Monday, November 30, 2009

Was Terry a dude?

I just recently stumbled across the Memorized Breaths blog. The blog appears to be defunct, which is a shame, since there's some nice material in there. I particularly appreciated this post on Bruce Springsteen's "Backstreets," one of the tracks from "Born to Run" (1975). The author briefly suggests that the relationship described in the song may have been between two men, a notion that is embraced in some of the comments. I subscribe to this theory, as well. To wit:
  • Bruce is singing about "Terry," a name with an ambiguous gender association. The women in most of Bruce's songs tend to have unambiguous names like Mary, Wendy, Wanda, etc. (Although he did marry a Pat.)
  • The song refers to love as something secretive and forbidden, again a departure from much of his music from the time period. ("Sleeping in that old abandoned beach house getting wasted in the heat/ And hiding on the backstreets, hiding on the backstreets/ With a love so hard and filled with defeat/ Running for our lives at night on them backstreets.")
  • The main characters are pretending to be something they're not -- conventionally masculine. ("Remember all the movies, Terry, we'd go see/ Trying to learn how to walk like heroes we thought we had to be.")
It's a hell of a song either way, but if Springsteen was singing sympathetically about a same sex relationship back in 1975, that's pretty impressive on his part.

The paper of record

My discussion of unemployment and midterm elections made the New York Times print edition.

It's worth taking a second to note that I spent something like 40 minutes working on this blog post, and it's now been viewed by thousands of people and circulated on Yahoo News and the NYT. Meanwhile, I spent about eight years writing a book that has now sold little more than 200 copies. Sigh.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Yet more on unemployment and midterm elections

My previous post on unemployment and midterms continues to live, like an undead brooding teenage vampire. Via Twitter, Naadir Jeewa runs some slightly different numbers and comes up with this graph:The odd implication is that an increase in unemployment is associated with improved fortunes for the president's party. However, the R-squared of .02 suggests that there's probably not much going on here. I'm guessing that slope isn't close to statistically significant. And again, there's not much here to suggest that high unemployment will lead to a particularly bad year for Democrats in 2010.

Meanwhile, over at Real Clear Politics, Sean Trende offers a bit of a critique on my trying to draw lessons from so few observations:
We have only had 15 midterm elections since 1950. This is barely data; it’s more of a good collection of anecdotes.
This statement struck me as a bit anti-quantitative at first, but the rest of the article makes it clear that Trende is serious about looking for appropriate hard data to address this question. He goes back a lot further in time than I do. The point that he was making above is that you can come up with a story to explain why the president's party did or did not lose a bunch of seats in any given year:
Is your President pursuing an unpopular war and controversial policies at home (1966, 2006)? Then it probably doesn’t matter that the economy is blazing ahead. Is the President kicking some al Qaeda arse a year after they attacked us, and getting ready to take out a longtime nemesis (2002)? The public is going to be more forgiving of the sluggish growth in real disposable income and rising unemployment. The end result of this is that every election becomes something of an explainable, unique event – in other words, they’re almost all outliers.
There's certainly some truth to this, although this is true of pretty much any dataset. When you're dealing with a small number of observations, everything looks like an outlier. Yet there's nothing particularly wrong with drawing inferences from only 15 observations, or even fewer. There is, for example, a broad acceptance that economic performance affects presidential elections, and those data are only drawn from post-WWII presidential elections. The relationship between economic performance and voting behavior is a bit stronger for presidential elections than it is for midterms, but it either case we shouldn't lose the forest for the trees.

Live from grandmother's basement?

There's some pretty good material in Lynn Bartels' interview with Josh Penry about his recent withdrawal from the Colorado gubernatorial race. But this part seems weird:
Q: Those same left-wing bloggers keep reporting you were pushed out. There's talk that some high-roller donor backing McInnis approached you or your people and threatened to spend a fortune attacking you.

A: Those bloggers are also sitting in their underwear in their grandmothers' basements. They're making stuff up out of thin air.

I wasn't pushed out. No one approached me. I made a shrewd decision based on the realities around me.

I don't think he's talking about me, but I can't be sure. For the record, my grandmother died last February, she hadn't owned a basement since 1981, and she was never a big fan of me walking around in just underwear. I can blog in my underwear from my own basement, thank you very much. Really, who out there is blogging from their grandmother's basement? In their underwear?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Most expensive anti-God movie ever

The culture warriors must have been too worked up over Adam Lambert's on-air gay kiss to have noticed, but "2012" had one of the nastiest theological subtexts I've seen in a long time. (Spoilers ahead.)

Now, don't get me wrong. This is a fun movie. It's far from perfect as disaster movies go, but there's still some great images in there that will stick with you for a while. In particular, the airborne view of Santa Monica slipping into the ocean was a nice one.

But it seemed like the director or writers had an axe to grind with God. There was no more quick and sure way to die in the film than to pause for a moment of prayer. Italians gather in front of the Vatican to pray and are immediately struck down by a massive earthquake. A Buddhist lama prays in a temple high atop the Himalayas and is hit by a tsunami. The president pauses for a moment of prayer and is hit by a quake and then a tsunami carrying an aircraft carrier.

Along these lines was the perversion of the Noah's Ark tale. The original story, of course, is a warning about not taking God seriously. Everyone mocks Noah while he's building his ark, but then by the time they realize he was right, it's too late. In this film, the governments of the world are building arks without telling anyone. The people who drown aren't particularly wicked or irreverent, while the people who are saved are the undeserving wealthy -- Russian mobsters, Saudi princes, etc.

Most disaster films are pretty straightfoward morality tales. I'm just not sure what version of morality was guiding this one.

Monday, November 23, 2009

There can be only one

The Queen is functionally immortal. Thanks to Nancy for sending along a timeline essentially proving that thesis. Here are the endpoints:

Why a Bennet/Romanoff primary won't hurt the Democratic party

Those Colorado Democrats who have taken sides in the Bennet/Romanoff contest for the Senate seat largely have not done so based on the candidates' policy stances. You'd need an electron microscope to identify the ideological differences between these candidates. Those who are with Romanoff feel that he has paid his dues to the party and has earned a shot at the Senate seat, and that his campaign experience makes him a solid contender against the Republicans. Those who are with Bennet feel that, however he got his job, he's doing it well and deserves to keep it. At least at this point, it's hard to imagine either side failing to embrace the eventual nominee.

Bennet's comments on CNN yesterday that he is willing to lose his job in the fight for health reform were a nice touch and will only help in this regard. In the reasonably likely scenario that Romanoff goes down in next year's primary, his supporters will find much solace in those comments.

V and the 80s

Via Lidzville, here's a nice essay from David Grossman on why the return of "V" and other 80s shows is culturally significant. Example:
Culture in the 80's was, in general, based on the concept of dehumanization. It's no coincidence that electronica and synth first really became popular during the 80's- it's also when the computer first started becoming at least somewhat commonplace. Machinery was becoming more of a factor in day-to-day lives and in some cases, like cell phones, changing the way people interacted. Neuromancer captures the moment and its fears with its black organ clinics and razors popping out under fingernails, but William Gibson didn't have to be that inventive to describe what was happening. The spectacle of hair metal, the androgyny of David Bowie and Prince, big shoulders- people were interested in looking and being more than, or at least different than, humans.

The 2000's have had a similar transformation. Rather than turn our bodies into machines, we've placed ourselves inside them. We've trusted our personalities to Facebook, clever hashtags and ironic avatar pictures. Our knowledge of people is increasingly becoming second-hand, told through online arbiters. It's not necessarily a bad thing, of course- a Facebook page can show off intelligence and humor in a non-threatening fashion, the same is true of Twitter or online comments. It's just that we're not deciding the parameters of our conversation- someone else is.

I think the cultural arguments are a bit overstated (we're not just ripping off 80s shows today, and it's not like the 80s were the first time we explored dehumanization and androgyny), but it's still a worthwhile read.

Meanwhile, has anyone else noticed that the new "V" series feels like an hour-long Apple commercial each week? It seems like every character has an iPhone. And even on the mothership, Anna uses these sliding touchscreens that work suspiciously like iPhone apps. Hell, the mothership looks like an Apple store.

The depiction of futuristic technology is inevitably one of the weak points in sci-fi and is usually the first thing to break down as a show ages. "2001" made it look like a trip to Earth orbit would be a pretty standard commute by now. Other films made it look like domed cities, hovercrafts, and robots would be big parts of our lives. Oh, and laser guns. And the videophones. Always with the videophones. Not only don't we have these things (well, we have videophones, but they pretty much suck), but sci-fi pretty much missed the rise of the personal computer, the cell phone, and the networking of them. We can, if we wish, always be in contact with each other and with a large percentage of all acquired human knowledge. That's pretty cool! Might've made a good sci-fi story a few years back.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Palin's brand of politics

Via Steve Balboni, check out Matt Taibbi's essay on Sarah Palin. It's a great read, but I particularly appreciated his contrast between Palin and Rush Limbaugh:

Rush is no Einstein, but the man does research. It may be fallacious and completely dishonest research, but he does it all the same. His battlefield is world politics and most of the time the relevant action is taking place in Washington. As good as he is at what he does, he still has to travel to the action; he himself isn’t the action.

Sarah Palin’s battlefield, on the other hand, is whatever is happening five feet in front of her face. She is building a political career around the little interpersonal wars in the immediate airspace surrounding her sawdust-filled head. And in the process she connects with pissed-off, frightened, put-upon America on a plane that’s far more elemental than the mega-ditto schtick.


Sarah Palin is on an endless crusade against assholes. It’s all she thinks about.

Game Theory and "Children of Men"

There are actually a number of good cinematic depictions of game theory. The ferry boat scene from "Dark Knight" (2008) is one for the ages, although I find Cyrus' speech at the beginning of "The Warriors" (1979) to be a really nice depiction of a prisoner's dilemma.

I teach "Children of Men" (2006) as part of my politics and film class, and I find that game theory is a useful framework for it. Specifically, there's an aspect of game theory that suggests that it's usually in one's interest not to cooperate with others as long as you're playing a one-time game. If you give the game multiple iterations, though, suddenly reputation becomes important. It hurts you in the long run if other players think you're going to just steal from them, so you start to cooperate with them. And this is basically why people are more or less civil to each other -- because they have to deal with each other tomorrow and the day after that.

"Children of Men" asks what would happen if we took the future out of this game. It posits a not-too-distant future world in which humanity is slowly dying out. No child has been born in 18 years. Suddenly, reputation doesn't matter, because humanity is on its last legs. How do people act once life is no longer an iterative game?

The film provides a pretty negative answer. Society is breaking down at a fundamental level around the world. Terrorism and war have caused most nations to crumble. The only country with a vaguely functional society is Great Britain, and it functions through the use of an increasingly brutal police force that spends much of its time rounding up illegal immigrants from failed countries and housing them in concentration camps. Even within Britain, society is fragmented and terrorism is considered a part of daily life.

A recurring theme in the film is animals. The main character, Theo (Clive Owen), is often greeted kindly by dogs and cats. A pivotal scene occurs in a barn with dozens of cows. Another key scene (left) occurs at the Battersea Power Station, the building on the cover of Pink Floyd's "Animals" album (1977). (You can even see the pig!)

My impression of this theme is that it refers to the State of Nature. The social contract has failed, and we are now at that awful human condition in which no one can trust anyone else.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The mean doesn't tell the whole story

I suppose this isn't terribly surprising. Check out the Amazon customer reviews for Palin's new book:No middle ground, baby.

Whither Romanoff?

I've been chatting with some -- what's the right term? -- anonymous sources close to the Andrew Romanoff Senate campaign. Yes, that sounds about right. Anyway, the tone from the campaign so far appears to be one of disappointment. Romanoff has a few good endorsements and is raising money at a respectable rate, but just isn't close to being competitive with Sen. Bennet right now.

The one advantage that Romanoff still has is the support of state Democratic activists. That will undoubtedly serve him well at the precinct caucuses next March. As I understand it, the Romanoff folks are currently phoning all the regular caucus attendees to try to line up support. If both candidates compete in the caucuses, I'm pretty confident Romanoff will walk away with that win. But, as fans of Mike Miles and Bob Shaffer can tell you, a caucus win hardly guarantees you the nomination. Romanoff will still need to win in the primary to get the nomination.

In order to do that, Romanoff's best bet is to hope for very low primary turnout, since the most dedicated attendees will be his base. This could happen. Given the way the Republican Senate and gubernatorial contests are shaping up, those nominations will likely be decided long before the primary, leaving the Bennet/Romanoff contest the only contentious one. But I'd still have to call Romanoff's candidacy a longshot at this point.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Lists for sale

A student alerted me to the fact that among Gov. Ritter's campaign expenditures last quarter was $3,219.40 paid to the Hillary Clinton 2008 campaign for a list of Colorado Clinton supporters. The campaign finance report describes the expenditure as a "license fee."

Greg Koger, Hans Noel and I did a paper in BJPS recently in which we examined the exchange of mailing lists among political organizations and candidates in a party network. From this research, it is not surprising to find one Democratic campaign sharing its lists with another. That's part of what a party is -- one of the advantages of being part of a party is that you don't have to build up your whole organization and donor list from scratch. But I'm curious if it's customary for there to be such a fee attached. Is this how Clinton helps retire her campaign debt, or is it standard to charge another candidate a few thousand dollars for a mailing list?

An exchange with Ross Douthat

NY Times columnist Ross Douthat picked up on my earlier post about unemployment and midterm elections. He disagrees with my finding, arguing that high unemployment could really hurt the Democrats next fall. As he writes,
In the last 50 years, there’s only been one midterm election fought with unemployment above 8 percent, let alone 10. (That would be 1982, when Reagan’s Republicans lost 22 House seats.) The sample size of relevant races is way too small to draw any useful generalizations, in other words, and it’s better to fall back on common sense — which tells us, I think, that if you pass a $780 billion stimulus package and then find yourself campaigning two years later amid 10 percent unemployment, you should expect to take a drubbing.
This was my response:
I agree with you that the lack of historical cases with very high unemployment should give us some humility in predicting next year's election. Indeed, predicting any election a year out is a shaky proposition. So, as you say, it's better to fall back on common sense.

As it happens, the average midterm seat loss for the president's party over the past sixty years is 22 seats. So if we knew nothing else about next year's election, the Democrats losing 22 House seats would be a reasonable guess. The fact that the one case with unemployment over nine percent (1982) produced precisely the average number of seat losses suggests that unemployment really isn't a factor. Add to that the fact that six midterm elections since 1950 saw larger losses for the president's party even while unemployment was much lower.

The Democrats could experience a large-scale drubbing next year, or not. But there's little evidence to suggest that unemployment will be the cause.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Proud teacher

I'm grading some surprisingly good undergraduate papers on party nominations right now. Just thought I'd mention a few highlights:
  • With regards to the current Senate race in Colorado, one of my students notes that President Obama is heavily backing Michael Bennet (and even may have played a role in his selection for the Senate) while John McCain pushed for Jane Norton to run on the Republican ticket. The student is arguing that next year's Colorado Senate race is a proxy war between Obama and McCain. I like it.
  • Another student described politics thusly: "Politics remains in many ways a jungle of underexposure, ululating purism, and inner machinations." Extra credit for using "ululating" in a paper.

Race and staff

She was pretty clear that one of the reasons that she hired him is because he was a white man, because she was African-American, and she needed that credibility with the white community. It helped her get a credibility, not just in the district, but on the Hill. She felt like it was giving her credibility with other members of Congress to say, you know, I'm about white people too, and I'm not just about black people.
That's a staffer on Capitol Hill, explaining why an African American member of Congress hired a white chief of staff. The quote comes from "Faces in the Office: Racial Employment Segregation among Congressional Staff," a paper by Curtis Ziniel at UC Riverside. I can't recall seeing too many studies of congressional staff, and this seems like a particularly interesting line of inquiry.

Ziniel finds a somewhat pernicious racial disparity resulting from congressional staffing decisions:
I find that members of Congress disproportionately employ black and Hispanic staffers in district offices and constituent service positions rather than in the Washington D.C. office and policy advisory positions. Minority staffers also hold fewer high level office positions which suggests that they have less influence with their members of Congress. These disparities in staff responsibility raise questions about the extent to which minorities can impact the legislative decision making process of members of Congress.
I can't help but think that at least part of this is related to economic disparities. White staffers are disproportionately wealthier than staffers of color and thus more likely to be able to relocate to Washington, DC. But whether the difference results from economic causes or hiring decisions by the congressional office, the effect is the same.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

An unpleasant reminder about education

A recent study by the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation ranks the states on a variety of indicators. It turns out the Colorado is #1 in the nation in terms of ACT and SAT scores, but we're 29th in our public high school graduation rate, and 41st in our student-teacher ratio in primary schools. So it's not a great place to be a K-12 student, but if you get through that system, you'll likely get into a good college.

This, of course, means that those who are doing well in Colorado's schools are doing really well, and those who aren't doing well are really doing pretty crappy.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The courage of their convictions

I'm glad to see a lot of folks jumping on pro-choice Democrats who feel they need to acknowledge the ickiness of abortion. As Yglesias says,
If aborting a fetus is morally similar to killing a person, then banning such activity clearly doesn’t diminish women. But if it’s not similar, then as Ginsburg is saying this cuts the heart of women’s status as free and equal autonomous citizens and bargaining rights away becomes very costly. But you can’t make any real sense out of the pro-choice position on a matter like this if you’re constantly apologizing for yourself.
Agreed. But while we're demanding that pro-choicers have the courage of their convictions, we might ask that pro-lifers do the same. The pro-life position is that abortion is murder. Nearly half the U.S. Congress ostensibly takes this very position. Indeed, a majority of the Congress, plus the president, took this position between 2001 and 2007. What did they do about it? They talked about it. They ran on it. But they didn't do much to change the law or shut down the clinics or prosecute the doctors or expectant mothers. Bush and congressional Republicans felt it more important to push for tax cuts and respond to international matters rather than stop what they claim to be a million annual infanticides. Bush wanted to create a "culture of life" before he pushed to abolish abortion.

I don't see how that's a remotely tenable position. An officeholder who claims to believe that a million murders are going here every year but devotes his attention to other matters simply cannot believe what he's saying.

Monday, November 16, 2009

It's not plagiarism when professors do it

For my film and politics class today, I borrowed extensively from Scott Eric Kaufman's discussion of the two recent Batman films. I wasn't actually teaching either of those films, but Kaufman's discussions of mise-en-scène in them are great and very useful, and I figured it made more sense to borrow (while properly citing him!) than to reinvent the wheel. If you get a chance, read his discussions of the portrayal of Batman as a monster in a horror film and the use of the tracking shot in "Dark Knight" as evidence of Batman's speed.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Should Dems let the GOP filibuster?

The Klugies had a big day on the blogosphere last Friday. My post on midterm elections got picked up by Matthew Yglesias and Derek Thompson at the Atlantic. More impressively, Greg Koger got interviewed by Ezra Klein about filibusters. Greg addresses the perennial question asked by modern opponents of the filibuster: Why not just have them? That is, let's break out the cots and force Republicans to actually speak for weeks on end, so the public can see them just obstructing progress. Greg notes that this is actually very costly for the majority party, probably costlier than it used to be:
They have other things to do. The modern Senate has more staff, deals with more interest groups. There's more legislation. More appropriations. The modern senator spends 1 percent of his or her time on the Senate floor. They have to take pictures with constituents. They have to fundraise and meet with constituency groups and lobbyists and deal with staff. To actually have a live filibuster would mean they have to give up all the other business.

And as individuals, they have other things to do. Air travel has opened up. In 2009, if you are the senator from Montana, it's perfectly reasonable for you to go home on the weekend and campaign for reelection. That wasn't possible in 1940. You came to Washington to do your work and you stayed until it was done. Now air travel has made it possible for you to fly away for the weekend. That makes your time more valuable.

Jonathan Bernstein adds an additional wrinkle, the modern media:

In the old days, Senators engaged in a filibuster would read recipes or otherwise stray off topic. No need for that now! Not only do Senators have large staffs who could produce content, but there's a whole big internet available. If I were advising the GOP in that situation, I'd tell them to let conservative bloggers know that they can have their big chance for immortality: post something good, and a Republican Senator will read it on the floor of the Senate. Doesn't even have to be about health care! Excellent way to rev up the conservative blogosphere, no? Meanwhile, by forcing Republicans to perform a "real" filibuster, Democrats would transform a 24 hour network that millions of Americans get in their homes into a 24 hour Republican propaganda outlet. How is that possibly good for the Democrats? Granted, CNN coverage of the Big Filibuster would invite comments from both sides, but even CNN would probably go to the Senate floor once in a while, and each time it would be a Republican talking.

Teach the controversy

Howard Markel, a physician who was interviewed for that Atlantic article on flu vaccines, wrote a letter to the editors clarifying his views and affirming that vaccinations are important for fighting the disease. The writers respond:
We appreciate Howard Markel’s desire to clarify his personal position on flu. As the article says, many experts believe flu vaccine is effective; some believe it is not. The point of the story is that we really don’t know one way or the other: our public health policy is built on a very thin base of evidence.
Wow, is that irresponsible. Thousands of studies show the vaccine to be effective, a handful do not. Therefore, "we really don't know one way or the other." By that standard, we have no idea whether germs carry disease, whether cigarettes cause cancer, or whether the Earth is flat or round. We should debate these things.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Palin got screwed

An interesting tidbit from Sarah Palin's new book:

Palin comes across as particularly upset about being stuck with $50,000 in legal bills that she says were directly related to the legal vetting process for the VP slot. She says she was never informed that she would have to personally take care of expenses related to the selection process, and jokes that if she'd known she was going to get stuck with the bill, she would have given shorter responses.

According to the book, Palin asked officials at the Republican National Committee and what was left of the McCain campaign if they would help her financially. She says she was told that if McCain had won, the bills would have been paid, but since he lost, the bills were her responsibility.

A few questions:

  1. Palin was vetted?
  2. Who got $50,000 to vet her? Next time around, I'll do it for $40,000.
  3. Is that a standard practice, to charge a VP candidate for her own vetting unless the ticket wins? That seems like dirty pool to me.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Does unemployment affect midterm elections?

I've seen no small amount of hand-wringing from Democrats worried about the impact of the current double-digit unemployment on next year's midterm elections. By most estimates, even if there is robust economic growth for the next year, unemployment will still be quite high a year from now, maybe upwards of eight percent.* What kind of effect could this have on the election?

Actually, there's not much evidence unemployment has any effect at all. I grabbed the annual figures on unemployment from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and looked at unemployment as a predictor of midterm House seat gains for the president's party since 1950. Here's the scatterplot. The points are labeled by year and the name of the incumbent president.
What do we see here? Basically no relationship at all. Reagan saw very high unemployment in 1982, and his party lost a lot of seats, but no more than the president's party did under Bush in 2006 or Truman in 1950, when unemployment was pretty low.

Okay, so what about the growth in unemployment between the year before the election and the election year? Here's that scatterplot:Again, bubkes. Unemployment actually increased prior to the 2002 elections, but that was the biggest gain for the president's party in this whole time series. Similarly, the biggest loss by the president's party was in 1994, when unemployment had shrunk.

What does seem to matter is economic growth. Here's one measure, the growth in real disposable personal income between the third quarter in the year before the election and the second quarter of the election year. (Data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.)
It's a noisy measure, to be sure, but it is statistically significant. You can specify income growth several different ways and still get a similar result. Something else that matters is the president's popularity. A ten-point increase in the president's Labor Day Gallup approval rating can save the president's party 16 seats in the House.

So why might income growth matter but unemployment not matter for elections? It's possible that unemployment fluctuations disproportionately affect people at the lower end of the income spectrum -- people who aren't terribly likely to vote in midterms and, if they do, are probably voting Democratic anyway. Growth in disposable income, however, affects everybody, including the moderate voters who will switch party allegiances from time to time.

*Nate Silver estimates the unemployment rate will be around 9.5 percent by next November.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Oh please oh please oh please

Can it be true?
According to the "Draft Tom Tancredo for Governor" Facebook fan page (reportedly now closed due to intense trolling), the former congressman from Littleton has filed "exploratory committee" paperwork for the 2010 gubernatorial race with the Secretary of State.

Happy Veterans Day

A brief note of thanks to the veterans in my family. Thank you to Uncle Herb, who served with Operation Overlord on D-Day. And thank you to my dad, whose service to the Navy kept the cities of Chelsea, MA, and Philadelphia, PA, free from the tyranny of North Vietnamese communists.

Cost as an excuse

A friend and faithful reader who lives in Colorado's 4th CD sent a message to Rep. Betsy Markey (D-Fort Collins) asking why she voted against the House health reform bill on Saturday. Here, in part, is Markey's response:
After carefully reviewing this legislation and hearing from thousands of Coloradans across my district, I could not support this bill. This was not an easy decision to make, because I know only too well that America's health care system is in dire need of reform.

This bill provides new coverage for millions of Americans, but it simply does not do enough to cut the health care costs that are crushing our businesses and families. It's critical that we control rising health care costs, increase quality and value within our health care system, and improve access to health care and affordable health insurance coverage.
It does not do enough to cut health care costs? She wanted the bill to be more invasive into the private insurance market? I find this a tad disingenuous. I seriously doubt that a bill with a more robust public option would have won her support.

But this is the same sort of thing Joe Lieberman keeps saying -- he won't support the current reform because of its costs. Never mind that health care costs are projected to be even greater if the reform fails.

I suppose it's a convenient rationalization. Voters get the idea of things costing too much, and a member of Congress can sound somewhat responsible for rejecting something that's too expensive. But it's not, you know, true.

Update: Good followup from Steve Balboni:
On balance I'm quite fine with this sort of thing so long as the offending politician is really in a purple or red district. You'll never hear me bashing John Salazar even though his voting record leaves a lot to be desired. When he's needed Salazar is usually there. If positioning himself with the Blue Dogs helps him get re-elected I hold my nose and go along. The flip side of Salazar though is Joe Lieberman. The Last Honest Man is a Senator from a deep blue state who's voting record continues to tack farther and farther to the right. There's no reason that progressives should tolerate that type of behavior.

The homosexual agenda

The Colorado Federation of Republican Women hosted a debate last week between the Republican gubernatorial candidates. It included this fun moment:
CFRW District 7 Director Sharon Zancanelli asked the candidates to declare their stance on the “homosexual agenda.”

“I would suggest to you that the homosexuals are not being discriminated against by not allowing them to marry,” said Zancanelli, of Arvada.

“I don’t believe they are equipped to consummate a marriage,” she asserted.

That last statement represents either a lack of experience or a failure of imagination.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Is Snowe vulnerable?

Ezra Klein looks over recent polling data suggesting 59% of Maine Republicans want to dump Olympia Snowe and opines:
Snowe isn't up for reelection until 2012. This polling shows that in 2009, at a moment of maximal heterodoxy, Snowe isn't popular among her state's Republican voters. But if she shapes up in 2011 and really nails the Obama administration? Hard to say. I can think of a lot of senators who have lost reelection in recent years. I can't think of any who lost because of a vote they cast three years before the campaign.
Maybe not reelection, but what about renomination? Joe Lieberman lost his party's nomination in 2006, arguably because of the Iraq War vote he cast in 2003. Hillary Clinton may have lost the presidential nomination in 2008 because of the same vote.

Voters, in general, have short memories. But party activists, the ones who reliably show up in primaries and raise money and volunteer their time for candidates, have extremely long memories. Three years is like three days.

*Now* you're incensed?

Too little, too late, Diana:

Health care reform's fragile chances took a turn for the worse Monday as pro-abortion-rights lawmakers led by Rep. Diana DeGette vowed to kill the bill if an anti-abortion amendment isn't stripped from the final version.

The drama played out for most of the day on cable television as pro- abortion-rights Democrats who were outmaneuvered over the weekend suddenly went on the offensive.

DeGette's point of maximum leverage was probably Saturday night. The bill passed with only two votes to spare. If DeGette and two allies had bolted, the bill would have failed. My guess is that the reconcilled version of the bill will have a bigger margin and there will be too much pressure on DeGette to stick with the party line.

Penry's out

Whoa. I figured the field would winnow, but not this early. But why, Josh? Why?

A source within Penry's campaign said there had been "back channel" meetings with both campaigns and the candidates since Election Day on Tuesday, the day Republicans won the New Jersey and Virginia governor races. Penry felt unseating Colorado's sitting Democratic governor was too important to risk an acrimonious primary, the campaign source said.

Additionally, Penry was facing fundraising challenges, especially with big money names in the state expected to start a powerful independent political committee not restricted by campaign finance limits. That message was sent to Penry, sources close to the campaign said.

The party decides again

Monday, November 9, 2009

Flu shots

I was a bit perturbed by this article in the recent Atlantic, suggesting that there's no evidence that flu vaccines actually work. The authors focus on a particular measure of effectiveness -- mortality rates during flu season. They cite some studies showing that when you properly control for all sorts of demographic indicators, there's no difference in the mortality rates of those who get immunized and those who don't. They go from there to argue that the flu vaccine does nothing (a big leap) and from there to claim that the H1N1 vaccine not only won't do any good, but will likely hurt people (an even bigger leap).

Dave Noon links to a very detailed and thoughtful response from Mark Crislip at Science Based Medicine. As Crislip notes, in order to believe the Atlantic article, you basically have to accept a few outlier studies and ignore roughly 15,000 others showing flu vaccines to be both safe and effective. It's an interesting examination of the difficulties researchers face when dealing with the media. Researchers deal in correlations, imperfect relationships, hedged statements. It's frustrating and slow but it's honest.
Remember in complex diseases and their treatment, it is the preponderance of data that guides what we do. Medical knowledge is cumulative and changing and rarely has a simple binary, yes/no, black/white, answer. Almost always the answer starts with a “it depends on.”
It's also a tough story to sell, especially when it's up against certitude.

Reading Crislip's post, I am filled with tremendous sympathy for medical researchers, particularly the ones whose job it is to design flu vaccines year after year based on very limited information. Political science research can affect lives -- poorly designed constitutions, for example, can lead to a great deal of human misery -- but the link is very remote. We have the luxury of arguing different theories and the use of different methodologies. The results matter, but they're not quite so urgent.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Policy responsiveness in the states

There's an interesting sub-literature out there investigating the question of how responsive state governments are of the wishes of their citizens. Erikson, Wright, and McIver (1993) found some nice evidence along these lines suggesting that we actually do get the government we want. States with liberal populations tend to get governments pushing liberal policies. Given all the intermediaries between citizens and their government, this is a pretty encouraging finding.

Jeff Lax and Justin Phillips have a very cool new paper examining this question in greater detail. They basically confirm the Erikson et al finding, but also note that some state governments are better at representing their citizens than others. As the authors argue,
there is a large “democratic deficit”— states are only successful at matching policy with opinion majorities about half of the time, and clear majority support is often insufficient for policy adoption. We find that certain political institutions, specifically legislative professionalization and term limits, enhance the opinion-policy linkage. Other factors, such as participation, electoral competition, and state culture, explain little.
The patterns are interesting. Check out this map that they produce. The black states have policies that are more liberal than their populations want. The white states have policies that are more conservative than their populations want.I'm wondering how much of this can be explained by party strength. Iowa, California, New York, New Jersey, etc., all have pretty strong political parties, and they might be pushing legislators toward policies that are more liberal than their voters are comfortable with. Southern states, though, aren't really known for their strong party organizations, so why are they producing out-of-step conservative policies? It's possible that there's a political culture argument here, even though the authors only find modest culture effects. A lot of southern governments are designed to be non-responsive. That is, they have short legislative sessions, weak governors, and other institutional rules (set up right after Reconstruction!) that make them resilient to shifts in public opinion.

Lax and Phillips have one other fun little finding in there:
As another way of picking up cultural differences, we tried a proxy (a long shot) for a state’s populist tendencies—the presidential vote share of William Jennings Bryan against William McKinley in 1896. A populist tradition could directly impact responsiveness or have shaped institutional development. Rather surprisingly, we find that there is a significant increase in the marginal effect of opinion for states with a higher Bryan vote. While not huge, the effect is significant and non-negligible.
How cool is that?

The 39

I'm suddenly hearing all sorts of lefty criticism for the 39 House Democrats who voted against the health reform bill last night. A few quick points:
  • The bill would be no better off with 259 aye votes instead of 220. It would still be the same bill today and it still would have passed. Legislation doesn't get bonus points for large margins.
  • Think about what would have been necessary to get those 39 votes. For example, Betsy Markey (D - Ft. Collins), who represents a somewhat right-leaning district, voted against it. What would it have taken to get her on board? Well, maybe she could have been bought off with some pork. Maybe the legislation could have been moderated in some way. Doing these things would have made the bill more expensive and possibly worse, with no positive benefit on the voting outcome other than a larger victory margin, which wouldn't have mattered.
  • It's in Democrats' interests not to make folks like Betsy Markey take stances that piss off her constituents. It will be hard for her to hold her district next year anyway; that task will only be harder if she has to cast unpopular votes on high salience issues like health reform. As Bernstein points out, the best situation for someone in Markey's position is to vote against the bill but still have it pass -- she doesn't have to take the unpopular stance, but she still gets the benefit of belonging to a party that looks like it can get things done.
Pelosi had a choice -- keep the Democratic caucus unified by pushing watered-down legislation, or push more liberal legislation with just enough votes for passage, letting the rest of the caucus vote their districts. Pelosi's decision to go the latter route strikes me as pretty smart.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Getting so much better

Jon Chait's post about the Weekly Standard (via Jon Bernstein) is quite good. He goes through an extensive list of examples from that magazine in which it advances no conservative principles ("We're winning" is not a principle) but just predicts that Republicans are forever poised for victory, predictions that are invariably proven wrong. Chait wonders why the magazine's readers continue to subscribe to a magazine that so frequently lies to them.

It's a good question. I can remember reading Ruy Teixeira's blog leading up to the 2004 presidential election. He kept making these arguments about how the polls underestimated Kerry's strengths, how turnout for Bush was going to be weak, etc. I had all the evidence I needed that pointed to a likely Bush victory (modest economic growth, small but consistent poll leads, etc.), but I chose to listen to these other arguments because they told me what I wanted to hear. I felt like a mark after the election and I never went to that blog again.

Do others like being lied to?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Does Ritter even want to win next year?

He's got a funny way of showing it.

Gov. Bill Ritter is expected to propose cutting state funding to public schools by as much as 6 percent in the 2010-11 budget he rolls out today.

That's a scenario the administration has considered, though Ritter officials say the cuts are likely to be closer to a 4.4 percent, or a $250 million, net decrease in total funding given to schools compared with the current budget year.

Education groups have said the move could violate Amendment 23, which requires education funding to increase every year by at least the rate of inflation.

I won't presume to tell the governor where to find the funds to balance the state's budget, because I really don't know. But to propose a 6% cut to K-12 education which might not even be constitutional strikes me as absurd. He'll take the political hit for under-funding schools and, if this proves to be unconstitutional, he won't even get the policy benefit. He'll look like a jerk, the constitution will save the schools, and the state will still be running a deficit.

Take a deep breath

Spencer Ackerman (via Scott Lemieux):
Hasan is alive. He will be interrogated and tried. We will presumably learn soon why he committed the cowardly actions he committed. Until then, those who speculate only reveal their own prejudices.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Who was disloyal in NY-23?

There's been some back and forth over the loyalties of various Republicans in New York's 23rd congressional district. I argued the other day that those who pushed Scozzofava -- the GOP's legitimate nominee -- out of the race to back someone who turned out to be unelectable were being disloyal to their party. I've heard others saying that Scozzofava was the disloyal one. After all, she dropped out and then endorsed the Democrat.

Over at the Monkey Cage, David Karol has a smart post on this topic. Says David,
I can also see how conservatives... would think that Scozzafava’s endorsement of Owens vindicates their attack on her in retrospect, but for politicians politics is often quite personal. Scozzafava is understandably embittered and her endorsement does not show that she would not have been a real Republican, albeit a moderate, had she been elected to the House. Her decade of service in Albany would seem to be more probative than her lashing out in anger following the extraordinary treatment she received. More speculatively, it seems less likely that she would have endorsed the Democrat had she simply been defeated in a GOP primary.
This sounds right to me. I try to put myself in Scozzofava's shoes. If a party had nominated me for a congressional seat, but then others in the party said they liked someone else and then publicly trashed my name, I think I'd be more than a bit pissed. And given a choice between endorsing the guy who replaced me and endorsing a moderate from the other party who's a lot closer to me on the issues, I might think about the guy from the other party.

Oh, and credit where credit is due, David was pushing the NY-23 race as an interesting example of internal party strife long before most other political observers (including me) were. Good on ya, mate.

Evidence-free lessons from the elections, part MDXXXVI

Michael Hudome has a novel interpretation of Tuesday's elections:
Here’s a simple, yet overlooked explanation for Republican victories in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races this week: President Barack Obama is overexposed.
The argument is that because Obama is always in our faces, he can no longer fire up his base by making local appearances. This could be interesting if true. Do we have any evidence that Obama is more exposed than previous presidents? Does he give more speeches or make more TV appearances? I don't think that's the case, but I'd be interested in seeing the numbers. Hudome doesn't offer any. Actually, he seems averse to the idea of evidence:

We can look at Obama’s historic drop in popularity and job approval ratings as compared with President Ronald Reagan and believe he’s also well-positioned for reelection.

We can thoughtfully analyze interesting historical numbers and argue their relative significance to Tuesday’s results.

That wouldn’t tell the whole story.

In the one metric that matters most — election results — Obama didn’t get it done.

No longer does his base find him interesting or worth paying attention to, let alone going to vote for his favorite candidate.

Well, it is noteworthy that Obama's advocacy for Corzine and Deeds didn't seem to pay off. But is this proof that Obama is overexposed or that his base finds him uninteresting? By pretty much every measure we have of Obama's base, they're still quite enamored of him. You know what would help -- if we had evidence of other presidents trying to help out governors in off-year elections.

So here's an interesting counter-example. In the fall of 2001, at the height of Bush's post-9/11 popularity, he declined to campaign actively for Republican gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey. Both contests went to the Democrats. Should Bush have helped his party's candidate's more, like Obama did? The evidence from both election cycles is more suggestive that, in off-year gubernatorial elections, it doesn't much matter what the president does. Similarly, early in Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial career, when he still enjoyed approval ratings in the 60s, he was flatly unable to affect state legislative elections, even though he campaigned very actively for several candidates.

So, no, Obama couldn't save his fellow Democrats. But there's not much evidence that any president could have. And there's certainly no evidence that Obama could have, if only he were less "exposed."

Anyway, Hudome's isn't the worst analysis I've seen. So far, Erick Erickson holds that prize. But we haven't heard from the Sunday talk shows yet.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The ultimate robo-call

The Bloomberg campaign, blessed with more money than it could spend (almost), tried something innovative this year with robo-calling:
His campaign came up with a scheme of precisely targeted calls, so that you might get a recorded call from your own building manager, or a call precisely keyed to language — older immigrant voters might get a call in their language, younger voters in English with an accent!
Of course, none of this probably made a difference to anyone but the now-flush robo-calling firms. Still, creative!

(h/t Yglesias)

Nobody tells me nothing

Hanson was on my campus yesterday. Why wasn't I informed, or invited to emcee?

With alien friends like these...

Okay, a pretty good start with the new "V" series. (Spoilers ahead!) The show takes some interesting twists on the original story. Yes, like before, a bunch of aliens show up in motherships and promise peace and friendship. And yes, they have a secret mission to steal our resources and enslave/eat us. But in the new series, it turns out that they didn't just show up overnight. They've had undercover "sleeper cells" on Earth for years. What's more, there are secret resistance movements already in place who are somehow aware of the sleeper cells. And the FBI has been tracking both these cells without understanding their agendas. Pretty cool.

My buddy Hans Noel predicted (based on early advertising) that this series would have kind of a rightwing framework. That is, while the original series was a Holocaust analogy, this one seemed to refer to the Visitors as beings who would lead us away from our faith and seduce us all with a false message of hope. In other words, the Visitors were the Obama campaign. And Hans was at least partly right. One of the things the Visitors promise, in an effort to win the humans over, is universal health care!

But it looks like the analogy is bipartisan. One of the things the Visitor sleeper cells have been doing all these years is making our society look bad so that they can ultimately save us. This has included "starting unnecessary wars." So apparently Cheney is a V. Good to know.

I do have some criticisms of the show. I rather enjoyed the more deliberate approach of the original miniseries. It took a few minutes to introduce us to the main characters before throwing aliens at them, so that we understood the relationship dynamics between them and how the arrival of the Visitors would change them. In the new show, the aliens show up in the first minute or two. Perhaps they'll give us some backstory later, but so far the plot and character development feel a bit rushed.

Also, I'll agree with Ana Marie Cox that the old uniforms were better. The new Visitors all look like the wait staff at a Wolfgang Puck restaurant.

Update: Jonathan Chait joins in the V-as-Obama-metaphor chorus. But he ignores that the Vs have been starting unnecessary wars. It's bipartisan, I tell you!

The predictive power of off-year elections

John Sides had an excellent and concise post last week cautioning us against over-interpreting the results of yesterday's elections or seeing them as predictive of elections in 2010 and 2012. The pundits, of course, ignored him, but it was nice to read the post anyway.

While I certainly endorse what Sides said, I should note a new article by Tom Brunell and David Smith forthcoming in LSQ. As the authors note:
We examine the predictive power of the results of special elections on the general election outcomes for the U.S. House of Representatives from 1900-2008 and find that those special elections that result in a change in partisan control do have predictive power for the general election.
As the scatterplot below shows, there is some significant relationship between special election victories and future general election victories. It's a noisy relationship, but it ain't nothin'.I still think the facets of the NY-23 race are too peculiar to lead us to expect Democratic victories for 2010. Still, the research is suggestive. Maybe we should cut the pundits some slack.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

On Bill Owens' victory in NY's 23rd

Here's what Owens' victory doesn't mean. It's not a sign of major national affirmation of Obama's agenda or foreshadowing of Democratic victories in 2010. Yes, it's pretty fascinating that this area will be represented by a Democrat in the House for the first time since the 1800s, but that has a lot to do with the unusual circumstances surrounding the race, like, say, the fact that the Republican dropped out last week and urged support for the Democrat.

So what does it mean? The real subject of interest for me has been the struggle for the Republican Party to chart out its future. As Jonathan Bernstein pointed out in the comment in my previous post on the subject, there are lots of dimensions of this struggle: pros vs. ideologues, locals vs. nationals, conservatives vs. moderates, media figures vs. party insiders, etc. But in general, the coalition of opinion leaders who were initially resistant to moderate Republican nominee Dede Scozzofava -- including Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachmann, and a number of Tea Party spokespeople -- needed to do two things to prove that they were the future of the party. They needed to push the moderate out of the race (check) and still get their chosen candidate, Doug Hoffman, elected (whoops). It was a somewhat risky strategy in that it sent a message that moderate politicians had no place in the party, but if they could win elections and remain ideologically pure, that's an ideal position for the conservative activists.

So now what they've done is proven the importance of ideological positioning -- if you nominate too extreme a candidate, you lose the election. So the folks in the Republican Party who sabotaged Scozzofava and rallied around Hoffman now look silly and more than a tad disloyal. They cost their party a seat in Congress.

Now, depending on the individual and the agenda, this may be a small price. Palin, for example, has endeared herself to conservative activists through her outspoken advocacy for Hoffman in this race, and that may serve her well as she seeks the Republican presidential nomination. Bachmann has elevated her profile. Rush reaffirmed his status as a GOP kingmaker (or breaker). And it's not like one seat in the House matters all that much right now.

Holistic optometrist, heal thyself

I'm still retching from this video. It hurts.

There's not much I can say that Orac doesn't cover, except to note that Dr. Werner seems to believe that the proton, neutron, and electron are constituent pieces of a cell.

(h/t Dave Noon)

Oh, and on a related issue...
Backed by some of the most powerful members of the Senate, a little-noticed provision in the health care overhaul bill would require insurers to consider covering Christian Science prayer treatments as medical expenses.
That provision comes to us courtesy of Orrin Hatch (who will probably vote against the bill anyway), by way of his friends John Kerry and Teddy Kennedy.

Holistic medicine and the U.S. Senate are high on my poop list right now.

Visual movie narratives from xkcd

Wow. (Click for larger image.)(Thanks to Lori and Little Seth for the link.)

The page one editorial

Please tell me how this is appropriate. Today, Denver voters go to the polls to decide on Initiated Ordinance 300, a measure that would require police to automatically impound vehicles being driven by people without a license. The measure would also, incidentally, impound any car being driven by an illegal alien. Some of the criticisms of this measure are that police can already impound vehicles if they feel it's necessary -- this would just mandate it and make life a lot harder on the poor schlub who goes out for bagels in the morning but leaves his wallet at home. (Not that I've done that.) Also, this can be seen as a backdoor way of cracking down on illegal aliens.

So, anyway, there's plenty for Denver voters to think about today when casting a vote on this measure.

This morning, the Denver Post chose to lead with the following headline, above the fold, in huge type:
Illegal Drivers' Havoc
The story goes on to claim that "more than 200,000 people might be driving illegally in Colorado, and such drivers were involved in crashes that caused nearly one-fourth of all state traffic deaths last year."

Now, I know the Post's editorial page has already come out against the initiative, but news and editorial staffs don't always see eye-to-eye, and today's front page sure seems like a way to move voters toward a yes vote.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Sending a message... to whom?

Jon Bernstein offers a somewhat different take on the Scozzofava-ing of NY's 23rd CD than I did. I had argued that a win is a win, and that if conservatives managed to drive the moderate Republican out of the race and still get a conservative elected, that's a real boost for them. Jon counters that such a win would send a message to moderates candidates that they're not welcome in the GOP, making it harder for the party to be competitive in moderate states and districts in coming elections.

Both stories may be true here. I guess I'm thinking of this in terms of the current Republican identity crisis. (No, I'm not going to call it a civil war, as I'm getting tired of military metaphors in politics.) Republican elites across the country are arguing with each other over the future direction for the party. Some folks (I'd put the GOP county chairs in the 23rd CD in this group) firmly believe in ideological positioning. They figure out where voters are and pick candidates accordingly, adjusting as events necessitate. If the voters move left, then so must they. Others (including Palin, Bachmann, and Limbaugh) want the party to stand for something consistent and believe they can win elections this way, or at least that some elections aren't worth winning if they have to compromise their beliefs to win them. There are other party elites who are still trying to figure out which of those courses is the right one.

For the Palin-Bachmann-Limbaugh group to assert its control over the party, it has to show that its kind of people can win in moderates districts. That's why NY's 23rd CD is such a great proving ground for them. If Hoffman wins, the unaffiliated Republican elites may look to the Palin gang and figure they know the score.

Most curious logic

Why does Orrin Hatch oppose Democratic-led health care reform? Because it will lead to socialized medicine. And why does he oppose that?
And if they get there, of course, you're going to have a very rough time having a two-party system in this country, because almost everybody's going to say, "All we ever were, all we ever are, all we ever hope to be depends on the Democratic Party."

That's their goal. That's what keeps Democrats in power.
Hoo-kay. So if socialized medicine were, in fact, a bad thing, wouldn't people figure that out after living under it? And wouldn't they they turn to the Republican Party to liberate them from it? It's interesting that he doesn't make that argument. Rather, he seems to fear that it will be popular. Democratic health reform is bad because people will like it. Thanks for clearing that up.

(h/t Atrios)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

I ate her liver with Scozzofava beans and a nice Chianti

I regret not having written down more about the special election in New York's 23rd CD. It's really a fascinating race, particularly in the sense that we can see the Republican Party -- broadly defined -- try to figure out who it is and what it stands for. Local Republican officials had backed the moderate Dede Scozzofava and the RNC followed suit, but a coalition of outsiders, including Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman, said no and publicly backed the more conservative Doug Hoffman. Now Scozzofava has dropped out of the race, leaving the contest to a moderate Democrat and a conservative Republican.

But let me just respectfully disagree with Frank Rich:
No matter what the results in that race on Tuesday, the Republicans are the sure losers.
This reminds me of those claims by conservative pundits that the 2006 congressional elections were somehow a victory for conservatives. Face it: a win is a win. The 23rd CD is a pretty moderate district. Although it's been held for a decade by a Republican, Obama actually won that district by 5 points last year. If conservative activists manage to replace a moderate nominee with a conservative one and still get that nominee elected in a moderate district, that is a pretty big win.

Bloody passion

I'm laid up with a flu or something right now, which gives me the rare opportunity to catch up on some films. I watched "Donnie Darko" (2001) yesterday, which has come well recommended to me by many people. It's really quite good, but very weird. Awesome cast, involving Patrick Swayze, Catherine Ross, and the Gyllenhaal siblings. See it if you can. I also watched most of "Dark Knight" (2008), which I've seen before, but it's still amazing.

But what I wanted to focus on was "Passion of the Christ" (2004). I found this rather disappointing. Not from a filmmaking perspective, of course -- technically, it was quite well done. Mel Gibson's use of scenery, costume, and music, and especially his the decision to have the cast speak entirely in Latin, Aramaic, and Hebrew, really gave the film a sense of time and place and realism that even "Last Temptation of Christ" (1988) didn't achieve, and that's one of my favorite films. So kudos to Mel on that score.

That said, the film was little more than a medieval passion play. With the exception of a few very brief flashbacks (the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper, Jesus building a table), the entire film spans the last few hours of Christ's life, during which he was almost constantly getting the crap kicked out of him. The film has an almost pornographic fixation with the violence being visited upon Jesus -- the soldiers punching him, whipping him, beating him with rods, tearing his flesh with hooks, etc. Blood is everywhere. It's actually hard to say whether actor Jim Caviezel does a good job portraying Jesus, since most of what he does is moan, wince, and fall down. The few breaks we get from the beatings are quasi-political moments when we see Pontius Pilate pleading with the Pharisees to let Jesus go, only to end up being bullied by the high priests into condemning him. Pretty much the only merciful people we see in the film are high-ranking Roman officers -- the rest of the cast consists of sadistic Roman soldiers being cheered on by crazed Jews. If Mel Gibson is trying to prove that he's not an anti-Semite, he probably shouldn't offer this film as evidence.

I guess I'm missing the point, but I have a hard time understanding the religious tradition of portraying one's deity being beaten to death. I suppose I'm not the film's target audience. Still, most artistic portrayals of religious figures are designed to at least sell the faith a bit. "Last Temptation" provided a very sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of Jesus. It had a profoundly emotional crucifixion scene, but it also showed the evolution of Jesus' philosophy and his own personal struggle to reconcile his human and divine sides. "The Ten Commandments" (1955) was pretty cheesy, but at least tried to demonstrate God's greatness. I can't imagine a non-Christian watching "Passion" and feeling like she wanted to learn more about Christianity.