What percent of the economy should be redistributed by government?

Keith Hennessey has usefully focused attention on what I believe to be the most important long term policy choice facing our nation: what percentage of the economy should be redistributed via the federal government? He brackets the options:

Over the past 50 years federal taxes have averaged 18% of GDP.

Governor Romney proposes taxes “between 18 and 19 percent” of GDP.

The House-passed (“Ryan”) budget proposes long-term taxes of 19% of GDP.

President Obama’s budget proposes long-term taxes at 20% of GDP.*

The Bowles-Simpson plan proposes long-term taxes at 21% of GDP.

It is worth noting that average spending over the same 50 year period was just under 21% of GDP, and Hennessey judges the President’s budget as worthy of an asterisk for reasons that I won’t get into now because I want to wholeheartedly agree with his focus on the size of the federal budget expressed as a percentage of GDP as a key question.

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Reporters, a little more numeracy, please?

British Petroleum (and the government) apparently provided implausibly estimates of how much oil was spewing into the Gulf. This was obvious from the start. If reporters were more numerate, they would have known.

Mother Jones has a piece today about whether British Petroleum will own up to the amount of oil it spewed into the Gulf. (I have clarified wording here based on reader comments.)

This controversy raises one of my pet peeves as a technically-trained person. Most reporters aren’t numerate, and it shows.

Often this innumeracy reveals itself in small ways, often in economics or budget stories since these are most likely to involve actual numbers: errors with percentages, confusion about basic financial calculations involving interest rates. Sometimes innumeracy shows itself in other ways, such as believing transparently implausible numbers in specific news stories.

The Gulf spill provides an especially depressing example because this was such a huge and well-covered story. British Petroleum and the government stated that 5,000 barrels per day (***See comments below. My commenters are right to call me for sloppiness here. ***) were leaking into the Gulf. This never made any sense. Bear with me, while I perform a sloppy but revealing calculation that demonstrates why.

There are 42 gallons in a barrel. So this 5,000 barrel figure is equivalent to 210,000 gallons per day. That seems like a big number–until you recall that there are 86,400 seconds in a day. So one would have to believe that a gushing 20-inch-wide pipe was releasing oil at a rate of 2.4 gallons per second.

Is this a little or a lot to be flowing out of a 20 inch pipe? As you recall, the area of a circle is pi-r-squared. So the cross-sectional area of that pipe was about 314 square inches. As you may not recall but could google, a gallon is about 231 cubic inches. So a flow rate of 2.4 gallons/second is about 561 cubic inches per second. This implies fluid would have to be moving through the pipe at a corresponding rate of about 561/314=1.79 inches per second. How fast is that? Since there are 12 inches in a foot, 5,280 feet in a mile, and 3,600 seconds in an hour, you can verify that this flow rate is about 1.79*3600/(12*5280), or …. 0.1 miles per hour. If you saw the live shots of oil gushing out of the Deepwater Horizon, you know this couldn’t be right.

Of course my sloppy ballpark calculation could be pretty far off. The diameter of the pipe might have been slightly smaller. Perhaps the flow was partly blocked. Suppose I left out enough to bias the calculation by a factor of 5. That calculation would still indicate that either (a) BP’s estimate was transparently implausible, (b) other junk was flowing out of the pipe alongside the oil, or (c) some combination of (a) and (b) were both true.

When experts challenged these estimates, reporters treated this as an esoteric matter or a murky he-said, she-said dispute. It wasn’t. (Kudos, though, to NPR for this story.)

It’s telling that even on the most extensively-covered pollution story of the decade, these rather obvious points were so rarely communicated.

Postscript As noted, my commenters are right to call me on this. That 5,000 barrel/day estimate was actually an initial figure embraced by the government. Reporters should have been less credulous in questioning both the government and BP on these points.

Wyoming results

An 18-point win for Obama, on a turnout 10x that of four years ago.

UPDATED See below

With two small counties (both surrounded by Obama territory) yet to report, Obama has an 18-point lead in Wyoming.

Turnout is an order of magnitude greater than four years ago.

Delegates should split 7-5, as expected, leaving the math unchanged.

And it looks as if the “kitchen sink” effect is starting to fade, or the pushback is starting to work. Both Gallup and Rasmussen tracking results, which switched from Obama up a few points to Clinton up a few points between Friday and Wednesday, are now back to even. No bounce from winning Ohio and Texas.

Update Teton County came in 80-20 for Obama. His final overall margin was 23 points, and might wind up +4 rather than the +2 previously estimated. If so, The Math just got that much harder for the Clinton campaign.

Apparently losing by 23 points counts as winning in Hillaryland: Maggie Williams says she’s “thrilled.” Just imagine how happy she’ll be when Obama clinches the nomination.

The Math

If Obama wins by 10-point margins in Mississippi, Wyoming, North Carolina, South Dakota, Montana, Oregon, and Guam, splits Indiana and Michigan, and loses by 20-point margins in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Florida, and Puerto Rico, and HRC picks up all the Edwards delegates, Obama would still need less than one-quarter of the remaining uncommitted superdelegates to deny him the nomination. Seem hard to you? Me neither.

UPDATED; see below

Is Hillary Clinton (1) running a good-faith attempt to win the nomination or (2) merely trying to wreck Obama’s chances against McCain so that either Obama’s support will break before the convention or, if he does get nominated, he will lose and she can run in 2012? A little bit of calculation suggests that the correct answer is (2).

NPR tots up the delegate count from Tuesday and reports that HRC gained eight delegates net out of the 370 at stake: nine in Ohio, five in Rhode Island, and four in the Texas primary, minus pickups for Obama of three in Vermont and seven in the Texas caucuses. That’s a little worse for Obama than the net-four that the Obama camp calculated yesterday, but still doesn’t do much to close Obama’s pledged-delegate margin (144 now v. 152 before Tuesday, according to NPR).

Meanwhile, the final results of the California primary have now been certified. Clinton’s popular-vote margin shrunk from the 9.4% reported at the time to 8.9%, and the delegate count, previously estimated at 207-163 (Clinton + 44) turns out to be 203-167 (Clinton +36), a net swing of eight for Obama. That neatly wipes out Clinton’s Tuesday-night gains, bringing Obama’s margin back to 152. (“Unpledged Add-On Delegates,”, (UADs) 76 people who are selected in various ways in various states. In caucus states, they’re mostly selected at the state convention, which means that they’re almost certain to go to whoever won the caucuses. Right now, it looks as if Obama will wind up about +14 net (45/31) among the UADs, and that edge isn’t recorded in the published superdelegate counts.

That brings the curent totals to O 1626, C 1491, with 2208 (of 4415) needed to nominate assuming Florida and Michigan are seated. Obama, then, needs 582 (45%) of the 1298 yet to be determined: from states that have voted but still have delegates to award at state conventions (about 68), from states yet to vote or re-vote (881), about 318 ex officio super-delegates who have yet to announce, and John Edwards’s 32 delegates.

If the 68 to be awaded at state conventions split evenly, giving Obama 34, and all the Edwards delegates vote for HRC, Obama’s magic number goes down to 548 of the remaining 1198.

And some of the states still on the calendar are clearly Obama territory: Mississippi (33), Wyoming (12), Guam (4), North Carolina (116), South Dakota (16), Montana (16), Oregon (52). (You can probably add Indiana (72) and Michigan (128) to that list.) So HRC would have to win big, where she wins at all, to catch up. But Obama has yet to lose a state, other than Arkansas, by as much as 60/40: not even New York.

To stretch a point, let’s give Obama only 55% in the states with his name on them, an even split in Indiana and Michigan, and give Clinton 57% (14-point margins) in (Pennsylvania (158) and Florida (185) and 60% (20-point margins inWest Virginia (28), Kentucky (52), and Puerto Rico(56).

On those assumptions, Obama gets 7 in Wyoming, 18 in Mississippi, 68 in Pennsylvania, 2 in Guam, 33 in Indiana, 50 in North Carolina, 11 in West Virginia, 19 in Kentucky, 26 in Oregon, 8 in Montana, 7 in South Dakota, 64 in Michigan , 80 in Florida, 65 in Pennsylvania and 22 in Puerto Rico, for a total of 480.

Then he would only need 64 of the 318 unannounced ex-officio superdelegates. That’s about 20%. Even if you award Clinton 20-point wipeouts in Pennsylvaia and Florida, that only means Obama needs 75 of 319, or 24% of the remaining superdelegates.

Does that sound hard to you? Me neither.

Since Super Tuesday, Obama has gained a net of 53 “supers,” and HRC has lost a net of one. Se picked up not a single new supporter after Tuesday night, which suggests she has no one in the bank. And in real life Obama’s pledged-delegate edge is likely to be larger, not smaller.

For Clinton to pick up 76% of the remainder isn’t just “running the table”: it’s shooting the moon.

So the immediate answer to the question “What should Obama do in response to what happened on Tuesday?” is “Keep on keepin’ on.” He should campaign mostly against McCain, and against the Bush-McCain-Clinton axis that got us into the war in Iraq. And he should stay in character.

Obama is never going to win a mud-fight with people who think that mud-slinging is “the fun part.” But he doesn’t have to.

Update The above has been modified to fix the arithmetic and tighten some of the assumptions.

Wyoming came in as expected, +2, for Obama. (There seems to be some chance that it could actually wind up +4.)

Congressman-Elect Foster, who just won the Denny Hastert seat with Obama’s support, presumably adds one to his superdelegate count.

Update March 11 Mississippi came in with 19 rather than 18. If Spitzer resigns, that takes one super from Clinton and balances out Foster, leaving the same total number of delegates. But RCP now has Clinton at 247 supers rather than 242.

So (assuming Spitzer is out) then HRC has gained 3 delegates net (5 new supers minus one in Mississippi and one for Spitzer) and Obama two delegates net, compared to the previous calculation. In the base case, he would need 62 of 313 remaining uncommitted ex officio superdelegates, still just under 20%.

Update 3/21: A reader points out that the above counts Pennsylvania twice. Sorry for the error. Of course the apparent elimination of Michigan and Florida makes the math that much less plausible from Clinton’s viewpoint.