Monday, February 1, 2010

Study finds focus on abstinence in sex-ed classes can delay sexual activity

Study finds focus on abstinence in sex-ed classes can delay sexual activity

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010; 4:35 PM

Sex education classes that focus on encouraging children to remain abstinent can convince a significant proportion to delay sexual activity, researchers reported Monday in a landmark study that could have major implications for the nation's embattled efforts to protect young people against unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

In the first carefully designed study to evaluate the controversial approach to sex ed, researchers found that only about a third of 6th and 7th graders who went through sessions focused on abstinence started having sex in the next two years. In contrast, nearly half of students who got other classes, including those that included information about contraception, became sexually active.

"I think we've written off abstinence-only education without looking closely at the nature of the evidence," said John B. Jemmott III, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who led the federally funded study. "Our study shows this could be one approach that could be used."

The research, published in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, comes amid intense debate over how to reduce sexual activity, pregnancies, births and sexually transmitted diseases among children and teenagers. After declining for more than a decade, births, pregnancies and STDs among U.S. teens have begun increasing again.

The Obama administration eliminated more than $150 million in federal funding targeted at abstinence programs, which are relatively new and have little rigorous evidence supporting their effectiveness. Instead it is launching a new $114 million pregnancy prevention initiative that will fund only programs that have been shown scientifically to work. The administration Monday proposed expanding that program to $183 million next year. The move came after intensifying questions about the effectiveness of abstinence programs.

"This new study is game-changing," said Sarah Brown, who leads the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. "For the first time, there is strong evidence that an abstinence-only intervention can help very young teens delay sex and reduce their recent sexual activity as well."

The new study is the first to evaluate an abstinence program using a carefully "controlled" design that compared it directly to alternative strategies -- considered the highest level of scientific evidence.

"This takes away the main pillar of opposition to abstinence education," said Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who wrote the criteria for federal funding of abstinence programs. "I've always known that abstinence programs have gotten a bad rap."

Even long-time critics of the approach praised the new study, saying it provided strong evidence that such programs can work and may deserve taxpayer support.

"One of the things that's exciting about this study is that it says we have a new tool to add to our repertoire," said Monica Rodriguez, vice president for education and training at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

Based on the findings, Obama administration officials said programs like the one evaluated in the study could be eligible for federal funding.

"No one study determines funding decisions, but the findings from the research paper suggest that this kind of project could be competitive for grants if there's promise that it achieves the goal of teen pregnancy prevention," said Health and Human Services Department spokesman Nicholas Pappas.

Several critics of abstinence-only approach argued that the curriculum tested was not representative of most abstinence programs. It did not take on a moralistic tone as many abstinence programs do. Most notably, the sessions encouraged children to delay sex until they are ready, not necessarily until they were married, did not portray sex outside of marriage as never appropriate or disparage condoms.

"There is no data in this study to support the 'abstain-until marriage' programs, which research proved ineffective during the Bush administration," said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth.

But abstinence supporters disputed that, saying that the new program was essentially the same as other good abstinence programs.

"For our critics to use 'marriage' as the thing that sets the program in this study apart from federally funded programs is an exaggeration and smacks of an effort to dismiss abstinence education rather than understanding what it is," Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association.

The new study involved 662 African-American students who were randomly assigned to go through one of five programs: An eight-hour curriculum that encouraged them to delay having sex; an eight-hour program focused on teaching safe sex; an eight- or 12-hour program that did both; or an eight-hour program focused on teaching the youngsters other ways to be healthy, such as eating well and exercising.

Over the next two years, about 33 percent of the students who went through the abstinence program started having sex, compared to about 52 percent who were just taught safe sex. About 42 percent of the students who went through the comprehensive program started having sex, and about 47 percent of those who just learned about other ways to be healthy. The abstinence program had no negative effects on condom use, which has been a major criticism of the abstinence approach.

"The take-home message is that we need a variety of interventions to address an epidemic like HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy," Jemmott said. "There are populations that really want an abstinence intervention. They are against telling children about condoms. This study suggests abstinence programs can be part of the mix of programs that we offer."

Financial Crisis and Responses to It: A Perfect Storm of Ignorance

A Perfect Storm of Ignorance. By Jeffrey Friedman

Jeffrey Friedman is the editor of Critical Review and of Causes of the Financial Crisis, forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

You are familiar by now with the role of the Federal Reserve in stimulating the housing boom; the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in encouraging lowequity mortgages; and the role of the Community Reinvestment Act in mandating loans to "subprime" borrowers, meaning those who were poor credit risks. So you may think that the government caused the financial crisis. But you don't know the half of it. And neither does the government.

A full understanding of the crisis has to explain not just the housing and subprime bubbles, but why, when they popped, it should have had such disastrous worldwide effects on the financial system. The problem was that commercial banks had made a huge overinvestment in mortgage-backed bonds sold by investment banks such as Lehman Brothers.

Commercial banks are familiar to everyone with a checking or savings account. They accept our deposits, against which they issue commercial loans and mortgages. In 1933, the United States created the FDIC to insure commercial banks' depositors. The aim was to discourage bank runs by depositors who worried that if their bank had made too many risky loans, their accounts, too, might be at risk.

The question of whether deposit insurance was necessary is worth asking, and I will ask it later on. But for now, the key fact is that once deposit insurance took effect, the FDIC feared that it had created what economists call a "moral hazard": bankers, now insulated from bank runs, might be encouraged to make riskier loans than before. The moral-hazard theory took hold not only in the United States but in all of the countries in which deposit insurance was instituted. And both here and abroad, the regulators' solution to this (real or imagined) problem was to institute bank-capital regulations. According to an array of scholars from around the world — Viral Acharya, Juliusz Jablecki, Wladimir Kraus, Mateusz Machaj, and Matthew Richardson — these regulations helped turn an American housing crisis into the world's worst recession in 70 years.


The moral-hazard theory held that since the FDIC would now pick up the pieces if anything went wrong, bankers left to their own devices would make clearly risky loans and investments. The regulators' solution, across the entire developed world, was to require banks to hold a minimum capital cushion against a commercial bank's assets (loans and investments), but the precise level of the capital reserve, and other details, varied from country to country.

In 1988, financial regulators from the G-10 agreed on the Basel (I) Accords. Basel I was an attempt to standardize the world's bank-capital regulations, and it succeeded, spreading far beyond the G-10 countries. It differentiated among the risks presented by different types of assets. For instance, a commercial bank did not have to devote any capital to its holdings of government bonds, cash, or gold — the safest assets, in the regulators' judgment. But it had to allot 4 percent capital to each mortgage that it issued, and 8 percent to commercial loans and corporate bonds.

Each country implemented Basel I on its own schedule and with its own quirks. The United States implemented it in 1991, with several different capital cushions; a 10 percent cushion was required for "well-capitalized" commercial banks, a designation that carries privileges that most banks want. Ten years later, however, came what proved in retrospect to be the pivotal event. The FDIC, the Fed, the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Office of Thrift Supervision issued an amendment to Basel I, the Recourse Rule, that extended the accord's risk differentiations to asset-backed securities (ABS): bonds backed by credit card debt, or car loans — or mortgages — required a mere 2 percent capital cushion, as long as these bonds were rated AA or AAA or were issued by a government-sponsored enterprise (GSE), such as Fannie or Freddie. Thus, where a well-capitalized commercial bank needed to devote $10 of capital to $100 worth of commercial loans or corporate bonds, or $5 to $100 worth of mortgages, it needed to spend only $2 of capital on a mortgage-backed security (MBS) worth $100. A bank interested in reducing its capital cushion — also known as "leveraging up" — would gain a 60 percent benefit from trading its mortgages for MBSs and an 80 percent benefit for trading its commercial loans and corporate securities for MBSs.

Astute readers will smell a connection between the Recourse Rule and the financial crisis. By 2008 approximately 81 percent of all the rated MBSs held by American commercial banks were rated AAA, and 93 percent of all the MBSs that the banks held were either triple-A rated or were issued by a GSE, thus complying with the Recourse Rule. (Figures for the proportion of double-A bonds are not yet available.) According to the scholars I mentioned earlier, the lesson is clear: the commercial banks loaded up on MBSs because of the extremely favorable treatment that they received under the Recourse Rule, as long as they were issued by a GSE or were rated AA or AAA.

When subprime mortgages began to default in the summer of 2007, however, those high ratings were cast into doubt. A year later, the doubts turned into a panic. Federally mandated mark-to-market accounting — the requirement that assets be valued at the price for which they could be sold right now — translated temporary market sentiment into actual numbers on a bank's balance sheet, so when the market for MBSs dried up, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt — on paper. Mark-to-market accounting applied to commercial banks too. And it was the commercial banks' worry about their own and their counterparties' solvency, due to their MBS holdings, that caused the lending freeze and, thus, the Great Recession.

What about the rest of the world? The Recourse Rule did not apply to countries other than the United States, but Basel I included provisions for even more profitable forms of "capital arbitrage" through off-balance-sheet entities such as structured investment vehicles, which were heavily used in Europe. Then, in 2006, Basel II began to be implemented outside the United States. It took the Recourse Rule's approach, encouraging foreign banks to stock up on GSE-issued or highly rated MBSs.


Given the large number of contributory factors — the Fed's low interest rates, the Community Reinvestment Act, Fannie and Freddie's actions, Basel I, the Recourse Rule, and Basel II — it has been said that the financial crisis was a perfect storm of regulatory error. But the factors I have just named do not even begin to complete the list. First, Peter Wallison has noted the prevalence of "no-recourse" laws in many states, which relieved mortgagors of financial liability if they simply walked away from a house on which they defaulted. This reassured people in financial straits that they could take on a possibly unaffordable mortgage with virtually no risk. Second, Richard Rahn has pointed out that the tax code discourages partnerships in banking (and other industries). Partnerships encourage prudence because each partner has a lot at stake if the firm goes under. Rahn's point has wider implications, for scholars such as Amar Bhidé and Jonathan Macey have underscored aspects of tax and securities law that encourage publicly held corporations such as commercial banks — as opposed to partnerships or other privately held companies — to encourage their employees to generate the short-term profits adored by equities investors. One way to generate short-term profits is to buy into an asset bubble. Third, the Basel Accords treat monies set aside against unexpected loan losses as part of banks' "Tier 2" capital, which is capped in relation to "Tier 1" capital — equity capital raised by selling shares of stock. But Bert Ely has shown in the Cato Journal that the tax code makes equity capital unnecessarily expensive. Thus banks are doubly discouraged from maintaining the capital cushion that the Basel Accords are trying to make them maintain. This litany is not exhaustive. It is meant only to convey the welter of regulations that have grown up across different parts of the economy in such immense profusion that nobody can possibly predict how they will interact with each other. We are, all of us, ignorant of the vast bulk of what the government is doing for us, and what those actions might be doing to us. That is the best explanation for how this perfect regulatory storm happened, and for why it might well happen again.

By steering banks' leverage into mortgage-backed securities, Basel I, the Recourse Rule, and Basel II encouraged banks to overinvest in housing at a time when an unprecedented nationwide housing bubble was getting underway, due in part to the Recourse Rule itself — which took effect on January 1, 2002: not coincidentally, just at the start of the housing boom. The Rule created a huge artificial demand for mortgage-backed bonds, each of which required thousands of mortgages as collateral. Commercial banks duly met this demand by lowering their lending standards. When many of the same banks traded their mortgages for mortgage-backed bonds to gain "capital relief," they thought they were offloading the riskiest mortgages by buying only triple-A-rated slices of the resulting mortgage pools. The bankers appear to have been ignorant of yet another obscure regulation: a 1975 amendment to the SEC's Net Capital Rule, which turned the three existing rating companies — S&P, Moody's, and Fitch — into a legally protected oligopoly. The bankers' ignorance is suggested by e-mails unearthed during the recent trial of Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin, who ran the two Bear Stearns hedge funds that invested heavily in highly rated subprime mortgage-backed bonds. The e-mails show that Tannin was a true believer in the soundness of those ratings; he and his partner were exonerated by the jury on the grounds that the two men were as surprised by the catastrophe as everyone else was. Like everyone else, they trusted S&P, Moody's, and Fitch. But as we would expect of corporations shielded from market competition, these three "rating agencies" had gotten sloppy. Moody's did not update its model of the residential mortgage market after 2002, when the boom was barely underway. And Moody's model, like those of its "competitors," determined how large they could make the AA and AAA slices of mortgage-backed securities.


The regulators seem to have been as ignorant of the implications of the relevant regulations as the bankers were. The SEC trusted the three rating agencies to continue their reliable performance even after its own 1975 ruling protected them from the market competition that had made their ratings reliable. Nearly everyone, from Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke on down, seemed to be ignorant of the various regulations that were pumping up house prices and pushing down lending standards. And the FDIC, the Fed, the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Office of Thrift Supervision, in promulgating one of those regulations, trusted the three rating companies when they decided that these companies' AA and AAA ratings would be the basis of the immense capital relief that the Recourse Rule conferred on investment-bank-issued mortgage-backed securities. Did the four regulatory bodies that issued the Recourse Rule know that the rating agencies on which they were placing such heavy reliance were an SEC-created oligopoly, with all that this implies? If you read the Recourse Rule, you will find that the answer is no. Like the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), which later studied whether to extend this American innovation to the rest of the world in the form of Basel II (which it did, in 2006), the Recourse Rule wrongly says that the rating agencies are subject to "market discipline."

Those who play the blame game can find plenty of targets here: the bankers and the regulators were equally clueless. But should anyone be blamed for not recognizing the implications of regulations that they don't even know exist?

Omniscience cannot be expected of human beings. One really would have had to be a god to master the millions of pages in the Federal Register — not to mention the pages of the Register's state, local, and now international counterparts — so one could pick out the specific group of regulations, issued in different fields over the course of decades, that would end up conspiring to create the greatest banking crisis since the Great Depression. This storm may have been perfect, therefore, but it may not prove to be rare. New regulations are bound to interact unexpectedly with old ones if the regulators, being human, are ignorant of the old ones and of their effects.

This is already happening. The SEC's response to the crisis has not been to repeal its 1975 regulation, but to promise closer regulation of the rating agencies. And instead of repealing Basel I or Basel II, the BIS is busily working on Basel III, which will even more finely tune capital requirements and, of course, increase capital cushions. Yet despite the barriers to equity capital and loan-loss reserves created by the conjunction of the IRS and the Basel Accords, the aggregate capital cushion of all American banks at the start of 2008 stood at 13 percent — one-third higher than the American minimum, which in turn was one-fifth higher than the Basel minimum. Contrary to the regulators' assumption that bankers need regulators to protect them from their own recklessness, the financial crisis was not caused by too much bank leverage but by the form it took: mortgage-backed securities. And that was the direct result of the fine tuning done by the Recourse Rule and Basel II.


The financial crisis was a convulsion in the corpulent body of social democracy. "Social democracy" is the modern mandate that government solve social problems as they arise. Its body is the mass of laws that grow up over time — seemingly in inverse proportion to the ability of its brain to comprehend the causes of the underlying problems.

When voters demand "action," and when legislators and regulators provide it, they are all naturally proceeding according to some theory of the cause of the problem they are trying to solve. If their theories are mistaken, the regulations may produce unintended consequences that, later on, in principle, could be recognized as mistakes and rectified. In practice, however, regulations are rarely repealed. Whatever made a mistaken regulation seem sensible to begin with will probably blind people to its unintended effects later on. Thus future regulators will tend to assume that the problem with which they are grappling is a new "excess of capitalism," not an unintended consequence of an old mistake in the regulation of capitalism.

Take bank-capital regulations. The theory was (and remains) that without them, bankers protected by deposit insurance would make wild, speculative investments. So deposit insurance begat bank-capital regulations. Initially these were blunderbuss rules that required banks to spend the same levels of capital on all their investments and loans, regardless of risk. In 1988 the Basel Accords took a more discriminating approach, distinguishing among different categories of asset according to their riskiness — riskiness as perceived by the regulators. The American regulators decided in 2001 that mortgage-backed bonds were among the least risky assets, so they required much lower levels of capital for these securities than for every alternative investment but Treasury's. And in 2006, Basel II applied that erroneous judgment to the capital regulations governing most of the rest of the world's banks. The whole sequence leading to the financial crisis began, in 1933, with deposit insurance. But was deposit insurance really necessary?

The theory behind deposit insurance was (and remains) that banking is inherently prone to bank runs, which had been common in 19th-century America and had swept the country at the start of the Depression.

But that theory is wrong, according to such economic historians as Kevin Dowd, George Selgin, and Kurt Schuler, who argue that bank panics were almost uniquely American events (there were none in Canada during the Depression — and Canada didn't have deposit insurance until 1967). According to these scholars, bank runs were caused by 19th-century regulations that impeded branch banking and bank "clearinghouses." Thus, deposit insurance, hence capital minima, hence the Basel rules, might all have been a mistake founded on the New Deal legislators' and regulators' ignorance of the fact that panics like the ones that had just gripped America were the unintended effects of previous regulations.

What I am calling social democracy is, in its form, very different from socialism. Under social democracy, laws and regulations are issued piecemeal, as flexible responses to the side effects of progress — social and economic problems — as they arise, one by one. (Thus the official name: progressivism.) The case-by-case approach is supposed to be the height of pragmatism. But in substance, there is a striking similarity between social democracy and the most utopian socialism. Whether through piecemeal regulation or central planning, both systems share the conceit that modern societies are so legible that the causes of their problems yield easily to inspection. Social democracy rests on the premise that when something goes wrong, somebody — whether the voter, the legislator, or the specialist regulator — will know what to do about it. This is less ambitious than the premise that central planners will know what to do about everything all at once, but it is no different in principle.

This premise would be questionable enough even if we started with a blank legal slate. But we don't. And there is no conceivable way that we, the people — or our agents in government — can know how to solve the problems of modern societies when our efforts have, in fact, been preceded by generations of previous efforts that have littered the ground with a tangle of rules so thick that we can't possibly know what they all say, let alone how they might interact to create another perfect storm.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2010 edition of Cato Policy Report.

Head Start: A Tragic Waste of Money

Head Start: A Tragic Waste of Money. By Andrew J. Coulson

This article appeared in the New York Post on January 28, 2010.

Head Start, the most sacrosanct federal education program, doesn't work.

That's the finding of a sophisticated study just released by President Obama's Department of Health and Human Services.

Created in 1965, the comprehensive preschool program for 3- and 4-year olds and their parents is meant to narrow the education gap between low-income students and their middle- and upper-income peers. Forty-five years and $166 billion later, it has been proven a failure.

The bad news came in the study released this month: It found that, by the end of the first grade, children who attended Head Start are essentially indistinguishable from a control group of students who didn't.

What's so damning is that this study used the best possible method to review the program: It looked at a nationally representative sample of 5,000 children who were randomly assigned to either the Head Start ("treatment") group or to the non-Head Start ("control") group.

Random assignment is the "gold standard" of medical and social-science research: It gives investigators confidence that the treatment and control groups are essentially identical in every respect except their access to Head Start. So if eventual test performances differ, we can be pretty sure that the difference was caused by the program. No previous study of Head Start used this approach on a nationally representative sample of children.

When the researchers gave both groups of students 44 different academic tests at the end of the first grade, only two seemed to show even marginally significant advantages for the Head Start group. And even those apparent advantages vanished after standard statistical controls were applied.

In fact, not a single one of the 114 tests administered to first graders — of academics, socio-emotional development, health care/health status and parenting practice — showed a reliable, statistically significant effect from participating in Head Start.

Some advocates of the program have acknowledged these dramatic results, but suggest that it's not necessarily Head Start's fault if its effects vanish during kindergarten and the first grade — perhaps our K-12 schools are to blame.

But that's beside the point. Even if it's true, it means that Head Start will be of no lasting value to children until we fix our elementary and secondary schools. Until then, money spent on Head Start will continue to be wasted.

Yet the Obama administration remains enthusiastic. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius and Education Secretary Arne Duncan both want to boost funding for Head Start — that is, to spend more on a program that's sure to fail. That's after the president already raised spending on the program from $6.8 billion to $9.2 billion last year.

Instead of throwing more dollars at this proven failure, President Obama might consider throwing his weight behind proven successes. A federal program that pays private-school tuition for poor DC families, for instance, has been shown to raise students' reading performance by more than two grade levels after just three years, compared to a control group of students who stayed in public schools. And it does so at about a quarter the cost to taxpayers of DC's public schools.

Sadly, Obama and Duncan have ignored the DC program's proven success. Neither lifted a finger to save it when Democrats in Congress pulled the plug on its funding last year.

Perhaps it's unrealistic to expect national Democrats to end a Great Society program, even when it's a proven failure. Perhaps it's unrealistic to expect them to stand up to teachers' union opposition and support private-school-choice programs that are proven successes.

Of course, until last week, it seemed unrealistic to expect a Republican to win the Senate seat long held by Ted Kennedy. If voters get angry enough with federal education politics, national Democrats may start learning from their state-level colleagues who are starting to support effective policies like school choice. Or they may just lose their seats, too.

Andrew J. Coulson directs the Cato Insti tute's Center for Educational Freedom.

Federal President Admits CBO Cost Estimates of ObamaCare Are Incomplete

Obama Admits CBO Cost Estimates of ObamaCare Are Incomplete

Yesterday — day #224 of the ObamaCare Cost-Estimate Watch — President Obama told House Republicans:

You can’t structure a bill where suddenly 30 million people have coverage and it costs nothing.

And just like that, the president admitted that the official Congressional Budget Office estimates of his health care plan do not reflect its full costs.

Both the House and Senate versions of ObamaCare would cover millions of uninsured Americans by requiring them to purchase private health insurance. As President Obama notes, even if you force people to spend their own money on health insurance, it still costs something to cover them. And if the government partly subsidizes those premiums, the remaining mandatory premium is still part of the cost of covering them.

Yet Democrats have systematically blocked the CBO from including those costs in its official cost projections. The Senate bill’s estimated price tag of $940 billion, for example, includes only the costs that bill would impose on the federal government. By my count, that’s only 40 percent of total costs. By Mr. Obama’s admission, that’s not the full cost of the bill.

Now that the President of the United States has acknowledged that the CBO’s cost estimates are incomplete, could we maybe get a complete cost estimate? Maybe just for the Senate bill?

Michael F. CannonJanuary 30, 2010 @ 8:07 am