Wednesday, December 30, 2009

States data

I've put together an updated dataset for use in my winter state/local politics class.  It's based on the data available at the Practical Researcher, but some of those numbers are getting a bit long in the tooth so I've updated them with more recent figures.  I've also added some recent elections data and a few economic indicators, including unemployment rates and per capita income for the past three years.  I also found some education indicators, including eighth grade proficiency scores on standardized tests.

At any rate, feel free to use it.  It's available in Stata format and .csv format.  The codebook is here.

The right of the people's butts to be unphotographed

Josh Marshall says he doesn't understand folks who are fine with surrendering the privacy of their phone calls, abandoning habeas corpus, and launching preemptive wars in the name of their own security but draw the line at airport body scanners that might catch a glimpse of their genitalia.

To me, it makes perfect sense.  Most folks willing to make those trades for their security don't think they're making a tradeoff at all. After all, they don't speak with terrorists over the phone.  They don't expect to find themselves accused of a crime.  And they, for the most part, don't serve in the military.  But they do fly on airplanes.

Liberty for me, not for thee.

Hot in herre

I'm just updating my old chart of annual average temperatures in the United States from 1895-2008.  Yeah, 2008 was relatively cool, but don't lose the steaming forest for the cold tree.

You can make that chart in under five minutes using Stata and downloading the data from the National Climatic Data Center.  They actually have their own graph generator, but the result is shockingly ugly:

I mean, you can sort of detect the trend, and you can see that the last decade was relatively hot, but all those red lines connecting the dots are meaningless, and it really doesn't give you a sense of the magnitude of the shift since the mid-20th century.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Questions about Iran

In a particularly good post, Marc asks a number of questions about Iran that seem quite relevant for anyone wishing to report on or pontificate about the current civil unrest there.  Here are some of them:
Does Iran manufacture its own small arms?
Does Iran manufacture its own electronic equipment?
If not, who provides the small arms and electronic equipment most essential to the success of the current crackdown?
What is the relationship of the Iranian Army to the Iranian police? Are they separate bodies? Do they have complementary motivations? What are the factions inside the Iranian police and military structure? Are there cracks?
Why are militias active? Does the Iranian government feel it necessary to distance themselves from the crackdown in this way? If not, what is the relationship of the militias to the uniformed security forces?
How many police are there and how heavily armed are they?
How hard is it to get a gun in Iran? Has the opposition made any statements regarding its opinions on force or violence?
Is the Iranian military clearly loyal to the current government?
How does health care work in Iran? Is a person involved in the crisis likely to go to a hospital if injured or ill, or avoid it to avoid authorities?
How are Iranian Kurds responding? Iraqi Kurds?
If electronic communication is unavailable is there evidence of efforts to communicate by traditional means like telephones or physically delivering information across borders?
Who, other than Mousavi and Ahmadinejad, is important in this story?
Marc admits he doesn't know the answers to these questions, but we begin to understand things by first knowing what questions to ask.  These seem like a good starting place.  Before the armchair warriors start issuing their own simplistic demands for what the U.S. should be doing, they might try asking and answering some questions along these lines.

Monday, December 28, 2009


I saw this at the Santa Monica Farmer's Market last week. Never seen
it before. Kinda cool.

Buy local, eat like a Russian

Good magazine wants to encourage people to buy foods grown locally, and they've produced this handy chart to help:

There are lots of good reasons to be a locavore, especially if you live in California.  If you live in Colorado, however, the only edible crop during the winter appears to be potatoes.  In the spring you can make a lovely potato and peach salad.  Woo hoo!

At least, I assume they're talking about Colorado.  It's hard to tell, since they've highlighted Wyoming on the map.

(h/t Ezra)

Selection effect

Please tell me that Denver's corrections officials aren't using these sorts of stats as evidence of the effectiveness of the Making Choices program in reducing the recidivism rate:
Over the past 10 years, the program has proven highly effective for the 450 women who have taken the training.
Prison officials say the recidivism rate is 54 percent for Colorado's prison population in general, but for women who graduated from Making Choices, it is just 12 percent. It drops to 8 percent for those who take a follow-up booster program, which 122 women have done.
"When I heard that, it blew me away," said warden Travis Trani, who arrived here months ago from a job as warden of Limon Correctional Facility.
One important, but unstated, piece of data would be the recidivism rate among female inmates as a whole.  (This study suggests that recidivism rates among female inmates are much lower than those of male inmates.)  But beyond that, how are inmates selected into the Making Choices program?  It may be that those who choose to enroll are already much more motivated than the average inmate to improve their behavior.  Unless they're being selected at random and forced to attend, we really have no idea whether it's an effective program from the evidence presented in this article.

This decade sucked

I've grown to despise most articles that attempt to sum up the last ten years.  They mostly just list a bunch of events or use a bunch of terms that begin with the letter "i".  But I think Paul Krugman really nails it when he notes that between 2000 and 2009, there was no net growth in the number of jobs, median household income, home prices, or stock prices.


New Agers and Creationists

In an interesting piece that has nothing to do with film reviews, Roger Ebert asks why the left has a double standard when it comes to New Age philosophy:
I move in circles where most people would find it absurd to believe that humans didn't evolve from prehistoric ancestors, yet many of these same people quite happily believe in astrology, psychics, reincarnation, the Tarot deck, the i Ching, and sooth-saying.
I'm not sure I quite get it, either.  My impression is that a lot of folks on the left see adherence to Christianity as a proxy for political conservatism, and they shun it.  New Age philosophy, meanwhile, is associated with elements of the left, so it's safe.  So people are reacting to the politics rather than the theology.  I honestly don't know what people on the right think of New Age philosophy, if they think about it at all.

Now just why we'd see creationists on the right and New Agers on the left isn't quite obvious, either.  I suppose a charitable explanation would be that folks on the far left define themselves, at least in part, through their rejection of traditional forms of authority.  So they reject the faith in which they were brought up, but still have the same spiritual needs (questions about origin, purpose, life after death, etc.) as folks on the right, so they join newer faiths that don't carry the same sort of millennia-old baggage.

Of course, some of these New Age faiths aren't so new anymore.  So are the children (or grandchildren) of the flower children adhering to the same spiritual practices, or do they rebel by joining more formal religions, or do they just become atheists or Unitarians or something?  Does anyone know of some decent sociological studies along these lines?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Preemptive strike

Shorter Joe Lieberman: We need to attack Yemen to prevent random Nigerians from igniting their pants over Michigan.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Democratic strategy for 2010?

Jon Bernstein has an interesting post suggesting that 2009 was a pretty bad year for Republicans.  I think it's kind of hard to tell these things while you're in the middle of them. I mean, Republicans were a lot more enthusiastic this year than they were in 2008.  It helps to have a target for your aggressions sitting in the White House doing things you don't like.  But I think Jon's right that the GOP has been bullied by its conservative base into taking stances and casting votes and backing candidates that are making the party less competitive.  The NY-23 race remains a fascinating case study.  Thanks to the tea party wing, Democrats managed to win a House seat that they hadn't held since the invention of the telephone.

I was talking with Greg Koger earlier today, and he was arguing that this would be a great strategy for the Democrats going forward.  They should do whatever they can to ensure tea party-backed primary challengers to Republican incumbents.  After all, the tea party folks have only a tenuous connection with the formal GOP.  To some extent, they view Republican officeholders as part of the problem.

Democrats should exploit that.  How?  By praising vulnerable Republican officeholders every chance they can for their commitment to bipartisanship.  Democratic leaders should go on the Sunday talk shows  talking about how helpful and constructive Sens. Collins, Grassley, McCain, McConnell, Shelby, Snowe, etc. have been on health care reform, energy policy, the stimulus, etc.  Sure, they often had to vote against these things, but they've still been in there negotiating, and we're proud to claim them as friends and colleagues, etc.  Maybe mention the friendly conversations they had with these folks at Christmas parties.  The idea is to make Republicans seem like part of the same hypocrisy.  I think Obama should devote at least a third of his state of the union address to praising Republican officeholders like "Teddy Kennedy's friend" Orrin Hatch.

The likely effect of all this probably wouldn't be huge, but it might fire up tea partiers to be even more critical of their officeholders and to seriously back primary challengers.  This either unseats Republican officeholders and replaces them with unelectable conservatives or it forces the officeholders to move so far to the right that they jeopardize their own reelection.

Democrats are likely to lose a dozen or two seats in the House regardless, but some of that could be mitigated by exporting the NY-23 model to other districts.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays to All

Why is partisanship bad?

It's amazing how quickly a solid article on party polarization can shift from descriptive to normative. Take David Herszenhorn's piece in today's NYT. He starts with an interesting observation:
The health care legislation was approved Thursday morning, with the Senate divided on party lines — something that has not happened in modern times on so important a shift in domestic policy, or on major legislation of any kind, lawmakers and Congressional historians said.
Fair enough. But then the article contains a series of diatribes by lawmakers about how bad a thing this is:
Many senators said the current vitriol, which continued on the floor on Wednesday with a fight over when to cast the final health care vote, was unlike anything they had seen. “It has gotten so much more partisan,” said Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, Democrat of West Virginia. “This was so wicked. This was so venal.”
Wicked? Really?
“There’s a tolerance level here for what we have just been through, and I think we have hit the tipping point,” said Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut. “It got rougher than it should. We are getting precariously close to fracturing an institution where no one wins, so I think we are going to be back on track.”
Well, if the Senate's an institution where no one wins, I say fracture it. But that's probably not what Dodd is saying.
Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, and chairman of the Finance Committee, said the political — and often personal — divisions that now characterize the Senate were epitomized by the empty tables in the senators’ private dining room, a place where members of both parties used to break bread.

“Nobody goes there anymore,” Mr. Baucus said. “When I was here 10, 15, 30 years ago, that was the place you would go to talk to senators, let your hair down, just kind of compare notes, no spouses allowed, no staff, nobody. It is now empty.”
Maybe the food sucks.

Even political scientist Ross Baker gets into the groove:
“It certainly is a culmination of a long period of intensifying political polarization,” Mr. Baker said of this year’s showdown over health care. “It has gotten so bad now that Republicans don’t want to be seen publicly in the presence of Democrats or have a Democrat profess friendship for them or vice versa.”
The theme is constant throughout the article. Partisan = bad. Yet nowhere in this article (or just about any other article I can think of) is it explained just why partisanship is a bad thing. How is our democracy better served by legislators who like to eat together? I certainly get it from the perspective of senators -- they have to work with the same people over and over again. It's unpleasant to be in a divisive work environment. But how much of what you believe in are you willing to surrender so that you can get along with your colleagues?

Finally, a key point: this sort of polarization is actually typical. The bipartisanship for which modern senators and David Broder pine was a brief historical anomaly in American politics. Matt Yglesias sums it up nicely:
It just happens to be the case that a lot of people alive today were acculturated to the unusual non-polarized politics of the 1930s-1970s in which the salience of racial issues scrambled partisan/ideological configurations. I think polarization is a good thing but even if you disagree the only proven way to minimize it is to have a large and influential white supremacist movement obtain substantial congressional representation.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A mensch is lain to rest

Thinking about Lee Sigelman today.

Romanoff's new campaign manager

Andrew Romanoff has hired Bill Romjue, a veteran of tons of Democratic campaigns (and also a veteran), as his campaign manager. A commenter at ColoradoPols digs up Romjue's bio:
Campaign manager on Dina Titus' gubernatorial campaign in Nevada during Fall 2006; earlier in 2006 was campaign manager on Bill Halter for Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas;

Ran John Edwards' primary campaign for U.S. Senate, 1998.

Managed the North Carolina campaigns for Clinton-Gore through the Coordinated Campaign.

Chief of staff to Rep. Dick Gephardt, planned and developed his 1988 presidential campaign, ran his political action committee, the Committee for Effective Government, starting in 1985, and served as his national political director.

Started working for Sen. Gart Hart in Iowa in the latter part of 1982, put together Hart's Iowa caucus campaign, was Midwest director on the presidential campaign, then deputy national campaign manager.

Finance director in Bob Kerrey's 1982 campaign for Governor of Nebraska.

State coordinator for the Carter-Mondale 1980 Iowa caucus campaign, and later deputy national field director.

Managed Chuck Robb for Lt. Gov. of Virginia in 1977.

Organizer in more than half a dozen states for the Carter-Mondale ticket in 1976.
More recently, he managed Joe Biden's Iowa campaign in 2008. Well, that's definitely experience, although it's hard not to notice that most of these campaigns were unsuccessful. Now that's not necessarily a bad thing. A campaign manager can run up an impressive win-loss ratio by only taking easy campaigns, and Romjue clearly doesn't go that route. He's not afraid of a difficult fight. On the other hand, it might be possible to read too much into this hire. As ColoradoPols writes,
This is a sign that perhaps Romanoff is getting things together enough for a real race, because it's hard to imagine that Romjue would uproot from Missouri just to lead a campaign that might sputter out in a few months.
I think Romjue's résumé speaks exactly the opposite. He has a history of uprooting for unsuccessful campaigns. But we'll see. Romanoff, for all his experience, doesn't have many serious primary battles under his belt, and Romjue might provide some needed perspective there.

[Disclosure: I am a Romanoff supporter.]

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The finger of God

Lightning pretty regularly strikes church steeples, to the point where manufacturers of church steeples offer ways of mitigating the effects of lightning strikes.

Probably something to think about before you start claiming that bad weather is how God weighs in on policy.

(via Atrios)

Friday, December 18, 2009

What English sounds like

Honestly, this is no less comprehensible than most Pearl Jam songs, and a lot more danceable.

Mike Littwin getting it wrong

I generally like Mike Littwin's column in the Denver Post. But today he goes all in with the Green Lantern theory of presidential power, blaming Obama for the fact that neither the public option nor Medicare expansion is a part of the Senate's health reform bill. Weak results ensue:
The real story is Barack Obama. This is Obama's bill. And the failures of the bill, however you grade it out, belong to him.
Okay, here we go. The reason that neither the public option nor Medicare expansion is a part of the Senate's health reform bill are that there were never 60 votes in support of them. Obama could publicly orate or privately cajole the pivotal senators until he was blue in the face and there still wouldn't be 60 votes for those provisions. He simply does not hold leverage over them.
He never publicly went after Lieberman. Or Nelson. Or Lincoln.
No, he didn't, and with good reason. Lieberman is not part of the president's party and actually campaigned against Obama's presidential bid last year. Sens. Nelson and Lincoln are from states where Obama and his agenda are deeply unpopular. Exactly how would the president's energies translate into votes here? What good would it do to threaten these senators? With what could he threaten them even if he wanted to?
Obama never threatened to take on the filibuster rule with reconciliation.
Of course Obama never threatened reconciliation; he's not a member of the Senate. And there's plenty of evidence that a majority in the Senate -- including quite a few Democrats -- would oppose this approach anyway.

Obviously, there will always be temptations to Tuesday morning quarterback the president on his negotiations with Congress. But critics need to think seriously about what, if anything, the president could have done that would have actually changed the votes of Sens. Lieberman, Nelson, or Lincoln.

If liberals are upset by the the concessions made to pass health reform in the Senate, they should direct their fire at the filibuster. This tool of the minority was once a rarity but is now threatened on almost every important piece of legislation the Senate considers, to the point that you now need 60 out of 100 votes to pass or even begin debate on anything. This means that even though the Democrats hold the majority in the chamber, no bill will pass that doesn't meet the wishes of the 60th most liberal member of the Senate, who is usually relatively conservative.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Following in Ronnie's footsteps

Well, so far, Obama's approval ratings are tracking Reagan's quite closely (Reagan in red, Obama in blue):
This portends an ugly first few years for Obama and substantial midterm seat losses but good long term prospects for Democrats... as long as Obama can avoid selling guns to Al Qaeda and giving the money to Acorn.

On the shelf

I saw my book on the "political science" shelf at Tattered Cover today.
To paraphrase Frasier, "Many great volumes have been written about political science. And I can honestly say, without fear of contradiction, that this book can stand on the shelf next to any of them."

There's no way campaigns matter that much

Via ColoradoPols, The Fix has named Republican Bob McDonnell's Virginia gubernatorial campaign as the Campaign of the Year. Why? Focusing on the economy and ignoring social issues:
From the start of the race, McDonnell had the message exactly right: jobs, jobs and more jobs. Everywhere he went, McDonnell talked about not only his commitment to create more jobs in the state but his plan on how to make it happen. His slogan -- "Bob's for jobs" -- was a little cheesy but it undoubtedly stuck in the minds of voters whose number one priority was the health of the economy and the need to bring more jobs to the Commonwealth...

McDonnell, learning from the mistakes of past GOP nominees Mark Earley (2001) and Jerry Kilgore (2005), almost never talked about his social conservative beliefs -- understanding, rightly, that it would alienate a critical segment of votes in northern Virginia and that even among his base of support there was as much interest in solving the economic crisis....
In winning so overwhelmingly -- 59 percent to 41 percent -- McDonnell helped revive the Republican party nationally but also provided aspiring GOP candidates with a campaign plan for how to win (and win big) in a swing state.
So the earlier GOP nominees lost because they focused on social issues, but McDonnell's emphasis on the economy turned a likely loss into an 18-point victory? Baloney. Isn't it more likely that that McDonnell focused on the economy because the overwhelming majority of Virginia voters were already focused on that issue, and it would be stupid to take prominent stances on issues that people aren't voting on? And doesn't it make more sense that voters would turn out the incumbent party's governor in a year when the economy has taken a nosedive?

McDonnell may well have run a tight, disciplined campaign, but his focus on jobs-jobs-jobs won't serve as much of a blueprint for years when voters actually care about other issues.

Primaries are rare

There's some debate over just how much agency voters have in primary elections. There's a fair amount of evidence that voters largely follow campaign spending and lawn signs in down-ballot primaries, since there's often not a ton of easily-accessible information available in those contests.

Whether voters are making informed decisions in primaries or not, it turns out they're not even getting to weigh in all that often. Below is a chart showing the number of state legislative primaries in Colorado by party since 2000. Keep in mind that there are typically between 81 and 84 state legislative seats up for grabs in a given election year (all 65 seats in the state house plus roughly half of the state's 35 senate seats).
The biggest year for primaries was 2000, when Republicans held primaries in 14 out of 84 legislative districts. In 2004, the Republicans and Democrats only held primaries in 4 and 5 districts, respectively. It's true that incumbents are usually unopposed in primaries, but even that doesn't explain the huge number of uncontested party nominations.

As the current U.S. Senate and gubernatorial contests are showing, the parties have grown quite skilled at forestalling primary contests.

Measuring candidate quality

My wife bought me Malcolm Gladwell's new book What the Dog Saw, which is really just a compendium of Gladwell's more interesting stories in the New Yorker, to which I do not subscribe because I only end up reading the cartoons and then feeling guilty about the long, excellent pieces of journalism lying unread.

Anyway, the first essay in the book is an October 2000 piece about Ron Popeil. It's fascinating. But there's one anecdote in there that struck me as particularly interesting. As a young man, Ron was convinced he was the best pitchman out there. His relative Arnold Morris felt the same way about himself, as did a man named Frosty Wishon. So the three of them decided to have a shoot-out at the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, MA. They alternated selling the same knife set in different shifts during a ten-day stint at the show. Popeil just edged out Morris, and both of them buried Wishon.

This strikes me as a promising example for political scientists who study campaigns. We often come up with rough measures of candidate quality -- whether they've held office previously, whether they've run for office before, how moderate/extreme they are, etc. But what we really want to know is how good they are. We just knew that Barack Obama was a better candidate than John McCain last year, but how do we measure that? An actual election has too many moving parts to separate out candidate quality. We need a shoot-out. Maybe try the Glengarry Glen Ross approach: put a bunch of candidates in the same room, give them a randomized list of voters and a telephone, and see how much money each of them raises. I don't know. There must be some way to do this.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Yes, this is the best health reform we can get right now

If you're a liberal who's grumbling right now about the tyranny of Joe Lieberman and the spinelessness of Barack Obama and feels, like Howard Dean, that the Democrats should scuttle health reform in its current form, let me recommend two posts to you. One is by Brendan Nyhan, describing the Green Lantern theory of politics (the idea that you can do anything with enough will). The other is by Jonathan Bernstein, talking about what would actually be necessary to get more liberal legislation passed.

The long and short of it is that there are not sixty votes in the Senate for a public option or Medicare expansion and there never were. The fact that the sixtieth most liberal member of the Senate is now the biggest veto player out there isn't, in my opinion, just or desirable, but that's what the rise of the sixty-vote Senate has wrought. If we had majority rule in the Senate, or if the Senate didn't exist, we'd have a public option right now. But that's not the world we currently live in.

Jonathan Ladd recently tweeted that the two parties seem to do things differently: Democrats are Krehbielians and Republicans are McCoxers. Translated, this means that when Democrats run things, legislation is determined by the median member of the chamber, and when Republicans are in charge, legislation is determined by the median member of the party. Translated further, this means that Republicans know how to enforce party discipline and Democrats don't.

There may be some truth to this, although I think we're really talking about differences in chambers. Pelosi has pretty consistently pushed through as liberal legislation as seems possible in the House. Reid is confounded by the fact that on controversial issues, he doesn't even have a functional majority caucus. There are 59 Democrats. Lieberman sometimes votes with them, unless he doesn't want to. To the extent you need 60 votes to do anything, Reid can't do anything. Applying pressure to Lieberman is useless and quite possibly counterproductive.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Lieberman and (Reverse?) Anti-Semitism

Jonathan Chait suggests that Joe Lieberman, much evidence to the contrary, is not really vindictive. Rather, he's just kinda dumb, which explains why he makes lots of claims that are totally unfounded or self-contradicting. The key, though, as Chait explains, is that the media treat Lieberman as intelligent because he's Jewish. A gentile making the same claims would be criticized as stupid.

This is a fun explanation, but I don't think it's true. John McCain is treated as an expert on many budgetary issues despite having no clear understanding of them. Olympia Snowe doesn't strike me as dim, but she's often treated as having some high principles of moderation even though she pretty much just wants to split the difference between the two parties. Bob Kerrey famously wandered around the Capitol deciding whether to vote for Clinton's first budget and was heralded as a sage for it. You don't need to be a Jew to get an undeserved reputation as a wise thinker in Washington. Being a centrist or a maverick is often enough. Lieberman fits this media narrative nicely.

My first book review

And it's a good one! By Matt Levendusky, forthcoming from Public Opinion Quarterly.

Colorado voter registration

Fred Brown had a column in yesterday's Denver Post arguing that Democrats are still looking good in Colorado.
Despite their president's many problems, despite the angry town hall meetings, the poisonous partisanship in Congress, the Tea Party movement and the "birther" billboards, Democrats continue to gain numbers in Colorado.
Since August, in fact — the month of those town hall near-riots — Colorado Democrats have managed to gain slightly each month. There are currently about 10,000 more of them than Republicans.
Let's look at the numbers, shall we? If you look at the total number of registered voters, there's remarkable stability over the past few months. And yes, the Democrats are maintaining a marginal advantage, although unaffiliated voters outnumber those of both parties.
But look at the breakdown among active voters (defined as those who voted in the most recent November election):
Most notable is the dropoff in December. This is due to the re-calculation of "active" status after November's election. Far fewer people voted this November than last November. What's also notable is that Republicans have maintained an advantage among active voters, even coming off 2008. And that advantage grew after last month's election, demonstrating that far more Republicans than Democrats turned out last month.

I don't know how incredibly meaningful any of this is. If voter registration determined electoral victories, Democrats nationwide would have held the presidency from 1932 to the present day. (Indeed, Brown reminds us that Republicans outnumbered Democrats by 165,000 voters in November of 2006, the month that the Democrats took over the governor's mansion.) Meanwhile, within Colorado, the number of unaffiliated active voters is roughly 25 times the size of the difference between the two major parties' active registrants. So these stats shouldn't be particularly comforting to either party.

But let me quibble with one of Brown's claims:
In such an evenly split political environment, candidates are wise to avoid the "wedge" issues. Strong positions on abortion, immigration, guns and gay marriage might fire up the fervid bases, right and left, but they turn off the moderate middle.
I think there's a misunderstanding of wedge issues here. Brown seems to be describing wedge issues as stances that your base likes but moderate voters detest. But that's not really what they are. As Sunshine Hillygus and Todd Shields explain in The Persuadable Voter, a wedge issue is one that keeps your coalition together but pulls over a few voters from the other side. And sometimes campaigns approach these issues in a very targeted manner. An evenly split political environment is precisely the environment in which wedge issues are employed. These issues won't work as well in an environment (like 2008) in which everyone is focused on just one issue (the economy), but when different groups of voters care about different sets of issues, it's possible for a campaign to pick apart the opposing campaign's coalition through the use of wedge issues.

Can one get a low-cost espresso machine that works?

I'm thinking of getting a new espresso machine, although I want to go cheap on this since I won't use it every day. In her indispensable holiday foodie gift guide, Megan McArdle says that's a mistake:
If you're not willing to pay upwards of $500 for something that can consistently deliver 15 bars of pressure, don't do it. You're essentially making very strong coffee, which is more cheaply and conveniently done by doubling the amount of coffee in your normal coffee machine.
And yet the reviews for this $40 machine are quite positive. Anyone have any experience in this area?

Compost Lieberman

I try to be mindful of the idea that we should not take politicians' statements at face value in the middle of negotiations. I have also long been a defender of Democratic leaders' efforts to keep Joe Lieberman in the Democratic fold despite his obnoxious behavior. But now he has promised to filibuster health care reform even after concessions have been made to keep him from filibustering health care reform. It seems to me that he is simply not negotiating in good faith. I don't particularly care whether his motivations are sincere (he has simply become much more conservative in recent years), self-serving (he likes being the center of attention), or vengeful (he just wants to deal liberals a loss) -- the result seems to be the same.

I might suggest that there is no longer any point in trying to appease him. Democrats should stop trying to keep him in the fold and should instead just cut a deal with Ben Nelson, Susan Collins and/or Olympia Snowe. My dream scenario at this point is that Harry Reid tells Lieberman the following offer:
My final offer is this: nothing. Not even the fee for the public option, which I would appreciate if you would put up personally.
And then dumps Lieberman as chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, replacing him with Snowe in exchange for her vote on health care reform. Yeah, it's a breach of protocol for a Democratic majority leader to appoint a Republican committee chair, but I'd frankly trust Snowe on national security a lot more than I'd trust Lieberman at this point. I'd also trust her more to follow through on a deal.

Any government that lasts for 1,000 generations is a successful one

Jonathan Bernstein jumps into an interesting disagreement between Matt Yglesias and Jamelle on the possibility of a successful galactic government. Jamelle is more or less saying that the kind of cruelty demonstrated by Palpatine was necessary for government to succeed:
I'm not so certain that the operating philosophy behind the Galactic Empire — that despotism is necessary to maintaining the peaceful cohesion of a galaxy-spanning empire –is entirely wrong...[T]he Galactic Republic — collapsed largely because it was too large to be effective. The Republic didn’t even possess the strength or legitimacy to handle a trade dispute on a minor core world, much less an existential threat like the Clone Wars.
Bernstein responds:
Surely, that's completely wrong. The Republic wasn't defeated because it couldn't handle a trade dispute or the Clone Wars; it fell because it was the victim of a monstrous conspiracy by Palpatine.... [T]he trade dispute, the clone wars, even the petty infighting and jealousy -- were all just part of Palpatine's plan.
Bernstein is quite correct on this, and also in noting that the Old Republic lasted for 1,000 generations while the Empire didn't even survive one. And it's hard to think of a governmental system that could have withstood Palpatine's treachery. He was an enemy (Sith) that the Jedi thought were extinct and that they couldn't even detect when he was right in their presence. It would be like if America suddenly had a president who was secretly a Communist... no, wait.

But it is worth noting that the Old Republic's successes came at a price. Near as I can tell from the films*, the Republic stayed intact largely by ignoring divisive issues like slavery. They mostly abandoned Outer Rim systems like Tatooine, leaving the local mafiosi in charge. And for a democratic republic, they seemed to place a great deal of authority in royalty. Okay, sure, Padmé was elected, but as a teenager, and for all her courage and beauty, she didn't appear to be a particularly skilled queen or legislator.

*Like Bernstein, I have not read the books, nor would I admit to doing so if I had.

Friday, December 11, 2009

More music - A Very Hatch Hanukkah

Enjoy "Eight Days of Hanukkah," sung by Rasheeda Azar and written by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who apparently wears a mezuzah around his neck. No, I am not comforted by that.

(h/t Dara Strolovitch)

Music break - Queremos el funk

Marc Herman just introduced me to Bandido, a Mexican funk band from the early 70s. (Check out his post explaining the historical significance.) Here they are jamming in either a hospital or a cafeteria. The music is awesome. At least stay with it to the sax solo.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Drink and a Film

My wife's been out of town for a few days, so after the kids go to bed, I've been catching up on some films she'd never watch. I'm also trying, largely unsuccessfully, to pair the films with drinks.

Night 1: "Terminator Salvation" and an Estancia 2008 pinot noir. This was by far the weakest of the Terminator films, although it was still reasonably entertaining. Good action, stunning special effects. In particular, there was one continuous shot done early in the film in which we see John Connor pilot a helicopter and get shot down while the camera moves from the outside to the inside of the helicopter. It's hard to tell whether this was a CGI trick or a truly badass piece of cinematography. Another nice special effect was the return of a circa-1984 Arnold. All that said, the dialogue was pretty weak and humorless and most of the characters seemed like rejects from "Beyond Thunderdome." Also, when did the resistance take on such a military appearance? They're driving submarines, flying A-10s, wearing uniforms, etc. The first movie made it look much more, well, like a resistance movement.

Anyway, "Terminator" films don't pair well with red wine, although I rather enjoyed the pinot. In retrospect, a stout beer would have been nice. Or Jägermeister. Something that looks like the crank case oil that pumps through the veins of cyborgs.

Night 2: "No Country for Old Men" and a Martell XO cognac. This movie definitely lived up to the hype. The dialogue, casting, acting, direction, etc., are all pitch-perfect. And it's deeply disturbing. It reminded me of a mid-90s article in the NY Times magazine about the nature of evil, which had focused extensively on "Pulp Fiction" and the Menendez brothers. This film would have fit nicely into that essay.

Mixed feelings on the pairing. Cognac is excellent for contemplating the nature of evil, but it didn't quite mesh with the West Texas setting of the film. A pale ale or bourbon might have done the trick.

Night 3: I'm tired and I want to go to bed.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


So far, Google Chrome for Mac is working great. And unlike Google Wave, I actually know what Chrome does.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The bloody primary

Interesting stuff about the potential Scozzofavafication of Scott McInnis in today's Denver Post. I tend to think that, in the end, McInnis will be able to mollify the teabagger crowd sufficiently to avoid a major challenge to his candidacy. But I remain curious about just what that crowd is willing to do. Could they really provide Dan Maes with enough support to make this a race? I'd bet Maes would do pretty well in the caucuses with teabagger backing, maybe well enough to bring on a real primary. But would they endorse a third party candidate in November? How far will they take this thing?

I also wanted to quibble with one point in this article:

McInnis unveiled a Platform for Prosperity on Nov. 23, in part to appeal to conservative voters, as he accepted the endorsements of two possible Republican opponents who bowed out of next year's gubernatorial race.

The move prevented what could have been a bloody primary and got top Republican leaders such as state Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry and state GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams on board with a general vision for a Republican governorship.

I'm not sure what a "bloody primary" looks like, but if it concerns the party insiders' chosen candidate getting torn apart by other Republicans, we've already got that. Shortly after the NY-23 election, David Karol did a post over at Monkey Cage describing the point of primaries:

Alan Ware has shown that part of the reason party leaders supported the creation of the Australian ballot and, some years later, the establishment of primaries was that they needed a nomination process that would appear legitimate to losers in order to minimize splits. Part of being a successful party is accepting that you fight your fight inside the organization and then respect its verdict.

The nice thing about a primary, even if your party's candidates trash each other, is that generally everyone acknowledges the outcome as legitimate. When party insiders elevate a candidate and proclaim him the nominee nine months before the primary, there's no finality to that. The people who lost in that race don't have to concede defeat. And they still have time to counter-mobilize, which is what appears to be happening here.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Handicapping the Colorado governor's race

Fox31's Ron Zappolo interviewed me regarding the governor's race, and also a bit on the Senate race. If you don't know Ron Zappolo, he, according to his show's website, "sits down with Colorado's biggest newsmakers, politicians, athletes and celebrities." And me.

Update: I just wanted to add that the interview, which I thought went well, was different from what I expected. Zappolo was treating the nomination stage as over for both the gubernatorial and Senate races, which I don't think they are. Romanoff's Senate candidacy should not be taken lightly, and McInnis may face some sort of challenge from the right. I figured I would be asked about this stuff, and I regret not volunteering the info.

Colorado's Gang of Four

Much has been and is still being written about Colorado's rapid shift from a red to a blue state. Journalist Adam Schrager and former state Rep. Rob Witwer have a new book coming out on this very topic. (I'll have a review up in the near future.) As an explanation for this shift, they argue that campaign finance reforms hampered both parties, but Democrats figured out a way around the reforms first:
In hindsight, what Colorado Democrats did was as simple as it was effective. First, they built a robust network of nonprofit entities to replace the Colorado Democratic party, which had been rendered obsolete by campaign-finance reform. Second, they raised historic amounts of money from large donors to fund these entities. Third, they developed a consistent, topical message. Fourth, and most important, they put aside their policy differences to focus on the common goal of winning elections. As former Democratic house majority leader Alice Madden later said, “It’s not rocket science.”
The idea that a party can re-assert itself amid reforms designed to kill it intrigues me to no end, and I'm trying to investigate just whether and how this occurred in Colorado. Those who've looked into the question end up focusing on the Gang of Four, a collection of wealthy liberals who donate to candidates and causes. The four consist of Rutt Bridges, Tim Gill, Jared Polis, and Pat Stryker. At least prior to Polis' election to Congress in the 2nd district, all of them were private citizens who nonetheless played a large role in funding Democratic causes and affecting who represented Coloradans in Congress and in the state legislature.

I'm just starting to investigate this group, but here's a network look at the Gang's donation patterns in Democratic state and federal primaries since 2006. The recipient candidates appear as red circles. I've limited the graph to those candidates who received donations from at least two of the Gang's members:Probably the first impression is that these folks are good at picking winners. They backed Betsy Markey, Cary Kennedy, Ed Perlmutter, Mark Udall, Angie Paccione, etc. -- pretty much only people who prevailed in the Democratic primaries. Although there are a few exceptions. Notably, they backed Peggy Lamm, who would ultimately lose to Ed Perlmutter. And three of them backed Joan Fitz-Gerald for Congress. The one who didn't -- Polis -- would end up defeating her in the primary.

Anyway, it's still hard at this point to figure out just how crucial the Gang's support was for these various candidates to prevail in primaries. I'll turn to that next....

Poor mega-donors

Am I nuts, or is this WaPo article describing the relative lack of White House access being granted to major Democratic donors make it sound like kind of a bad thing?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

When Bush saved America from Cheney

I mentioned in a previous post my fascination with those odd little moments during the Bush administration when the president emerged as the voice of moderation, saving the country from a terrible action by the federal government. I heard about another such moment during this NPR interview with D. A. Henderson. Henderson was one of the physicians with whom the White House consulted when considering whether to immunize the entire country for smallpox shortly after 9/11 and the anthrax attacks of 2001.

As Henderson explains, he and his colleagues advised the White House that it would be a mistake to immunize. The threat of a weaponized smallpox attack was probably not great, and mass immunization would kill an unacceptable number of Americans (roughly one per million immunized). But then he hears that the immunization is going to happen anyway, at the insistence of Vice President Cheney, and he is called to show up at the press conference announcing this policy decision. But once he arrives for the press conference, he finds out it has been canceled at the last minute.

And as we were later to learn - what happened? Why did we not have this program? And I was told later, and it became evident, that the president had intervened and said, we will not.


I had been with the president up to Pittsburgh - this is George W. Bush. He'd given a speech. And flying back, he's - we spent an hour talking about biological weapons and what we are doing and that sort of thing. And we talked about the vaccination and how would we stop an outbreak and what was the danger or the risk. And he took no notes, just sat in front of the big desk in front of Air Force One, and I didn't see him again for probably five, six months. And it was during this time that, apparently, he'd decided to overrule the vice president. So, very interesting.

Read that second-to-last sentence again. "He'd decided to overrule the vice president." We saw that same sort of thing when Bush rejected Cheney's urgings to deploy the military domestically and when Bush parted with Cheney over warrantless wiretapping. I don't purport to be a presidential historian, but I can't think of a similar relationship between a president and his vice president. Presidents may seek the advice of their vice presidents, but only during the Bush administration did the vice president lay down the law, with the president occasionally coming in to overrule him.


Robert Farley has a nice review of Daniel Heller-Roazen's new book The Enemy of All, which is about the legal treatment of piracy. Sounds pretty interesting. Farley addresses a question that I've wondered about for some time:
I'm quite curious regarding how the term pirate came to be associated with violations of intellectual property law. Why are people who steal music "pirates," rather than "thieves?" I'm not a pirate when I steal a DVD from Wal*Mart, but I am when I download the same movie from the internet. I suspect that the answer is relatively straightforward; the internet resembles, in its lawless nature, the sea. Thieves operates in a space where law exists and can (at least theoretically) be enforced, while pirates operate outside the law.
Sounds about right to me. Although I fear the medieval justice that will be meted out to me when the feds discover the copy of Kim Wilde's "Kids in America" I downloaded in 2002.

On the importance of collective action

If just one person starts to care about the environment today and starts recycling, and she tells her friends, and they tell their friends... we'll still all die horribly. That's the interesting message from Mike Tidwell today (via Yglesias). Basically, individual greening campaigns in which we try to guilt ourselves and our friends into environmentally responsible actions won't do crap, and they may make things worse by convincing people that the problem is being dealt with, which it isn't. The only way massive public problems get dealt with is through government action:
Look to the history of the civil rights struggle. After many decades of public denial and inaction, the civil rights movement helped Americans to see Southern apartheid in moral terms. From there, the movement succeeded by working toward legal change. Segregation was phased out rapidly only because it was phased out through the law. These statutes didn't erase racial prejudice from every American heart overnight. But through them, our country made staggering progress. Just consider who occupies the White House today.
Tidwell's advice: Take the time you'd spend installing compact fluorescent bulbs and instead use that time to lobby a member of Congress about the environment.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Is the White House publicizing this?

They should be. Check out Steve Benen's homemade graph (via Ezra) of monthly employment declines. Note how the turnaround begins basically the moment Obama takes office. Economic and political cycles rarely coincide this well. Might as well exploit it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


Nice details over at ColoradoPols about the latest turn in the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Basically, it looks like a group of insiders managed to force the other possible candidates out of the race and rally around a chosen nominee (Scott McInnis)... who was unpalatable to the tea partiers. (McInnis is a rather recent convert on a few key conservative issues.) Then Fox called McInnis the tea party candidate, which has led the tea partiers to counter-organize.

Taken by Trees, "Sweet Child of Mine"

I always knew there was a beautiful ballad hidden in there. Sheryl Crow tried but kind of fell apart with the "Where do we go?" section. But this nails it.

Pirate Radio

"Pirate Radio" was not a great movie. It covered a great topic, but the movie just couldn't figure out what it wanted to be or say. As my friend Nancy said, it was a really confused cross between "Almost Famous," "Titanic," and "Austin Powers." I'd throw "Good Morning Vietnam" in there, as well, as that movie nicely portrayed DJs as rebellious heroes. "Pirate Radio" sought to do that, but ended up just making them look like a bunch of horny, pot-smoking creeps who like listening to music. That's a fun lifestyle, but it ain't heroic.

For reasons I don't quite get, Roger Ebert liked the film. But I thank him for referring me to "Radio Caroline," under the "Alternative Rock" category on iTunes radio. Good mix.


Regarding DPS' decision to hire a marital counselor to help them deal with factional strife, ditto what Susan Greene said:

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for good therapy and have no doubt that certain board members need it, urgently.

What bugs me is the boneheaded idea of spending tax dollars on politicians' bruised egos while Denver students with real problems are facing slashed services.

Marital counseling for elected officials who have worked together for less than a week? Really now, school board. Buck up.

Word. If members of the school board feel they need to create some sort of civility codes to keep meetings functional, then fine, go do that. But please don't spend our money on group therapy. People have disagreements over the best way to run a school district. They will argue with each other and attempt power plays to control the agenda. It's called democratic government. There are plenty of alternative forms of government that don't allow disagreement, but there are significant costs associated with them.

Shoulda put a ring on it

In the spirit of a previous post, here's another cool cover of Beyoncé's "Single Ladies," this one my Erin McKeown. (h/t Atrios)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Local politics -- the gift that keeps on giving

There are two fantastic stories in the local section of today's Denver Post. The first concerns an interesting skirmish that occurred at the Monday night meeting of the Denver Public School Board. If you missed it, the skirmish concerned the board's addressing of several issues that were hot topics during last month's board elections. The lame duck board had planned to deal with these issues and then inaugurate its new members at the end of the meeting.

One of the newly elected members, Andrea Merida, decided she didn't want to wait and sit through a controversial meeting in which she couldn't participate, so she went to a district judge earlier in the day and had herself sworn in early. This prompted lots of anger and tears at the meeting. ColoradoPols derided Merida's move as a shameless power play, although see Steve Balboni for a much different take.

At any rate, the board has now decided to hire a marriage therapist to help it deal with factional strife. I swear to God I am not making this up. If Obama is serious about post-partisanship, he should refuse to sign another bill until Congress sees a therapist.

Oh, the one other story is that a city initiative to form a seven-member commission to study UFOs has now received enough signatures to be placed on next August's ballot. While I plan to vote against it, I'd really love to be on this commission should it pass. I'd like to think of myself as the Dana Scully of the group.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Better letters to kids, please

My kids' elementary school has pictures and letters from President and Mrs. Obama on display in the hallway. The one from the First Lady is nice, and even seems a bit personalized. The one from the president is pretty weak, though.It starts with "Dear Students." No attempt to personalize the address line. Okay, that's fine, the White House is getting millions of letters from schools. I get that. But the sucky part is the second paragraph:
On January 20th, Americans spoke with one voice, choosing hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.
How exactly did Americans speak with one voice on January 20th? They didn't. Language like that usually refers to elections, when Americans speak through their votes. That whole line sounds like it was originally on campaign letterhead and referred to November 4th of 2008.

Having worked in the White House Correspondence Office, I totally get that they're overwhelmed, particularly in the first few weeks, and just need some simple language to get a response out the door. And, in a pinch, they probably borrowed some campaign language, which I think we did in the early days of the Clinton administration. But they needed to do a bit better than this, especially since this response went out in June. The language above doesn't even make sense, and I'm not sure why kids need to hear it.

Term limits absurdity

This Capitol Weekly article makes it sound like Assemblyman John Perez (D-Los Angeles) is going to be the next speaker of the California Assembly. It's not a done deal, but other candidates are dropping out, and he's got a good shot.

As it happens, Perez and I knew each other in college. We both worked for ASUC President Tisa Poe back in 1989-90. I ran into him last summer at the Democratic National Convention. He mentioned to me that he had won his party's nomination for his L.A. Assembly seat, and that the overwhelming Democratic bias of his district made his election all but certain by that point. This was fifteen months ago. He's been in the Assembly for less than a year now, and he's already being talked about as the next speaker.

Of course, this makes perfect sense in a legislature where members are limited to just six years in office. The only way to get a speaker who can serve more than two years (and theoretically accrue a modicum of power) is to select a freshman for the job. Nothing against Perez, but the idea that a party can thoroughly vet a potential speaker or that a legislator can build enough networks or goodwill to be an effective speaker in just one legislative session seems a bit absurd. But, hey, go for it.

Should public policy reflect public opinion?

One of the arguments Republicans have been making against health care reform in general, and the public option in particular, is that public opinion is strongly opposed to it. As it turns out, public opinion on the public option is difficult to divine. Support seems to vary strongly with question wording, and most voters don't have a real sense of what the public option even is. But let's assume for the moment that the Republican claims are correct. Shouldn't public policy reflect public opinion?

Larry Bartels provides some interesting data on that question in his recent book Unequal Democracy (2008, Russell Sage). He shows that the repeal of the estate tax -- a move widely derided by economists, liberals, and others as overwhelmingly benefiting the wealthy -- was, in fact, consistent with public opinion. As far back as we can discern, the public has consistently opposed the estate tax. Republicans sought for years (indeed, throughout the entire 1920s) to repeal it, but those moves were stymied by Democrats through their control of congressional committees, their use of the filibuster, and the threat of presidential vetoes. Only when Republicans controlled the House, Senate, and White House in the mid-2000s were they able to push the repeal through.

Similarly, increases in the minimum wage have basically always held the support of large majorities of the public, yet they rarely pass, and the minimum wage is now worth considerably less in real dollars than it was in the early 1970s. Republicans used the levers of power, even those available to the minority party, to stop or slow down minimum wage increases despite their popularity.

Bartels also notes that the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides assistance for the working poor, was created and has thrived for decades even though the public, to the extent it understands it, holds only tepid support for it.

In these cases, elected officials pursued what they believe to be good public policy while largely ignoring public opinion. Notably, at least in the case of the estate tax, public opinion seems deeply misguided -- voters opposed the tax either believing that it affected them (it only affected the top 2% of earners) or that they might someday be wealthy enough to be affected by it (there is very little social mobility in the U.S.). Regardless, for years politicians stood to benefit by giving the public what it wanted, but chose not to.

These examples remind me of the West Wing episode ("Lame Duck Congress," Season 2) in which the president pushed for, but the Senate failed to pass, a nuclear test ban treaty, despite its backing by 82% of the American people. As Bartlet later rationalized,
This is one of those situations where I couldn't give a damn what the people think. The complexities of a global arms treaty, the technological, the military, the diplomatic nuances, it's staggering.... 82% of the people cannot possibly be expected to reach an informed decision.
Obviously, a democratic republic should be biased toward following public opinion, but there are legitimate cases for ignoring it. The trick is figuring out when.