Wednesday, November 30, 2011

CSM gets rolled by Americans Elect

There are a number of problems with Andrew Mach's profile of Americans Elect in a recent edition of the Christian Science Monitor. The line I found most egregious was this one:
The drive, if successful, would mark the first time a presidential candidate nominated directly by the American people achieved ballot access.
The only way this statement is true is if you regard Democrats and Republicans as somehow not the American people. Otherwise, the American people have been nominating presidential candidates for some time now.

I was kind of confused by this point:
So far, 1.9 million people in 24 states have signed the petitions. [...] In California, organizers submitted 1.6 million signatures in early October, more than for any single initiative in state history.
Is this right? In this allegedly grassroots, nationwide movement, Californians have provided at least 84% of the signatures? Either these numbers are wrong, or this is just evidence that Americans Elect's deep pockets are buying ballot placement with the help of California's vast petition signature collection industry. (And incidentally, the petition to recall Gray Davis in 2003 received 1.7 million signatures, although only 1.4 million were able to be validated. Not sure whether the Americans Elect signatures have been validated yet, but I'm guessing not.)

Oh, and speaking of deep pockets, Mach seems to accept the following story without bothering to check whether it's, you know, legal:
Financial backing for the endeavor is a mystery. Americans Elect is funded exclusively by some $20 million in contributions from unnamed individuals, says Mr. Byrd. The group's website says it intends to repay the initial financiers so that no single individual will have contributed more than $10,000.
Could an unnamed donor provide millions to the Democratic Party, maintaining anonymity as long as the party later paid him or her back? Is that legal? If not, how does Americans Elect qualify for an exemption? Or do they?

Either Cain's a dolt, or he thinks you are

I generally try to refrain from taking specific pro/con stances on candidates for office on this blog, but I've been insulted. By Herman Cain. And so have you. If you haven't seen it yet, please check out Cain's "assessment of our key country relations," available on his campaign website:
This map makes this 1980s parody of Ronald Reagan's worldview seem nuanced in comparison. Either this is the way Cain sees the world, or this is the way Cain thinks you see the world. Either way, it's horrifying.

Jon Bernstein writes this morning that Cain "doesn't appear to be willing and/or able to converse about basic foreign policy issues at a level that wouldn't embarrass a strong high school student." I strongly disagree. The above map would embarrass a strong elementary school student.

How revolution spreads

Marc Herman is back home from Libya and has written up his experiences as a Kindle Single called The Shores of Tripoli. (Be sure to read his recent blog post about the market forces in the magazine industry that led him to choose this outlet.)

It's a fascinating read. One of the points that particularly compelled me was the discussion of the rebellion finally hitting the small mountain town of Nalut. The residents knew of the uprisings in the big coastal cities, and the local loyalist soldiers knew of them, too. And they had all seen videos of the regime slaughtering protesters. But nothing had yet happened in Nalut. As one of the residents says,
"Some guys from school, and some people who are just my neighbors. We decide to do this thing," as he described it. The thing they would do was to walk to the local Nalut office of Internal Security the next afternoon and tender a request that Moammar Qaddafi, Libya's leader of forty-two years, abdicate. They they would stand there and dare the guards to shoot them, hit them, gas them, or, if they preferred, agree with them. They did not reallly think about what would happen after that.
The book offers a case study as to how a movement spreads. Part of it is simply organic - it was just time, and the thing went viral. Part of it is manufactured - a NATO operative plays a role in the local resistance, and the rebels find help from across the Tunisian border. But it nicely connects the local individual stories to much larger social forces. If you're trying to figure out why something like Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party takes off and other movements don't, here's a nice piece of research for you.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Tab-Dumping on Democrats

  • Ross Douthat: What is it with liberals and their worship of the mediocre-at-best presidency of John F. Kennedy?
  • Jonathan Chait: What is it with liberals and their dissatisfaction with the actually-quite-impressive presidency of Barack Obama?
  • David Atkins: Actually, liberals have quite legitimate grounds on which to be dissatisfied.
  • Steve Kornacki: By the way, liberals aren't any more prone to eating their own than conservatives are.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The nerd war goes on

If you thought the debate over election forecast models was over, you thought wrong. Sean Trende has pushed back against my pushback. Well, fair enough. And he does make some important points in there, chief among which is that none of us need to be debating against straw men. Almost no journalists think the economy irrelevant to elections, just as almost no political scientists think the campaign irrelevant. To that extent, we largely agree.

Nonetheless, Trende goes on to question the value of economic forecast models of elections. He notes several presidential and congressional elections in which political science forecasts were wide of the mark, and suggests that we can't ever really know ahead of time whether we're going into an election in which the classic models will work well or not.

I want to respond a bit to that. First, I don't think it's fair to lump congressional elections into this argument; as any election modeler will concede, those elections turn on local as well as national factors and are much harder to predict. Second, yes, we can certainly cherry-pick some presidential election forecasts that missed, but they still, on the whole, tend to come quite close.

Note this collection of forecasts (PDF) submitted roughly two months prior to the 2008 presidential election. The median of the nine forecasts had McCain getting 48 percent of the two-party vote, just one percent more than he actually got. Seven of the nine forecasts came within three points of the actual vote. The most accurate forecast was made 99 days before the election.

Note also Nyhan and Montgomery's collection of forecast models for elections since 1976. Sure, some individual forecasts miss by quite a bit, but the "ensemble" forecasting model rarely deviates from the outcome by more than a point or two.

Now, my posse and I (yeah, I've got a posse) could keep going back and forth with Trende and his posse like this, but I'm not sure how productive that would be. I think instead it might be more useful to address the question of just what these forecasts bring to our understanding of elections.

Forecasts are certainly entertaining. They can also be lucrative. But their real value for political science is that they allow us to test theories about elections. This is why modelers spend a lot of time "predicting" elections that have already happened, a task that might seem silly to some. We're trying to understand just what drives elections. We have theories about the importance of the economy, even about different measures of the economy. We have theories about ideology, about wars, and other things. We also have theories, as John Sides notes, about how the campaigns take advantage of these features of the political environment and make them matter to voters. When we make a forecast, we're attempting an empirical test of our theories. We're trying to figure out just what matters in elections and how much it matters. And each new election improves our understanding of the fundamentals of elections.

In the comments on my last post on this subject, Jay Cost wrote in to say the following:
I would say that I have learned so much more from the history than from the political science. If somebody asked me "How do I understand the 1968 election?" I'd point them to Ted White's Making of the President before any quantitative study in the APSR.
If we're talking about comparing an in-depth study of campaign actors with a forecast model, well then I totally agree. These models tell us very little about any one given election. However, a thick study like White's will offer quite a few reasons why one candidate won and another lost, from the economy to the Vietnam War to the presence of a divisive third-party candidate. What our forecasting models do is provide us with some explanations of just which aspects of the political environment tend to drive elections and which ones don't.

Okay, enough for now -- I've got to go deal with some Thanksgiving stuff.

Update: Hans Noel has a great post up at the Monkey Cage further explaining how forecast models are used to test theories.

Monday, November 21, 2011

"Is this as good as it gets?"

Chris Matthews:
In the above interview, Chris Matthews mourns the lack of a narrative in Obama's bid for a second term:
There is no Peace Corps... There is no Moon program.... What are we trying to do in this administration?... What's he going to do in a second term? More of this? Is this it? Is this as good as it gets?
He goes on to whine that Obama doesn't invite him to late night parties and doesn't call members of Congress often enough, and that there's too much e-mail communication or something, and then there's those darned kids running the White House....

Look, Matthews is obviously under no obligation to be one of Obama's foot soldiers, but I find this idea that Obama can't win without a compelling "narrative" really annoying. Obama could promise a mission to Mars or a cure for cancer or a new season of "The Wire," and I doubt it would make a lick of different for his reelection prospects. Those would be fairly vague, if inspirational, promises about the future, when voters tend to be highly attuned to what is going on now and what has happened recently. Specifically, they will retain him in office if they are sufficiently satisfied with improvements in economic conditions, and if they're not, they won't, regardless of what he promises.

As for Matthews' dismissive "more of this" comment, I'd imagine quite a few people would be happy with that, if "this" includes health care reform, preventing a depression, financial reform, student loan reform, killing Osama, toppling Kaddafy, etc. That's a solid record to run on. I'm sorry if Matthews doesn't think it's as exciting as a Moon landing. It's just, you know, governing.

Caddell and Schoen crack me up

If you want to read some first-rate hackery, be sure to check out Pat Caddell and Doug Schoen's op/ed in today's Wall Street Journal. No, it shouldn't surprise anyone that these allegedly Democratic pollsters don't have Obama's best interests at heart, but beyond that, the op/ed reveals deep and profound misunderstandings about partisanship.

The basic premise of the piece is absurd: Obama is so unpopular that he can't win next year, and even if he somehow won, he'd have to run such a negative campaign to do so that he couldn't govern in a second term. Therefore, he should decline his party's nomination and let Hillary Clinton run in his place.

Okay, granted, Obama may need to run a very negative campaign, just as he did in 2008! And he still managed to govern because, you know, he had a Democratic Congress for his first two years in office. Caddell and Schoen are convinced that we've had gridlock recently, though, because of Obama's strident tone:
We warned that if President Obama continued down his overly partisan road, the nation would be "guaranteed two years of political gridlock at a time when we can ill afford it." The result has been exactly as we predicted: stalemate in Washington, fights over the debt ceiling, an inability to tackle the debt and deficit, and paralysis exacerbating market turmoil and economic decline.
There are quite a few people who would disagree with the notion that Obama has been intransigent in his recent dealings with Republicans. (Remember the debt ceiling negotiations? Who was being intransigent then?) But beyond that, did it ever occur to Caddell and Schoen that this might have more to do with just the president's tone? That there might be sincere and enormous policy differences between the parties?

Wait, here's another good one:
If President Obama were to withdraw, he would put great pressure on the Republicans to come to the table and negotiate.
Yes, conceding defeat is a great way to extract concessions.

But the piece gets even better when they start talking up Hillary:
Not only is Mrs. Clinton better positioned to win in 2012 than Mr. Obama, but she is better positioned to govern if she does. Given her strong public support, she has the ability to step above partisan politics, reach out to Republicans, change the dialogue, and break the gridlock in Washington.
Ah, yes, nothing like Hillary Clinton to rise above partisan politics. I'm sure the Republicans wouldn't start opposing her vehemently once she were the nominee. It's not like her name was ever synonymous with every evil thing conservatives attribute to liberals.

I know it's been a few years, but do Caddell and Schoen remember that these were exactly the reasons many people supported Obama over Clinton in the primaries? He was supposed to be the one more likely to "step above partisan politics, reach out to Republicans, change the dialogue, and break the gridlock in Washington." How's that worked out so far? Oh, and remember when Bush ran as the uniter, not the divider? How'd that go?

Folks, it's not that these politicians are lying -- I'm sure they'd sincerely like to reach out to people across party lines. But partisanship is bigger that one politician, and it's certainly not a function of tone. There are massive, historic forces compelling the parties apart from each other. Hillary Clinton would be just as polarizing a president as Obama, if not more so.

Nonetheless, I'm sure her path to the White House next year would be an easy one after Obama's decision not to run. Just ask presidents Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey.

Update: More goodies from Matt Glassman. His conclusion:
I’ll just leave you with a funny thought an old college buddy emailed me, writing “the only upside to Gingrich winning the nomination and then taking on HRC for the presidency would be that Kurt Cobain would probably come out of hiding with like 5 full albums worth of great new material.” Amen to that.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Ecological inference and vampires

Via Sullivan, here's a map by Goodreads in which they map out reviews of the book "Twilight" by state. Bluer states have more negative reviews of the book; redder states have more positive reviews: 
The mysteries presented are twofold:
  1. Why does this map seem to mirror voting patterns so sharply? That is, why do Republicans like "Twilight" while Democrats hate it? 
  2. Why has Utah generated such a disproportionately high number of reviews?
The second one is easy: the author, Stephenie Meyer, is Mormon, and a graduate of BYU. I can only assume that there's been a disproportionate share of buzz about her in Salt Lake City. Still, it's curious that Utah departs from the partisan trend; she has so many readers, but most of them dislike the book. 

The first one is trickier. What can account for Republicans liking the book so much more than Democrats do, other than, as Erik Loomis says, "Republicans having horrendous taste in literature"?

Actually, we don't know that. This is a classic case of ecological inference fallacy. It is certainly possible that Republicans like the book more than Democrats do, but the map can be deceiving. The people in these states who vote in presidential elections may not be the ones who register opinions on Goodreads. Indeed, a goodly number of "Twilight" readers are probably under 18. 

The only way we can really test the partisan connection is to examine individual level data, and Goodreads (regrettably) does not collect data on party ID. Still, there might be a way to infer party ID from Goodreads profiles, perhaps by looking for hints of political preferences in the "about me" section. If Gary King or some other enterprising individual would like to work on this, have at it.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Sharia gay marriage

At the APSA meeting in Seattle this year, the great Thad Hall stormed into a hotel bar demanding to know why conservatives were so convinced that the chief liberal goals were both Sharia and gay marriage. He couldn't understand why conservatives seemed to be so terrified of two things that were bound to annihilate each other. This prompted a lively conversation, and then a contest, and both Hans Noel and I subsequently managed to insert the term "Sharia gay marriage" into our paper presentations. We thought it was a joke.

Imagine our surprise when PolitiChicks, a conservative alternative to "The View" featuring Victoria Jackson and some of her slightly more stable friends, decided to have a long, uncomfortable conversation about the threat America faces from both Sharia and gay marriage. Folks, this is sincere.

Everything but the kitchen link

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The plummet

Bernstein's right: the New York Times should be ashamed of itself for repeatedly printing the works of Drew Westen. Just to pick up on one of Westen's points:
After his grand bargain on the debt, for example, the president’s approval ratings plummeted.
That's a pretty steep plummet! My ears just popped!

Read Jon's post for more gems, especially the part about no one knowing what Obama truly believes. Ack.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Don't freak out about a congressional paycut

So yesterday, Rick Perry proposed a dramatic change to the way Congress is run: cut their pay by half and make it a part-time legislature. There have been some very good and appropriately horrified reactions from the likes of John Sides, Jon Bernstein, Matt Yglesias, Jamelle Bouie, Matt Glassman, and others. The modal response is that amateur legislatures tend to be weaker compared to professional ones. Part-timers lack the expertise and time to devote to governing, and as a result tend to be more easily manipulated by the executive branch, bureaucrats, interest groups, and others. It's not particularly great for the concept of republican democracy.

That said, let's not all freak out about this proposal. Sure, it's a) irresponsible and b) highly unlikely to become law, but does that really distinguish it from the other policy proposals being bandied about during the 2012 Republican presidential nomination race? Rick Santorum called for war with China. Michele Bachmann called the leader of Iran a "genocidal maniac," which suggests future war. (You can't leave a genocidal maniac in power, can you?) Herman Cain wants to abolish progressive taxation. Mitt Romney promised to repeal Obama's health reform by January 21, 2013. Rick Perry wants to abolish three cabinet agencies, two of which he can name.

It might be just my fuzzy memory, but I'm having a hard time remembering a presidential contest that involved so many campaign promises so fundamentally divorced from reality. It's as though most of these candidates have either no concept of governing or no expectation that they'll ever have to actually try it.

Seen in this light, Perry's amateur Congress proposal is nothing unusual. Perry's campaign is hurting, badly. His proposal is a Hail Mary pass thrown vaguely in the direction of the people in the Republican Party who are reluctant to back Mitt Romney.

Historical accuracy is overrated

Are you not historically accurate?
In listening to the History of Rome podcast, I was somewhat saddened, though hardly shocked, to learn that "Gladiator" (2000) wasn't really very faithful to history. Well, it was accurate in the sense that there was once a pretty good emperor named Marcus Aurelius who was succeeded by his son, a pretty crappy emperor named Commodus, and Commodus' sister later hatched a plot to assassinate him, but it failed. And there was a Roman general named Maximilianus who scored some big wins late in the Germanic wars. Otherwise, the whole plot of "Gladiator" was just kind of made up.

Still, pretty good plot. And on the more general details, I'd say "Gladiator" was more historically accurate than, say, "Dirty Dancing."

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Essential party readings II

Today's entry comes from U.S. Rep. Pete Kostmayer (D-PA) in 1988:
Just shut up, gays, women, environmentalists. Just shut up, and you will get everything you want after the election. In the meantime, just shut up so we can win.
(h/t David Karol)

Monday, November 14, 2011

We're racin' for links

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Economic forecast models: the pushback

Nate Silver's 2012 prediction model has produced some interesting responses across the blogosphere. Brendan Nyhan notes that Silver's estimate for the effects of candidate ideology in presidential elections just has to be too big*, and he finds that Silver's model underperforms when compared to others. John Sides responds to Mike Tomasky's dissing of political scientists. Then Alan Abramowitz offers a model that includes an important variable that measures how long the incumbent party has held the White House, and Sean Trende pushes back a bit on that one and on the whole concept of economic forecasting.

I want to respond to what Trende wrote, but I'd first like to point out that it's fantastic that we're even having this debate. Just a few years ago, it seemed like political scientists were tearing their hair out just trying to convince political journalists that elections weren't determined entirely by campaign activities, and that the economy and other fundamental aspects of the political environment might be relevant. Now, the debate among political scientists and journalists appears to be more like, "Come on, the economy doesn't explain everything." So I feel like this discussion has moved in a very good direction in the past few years.

Okay, back to Trende's piece. He ticks off a bunch of things that you have to believe if you're going to accept the validity of an economic forecast model. For example:
First, at a basic level, you have to accept that something as complex as voting can be reduced to a simple, three-variable equation. And you have to accept that this equation is linear.
Well, no, you really don't. Now, we have good evidence that you can explain a very high percentage of what goes on in elections with just two or three variables, but that doesn't mean that everyone's vote choice is a result of just those variables. These models do have error terms. Sometimes other things can affect votes. They just usually don't.

And just because most of these models are linear, that doesn't mean that they have to be. If you get way out in the tails of economic performance, you can see that the effect on votes isn't quite linear. Hoover did better in 1932, and FDR did worse in 1936, than a linear model of economic growth would predict, if for no other reason than that any major party presidential nominee is guaranteed close to 40% of the vote; their hardcore partisan supporters simply won't defect no matter how bad things get. But most elections don't occur under such extreme conditions, and the linear model works quite well for those.

Here's another point Trende makes:
You have to accept that there is no problem predicting the president’s vote share from only 16 data points.
That's silly. Of course there's a problem with that. But that's all the cases we have, and they work pretty well. Indeed, it's pretty amazing we get such robust results from so few cases. And keep in mind that a lot of the truths we cling to in American politics, such as "the president's party loses House seats in midterm elections" or "Democrats lose when they nominate liberal New Englanders," are based on this many cases or fewer.
You have to accept that presidential elections haven’t changed at all over the past 64 years. ... You have to accept that the enfranchisement of African-Americans and poor whites in the South, as well as the enfranchisement of 18-to-21-year-olds nationally, had no effect on the outcome of the later races. A casual glance at the results of the 2008 elections would seem to suggest otherwise.
No one I know is claiming that elections are exactly as they were 64 years ago. But the same basic trends do seem to hold: voters blame the incumbent party when the economy underperforms and reward them when the economy does well, and they tend to turn against parties that have been in power a long time. I don't know why he singles out 2008 as some sort of evidence that these fundamentals have changed. In fact, such forecasts nailed the '08 results within a single percentage point.
You have to accept that anything that happens past the end of the second quarter of an election year matters only at the margin. If the economy absolutely collapses, and a previously popular president goes into Election Day with a 20 percent approval rating amid a full-scale depression, where the economy is contracting by 10 percent a quarter, it wouldn’t matter much. If we are attacked and enter a war, it wouldn’t matter much. If a president becomes mired in scandal, it wouldn’t matter much.
Again, no one argues this. A lot of modelers pick the second quarter as a cut-off because it allows time to make a forecast several months before the election while still capturing much of the economic activity on which the incumbent party will be evaluated. It's very rare that an economy that's humming along at three percent growth for a year or more will suddenly plunge into recession the quarter prior to an election. That certainly can happen (and it kind of did in 2008), but it's a very rare event. Similarly, if the forecast models showed Obama likely to win next year, but he decided to shoot Tom Hanks in the face on live TV on October 31st, yeah, he'd probably lose the election. It's not that last-minute twists don't happen, it's just that they're rare, and the things that happen to the economy in the third quarter of an election year usually look a lot like the things that happened in the first and second quarters.

There are a few other similar points that Trende makes. Some are good caveats for forecasters, and it would generally be good for us to be straightforward about the assumptions of our models. But many of Trende's arguments are simply straw men. Look, we have some models that do a pretty good job explaining elections -- a lot better than claims about campaign quality or candidate optimism or likeability. But past performance does not guarantee future results. Make of these models as you will.

*I hope my post using Silver's numbers to draw out a prediction plot wasn't taken as an endorsement of Silver's model. I simply did it because I thought it would look cool.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Mental note: campaign managers do not like economic forecast models

From an e-mail to supporters from Jim Messina, campaign manager for Obama 2012:
This weekend, The New York Times Magazine ran a long analysis of the 2012 election headlined, "Is Obama toast?"
It uses a mathematical formula to conclude who will win this race.
In other words, it says neither you nor Barack Obama has a role to play in this election, because the outcome is essentially predetermined.
We disagree. [...]
[The] dramatic differences between the Republican nominee and President Obama will be crystal clear to Americans as the 2012 election approaches, because our grassroots organization in all 50 states will be having conversations every single day with their friends, families, co-workers, and neighbors.
That grassroots organizational advantage is a critical factor in this election that the Times' "formula" doesn't consider at all.
There's a quite natural hatred by campaign managers toward economic forecast models like Nate Silver's. They pretty much deny the campaign any agency at all. And that's not really fair. After all, there have been plenty of studies showing at least modest campaign effects -- a campaign's decision to devote resources to particular areas at particular times can affect votes, a campaign's message can affect how voters evaluate candidates, etc. But it's quite possible that opposing parties' campaigns largely cancel each other out. At any rate, we know that you can predict elections pretty reliably without any reference to the skills or decisions of the campaign managers.

If I were a campaign manager, that would piss me off, too.

Ulysses S. Grant: Bad for the Jews

I must admit I was not aware of General Order 11, which General Ulysses Grant issued in 1862:
The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the department [the "Department of the Tennessee," an administrative district of the Union Army of occupation composed of Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi] within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.
He apparently did this to stem the black market in cotton, in which some Jewish traders were involved. Grant later rescinded the order and publicly repudiated it, allowing for a titanic influx of Jews back into Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. (Okay, that never happened.) At least according to this Wikipedia entry, Grant managed to win a majority of the Jewish vote in 1868, although I'd really like to see the exit polls backing that up.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Some forecasts

The 2012 presidential election forecaster up at is great fun, and you could get lost in the numbers for a few hours there. Basically, Nate Silver has made assumptions about the Republican candidates' ideological positions and plugged those into a forecast model, along with growth in gross domestic product and Obama's approval ratings. Just for giggles, I put together the following graph based on the forecasting data used in that model. I have assumed Obama's approval rating remains at 43 percent.
The official forecast for economic growth is 2.7%, by the way, which would put Romney and Obama at a near dead-heat.

Now, here are some reasons not to take these numbers too seriously:
  • First, Obama's approval rating is not independent of economic growth. If the economy begins to grow at a quicker clip, his approval rating will probably rise into the 50s. It will likely drop into the 30s or worse if we experience an actual recession.
  • Second, even if economic growth stays right where it is today, Obama's approval rating is likely to change somewhat as a function of the campaign. Nearly all Democrats will come to approve of his performance, even if they may have reservations today. And nearly all Republicans will come to disapprove, although they're probably doing that already.
  • Third, perceptions of the Republican nominee's ideological stances may well change by next year. It's very hard to make realistic projections of Cain's governing ideology since he's never governed before. Perry would be facing a more liberal electorate than he's ever faced, and Romney would be facing a more conservative one. Plus, given Romney's history, there should be substantially large error bars on either side of his line.
Update: Graph label fixed.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Where's the pro-phosphate candidate?

You've probably noticed by now that your dishwasher isn't working as well as it used to. Lots of people have noticed that. As you may know, this has nothing to do with your dishwasher; instead, most of the detergent manufacturers have stopped using phosphates in their soap. They did this to accommodate various state governments, which have recently banned phosphates in detergents to help avoid the buildup of algae in runoff water. Now, there are some ways to deal with the problem, such as running the washer on a deep clean cycle or using a citrus additive like Lemi-Shine or just hand-washing them. Or you can pay top dollar for old school detergent. But still, we're talking about an actual inconvenience affecting millions of American households due to government and environmentalists. Where are the Republican presidential candidates?

Some conservative activists have already started complaining about this, but unless I've missed it, not a single Republican presidential candidate has championed phosphates as a campaign issue. This seems tailor-made for Michele Bachmann, who has ridden the compact fluorescent lightbulb issue as far as it can take her. But phosphates seems like an even better issue for her. Buying expensive bulbs is certainly an inconvenience, but they actually function for something like five times longer than traditional bulbs, meaning that you probably break even on the price and might even save money. Phosphate-free detergent, however, is an inconvenience every time you run your dishwasher. This is real nanny-state stuff! No, Obama isn't directly responsible for it, but he isn't responsible for the bulb thing either (Bush signed that into law), and he didn't engineer a government takeover of health care. The details are unimportant. There's enough vague truth in there for a legitimate campaign issue. If she doesn't want it, Ron Paul should jump all over it -- today (remember remember, the fifth of November). Or maybe it can save Herman Cain.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Chart of the day - Supreme Court tenure

To quote Calabresi and Lindgren:
Justices have been staying on the Court for longer periods and retiring later in life than ever before.
Yes, longevity has increased, but it didn't suddenly shoot up in the 1970s.

Take the journey

If you're looking for a really dumb but enjoyable film, I highly recommend the 1959 version of Jules Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth." The setup is great. A recently-knighted geologist at the University of Edinburgh (James Mason) is presented with an unusually heavy volcanic rock by his graduate student (Pat Boone, at the height of his "safe Elvis" fame). Mason, like any good scientist, blows the rock up and finds a man-made object inside, marked with the writings of a Swedish geologist who's been dead for centuries. This, of course, proves that it's possible for people to travel to the center of the Earth, which Mason and Boone then proceed to do, along with the widow of a rival geologist, a giant Icelander name Hans, and a duck named Gertrude. I am not making this up.

The film is great for all the expected reasons -- cheesy effects, tacky dinosaurs, bad science, absurd sexual politics, selectively-employed Scottish accents -- but there are a few other gems I particularly enjoyed. One is the portrayal of academic life. Mason's character, chancing upon an important discovery, decides to skip teaching classes for several weeks to devote himself to his research. When his dean comes knocking to find out what's up, he explains the importance of the research and says he simply can't be bothered to lecture to undergrads right now. Awesome! There's also a legitimately clever scene where the two brilliant scientists are trying to interpret the coded transmissions of what turns out to be Gertrude the aforementioned duck.

One of Boone's many shirtless scenes.
Another thing I loved was that the film was, at least at some points, a borderline musical. Mason's students sing to him in class when he gets knighted. (My students don't do that.) And Pat Boone never misses an opportunity to burst into song. (Even though they had to carry a year's worth of provisions on their backs, Boone still managed to find room for a concertina.) And for whatever reason, Boone slowly disrobes over the course of the film. He spends at least half the film shirtless, and by the final scenes, he is quite literally naked, holding up a sheep to cover his genitalia. I swear I am not making this up.

At least for now, Xfinity On-Demand is offering this film for free. I'd recommend taking them up on the offer.

Dark Knight and the War on Terror

I just got done showing "Dark Knight" (2008) to my film class. I hadn't watched it since the year it came out, and I'm surprised how different the film feels today, just a few years later, particularly when viewed as a metaphor for the War on Terror.

The film is filled with visual references to 9/11. We see buildings explode and collapse, firetrucks burning in the street, firefighters standing in burning rubble, and of course Batman (seen above) sitting amidst twisted metal, wondering how he failed. And then there's Heath Ledger's Joker, possibly the most interesting on-screen villain of the past decade, standing in for Bin Laden. He's a true supervillain, smarter than his pursuers, able to exploit people's fears to pursue his goals, and totally undeterrable by conventional forms of power.

What does it take to bring down such a villain? As Golda Meir says in "Munich" (2005), "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." And indeed, Batman must break some rules (including, eventually, the no-kill rule so essential to his identity) to protect Gotham. He famously does so by building a surveillance device that blatantly violates the privacy of every mobile phone user in the city, a device so monstrous that it nearly forces the resignation of his confidante Lucius Fox. This device could serve as a metaphor for the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping, or "enhanced interrogations," or any other Constitutional violation enacted in order to protect Americans. But Batman rescues his device from abomination by building in important safeguards: it can only be used once, and it can only be used by Fox, the person who despises it most. The device also has the virtue of working -- Batman finds the Joker and brings him to justice. If Bush-era torture had such built-in safeguards, and if it had clearly brought Bin Laden to justice, might we have a different view of it today?

Even this, though, is not enough. Batman is not content with Gotham being protected by a secretive vigilante; if the city's going to ever have hope of being a decent place to live, it will need public servants unafraid to stand in the daylight. So Batman ultimately sacrifices his own reputation to advance what he sees as a necessary lie. He's willing to be the villain himself, loving his city so much that he's willing to be hated by it. This is a decision that no elected official can make -- if you're hated, you're quickly out of power.

The ideas that some truths are too important to be revealed to the people and that sometimes leaders must be despised to do their jobs makes for a rather anti-democratic and complex message. And the film is decidedly ambivalent about how a society of laws should deal with an enemy who appears bound by no laws at all. It also takes on somewhat different meaning today, when our own supervillain has already been caught, killed, and exposed as a sickly middle-aged man sitting in a room full of porn.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

So much grooviness, so little time

  • Larry Bartels finds that voters consider the economy a president inherited when evaluating presidential economic performance. Models accounting for the 2009 economy predict a strong Obama victory next year; models ignoring 2009 predict he'll lose.
  • Steve Smith shows that congressional Democrats are no less unified than congressional Republicans.
  • Nick Confessore argues for an expanded party model. Not really new for political scientists, but good for the NYT.
  • Mann and Ornstein: "True Independents and swing voters aren’t best captured through clever centrist political positioning. They have almost no ideological frameworks with which to judge the candidates and parties; they are quintessentially referendum voters, with low levels of information and focusing almost exclusively on performance."
  • Jon Bernstein suggests a fairly plausible political nightmare scenario for next year.
  • Dave Weigel: "Prediction: Cain wins Iowa caucuses. Gets up to give speech. Says: 'The Aristocrats!' Walks offstage, having told best joke ever."
  • A bleak chart.
  • Via Steve Greene, evidence that oenophiles have no idea what they're talking about. (But I'm sure my dad would have gotten it right.)
  • Speaking of my dad, an ophthalmology poster we co-authored won a third-place prize in Vienna.
  • My university considers me a "person to watch." In a good way, I hope.

Hosting the debate

I got this pic of Mayor Michael Hancock and
Chancellor Bob Coombe making the announcement.
As you may have heard, the University of Denver will be hosting the first presidential debate next October 3rd. This is, obviously, very exciting for all of us. I have no idea whether I'll be able to sneak into the event or in what capacity I might do so, but rest assured I'll be doing pretty much whatever I can to get in there. Maybe I can put on my Vulcan costume and claim to be Sam Donaldson...

Third party chutzpah

Remember Americans Elect? That group that plans to run as a third-party ticket and is currently seeking placement on all fifty state ballots? According to Dan Froomkin, they are now refusing to disclose the identity of their donors. That, of course, is illegal for a political party. But now they're claiming that they're not really a party:
Kahlil Byrd, the group's CEO, said it is operating "completely within the bounds" of the law. He noted that unlike a traditional political group,"Americans Elect has no candidate and has no issue."
Um, yeah, but according to their own website, they're planning a nominating convention for next June to, you know, pick a candidate and a platform:
Americans Elect is creating the first nonpartisan presidential nomination in U.S. history.
 So why would they want to hide the identity of their donors? Froomkin continues:
As for the donors, [Byrd] said, the reason they want to remain secret is to avoid political payback. "This is a very tough political environment," he said. "Retribution is real."
Huh? Personally, I think donating to the organization is a waste of one's money, but I wasn't planning to kneecap anyone for doing it. Just who is planning some sort of "retribution"?

(h/t Kevin Collins)