Saturday, January 29, 2011

Graph of the week

Too bad no one wants to publish null results.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Death in space

A while back I noted that the Space Shuttle had something like a 1% failure rate -- roughly one out of every hundred launches resulted in catastrophic failure. Here's another way to think about it: Of the 355 astronauts who have flown on the Shuttle, 14 have not returned. That's a 4% mortality rate. In most election years, a House incumbent has roughly the same chance of being defeated as a Shuttle astronaut has of dying.

Forgive me if this is disrespectful to bring up on the anniversary of the Challenger disaster, the day after the anniversary of the Apollo 1 disaster, and three days before the anniversary of the Columbia disaster. (What is it about this time of year?) But this strikes me as a pretty good time to ask what exactly we're trying to accomplish with the manned space program and whether what we've been doing is the best way to accomplish it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Are conservatives turning against manned spaceflight?

Tom Coburn:
The problem is we’ve had countless Sputnik moments in recent decades that have created little more than space junk.
Sarah Palin:
[Obama] needs to remember that, uh, what happened back then with the communist U.S.S.R. and their victory in that race to space.... Yeah, they won but they also incurred so much debt at the time that it resulted in the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union.
Okay, Coburn's comment may be more of a metaphor about government waste. But I'm surprised to hear him even metaphorically dismissing the space race as wasteful. And Palin is technically right that the Soviets were the first into space, although I don't think I've ever heard a politician -- no less an America-firster like Palin -- suggest that the Soviets "won" the space race or that too much investment in a space program can kill your country.

I'm not suggesting that these folks are wrong to question the value of a manned space program, but I'm surprised to read it. The manned space program has always enjoyed bipartisan support. Ike pushed it, JFK strongly identified himself with the moonshot, Nixon's signature (unlike Brezhnev's) is on the friggin' moon for the next five billion years or so, Reagan was closely tied with the Space Shuttle, etc. Are conservatives now giving up on this program? Even if it's a simple case of Obama's-fer-it-so-I'm-agin-it, it's kind of surprising.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The State of the Union: What we heard

NPR asked people to describe President Obama's State of the Union address in three words. Here's a word cloud of the results:

The definitive (or, at least, the first) academic book on the 2010 elections

Please forgive the shameless plug, but if you're teaching about the 2010 elections this spring, or if you'd just like to know more about them, please consider Pendulum Swing, edited by Larry Sabato. It contains fascinating studies about many key races by leading academics, analysts, and journalists. There's also a chapter by me. I wrote about Colorado's gubernatorial and senatorial contests. You can see cool polling graphs, like the one at left!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Misunderstanding Obama's rise

Yes, polls are showing a rise in Obama's approval rating of late -- a CNN poll has him as high as 55%, although the average is around 50 right now.  So why is this happening?  The Hill has an interesting spin:
The rebound comes as Obama has made a point of pivoting toward the center, and making more overtures toward Republicans in Congress.
Note how they never specifically say that Obama's pivot is causing the rise in approval ratings. Clever. Although they clearly imply it. Colorado Pols has another take:
We'd say this thaw in Obama's approval numbers has as much to do with hyperbole fatigue as anything else--after two years, Americans are finally realizing that Obama isn't actually Hitler, Stalin, Castro, and Osama all rolled into one. Tom Tancredo's Nazis-and-nuclear-war comparison is a perfect example of what we mean--the stuff just gets ridiculous after awhile, and people stop listening to you. 
Okay, a few quick points. Obama making overtures toward Republicans is not likely to affect a whole lot of voters. After all, he made plenty of overtures to them during the health care debate, and that didn't do much for his approval ratings. Also, I really doubt "hyperbole fatigue" is having any effect here. I feel safe in saying that anyone who was calling Obama a socialist or Hitler a year ago is still disapproving of his performance today.

The most likely explanation for Obama's rise in recent polls is that the economy is actually improving. There is also quite possibly a post-Tucson shooting rally effect going on, although much of the movement seems to predate that. We'll know more in the weeks and months to come as we see whether this is a temporary bump or a sustained resurgence.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Informal influences on legislators

Recently, I've been plugging my seating paper, in which I find that California legislators sitting next to each other can influence each others' votes.  Well, in their working paper "Friends in High Places," Lauren Cohen and Christopher Malloy take this a step or two further and find a similar effect in the U.S. Senate.  Senators sitting near each other, they find, tend to vote similarly.  (I'm not sure to what degree freshman senators get to pick their seats, so there may be some endogeneity issues there, but still an interesting finding.) They also find that college alumni networks help explain voting patterns among senators.

Friday, January 21, 2011

This and that

Meanwhile, I'm heading to Lincoln, Nebraska in a little over a week for some research. Any suggestions for things to do or see?


Well, the new Republican majority in the Colorado statehouse seems quite serious about reining in spending. Their first target? School breakfasts for kids.
Poor children who eat breakfast at school for free will have to pay 30 cents a meal for the last few months of this school year after Republicans on the legislature's Joint Budget Committee refused to provide additional funding for the growing program.
Yes, the budget hole is huge, but that's a pretty harsh cut. I wonder if legislators understand that many poor Coloradans depend on this and other programs through no fault of their own.
"As a family guy myself with children and grandchildren, I take a very strong responsibility to earn money to feed my own family," said Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, who voted against the request.
Ah, that would be a no. Apparently, according to Lambert, those who lack sufficient money to feed their kids breakfast are not unfortunate so much as irresponsible.

Via Colorado Pols, the Aurora Sentinel provides some helpful perspective:
Lambert earns money the old fashioned way: from your tax dollars. He was a lifetime member of the military, now on pension, and he now collects tax dollars as a state lawmaker.

Seth as Cake

This is apparently what my kids think I look like. They made this cake for my birthday (with some help from Aunt Nora.)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Biggest focus group ever?

If you have an iPhone and plan to watch President Obama's State of the Union Address next week, please download this app. (via Charli Carpenter)

A mandate to purchase health insurance. In 1798.

Those Founders were a bunch of socialists.
In July of 1798, Congress passed – and President John Adams signed – “An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen.” The law authorized the creation of a government operated marine hospital service and mandated that privately employed sailors be required to purchase health care insurance.
Keep in mind that the 5th Congress did not really need to struggle over the intentions of the drafters of the Constitutions in creating this Act as many of its members were the drafters of the Constitution.

Stickin' to his story

Here's a remarkable statement from the retiring Joe Lieberman, on the Duelfer Report that was produced by the Iraq Survey Group after the U.S. invasion:
I want to be very clear: he didn't find big caches of weapons of mass destruction. But he found, and proved I think, that Saddam had every intention, and particularly to develop nuclear weapons, was developing chemical and biological weapons, and had a structure in place including nuclear scientists that he was prepared to support if he broke out of the sanctions, which he was inclined to do. So I think that the evidence is clear that if we did not do what we did that Saddam Hussein would today have at least chemical and biological weapons and have a nuclear program probably like Iran's beginning to move toward capabilities [emphasis added].
Oh, dear, this is the sort of doublespeak I thought we were done with. A few questions:

  • Saddam had a "structure in place... that he was prepared to support"? What does that mean? A bunch of nuclear physicists sitting in a room playing "Quake" just waiting for some uranium and money to show up? 
  • Saddam was inclined to break out of the sanctions? Is there anyone under sanctions who is not inclined to break out of them? What does that even mean?
  • How do we square these statements with the actual findings of the Duelfer Report, which stated that Iraq had no chemical weapons, had no biological weapons, and had made no efforts to restart its nuclear program?
  • Is this really how Lieberman wants to be remembered 10 or 20 years from now?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

State food map

I like the idea, although a lot of these choices are rather big-city-centric (Illinois gets the deep-dish pizza, Colorado gets the Denver omelet, etc.).

So long and thanks for all the genocidal robots

Okay, so I just finished watching the final episodes of "Caprica." I seem to be in the minority, but I really liked them. I thought the second half of the season was much more interesting and better-paced than the first. Admittedly, the final episode had to telescope quite a bit, as is probably inevitable for a canceled prequel. And the physical portrayal of the Cylons (communicating through hand gestures? kneeling in church?) was a bit silly at times.

But in general, I like the way the show continued to deal with issues related to technology. In particular, the final episodes dealt with the ways that new technology can distort and destabilize power relationships. The Adamas used the robots to aid the uprising on Tauron, probably increasing their own power within the Tauron community on Caprica. The Quatral used the robots to make extra money and cement his power base, which resulted in pushback against him and his ultimate downfall. Lacey used the robots to take over control of the STO. And, perhaps most significantly, Daniel used the robots to play the role the state could not play in preventing a terrorist attack. (This was huge -- imagine 9/11 being prevented by Bill Gates while an Al Qaeda operative was running the FBI.) I can only imagine how powerful Graystone Industries was, and how diminished the Caprican government was, after that day.

Like the "Star Wars" prequels, "Caprica"'s moral message was inevitably confused. It's difficult to know for whom to root when you're watching characters whom you know will later become genocidal maniacs acting like good guys. But I found the moral confusion useful. It remains particularly interesting that Daniel's motivations in creating the robots, and later the skinjobs, were so sympathetic. If you had the power to recreate your dead daughter, wouldn't you try? And then once robot servants were available to fight your wars or even walk your dogs, wouldn't you use them? His hubris was humanity's.

I'm curious about a few things going forward, some of which will hopefully be addressed in "Blood and Chrome":
  • What happens with Zoe over time? She is something like the God of V-World, with tremendous ability to manipulate virtual space and to appear pretty much anywhere within it. Do she and Tamara eventually evolve into ChipSix and ChipBaltar?
  • What happens with the STO? Are the humans in the movement completely wiped out in the Cylon uprising? "Galactica" doesn't show us any monotheists at first, suggesting that the faith is created among the humans around the time of Baltar's trial. Did it exist underground before then?
  • Isn't it immoral, if not illegal, to have a TV show's poster feature a topless 15-year old girl? Or does the Blind Faith precedent make it okay?

Monday, January 17, 2011

More on seating arrangements and voting

Just to expand on my previous post, a few years ago I wrote an article investigating the influence of legislative seating arrangements on roll call votes. We know there are all sorts of influences on the way legislators vote, including party leaders, the executive branch, constituents, etc. Did legislators also follow the votes of the people sitting near them?

Seating chart for the 1949
California Assembly
I investigated this using the California Assembly, where legislators sit in pairs. Usually, member-pairs are of the same party, but that wasn't always the case. The diagram at left shows the seating arrangements for the 1949 Assembly, with Republicans in gray and Democrats in white.

The paper finds that deskmates tended to vote together, even controlling for party, constituency preferences, and many other influences. Just sitting together made any given pair of legislators anywhere from two to six percent more likely to vote the same way.

All this is to say that Sen. Mark Udall isn't nuts when he claims that having senators sit together might change the way they behave. And he's not the first -- California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown used seating assignments to enforce party-line voting, to pair freshmen up with veterans for socialization purposes, and even to separate and punish those who conspired against him. I can't believe that sitting together for one 90-minute speech, as Udall is proposing, will make much of a difference, but the idea that neighbors can influence each other has some support.

Do I have to separate you two?

For reasons I can't understand, Mark Udall's idea of having members of Congress of different parties sit together during the State of the Union is gaining steam. It's not that changing a legislature's seating arrangements is solely a gimmick. Seating matters! (I've got a whole paper on that!) But it only really matters over the long run -- if members tend to sit together over the course of a session they might tend to vote a bit more like each other. But I can't see much happening if they sit together for a one-hour speech. That's pretty gimmicky.

Also, as Dan Amira explains, this seating proposal would take away one of the really valuable aspects of the State of the Union address:
A neat separation of the parties allows the American people to see, in real time, their positions on the president's agenda and the issues of the day. It's actually very informative and helpful to be able to easily assess which proposals the Republicans and Democrats support, respectively, through the decision to applaud. It also allows us to identify the few party-bucking independent thinkers who, every so often, stand up to clap while the rest of their colleagues remain seated. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A tale of two speeches

Obama's speech in Tucson was excellent, truly excellent. Appropriately, Bernstein points out all the reasons that it's hard to blow a speech like that. Even if you're not the president, delivering an inspirational eulogy for a wounded congresswoman, a slain judge, and a dead child is, in the most crass political sense, easy. The speech virtually writes itself. It's hard not to just open your mouth and say something meaningful that elevates your stature.

Unless, of course, you're Sarah Palin. Good Lord. A word of advice to the former governor: Some days are not about us. This was one of them.

When compromise is wrong

Susan Schulten has another great piece up on the NYT's Civil War site.  This time, she writes about the failed Crittenden Compromise, a last-ditch effort to avoid the Civil War by extending the border between slave and free states all the way to California.

The compromise failed, at least in part, because of President-elect Lincoln's opposition to it.  After all, the compromise would have allowed the expansion of slavery -- something that the Republicans' 1860 platform specifically opposed -- and, as Schulten writes, "he did not want to appear as someone apologizing for having won office."

It's interesting to imagine, though, what would have happened if it had succeeded and actually prevented war. Lincoln surely would have been pilloried by the abolitionists but praised by whomever the 1860 equivalent of David Broder was. And, no doubt, Lincoln's refusal to compromise was, in some sense, reckless, hastening war. But 150 years later, Lincoln's partisanship and obstinance seem like the proper course; bipartisanship would have been immoral.

Light posting

Sorry for the light posting here. I'm dealing with a family medical situation right now, although things are looking up.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mental health

As Ezra notes, one of the few things that actually could have prevented last weekend's tragic events is if Loughner had receives proper mental health care. Apparently, Loughner's logic professor thought he had a messed up brain, although didn't foresee any violence. The narrative here thus becomes, How is our mental health system failing?

But, of course, it's not nearly that simple. Even if Pima Community College had the world's finest mental health care system, there's no guarantee Loughner would have availed himself of it. Several people reportedly advised him to seek help; he chose to drop out instead.

We can call this "slipping through the cracks," but what's the alternative? College professors who can force a student to undergo psychiatric care? Are we even remotely qualified to exercise that kind of power? How many quirky but otherwise harmless students would get caught up in that net?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Gabrielle Giffords and Political Courage

I have little to add to the ongoing discussions about the horrible events that occurred in Tucson yesterday. I would strongly encourage everyone to read James Fallows' piece on political shootings. I assume we'll learn more in the coming days and weeks about the shooter's motivations, but chances are, they won't turn out to be much more intelligible than they seem today.

I did want to mention one thing about Giffords -- her political courage. She represents a district that McCain won in 2008 and surely was aware that Republicans would be devoting considerable funds to defeating her. Nonetheless, she voted for TARP, cap and trade, the stimulus, and health care reform, and she still managed to retain her seat last year. That certainly merits some sort of mention.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Creating another House

One criticism I occasionally hear about filibuster reform is that if we get rid of the filibuster, we'll just have two Houses of Representatives.  One response to that criticism is, so what?  But probably a more accurate one is, no we won't.  As Koger and others pointed out in their letter to the U.S. Senate, the Constitution contains plenty of provisions that ensure that the Senate will be a more deliberative body than the House.  Specifically, it is a smaller chamber (meaning members will know each other better and can debate issues longer without derailing legislative business), senators are elected infrequently in staggered terms (meaning members do not have to do what is politically expedient in any given moment), and one must be at least 30 to get elected (as opposed to 25 in the House).

Assuming we see some value in bicameralism, the basic Constitutional structure of the Senate assures that its members and functions will be substantively different from those in the House, even without a filibuster.

But I was thirsty

Fellow political scientist Steve Greene gets an interesting evaluation from one of his students:
[I]nstructor has a reasonably informed grasp on the subject matter, albeit he often drinks the poli-sci koolaid and thinks polls and historical trends can explain almost all election outcomes and voting behavior.

The new music model

I heard a fascinating interview with OK Go's lead singer Damian Kulash on NPR yesterday.  The jist of the interview was that the old world of major record labels picking and promoting new artists is dying.  In that model, labels would send A&R people out to find new acts. The label would then sign a bunch of acts with the notion, says Kulash, that one out of 20 would make it big -- the profits from the successful act would subsidize the capital spent on the 19 unsuccessful ones.

Today, however, you don't necessarily need a record label or a recording studio to make decent music.  This can be done at home with some instruments and a personal computer, and maybe a camera to make a video. So some artists are trying to work around the labels.  And, indeed, OK Go has done quite well for itself without a label's backing largely building on the buzz created by their free videos (see here for their brilliant Rube Goldberg one).

Now, I don't know how accurate this narrative is. (It may be a lot like candidate nominations -- there's a popular belief that with the demise of party machines, regular people have a shot at office and don't need the party bosses anymore, but this is largely untrue.) But to the extent it is, it strikes me as not necessarily all that liberating for struggling musicians out there.

Under the old system, A&R people could actually pluck artists from obscurity and give them the backing they needed to be heard. With the labels out of the picture, theoretically no one is selected out of the system, but it's a lot harder to break into the upper levels.  Maybe you really don't need the label to provide you with equipment and studio time any more, but not every band or artist can afford to tour, which is pretty vital to building a career in music. This means that wealthier bands have a bigger advantage than they used to.

Besides, if the old model meant that 5% of supported bands made it, what's that percentage now with basically every kid with a guitar and a Mac in the denominator? Yes, some bands figure a way to make themselves heard, but a lot more fall by the wayside. This strikes me as one of those societal changes that sounds more "democratic" but really means that more people are free to fail.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Twitter goes back in time; teams up with Golden Age Twitter

DC Comics is bringing back its reader letters page. Why did they get rid of it in the first place?
The New York-based publisher — its imprints include Vertigo and Mad Magazine — used to devote a single page, typically toward the back, to letters from readers commenting on the latest adventures of Batman, Superman and others.
Those pages disappeared in DC's comics in the face of e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. DC's last letters page was in 2002.
They saw Facebook and Twitter coming in 2002? I thought it was forbidden to interfere with human history.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

On Bernstein's "Joyous Cynicism"

Andrew Sprung has a thoughtful and fascinating critique of Jonathan Bernstein's blog, a blog which, loyal readers will note, I cite frequently. Sprung seems to be using Bernstein as an example of a certain perspective that seems common to Americanist political scientists -- what Sprung calls "joyous cynicism." I can certainly understand what Sprung is arguing, and I have been accused of holding this worldview myself, so I'd like to take a moment to defend it, or at least explain it.

While bloggers like Bernstein and John Sides and I might have a great deal in common with bloggers like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias and Sprung, we have vastly different motivations and training.  Political scientist bloggers, in my experience, are far more interested in explanation of political phenomena and far less interested in advocacy. (I had a minor argument on this subject last spring with a journalist who didn't understand my reticence to express my feelings about political parties.) For example, when Bernstein sought to explain Republican obstructionism on the New Start Treaty during the recent lame duck session, Sprung interpreted that as contrarianism, and questioned why we should accept crass political calculation by our elected officials:
Where Bernstein (judging from his blog's Comments section) does disturb many readers -- me included -- is in his suggestion that it is politicians' right, indeed their duty, to be guided entirely by such calculations. He argues, in effect, that the law of political survival is a necessary, natural, sufficient and therefore desirable prime mover of politicians' words and actions.
I don't want to speak for Jon here (I'm sure he'll have a good post along these lines up shortly), but my response to this is as follows: I don't celebrate this system. But to complain that politicians will be guided by political calculation is like complaining that businesspeople will be guided by profit maximization or that athletes are too obsessed with winning. It's not a character flaw; it's their line of work. Indeed, hoping for politicians who are untethered from political calculations is not only naïve, but sometimes quite dangerous.

I think you can learn much about Bernstein's viewpoint from his post on one of my favorite films, "Gangs of New York."  Note this bit on the film's portrayal of competing interests:
[I]ts idea of politics entirely lacks Mr. Smithism. Politics, in this movie, is serious business indeed -- and there's no way that Leo's Amersterdam is going to save the day by giving a dramatic speech. Nor is it the case that Bill is corrupt while Amsterdam is pure; Leo's character, I think, is one we can eventually feel okay about rooting for, but only eventually, when his blood feud broadens into something a little less personal and vindictive. At least, perhaps that's the case. And even then, he's certainly no Mr. Smith; he's no Progressive out for some abstract common good, but a partisan fighting for his group with whatever means he can find. Accepting democracy as a politics in which interests are legitimate is rare in the movies, and I think that's what Scorsese gives us here.
As individuals, we certainly have our preferences as to which policies should be enacted and which candidates and parties should be elected. But as political scientists, we are not interested in advancing one policy or party or candidate over another, and we do not believe that we can get to a better society by removing politics from the world. We accept that politics will exist wherever two or more people are trying to make a collective decision, and we view it as our job to explain how this works.