Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Snake Oil

The folks at Information is Beautiful have assembled a nice dataset consisting of measurements of the effectiveness and popularity of 129 different dietary supplements.  The graph they produced is appropriately beautiful and interactive, although I don't find it particularly useful for addressing the main question -- is there some relationship between effectiveness and popularity?  That is, are people using the useful supplements or are they just popping snake oil?

I downloaded their data and produced the following scatterplot.  I've highlighted some of the key outliers.
Some interesting lessons: First, the relationship between effectiveness and popularity is positive and statistically significant at the .001 level.  That's encouraging!  But some of the outliers are rather interesting.  Vitamins A and C are apparently way overhyped.  St. John's Wort, which is reputedly useful for mild to moderate depression, is under-utilized, especially when you consider the size of the industry devoted to treating depression.  No one really uses anti-oxidants, and that's a good thing, it seems.  Green tea, folic acid, fish oil, and Vitamin D (my personal supplement of choice) are the real winners here.

(h/t Harris Masket)

Friday, December 24, 2010

You know Comet and Cupid and Donner and Nixon...

The Nixon reindeer cookie.

Remember: when Santa does it, that means it's not illegal.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Whip My Hair

Somehow I'd missed this when it first aired.  This is Jimmy Fallon (doing Neil Young) and an old-school Bruce Springsteen covering Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair."  This is not only brilliant, but it's actually good.  Fallon is downright scary.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Do we need a First Lady?

Matt Yglesias points out that the semi-homemade TV chef Sandra Lee is married to Andrew Cuomo, and thus there is a non-zero chance that our nation could, in the next decade or so, have a First Lady who believes this is an appropriate homage to Kwanzaa. This is indeed a disturbing universe. But I disagree a bit with Matt's reflections on the role of First Lady:
The country does, in fact, need someone to play the hostess-in-chief role but that’s simply not compatible with the range of career options open to today’s women.
The hostess-in-chief role developed at a time when there simply wasn't much of an executive staff devoted to the social aspects of White House life.  When Dolly Madison hosted a party, she actually hosted the party.  Today, White House social functions are run by a large, experienced, and highly efficient organization.  Here's Wikipedia's description of the office of White House Social Secretary:
The Social Secretary is head of the White House Social Office, located in the East Wing of the White House Complex. The Social Secretary plans events ranging from those as simple as a tea for the First Lady and a single official guest, to dinners for more than 200 guests. The Social Secretary works with the White House Chief Usher to coordinate domestic staff and with the Chief of Protocol of the United States, an official within the United States Department of State, to plan state visits and accompanying state dinners. The Social Secretary works with the White House Graphics and Calligraphy Office in the production of invitations to social events.
The simple truth is that we don't need the president's wife to be the First Lady any more than we need the president to pardon a turkey or issue a proclamation for National Clown Week.  But no president wants to be the first to point this out.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The use of the term "ideology"

Okay, thanks to John Sides for showing me Google's Ngram Viewer. I found this one interesting:

This supports a claim Frances Lee makes in Beyond Ideology that the concept of ideology is a relatively recent one.  It was invented, she argues, in the mid-20th century by journalists and political scientists as a way to explain the behavior of southern and northern Democrats, who seemed to vote differently once in a while despite being of the same party.  Prior to that time, we really had no concept of ideology as something distinct from party.

Pragmatism and Idealism

Is a political activist's job to advance an ideal or to advance the party that purportedly stands for that ideal?  If this question interests you at all, you should really listen to the first story in this episode of "This American Life." (Thanks to John Zaller for recommending it.)

The story follows two lifelong friends in northern Michigan who decide to form a Tea Party chapter.  After some initial successes in organizing the chapter, they find themselves divided over whether to back the Republican candidate in their congressional district or a Tea Party candidate.  The disagreement ends up destroying their friendship and promoting a difficult but important debate within the chapter about exactly what role activists should be playing.  The story is wonderful -- both funny and tragic, while respectful of all the players.  I plan to use this the next time I teach parties.

The story doesn't appear to be available for streaming anymore, but you can purchase it for $.99 on iTunes or Amazon.  It's worth it.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dumping of tabs

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

51 senators could end the filibuster today

So says Greg Koger over at Plain Blog.  It turns out there are several different parliamentary procedures Democrats could pursue to do this, and it doesn't need to be done on the first day of a session.

Imagine if the Democrats did this tomorrow.  This would change everything.  Suddenly the Republican threat to hold up all business until they get their tax cuts for the wealthy disappears.  Obama reneges on his pact with Senate Republicans and instead signs a Democratic tax bill that reverts taxation on income over $250,000 to Clinton-era levels.  DADT is repealed the next day.  The DREAM Act passes the day after that.  It's Democratic fantasy camp.

From the Democratic perspective, of course, probably the most annoying thing would be for Reid to engineer the death of the filibuster at the beginning of the 112th Congress.  Since Republicans will control the House, the Senate won't be the place where liberal legislation goes to die anymore, since it won't get there in the first place.  Ending the filibuster would certainly help move some Obama nominees through, but the time when this would really make a difference is now.  (Well, actually, a year or two ago.)

The effect of the Citizens United case

John Sides is seeking feedback on his summary of the impact of the Citizens United ruling on the 2010 congressional elections, although it sounds to me like he pretty much nailed it.  As Sides says, despite warnings, there was not a huge onslaught of advertisements by independent groups, at least compared to what was going on prior to the ruling.  As he notes, independent spending using money from unnamed donors was legal prior to 2010, and 527s have been gaining popularity all throughout the past decade.

Sides does find one important impact of the decision:
The main change wrought by the Citizens United decision, at least according to some observers, was psychological, not legal, in nature. It simply gave corporations a "greater comfort level," according to one news account, making them more likely to more likely to spend money to support their favored candidates. In this account, a campaign finance lawyer was quoted calling the decision a "psychological green light."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The myth of social mobility

I saw a preview for Justin Bieber's new film "Never Say Never" last night.  Now, let me just state for the record that I really don't have feelings one way or another about Justin Bieber.  I don't know his music and I don't know him.  If he wants to sing on stage and if other people want to make money promoting him, well that's just fine.  I really don't care.  But the film (or at least the preview) seems to be trying to sell Bieber as an authentic American success story.  (Okay, he's Canadian, but whatever.)  That is, he was a small-town kid with a dream, and he worked hard and his dreams came true.  And if you do the same, you can become a star, just like Justin.

I find this infuriating.  For whatever reason, Hollywood and Washington have conspired to tell us the same story over and over again -- you can do anything you want if you just want it bad enough.  Why does this make me mad?  Because it's patently untrue.  We have very little social mobility in this country.  If you're born poor, you're likely to die poor.  If you take the view that anyone can do anything they want, then you're making the assumption that either most poor people want to remain poor or they didn't work hard enough to become rich.  Either point of view is monstrous.

Now, of course, there's nothing wrong with trying to inspire people or to encourage them to strive, but the plain fact is that not everyone is going to make it big.  For every Justin Bieber, there are hundreds or thousands of equally talented kids in small towns who will never get recording contracts because their parents don't know the right people or a talent scout didn't view their YouTube video at the right time or they lack an Internet connection and a camera to make a YouTube video or they don't have a supportive family, no matter how much drive they have personally.  And as the book Outliers pointed out, for every Bill Gates, there are hundreds or thousands of equally talented and driven potential computer programmers who didn't live near a supercomputer at a pivotal time in recent history.

We have a lot of barriers to social mobility in this country, from school inequalities to persistent poverty to institutionalized racism.  We're not going to fix them if we believe they don't exist.

Beyond Ideology

As Ezra Klein notes, it is rather ironic to find Republicans rejoicing over yesterday's U.S. District Court ruling that the individual mandate on health insurance is unconstitutional.  After all, the individual mandate was an integral part of Republican health reform proposals for years, and was championed by the likes of Chuck Grassley, Bob Dole, Orrin Hatch, the Heritage Foundation, and others.  Isn't this GOP schadenfreude rather hypocritical?

Well, sure, but this is hardly atypical, for either party.  Frances Lee makes this point abundantly clear in her recent book Beyond Ideology, which I highly recommend.  Her thesis is that party polarization in the U.S. Senate is fueled by, but not solely a function of, the increasing ideological distance between the two parties.  Lee breaks down roll call votes by subject and finds that the party caucuses in the Senate are at least as divided on non-ideological issues as they are on ideological ones.  The parties quickly reverse stances on a wide range of issues depending upon who's in the majority and who controls the White House.  Seemingly non-controversial, non-ideological issues like openness, transparency, anti-corruption, and anti-waste quickly become battlegrounds for the parties.  The individual mandate is just another piece of evidence supporting Lee's thesis.

Lee doesn't really dwell on this in the book, but she's providing lots of evidence for the criticism that pundits and members of the public regularly direct at Congress -- that many of things politicians argue about are not about substance at all, but are rather about who's up and who's down.  This really is bickering.  Senators really do switch positions on issues just to make the president or members of the other party look bad.

Yet even if such bickering is hypocritical and convenient, there is still considerable democratic value to it.  If the president and the majority party in Congress are proposing a massive overhaul of a large chunk of the economy, the public has a right to hear critiques of it.  The health reform bill may well have been the best possible legislation on the topic with any real chance of passage, but that doesn't mean it was perfect, and people should know both the pluses and minuses of its features.  Only the minority party has any real incentive to bring those arguments up.  Similarly, only the minority party has any real incentive to investigate the president's nominees and appointees.  Sure, this creates a climate of distrust, but it also has a better chance of rooting out and preventing malfeasance than bipartisan harmony does.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The logic of the filibuster

I've taken this exchange from the film "Grand Canyon" (1991) and edited appropriately.
Rocstar: Tell me this, are you asking me as a sign of respect, or are you asking because I've got the [filibuster]? 
Simon: Man, the world ain't supposed to work like this. I mean, maybe you don't know that yet. I'm supposed to be able to do my job without having to ask you if I can. That [majority] is supposed to be able to [pass its agenda] without you ripping him off. Everything is supposed to be different than it is. 
Rocstar: So what's your answer? 
Simon: You ain't got the [filibuster], we ain't having this conversation. 
Rocstar: That's what I thought: no [filibuster], no respect. That's why I always got the [filibuster].

Obama and the Inside Game

One of the recurrent liberal critiques I've heard of Obama's recent tax negotiation with Republicans is that he appears to not be a very tough negotiator.  The critique goes something like this: there are still a few weeks left in the lame duck session.  On the subjects of extending tax cuts for the wealthy and benefits for the unemployed, Obama's position was very popular; the Republican one was deeply unpopular.  Obama could have gone public and brought popular opinion to bear on the negotiations.  Or he could have let Republicans sweat it out a bit in the media.  Then he'd have been in a stronger negotiating position.

My impression of what actually happened is that Obama looked at the political scene and said, there are two real veto players here: me and Senate Republicans.  So let's cut a deal and not worry about everyone else.  He might well have looked back at the debate over health care reform and thought, wow, the entire nation debated this for over a year, and it didn't really move the issue at all.  The public option didn't get more or less popular -- it always looked pretty popular but probably not commanding the support of 60 Senators.  And the bill that he signed into law looked remarkably like what he'd originally outlined a year earlier.  So it strikes me as legitimate to ask what the value of all that debate was.

Now, there's certainly some democratic value in public engagement on an issue, but that's not likely to happen on a two-week tax debate.  It would mostly have involved a lot of he said/she said on the cable news shows and a lot of alternative policies discussed in the House that really wouldn't have gone anywhere, and we'd still have ended up roughly where we were at the beginning, with Republicans clinging to their number one priority (tax extensions for income over $250K), Democrats trying to eke out what they could before granting that to the GOP, and liberal activists feeling betrayed anyway.  Seen in that light, it's hard to see Obama getting a whole lot more out of the deal than he did.

Little bit here, little bit there...

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Partisanship of Academics

Just how liberal are academics?  We actually don't have great recent data on that.  However, Everett Ladd, Seymour Lipset, and Martin Trow conducted a great survey of thousands of academics back in 1969 and broke the responses down by discipline.  The survey didn't include party identification, but they did ask people how they voted in the 1968 presidential election.  Here are the results:
So, all you haters who say that academics are a bunch of liberals? Well, um, you're right.  Or at least you were forty years ago.  In only two subfields -- agriculture and business/commerce -- did a plurality of academics prefer Nixon to Humphrey.  Political scientists look pretty darned liberal in this survey, although not so much as sociologists.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Political scientists engage in the struggle against the filibuster

My good friend and longtime conference roommate Greg Koger is one of the signers (along with Steve Smith, Barbara Sinclair, Sarah Binder, Eric Schickler, and others) of a letter trying to clear up some historic inaccuracies about the Senate's use of the filibuster.  Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) are reportedly circulating this letter to encourage the Democratic majority to simply do away with the filibuster, saying that Republicans' promiscuous use of the filibuster demands a corrective.  You can read the letter below.

My understanding is that Democrats could readily do away with the filibuster either by simply ruling that a simple majority can change the Senate's rules or by using some kind of stealth point of order.  Either would work and are permissible under the Constitution.  The question is whether 51 senators are actually willing to do it.

filibusterletter -

Damned, dirty scientists

A recent Pew survey finds that 55 percent of scientists consider themselves Democrats, 32 percent call themselves independents, and only six percent claim to be Republicans.  Thus it's not terribly surprising that the GOP would occasionally demonize scientists, although it's not clear whether GOP hostility to science causes scientists to leave the party or whether the GOP just feels safe demonizing them because so few of them are in the party in the first place.

For a prime example of this sort of demonization, please refer back to Bush White House spokesman Tony Fratto's response to a study by Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz suggesting that the Iraq War would ultimately cost $3 trillion:
People like Joe Stiglitz lack the courage to consider the cost of doing nothing and the cost of failure. One can’t even begin to put a price tag on the cost to this nation of the attacks of 9/11.... Three trillion dollars? What price does Joe Stiglitz put on attacks on the homeland that have already been prevented? Or doesn’t his slide rule work that way?

Update: On further reflection, I'm questioning just how representative this survey is.  Pew surveyed 2,533 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Who are they?
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, "Triple A-S" (AAAS), is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science around the world by serving as an educator, leader, spokesperson and professional association. In addition to organizing membership activities, AAAS publishes the journal Science, as well as many scientific newsletters, books and reports, and spearheads programs that raise the bar of understanding for science worldwide.
The AAAS claims to be "open to all," meaning, presumably, that one does not need a PhD or an MD or any other advanced degree to join.  And from the description above, they sound like an advocacy group on behalf of scientific research.  It's entirely possible that the membership is somewhat more inclined toward, say, government-funded research than the entire population of scientists.  Thus the survey sample would probably appear more Democratic than a truly representative sample of American scientists.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Failing to overcome writer's block

Via Erik Voeten and Brad DeLong.

Republicans are the Keyser Söze of politics

They are willing to do what Democrats are not.

Jonathan Bernstein:
At the end of the day, a lot of Republican constituency groups are willing to go along with an all-or-nothing strategy on most issues, while Democratic constituency groups are perfectly willing to bargain for as much as they can get. Look: if you want universal health care, you are probably willing to settle for moving from 80% coverage to 95% coverage (or whatever the actual numbers are). If you believe that government involvement in health care is unconstitutional, or immoral, or whatever, then there's not much to bargain over. [...]
In lots of policy areas, Republicans simply don't care very much what happens. And while that has a lot of limitations, it also can at times give them strong bargaining power.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Tax Compromise

Ezra Klein tries to make some lemonade from the lemon:
Rather than paring the tax cuts and the deficit back, [Obama and the Republicans are] making both larger. If you're of the mind that the economy needs all the extra help it can get right now -- and you should be -- this is a lot more extra help than anyone expected Republicans and Democrats would agree to give it. And from a political perspective, if you believe that what matters for elections is the economy -- and you should -- then it's worth it for the White House to lose news cycles in 2010 if it means adding jobs by 2012.
John Sides agrees. To which I say, okay, maybe.  But this is all predicated on the idea that maintaining tax cuts for the wealthy will stimulate the economy, and the evidence suggests that it largely won't.  I don't consider myself much of a deficit hawk, particularly when economic growth is weak, but I'm not a fan of throwing money away, either, especially to people who are doing relatively well.

Meanwhile, what has Obama gotten out of this deal?  Mainly, a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits.  I don't know this for sure, but my guess is that the Republicans would have caved on unemployment benefits eventually -- opposing them is politically toxic and, unlike tax cuts, it's not a major priority of theirs.  But maybe they'd have just approved another two months, and then dithered some more and approved another two months, etc., providing numerous opportunities for Democrats to portray Republicans as cruel and insensitive to struggling workers.  Obama just traded that away for a year.

Furthermore, Obama has apparently negotiated the tax extensions to go for another two years, rather than three.  Ezra sees this as a good thing for Democrats:
The White House believes that an improved economy and a bigger deficit [in 2012] will make it much harder for Republicans to support extending tax cuts for the rich. If they try, that gives Democrats both a populist cudgel and a way to take hold of the deficit issue.
I have a hard time seeing that.  Obama would seriously sign a tax increase during his reelection campaign? Really? A tax increase that John Boehner's House will pass? Really?

Democrats are certainly getting some decent things out of this compromise, but it's hard not to think that they're getting rolled.

Update: Jonathan Bernstein seems to think that John Sides and I are in an "intra-polisci dispute" over the tax deal.  Mommy and Daddy aren't fighting!  Sides and I obviously agree that the most important factor in the 2012 elections will be the strength of the economy.  But I do think we have a different take on the stimulative power of the tax deal.  I just have a hard time believing that preserving the lower tax rates on income above $250K will provide the crucial extra economic growth that ensures an Obama victory.  But I'm happy to be wrong.

Further update: Bernstein is absolutely correct when he says the following:
Beware of anyone who confidently claims that Barack Obama did a lousy job of bargaining at this point. We don't know what more he could have had. I'm more sympathetic to long-range critiques (such as that the Dems could have passed a tax bill in spring 2009), but once you get to a bargaining session, we're going to need to know a lot more than we have now to know how well anyone played their hand.
When I say that the Democrats got rolled, I mean that on balance, I don't think they got a great deal, but I have no idea whether they could have done a whole lot better.  As Jon says, we really don't have the evidence on that.  Institutions (read: the filibuster) really do matter, and all the presidential charisma and willpower in the world can't really change that.

The price of making a public office elected

We've had a couple of threads going (see here and here) about the value of down-ballot offices being elected or appointed.  Commenter Justin Ross provided a link to some of his highly relevant research on this topic.  Ross finds that the properties assessed by elected county assessors tends to be undervalued relative to that assessed by appointed county assessors.  From the abstract:
While typically not a formulator of policy, property assessors are likely sensitive to political incentives as they are either directly elected to their office or appointed by another elected official. This paper estimates a model that is motivated by the assumption that assessors seek to maximize political support in a manner that effects the assessment-to-sales price ratio. Using panel data from a 2001 to 2006 series of sales price ratio studies in Virginia cities and counties, a fixed effects variance decomposition regression reveals a variety of socioeconomic and political variables that bias the assessed value away from fair market value. In addition to finding influential socioeconomic factors, the results indicate that elected assessors underassess more than appointed assessors. Furthermore, it appears assessors try to export the property tax onto commercial property via higher assessments, and assessors in districts with higher measures of local government fiscal stress tend to give higher assessments.
You could interpret this a few different ways.  Either elected county assessors are bad because they're depriving public treasuries of needed funds due to crass reelection motives, or they're good because they help keep taxes low in a way that appointees simply won't.

Bad policy likely to remain law

Via Ezra, Adam Ozimek has a rather depressing writeup of some research on the home mortgage interest deduction (MID).  Not only doesn't the MID enhance homeownership, it actually drives up home prices in some areas.
We spend around $100 billion a year on this subsidy, and to the extent that it’s defenders are correct and homeownership does have positive externalities, it is actually making urban areas worse off.
Ozimek recommends replacing the MID with a subsidy on down payments.  That sounds all well and good from a policy perspective, but I just can't see that happening.  Basically, it would involved a huge number of current homeowners paying more money each year in exchange for granting a break to future homeowners.  I don't know the actual numbers, but I'm guessing that current beneficiaries of the MID make more money, are more likely to vote, and are greater in number than those likely to initially benefit from a down payment subsidy.  Besides, those currently benefiting from the MID will fight tooth-and-nail to keep it and would likely heavily punish any party that proposed eliminating it.

Subsidies, even ones that do not serve any clear public good, are incredibly hard to get rid of.  Keep in mind that we still have a National Helium Reserve, which was built in 1925 to ensure our success in the impending blimp war with Germany.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Martinez is a Democrat

In my post on the sucky-and-getting-suckier NBC show "The Event" last week, I remarked that I thought President Martinez was a Republican, given his apparently Cuban-Floridian heritage.  This remarked sparked some controversy in the comments, as many thought the fact that the president was an African American who opposed torture made him axiomatically a Democrat.

Well, this week's episode ended all doubts.  The vice president, a heavy-set white guy whom we know is of a different party than the president, sneered that Martinez only became president because of his Ivy League pedigree and charisma.  Now, there's no shortage of Ivy League degrees or charisma on either side of the aisle, but only Republicans get offended by Democrats who have them.  So I was wrong -- Martinez is clearly a Democrat.

Another tipoff is that the president is portrayed as kind of a good guy while the VP is a weasel.  On pretty much any network but Fox, this is code for Democrat and Republican, respectively.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Nobody knows how to make a computer mouse

Also, a computer mouse is exactly the same size as a Homo erectus' stone axe.  These are among the many fascinating revelations in Matt Ridley's TED lecture.  Check it out.

(h/t Harris)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Too many elected offices?

This report by the Denver Post suggests some impropriety at the Adams County Assessor's office, noting that some of Assessor Gil Reyes' biggest campaign backers received highly favorable assessments of their properties.  While the article does a good job documenting the declining property tax burdens of some of Reyes' donors, it doesn't really make the case that something improper or illegal is occurring.  To do that, the authors would really need to show that those who did not donate to Reyes were having a harder time getting favorable assessments than those who did.

That said, this does raise the key question of whether we need elected assessors -- or secretaries of state, or sheriffs, or judges, etc. --- at all.  Does the desire for reelection assure accountability in such races, or does it create problematic conflicts of interest with little added democratic value?  I have no idea, of course, but it would be nice to know whether elected assessors actually do their jobs better than those appointed by county commissioners.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Good Lord does "The Event" suck

I don't know why I'm still watching this show.  It's freaking miserable.  The first episode was actually quite good.  The show started off in the middle of an airline hijacking, and each subsequent scene revealed more information about the hijacker and the pilot, to the point where it was almost disorienting to figure out who you were rooting for. But it turns out that clever editing and a slowly-revealed plot can only get you so far if the plot you're slowly revealing isn't all that interesting.

The plot is basically "X-Files" for dumb people: there are aliens among us who arrived in the 1940s, and the government is trying to cover it up, and there are evil shadowy people who will kill you if you know too much.  Seems promising, but this show manages to make it really slow and boring, and they show us each scene multiple times through flashbacks in case we weren't bored enough the first time.

I could go on and on, but really the best critiques you'll find comes from Kay Reindl's Twitter feed.  You can follow that live if you're watching the show on West coast time.  But, at least from my perspective, the most horrible parts come from the portrayal of American politics.  The president and vice president are portrayed as just two guys who happen to work in a modest-sized firm.  When the president wants to talk to the vice president, he walks over to his office, and then the VP's receptionist has to give some story about why he's unavailable.  Indeed, other than receptionists and an occasional national security advisor, there's no executive staff to speak of.  The president makes his key governing decisions while sitting in the living room with the first lady.  Oh, and the president and vice president are of different political parties.*  By comparison, the idea of space aliens living among us is quite easy to embrace.

In a classic moment last night, the vice president, who has been scheming with some shadowy folks but wants to confess, is speaking with his wife, who is terrified.  The wife says that some men came to their house to tell her to get her husband to keep quiet.  (Some men came to the vice president's house?  They just walked up to the door?)  And these weren't ordinary men, she says: "They knew our kids' names!" Oh, my God, those must be evil, super-powerful men! How else could one find out the names of the vice president's children?

Yes, it's low-grade sci-fi, and maybe the writers don't follow politics all that well, but how hard is it to learn such basic stuff?  This is NBC -- maybe some of the West Wing's writers are still at the commissary.  Buy one of them lunch.

*We aren't told who is a member of which party.  The president is an African American with a Latino surname who has a vacation home in Florida, suggesting he's of Cuban ancestry, and further suggesting he's Republican.  But he also explicitly forbids the use of torture on detainees, so it's hard to be sure.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Way

This song is one of the real highlights of Springsteen's "The Promise," the new release of material he worked on between "Born to Run" and "Darkness on the Edge of Town."  There's a lot of amazing work in there (you could make a career out of the music Springsteen discards and still be better than John Mellencamp), but this one in particular is haunting me.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Why do non-southerners still hold such a dim view of the South?

Three words: Hank. Williams. Junior.

There's so much to take apart in this piece of excrement.  But just for one, is he really suggesting that Texas would have a more draconian justice system than it currently has if it were not (nominally) part of the United States?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Money and viability

For those teaching courses on parties or campaigns, let me recommend the West Wing episode "Opposition Research" from Season 6.  The episode follows new presidential candidate Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) during his first campaign visit to New Hampshire, under the tutelage of the more experienced but cynical Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford).  Santos is up against two other candidates, a former vice president and the current one, who are already well known, well funded, and endorsed by many local prominent politicians.

What the episode does very nicely is depict just how important funding, activists, and endorsements are to winning a primary.  Josh spends most of the episode bringing Santos around to meet with local Democratic activists.  Santos wants to give policy speeches to thousands of people, but Josh keeps telling him how activists must be won over one by one, and that they are basically the gatekeepers -- convince one of them, and they'll send hundreds of volunteers to help you.

We also see a wonderful meeting between Josh and a state legislator, whom Josh is trying to convince to help arrange a fundraiser for Santos.  (How many political films or TV shows feature a campaign manager speaking to a state legislator? Hell, how many even show a state legislator?)  The legislator points out that the other Democratic presidential candidates have already contributed to his reelection campaign, but he hasn't seen anything from Santos yet.  "Don't make this about money," implores Josh.  "Money equals viability," replies the legislator, "and from what I can see, your boy has neither."

The episode demonstrates that voters have very little to do with the early stages of a primary election.  Rather, there are a very small number of party gatekeepers who can make or break a candidacy, and they coordinate with each other through signals like endorsements and funding.  Some very good books have been written on this subject, but West Wing will take care of you in under an hour.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Shouldn't they leave everything on the field?

There are plenty of grounds on which to criticize RNC chair Michael Steele, but I didn't quite get this criticism from Gentry Collins, who resigned from the RNC on Tuesday:
In the previous two nonpresidential cycles, the RNC carried over $4.8 million and $3.1 million respectively in cash reserve balances into the presidential cycles.... In stark contrast, we enter the 2012 presidential cycle with 100 percent of the RNC's $15 million in lines of credit tapped out, and unpaid bills likely to add millions to that debt.
Maybe I'm missing the point, but what's the value in not spending absolutely everything during an election cycle? It's not like Republicans have nothing to show for it. Would Collins prefer that the GOP had a smaller majority in the House but more money in the bank? Does he really think it will be hard to raise a few more million dollars during a presidential election cycle?

Showing government groping

I really hope the Denver Post got permission from the people depicted in these photographs.  It's one thing to be groped by TSA.  It's quite another to have the groping appear on page one.

Rosa Parks was not advocating for a lower marginal tax rate

Just as a slight follow up to my previous post, it should be obvious that those who are angry at TSA or who want to be free of government tyranny (as defined by a 39% income tax rate or guaranteed health care or something) are not really marching in the footsteps of the Civil Rights activists.  Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., et al were seeking to make an indifferent federal government take sides in an important conflict.  They wanted a greater federal role in promoting equality.

I'm not saying that these other protests lack merit, but let's just try to be a bit judicious and accurate in our historical metaphors.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

And when they came for the yuppies, I said nothing, for I wasn't... oh, wait.

I'm seeing and hearing a rash of complaints about elevated airport security measures.  And I'll admit these sound pretty bad.  Probably the most detailed complaint I've heard comes from this blog post.  I fully agree with the author that sexually molestation at the hands of a government employee should not be a precondition for flying.

But can we not get carried away with this?  Too many people seem to be following the lead of the first commenter, who praises the author's resistance to TSA by saying, with all apparent sincerity,
Rosa Parks would be proud.
Airport security theater does deserve some pushback, and I think it would be great if passengers simply refused to comply with gross violations of their privacy that do nothing to make air travel safer.  I doubt too many people will resist, though, since not flying is usually not a realistic option for people who have places to be and have already packed and schlepped everything to the airport.  TSA has us, literally and figuratively, by the balls.

That said, this is not the great civil rights battle of our time.  Passengers are not being hauled out of their homes or tortured or placed in prison without access to legal counsel -- things that actually have happened to American citizens in recent years in the name of security.  Nor are people being turned away from the polls or told they can't unionize or being beaten by police officers -- also things that have happened to real live Americans in recent years.  What's going on in the airports is simply a form of government humiliation that has hit the professional class.

Updates: This post seems to have generated quite a few links and comments, so I thought I'd elaborate a bit.  I am certainly not defending enhanced TSA screenings -- I just don't think they are nearly as egregious as many other things our government has done in the name of security in recent years.  Yet the level of public outrage seems to be disproportionate to the egregiousness of the government action.  Here's a scatterplot featuring data that I entirely fabricated:
Why the outsized concern over TSA's activities?  Because those activities disproportionately hit a wealthier and whiter population, i.e.: people with an outsized voice in American politics and journalism.  That doesn't mean that air travelers are all yuppies, but those who are in the airport on any given day not near a major holiday tend to be of the professional class.

Adam Serwer makes this point nicely:
The amount of freedom Americans have handed over to their government in the years since the 9/11 attacks is difficult to convey. We've simply accepted the idea of the government secretly listening in on our phone calls and demanding private records from companies without warrants. Many shiver at the notion of trying suspected terrorists in civilian courts, and even at the idea of granting the accused legal representation. The last president of the United States brags openly about ordering people to be tortured, and the current one asserts the authority to kill American citizens he believes to be terrorists overseas.
But most of these measures are either invisible enough to put out of mind or occur outside of what most Americans can imagine happening to them. As long as it's just Muslims being tortured and foreigners being detained indefinitely, the price we pay to feel secure seems all too abstract. The TSA's new passenger-screening measures just happen to fall on the political and economic elites who can make their complaints heard. It's not happening to those scary Arabs anymore. It's happening to "us."
This story will likely get even more interesting next week as a broader demographic group flies for Thanksgiving.

Evolution of a Headline

Funny how academics don't engage the world of journalism more.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Obama Untethered

Conservatives will no doubt rejoice that Democratic pollsters Pat Caddell and Doug Schoen are calling on Obama to step down after one turn.  But a few important caveats.  First, Pat Caddell is a Democrat in the same sense that UB40 is a reggae band.  Second, the logic behind this article makes no sense whatsoever.

Caddell and Schoen reveal an utter distaste for elections, saying, "Governing and campaigning have become incompatible."  But let's set aside the moral repugnance of presidential advisers opposing democracy for a moment and deal with their argument on its own terms.  Only if Obama renounces his reelection, they argue, can he do the truly necessary work to improve the country.  This work apparently involves cutting spending.  Why is he more likely to do this work if he renounces a second term?  Because he'd be less beholden to the left and better able to work with Republicans:
If the president were to demonstrate a clear degree of bipartisanship, it would force the Republicans to meet him halfway. If they didn't, they would look intransigent, as the GOP did in 1995 and 1996, when Bill Clinton first advocated a balanced budget. Obama could then go to the Democrats for tough cuts to entitlements and look to the Republicans for difficult cuts on defense.
Right, concerns about looking intransigent should compel Republicans to work with Obama.  Never mind.  Why on Earth would an Obama who is not running for reelection be more likely to compromise with Republicans?  Of the 18 presidents who served during the 20th century*, five lost their reelection bids to candidates of the other party; zero went down to primary challenges.  In other words, if there's any pressure on Obama right now, it's more likely that he's feeling pulled toward the center than toward the extremes.  Obama knows that the chances of him losing to a Republican are greater than those of his being deposed by another Democrat.  Take away the reelection pressure, and what do you have?  An Obama who's more likely to move left than right.

Now, back to the moral repugnance.  I really don't understand pundits and pollsters who have such a hostile view toward democracy.  What evidence do we have that leaders who are either uninterested or incapable of seeking reelection are actually better at their jobs?  We have plenty of evidence pointing the other way.

*I'm counting McKinley and Ford, not counting W.

Are primaries being undermined?

Jonathan Bernstein notes an interesting phenomenon from the past year.  In three different elections (Alaska Senate, Colorado governor, and the NY-23 special House election), the winner of the Republican primary was undermined in the general election by a conservative candidate who had the backing of disgruntled Republicans.  This is important for the reasons Jon mentions -- primaries were designed to give legitimacy and finality to party nominations.  If the primary doesn't really settle anything, then parties are much more prone to splintering.

Do three cases constitute a trend?  I'm willing to county Joe Lieberman's 2006 re-election campaign as another case along these lines.  Maybe these are flukes -- the Lieberman race occurred when Democrats were unusually split on the Iraq War, and the recent Republican races occurred during a time of unusual Tea Party activity directed, sometimes, against the Republican establishment.  But if this is an actual trend, party leaders have a lot to worry about.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

When a minor party becomes a major one

So the nominee of the American Constitution Party (that'd be Tom Tancredo) won way more than 10 percent of the vote in Colorado's recent gubernatorial election.  By state law, that makes the ACP a "major" party for the next four years, which comes with a number of benefits, including higher placement on general election ballots and easier fundraising.  But, as the Denver Post reports, there are some notable downsides.
  • The party has to hold caucuses in each of the state's 3,215 precincts in early 2012. The party currently has 30 dues paying members to carry out this task.
  • The party has to conduct primaries, which is ironic since its own platform opposes primaries.
  • It has to appoint members to 17 state boards.  Again -- only 30 party members to begin with.
This is all fairly amusing, but it also highlights some of the important differences between major parties and minor ones.  Minor parties usually get the luxury of ideological purity in exchange for not bearing any of the burdens of actual governing.  They run candidates to make statements or raise issues that are otherwise being ignored.  There's usually little real chance of their candidates actually winning anything.

Now the ACP has a much bigger platform than it ever had before.  I wonder if they'll see this time as a blessing or a curse.

War of the Gods

I've been going through all of the original "Battlestar Galactica" series with the kids.  It's been a long time since I've viewed most of these episodes.  A lot of them are quite forgettable, to be honest.  But the two-parter "War of the Gods" was interesting, as it apparently provided a lot of major plot lines for the re-imagined series from recent years.

Now, the episode is really quite silly.  Count Iblis (Patrick MacNee) mostly walks around issuing bizarre, transparently evil statements like "My knowledge of the universe is infinite!" and "Do not be beguiled!", usually in response to innocuous questions like, "Would you like extra ketchup packets?"  He's clearly trying to chew up some scenery, but it's hard to do that with the stupid dialogue he's given.  But fans of the recent series will note some important developments:

  1. The episode takes on a pretty transparently Christian good/evil view -- Iblis actually looks like the Devil when you shoot him, and the good guys fly around in a ship shaped like a friggin' cross.  But the story gets a bit muddied when both good guys and bad guys suggest that they are just somewhat more highly evolved versions of humans.  ("As you are, we once were.")  Adama adds to this when he suggests that modern humans would look like angels to a more primitive people.  This is reminiscent of the Baltar and Caprica apparitions (ChipSix and ChipBaltar) in the new series -- the show left it deliberately vague as to whether they represented some advanced technology or whether they were actual emissaries of God or whether there was necessarily a distinction between the two.
  2. Apollo at one point is convinced that Iblis is an android.  He goes to see the creepy Carl Sagan/Steve Martin love child Dr. Wilker to ask him if it's possible to design an android so advanced that we couldn't tell whether it was human or not, and Wilker thinks it's possible.  Moreover, Wilker actually has some prototypes in his lab!  Skin jobs, anyone?
  3. Among the many events that Iblis brings to pass is the deliverance of Baltar to the Colonial fleet.  We don't see much of a trial, but we do get to see the Quorum of Twelve sentencing Baltar to life in prison -- a justice the modern Colonial fleet was denied.
  4. Iblis reveals that his voice is the same as that of the Cylon Imperious Leader, a robot who was programmed 1,000 years earlier back when there were still organic Cylons around.  They don't really spell it out, but one can infer that Iblis had something to do with the machine Cylons' revolt against their biological masters. 
There's more, and it's really worth watching just to see how the recent show's writers mined this episode for material.  Also, there's some cool rope-dancing on the Rising Star that's not to be believed.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Fast analysis, deep insight

So it seems like journalists are increasingly turning to political scientists for answers to political questions.  Thank you! In return, political scientists are trying to speed up their pace of analysis, so that reporters don't have to wait 25 years to find out, say, the impact of Abscam on public opinion.

In keeping with this, be sure to check out the midterm postmortem in the Boston Review by Brendan Nyhan, John Sides, and Eric McGhee.  No doubt political scientists will be learning more about the 2010 election cycle with time, but this is a pretty impressive compendium of all that we know so far about things like the power of the Tea Party, the impact of campaign spending, and the effects of roll call votes cast by incumbents over the past two years.

Also, if you're teaching about any of the 2010 races in the spring, be sure to pre-order your copy of Pendulum Swing, edited by Larry Sabato.  It will be available for spring classes.  I mention this because it's affordable and because I have a chapter in there about the Colorado senatorial and gubernatorial races.

Different parties, different majority sizes

One of the curious features of the modern U.S. House of Representatives is that Democrats tend to run the chamber with large majorities, while Republicans tend to have slender majorities when they're in charge.  Check out the following chart, showing the size of the majority in the House for each congress since 1981:
Democrats usually have majorities of between 250 and 270 seats.  The bulk of GOP-run houses during this time period, however, saw the majority party controlling between 220 and 240 seats.  The one large Republican majority in this time period comes from the incoming 112th Congress, in which Republicans will have north of 255 240 seats.  This is highly unusual for Republicans -- the last time they controlled this many seats, Herber Hoover Harry Truman was president.

Republicans often get credit for running the chamber with tighter discipline than Democrats have, but that may simply be a function of majority size; a small majority can't tolerate many defections.  We'll know more about how large Republican majorities behave soon enough.

Update: I originally grossly inflated the Republican numbers in the 112th House.  I'm not sure how I did this.  At any rate, I've edited the post and the graph accordingly.  The lesson, thankfully, is still valid.

Pretty much everything you need to know about deficit reduction in 12 words

Actual headline:
Sen. Conrad: Extend All Tax Cuts; Time to Get 'Serious' About Deficit

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Presidents and their hams

Be sure to check out this slideshow of paintings of presidents holding hams, done by Oregon artist bijijoo.  It's important.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Mythbusting with the Electoral College

It turns out you can debunk a few political legends with a quick glance at Electoral College results.  Examples:
  • Lincoln only won in 1860 because the Democratic Party was fragmented. Actually, Lincoln won 180 electoral votes -- almost 60% of the Electoral College.  Even if all three strains of the Democratic Party had somehow unified behind one candidate, Lincoln still would have won.  There were just far more voters in the free states.
  • Kennedy only won in 1960 thanks to Chicago's Mayor Daley rigging the Illinois election.  Nope.  Kennedy beat Nixon by 84 electoral votes, and Illinois only accounts for 27 of those.  Even if you give Illinois to Nixon, Kennedy's still president.
Update: For more on the 1860 election and its relation to the secession movement, please see this excellent piece by Susan Schulten, who, unlike me, actually does know what the hell she's talking about.  Interesting point here:
A vote for Southern Democrats did not always predict secession. While a majority in Delaware and Maryland voted Southern Democrat, those states remained loyal. Conversely, in Tennessee Bell actually defeated Breckinridge, even though that state seceded in early June. Kentucky and North Carolina were split between the two parties, and while the former remained in the Union, the latter did not. The winner-take-all model of the Electoral College obscures this complexity.

It's not just the economy

Are the swings in midterm elections getting bigger? Look at Brendan Nyhan's graph below. 1994 had the biggest loss for the president's party in half a century.  That was followed by two midterms in which the president's party actually gained seats -- also unheard of in the previous half century.  Then in 2010, we saw a larger loss for the president's party than we even saw in 1994.  As I mentioned previously, these extremes are not well explained by the economy.  The four biggest outliers in midterm elections relative to economic growth occurred in just the last five midterms cycles. 
If the swings are getting bigger, what might account for this? I don't really have the hardcore evidence to prove this, but it strikes me that it's not a coincidence that the swings are growing at a time when parties are becoming increasingly strong and unified.  

Greg Koger, Matt Lebo, and Jamie Carson put out an article earlier this year showing that members of Congress get punished for voting too much with their parties. This is consistent my finding with Steve Greene that the health care vote cost supporters roughly 5 percentage points in the election and with Eric McGhee's finding that the stimulus vote and the cap-and-trade vote also took a few percentage points off the vote shares of their supporters.

Why do members get punished for voting with their parties?  Because parties are not interested in pushing through popular legislation.  Parties have longstanding priorities (health care reform, tax reductions for the wealthy, etc.) that are molded and favored by the most active and passionate leaders within the parties.  These goals are priorities for the parties over many decades and do not wax or wane with public sentiment.  Indeed, in most cases, these priorities will run against public opinion.  After all, if everyone favored something, it would probably already be law -- it wouldn't take a whole lot of energy by a unified party to press for it.

So, yes, the Democrats did suffer this year because of the poor economy.  But they also suffered because they actually used their majority to do something.  No doubt a number of Democratic members of Congress -- particularly those who lost last week -- did not appreciate the pressure put on them to cast party-line votes on things like health care and the stimulus and would rather still be employed and still be in the majority.  On the other hand, if most Democrats were offered the chance to still have the majority in exchange for not having any of their legislative accomplishments over the past two years, what would they choose?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Tea Party endorsements

Whom did various Tea Party groups endorse in the general election?  The Washington Post has a really nice page devoted to this topic.

Generational Polarization

Were poor youth turnout and high elderly turnout responsible for the Democratic slaughter on Tuesday?  William Galston is skeptical:
The conventional wisdom before November 2 was that seniors enraged or terrified by changes in Medicare would turn out in droves to punish those who voted for health reform while young people disillusioned by Obama’s failure to create the New Jerusalem would abstain. That did happen, but only to a modest degree. Voters of ages 18-29 constituted 12 percent of the electorate in 2006; 11 percent in 2010. Voters over 65 were 19 percent of the total in 2006; 23 percent in 2010—noticeable but hardly decisive.
Okay, but Galston ignores an important trend: the electorate has polarized by age group considerably since 2006.  In 2006, 60% of 18-29 year olds voted Democratic, compared to 49% of 65+ voters.  That's an 11-point difference.  In 2010, 57% of 18-29 year olds voted Democratic, compared to 38% of 65+ voters.  That's a 19-point difference.  The increasing Democratic tendency of young voters relative to older voters made their failure to vote much costlier for Democrats than it would have been a few years ago.

The most damaging roll call vote

Back in September, Steven Greene and I did some preliminary research finding that Democratic House members who had voted for health care reform were running about three points behind those who voted against it.  Well, now that the election is over, we figured we'd check to see how those candidates made out.

Using the same analysis we did last time, only predicting vote share rather than polling results, we find that Democratic House members who voted for health care reform did an average of 5.2 percentage points worse than those who voted against it.  This effect is statistically significant.  This is controlling for district partisanship and the members' ideal points (an estimation of their overall voting record).

Suffice it to say this is a huge effect.  As it turns out, of the 41 House Democrats we examined, nine eight of them who supported health reform ended up losing by less than 5.2 points: Carney (PA), Kilpatrick (AZ), Klein (FL), Mollohan (WV), Perriello (VA), Pomeroy (ND), Salazar (CO), Spratt (SC), Wilson (OH).  That is, the analysis suggests that had those folks voted against health reform, they'd still have jobs in Congress.  Now, this is a pretty simplistic analysis -- we don't know whether Democrats would have fared better or worse overall if health reform had failed, for example -- but it's still a pretty astonishing effect for one vote.

Conversely, we find that five Democratic members who did get reelected would be out of a job today if they'd voted yes on health reform.  These include Altmire (PA), Chandler (KY), Matheson (UT), McIntyre (NC), and Shuler (NC).

We ran the same analysis for two other controversial votes, the stimulus and cap-and-trade.  We found no statistically significant effect for either of those votes.  (This is somewhat different from Eric McGhee's findings, so Eric, Steve, and I will need to hammer this all out over beers in Chicago next April.)

Some caveats: This does not include the entire Democratic caucus -- just the 41 members from the 50 most conservative Democratic-held districts who were running for reelection.  We'll expand our analysis on this soon.  It also doesn't control for spending, although most analyses I've seen on that suggests the effect was kind of a wash.

I've done some previous reflection on how to interpret the fact that Democrats finally following through on a longstanding party commitment appears to have hurt them dearly.  For more on this, I'd suggest reading Jonathan Bernstein, who suggests that delivering on this goal was worth losing an election over. I still maintain that health reform will be popular and untouchable, along the lines of Social Security, in the coming decades, but we're not there now.  It's currently unpopular.  If it were popular, it would have happened a long time ago.  Instead, what it took was a determined and (relatively) unified party with sizable majorities in both chambers.  Going against public opinion is a big part of what strong parties do, and it's not surprising that there's occasionally a large price to be paid.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

As Colorado goes...

If reports are correct, Republicans have finally won enough seats in the Colorado state house to claim a majority.  Which means the coming session will feature a Democratic executive branch, a Democratic Senate, and a Republican House.


Midterms 2010: What Happened?

As loyal readers of this blog are no doubt aware, my forecast of the midterm election was pretty wide of the mark.  We don't know the exact number of House seats the Republicans have gained yet, but it looks to be around 65 seats.  (I've updated the scatterplot above using this figure.)  I had predicted 40 seats, with a 28-seat margin of error.  So, while 65 seats is within that margin, it's really out in the tails.  And as the scatterplot above shows, it's a huge outlier.  I am gratified somewhat that most other forecasters missed it by a lot, too, but the question remains: why did we miss this?

John Sides offers a bit of speculation.  One thing he touches on is the importance of candidate recruitment -- the favorable political conditions for Republicans made it easier to recruit high-quality candidates this year.  Contrast this with 1994.  Yes, Republicans recruited heavily that year, as it was clear that conditions were running against the Democrats, but few believed that the GOP would really take the House that year until right before it happened.  Democrats had held the House for forty years; a Democratic House was believed to a permanent part of the political environment.  Today, we know that the House can flip back and forth.  It was clear by mid-2009 that the economy wouldn't be expanding robustly any time soon, that unemployment was going to remain high, and that Obama's popularity wasn't likely to surge.  Add to that the knowledge that a decent set of GOP candidates could actually flip the House, plus a nascent Tea Party movement that was producing potential candidates, and you have a great recruiting environment.

I'm not saying that's the only reason the GOP won so many seats, but it might contribute to it.  I'm still wondering about other reasons.  I can't help noticing, for example, that the four biggest outliers in the above scatterplot are from the last five midterm elections.  Perhaps large swings are a feature of stronger partisanship, or nationalized elections, or something else.  But the swings are getting larger.

Meanwhile, a spot of good news for my forecasts: I predicted that Republicans would take over 16 legislative chambers.  It looks like they've taken 18, although there are still a few that are up in the air (including the Colorado House).

The morning after

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Final predictions

I have a bet with my colleague Peter Hanson over whose freshman seminar students can produce the best midterm forecasts.  Here are the mean predictions for how many seats the Democrats will control in the House and Senate after tonight:

                      House      Senate
My class          204          50.5
Peter's class     217          51.25
Me                   217           52

I'm guessing Peter has more liberals in his class than I do.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Ted Sorensen

A somewhat belated note on the passing of Ted Sorensen.  Sorensen once came to speak at a speechwriting class I attended at George Washington University in the mid-1990s.  We began the class by watching John Kennedy's inaugural address.  Then Sorensen spoke, saying that he was apologizing in advance for not sounding as eloquent as President Kennedy: "He had a better speechwriter than I have."

Obama-midterm-loss-blame-narrative Bingo!

Via Brendan Nyhan:

America's funniest moral scold

I ended up showing Jon Stewart's closing rally speech to both my classes today. While I disagree with Charli Carpenter that this will someday be seen as one of the Great American Speeches, it's a very good speech, and one whose content merits some reflection.

The speech was very much in line with some of Stewart's earlier reflections on needless partisanship in the media, particularly his epic Crossfire appearance.  The main argument, that people who disagree should still be nice to each other, is hardly controversial.  But he goes beyond that, saying that we really do need more comity in government, that excessive partisanship is hurting the country. As he said on Saturday:
We hear every damned day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how it's a shame that we can't work together to get things done. The truth is, we do! We work together to get things done every damned day! The only place we don't is here [the Capitol] or on cable TV!
But Americans don't live here, or on cable TV. Where we live, our values and principles form the foundation that sustains us while we get things done--not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done.
He then goes on to draw a rather creative metaphor of cars entering a tunnel, who still manage to merge from 20 lanes to two despite their various disagreements.  But this is a false analogy.  Liberals and conservatives can merge lanes, or work together in an office, or live together as neighbors because those tasks have very little to do with being liberals or conservatives.  Those philosophies are governing philosophies.  We should not expect liberals and conservatives to get along when making governing decisions the way they do in other aspects of life because those decisions are essential to what it means to be a liberal or a conservative.  Compromises are, in some sense, betrayals.  When a liberal adopts a conservative policy stance, she has made herself less liberal in the process, and she has disappointed or even betrayed her cohort.  Yes, sometimes governing requires compromise, but it's quite another thing to suggest that ideologues should compromise for the sake of creating a more agreeable work environment.

A friend of mine (Hans Noel - see comments) also pointed out that the Jon Stewart at the rally would have some real disagreements with the Jon Stewart who interviewed President Obama last week.  The latter Stewart was criticizing Obama for compromising too much on health care reform and other policy matters.  He apparently wanted Obama to be more confrontational, regardless of how that affected the tone in Washington, because he thought the outcome was important.

And there's the rub.  We always want politicians to be nicer to each other, until they're arguing about things we hold dear, and then we want them to fight tooth and nail for those things.

So, okay, he's being a little ideologically inconsistent here, but he's no worse than the rest of us.  And I'm willing to grant some slack to the guy who created a battle of the bands between Ozzy Osbourne and Cat Stevens.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Rolling Stone makes the case

Rolling Stone's analysis of Obama's first two years is really quite good.  Tim Dickinson starts by noting the (largely liberal) case against the president, and then proceeds to describe what he's actually done in office.  The record is quite striking -- the piece accurately describes his first two years as two of the most productive years of any presidency since maybe Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt.  Obama is characterized as a very pragmatic but energetic deal-maker, one who was willing to get his hands dirty and work with Congress and disappoint some constituencies for the sake of delivering achievable and important goals.  In many ways, it sounds like the presidency we expected from Hillary Clinton rather than the inspiring idealist Obama was portrayed to be in 2008.

My one beef with the article is its conclusion.  It seeks to address the question: if Obama has accomplished so much, why is he relatively unpopular, and why are Democrats getting their asses kicked?  Dickinson suggests that the problem is salesmanship -- Democrats should be crowing about their accomplishments rather than running from them, they didn't explain health reform well, etc.  The truth, of course, is that first, legislative achievements don't affect approval ratings very much.  Second, something that does affect approval ratings quite a bit is the economy, and that's been pretty anemic lately.  If we had 3.5% growth right now, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

Definitely worth the read.

Coupla things

  • There's a fine new poli sci blog called YouGov featuring interesting pieces by Larry Bartels (who explains how it's somehow a losing political issue to tax a very small percent of the population) and Lynn Vavreck (who notes that Republican leaders have been suffering in the polls as much, if not more, than Obama).
  • Boris Shor profiles some of the Republican candidates who may win seats in the U.S. House next month, finding that some of them are surprisingly moderate.
  • David Karol explains the fascinating history of trade policy battles between the parties and between the White House and Congress.
  • Early voting both decreases overall turnout and enhances the income-based voting gap.  Other than that, it's perfect.
  • Dan Maes is consistently polling under 10 percent.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Freakonomics: Midterm Edition

The NYT's Freakonomics blog has a forum out today on the congressional midterms featuring yours truly. Yeah, I wanted to toot my horn a bit, but I also wanted to point you toward Justin Wolfers' forecast, which is brilliant.  Basically, Wolfers is arguing that it is far worse for a pundit to be uninteresting than wrong, so he proceeds to predict big wins by Democrats next month:
And if I’m wrong? We both know there won’t be any real consequences. I’ll be sure to sell some clever story. You know, there was weather on election day (hot or cold, wet or dry — it all works!) and this messed with turnout. Or perhaps, This Time Was Different, and my excellent forecast was knocked off course by our first black president, by rising cellphone penetration or a candidate who may not be a witch. I’ll remind you how I nailed previous elections.... I’ll bluster and use long words like sociotropic, or perhaps heteroskedastic. And I’ll remind you that my first name is Professor, and I went to a prestigious school. More to the point, if I’m wrong, I’m sure we’ll all have forgotten by the time the 2012 election rolls around. Shhhh… I won’t tell if you won’t.
Definitely worth the read.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Breaking: Tea Party candidates not all freaks

Did Tea Party influence cause Republicans to nominate a large number of unqualified candidates?  Via John Sides, Brendan Nyhan looks at the backgrounds of the current Republican candidates for the U.S. House and finds that about half of them have previously held elective office.  (Political scientists usually consider previous elective office experience to be a useful proxy for candidate quality, which is otherwise very difficult to measure.)  Not only is this figure similar to those of previous election years, but it's considerably higher than the figure for current Democratic candidates.

Yes, there are a bunch of inexperienced candidates with Tea Party backing out there, but as Nyhan notes, they are largely concentrated in uncompetitive districts, so they're not really hurting the Republicans this year.  In more competitive races, the Tea Party has chosen to back experienced politicians.

All this suggests that the Tea Party, to the extent we can define it as a unified entity, is much more pragmatic than the media usually portray it to be.  Remember that Tea Party members enthusiastically backed Scott Brown for the Massachusetts Senate seat despite his very moderate credentials.  That is, he stood for basically nothing that they stood for, but they recognized the importance of depriving Democrats of their filibuster-proof majority, so they sucked it up.

Can early voting numbers tell us anything?

Last week, I cited some early voting numbers collected by Michael McDonald that suggested a Democratic advantage for the midterm elections.  This post at National Review's Online, however, compares these early voting numbers with those of 2008 and finds the Democrats wanting this year.  That is, even though Democrats still outnumber Republicans among early voters, their advantage has waned significantly:
The average of these states show that early voting has shifted from a D+16.6 partisan split to a D+1.7 partisan split for a Republican gain of +14.9% since 2008.
Over at the Washington Post, however, Karen Tumulty reports that the partisan balance among early voters is almost identical to that of 2006, when Democrats took over both chambers.

So are the early voting numbers a good sign for Democrats or Republicans?  What's the proper basis of comparison -- 2008 or 2006?

Probably the most important question here, though, is just how predictive are early voting statistics of actual election outcomes?  I've not seen a serious study of this (please let me know if you have), but my guess is they're not terribly helpful.  For one thing, widespread early voting is a relatively recent phenomenon, so we don't have a whole lot of data here.  For another, as McDonald reminds us, early voting doesn't tell us how people voted.  All we know is their party affiliation.  Yes, any registered partisan who bothers to vote early is extremely likely to vote her party registration.  But a) this doesn't tell us the percentages of registered partisans who will ultimately vote; and b) this doesn't tell us a thing about the preferences of independents, who comprise somewhere around a fifth of the early electorate thus far.

At this point, only around 5 to 10 percent of those who are casting a vote in 2010 have voted, and I feel confident in saying that that 5 to 10 percent is poorly representative of the ultimate electorate.