Monday, May 31, 2010

Causality much?

Brian Stelter at the NY Times gets spun:
Fully half of the United States is now watching television in high definition, the fastest adoption of TV technology since the VCR hit store shelves in the 1980s.
With the adoption comes good news for networks and Hollywood studios: HD lures viewers to TV for longer periods of time. According to The Nielsen Company, high-definition households watch about 3 percent more prime-time programming than their standard-definition counterparts. [Emphasis added.]
Yeah.  The other possibility is that people who watch TV more are more likely to buy HD.

Non-scandal ensnares Romanoff in its non-clutches

In Sunday's Denver Post, Mike Littwin tries to tie Andrew Romanoff to Sestak-gate, or whatever the hell we're calling it.  The link is that Romanoff was allegedly offered a position in the Obama administration to keep him from running against Michael Bennet.  But Romanoff doesn't want to talk about it.  As Littwin says,
But Romanoff won't answer the question. And it's worse than that. According to Romanoff spokesman Roy Teicher, not only does Romanoff refuse to answer the question, he won't even say why he refuses to answer the question.
I suppose this is what happens when you run for office pledging transparency.  Basically, every reporter and critic out there suddenly thinks they're entitled to know everything about you, and if you decline, it's a) a cover-up; and b) a broken campaign promise.  Yes, I know, they say it's always the cover-up, not the crime, but if there's no actual crime, every denial of wrongdoing can be perceived as a cover-up.  Remember Whitewater?

So Littwin wants to know why Romanoff isn't saying anything about being offered a job.  Well, I'm just going to guess it has something to do with the fact that Romanoff a) went to law school; and b) remembers the Clinton impeachment.  The Republicans seem to think they've found a nut.  Should they end up in the majority, they'll definitely pursue impeachment.  Count on it.  And if that happens, Romanoff will be one of the first people subpoenaed.  And, of course, if you're forced to testify before a special prosecutor, the less you say, and the less you've said publicly before that, the better.

Update: So much for that theory.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Obictus

I finally saw "Invictus."  I thought it was quite good, although I'm really no closer to understanding rugby.

I can't be the first person to comment on this, but wasn't this film basically about Obama?  I mean, here's the first black president elected to lead a divided nation with a shameful history of white-on-black racial oppression.  Whites are expecting the worst, and blacks are itching for payback.  But the new president decides that it's more important to heal his nation than deliver to the people who put him in office, so he spends a lot of time trying to get blacks to swallow their desires and tolerate the whites who were oppressing them just a few years earlier.  It almost seems like director Clint Eastwood's fantasy for what Obama should have been doing after his inauguration.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

New layout

Trying a new design, with thanks to Vivian for the tip.  Feedback welcome.

Friday, May 28, 2010

California is everywhere and everywhere is California

Via Sullivan and Edge of the American West, here's a wonderful 1927 map of California produced by Paramount Studios, suggesting filming locations throughout the state that looked convincingly enough like other parts of the world.
I'm sorry to see that, at least as of 1927, the studios weren't yet pushing the versatile Topanga Canyon Malibu Creek State Park as a shooting location.  It would later serve as Korea in "M*A*S*H," both Africa and Virginia in "Roots," and (spoiler alert) future Earth in "Planet of the Apes."  Topanga Canyon Malibu Creek State Park is the Meryl Streep of filming locations.

Colorado Cosa Nostra

Faithful readers may recall my discussion of Colorado's so-called "Gang of Four," a collection of very wealthy liberal activists who have been working to get Democrats elected to the statehouse since 2004.  (See also my review of Schrager and Witwer's wonderful new book on the topic.)  Well, I finally put together a paper analyzing what's going on and will be presenting it at next week's State Politics and Policy Conference in Springfield, Ill.  The paper's a bit rough still, but here's what I found:

To make a long story short, Tim Gill, Jared Polis, Pat Stryker, and Rutt Bridges made a decision in 2004 that they were dissatisfied with Republican control of Colorado and thought they could change partisan control of the state with an appropriate allocation of huge sums of money.  For Gill and Polis, in particular, the politics had a personal angle; they're gay, and the state government had taken a number of recent stances against gays and lesbians.  Due to state and federal campaign finance laws passed on 2002, individual donors and the state parties were limited as to how they could affect and target races, but this small group of individuals reasoned that some 527s could get around this problem by amassing funds and spending them on election communications in a handful of targeted races.

I find that the 527s created by Gill et al (known collectively as the Roundtable or the Gang of Four) is having a measurable impact on Colorado politics.  I trace their campaign finance reports to determine which Democratic candidates they aided in 2004 and 2006, and I find that those state legislative races targeted by the group saw an average Democratic vote surge of roughly four points.  This is huge -- nearly twice the estimated incumbency advantage in these races.  I also identify six state house races and one state senate race targeted by the Roundtable in 2004 in which the Democrat won by less than four points.  That, it turns out, was enough to flip both houses from Republican to Democratic control in 2004, the same year that Bush beat Kerry statewide by five points.

I spend a little time in the paper trying to assess whether we should consider this new form of organization a political party.  My feeling is that it's close, but not quite.  Schattschneider described a party as "an organized attempt to get control of government," and that's basically what's going on here.  But I'm reticent to call this organization a party simply because they seem almost wholly uninterested in nominations contests.  They managed to rise to power without engendering much pushback from the older party elites or the formal Democratic Party leaders in the state, and for the most part, they pretty much take the nominees that emerge from the primaries and try to get them elected.

It's the growth, not the jobs

John Sides and I have a new piece in today's NY Daily News on the role of the economy in this year's midterm elections.  Quick version: Economic growth predicts elections, unemployment doesn't, and the Dems are losing seats regardless.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Truly bad movies

"Sex and the City 2"?  No, they didn't. They did not.
Consider the film’s painful climax, in which Samantha, now wearing shorts and a low-cut top, spills dozens of condoms from her purse in the middle of a crowded market. Right before the condom explosion, the Islamic call to prayer, the Adhan, is conveniently heard for no discernible reason. The angry, hairy men, overwhelmed by anger and shock, decide to abandon their daily activities and busy life to encircle Samantha and condemn her as a harlot and slut, but not before Samantha proudly holds the condoms up high and dry humps the air telling the men she uses them to have sex. Because they cannot tolerate a sassy, back-talking, condom-using female baring her legs, they decide en masse to spontaneously chase all four women. Appearing like an oasis in the desert, two mysterious women in a burqa silently nod to the four girls, who subsequently follow the women into a secret room revealing the existence of a secret book club attended by a dozen niqabi women, who disrobe to reveal their hidden designer clothes, fashionable shoes and makeup.
There's an interesting discussion in the comments over at LGM over whether "Sex and the City 2" might be the worst film ever.  It's hard to say how to even rank these things.  A few commenters mention "Twister," "The Day After Tomorrow," etc., but I don't think that's fair.  Those movies really don't pretend to be anything other than a few hours of entertainment with just enough science to make you think that they at least hired a meteorologist for a couple of hours.  I don't think they should be held to a particularly high standard.  And I don't know why people are attacking "The Core."  That is a very special film.  I can't recall another film that had such a tight concentration of highly acclaimed, talented indie film actors doing such crappy work.  You have to work to get those kind of results.  And the science?  Well, it starts with people communicating via radio through 2,000 miles of mantle and goes from there.  Awesome.

To me, the worst movie ever is "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band."  If you haven't seen it, just imagine a musical that begins with the assumption that the Beatles are actually the Bee Gees.  And then they try to tell a story using the lyrics from the Beatles' music, which you really can't do since those lyrics, for the most part, make no friggin' sense.  But that doesn't stop them!  So we get a character named Mr. Kite played by George Burns.  And a character named Dr. Maxwell played by Steve Martin.  (Yes, he has a silver hammer!)  It's ridiculous.  And it would be bad enough if it were just a dumb musical, but the fact that it bears the name and music of one of the greatest albums of all time makes it all the more appalling.  That's a bad movie.

Just sayin'.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Miss me yet?"

For some reason I feel a need to run screaming down the street while tearing my hair out.
Federal regulators responsible for oversight of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico allowed industry officials several years ago to fill in their own inspection reports in pencil and then give them to the regulators, who later traced over them in pen before submitting the reports to the agency.
Wow.  This seems like a good time to reference Jonathan Bernstein's excellent post on presidential competence.  I understand that the post could be interpreted as a partisan slam on President Bush.  Really, it's not.  When assessing politicians, it's easy to just say that one is bad because she does things with which you disagree.  That's not what Bernstein is doing here.  Beyond issues of left/right, greater/lesser role of government, war/peace, etc., there are matters of basic competence.  The president, as Bush used to say, is the decider -- the question is how he is making those decisions.  By most accounts, it appears Bush had no interest in developing his own ability to analyze information and make informed decisions.  He went with his gut.  He deferred to advisors he liked.  The consequences were disastrous.

You may legitimately feel that petroleum producers are already over-regulated by the federal government.  I feel safe in saying that the appropriate remedy for that is not to have regulators let the companies write their own inspection reports.  But that's the sort of oversight you get from an executive branch that literally doesn't care.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Chutzpah

I don't know which is more impressive, Sarah Palin attacking Barack Obama for being too tied to the petroleum industry, or Kobe Bryant extolling the virtues of teamwork.

The Top-Two Primary

If you have 45 minutes or so to kill in the car and you're interested in the topic of primaries, I encourage you to listen to this forum on KQED on the topic of California's Proposition 14, which comes up for a vote next month.  (Prop. 14 would create a Louisiana-style top-two primary, in which all candidates of all parties appear on the same primary ballot, and then the top two vote-getters go to a runoff, even if they're of the same party.)

The forum opens with a brief interview with the PPIC's Eric McGhee (a friend and co-author of mine) about the possible effects of switching from a closed primary to an open top-two one.  Does it make legislators more moderate and legislatures less polarized?  Well, maybe.  McGhee cites evidence suggesting that the effect would be small to nonexistent.

Then the forum turns to California's new lieutenant governor, Abel Maldonado, one of the main proponents of Prop. 14, and Richard Winger, one of the initiative's more prominent opponents.  Maldonado's performance is, in my humble opinion, a trainwreck.  He proceeds to list one complaint after another about the state government -- it's broken, it's broke, legislators are highly partisan, they spend too much time on silly issues, they can't pass a budget, politicians misrepresent themselves to voters, etc. -- but then says that the solution is a top-two primary.  He never really explains how the latter would correct the former.

Meanwhile, Winger, to his credit, employs actual evidence debunking each of Maldonado's claims one by one.  You say more open primaries would make it easier to pass a budget?  Well, it turns out the budget was plenty late during Calfornia's use of the blanket primary a decade ago.  You say it would make the legislature less partisan?  Washington state used a blanket primary for decades, and their legislature is one of the most partisan in the country.  And so on.  And all Maldonado does is keep saying, "I've lived it.  I've been there."  And then he repeats his talking points.  It's not a very impressive spectacle.

I've popped off on this topic before, but just to recap: I tend to be an advocate of strong parties.  California's own experience with weak parties under cross-filing (1914-59) was not particularly inspiring -- the legislature was corrupt and easily swayed by powerful personalities and moneyed interests, and voters had no idea whom, if anyone, to throw out of office if they were dissatisfied.  But okay, maybe you still want a less polarized legislature.  Fine.  Would a top-two primary get you there?  Not really.  The evidence we have suggests that the effect would be small or negligible.  There turns out to be very little relationship between a state legislature's partisanship and the openness of its primary elections.  Meanwhile, you'll end up with many runoff elections between members of the same party, giving voters not of that party a lot less incentive to participate.

Update: Typo fixed.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

What an activist wants, what a party needs...

I was up in Broomfield for the Colorado state Democratic Assembly yesterday.  The Republicans held their event simultaneously.  In case you missed the big news, of the four major statewide races (governor and U.S. Senate in both parties), three of them were won yesterday by people who were not their party's presumed frontrunners.  On the Democratic side, Andrew Romanoff beat out Michael Bennet for the Senate nod by about 20 points.  On the Republican side, Ken Buck won the Senate contest (presumed nominee Jane Norton decided not to compete) and Dan Maes narrowly beat out presumed gubernatorial nominee Scott McInnis.

What does this mean?  In practical terms, not all that much.  Winning at the state assembly means you get top line on the primary ballot in August.  The research on the effect of ballot order is mixed, but generally leans toward the conclusion that the vote impact of being first on the ballot as opposed to second is either small or nonexistent.  (This paper from Michael Alvarez, Betsy Sinclair, and Richard Hasen does a nice job reviewing the legal and political science research on the topic.)

Now, if a candidate doesn't get at least 30% of the assembly vote, she does not get to appear on the primary ballot at all, although she can later petition onto it.  Only if a candidate fails to achieve 10% of the vote is she actually prevented from continuing as a candidate.

What does winning at the assembly mean politically?  Well, it provides a short-term media story -- party activists reject presumed frontrunner -- but that quickly fades.  And really, at this point, it's odd that it even generates that much media interest.  A thorough scholarly review of the Colorado assembly/convention system has yet to be done, but the available evidence suggests that it often ends like it did yesterday, with the party activists rejecting the presumed frontrunner.

Why is that?  Well, the party insiders who anoint a frontrunner don't wait until May of an election year to go about their business.  Those who are really influential at this level -- and here I'm talking about the businesspeople who picked McInnis and helped pressure Josh Penry out of the race, and of course President Obama and his involvement on Bennet's behalf -- did their work back in 2009.  They made judgments based on what they knew about the candidates and the state and on what they expected the political environment to be like by the fall of 2010.  These sorts of insiders are ideological but have a pragmatic streak; they want to win.  So, to some extent, they err on the side of caution, looking for candidates who stand for something but are still moderate enough to win with some margin of safety.  So they pick a Scott McInnis, who has solid GOP credentials but whose commitments to the pro-life and Tea Party causes are less than certain.  They pick a Michael Bennet, who is well within the mainstream of his party in the Senate but is hardly a rabid left-winger.  And so on.

And then we get to the caucus-assembly process, a three-stage procedure involving ever-more-hardcore party activists with each successive stage.  And they're basically asked, Do you like the relatively centrist presumed nominee you've been handed?  Of course they're going to say no.  They're activists.  They're way toward the ideological extremes.  They believe a) that a more ideologically extreme candidate can still get elected if given half a chance; and, b) that losing an election once in a while isn't as bad as selling out everything you believe in.  So they stand up and say, We want a different nominee!  We should expect to see this by now.  Really, it would be remarkable to find the party activists embracing the presumed nominee.  That sort of happened among Democrats with Mark Udall in 2008, but even he had a challenger within the party.  It's rare.

So, in sum, the whole assembly/convention thing doesn't actually matter that much.  It rarely disqualifies a candidate with any sort of serious backing, and it provides the winner little more than bragging rights.  Which begs the question, why do we do it?  I mean, reasonable people may disagree over whether party activists should have the power to pick or reject nominees like they do in Utah -- but at least there it matters.  The Colorado system seems more like a chance for activists to express preferences but with little actual power to see them enacted.  At this point, based on everything I know about how primary elections actually work, I would say the odds still strongly favor Bennet, McInnis, and Norton winning the August primaries.  I'd love to be proven wrong, of course (I am a Romanoff delegate, after all), but given where the money and endorsements are, that's the likely outcome.

So why are we doing this?

Bothways ColoradoPols

For reasons I can't quite ascertain, ColoradoPols believes that yesterday's narrow win by Dan Maes in the GOP state assembly was devastating for gubernatorial frontrunner Scott McInnis, while Andrew Romanoff's 20-point win over frontrunner Michael Bennet in the Dem assembly was utterly inconsequential.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Quote of the day

"Once you understand that private as well as public power can threaten freedom, you’re ready to graduate from libertarianism and join one of the adult groups." -Mark Kleiman

(h/t Joe Doherty and Hans Noel)

Doing the participant-observer thing...

I'm a Romanoff delegate to tomorrow's state Democratic Assembly up in Broomfield.  I hope to blog later, but I should be doing some live-tweeting while up there.  Recommended hashtag: #COAssembly.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Simgov - How are the students doing?

Loyal readers may recall that I've been running a simulation of American government class this quarter.  Basically, most of the students are portraying actual current members of Congress.  They author bills and try to push them through committees and get them passed by the full House.  With the help of clickers, I've been recording their roll call votes.  There are only 30 votes so far, but I've used them to generate ideal points using NOMINATE.  In theory, students can compare their own ideal point with that of the member they're portraying to see how they're doing.  The scatterplot below shows actual member ideal points on the horizontal axis and student ideal points on the vertical axis:
At one point, I thought it might be good to use this method as a grading tool -- maybe deducting points for the ideological distance between students and the members they're portraying.  However, the standard errors generated by only 30 roll call votes are huge, so I don't think it would be proper to base grades off these scores.  That said, the ideal points are suggestive.  For one thing, the students are doing a pretty good job; the scores correlate at .965.  But, of course, that's what you get when all the data are in the extremes, which points to a second inference: my class appears to be more polarized than the actual Congress.  

I'm not sure why they're so partisan.  I mean, the TAs and I try to instruct them in the importance of partisanship and issue warnings when they vote against their party (or district) too much.  But I'm not sure how much of this is us and how much of it is the dynamics of legislative life.  I give the parties time to caucus before floor sessions, and they actually use those times to develop strategies for screwing the other party. They're really quite crafty this way.  I sometimes worry I'm creating a small-scale Stanford prison experiment -- the students really do internalize their roles well -- except that they're still keeping it civil with each other in committee and on the floor and, as far as I can tell, they don't carry their partisan roles outside the classroom.  They're just voting against each other.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Does convention location matter?

Over at 538, Tom Schaller says the Republicans made a smart choice in situating their 2012 nominating convention in Tampa, Florida.  After all, Florida is the largest swing state, and the Tampa area is very much in play.  He then adds,
Anyone who remembers the 2008 crowds in Denver for Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at Invesco Field in August and at another huge rally in late October would be hard pressed to make the case that picking Denver had no effect on Obama’s eventual, 9-point victory in Colorado.
Well, I was at both those events, and I'll make that case.  Remember the scatterplot comparing the Kerry 2004 vote to the Obama 2008 vote?  Here it is:
Yes, Obama did notably better in Colorado than Kerry did four years earlier, but he did better just about everywhere.  The average state swing toward the Democrats in 2008 was 5.85 points.  The swing in Colorado was 5.79 -- right near the mean.  

Okay, maybe it didn't matter statewide, but maybe in Denver?  Again, not really.  The Democratic swing from 2004 to 2008 in Denver was 6.1 points, not much bigger than the state or national means.

There are some campaign activities that do seem to be associated with vote boosts for candidates, but generally such campaign effects are pretty short-lived.  Conventions are associated with short term boosts for candidates, but since they occur two months before the election, it's hard to find much influence on the vote.

Young Jews and Zionism

Via Jonathan Bernstein, check out this interesting essay from Peter Beinart about the state of American Zionism.  From some reseach Frank Luntz is doing, it looks like college-aged American Jews just aren't buying it anymore:
Most of the students, in other words, were liberals, broadly defined. They had imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish political culture: a belief in open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights. And in their innocence, they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was a Zionism that recognized Palestinians as deserving of dignity and capable of peace, and they were quite willing to condemn an Israeli government that did not share those beliefs. Luntz did not grasp the irony. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was the kind that the American Jewish establishment has been working against for most of their lives.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

That's my boy

The above photo comes from a 1978 Farrell's Ice Cream newsletter.  The gentleman at right is Arkansas' then-Attorney General Bill Clinton, about to win an ice cream eating contest.  According to the newsletter,
Farrell’s at McCain Mall in N. Little rock, Arkansas celebrated George Washington’s birthday this year by building a giant birthday sundae. The festivities began on February 20 with an ice cream eating contest between Arkansas’ Attorney General, Bill Clinton, and Sonny Victory and Deanna Scott of KLAZ-98 radio station. And the winner was Bill Clinton, who reached the bottom of his Pig’s Trough first.
Next came the construction of the sundae with strawberry topping, cherries and lots of whipped cream. As everyone sang “Happy Birthday to George,” Bill Clinton blew out the candles and presented the first serving to John Waddle, Arkansas’ Muscular Dystrophy poster child. Free ice cream was served to all guests attending the celebration. Donations were accepted and all proceeds went to the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
(Source: Farrell's Facebook page)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Iron Sky

This could be the coolest movie ever made.  Or the worst.  Or both at the same time.

Here's the plot:
Towards the end of World War II the staff of SS officer Hans Kammler made a significant breakthrough in anti-gravity.
From a secret base built in the Antarctic, the first Nazi spaceships were launched in late ‘45 to found the military base Schwarze Sonne (Black Sun) on the dark side of the Moon. This base was to build a powerful invasion fleet and return to take over the Earth once the time was right.
Now it's 2018, the Nazi invasion is on its way and the world is goose-stepping towards its doom.
Here's the preview:


If you care at all about the survival of art on our planet, you'll send all your money to this film company to see this project completed.

(h/t Marc Herman)

Seeing through party lenses

My old colleague Tom Knecht notes some recent public opinion data on the war in Afghanistan in his paper "Benchmarks in Foreign Policy Opinion," which he recently presented at the Midwest Political Science Association.  My favorite figure:


Basically, asking someone their evaluation of the war in Afghanistan is tantamount to asking them their party identification.  If you're of the same party as the president, you're okay with it.  If not, you're not.  Of course, it isn't a perfect mirror -- Republican support for the war under Bush was more than ten points higher than it is among Democrats under Obama.  This, however, is surely reflective of the substantial chunk of the Democratic electorate that is fundamentally anti-war no matter who the president is, and not an evaluation of the president's actual prosecution of the war.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Linda Tripp, please check your messages

A friend of mine suggested yesterday that Elena Kagan's relative lack of a judicial paper trail would lead Republicans to dig up her records during the Clinton years.  And lo and behold, today's headline:
What’s in Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s Clinton-era White House memos?
Oh, this is going to be fun.  Remember Filegate?  Missing memos?  The Rose Law Firm?  Whitewater?  Fellatio?  Yes, everything old is new again.

Consultants and the invisible hand

Via Jonathan Bernstein, Jonathan Chait takes on the hardly-necessary but always-welcome task of demolishing Mark Penn's latest utterances.  Feel free to click for the details, but I was struck by one point Chait made:
One fact that has grown increasingly clear over the last two years is that the Democratic Party dodged a bullet by not nominating or electing a presidential candidate whose chief political adviser is Mark Penn.
Ah, but this is the beauty of the free market.  The Democratic Party dodged this bullet in large part because Penn was advising his candidate to do things like ignore the caucus states and mis-allocate scarce campaign resources.  Had a more competent consultant been advising Hillary Clinton in 2008, she might well be president today.

Consequences of good government

Why has Arizona become, as Jon Stewart recently noted, the meth lab of democracy?  Yes, it's a conservative state, but not that conservative.  John McCain only beat Barack Obama there 53-45 in 2008 (compared to, say, Utah, where he won 62-34), and they had a Democratic governor until last year.  Yet the state has recently passed all sorts of right wing fantasy camp legislation, including the immigration law, a requirement that presidential candidates show their birth certificates, and a law allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons without a permit.  So what's up?

Ruth Marcus suggests that this is an unintended consequence of good government reform -- specifically, Arizona's passage of public financing for state legislative elections in the late 1990s.  A student of mine recently did a study of this system, finding that Republicans are consistently less likely than Democrats to accept public funding, either because of personal ideological objections or because Republican primary votes might find it inauthentically conservative.  However, Marcus suggests that public financing may be helping Tea Party types.  Basically, the parties have become skilled at channelling private donations to preferred candidates.  Once candidates can fund their own campaign through public money, the party loses its vetting power:
And, as it turned out, a law pushed by “good government” types, primarily Democrats, ended up benefiting conservative Republicans who quickly figured out that the Clean Elections money could be used to take on Chamber of Commerce-type Republicans.
“Clean Elections allowed individuals ... not to have to compete financially since they didn’t have to build constituencies,” Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, a Democrat, said in an interview.
J.D. Hayworth, the conservative former congressman who is challenging Sen. John McCain in the Republican primary here, told me that “for those of us who derided it as nanny state government, and properly so,” the “unintended consequence is that it has empowered conservatives.”
The idea that the Tea Party is rising to power with the help of public money is very interesting, and, of course, deliciously ironic.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Movies with Masket

I managed to catch two of last year's Oscar nominees over the weekend.  If you, like me, find yourself playing catchup on films, here's some brief reactions for ya:

A Serious Man - This is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking films I've seen in years.  I really recommend it to everyone, although I wonder how relatable some of it is for non-Jews.  But that said, the movie really isn't about Judaism per se so much as about the search for meaning.  The main character, Larry Gopnik, can't understand why so many things keep going wrong in his life, and he's constantly searching for some sort of message from God about what he's done to invite His anger.  The movie seems to answer Gopnik's question in two different ways.  First, what you view as your misfortune might in fact be someone else's.  Gopnik wonders why people keep dying around him, but of course that affects the dying far more than it affects him.  Second, the very act of searching for meaning might be causing you further misery.  This seemed to be the lesson of the final scene (which I had to re-watch several times), in which Gopnik's son is apparently watching God's wrath while listening to a Jefferson Airplane song (the film's recurrent mantra) and doesn't hear a call to safety coming from behind him.

I've read a number of reviews trying to compare this film to other Coen brothers works, but it actually reminded me of David Mamet's Homicide (1991), in which a Jewish detective's search to understand symbolism leads him to abandon his professional commitments and make catastrophic errors.

The Blind Side - I'm sure I'd have enjoyed this film much more had I not watched A Serious Man the night before.  Not that there's anything wrong with it.  It's a wonderful story very nicely played out, and the acting is superior all around.  But there's not a single moment of moral ambiguity in it.  It plays out as a kind of Erin Brokovitchy TV movie, where it's very clear what the right action is and everyone who stands in the main characters' way is clearly wrong.

Just as an example, Leigh Anne Tuohy, the white suburban mom who adopts the abandoned African American teenager Michael Oher, is shown at two points having lunch with a small group of fellow wealthy white women.  Tuohy, as played by Sandra Bullock, doesn't seem to have anything in common with the others -- she's a sincere Christian who believes in helping others; they're a bunch of uptight biddies with hints of aristocratic racism slipping past their lips once in a while.  Now, we're led to believe that Tuohy has been changed through her relationship with Oher, but I had a hard time believing any of the other women would have invited Oher into her house in the first place.  It's not clear what she ever had in common with these women.  So she's an angel and they're jerks who exist only to make her appear more angelic.

Now, maybe the Tuohy's story really was that simple, but I kind of doubt it.  Still, maybe I'm being unfair.  This is a family film and it tells a good story about some good people doing a very good thing.  So go see it and bring your teenage kids.  But don't expect much complexity or uncertainty.  That's why we have the brothers Coen.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

For the moms

I appreciate iTunes' recommendations for Mother's Day movies.  They really picked the best of modern motherhood.

Midterm data

My post on unemployment and midterm elections is still getting play (most recently in the New Yorker), so I figured it would be only fair to make the data publicly available and see if anyone can find out anything else about it.  Here's a Google Docs spreadsheet with all the key variables.  You can come up with your own economic growth indicators to see if they work better.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Election UK: Did Duverger get it right?

This is a bit out of my wheelhouse, but I'm struggling over whether yesterday's UK election was a win or a loss for Duverger's Law.  Basically, Duverger suggests that single member plurality district (SMPD) elections will tend to favor a two-party system.  This is for two reasons.  The first is that even a relatively popular third party will have a hard time winning a plurality vote in any given district.  So even if the Liberal-Democratic party held a solid 30% in all districts, they still wouldn't have won a single seat.  The second reason Duverger suggested is that voters are strategic -- they don't want to waste their vote on a party unlikely to win, and they don't want to help out the less desirable of the two likely winners (รก la Nader voters in 2000), so they vote for the less awful of the major party candidates.

The UK 2010 election was a perfect example of Duverger's first reason.  The Lib-Dems took 23 percent of the vote but will control only about nine percent of the seats.  If you're a Lib-Dem supporter, this is a great argument for proportional representation.  However, Duverger's second reason didn't really hold up this time.  Voters did not seem to behave strategically.  Yes, the Lib-Dem vote fell a few points short of what polls predicted (apparently bleeding to Labour), but support for this third party basically held.

Which suggests to me that parties and candidates can't take strategic voting for granted.  Absent efforts to unite the vote around a few key candidates, voters are quite willing and able to splinter their votes.

Vast right wing conspiracies -- state and national editions

Here's a weird coincidence.  Over the past few years, a small group of liberal activists in Colorado have put together a shadowy network of 527s and independent expenditure committees to help raise money for Democratic candidates in competitive state legislative races.  This was detailed in a recent book by Adam Schrager and Rob Witwer.  Republicans, after getting their tails kicked for a few election cycles in a row, have formed a counter-organization that promises to raise $10 million to help Republican statehouse candidates.

Meanwhile, Politico reports that over the past few years, a small group of liberal activists across the country have put together a shadowy network of 527s and independent expenditure committees to help raise money for Democratic candidates in competitive congressional races.  This was detailed in a recent book by Matt Bai.  Republicans, after getting their tails kicked for a few election cycles in a row, have formed a counter-organization that promises to raise $50-70 million to help Republican congressional candidates.

Is this same thing going on in other states right now?  Does part of the Republican plan include bragging about these organizations in major media outlets at both the state and national level?  If so, what's the point of the overt bragging?  To intimidate Democrats?  To encourage good Republican candidates to run this year?  It's an interesting strategy, but I'm not totally sure where it's going.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

It's the maverickosity, stupid

A while I ago I asked why political scientists had such a hard time pin-pointing Sen. Russ Feingold's (D-WI) ideal point.  He seemed to be either the most liberal Democratic senator or one of the most conservative, depending on when you looked at him or how you estimated his score.

Well, Princeton PhD student Ben Lauderdale has helped to explain why this is the case in a new paper (via Monkey Cage).  Lauderdale uses roll call votes to estimate a "maverick score" for members of Congress.  This is roughly a measure of how difficult it is to classify members' votes because their behavior is so unpredictable.  Lo and behold, topping the list is our friend Russ Feingold:
John McCain was quite the maverick back in 2001-02, but today he doesn't even crack the top ten.

This strikes me as a very cool measure and a useful one.  But I suppose the next question is, what exactly are we measuring?  What does one's maverick score indicate?  McCaskill and Bayh are both in moderate-to-conservative leaning states, so maybe they have to be a little mavericky to stay in office.  But Feingold is quite safe in his seat, as is Bernie Sanders, number four on the list.  So electoral safety/vulnerability doesn't look like the cause.  (Lauderdale also notes that Rep. Barney Frank has had a pretty high maverick score throughout his career, with the exception of when he faced potential expulsion in the 101st Congress due to a scandal.  In this case, his career incentive was to be as predictable as possible.)  Is this just a personality type? 

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Hopelessly devoted

While we're on the subject of social networking technology, I had much higher hopes for Olivia Newton-John's Twitter feed.

Technology in the House

Republicans currently make up about 40 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives.  But you wouldn't know that from their Twitter presence, reports Colleen Shogan in the April issue of PS:
As the minority party, Republicans currently use Twitter more frequently (Vogel 2009). Not only did more House Republicans use Twitter than their Democratic counterparts, they also tweeted more frequently. House Republicans, who constitute 54% of members registered with Twitter, sent approximately 74% of all tweets during session and approximately 64% of tweets during recess.
So I guess the next question is, does that matter?  Republicans may have out-tweeted Democrats over the past year, but the final health reform vote looked almost exactly as it was expected to look a year earlier.

Well, I can relate a story from my Simgov class, which is a simulation of the U.S. Congress.  The Democrats, although in the majority, have been getting their agenda stalled on the floor by a smaller but much more organized and prepared Republican Party for several weeks now.  Today, the Democrats seemed to figure it out -- they controlled debate very effectively, rebutting Republican arguments and limiting amendments at every opportunity.  I was impressed with how organized the Democrats were.  After class, the Speaker admitted to me that while he was running the chamber, he was also coordinating Democratic floor tactics via Facebook chat.

Now, an instant message program like Facebook chat is kind of the opposite of Twitter -- the former allows you to secretly communicate with select people; the latter is designed for broadcasting.  And in the real House, Pelosi doesn't have to multi-task like that, as she has a whole office designed to let her run the chamber and coordinate party activities simultaneously.  But you can see where instant messaging software like this might come in handy.  (It can also be a boon to lobbyists.)

Using Twitter is very different -- this is how members might communicate with their constituents or with a small number of hardcore activists.  It can be good for messaging or for generating interesting quotes for reporters.  But it's less obvious to me how something like Twitter might be a game changer for legislators.  It seems to just run alongside the already existing structure for communicating messages outside the chamber.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Following Bill Maher on Twitter

Best tweet I've read in a while.
I'm getting high with Alan Thicke in Tolucca Lake! Eat your heart out!!!

Immigration politics

Apparently 51 percent of the American people support Arizona's new immigration law.  At first blush, this would suggest that politicians would be smart to align themselves with it, as Colorado Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis has done.  On the other hand, as Kos notes, Prop. 187 passed with huge margins in California back in 1994, and no Republican has won a gubernatorial, senatorial, or presidential race in that state since (with the exception of a very moderate Schwarzenegger in a very fluky recall election).  So what's the deal?  Is the Arizona law toxic?  To whom?

One of the key things to remember about midterm elections is that turnout is low compared to presidential elections.  It tends to be the angrier voters who show up -- people who have some sort of policy axe to grind -- which is partly why the president's party tends to lose seats in these elections.  People who are happy with Obama's agenda have far less incentive to vote in November than those who want to stop it.

So the 51 percent who are okay with the Arizona law are not necessarily reflective of those who will turn out to vote in November.  The vast majority of Americans can probably conjure up an opinion on the law but won't be motivated to vote because of it and won't base their vote choices on candidates' stances on the law.  Latino voters, however, suddenly have a dog in the fight.  I would say the percentage of Latinos likely to vote in November just shot up significantly, and if any of them were considering voting Republican post-Sotomayor, they're probably not now.  So I tend to think that the Arizona law activates a sizable chunk of Democratic voters for November without necessarily activating many Republicans.  In that sense, aligning oneself with the law, as McInnis has done, might be risky.

That said, I'm not sure that there's a direct causal relationship between California's passage of Prop. 187 and Democratic successes there in recent years.  The state had been trending Democratic for many years, and Dems had controlled the statehouse pretty consistently since the late 50s.  The GOP got a boost there thanks to Reagan's presidential runs, but the recent successes of the Dems are probably more due to a general trend of polarized parties -- voters are less likely to vote for a candidate of a different party, and parties are nominating more extreme candidates.  Pete Wilson, California's last Republican senator and governor prior to Schwarzenegger, was pro-choice, for heaven's sake.