Monday, October 26, 2009

Al Franken Explains Selection Effects

Al Franken is quickly becoming my hero. Below is a clip (h/t Effect Measure) where he not only makes a very prescient case for health care reform and the impact on "medical bankruptcies," but also shows that he is unwilling to be bullied, knows what selection effects are, and is able to explain them so that they can be understood in such a way that he uses them to make the case for health care reform.

I can admit that I was a little bit weary of Al Franken running for the Senate. I used to listen to his radio show on Air America and thought that he was a little arrogant and showed a lack of nuance in some of the opinions that he expressed on that show. I was also worried that he didn't have the discipline to stay on message and not make needlessly disparaging comments that would come back and haunt him later. But, he handled himself with incredible grace during the recount and subsequent court battles in Minnesota and has shown an incredible acuity for both politics and policies in the Senate.

Medical bankruptcies are bankruptcies that are related to medical or health-related issues. A 2005 study showed that medical bankruptcies affect between 1.9–2.2 million Americans in 2001 alone. As if filing for bankruptcy wasn't bad enough, the authors found that many of those who filed for bankruptcy had problems finding a future apartment, job, or cars because of their credit unworthiness. Sen. Franken points out that there are zero of these bankruptcies in France, Germany, and Switzerland.

Then, when the right-wing shill asks Sen. Franken if he knows the international disparities in cancer outcomes, he already has an answer that every intro stats class should watch for an explanation of selection effects. If, because we only treat people socioeconomically advantaged enough to not have serious complications for cancer, of course we would expect that our cancer outcomes would be much better than those who treat difficult cases as well. In other words, the design of the study selected on the dependent variable — likelihood to survive cancer treatment — to receive treatment; it is therefore, unsurprising when cancer patients here survive more.

As is becoming frequent of late around here, I congratulate Senator Franken for his outstanding representation of this country.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Progressive and Not Diverse? Not Really

In urban planning circles, Portland, Oregon is held up as a model of urban planning. It is designed to be highly walkable, has an extensive system of bike routes, good public transportation, and was one of the first cities in the country to make sustainability a priority. As is often the case, being held up as a model by one group invites criticism by another and a recent post at the iconoclastic planning website takes Portland to task for lacking diversity and being all-white.

It is true that Portland is not a very diverse city and, if author Aaron Renn had left his criticism at Portland, he would have had a much stronger argument, but he does not. Instead, he argues that "the best, the most progressive and best role models for small and mid-sized cities" are havens of white exclusivity and goes on to present an array of statistics to demonstrate this point. In his analysis, there are flaws in the way that he presents the data. In particular, despite his claim that these progressive models are "White Cities," he doesn't actually present the percentage white in cities. In fact, he doesn't present data for cities at all — he presents statistics for "Core Counties" (these are counties that contain the central city).

Renn addressed the second of the two criticisms in the comments of his post by saying:

Comparisons between cities are inherently difficult. I generally do not like to use central city corporate limit data as a basis for comparison because the size of central cities is so different. Indianapolis and Columbus are both large because they annexed large amounts of "suburban" territory, while Cincinnati and Cleveland did not and are much smaller geographically.

I agree that it is difficult to compare different cities because cities vary both geographically and administratively. But, the same could be said about cities and, given that Renn is discussing "progressive" policies, then it seems like corporate limits would be exactly what he would want to report because in almost all areas in the country (Indianapolis being a major exception) policies are decided within municipal boundaries. In fact, the political fragmentation is associated with racial isolation/segregation. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that counties vary widely in their administration and autonomy.

Perhaps more problematically, while Renn makes the argument that model progressive cities are white havens, he does not present any statistics on how white cities are. Instead, he publishes the percentage black in the core county. This brings up two problems. First, it assumes that the American population is made up of only whites and blacks and ignores the increasing racial diversity in many cities including the mass immigration by Latinos and Asians. Second, this also assumes that the mere presence of blacks means that cities are diverse; however, if there are lots of African Americans, but they are segregated into a small number of specific neighborhoods (e.g., Detroit, Cleveland, Gary, Milwaukee) then these cities cannot be said to be diverse.

In order to look at what impact these assumptions have on the conclusions that Renn draws, I have taken Renn's examples of model progressive cities: Portland, Austin, Denver, Minneapolis, and Seattle and charted the percentage of residents by racial composition in each central city. The chart gives a much different impression than that given by Renn's charts. Using central cities and charting racial composition by multiple groups shows that both Austin and Denver have only 50% of whites in their municipal limits while Minneapolis is only 63% white. Seattle is slightly higher than Minneapolis with 68% white while Portland — Renn's poster child — is 74% white. In the United States in 2000, only 75% of the population was white meaning that Portland would be right on the average of the entire nation if the entire U.S. population were spread out without clustering. Although the percentage of white residents in Portland is certainly higher than most cities, the fact that one in four residents in the city means that the city cannot be identified as only white as Renn implies.

But, even if a city had a large non-white population, it does not mean that residents are integrated or interact with one another. I downloaded the metropolitan area segregation statistics[1] from the to see how racially segregated these metropolitan areas are. I use three measures available for download from The Mumford Center. Although there are multiple domains of segregation that can be measured, I focus on two here: the dissimilarity index and the white isolation index. The first measures the extent to which residents of two different races are evenly distributed in neighborhoods (i.e., tracts) within a metropolitan area and the second measures the neighborhood percent white of the average white resident. The former is unaffected by the relative size of the two groups being compared, while the isolation index is dependent on both the size of the white population and its geographic dispersion (a greater percent white in a metro area pushes isolation higher).

Dissimilarity and White Isolation in "Model Progressive" Cities
W ISOLATION70.177.988.4095.5079.60

Generally, scores on either indices above 60 are considered extreme segregation. Denver is the only city above this threshold for black/white dissimilarity, though Minneapolis is close at 57.8. Dissimilarity in the other cities, while high (30 is generally considered high) are not terribly segregated. Latino/white dissimilarity scores were much lower, though Denver again stood out for being among the highest. All of these cities have extreme levels of isolation but, again, Portland is an extreme outlier — probably owing to its disporportionately white share of the population relative to the other cities. Just for comparison's sake, I also queried the segregation indices for the largely Midwestern cities Renn held up as examples of diversity. Those indices are presented below. The comparison is shocking: with the exception of Nashville, all of the cities have higher levels — often much higher levels — of black/white segregation. Latino/white segregation is comparable to those of the "model progressive" cities (with the exception of very low levels in Cincinatti). And, perhaps more tellingly, the isolation index scores for Renn's alternative Midwestern cities are much higher than three of the "model progressive" cities (Austin, Denver, and Seattle), though Portland still retains the highest white isolation score of any of the metropolitan areas.

Dissimilarity and White Isolation in Renn's "Alternative" Cities
CincinattiClevelandIndianapolisKansas CityNashville
W ISOLATION90.7088.4088.3086.1084.70

Thus, while Renn certainly has a case about Portland being held up as a model for progressives despite its lack of diversity, the data simply doesn't back up his arguments for the remaining cities he identifies as models of progressive communities. Even worse, cities he holds up as alternatives because of their diversity tend to be more segregated than the progressive cities that he flogs in his post. While he brings up important points to consider in discussing urban planning and policies — considering the importance of diversity in comparison to "livable" environments — unfortunately, he gives the wrong impression of most of the cities and draws the wrong, sometimes drastically wrong, conclusion about the relative levels of diversity in these cities.

[1] I know that I am switching geographic units here, but metropolitan areas gives a better impression of what effect differences in urban versus suburban racial composition would have on racial segregation

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Despite having good fun at the expense of crazy Republicans, the latest news about incompetent Republicans is horrifying. Below is a clip from The Daily Show explaining how the majority of Republicans voted against an amendment offered by Al Franken that prohibits “the Defense Department from contracting with companies that require employees to resolve sexual assault allegations and other claims through arbitration” (h/t ThePopTort Blog):

The amendment, sadly brought to national attention because of the bravery of Jamie Leigh Jones who came forward to describe her horrific ordeal being raped in Iraq while employed by former Halliburton subsidiary KBR. KBR tried to mandate that, before her co-workers gang-raped her and then locked her in a shipping container, Jones had signed away her right to sue KBR and could only seek redress through arbitration with KBR.

Now, you would expect that many Republicans would support business interests over others. But, I never thought that anyone would support business interests over the interests of rape victims! Unfortunately, that is what happened because 30 Republican senators voted against this amendment. Although the readership of this blog is small, I feel that it is necessary to call these Senators out publicly:

Alexander (R-TN)Barrasso (R-WY)Bond (R-MO)
Brownback (R-KS)Bunning (R-KY)Burr (R-NC)
Chambliss (R-GA)Coburn (R-OK)Cochran (R-MS)
Corker (R-TN)Cornyn (R-TX)Crapo (R-ID)
DeMint (R-SC)Ensign (R-NV)Enzi (R-WY)
Graham (R-SC)Gregg (R-NH)Inhofe (R-OK)
Isakson (R-GA)Johanns (R-NE)Kyl (R-AZ)
McCain (R-AZ)McConnell (R-KY)Risch (R-ID)
Roberts (R-KS)Sessions (R-AL)Shelby (R-AL)
Thune (R-SD)Vitter (R-LA)Wicker (R-MS)

I cannot believe how incredibly despicable some of these legislators are.

I believe that it is also important to note the Republicans that broke with the majority of their party to vote for this amendment:

Bennett (R-UT)Collins (R-ME)Grassley (R-IA)
Hatch (R-UT)Hutchison (R-TX)LeMieux (R-FL)
Lugar (R-IN)Murkowski (R-AK)Snowe (R-ME)
Voinovich (R-OH)

NOTE: A slight edit made to the original version because, on a quick glance, it appeared as those who supported the amendment were despicable — not their 30 detestable colleagues.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Today, four members of Congress asked the sergeant-at-arms to investigate whether interns were internal spies. How did they come upon evidence that these interns might somehow be spies? Based on a book published by World Net Daily. One of the coathor's sons posed as a Muslim to intern at the Council on American Islamic Relations and stole documents — including documents that (gasp!) laid out a lobbying and PR strategy!

This is obviously not funny but, really, I just cannot help myself from laughing. I mean this is so absurd, I cannot do anything except laugh. Let's enumerate the problems with this plan:

  1. They had one of their sons intern at an organization to get the inside scoop. I mean, how many organizations give their interns access to vital details and why would any terrorist organization do that, especially?

  2. Following a similar line of logic, would the U.S. Congress tell its interns anything important. I mean, the U.S. government doesn't even tell the members of Congress important details.

  3. What is the sergeant-at-arms going to do? Call them out of order — I mean really, that is the highest authority they could go to?

  4. These people got elected to CONGRESS!!! (alright, that one is not funny at all)

I thought that we had gotten rid of the clowns. Apparently, we only got rid of the ones that were marginally sane.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

No Really, Coke is Good For You, Trust Me

I just read this commentary from Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent that is so incredibly duplicitous, I really cannot believe that even the Wall Street Journal would publish it without significant editing. Let me tell you the punchline upfront: shockingly the CEO of Coca-Cola Corp. does not believe that a tax on sugary drinks will help curb obesity (now you'll understand why the Wall Street Journal published it). Basically his argument boils down to...well it doesn't quite boil down to anything, so let me summarize: Coke has lots of calories, but so do lots of other things. People need to exercise more. And, oh yeah, I employ lots of people.

To support this rambling, Mr. Kent has a great deal of evidence and insight into why Coke is not responsible for Americans becoming obese. For instance, he first pulls out the favorite claim of the American Beverage Association and the National Restaurant Association, Coke doesn't make people fat — people make people fat:

If we're genuinely interested in curbing obesity, we need to take a hard look in the mirror and acknowledge that it's not just about calories in. It's also about calories out.

Let's see, calories in > calories out = weight gain. True fact. Now, there are two ways that one could mess with that statement: 1) increase calories out, or 2) decrease calories in. But why drop your calories in when you could have it all just by exercising more! In case that didn't persuade you, Mr. Kent moves on to playing the victim:

Our industry has become an easy target in this debate. Sugar-sweetened beverages have been singled out for demonization in spite of the fact that soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks and sweetened bottled water combined contribute 5.5% of the calories in the average American diet, according to the National Cancer Institute. It's difficult to understand why the beverages we and others provide are being targeted as the primary cause of weight gain when 94.5% of caloric intake comes from other foods and beverages.

Hmmm... Can't imagine why you would be singled out. Americans get one in twenty of our calories from soft drinks, which — as it clearly states on Coke products — are "Not a significant source of calories from fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron." Which leads Mr. Kent to his next argument (confused yet):

Research from the United States Department of Agriculture shows that added sugars, as a percentage of total daily available calories, have declined 11% since 1970. Yet the percent of calories from added fats and flour/cereal products has increased 35% and 13%, respectively, during that same time period.

That's right — the 5.5% of absolutely empty calories that you get from his products are MUCH better than the fat and carb calories you get from eating other foods. I wonder what the Snack Food Association and International Foodservice Manufacturer's Assocation thought when reading this and whether they are going to start a round-robin blame game. "It's cereals making kids fat!" "No, it's Twinkies!" No, it's soft drinks." Finally, Mr. Kent pulls out the trump card:

Policy makers should stop spending their valuable time demonizing an industry that directly employs more than 220,000 people in the U.S., and through supporting industries, an additional three million.

That's right — don't tax us or you'll lose your job (I'm sure Dave will especially love that one).

There's more I could pillory in the commentary. It is actually quite a feat to put so much unrelated garbage in a mere 724 words that he should be awarded some prize just for that. I'm not sure that a soda tax will work to curb obesity and I think that it is actually a pretty crappy policy. Sodas are not cigarettes; no one is going to be upset if you are drinking caramel coloring, carbonated water, and sugar next to them the same way that there was social pressure to stop smoking. If we are going to invest in obesity prevention, it would be a lot smarter to make physical activity a priority by ensuring access to safe neighborhoods with amenities for kids to be able to play. It would mean reducing the work week so that parents can have time to spend with their kids supervising them and being able to go to grocery store and prepare dinner rather than buy it pre-made. But, of course, that would require investment of government dollars and increasing taxes, which you know Mr. Kent would be opposed to no matter what.