from 66.2% in January 2008 to 64.8% today. Instead, it is 63.6%. There is certainly a good deal of room for improvement to get younger people back into the labor force. We shouldn’t simply push the problem off to being Boomer retirement or we risk ignoring a whole generation that is unemployed and flying under the radar.