Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Quidditch Cake

So my son wanted a Quidditch stadium cake for his birthday.  I was happy to oblige.  I based it partially on this one and some images from the first Harry Potter film.  The towers are made of Twix bars.  The goal rings are orange gummy rings.  The rest of the cake is basic Duncan Hines yellow cake.  I had vowed that my towers wouldn't lean, but of course they did.  In the future, I'd probably use either a lighter tower structure (Kit Kats or ladyfingers, maybe) or a firmer cake.

In terms of frosting, up until a few years ago I was buying this nice buttercream stuff from a local pastry shop.  It was great to work with and very tasty, but it was expensive and had a short shelf life.  So I started cheating a bit by using Duncan Hines whipped frosting and pushing it through a pastry bag.  That worked okay.  Then this year they changed the formula.  If you like to use Duncan Hines frosting with a pastry bag, do NOT buy the frosting labeled "Great New Taste! Easier to Spread!"  I do not know what sorts of chemicals they used to make it easier to spread (and don't really want to), but it made for a very messy experience.  Frosting kept squirting out of the top of the bag, getting all over the table and my clothes.  And it made the cake all the more fragile.  I'm going with the gourmet crap next time.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The message war

I love the "Week in Politics" segment on NPR with E.J. Dionne and David Brooks.  They're both quite cordial and unusually eloquent by pundit standards, and they're also very bright.  But I took issue with some of the things they were saying this week.  They were advancing a media narrative that claims that Obama lost the "message war" with the Republicans over the past year.  Here's E.J.:
If you look back at the last year, politically, the Republicans won the two big definitional arguments of 2009 on the stimulus and on the health care bill. Were the Republicans obstructionists? Yes. Did they offer new ideas? No, but they did win the message wars.
How do we know any of this is true?  What does it even mean to lose the "message war"?  And I don't mean to single out Dionne with this -- I've heard this coming from a lot of political observers.  I suppose if you asked any of them what it means, they'd say that Obama offered one message to voters this past year ("Government can help you" or something) and Republicans offered another ("Government help is socialism and socialism is evil" or something).  And since Republicans won off-cycle elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, this proves that the Republican message is resonating with voters and the Democratic one is not.

To which I can only ask, don't you think the economy had something to do with this?  The jobs situation continued to sour throughout 2009, and Democrats are now seen as the party in power, so it's really not shocking to find that voters are blaming the Democrats for their economic woes.  If Obama had somehow managed to sustain seven percent economic growth throughout 2009 and managed to reduce unemployment from 8 to 4 percent, I'm guessing at least two of those special elections would have gone the Dems' way, regardless of who was arguing which message.

I'm not saying messages are meaningless (they might matter in close elections), but neither are conversations like the one Brooks and Dionne were having.  It's quite possible that Democrats have the right message right now and Republicans have the wrong one, but it's hard to tell because the economy speaks so loudly.  If they take the advice of these pundits seriously, that could lead the parties into error.

Friday, January 29, 2010

"I forgot he was Na'vi tonight for an hour"

[There be spoilers ahead.  Arrr.]

Okay, I finally saw "Avatar" last night.  (I had to go regular 3D, as the IMAX version was sold out, a month after opening.  Impressive.)  Let me just start by saying, yeah, it's really good, and I didn't mind paying $13 for the experience.  The visuals alone make it worth the price, but the story is coherent and compelling (if predictable) enough to keep you engaged for 2.5 hours.  The combination of the two mostly make up for the crappy dialogue, casting, and acting.

I was impressed with how overtly political (and left wing) the film was.  Unless I've missed it, there's been surprisingly little conservative blowback against this very mainstream action film that so openly portrays Earthly (read: American) corporations as exploiting and killing an indigenous people to recover a valuable mineral and the military (well, mercenaries) being used to serve corporate interests.  The only human good guys are scientists and a rogue marine or two.

The plot is, as has been mentioned by others, very similar to that of "Dances with Wolves," although that film really didn't get into the agenda of the white people.  Whether it was for territorial conquest or profit or religious mission or whatever, the white people were just coming, and the Lakota had to figure out how to deal with that.  "Avatar" was much more specific about the Sky People's agenda.  Karl Marx couldn't have written it better.  Another point of contrast between the two films is that Jake Sully's version of "going native" is much more complete than John Dunbar's.  Dunbar married... another white person, while Sully actually physically becomes a Na'vi.  One thing that I think makes "Wolves" a superior film is that it actually has a sad ending.  Stone Age tribes with bows and arrows going up against Space Age soldiers with missiles and flame-throwers generally get cut down like grass.  With that kind of an ending, you have cultural commentary.  With "Avatar"'s ending, you have fantasy.

SEK argues that the film is racist, and that the Na'vi themselves are racists:
The Na'vi are not merely distrustful of "the space people," they're inherently xenophobic, incapable of trusting any sentient being that doesn't look like them. If that mistrust is justified for some other reason (like a hairy first contact), the film never mentions it, meaning (in a classic case of projection) the humans assume that the Na'vi will be xenophobic before they even meet them.
I disagree.  Or at least, we don't have sufficient data to make such claims about the Na'vi.  We can probably assume that Earth people have been their first extra-worldly contact, and there's plenty of evidence early in the film that there have been lots of skirmishes between the Na'vi and the Sky People. The Na'vi don't seem to be xenophobic so much as distrusting of a) those who cut down their trees and mine their land without permission; and b) those non-Na'vi who disguise themselves as locals.  Such distrust seems entirely reasonable to me.  It's hard to know whether conflict bred racism or racism bred conflict in this case.

In a fine essay, Robert Farley draws useful comparisons between "Avatar" and "The Mission," although I was struck by "Avatar"'s thematic similarity to earlier James Cameron films.  The "Alien" series had a relatively dim view of scientists, but "Aliens," the one Cameron directed, redeemed the dispassionate researcher -- Bishop was one of the film's heroes.  And while the military was being used to advance corporate interests, it did so unwittingly; the marines thought they were coming to rescue civilians.  It was the company that was evil, sacrificing humans to bring back valuable alien embryos.  Similarly, "The Abyss" (whose lame ending prevented it from being one of the best sci-fi films ever), featured scientists working to protect an alien species from a paranoid rogue Navy Seal with a nuke.  Cameron seems to have ambivalent feelings about the military.  The marines in "Aliens" are portrayed quite favorably, but that training and firepower seems to be easily compromised and perverted by mental illness or corporate interests.

Cameron also seems to have ambivalent feelings towards women.  "Aliens"'s Ripley and "T2"'s Sarah Connor are two of cinema's great feminine badasses.  Indeed, his films usually have some strong female characters in them, although they get compromised in weird ways.  (Think about Ed Harris saving Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's life by repeatedly punching her in the face.)  "Avatar" had some weird stuff along these lines, too.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

SOTU impressions

I'm not sure I have that much to add to what others have already said about the president's speech.  Personally, I was impressed.  In some ways, that seems easy -- Obama rarely fails to deliver when a good speech is needed, and the SOTU environment is a pretty easy one to thrive in.  But my expectations had been lowered in the past two weeks by the White House's absurd over-reaction to Scott Brown's win in Massachusetts and by pre-speech hype which all focused on a bizarre spending freeze.  Obama more than met my lowered expectations; he actually delivered what was one of the better SOTUs I've seen.  I'd also add that this one was unusually fun to watch.  There was a lot of back and forth with the Congress.  The audience was lively, even occasionally abrasive, and Obama actually seemed to be having fun with it.

A few things stood out for me, mainly on the rhetorical side.  One was the lengthy, somber beginning, in which he went on for several minutes without an applause line explaining the causes and persistence of our economic woes.  Presidents are supposed to say that the state of the union is sound, even when it's not.  I was bothered when Bush opened his 2002 address by saying "the state of our union has never been stronger," even while we were mired in recession and war and while crews were still picking pieces of two of the world's tallest buildings out of a hole in lower Manhattan.  So I appreciated the departure from tradition here.  It seemed appropriate and useful.

And the closing of the speech was incredibly strong.  I liked this line:
Democracy in a nation of three hundred million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That’s just how it is.
I've been annoyed when politicians -- Obama included -- describe partisanship as something akin to bad manners, as though there weren't sincere policy beliefs behind it.  Tonight, Obama said that partisanship is something to be expected.  It's supposed to be this way.  He didn't quite say it, but it's a sign of a healthy democracy.

No, maybe you shouldn't

Chris Matthews is such a weird man:
On MSNBC News Wednesday night, "Hardball" host Chris Matthews had an idiosyncratic take on President Obama's first State of the Union. He told Keith Olbermann that during Obama's speech, "I forgot he was black."
Matthews seemed to be trying to articulate how Obama had moved beyond race. "He is post-racial by all appearances. You know, I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. You know, he's gone a long way to become a leader of this country and passed so much history in just a year or two. I mean, it's something we don't even think about," Matthews said. "I was watching, I said, 'Wait a minute, he's an African-American guy in front of a bunch of other white people.' And here he is. President of the United States, and we've completely forgotten that tonight. Completely forgotten it. I think it was in the scope of his discussion -- it was so broad-ranging, so in tune with so many problems, of aspects, and aspects of American life that you don't think terms of the old tribalism, the old ethnicity."
He later added, "Maybe I shouldn't talk about it."


The LA Times has the SOTU wordle up.  "Health" is a lot smaller than "people," "jobs," or "businesses," but it's there!  (h/t Kyle)



Isn't it ironic?

Yeah, I really do think.

A plurality of Massachusetts union members voted for Republican Scott Brown over Democrat Martha Coakley.  As a result, Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority, and the Employee Free Choice Act, a major priority for unions, is probably dead.

(h/t Steve Balboni T.R. Donoghue)


The Economist's Ryan Avent, on Obama's proposed partial budget freeze:
Through bad times and good times for the president, there was one word I never associated with him and his approach to the challenges facing the country: gimmick. But this is a bright shining gimmick that advertises a lack of seriousness to both near-term economic weakness and long-run budget problems. This is decidedly not what is needed right now. If this is the best the president can do, Democrats, and the country, are in for a very long few years.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

There is no spending freeze constituency

Let me just suggest that no members of Congress, with the possible exception of Tom Coburn (R-OK), are actually deficit hawks.  Many of them will talk a good game about responsible budgeting and reducing spending, yet so many of them who say these words will nonetheless support agricultural subsidies, increased defense spending, federal projects in their states, etc.  And you pretty much never hear them championing raising taxes, which is one of the two ways you can reduce deficits.  It's isn't that they don't like spending; it's that they don't like who's doing the spending and where the money is going.

Similarly, there are no real deficit hawks among the population at large.  Yes, there are some very vocal conservatives who are angry at runaway federal spending right now, but most of those folks were happily on board with President Bush's tax cuts, a preemptive war, and a massive and unfunded expansion of Medicare just a few years ago.  And while I'm sure some polls today suggest that independent voters are concerned about spending and deficits, I think that's true only in the abstract.  Yes, we're all deeply concerned about the government spending more than it takes in, but what specifically do people want to cut?  Medicare?  Social Security?  The military?  Education?  Suddenly the deficit hawk caucus disappears.  No one favors specific cuts.

So I'm really not sure whom Obama is trying to impress with his freeze talk.  Maybe he figures he can mollify those in favor of non-specific cuts by offering some non-specific cuts.  But as soon as he proposes cutting something that anyone actually likes, the party's over.  Yeah, cut spending and balance the budget, but you'd better not raise my taxes/cut my Medicare/defund our schools....

An "excellent new book"

That's how Jack Pitney refers to my book.  His words, not mine.  You can read the review here.

Monday, January 25, 2010

King Corn

I'm a few years behind everyone else on this, but I'm finally reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.  The first section, which is almost entirely about corn (with a bit of beef thrown in), is fascinating.  What I particularly love is the portrayal of an entire system that is clearly insane but whose component parts seem entirely rational.

That is, if you're a farmer, it makes perfect sense to plant more and more corn each year (despite how destructive it is to the soil), since potent fertilizer is cheap and you're virtually guaranteed some kind of return on the investment thanks to government intervention.  If you raise cattle, it makes perfect sense to feed them corn (despite the fact that they're built to digest grass and that corn causes all sorts of health problems for them) because it's so cheap and because it helps them reach maturity so quickly.  If you manufacture soft drinks, it makes sense to use high fructose corn syrup rather than cane sugar because it's so much cheaper.  Et cetera.  Yet in the aggregate, we have a national agricultural policy that is forcing us to over-produce corn and then to figure out what to do with all the excess biomass.  So we work more and more corn into our diets and into the diets of the animals we eat.

Individually rational, collectively bonkers.

Going to the Mattresses

Political scientist Greg Koger on NPR's "Fresh Air":

Friday, January 22, 2010

They can't both be right

Okay, this is a technical post, but I don't know the answer.  Keith Poole uses the NOMINATE program to turn roll call votes into ideal points.  Simon Jackman uses some sort of Bayesian analysis to perform the same task.  Usually, the two methods yield pretty similar results.

Yet Poole's approach finds that Russ Feingold of Wisconsin is the most liberal Democrat in the U.S. Senate, while Jackman's approach finds that Feingold is the fourth most conservative Democrat, sandwiched between McCaskill and Webb.

What's up with that?

Why can't Obama be more like that nice Reagan fellow?

Great posts from John Sides and Jonathan Bernstein.  Must reads.

Snow White

So I watched "Snow White" with my daughter yesterday and had an interpretation of it that I haven't seen before.  Maybe it's unoriginal, maybe it's stupid.  You make the call.

Anyway, if you recall the story, Snow White is a princess, but her evil stepmother the Queen is jealous of her beauty.  The Queen's whole job, it seems, is to be the most beautiful woman in the land.  It's all she talks about.  Then her magic mirror tells her that Snow White is more beautiful.  The Queen responds by ordering her huntsman to murder Snow White so that she can again be the most beautiful.  Yikes.

Anyway, the huntsman can't bring himself to do it.  So the Queen, upon learning this, figures she'll have to do the job herself.  So she disguises herself as an old ugly woman (ironic) and creates a poison apple for Snow White to eat.  But the apple isn't supposed to kill Snow White, just put her to sleep forever until she's awoken by true love's kiss.

WTF?  She just wanted to kill Snow White a few minutes ago.  Now she wants her to be terminally sleepy?  This makes no sense, unless you see "sleep forever" as a metaphor for death.  And, in fact, once Snow White eats the apple and passes out, the Seven Dwarves put her in a glass coffin.  A coffin.

So then the prince arrives and kisses her, at which point she arises from the coffin and they walk off to live happily ever after.  But in the final frame, we see the prince and Snow White climb a small hill and stare off into the distance, at which point the Prince's castle slowly materializes out of the clouds.  I don't think that's an earthly kingdom.  It's Heaven.  The Prince is Jesus.  You know, the Prince of Peace?

So Snow White didn't live happily ever after.  She's dead.

Anyway, that's how I saw it.  I should probably get out of the house once in a while.

Letting them filibuster

Welcome to our first installation of "Ask Enik."  Today's question:
Why don't the dems just let the Republicans filibuster health care? At first it would look like the R's are standing on principle, but the longer it goes on, the more time the Dem's have to calmly explain their position. Against the backdrop of Republicans reading the phone book into the Congressional record.
Well, it might work.  But one thing I'd suggest is that the Dems have had plenty of opportunity to calmly explain their position on health care, and they haven't done a particularly great job of it so far.  Polling suggests that most Americans actually favor the administration's health reform plans when those plans are explained, but the GOP has been far more effective in spreading fears about spiraling costs, death panels, etc.  It's not clear to me why the Dems would become more effective during a GOP filibuster.

Also, see Greg Koger's wonderful posts over at the Monkey Cage.  As he points out, senators made the decision a few decades back that agenda time was simply too valuable to let a few filibustering senators hijack it.  A truly effective filibuster could theoretically shut down the Senate for the rest of the year.  Congressional Dems and the Obama administration actually want to get some other stuff passed this year while they still have a (large) majority.

Finally, a true filibuster today probably wouldn't involve a whole lot of phone book-reading.  (I think Jonathan Bernstein posted about this, but I can't find the post.  Ah, there it is.)  Today, there are dozens of policy shops and hundreds of conservative writers who could generate days and days of material for filibustering Republicans to read.  Fox would likely televise many of the speeches live and portray the filibuster as a great patriotic act.  If anything, the Republicans would control the discussion during a filibuster more than they do now.

Campaign finance

Count me as one of the few political observers in this country not visibly excited or outraged by the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission.  And I'm somewhat puzzled by the reactions.  Here's one from Jason Linkins that strikes me as representative:
In one swoop, the court did away with nearly everything in federal campaign finance law, allowing corporations free reign to inject as much money as they jolly well please into federal campaigns.
Yet isn't this what reformers have been complaining about for decades?  Don't corporations already have such free reign?

Yes, officially, corporations have, until now, been prohibited from directly contributing to federal campaigns.  But does anyone seriously believe that such laws have prevented Monsanto, Citigroup, or Exxon from getting money into the hands of political candidates?  There have always been ways around these regulations.  Corporate leaders can "encourage" their employees to donate to preferred candidates.  And when wealthy people run up against an individual donation limit, they can always donate to a 527, a PAC, or some other independent organization set up by campaigns and parties.  Beyond that, these laws have only been trivially enforced and the penalties for violating them are miniscule.

I've often found myself in a strange position on campaign finance rules in that I'd be comfortable with either extreme but I despise the middle.  That is, I'd be okay with total public financing in which no private money could be raised or spent -- that's somewhat more enforceable and it allows incumbents and their challengers to do more useful things.  I'd also be okay with absolutely no restrictions on donations as long as there were instant and accurate disclosure.  But what we've had so far is the pretense of regulation.  We've put our hands in front of a stream of money and assumed that the stream wasn't flowing around our hands.  The money is still getting to candidates; our regulations just make the trail of money less transparent.  The SCOTUS decision moves us in the direction of a bit more opacity openness and honesty.

Now, that doesn't mean this decision is a panacea.  Newt Gingrich must have been joking when he said,
This will, in fact, level the playing field and allow middle-class candidates to begin to have an opportunity to raise the resources to take on the powerful and the rich.
No, it doesn't level the playing field at all.  But the playing field has not been level, and it's a fair question whether that is an attainable or even desirable condition.  Similarly, I can't imagine what Justice Kennedy was smoking when he wrote,
This Court now concludes that independent expenditures ... do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption. That speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are corrupt. And the appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy.
Even though there's really no evidence that these contributions are corrupting elected officials, there is definitely an appearance of corruption.  And it does erode faith in democracy.  This decision will likely worsen that.  But I see no need to combat the appearance of corruption with the appearance of regulation.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mum for a bit

My daughter's got strep, and hanging out with her has been fun but has eaten up much of my blogging time this week, not to mention the time I usually spend, um, working.  So light posting for a bit.

Also, I have a lot on my mind with regards to the behavior of Democratic members of Congress in the wake of the Massachusetts Senate election.  But I fear I will say something I'll soon regret if I start spewing on this topic right now, so I'm going to try to shut up (a challenge for me) and follow Jon Bernstein's wise counsel.


Although congrads to the GOP on its 41-59 majority.

(via Atrios and Jon Ladd)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

How Scott Brown is like Osama Bin Laden

Okay, that's a needlessly dramatic title for a post, I'll concede.  But I'd say the one thing these two have in common is an ability to get their adversaries to destroy themselves.  See Kevin Willis' wonderful quote (via Ezra):
As a long-time Republican -- because that's the best party from which to vote against Democrats from -- I am much more excited by the Democrats reaction to the Brown victory than the Brown victory itself. It's always nice to win a seat that has long been held by the opposition, sure. But it's one vote, and it'll be a hard seat for Republicans to hold onto. The election showed evidence of an unmotivated base and a terrible candidate, and certainly the Democrats can fix that by 2012. And if not by then, then by 2018. Scott Brown will not hold onto that seat for 40 years. You can take that to the bank.
That having been said, I'm loving the Democrats right now. If they torpedo healthcare because of Scott Brown (and, to be fair, punditry and polling data), then that will kill two birds with one stone. It'll help demotivate the base, which ends with a political sea change in November, and cripples healthcare reform.
The leaders of Al Qaeda were never under the illusion they could destroy the United States with bombs, bullets, or even hijacked airliners.  They just wanted to get the United States to overreact to a non-existential threat by launching pointless wars, undermining liberties, and putting needless burdens on its economy.  In other words, to get the U.S. to behave unlike the U.S.

That appears to be what Democrats are doing to themselves today.

How did the pollsters do?

I've heard a few folks remarking that one lesson from the Massachusetts Senate election is that pollsters actually did pretty well.  Despite all the difficulties in modeling a special election population, they came pretty close.  Did they?  Here are the major polls since Jan. 4th, as compiled by 538:

These polls predicted the winner would get 50.2 percent of the vote, which isn't far off from what he got.  But look at the variation.  The standard deviation of the estimates of Brown's vote share is 5.16.  Compare this to the final two weeks of polling in the Obama-McCain contest in '08, as compiled by RCP:

The Obama vote predictions there had a standard deviation of 1.46, roughly a fourth of the standard deviation in the MA race.

However, this is an unfair comparison -- there actually was some movement in the MA race, whereas the presidential race was pretty stable in the final weeks.  Actually, if you limit the MA polling to just those surveys conducted since Jan. 15th, the standard deviation of the Brown estimate is 1.54.  So that's actually pretty impressive.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

That darned circling squad

I don't know Celinda Lake.  She's a very well regarded Democratic pollster, so her reputation will likely survive this perfectly horrible interview she gave to Huffington Post in a weak attempt to deflect blame for the crappiness of the Coakley campaign.  I can't recall ever seeing so many vacuous consultant truisms shoved into one article.  To wit:
  • "If Scott Brown wins tonight he'll win because he became the change-oriented candidate."
  • Asked about reported criticism from White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Lake said she had seen the stories. "I think it's a circling squad to protect the White House. I don't think it's very useful," she said.
  • "2010 is fast turning out to be a blame election."
  • "On the eve of the election, Martha Coakley had a 21-point advantage over Scott Brown on who would fight Wall Street and deliver for Main Street. But it didn't predict to the vote, because voters thought, even if they sent her down here that it wouldn't happen. 'Fine, she had done it in Massachusetts, but no one was doing it in Washington.'"
  • "Voters are voting for change and we have to go back to that change message."
  • "There's a lot of blame to go around, but the point of the matter is there's a wave. And that wave: it hit Virginia; it hit New Jersey; it hit Massachusetts," she said.
I don't think there are any statements in there that mean much of anything.  But one of the most damning things in the article is her claim that the general election campaign was underfunded so they had no tracking polls.  My God, man.  Lake seems to be using this as evidence that others mismanaged the campaign, but there are plenty of ways to work out the financing of polling even if the money isn't there at the moment.  This is especially true in a race that would obviously be of such significance to the White House.  Did Lake not propose this?  Did she argue for tracking polls or just let it go?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Underground lobbying

Weird.  It looks like rational actors respond to incentives:
Ellen Miller, co-founder of the Sunlight Foundation, has spent years arguing for rules to force more disclosure of how lobbyists and private interests shape public policy. Until recently, she herself registered as a lobbyist, too, publicly reporting her role in the group’s advocacy of even more reporting. Not anymore.
In light of strict new regulations imposed by Congress over the last two years, Ms. Miller joined a wave of policy advocates who are choosing not to declare themselves as lobbyists.
So, in an effort to regulate lobbying, the government has made lobbying less observable.  Good move.  This strikes me as a good example of negislation.

Party trumps identity, part MMCXXXVII

Daily Kos 2000 poll:
QUESTION: If the 2010 election for U.S. Senate were held today, for whom would you vote for if the choices were between Michael Bennet, the Democrat, and Jane Norton, the Republican?
ALL     40      39       21
MEN     35      45       20
WOMEN   45      33       22
Not sure I trust the topline numbers all that much, but the crosstab is interesting.  Even if the Democrat is a man and the Republican is a woman, men remain about 10 points more Republican than women.

(via ColoradoPols)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A bit more on Game Change

Although I found the Game Change excerpt trashy, this paragraph was extremely interesting:
The Democratic Establishment agreed that there would be—and certainly should be—a viable challenger to Clinton. The party’s pooh-bahs on Capitol Hill were privately terrified about the prospect of Hillary rolling to the nomination. They feared that she was too polarizing to win, that she would drag down House and Senate candidates in red and purple states; and they worried, too, about Bill’s putative affairs. But while the Clintons themselves regarded Edwards as Hillary’s most formidable rival, there existed a deep wariness about the North Carolinian among his fellow Democrats. In the Senate, in particular, Edwards was regarded almost universally by his former colleagues as a callow, shallow phony. Quietly, the Establishment began a quest to find a different alternative, eventually settling on the unlikely horse that was Obama—with Harry Reid personally, and secretly, urging the Illinois senator to run against Clinton.
I would love to see some evidence of this kind of coordination from before Iowa, but it really does help explain the role of Democratic elites in 2008, which thus far has been somewhat mysterious.

Oh, one other thing.  John Edwards' mistress Rielle Hunter is described thusly:
She looked like a hybrid of Stevie Nicks and Lucinda Williams, in an outfit more suitable for a Grateful Dead concert than an evening at the Regency.
Is that supposed to be a bad thing?


Marc Ambinder predicted that I wouldn't like Heilemann and Halperin's Game Change.  Well, if the excerpt in New York magazine is representative, then Ambinder's right -- not because it offends me as a political scientist, but because it's kinda trash.

The excerpt about the Edwardses seems like an exercise in kicking people who are down.  Yes, they're public figures, and politics ain't beanbag, but making him look like an egomaniacal dunce and her like a bipolar harpy is just a cheap shot.  They can't hit back.  They're powerless.  His reputation is already ruined.  Everyone knows he's a lying philanderer, so what can he do?  Say "I'm not really that egomaniacal"?

Meanwhile, everyone who is a source in this excerpt has some sort of an axe to grind.  Any young campaign staffer who worked for Edwards still wants to be viable in the business and doesn't want to look like the one who sank the campaign, so they make the principals look like the problem.  Now, it may be that the depiction of the Edwardses is an accurate one, and if they regularly abused their underlings it's hard to muster much pity when those underlings get their revenge.  But we really don't know how accurate this is.

From what I've heard, other chapters are pretty rough on the Clintons, Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, and other major candidates, although I think the Obamas come out looking pretty good.  What a shock -- there's no percentage in tearing down the guy who's in power.

Getting our ideas out there

Ezra Klein was kind enough to respond to my earlier post arguing about the relevance of modern political science to political journalism:
Political scientists make it extremely hard for the rest of us to benefit from all that study. The papers are locked away in obscure journals accessible only by expensive subscriptions. There are relatively few blogs dedicated to applying the insights of political science to the events of the day (but more than there used to be!). I don’t know of any organizations in the District dedicated to guiding journalists through the thickets of the discipline. Nor do many think tanks in Washington employ political scientists (one reason that economists are so dominant in this town is that they’re everywhere, and they spend most of their time talking to journalists on the phone)…journalists are making a terrible error if they judge political scientists irrelevant to the debate. But political science could do a lot more to meet those of us who want to listen halfway.
He's absolutely right, of course.  In response, John Sides urged all political scientists to make their papers available ungated on their websites, which was followed by several interesting posts about different ways to make academic work more available.

I believe this is all for the good.  But there are limits.  Even if every political science article since the beginning of time were available for free, that doesn't mean political journalists will use them.  The search engines, particularly for conference papers, usually aren't great (although Google Scholar is a big help).  But beyond that, academic papers are almost invariably... well... academic papers.  They're not written for the same audience that journalism is.  They use very different tools, language, and approaches.

By contrast, think of the medical literature.  The academic studies are, of course, written in a dense, jargon-laden language and have tentative conclusions, as in most academic disciplines.  Daily newspaper journalists rarely pull directly from the medical literature.  Rather, there are intermediaries: magazines that are devoted to digging through the medical literature and translating it into conversational English.  Stories from these magazines ultimately get picked up by newspapers.  The same is true for astronomy, physics, chemistry....  But not political science.  I'm hard pressed to name a publication devoted to translating political science literature into a more accessible form.

This is where the blogs come in.  The folks at Monkey Cage (and elsewhere) do a real service by highlighting interesting academic findings and explaining why they're relevant, and this stuff occasionally gets picked up by the general press.  I strongly encourage more political scientists to create or contribute to blogs along these lines.  There might still be a belief out there that blogging can reduce chances for tenure, but such prejudices must surely be waning, if they ever actually existed.

It's hard out here for an independent

If you want evidence of how state laws help promote and protect the two-party system, look no further than this interesting piece in today's Durango Herald.
La Plata County Commissioner Joelle Riddle switched from the Democratic Party to unaffiliated status, and state Sen. Bruce Whitehead went in the opposite direction - from an unaffiliated nonpolitical career to Democrat - to run in the Nov. 2 general election.
Each simply wants to carry on work already begun.
But it appears Whitehead will have the easier row to hoe.
Under state law, candidates who want their name on the Nov. 2 ballot must file by June 15. They also must have been affiliated with a political party or have been unaffiliated for at least a year before the deadline.
Riddle should have disaffiliated from the Democratic Party by June 15, 2009, but she didn't make her move until Aug. 21. As it stands now, her only alternative is to run as a write-in candidate, a distinct disadvantage, she says.
Parties can set their own deadlines and thresholds for who can be a candidate under their banner, but independents have a pretty high hurdle under state laws.  So it's a lot easier to join a party and get on the ballot than it is to leave a party and get on the ballot.

One of the best shows ever borrows from the best show ever

I was pleased to see Larry Gilliard, Jr., who played D'Angelo Barksdale on "The Wire," on this week's episode of "Friday Night Lights."  There he joins FNL regular Michael B. Jordan, who played Wallace in season 1 of "The Wire."  Thanks to Eric for the heads up.

This sort of reminds me when Fox shows like "The Heights" and "Models Inc" died and you'd see the main actors turning up on more reliable shows like BH9 and "Melrose Place."  But it's nice to see this dynamic with shows that are, you know, good.

Friday, January 15, 2010

New Colorado blog

Steve Balboni reports that the Denver Post has belatedly, but mercifully, killed off its Politics West blog and created an actual blog on Colorado politics and policy, featuring some of the paper's best political writers.  The new blog is called The Spot, and they seem to be updating it quite frequently.

Brown no Scozzofava; not being Scozzofavaed

Boris Shor runs the numbers and finds that Scott Brown, the GOP nominee for the special U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts next week, has a considerably more liberal voting record that Dede Scozzofava did.  Why, then, are the Tea Party folks not savaging Brown the way they did Scozzofava?  According to Boris, it's because he's a better fit for the electorate:
It makes perfect sense that Scott Brown, a liberal Massachusetts Republican, has attracted Republican and conservative support. He’s perfectly suited for his liberal state electorate. Dede Scozzafava, in fact considerably more conservative than Scott Brown was not nearly so well matched to her intended constituency, the relatively conservative 23rd District that had returned moderate conservative John McHugh since the 1992 election.
Okay, true.  But I think we shouldn't ignore the potential costs and benefits of Tea Partiers undermining a GOP nominee.  In New York's 23rd district, the worst that would happen (from the right's perspective) was that the GOP would lose a House seat.  Big deal -- they're already hugely outnumbered by the House Democrats anyway.  On the plus side, taking out an unnecessarily moderate GOP nominee was a scalp on the wall.  The Tea Partiers could prove their credibility.

The Massachusetts Senate race couldn't be more different.  This is an opportunity to break the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority.  This potentially changes health reform, taxes, economic stimulus... Obama's entire agenda for the rest of the year.  And don't forget the psychological bonus of Republicans taking Teddy Kennedy's Senate seat.  In other words, the potential payoff for Republicans winning this seat is enormous, while it wasn't in NY23.

All of which goes to show that the Tea Partiers, the Limbaughs, Becks, Palins, etc., who undermined Scozzofava can be surprisingly strategic.  They may sound nuts, but only when they there's a relatively low cost to being that way.

Kudos to Satan and the MST

The Lord of Darkness writes a letter to the Minneapolis Star Tribune in response to Pat Robertson:
Dear Pat Robertson,
I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they are down, so I'm all over that action. But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating. I may be evil incarnate, but I'm no welcher. The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished. Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth -- glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake. Haven't you seen "Crossroads"? Or "Damn Yankees"? If I had a thing going with Haiti, there'd be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox -- that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it -- I'm just saying: Not how I roll. You're doing great work, Pat, and I don't want to clip your wings -- just, come on, you're making me look bad. And not the good kind of bad. Keep blaming God. That's working. But leave me out of it, please. Or we may need to renegotiate your own contract.
Best, Satan

Bad blogger

So sorry for the light posting of late.  Job candidates and visiting lecturers have kept me very busy this week.  Lots of meals, lectures, campus tours, etc.  But I'm back.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Bull semen

Something else I learned today: Colorado could be collecting millions upon millions of dollars more in annual revenue if not for various exemptions that industries have carved out over the decades.  The state currently does not charge a tax on sales of bull semen.  Changing that would put $1.5 million into the state's coffers each year, and wouldn't require voters' approval.

I'm not questioning the importance of bull semen to the state's economy, but I imagine that, if given a choice today, voters would rather see that $1.5 million going to the public schools.

Policy diffusion

I had a state legislator from Denver come speak to my state politics class today.  After class, we were chatting about how he had to cancel on an earlier appearance because he needed to meet some agricultural lobbyists from DC. I asked him why agricultural lobbyists were flying all the way from DC to meet with a Colorado legislator who represents an urban district.

He explained that he is supporting legislation to create some sort of living wage for migrant sheep shearers in the state. He added that national agricultural lobbyists are desperate to stop this because they worry it will spread to other states. As he explained, he and other legislators get a lot of their policy ideas from looking at other states (in part by way of the NCSL). The language is already written, you can guess the policy impact, you know that it works, etc. National lobbyists are eager to stop state legislation they don't like because they worry about it going viral.

Thanks to Andrew Karch, I know a little bit about policy diffusion across states, but I'd never heard it described quite this way.

Best headline ever?

Associated Press:
Skywalkers in Korea Cross Han Solo

Sunday, January 10, 2010

When states go from red to blue

One of the various theories as to why Colorado and a few other states have switched so quickly from reliable Republican presidential votes to competitive-leaning-Democratic ones is migration.  That is, liberal voters have moved there from other states.  Colorado has seen a large influx from Democratic-voting states like California, although (regrettably, for my purposes) the Census does not record party ID info.  So how can we be sure that that's what's going on?

Well, here's one way of looking at the question.  I've plotted out the growth in county population between 2003 and 2007 for each county in Colorado against the increase in the Democratic presidential vote between 2004 and 2008.  The point sizes are weighted by the population of the counties -- counties with more than 200,000 residents are labeled. This is far from a perfect correlation, of course, but it's statistically significant and in the expected direction.

I looked at ten other swing states to see if the same relationship holds.  Interestingly, population growth only predicts the Democratic vote swing in Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.  North Carolina and Florida are borderline.  In other states (Iowa, Indiana, New Mexico, Nevada), there appears to be no relationship.

So, yes, for some states, the reason that they've moved left is because more left-leaning people have moved there from other states.  This would suggest that Democratic gains in those states are not temporary -- they won't start voting Republican again when the economy improves or home foreclosures return to typical levels.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

South Park-ize yourself

Pretty convenient.  Here's me:

Lens attachments for iPhones

A company called Gizmon makes telephoto and macro magnetic lens attachments for iPhones.  I figured that anyone who cares enough for good pictures probably isn't taking them with a cell phone.  But it's hard to ignore the convenience of an iPhone photo, which can be easily edited and uploaded without ever moving it to a regular computer.

Hatin' on poli sci

Marc Ambinder:
Political scientists aren't going to like this book, because it portrays politics as it is actually lived by the candidates, their staff and the press, which is to say -- a messy, sweaty, ugly, arduous competition between flawed human beings -- a universe away from numbers and probabilities and theories.
That's from Ambinder's review of Heilemann and Halperin's Game Change, a new book filled with juicy revelations from the 2008 presidential campaign.  Jonathan Bernstein has already posted an excellent rejoinder to this diss, but I thought I'd add a few points of my own.

Political scientists are social scientists, which means that we are engaged in the study of an aspect of human behavior.  Yes, we care deeply about the behavior of "flawed human beings."  There are many ways to approach this study, of course.  Some of us do this by talking to candidates, party officials, donors, officeholders, journalists, and others who are deeply involved in the "messy, sweaty, ugly, arduous competition" Ambinder describes.  I spend a rather lengthy chapter of my book doing exactly that, recognizing that there are aspects of the political process (in my case, party nominations) that do not lend themselves easily to quantitative study (especially when the politicians involved are trying to keep their actions from being recorded).

And in this respect, I am far from unique.  My colleague Nancy Wadsworth is engaged in a fascinating study about the racial reconciliation movement in evangelical churches, trying to understand the motivations of the white and black pastors who are organizing it.  Greg Koger has a wonderful book on the filibuster coming out, in which he not only quantitatively analyzes the use of legislative delaying tactics over time but also gets into the details of specific filibusters and the motivations and physical conditions of their perpetrators.  David Mayhew's and Richard Fenno's studies of members of Congress contain some of the most revealing interviews with politicians I've ever seen.  I could list far, far more, but I just wanted to give a little taste.

Of course, while we can learn a lot by studying a single election, studying hundreds or thousands of them makes it far less likely that we'll be led astray by an atypical case or by a conversation with a dominant personality and far more likely that we'll uncover the basic dynamics that govern elections.  That's why we sometimes try to quantify things.  Without this sort of larger-scale perspective, it's possible for an observer to believe, as in the example Bernstein mentions, that only Ronald Reagan's humorous quip about his age prevented Walter Mondale from becoming the 41st president.  The best sorts of political science usually involve both approaches, balancing a study of individual human political behavior with a quantitative perspective that ensures that what we have found is representative of the political world.

While I think Ambinder's quote is misguided and incorrect, I should note that political scientists are not journalists.  For one thing, we have the luxury of a longer publication cycle -- a typical peer-reviewed article probably takes about a year or two from the genesis of an idea to its appearance in print, and some take much, much longer.  Investigative political journalists often have only a few months or weeks to do this job -- sometimes a few hours, depending on what's being examined.  Journalists often have better access to key sources and are often better at leveraging that access into revealing information.  To some extent, we're involved in the same business.  But we approach it with different tools, and we serve different masters.

As for Ambinder's statement that political scientists wouldn't like this book, well, I won't know until I read it.  But Ambinder might keep in mind that the reason most of us became political scientists and that we endured nearly a decade of low-wage, low-status graduate student status in the process is because politics interests us.  We use numbers and probabilities and theories to help us understand politics.  If we only cared about numbers and probabilities and theories, we'd have become mathematicians.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Too much Twitter?

I have to confess that I first learned of Brittany Murphy's passing when I read about it on Ashton Kutcher's Twitter feed.  I thought it was a tad odd to be publicly mourning this way, especially since the two were once romantically involved, but his tweet seemed at least in the ballpark of appropriate.  But then came Tila Tequila's tweets about the death of her fiancée:
Everyone please pray 4 my Wifey Casey Johnson. She has passed away. Thank u for all ur love and support but I will be offline to be w family
No, I suppose it's not my place to tell a person the right or wrong way to mourn, but it still ooged me out a bit.  The parody at Sadly, No is equally gross, but nonetheless hilarious.

Nonetheless, these are all questions of taste.  Honorable people may disagree.  But then there are matters of public safety:
The debate over distracted drivers ramped up a notch on Thursday as Ford Motor Co. announced technology to let computers read their Twitter feeds to them while behind the wheel.
God bless the American automobile industry.

Fowler on Colbert

I'm pretty sure this is the first time a friend of mine has appeared on Colbert Report.  And he was good!
The Colbert Report
Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
James Fowler

Colbert Report Full Episodes
Political Humor

Coordination without conspiracy

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the Democrats' attempt to find a new Colorado gubernatorial nominee is the spontaneous emergence of a pecking order among candidates.  None of the candidates seems to want a primary, so they all just lined up in approximate order of declining electability.  Everyone deferred to Salazar, who declined, and so now Hickenlooper has the next right of refusal.  If he declines, the torch passes to Perlmutter, etc.  Of course, this may break down at some point, but so far it's been remarkably civil and useful.

Furthermore, there's no evidence this is being orchestrated by anyone.  My grad school advisor liked to talk about obvious coordination points.  Like, if two people needed to meet in New York City, but they didn't know where specifically, they'd be very likely to both show up at the top of the Empire State Building.  So far, the coordination points in Colorado Democratic politics have been pretty obvious.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Paul's grammar

Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" may be the best Bond song ever.  It's better than Duran Duran's "View to a Kill," it blows doors on Sheena Easton's "For Your Eyes Only," and it's at least on par with Carly Simon's "Nobody Does it Better."  But the lyrics are problematic.  Witness:
When you were young and your heart was an open book
You used to say live and let live
But if this ever changing world in which we live in
Makes you give it a cry, say live and let die.
What's up with that third line?  Was it sponsored by the word "in"?  Did Paul write it in Innsbruck, in an inn in which he was living in?

Attack of the Commie-Sino-Muslim-Terrorists

This had better be as wingnutty as it looks.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Do Jews really hate Palin?

No, they don't.  At least, no more than anyone else does.

David Frum nicely takes apart this silly and insulting  Commentary piece by Jennifer Rubin that argues that Jews hate Sarah Palin because Jews look down on rural, working class people without formal educations.  But while Frum is right to point out the problems with the piece, he needn't bother developing other reasons that Jews might dislike Palin.

The entirety of the Commentary article rests on the notion that Jews actually disproportionately dislike Palin.  As her one piece of evidence, Rubin cites a 9/08 poll showing that only 37 percent of Jews approve of Palin.  Is this really disproportionately low?

Well, we know from exit polls that Jews tend to vote roughly 75-25 in favor of Democratic presidential candidates.  And in the fall of 2008, about 83% of Republicans and 21% of Democrats approved of Palin.  So let's do a little back-of-the-envelope calculation:
.75*21 + .25*83 = 15.75 + 20.75 = 36.5.
So going by their partisan voting patterns alone, we would expect 36.5 percent of Jews to approve of Palin -- almost exactly what that poll found.

Nothing to see here, folks.  Move along.

Well spoken

Ezra Klein:
From the point of history, it's dog-bites-man for the election of an inspiring president to be followed by a fierce backlash. In 1980, Ronald Reagan comes into office. In 1982, Republicans lose 26 seats in the midterm election. In 1992, Bill Clinton comes into office. In 1994, Democrats lose more than 50 seats in the midterm elections. George W. Bush looked headed for a similar fate until 9/11 reshaped the electoral landscape.
You could say, of course, that the problem here was the president. But both Reagan and Clinton won reelection. Voters turned on the new entrants as quickly as they'd turned on their predecessors. Washington doesn't do many things well, but it's absolutely aces at turning hope into disgust.

Retirements o'plenty

I'm going to agree with Jon Bernstein that Byron Dorgan's retirement is very bad news for Democrats while Chris Dodd's retirement is very good news for Democrats.  The Ritter retirement remains a tossup.  I tend to agree with Kyle Saunders that, in terms of electabililty, Salazar > Hickenlooper > Romanoff > Perlmutter, although the sign between Hickenlooper and Romanoff should probably be ≥.  At any rate, if early reports that Salazar is actually going to do this are true, then the chances of Dems holding this seat have probably gone up.  That comes at a price, of course -- Salazar is more conservative than Ritter.  But that might be what you have to do to hold the seat in this environment.

Update: Important point from Steve Benen:
In the House, 14 GOP incumbents have decided not to seek re-election, while 10 Democratic incumbents have made the same announcement. Does this mean Republicans are "dropping like flies"?
In the Senate, six Republican incumbents have decided not to seek re-election, while two Democratic incumbents have made the same announcement. Is this evidence of a mass Democratic exodus?
Among governors, several incumbents in both parties are term-limited and prevented from running again, but only three Democrats who can seek re-election -- Parkinson in Kansas, Doyle in Wisconsin, and Ritter in Colorado -- have chosen not to. For Republicans, the number is four -- Douglas in Vermont, Rell in Connecticut, Crist in Florida, and Pawlenty in Minnesota. (Update: the GOP number is five if we include Palin in Alaska.)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Ritter -- WTF???

So I was enjoying a lovely meal with my colleagues at Olivéa tonight and was having such a nice time that I ignored a call on my cell.  That call turned out to be a reporter asking me my opinion on Gov. Ritter's withdrawal from his reelection race.

Holy crap.

So, no, I don't really have much info on this, but glancing around the web, it appears that no one else does yet, either.  I suppose everyone is waiting for Ritter's official statement tomorrow.

Suffice it to say that his reelection prospects weren't great.  Not dismal, but it was looking tough for him.  McInnis has been ahead in the polls, it's a tough year for Dems all around, and Ritter has alienated some key supporters.  Generally, I'd say that a party will have a harder time holding a seat if their incumbent retires.  But in this case I'm not sure.  The mood across the country has been pretty strongly anti-incumbent of late.  An untainted Dem might have a better shot.

Now, who will that untainted Dem be?  ColoradoPols seems to be leaning Hickenlooper, although it seems like Romanoff jumping over to this race and leaving Bennet unmolested for the Senate nomination might be a win-win.

All that campaigning? It mattered

(I've mentioned some of this research previously, but it just got published, so I wanted to sum up some of what I found.)

Political scientists have a surprisingly difficult time demonstrating that campaigns actually affect the way people vote.  That seems counter-intuitive -- the 2008 campaigns spent literally billions of dollars trying to convince voters of the merits of their candidates or of the dangers of electing their opponents.  How could this not have some effect?  But the evidence remains elusive.  Campaign spending, candidate speeches, advertisements, etc., often seem to have at most a small and fleeting influence on voters' evaluations of the candidates.

One reason campaign effects are so hard to detect, of course, is that anything that one campaign does is often countered by a well-matched opposing campaign.  But 2008 wasn't quite like that.  At times, the presidential campaign seemed like asymmetric warfare, with Obama spending and organizing circles around McCain.  So I thought it might be possible to detect some campaign effects in this environment.

One area in which Obama outran McCain was in the establishment of local field offices.  In eleven battleground states I examined, Obama had established field offices in 43 percent of the counties; McCain did so in only 18 percent.  Back during the primaries and caucuses, the Clinton campaign had mocked Obama for being so aggressive in creating field offices.  As Clinton's Colorado campaign manager remarked, "Clearly, they've taken the Starbucks approach to the campaign. Pretty soon, they'll have one on every corner."  Was this just wasted money, or did it matter?

My findings on this topic suggest that it mattered.  In a paper that was just published by Public Opinion Quarterly, I find that in counties where Obama had established a field office, the Democratic share of the presidential vote was almost a percentage point higher than it was in counties with no such field offices.  Note this boxplot from the state of Colorado, showing the Democratic increase in the presidential vote between 2004 and 2008 in counties with and counties without Obama field offices:

This effect, as it turns out, varies substantially across states.  In some, it isn't really distinguishable from zero.  However, the effect is statistically significant and substantively large in a few key states, notably Florida, Indiana, and North Carolina.  In fact, the effect in those states is larger than the ultimate vote difference between the two candidates.  In other words, had it not been for Obama's field offices, McCain would have won those states, worth a total of 53 electoral votes.

Now, Obama won by more than that, so the field office effect doesn't seem to have been pivotal for the entire election.  But many presidential elections (notably 2000 and 2004) are won by far fewer electoral votes.  It's not hard to imagine a scenario in which these field offices are determinative.

So, for those of you who volunteered insane hours during the campaign and wondered if what you were doing actually made a difference, it did.

(Cross-posted at Huffington Post)

Not exactly a speed record

My field offices paper, from blog post to publication in 14 months.

Monday, January 4, 2010


Paul Campos:
In the week that began with a terrorist incident in which no one other than the pathetically incompetent aspiring terrorist was hurt, approximately 47,000 Americans died. Around 13,000 of these people never reached old age, including nearly one thousand children.
Indeed over the past seven days approximately 350 Americans were murdered. About twenty of these murder victims were women killed by their husbands and boyfriends, while something like 35 were children who died as a result of abuse. Several hundred Americans committed suicide between Christmas and New Year’s Day and several hundred others died as a direct consequence of not having any medical insurance.
All of this is considered completely natural and normal and therefore not in the slightest bit newsworthy. At the same time, President Obama is being criticized for not rushing back to Washington from his holiday vacation because a wannabe terrorist managed to set his own underwear on fire.

On preventing terror attacks

A few days ago I mentioned the possibility that a President Gore could have prevented the 9/11 attacks.  Of course, I have no idea if that's true.  Gore himself seemed to suggest as much based on the Clinton/Gore administration's successful disrupting of the millennium bomb plot and on Bush's apparent dismissal of the "Bin Laden Determined to Attack U.S." memo.  But this is all counterfactual and, by definition, unknowable.

Malcolm Gladwell has a wonderful article (which also appears in his new book) on our bad habit of Tuesday-morning-quarterbacking terror attacks.  As he notes, if you look at the stream of clues leading to the 9/11 attacks, to the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, to the invasion of Israel at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War, etc., it seems incredibly obvious.  You wonder what sort of idiots couldn't put these pieces together.  But, as Gladwell points out, the reports and articles describing these clues inevitably leave out the false positives -- the clues that led nowhere.

For example, prior to the Yom Kippur War, Israeli intelligence had been tipped off about numerous invasions from Egyptian forces over the previous two years.  All those warnings had amounted to nothing.  Besides, preparing for invasion is itself a very costly activity, and can help precipitate a war.  In another example, Gladwell notes that the FBI had received letters in 1998 indicating that an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi was imminent.  These were true, but they were received along with 68,000 other warning letters between 1995 and 1998, the vast majority of which were false.

The problem here is not necessarily obtaining the right information -- often, we already have it.  The problem is that we have so much wrong information, or at least that we don't always know how to distinguish between right and wrong information.  Those who criticize the current administration for failing to pick up on the obvious signals prior to the failed airborne attack over Christmas are often arguing for obtaining ever more bad information.  Screening all young Muslim men, for example (leaving aside the moral implications for the moment), would require TSA officials to spend lots more time dealing with lots more innocent people.  It would increase the noise level, only making it harder to detect the signal.

Polling bias

Great post on bias in polling from Nate Silver.  (h/t Andrew Gelman)

Friday, January 1, 2010

The pivot point

I am generally hesitant to look back on history and say, "If only X hadn't happened, everything else would have been great."  People tend to do that about the Kennedy assassination, Neville Chamberlain's capitulation to Hitler, Napoleon's invasion of Russia, that one boy/girl you should/shouldn't have made a pass at in high school, etc.  It's a counterfactual nightmare that can drive you mad.

That said, it's hard not to look back on the 2000 presidential election as the poison fruit from which the rest of the crappiness of the past decade grew.  It's tempting to say, as Yglesias does, that, had a few tiny things in Florida been different that fall, the rest of the decade would have been astonishingly different.  The Gore response to 9/11 (if the 9/11 attacks had even been successful) would surely have been different, and there would have been no war with Iraq.  And no elimination of the estate tax.  And a better federal response to Hurricane Katrina.  And no abandonment of environmental goals.  And so on.

On the other hand, it's extremely rare for a party to hold onto the presidency for four consecutive terms.  Gore might well have lost in 2004, producing a President McCain?  Romney?  Cheney?  And maybe with a Republican House and Senate?  Who knows?

Okay, I'm back to my original point.  Best not to think about this stuff.

I am Abdul Rafai, I am prepared to die

The latest national security threat is terrorists who know kung fu.  No, seriously.  The comments are brilliant.  (h/t Steve Balboni)