Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The costliest vote revisited

Steve Greene and I have been working on our analysis of the effect of roll call votes on the electoral fortunes of Democratic House incumbents in 2010. (See this previous blog post for details.) We've put this research together into a paper that we're presenting this weekend at MPSA.

For the paper, we look at the impact of four roll call votes: health reform, the stimulus, cap-and-trade, and the TARP bailout from 2008. We find that a vote for health reform was very costly for Democrats, reducing reelection margins by six to eight percentage points. This cost at least thirteen House Democrats their jobs. We find a smaller, but still statistically significant, effect for supporting TARP. The stimulus has a mixed effect, harming Democrats in more conservative districts but possibly helping them in more liberal ones. We found no overall effect for cap-and-trade.

Here's my favorite graph from our paper, showing the estimated impact of the health reform vote on Democrats' likelihood of reelection. The patterns are generated by a logit equation and show how Democrats from a broad range of districts fared in 2010 based on this one roll call vote. For example, in a district where Obama got 40% of the vote in 2008, a Democratic representative would have a 54 51 percent chance of retaining her seat if she opposed health reform, but only a 19 an 18 percent chance if she supported it.
Steve and I are going to meet with Eric McGhee, John Sides, and Brendan Nyhan about their research on this topic to figure out where we agree and disagree. We'd talked about meeting for beers, but it's a morning meeting, so we'd best stick with wine.

Late update: A few folks noted a slight coding error in the original paper. We've updated the paper accordingly, and the results are substantively identical. I've corrected the above post as needed.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Red campus, blue (& gold) campus

The current issue of UC Berkeley's alumni magazine features a story on political psychology. The article starts off well enough, interviewing George Lakoff on conceptual frames and highlighting some other Cal scholars. But then the author interviews Stanford political psychologist Jon Krosnick.

Now, I certainly have no beef with Krosnick, who has done some very insightful and influential research in political psychology. But why oh why is the Cal alumni magazine promoting the work of a Stanford professor? It's not like Cal's poli sci department wants for faculty who can opine on the subjects of parties and mass opinions. They also have some excellent graduates who are happy to hold forth on these topics.

I suppose this all goes to the question of what exactly the purpose of an alumni magazine is. Is it to seek truth? To discuss important controversies? Well, maybe, but it's really to glorify the university, so that alumni feel good about donating more money to the school and maybe sending their kids there some day. And we glorify a university by doing two things: promoting the work of students and faculty at the university, and trashing the students and faculty of its rival school. This article failed on both counts.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Denver mayoral race poll

Via ColoradoPols, RBI Strategies has put out a poll in the Denver mayoral race, asking city residents their opinions about the many candidates. The results can probably be summed up by one of two questions: "Who?" and "There's an election this year?" With just three weeks remaining before the election, Denverites still don't have much of a sense of who these candidate are. The vote preferences, including leaners, are as follows:

  • Romer (22)
  • Mejia (10)
  • Hancock (9)
  • Linkhart (7)
  • Boigon (5)
  • Spahn (2)
  • Other (5)
  • DK/NA/Undec. (45)
So, not terribly surprisingly, Romer has the lead, based largely on his name-recognition (dad was governor). But still, he's only at 22 percent, with nearly half of respondents having no opinion. This is not necessarily a poor reflection on the candidates -- it's an off-year, off-season, non-partisan, municipal election involving candidates who are mostly city council members (Pop quiz: name yours!). No, three weeks isn't a long time for making a decision, but a lot of the advertising is just kicking in.

Compare this poll with one taken the week prior to the 2003 mayor's race. In that poll, Hickenlooper (whom no one had heard of a few months earlier) was already at 40%, and only 3% of respondents were undecided. I'm guessing we'll get to something close to that within the next two weeks. Some negative ads would really help.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Comparing Radiation

Via Steve Greene and xkcd, here's a chart depicting the radiation doses from various sources (click to enlarge). Of note: Spending a day in a town near one of Japan's troubled reactors gives you about a tenth the radiation that you'd get in a flight from New York to Los Angeles. And a day in Colorado gives you more radiation than an arm X-ray.

Humor and ideology

Do conservatives and liberals have different senses of humor? Amanda Balzer points me to a telling article by Glenn Wilson called "Ideology and Humor Preferences" (gated), published in 1990 in the International Political Science Review, in which the author finds important differences in the appreciation of types of jokes by ideology. Important graph:
According to the study, conservatives love puns, while liberals don't seem to find them very funny. Conversely, liberals are much more likely than conservatives to find sexual jokes funny. It's not too surprising to find that liberals are more appreciative than conservatives of anti-authority jokes, but liberals, interestingly, really seem to like jokes that mock hippies.

I wouldn't be surprised to find that many of these differences have changed over the past two decades. Wilson suggests in the text that younger liberals were becoming less tolerant of crude sexual jokes, while I'm thinking that younger conservatives have embraced them more.

I should mention that Amanda pointed this research out to me during a Twitter discussion about whether Victoria Jackson and Dennis Miller have become less funny over the years or whether they just seem less funny to me as our respective ideologies diverge. This could make for some great research designs.

What "Battle: Los Angeles" didn't do

I saw "Battle: Los Angeles" last night and really enjoyed. I was somewhat surprised to find that a lot of critics had kicked it for being derivative and cliché. Well, duh, it's a disaster movie. I don't care. But let me just compliment the film for not doing a number of things that are kind of expected in this genre:

  • We did not see the destruction of New York City. No one even mentioned New York City. (This was my main objection to "Deep Impact," which I otherwise enjoyed. No characters lived in New York, no action took place there, but they still felt compelled to show it getting destroyed. Yet they didn't show the destruction of DC, where many of the characters lived. Weak.)
  • The world was not saved by spunky kids or personal computers (see "V: The Final Battle," "Jurassic Park," "Independence Day," etc.).
  • The president was not in the movie. I'm guessing he was not flying a fighter jet, wherever he was.
  • The aliens did not offer critiques or praise of humanity in general (see "The Abyss," "Alien Nation," etc.)
  • The world was not saved by nuclear weapons (see "Independence Day," "The Core," "Meteor," "Armageddon," etc.)
  • It did not conflate a local, tactical victory with a win in the overall war (see "Independence Day," "Avatar," etc.).
Also, I actually identified with a character in the film, which is rare for this genre. Occasionally, the film would show a clip from a news show featuring an interview with some random professor (probably in a land-locked state) who was kind of guessing about the aliens' strategy and abilities. I could see myself in that situation. The news station would call and say, "Can you comment on the alien invasion? All our other experts are dead." I'd probably jump on that.

Update: On further reflection, while the depiction of the president was somewhat silly in "Independence Day," at least the film acknowledged civilian control of the military. Conversely, civilians in "Battle: LA" were simply things to be protected. All orders and strategy, as far as we could tell, came from the military itself.

Incumbents versus activists in California

I mentioned a while back the efforts by California Republicans to adapt to Proposition 14, the top-two primary system that voters approved last fall. The party had originally proposed conducting pre-primary endorsements of preferred candidates, so Republican voters would have an idea of whom the party preferred going into a primary election. This proposal, put forward by state party chair Ron Nehring, included a litmus test: the party would not endorse its own incumbents if they had supported a tax increase or if they had endorsed a candidate of another party in a general election.

Well, surprise surprise, the incumbents didn't like this plan. No, none of them plan to vote for a tax increase, but they don't like having their hands tied by the party and they don't like facing an automatic penalty for any future decision they might make. So incumbents on the party's rules committee recently amended the litmus test portion of the proposal to appear as follows:
Nine months prior to the close off filing, any incumbent legislator, statewide elected official, member of Congress, United States Senator, or member of the State Board of Equalization seeking re-election to the same office my request an early nomination. Any such request shall be conveyed to the Board of Directors. If no director objects within 30 days of receipt thereof, then such incumbent will be deemed the nominee. In the event of an objection, the Board of Directors shall vote on such nomination and may elect such incumbent as the nominee by majority vote. The Board of Directors may withdraw a nomination by a two thirds votes.
In other words, the re-nomination of the incumbents is automatic unless party officials take serious and rapid steps to stop it. This is, to my mind, a perfect manifestation of the traditional struggle between party activists and officeholders. You'd think they'd agree on just about all areas of substance, and they largely do, at least at first. Republican incumbents in California have largely been selected through the processes of socialization and nomination to be very conservative. Yes, occasionally a moderate like Abel Maldonado or Arnold Schwarzenegger will sneak through, but that's very rare. (Notably, Schwarzenegger only got in through the 2003 recall, which had no primary.)

So why would party activists be concerned about their ability to punish incumbents for un-Republican behavior? Because politicians are unreliable partisans once they're in office. They quickly learn that party activists are not the only people in their districts, and they figure they can increase their electoral safety margin by moderating somewhat. They also might get to know legislators in the other party and discover that they have good ideas once in a while. On top of that, many politicians have an innate desire to win the approval of others. Advancing an agenda is good, but being popular has its appeals, too.

If Republican party activists just elected good people and let them do their jobs, there's no telling what might happen. They could vote to balance the budget by raising taxes! They might be persuaded that public schools are underperforming and vote to raise teacher pay! They might decide that, as much as they personally despise abortion, it's not right to force poor women to carry a baby to term! Cats and dogs sleeping together! Mass hysteria!

So the party likes to keep the axe of de-nomination hanging precipitously and visibly over incumbents' heads. They don't use it that often because they don't have to; Republican incumbents know they'll be punished for going too moderate, so they stay conservative. The party keeps the skulls of apostates like Abel Maldonado on pikes atop the castle walls as reminders.

Update: The state GOP has also proposed conducting its own mail-in nomination contest among registered Republican voters.

(h/t Eric McGhee)

Monday, March 21, 2011


Saturday, March 19, 2011

A nation of Betazoids

Recent Fox News poll question:
Do you think President Obama is truly serious about reducing the budget deficit, or not?
So now we're asking the American people to assess the intentions of public officials? Is this really something they're equipped to do?

For what it's worth, 51% of respondents think Obama is "truly serious," while only 38% and 42% think Congressional Democrats and Republicans, respectively, are "truly serious." A majority also felt the Romulans had a hidden agenda.

No looting in Japan?

Some of Andrew Sullivan's readers do a nice job taking apart the pernicious "there's no looting in Japan" myth by citing stories of, well, looting in Japan. So while one angle here is that Japanese looting has been underreported, the other is that American looting has probably been overreported. The media reported many stories about looting and other illegal behavior in the days after Katrina made landfall in Louisiana. However, as Cooper and Block noted in their book Disaster, these stories were often false or grossly exaggerated. Moreover, they point out, these reports tended to ignore another notable human reaction to the collapse of infrastructure: spontaneous community building. The book cites numerous instances of people banding together to create kitchens, shelters, and modes of transportation in New Orleans at a time when local, state, and federal governments failed to do that.

Japan's a big country. No doubt some people are looting, while others are trying to help each other, and others are just trying to stay alive. You can report on whichever aspect of this you want, although the resulting story is probably more reflective of the culture of the reporter than that of the afflicted country.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The things Allen left behind

I just watched "Splash" (1984) with the kids today. I haven't seen it in years. I always enjoyed the rather unconventional (particularly for its time), un-Little-Mermaid plot resolution, in which the man abandons his world to be with the woman. But until I watched it today, I hadn't appreciated just how much Allen Bauer (Tom Hanks) left behind in order to be with Madison (Daryl Hannah).

Allen had it pretty good! He and his brother Freddie (an awesome John Candy) owned and ran a fruit company that seemed to have between 50 and 100 employees. (It was a union shop -- Freddie mentions Teamsters at one point.) He drove a BMW. He paid for a cab ride from Manhattan to Cape Cod in cash. He had a nice (upper East Side?) apartment with a doorman. He ate at expensive restaurants and wore decent suits. He attended a political fundraiser at which the President was the keynote speaker -- I'm guessing this event cost a minimum of $1,000 a plate. With the exception of his relationship woes, he had a rather nice life. All this is to say that he gave up quite a bit with his rather impulsive move to be with a woman he'd been dating for less than a week, which is pretty romantic.

I'm wondering whether Allen was a Democrat or a Republican. He ran a modest-sized business, and he reacted rather viscerally when he learned that Madison wasn't human, both of which suggest conservative tendencies. He also had a soft spot for underperforming employees, and he did ultimately decide to enter into a non-traditional marriage of sorts, which suggest liberalism. On the whole, he doesn't seem to be a particularly political guy, so it's not surprising his ideological predispositions would be a bit of a mish-mash.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The new logo for MPSA?

Just us and 600 million screaming Chinamen

Well, if the remake of "Red Dawn" wasn't already a joke, it is now:
The filmmakers now are digitally erasing Chinese flags and military symbols from “Red Dawn,” substituting dialogue and altering the film to depict much of the invading force as being from North Korea, an isolated country where American media companies have no dollars at stake. The changes illustrate just how much sway China’s government has in the global entertainment industry, even without uttering a word of official protest.
It is pretty damned funny that some folks were so concerned about the Chinese menace that they made a film depicting them as our invaders, while the production company of said film changed the villain in the hopes of selling the film to Chinese moviegoers. I suppose there's some lesson in there about capitalism or something.

At any rate, the new film does have the virtue of making the original seem more plausible by comparison.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Garbage in; garbage out

Ian McDonald catches Rasmussen conducting a ridiculous poll and getting ridiculous results. That would be a poll about the performance of President Obama's cabinet officers. Here are the results for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar:
A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 27% view the former Colorado senator unfavorably, including 11% with a Very Unfavorable view of him. But like many of his fellow Cabinet members, Salazar is an unknown commodity to many voters: 57% don't know enough about him to venture any kind of opinion.
Unless my math skills are really rusty, that would mean that 43% of Americans know enough about Ken Salazar to venture an opinion about him. Sorry, but I've got to call bullshit on that one. I'd be impressed if five percent of Americans knew that Ken Salazar was the Interior Secretary. Knowing the identity of lower-tier cabinet officers, no less forming opinions about them, is just not something that the vast majority of Americans preoccupy themselves with.

I have no idea if Salazar is secure in his position or not. But if he's not, it has nothing to do with the masses rising up against him.

(h/t Michael Tofias)

Where does ideology come from?

Ideology remains one of the most difficult concepts in the study of political parties. We have a general sense that ideology is a way of sorting out "what goes with what." That way, people who want lower corporate taxes also tend to want more restrictions on abortions and fewer restrictions on handgun purchases, even though those three issues have essentially nothing to do with each other. But who decides what goes with what?

Hans Noel has come closer than anyone to answering this question. Be sure to check out this nice profile from Matt Yglesias of some of Hans' recent research, which looks at the role that pundits have played in organizing American ideologies since the 1850s. Hans finds evidence that public intellectuals basically built ideologies regarding slavery in the 1850s, civil rights in the 1960s, and abortion in the 1980s and constructed the debating spaces that the parties would occupy in the following years.

Baja Arizona: The New West Virginia

Fun stuff going on in Arizona these days. Apparently, some Democrats in Pima County have decided that their state has gone so far overboard that they'll need to secede to return to the Union:
Gov. Jan Brewer approved an immigration law that prompted a legal battle between the state and the federal government and made the state the target of boycotts. A new batch of immigration bills followed this year, along with a Republican-sponsored state Senate bill to let Arizona nullify specific federal laws.
Supporters of the nullification bill, which was defeated last week, said it was an attempt to curb federal overreaching. It was also the final straw for Mr. Eckerstrom, former Pima County Democratic Party chairman and an attorney in the county's Legal Defenders Office.
"That's basically a secession bill," Mr. Eckerstrom said. "I just couldn't take it anymore. We actually want to stay in the union. It seems Arizona doesn't." In February, he suggested facetiously on his Facebook page that southern Arizona become its own state. Thousands of supporters answered his call.
(via Michael Miller)

It's politics, not tyranny

Jonathan Chait catches Robert Reich in the act of labeling Wisconsin's assault on public workers' collective bargaining rights a "coup d'etat." It is, in fact, nothing of the sort. It's legitimate policymaking, as carried out by the duly elected majority in the Wisconsin state legislature and advocated for and signed by the duly elected Republican governor. Dramatic, sure. Radical, I'll buy that. But it's still legitimate and democratic.

We live in polarized times. Indeed, by just about every indicator we have, the parties have been growing further apart in recent decades and advocating for increasingly divergent things. One result of this is that when one party controls both the legislative and executive branches, it will push for things that many voters of the other party (and even many independent voters) will perceive as being outside the mainstream. And for all intents and purposes, they are outside the mainstream.

Parties push agendas. The Democratic Party has been pushing for health care reform for decades now, and the Republican Party has been pushing to limit collective bargaining rights for at least as long. So when voters give them control of a government, they'll try to enact those things. That doesn't make it tyranny. Calling what happened in Wisconsin a coup d'etat is about as accurate as calling the 2009 stimulus bill taxation without representation.

(via Bernstein)

Does Solitaire threaten our country?

Hmm, this photo seems to be making the rounds on blogs and e-mail threads:

Here's the accompanying text:
House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, pictured standing, far right, speaks while colleagues Rep. Barbara Lambert, D-Milford and Rep. Jack F. Hennessy, D-Bridgeport, play solitaire Monday night as the House convened to vote on a new budget. (AP)
The guy sitting in the row in front of these two....he's on Facebook, and the guy behind Hennessy is checking out the baseball scores. 
These are the folks that couldn't get the budget out by Oct. 1 (last year) , and are about to control your health care, cap and trade, and the list goes on and on…. 
Should we buy them larger screen computers - or - a ticket home, permanently? 
This is one of their 3-DAY WORK WEEKS that we all pay for (salary is about $179,000 per year).
Okay, it is a funny picture, and it very well could be real. A few points, though. First, this is the Connecticut statehouse, not the U.S. Congress. And legislators there are only paid $28,000 per year. I'm not saying that justifies goofing off, but whoever wrote this text clearly thinks this is the U.S. Congress.

Also, if you've ever served on a committee or attended a seminar of any sort, you know how boring business can be at times. Solitaire and Facebook strike me as pretty minor offenses, and they don't necessarily impact productivity, particularly when the only other thing members might be doing at that time is listening to some other member go on and on about a youth baseball team in his district. Still, it's bad form to be photographed doing this.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Bigger or smaller chambers?

Dan Smith points me to this recent item in Stateline:
Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral Legislature, and lawmakers there are debating what size it should be. Competing bills call for increasing or decreasing the number of seats. Senator Bob Krist would like to decrease the number from 49 to 45 in order to save money. But Kate Sullivan would like to see Western Nebraska acquire an additional seat, making the Legislature an even 50. Minnesota, too, is debating its size. Bills in both chambers would eliminate 11 Senate and 22 House seats; currently the House has 134 seats and the Senate 67.
As it happens, I was recently speaking with someone in Nebraska who used to be very involved in the state government and is highly critical of the small size of the legislature there. He argued that having only 49 legislators makes it very easy for lobbyists to control the place. It's easy for them to know every legislator quite well and to build majority coalitions.

Personally, I would have thought the opposite would be true. A small legislature means that reporters and voters can relatively easily follow events in the chamber, which makes things somewhat harder for lobbyists, who thrive on voter ignorance.* A very large legislature, spread across multiple chambers, however, provides lots of different players with different preferences and lots of barely visible veto points.

It may be that a small legislature is good for lobbyists who are trying to push legislation through, while a largely legislature is good for lobbyists who are trying to stop legislation.

At any rate, it sounds like the proposals currently under consideration in Nebraska wouldn't affect legislative performance all that much, although one could certainly see how they matter for representation of groups and areas that currently feel marginalized.

*I can see how this phrase might sound pejorative toward lobbyists. I certainly don't mean it that way. Nonetheless, there's a good deal of evidence suggesting that lobbyists are more powerful when voters have a harder time paying attention to politics. Legislators are understandably less likely to vote the way a powerful lobby wants them to if they believe there will be electoral consequences for it, and that can only happen when voters have information about their roll call records.

Friday, March 11, 2011

More on government not being a business

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), speaking about high-speed rail:
If you can't prove it's viable from a business plan, it's not a (project) the government should be funding.
I'm pretty sure this is the opposite of true. If something is viable as a business, it does not need government funding. Such funds should be reserved for things like education, health care for the poor and elderly, police, a military, etc., that are inherently unprofitable.

(via Calitics)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wisconsin's parties

I'm kind of kicking myself that I haven't been devoting my sabbatical time to researching partisanship in the Wisconsin statehouse. As it happens, this is on my research agenda, just not for this year. I've been interested in the state for some time since -- like California, Colorado, Nebraska, and others -- Wisconsin is a state where Progressive anti-party traditions run strong yet the parties have developed ways of adapting to rules designed to weaken them. Wisconsin was home to the first open primaries and campaign finance restrictions, yet it has one of the most polarized legislatures in the country.

I don't have a full grasp on the sources of legislative partisanship in Wisconsin yet. I conducted some interviews with legislators and lobbyists there a few years ago, but I really have a lot to follow up on. The stories I was hearing from respondents suggested that the source of partisanship could primarily found within the chamber. There is a great deal of party discipline actually enforced by party leaders within the legislature. Now, that perspective could be an artifact of the location of my interviews -- Madison. But it's being backed up today. Bringing an entire party legislative caucus out of the state and keeping them there away from their families requires party discipline. Voting for a dramatic change in labor policy when public opinion screams not to requires party discipline.

In the next year or so, I hope to investigate this further. If, say, a Democratic Wisconsin senator were having second thoughts about continuing to hide in Illinois, what's keeping him there? Is it the fear of disappointing his colleagues? The fear of a recall by disappointed Democrats in his district? The fear of labor unions who would never back his campaign again? (Similarly, what fate will befall Sen. Dale Schultz, the one Republican who opposed the effort to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights?) I'm sure all of these things play a role, but I'm just kind of curious why party discipline is so much greater there than in almost any other state.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What It Takes

At the repeated urging of Jonathan Bernstein, I finally read Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes. And you know what? It's excellent. It's a very detailed behind-the-scenes look at most of the major candidates in the 1988 presidential election, including Dole, Bush, Gephardt, Biden, Hart, and Dukakis. The stories are wonderful. The candidates' backgrounds are fascinating -- I was surprised how many of them dealt with a serious illness or death of a loved one (Bush's daughter, Biden's wife, Dukakis' brother, Gephardt's son), not to mention Dole's own personal travails.

The book is very much not political science, but it contains a ton of evidence that political scientists would find useful. I got the impression that there's enough material there to write another The Party Decides, although the book just isn't organized that way. Take, for example, this discussion of Gephardt's campaign:
When you got down to it, [Gephardt] meant to run Jimmy Carter's campaign -- twelve years later, different issues, new wrinkles, but still, he meant to hike the trail that Carter blazed. He would come out of nowhere, win Iowa... get the bump... and then the hot light would hit. Dick had to be ready. He had to know how to run in the South, how to make his campaign truly national; had to know what the press would do, how to get the money while his name was hot, how to tie down the pols who meant to ride with a winner... how to build momentum until his nomination, like Carter's, could not be stopped.
So he sought Carter's advice, and he followed it. He started early. He made sure his contact with Iowans was not only broad, but deep -- and deeply personal. Thought his money was tight, he staffed not only Iowa and New Hampshire, but offices in several southern states. He picked his campaign team, and he backed it -- even in the worst times, he never second-guessed. He worked small towns, and corn boils, church picnics, county fairs... he did everything, in short, that Jimmy Carter did... did it just as hard, and much longer... and with two months before the Iowa caucus, he could see... it hadn't worked worth a damn.
Others, including the authors of The Party Decides, have pointed out how the 1970s were an atypical era in presidential politics where a bandwagoning candidate could actually put together a campaign on his own and win the nomination, and how that approach stopped working by the 1980s. And here's Cramer hitting the same point back in 1988. Pretty cool.

Now, Cramer grants a much more powerful role to the media than most political scientists do today. And the media really do not come off very well. Respected journalists like E.J. Dionne are depicted buying into pack journalistic mentalities and grilling Gary Hart about his affairs because "everybody knows" he has a problem. What's more, the candidates seem to react to this press coverage. Hart and Biden are seen as pulling out of the race because the media would not leave them alone about Donna Rice and plagiarism, respectively. You can almost see Bill Clinton reading this book in 1990 and saying, "So all I have to do is ignore them and I can still win the race? Piece of cake."

The political media clearly have their own agenda separate from that of the parties, and they can seem quite feckless at times. But these stories aren't always wrong. Bill Clinton really did have a character problem, one that ended up dominating much of his second term in office. But Cramer presents evidence of pretty good people being driven from public life by nasty, personal media coverage based on little factual content, and it's hard to defend that.

Anyway, the book is definitely worth the read.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Rural values

Ezra Klein is in top form in a recent series of posts about urban and rural America. This post on the innovative contributions of cities apparently prompted a rejoinder from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who had this fascinating discussion with Ezra. Vilsack seems to feel that rural America is constantly put down by urbanites, who don't appreciate rural Americans for their work ethic, their decent values, and their contributions to the military. He seems to feel that these values justify subsidies for rural Americans. Ezra later followed up with this excellent post, summing up:
I have no problem paying taxes to expand broadband access from sea to shining sea, but I do have a problem when the rationale for that subsidy shifts from helping people live good and productive lives or viewing broadband as a public good to supporting rural Americans because rural Americans deserve a subsidy by dint of their decency and work ethic. That doesn’t scan as affirmative to rural America to me, though I know Vilsack means it as such. It scans as divisive for those of us who don’t live in rural America.
Readers will hardly be surprised to learn that I've spent very little of my life in rural environments. I make no apologies for that. Indeed, I'm willing to put my neighborhood's values up against those of any rural neighborhood. But that's a silly contest to have, and it's a terrible way to determine where public resources should be spent.

(h/t Hans Noel)

Update: I wonder how much of Vilsack's perspective has to do with the fact that he's a rural Democrat. So when he gets together with other national Democrats, who are predominantly from urban areas, he mostly hears people dissing Republicans in a way that might sound pretty snobbish and anti-rural. Whereas if he frequented Republican conventions, he'd be hearing suburbanites extolling the virtues of farmers while dissing the urban elites.

Approaching singularity

Doctor Glitter links to this nice graphic from Time, showing the growth of computing power over the past century:

The variable on the vertical axis -- calculations per second per $1,000 -- is a clever one (assuming they've adjusted for inflation). It's not totally obvious to me that the data points create a curve. It could easily be a line, but the editors clearly wanted to project a curve. Regardless, it appears that computing power is increasing exponentially, and we will soon approach The Singularity, whatever the hell that is.

I'm often surprised just how bad our forecasts for technology are. I recently watched "Back to the Future II," where Marty visits the distant future of October 2015. It's pretty funny, really. It was a world of flying cars and hoverboards, but no cell phones or Internet, as far as we could see. At one point, Marty Jr. actually walks past a payphone! So I don't know whether the next fifty years will give rise to a Singularity or Skynet or what, but as long as I can someday run probit on my smartphone, I'll be happy.

Good thoughts on forecasting the future from Patton Oswalt:

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Monday, March 7, 2011

Seth watches rom-tragi-coms so you don't have to

My wife and I watched "Love and Other Drugs" last night. It was mainly her idea, although she ended up hating it far more than I did. Here is my quick summary: "Love and Other Drugs" is to "Jerry Maguire" as "The Story of Us" is to "When Harry Met Sally."

Okay, I will explain. With another analogy. At its best, "Love" is to pharmaceutical representatives what "Maguire" was to sports agents. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jamie, a drug rep working his way up through the Pfizer corporation. The film gives us a slightly insidery view of the cozy and weird relationship between drug reps and doctors -- how drug reps visit doctors' offices constantly and hand out company umbrellas and pens and lunches and vacation packages so that the doctors will give out drug samples to their patients. It's stuff you basically know is going on but is rarely shown in a mainstream film. And as far as that goes, it's great. Gyllenhaal is funny, charismatic, oversexed, etc.

And then, like Jerry Maguire, he has an epiphany. This time, the epiphany is love; he's hopelessly enamored of Anne Hathaway's character Maggie, a patient who's in the early stages of Parkinson's disease. The irony is clear: here's a guy who can easily obtain basically any girl and any miracle cure he wants, but he's in love with a woman with an incurable disease.

So the film kind of has three main plots running through it: Gyllenhaal's rise within big pharma, his cute-but-increasingly-tragic relationship with Hathaway, and a comic relief plot involving Josh Gad, who play's Gyllenhaal's brother. Each of these plots would make a decent short film, but they don't really complement each other particularly well here. The comic relief plot, while genuinely funny, just seems less and less connected with the rest of the film as it becomes more emotional.

This is where the film reminds me of "The Story of Us," where you had a solid cast dealing with actual human drama, but the comic relief, while very funny, seemed completely unrelated to the main plot. Basically, it failed where "Harry Met Sally" succeeded. It's like watching "Casablanca," but the satellite channel keeps switching over to "Duck Soup" every few minutes.

Meanwhile, the romantic plot just gets heavier, especially when Gyllehaal gets some jarring advice from an older man who's been married to a Parkinson's victim for 25 years. The film is really hitting on a serious concept here, and it's almost like the writers and the cast just didn't want to deal with it head on.

Anyway, not totally successful, but enjoyable enough in parts. And I do appreciate that Gyllenhaal is cast as a romantic lead with a hairy chest.

Update: Andrew Therriault nails the film as a 90s period piece starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Ethan Hawke.

How legislators talk

Here's a lovely letter from Wisconsin's Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald to Democratic Senator Mark Miller, the minority leader, currently hiding somewhere in Illinois. An excerpt:
Your grasp of reality, and control of your caucus as minority leader, continues to amaze me.... Your stubbornness in trying to ignore the last election and protect the broken status quo is truly shameful. While we wait for you and your colleagues to finally show up, Senate Republicans continue to stand ready to do the job we were elected to do, here in Wisconsin. I hope you are enjoying your vacation, and your vacation from reality.
For the record, concerns about incivility among elected officials tend to be way overblown. Even if legislators don't like each other, they have longstanding rules and customs that allow them to address the people's business and make decisions about competing interests. I think it's fair to say that those rules are under considerable strain in Wisconsin right now.

(h/t Barry Burden)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Does shamelessness have a price?

Jonathan Bernstein doubts that movement conservatives are winning just because they're so adept at repeating talking points without shame.
When pundits can pick up and drop arguments at the drop of the hat without worrying about long-term consistency, it may make it easier to appear to be winning at any moment, but at the cost of actually fighting for policies they believe in. I don't know; perhaps most of this stuff is only surface-deep and doesn't really have any effect beyond really efficiently conveying to people disposed to agree with conservatives what it is that they're suppose to agree with right now. But the idea that it's a major net plus for conservatives, I think, is unproven and highly unlikely.
I think there are other prices to these stances, which are partially attributable to what has been termed "epistemic closure." Just a few years ago, Republicans would happily criticize teachers' unions but were always very quick to profess their love for the teachers themselves. No more. Now, conservative pundits are regularly going on Fox to demonize teachers and talking about how lavish a $50,000 salary (plus benefits!) is for someone who doesn't work summers. Yes, many of these same pundits also pointed out quite recently how tragically low a $250,000 salary was for Wall Street CEOs (and they didn't mention the benefits then), but hypocrisy isn't really the point here.

The point is that when conservative pundits go on conservative news outlets and bash teachers, conservative viewers get the impression that it's okay to make these arguments publicly. And politically, that's a really dumb idea. Teachers are incredibly popular. What's more, there are a lot of them, and they don't all live in liberal neighborhoods and they aren't all Democrats. Conservatives are alienating a large and very sympathetic constituency when they make these sorts of arguments, and if all they watch is Fox, they probably don't even know it.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

No-fly zone

Marc Herman sent me this video of a remarkably sane and intelligent John McCain being interviewed by David Frost on Al Jazeera(!) and making the case for a no-fly zone over Libya:

McCain's logic is that Libya could very well be the next Rwanda or Srebrenica -- and if it is, we really want to be non-neutral and on the right side of it. And yes, that's true, although unfortunately we don't have the luxury of knowing what the next Rwanda or Srebrenica is before it happens. Still, while creating a no-fly zone over Libya is a far cry from deploying 100,000 soldiers onto Libya's beaches, it's nonetheless an engagement. Robert Farley says it nicely:
Any decision to intervene means, effectively, that we have decided on regime change in Libya. This is to say that we’ve decided the rebels should win, and we’re willing to undertake steps that will make it easier for them to do so.
In other words, it would be very easy (and accurate) for Khaddafi to portray the struggle as one between him and the United States. I can't help thinking that that would make it easier, rather than harder, for him to retain his position of power. I get that not a lot of people like him, but a lot of people who don't like him hate us even more.

The usual caveats apply here: I'm no expert on foreign policy or on Libyan politics. Weight my views accordingly.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


My wife pointed me to this propaganda poster from World War I. It was printed by the United States Food Administration and written entirely in Yiddish.

I'm sure there were plenty of folks at the time who objected to government money being used to print documents in a language other than English. Of course, the poster minces no words in telling Yiddish speakers their responsibilities. Here's the translation:
Food will win the war. You came here seeking freedom, now you must help to preserve it. Wheat is needed for the allies. Waste nothing.

Comparing politicians and their districts

Are elected officials good representatives of their districts? That's actually a difficult question for political scientists to answer, in part because our measures are poor. We have plenty of good measures of the partisanship of elected officials, most of them deriving from roll call votes. We also have good measures of the partisanship of voters, most of them deriving from surveys and election results. But directly comparing voters and politicians is hard when we don't have a common scale.

Hans Noel and I try to remedy this in a new article (gated or ungated, PDF) in Political Research Quarterly. Our approach is to examine votes on legislative referenda in California. That's when state legislators vote on a bill and then send the exact same text onto the voters -- it's one of the only times that voters and politicians are voting on precisely the same thing. We use these referenda votes as "bridges" between legislators and their districts. Then we can put legislators' roll call votes and districts' votes on initiatives onto the same scale and generate comparable ideal points for districts and legislators.

How do they look? Well, it looks like legislators are a lot more polarized than their districts. There are actually plenty of moderate Assembly districts in California; there are basically no moderate Assembly members. Virtually every Democrat in the Assembly is more liberal than her district; virtually every Republican member is more conservative than her district.

We also find that members of the majority party tend to deviate further from their districts than members of the minority party do. Time out of office, we suggest, causes the minority party to try to moderate to win back the majority.