The Census Bureau, the authoritative source of health insurance data for more than three decades, is changing its annual survey so thoroughly that it will be difficult to measure the effects of President Obama’s health care law in the next report, due this fall, census officials said.

The changes are intended to improve the accuracy of the survey, being conducted this month in interviews with tens of thousands of households around the country. But the new questions are so different that the findings will not be comparable, the officials said.

An internal Census Bureau document said that the new questionnaire included a “total revision to health insurance questions” and, in a test last year, produced lower estimates of the uninsured. Thus, officials said, it will be difficult to say how much of any change is attributable to the Affordable Care Act and how much to the use of a new survey instrument.

“We are expecting much lower numbers just because of the questions and how they are asked,” said Brett J. O’Hara, chief of the health statistics branch at the Census Bureau.

With the new questions, “it is likely that the Census Bureau will decide that there is a break in series for the health insurance estimates,” says another agency document describing the changes. This “break in trend” will complicate efforts to trace the impact of the Affordable Care Act, it said.

Obviously with a big new law you need new questions too, I suppose, plus the old questions ought not to hang around.  You can read more here.

As a side note, I have been reading far too many blog posts about “numbers enrolled” as a metric of success for Obamacare.  That has never been a good test of the serious criticisms (and defenses) of ACA.

I thank Megan and Garett for the pointers.

Addendum: You should read this update from Vox, though I am not satisfied with the Administration’s response.

Horse head squirrel feeder.  Who could possibly want such a thing?  Is that the result of a fixed point theorem?  Aren’t fixed costs God’s way of keeping such nasty stuff away from us?:

You have a Creepy Horse Mask, why not the squirrels in your yard? It turns out it’s even funnier on a squirrel. This hanging vinyl 6-1/2″ x 10″ squirrel feeder makes it appear as if any squirrel that eats from it is wearing a Horse Mask. You’ll laugh every morning as you drink your coffee while staring out the window into your backyard. Now, if only the squirrels would do their own version of the Harlem Shake video. Hole on top for hanging with string (not included).


For the pointer I thank John De Palma.

The 68-page Il Mio Papa (My Pope) will hit Italian newsstands on Ash Wednesday, offering a glossy medley of papal pronouncements and photographs, along with peeks into his personal life. Each weekly issue will also include a pullout centerfold of the pope, accompanied by a quote.

“It’s a sort of fanzine, but of course it can’t be like something you’d do for One Direction,” the popular boy band, said the magazine’s editor, Aldo Vitali. “We aim to be more respectful, more noble.”

There is more here.  It will sell for fifty cents, but there are intellectual property issues:

“Various magazines publish the pope’s teachings, but they have an accord with us,” said the Rev. Giuseppe Costa, the director of the Libreria Editrice Vaticana. A similar accord has not been signed with My Pope, he added, though the magazine should have known better “because we have a relationship with Mondadori.”

“In the case they publish the pope’s words, I will have to intervene,” Father Costa said.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ledger:

Former Pope Benedict, in one of the few times he has broken his silence since stepping down nearly a year ago, has branded as “absurd” fresh media speculation that he was forced to quit.

And his world of scarcity continues:

Libero also suggested that Benedict chose to continue to wear white because he still felt like he was a pope.

Benedict, who lives in near-total isolation inside a former convent on the Vatican grounds, was also asked about this and responded:

“I continue to wear a white cassock and kept the name Benedict for purely practical reasons. At the moment of my resignation there were no other cloths available.

A new paper was presented at the AEA meetings this January, “Religion, Economics, and the Rise of the Nazis,” by Philipp Tillman and Jörg Spenkuch, and the abstract for one version of the paper is this:

We investigate the role of religion in the electoral success of the Nazi Party in Weimar Germany. Among historians, it is a well known fact that Protestants were much more likely than Catholics to vote for Adolf Hitler. However, in spite of the historical importance of the Nazis’ rise to power, the question of whether this correlation reflects a causal effect of religion has so far remained unanswered. We use an instrumental variable approach by relying on geographic variation in religious beliefs dating back to a peace treaty in the sixteenth century. According to the principle “cuius regio, eius religio.” the Peace of Augsburg granted local rulers the right to determine the religion of their serfs. Using rulers’ choices in the aftermath of the peace as an instrumental variable for the religion of Germans living in the respective areas more than three hundred years later, we are able to document an economically large effect of Protestantism on Nazi vote shares— even after controlling for a wide range of region fixed effects and socioeconomic characteristics. Taken at face value, our estimates suggest that Catholics were about 50% less likely to vote for the Nazi Party than their Protestant counterparts. We are currently testing multiple hypotheses to explain this effect and are in the process of collecting additional data.

That is not a new claim but it is new to have serious econometrics to back it up and show the vote tallies were not caused by associated demographic factors.  You will find a related copy of the paper at the first link here.  Tillman’s home page is here.  Spenkuch is here.  Here is Spenkuch’s paper on immigration and crime.  Immigration is connected to higher rates of theft crime, although by small amounts, and not positively related to violent crime.

Addendum: Here is the most current version of the paper (pdf), with notable additions.

From the excellent Jonathan Haidt:

…I took the full text of the three most important New Atheist books—Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and I ran the files through a widely used text analysis program that counts words that have been shown to indicate certainty, including “always,” “never,” “certainly,” “every,” and “undeniable.” To provide a close standard of comparison, I also analyzed three recent books by other scientists who write about religion but are not considered New Atheists: Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct, Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods, and my own book The Righteous Mind(More details about the analysis can be found here.) 

To provide an additional standard of comparison, I also analyzed books by three right wing radio and television stars whose reasoning style is not generally regarded as scientific. I analyzed Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, Sean Hannity’s Deliver Us from Evil, and Anne Coulter’s Treason. (I chose the book for each author that had received the most comments on Amazon.) As you can see in the graph, the New Atheists win the “certainty” competition. Of the 75,000 words in The End of Faith, 2.24% of them connote or are associated with certainty. (I also analyzed The Moral Landscape—it came out at 2.34%.)

There is more here, and for the pointer I thank Eric Auld.


The link is here, and for the pointer I thank Gordon.  At least it’s not a watch.

Milan-figures-01Consider this extraordinary figure: 30 percent of members of parliament have criminal cases pending against them…the answer to why political parties in India nominate candidates with criminal backgrounds is painfully obvious: because they win (see figure 1). In the 2004 or the 2009 parliamentary elections, a candidate with no criminal cases pending had—on average—a 7 percent chance of winning. Compare this with a candidate facing a criminal charge: he or she had a 22 percent chance of winning. Granted, this simple comparison does not take into account numerous other factors such as education, party, or type of electoral constituency. Nevertheless, the contrast is marked.

Writing at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace blog, Milan Vaishnav goes on to note that those with criminal backgrounds appear to have ready access to cash and in addition their toughness appeals to voters:

In contexts where the rule of law is weak and social divisions are highly salient, politicians often use their criminal reputation as a badge of honor—a signal of their credibility to protect the interests of their parochial community and its allies, from physical safety to access to government benefits and social insurance.

…The appeal of candidates who are willing to do what it takes—by hook or crook—to protect the interests of their community provides some intuition for why the odds of a parliamentary candidate winning an election actually increase with the severity of the charges, with slightly diminishing returns in the most severe instances…

A short while ago, he asked this:

taking requests? I doubt if, but here goes anyway – charisma half-life of Taylor Swift, Jorge Bergoglio, and James Levine as seen fifty years from now; when will the unquestionably converging IQs of point guards, quarterbacks, and chess champions meet up; what would life be like for a tenured economics professor who decides to spend a year studying midAtlantic Lepidoptera in the wild and learning Norwegian; Peter Hitchens versus Christopher Hitchens – who was or is less deceptive and deceived, assuming an ability to consider them as intellectual equals; how old was TC when he read “all of Harold Bloom’s canon” leaving out some of the Icelandic sagas. Not that any of these topics will be taken up, but if TC or Alex takes one of them seriously how about the Hitchens one, which has the whole Pascalian eternal potential return thing going for it.

The expected creative powers of female musical artists are continuing to increase, especially when it comes to composition.  Taylor Swift therefore will produce another album of good songs, though the burden of extreme fame, and the accompanying difficulty of replenishing her creative wells, will hold her back from five more such albums.  Bergoglio will pass and be forgotten, as he has not built the necessary coalition within the Vatican and also I do not predict the triumph of liberal religion.  Many future conductors will sound like James Levine and he, for all his talents, will not be remembered, even though his Mahler’s 3rd is perfect.  If you treat intelligence as sufficiently multi-dimensional, and grasp how much of the human brain is used to coordinate our bodies, you see the chess champion may never catch up to Magic Johnson circa 1984.  An economics professor cannot these days learn good Norwegian because the butterflies all speak English to him.  The two Hitchens brothers fought an obsolete battle, in any case “society” needs to believe in something and in this regard actually neither Peter nor Christopher — taking his lived theology into account — was in the running with an alternative.  Perhaps “emotional stance” is sometimes a more useful category than “belief” and I consider myself increasingly detached from that entire question.  Not long ago I was reading more of the sagas.

Happy New Year’s Eve!  And yes, I think disaggregate is indeed the word you want.

Note that Alex’s answers may differ from these.

Any more reader requests?

I say the goal is to minimize non-convexities, which in this context means avoiding the possibility of no mail or UPS deliveries for two days running.  That makes Saturday and Monday especially bad days to have Christmas.

When Christmas is on Wednesday, as it was this year, on that Wednesday you still can be reading the books which arrived on Tuesday and then a new lot comes on Thursday.  The public libraries also close for only one day, not two or three in a row.

Christmas on Wednesday also means that the roads are deserted for all the other weekdays, since many people end up leaving town for the entire week.  Then you can visit all those ethnic restaurants you wanted to get to in Gaithersburg or Mount Vernon without hassle.

And if you are taking a vacation abroad, and trying to use a limited number of vacation days, you certainly don’t want Christmas to fall on either a Saturday or a Sunday, which in essence wastes a granted day off.

You know what is also good about Christmas on Wednesday?  It means New Year’s Day will be on Wednesday too, double your pleasure double your fun.

Merry Christmas!

by on December 25, 2013 at 6:36 am in Food and Drink, Music, Religion, Uncategorized | Permalink


Merry Christmas from New Orleans and best wishes for the New Year to all our readers.

Merry Christmas!

by on December 25, 2013 at 12:30 am in Food and Drink, History, Religion | Permalink


Filipe Campante and David Yanagizawa-Drott have a new paper (pdf), here is the abstract:

We study the economic effects of religious practices in the context of the observance of Ramadan fasting, one of the central tenets of Islam. To establish causality, we exploit variation in the length of the fasting period due to the rotating Islamic calendar. We report two key, quantitatively meaningful results: 1) longer Ramadan  fasting has a negative effect on output growth in Muslim countries, and 2) it increases subjective well-being among Muslims. We then examine labor market outcomes, and find that these results cannot be primarily explained by a direct reduction in labor productivity due to fasting. Instead, the evidence indicates that Ramadan affects Muslims’ relative preferences regarding work and religiosity, suggesting that the mechanism operates at least partly by changing beliefs and values that influence labor supply and occupational choices beyond the month of Ramadan itself. Together, our results indicate that religious practices can affect labor supply choices in ways that have negative implications for economic performance, but that nevertheless increase subjective well-being among followers.
An earlier discussion on ultra-Orthodox Jews and happiness is here, many excellent comments were offered.

Asher Meir writes to me:

I enjoyed your post today especially since it is one that actually interfaces with my research and not just my teaching of basic micro/macro.

Israeli Ultra-Orthodox are threshold earners in both the positive sense (they don’t on the whole strive to earn more than some basic level) and also the normative sense (they are really more interested in other things.)  

Here is an interesting demonstration, you can easily do it yourself using the Israeli CBS “Social Survey Table Generator”. (

One thing you can easily verify is that the Haredim (you can find them using Topic = Religion and Religiosity, Variable = Religiosity Jews and value is “Ultra Religious/ Haredi) have a reported life satisfaction that is through the roof. It is hugely higher than that of any other sector. (Get there from: Topic = Satisfaction – general; Variable = Satisfied with life.)

But you might say that could be because even though their economic situation is admittedly dire, they care more about other things. Now check out “Satisfaction economic situation”. They still come out way on top. They are not only happiest despite their economic situation, they are happiest with their economic situation. (I am aware that reported happiness and reported life satisfaction are different, I am just expressing myself briefly.) I’m attaching the spreadsheet.

Now here is the real threshold earner criterion: For each group, figure out the average life satisfaction for each earnings level. Then calculate the correlation between life satisfaction and earnings. For every population group it is positive, except for the Ultra-Orthodox. Their coefficient is not significantly different from zero. (J27 is the coefficient, J28 the standard error.)

I’m attaching an Excel spreadsheet that does this for 2012 but I’ve done it a number of times. I do not include the regressions for other sectors but you can easily do so and verify that the income coefficient is positive.

I calculated life satisfaction using a linear weighting, zero for Not so satisfied, one for Satisfied and two for Very satisfied. (Note that the “Not satisfied at all” column is empty. No ultra-orthodox gave this answer.) I used the middle of the income range for income. But in my experience it doesn’t matter much how you do this.

I played around with this once using the WVS to see if I could find some other group in the world for whom life satisfaction was totally uncorrelated with income. I didn’t find any but I imagine that Hal Varian would find it easy to do so.

Those are intriguing results.  One possibility is that (some?) religions make people pretty happy.  Another is that lack of money does not make you unhappy, provided that a) you can cite a good reason for having a lower income, b) you have peer and family support for your situation/decision, and c) there is no negative selection into the other lower income individuals you will end up hanging around.  Bryan Caplan might cite the large number of children as a source of life satisfaction.

If one was looking for grounds to be skeptical, perhaps extremely religious groups use the concepts of happiness and life satisfaction in different ways.  For instance complaining about your life satisfaction might be considering a signal of impiety and thus the extremely religious might put a better gloss on things than their actually happiness would warrant.  Of course “pretending to be happy” may itself be a possible source of happiness.

The word is that Stanley Fischer will be nominated to be #2 at the Fed, good news in my view.  Here is Ari Shavit recounting his meeting with Stanley Fischer:

…he [Fischer] utters the relevant figures in slow, measured, Anglo-Saxon Hebrew.  In the years 2004 to 2008, Israel’s average annual growth rate was 5.2 percent.  While the world was in crisis in 2010-11, Israel’s average annual growth rate was 4.7 percent.

…Fischer tells me there are four reasons for this success: reducing government spending dramatically (from 51 percent of GDP in 2002 to 42 percent in 2011); reducing the national debt significantly (from 100 percent of GDP in 2002 to 75 percent in 2011); maintaining a conservative and responsible financial system; and fostering the conditions required for Israeli high-tech to continue to flourish.

There is then a discussion of how Israeli R&D and starts-ups are so strong and how dynamic the tech sector is.  Fischer then turns to the problems:

“We have four problems,” he says.  “Our education system has deteriorated, and it endangers our ability to sustain technological excellence.  The employment rate among ultra-Orthodox men is only 45 percent.  Most Arab women do not work.  Fewer than twenty business groups control much of the local market and thus restrict competition.  Right now the high-tech miracle helps to conceal these four problems that are weighing down the wider economy.  But in the long term, these problems endanger Israel’s ability to remain prosperous and successful.”

That is from Ari Shavit’s excellent new book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, reviewed here.

Companies, academics and individual software developers will be able to use it at a small fraction of the previous cost, drawing on IBM’s specialists in fields like computational linguistics to build machines that can interpret complex data and better interact with humans.

That is a big deal, obviously.  The story is here.