Monday, February 28, 2011

Big time tweeting

I'm honored that the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza has named me one of Colorado's top tweeters. Congratulations to Lynn Bartels, Curtis Hubbard, Colorado Pols, and Progress Now Colorado, who share this honor.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Hey little girl, is your daddy home?

The Denver Post today provides us with the three favorite songs of each of the 3,000 people currently running for mayor of Denver. In most cases, these lists aren't particularly revealing about the type of mayor the candidate would turn out to be. But I was struck by one of them: Chris Romer -- a recent state senator and the son of a former governor -- claims his favorite song is Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire."

Let me just submit that "I'm on Fire" is nobody's favorite song. If you were to rank the top 500 Springsteen songs (and you probably could), "I'm on Fire" would probably come in somewhere south of 450, if it even made the list. Sure, it was a hit, but only in the sense that virtually everything on the "Born in the USA" album became a hit, in the same way that any show sandwiched between "Friends" and "Seinfeld" was going to be a hit, even if it starred Jonathan Silverman and Ernest Borgnine. And even if Romer just wanted to give a shout out to Boss fans, why choose this piece?

There was actually one other politician who listed "I'm on Fire" as a favorite song. That would be Barack Obama. My hypothesis is that this is a form of dog-whistle politics. The Denver mayor's race is a crowded field consisting largely of Democrats in an officially nonpartisan race. Romer is signaling to the largely Democratic electorate that he is the true Obama Democrat in the race.

Okay, it's thin gruel, but I can't come up with any other reason for listing that song as a favorite.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Takin' care of business, Linc style

More by the artist here.

Selleck Waterfall Sandwich

And with that, the Internet came to an end. It's been fun.

Is uncertainty really the problem?

I found this AP coverage of possible teacher layoffs in Wisconsin rather confusing. Here's how the author, Patrick Condon, opens the story:
Wisconsin school districts are warning teachers that their contracts might not be renewed as Gov. Scott Walker's plan to cut nearly all public employees' collective bargaining rights remains in limbo.

The proposal took a concrete step forward Friday when Republicans in the state Assembly abruptly approved the bill and sent it to the Senate after three straight days of debate and amid confusion among Democrats. But with all 14 Democratic state senators still out of state, another stalemate awaits the measure that Walker insists will help solve budget deficits and avoid mass layoffs.
Condon makes it sound like the reason for the layoff warnings is uncertainty, which has been created by Democratic senators leaving the state. Gov. Walker's proposal to strip the unions of collective bargaining rights, conversely, is portrayed in this story as the way to avoid the layoffs. Condon then continues,
The legislative gridlock prompted the Wisconsin Association of Schools Boards to warn districts that they have until Monday to warn teachers of possible nonrenewal of contracts. That's because if Walker's bill becomes law, it would void current teacher collective bargaining agreements that lay out protocol and deadlines for conducting layoffs. [Emphasis added].
Okay, now it sounds like the layoff warnings went out not because of uncertainty, but because if the governor's proposal becomes law, teachers will lose their job protections and school districts will lose funds to keep them employed. That's how one teacher interviewed for the story sees it:
Despite the uncertainty created by the absence of the Senate Democrats, who fled more than a week ago to block a vote on Walker's bill, Marshfield kindergarten teacher Jane Cooper said she blames Republicans.

"They are trying to bust our union," Cooper said. "That is huge."
Negotiations are difficult to cover, since different sides will interpret events differently and try to spin reporters. But this article doesn't seem to know what it's saying.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Government as a business

Matt Yglesias and Steve Greene both hit on an important theme today: the rather perverse notion that government should be run like a business. As Steve notes, school administrators who follow this logic end up seeking to remove special needs kids from schools because they're too costly to educate. Matt takes the argument to its logical conclusion: people over the age of 70 are unproductive and harmful to the bottom line, and should therefore be terminated and harvested for their organs.

There's nothing wrong with the idea that governments should be run more efficiently or with better customer service, and if that's what people mean, they should say that. But to say that governments should be run like businesses is to reveal ignorance about what either governments or businesses -- or both -- are. Businesses exist to turn a profit. They provide goods and services to others only insofar as it is profitable to do so, and they will set prices in a way that ends up prohibiting a significant sector of the population from obtaining those goods and services. And that, of course, is fine, because they're businesses. Governments, conversely, provide public goods and services -- things that we have determined are people's right to possess. This is inherently an unprofitable enterprise. Apple would not last long if it had to provide every American with an iPad.

I'm also always surprised to hear people tout the efficiency of the private sector. There's a great deal of inefficiency in the private sector, of course. How many CEOs end up hiring dim, unqualified brothers-in-law or grandkids who are taking time off college? And that's just not considered a big deal as long as it doesn't noticeably hurt the bottom line. If a member of Congress does that, it becomes a major scandal.

This isn't to say that government is a paragon of efficiency and thrift, either, but there's a whole subfield in journalism and several citizen activist groups devoted to rooting out waste in the public sector. There's not much interest in rooting out waste in the private sector unless a business is seen as misusing public money (e.g.: Halliburton). And again, that's fine -- they're private entities that are free to do what they want with their money. But let's not just assume they're waste-free and that our governments would improve by emulating them.

Public unions and performance

To follow up on my previous post on public sector unions (also see John Sides' summary of recent posts on the topic), I stumbled across this recent survey by 24/7 Wall Street of the best- and worst-run states. According to the report,
Our writers looked at hundreds of data sets ranging from debt rating agency reports to violent crime rates, unemployment trends and median income. Of those, we chose what we considered to be the 10 most important ranking of financial and overall government management.
Below is a scatterplot showing the relationship between public sector unionization and the state rankings by 24/7 Wall Street. I have plotted the latter variable in reverse order so that better-run states (those with lower rankings) appear toward the top of the graph.
The chart suggests a modest but positive relationship between the two: greater public unionization is associated with better governance. Now, this doesn't mean the relationship is causal, and the correlation is low and falls short of statistical significance. Plus, there are plenty of other surveys of state governance out there. But I just wanted to throw this out there as possible evidence of the sort of benefits that public unions can provide, even if they cost the public more. At the very least, there's no evidence here that public unions are hurting the states.

Power: real and perceived

James Battista has a piece (gated) in the most recent State Politics and Policy Quarterly examining formal and perceptual power among leaders in the state legislatures. That is, he compares an index of actual formal powers of statehouse speakers (control of the legislative agenda, appointing committee chairs, etc.) with the results of a survey of legislators about how powerful they believe those speakers to be. The result? Essentially no correlation between the two.

This is an important reminder that there are important factors out there determining power besides formal rules. According to the formal rules, California should have among the weakest political parties in the country; it has the strongest. Similarly, if a legislative leader is determined and clever enough, and if the political culture allows it, strong leadership may emerge, regardless of what the rules officially dictate.

I regret that Battista's analysis excluded Nebraska, as I'm curious where that state would show up in the survey.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Gold, slavery, and Colorado

Susan Schulten has another fascinating post up at the NYT's Civil War site. This one is about the interrelatedness of the slavery crisis in the East and the search for gold and silver in the West. As she notes, hundreds of thousands of prospective miners came to the western parts of the Kansas and Nebraska territories in the 1850s hoping to get rich. When southern states seceded in 1861, leaving the U.S. Congress almost devoid of Democrats, Republicans sought to quickly establish sympathetic territories and states in these newly populated regions. Enter the Colorado and Nevada territories. An interesting story and definitely worth the read.

Update: You can hear more about the intrigue surrounding Colorado's eventual statehood in Susan's interview on Colorado Public Radio. As she reports, Republicans pushed for Colorado and Nevada to gain statehood in the early 1860s as a way of assuring more Electoral College votes for Lincoln, whose reelection looked doubtful until shortly before the 1864 election. However, Colorado's own residents voted against statehood at that point, apparently concerned with the costs of self-government. Of course, Colorado became a state just in time to help Republicans rig win the presidential election of 1876.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Public unions and debt

John Sides has but together some graphs examining the relationship between the extent of unionization in the public sector and a state's debt load. I find the one reproduced below the most telling:
John is wise to point out that there are probably other important variables to consider here, and also that the relationship described in these plots is descriptive, not necessarily causal. The point is well taken, but let's just suppose for a moment that this relationship is causal, and that greater unionization leads to greater public debt load. Just how shocking should this revelation be?

Not very. The main benefits that union membership conveys are higher pay and improved working conditions, both of which cost the employer (in this case, the public) more. So if a greater percentage of your state's work force is unionized, you're probably going to be paying more for the labor. And since labor costs are usually contractual and not easily cut in the short run, states with greater labor costs will go into debt more quickly when revenues take a dive. This shouldn't be particularly controversial or surprising. 

What the evidence above doesn't show is what citizens get by paying more for public labor. With higher pay, you can usually attract better trained workers, turnover will be lower, services will be of higher quality, etc. (By the way, the two states with the lowest public sector unionization rates -- Louisiana and Mississippi -- have the highest corruption rates.) 

Sometimes good things -- even when they come from the government -- cost more. A country that devotes 1% of its budget to defense will probably have a lower debt load than one that devotes 20%, and a country that slashes education spending will no doubt see less red on its balance sheets than one that doesn't. But where would you rather raise your kids?

I'll have the lot

Sorry, tons of travel lately and very little time to post. Sabbatical has been surprisingly busy. But here are a few things you all might enjoy:

Friday, February 18, 2011

What counts; what doesn't

Robert F. Kennedy:
Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

We don't need any stinkin' primaries

Remember how California created a top-two primary system last year designed to help de-polarize the state legislature? And you know how I'm always saying that parties find a way to overcome regulations designed to weaken them? Well, guess what the California Republican Party is trying to do -- nominate candidates prior to the primary election. This would come in the form of a pre-primary endorsement that could include funding and mentions in party literature.

Their new rules even contain a litmus test. Incumbents are automatically re-nominated, unless they've done one of the following:
(a) voted for a tax increase as scored by the Legislative Analyst, (b) voted to put a tax increase on the ballot as scored by the Legislative Analyst, (c) voted against an official position of the Caucus, (d) endorsed or supported a non-Republican candidate over a Republican candidate for an elected office.
Okay, I suppose that list is a bit redundant. If you've voted for a tax increase, you've probably voted against an official position of the Caucus. But whatever.

Some interesting questions remain, of course. Will this new system produce more or less polarized legislators than the previous one? What happens if the party converges on one good party candidate but a different one manages to win in the primary? Will the party back the second-best conservative as the true Republican?

Good stuff to watch.

(h/t Eric McGhee and Wesley Hussey)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The individual mandate

My kids' public schools are insisting that we buy Valentine's Day cards to distribute to the other kids. Yes, that would be the government mandating that we purchase a product from the private sector.

Save me, Judge Vinson!


In his comment on my post on party insiders and outsiders, Greg Koger suggests that a better term for party "outsiders" might be "Progressives," in the early 20th century sense of the term. And yes, Greg's right, in that these party outsiders tend to embrace populism while bashing corporations, just as the original Progressives did. But this just reminds me how much I hate what's happened to the term "progressive" in recent years.

It's now very hard to find a Democratic politician who calls him or herself a liberal. When pressed, most will say they prefer the term "progressive." But there are two problems with this. First is that "progressive" already has a meaning in American politics. It refers to an early 20th century movement and party that was responsible for reining in corporations, extending the franchise to women, establishing direct democracy, creating a tiered federal income tax, etc. They also didn't like immigrants or the existing political parties of the time and creatinged some rather silly laws to address both. At any rate, it's a definable movement that still has relevance today. Schwarzenegger often refers to Progressive leaders like Gov. Hiram Johnson in his speeches, and proponents of things like term limits and campaign finance reform are basically adopting Progressive arguments in their advocacy.

Now, I recognize that languages and words evolve over time. "Federalist" doesn't mean today what it did 200 years ago, for example. But in this case, there's no real value in referring to those on the left as progressives. That's the second problem -- "progressive" in the modern definition conveys no information that "liberal" doesn't convey. Liberal politicians just want to be called progressive because the word liberal has become unpopular. I suppose in a few years, when "progressive" has become unpopular, some left-leaning politician will asked to be called a mugwump or something. But a) it won't contain any additional information, and b) it won't be true.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Governmental cloaking device engaged

Suzanne Mettler has a piece in Perspectives on Politics on the invisibility of government programs in the United States. Mettler nicely shows how lots of Americans benefit from government programs and don't even know it. In the chart below, nicely reproduced by Henry at the Monkey Cage, Mettler displays various government programs and the percentage of beneficiaries who claim in a survey that they have not used a government social program:

The point here is not that Americans are stupid or uninformed. It is just that most of these programs are designed to be invisible. Many Americans are distrustful of government, for example, but the government nonetheless wants to encourage home ownership. So rather than create a federal bureau that hands middle income people homes, it tinkers with the tax code to allow people to take a tax deduction on their home mortgage interest. That program will cost taxpayers more than $100 billion this year, and most of its beneficiaries don't even realize that the government is helping them out.

In many ways, it's not surprising that the concept of a tax increase is anathema today -- people don't think they're getting anything for their money. In fact, they're getting quite a bit, but the government goes out of its way to hide that fact.

Monday, February 7, 2011

What makes an outsider?

Like Jonathan Bernstein, I have some concerns about Nate Silver's graphical overview of the 2012 Republican presidential candidates. However, Jon focuses on the horizontal axis; I'm concerned with the vertical one, which charts insider/outsider status. Here's the graph:

I have to admit to being a little fuzzy on this whole insider/outsider thing. So, let's see, Mitt Romney is an insider, while Sarah Palin's an outsider. Yet Palin has a show on Fox and was the most recent Republican vice presidential nominee, while Romney has worked in the private sector for years, has never served in a presidential administration or on a national ticket, was governor of a lefty state, and is a Mormon. Why is he inside and she outside?

There might be a sense in which insider/outsider status is less a function of résumé than of disposition. Palin is a bit of a bomb thrower. She occasionally insults establishment figures within the GOP and even invites challenges to their nominees in primaries. Romney doesn't seem interested in making enemies within the party; he wants to unite as many factions as possible.

Forgive my recent Nebraska obsession, but this is reminding me a bit of Democratic senators (and former governors) Ben Nelson and Bob Kerrey. Nelson is quite conservative as a Democrat, but he's generally deferential toward the party and doesn't make a lot of waves. As senator, though, Kerrey made a habit of pissing off party leaders despite being closer to the party median than Nelson. So, in some sense, Kerrey was more of a party outsider than Nelson.

But maybe we should figure out exactly what these terms mean.

On the marginal relevance of national party chairs

Jordan Ragusa has an intriguing post up investigating the tenures of national party chairmen since 1856. There are a few nice findings in there, but what particularly caught my attention was the relationship between a party's success in congressional election and a party chair's likelihood of retaining his position. The relationship is a big nothing -- a chair is no more likely to keep his job if his party just saw epic wins in the House or got decimated.

The finding suggests that party insiders recognize that the choice of chair is relatively unimportant to the fortunes of the party. Yes, generally it's nice to have a unifying figurehead in office and to avoid appearances of incompetence and malfeasance, if for no other reason than these things affect the value of the party brand. And while I'm quite confident that the Democrats would have done well in 2006 even without Howard Dean at the helm, his 50-state strategy could possibility be credited for unexpected Democratic pickups in places like Virginia and Montana. But overall, this job doesn't matter that much, and party elites seem to know it.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

I am not a super-villain... er, crook

I just saw "Megamind" with my daughter yesterday. I'm surprised I haven't seen this analogy written down anywhere, but it struck me that Megamind was a whitewashed version of Richard Nixon's autobiography, conveniently ending in 1969.

If you haven't seen the film (and I encourage you to do so), Megamind (Nixon) comes to Earth as an infant, clearly very gifted but constantly thwarted by a privileged and more handsome visitor, Metroman (JFK). By sheer luck, Metroman is raised by a fine, well-to-do family and given every advantage in life, while Megamind is raised by poor, hardened criminals. Any time Megamind tries to demonstrate his skills, he is always cast as the neer-do-well, while Metroman is treated as the hero. Finally, Megamind/Nixon realizes that he'll never be appreciated for his skills, so he devotes himself to thwarting Metroman. And the two commence a career of working against each other for control of Metro City (the USA).

And then one day, Metroman is gone, leaving Megamind briefly thrilled but eventually flummoxed -- he has defined himself for so long as the anti-Metroman, he doesn't know how to comport himself. Meanwhile, an interim super -- a true sociopath named Titan (LBJ) -- takes control of Metro City and wreaks all sorts of havoc. Megamind finally decides to conquer Titan and rule Metro City as a benevolent hero. The citizens are somewhat distrustful of him but come to respect and even love him as their leader. The film conveniently ends before Megamind uses illegal funds to break into the offices of his political adversaries and is hounded from office.

Anyway, it's a truly delightful film, with plenty of obvious references to the "Superman" franchise, but hidden just slightly below the surface is an enjoyable biopic of our 37th president. They should show it to visitors at the Nixon Library.

Friday, February 4, 2011

10,000 doors

Most of the Nebraska senators to whom I spoke during my recent trip expressed the value of door-to-door campaigning. Money and endorsements are nice, they said, but door-knocking is essential, allowing an underfinanced candidate to win. Conversely, a well endowed candidate who doesn't bother to meet constituents will lose.

Just how many doors are we talking about? There are approximately 35,000 Nebraskans per state legislative district. If you omit the children and account for the folks that live together, that comes to roughly 10,000 doors to knock on. Indeed, several senators cited the 10,000 figure to me.

Is it really possible for a politician to knock on 10,000 doors?

I've done some campaign door-knocking, and it's exhausting. But let's say it takes only about 30 seconds to check a door where no one's home, maybe leaving behind some campaign literature. It takes about a minute to briefly greet a person who really doesn't want to talk to a politician -- that's a lot of them. There are probably a relatively few folks who actually want to talk to or yell at a politician that comes to their door -- that could take five or ten minutes.  So let's suppose that the average door-knocking taking about a minute, probably more in sparsely populated rural districts.

10,000 minutes equals 167 hours of campaign time. If you do this 6 hours per day (grueling, but possible) you could reach 10,000 doors in under a month.

So yes, it's possible. It's a month when you're really doing nothing else, including whatever your day job is (Nebraska senators only make about $12,000 a year as legislators and thus need a regular job or personal wealth). On the other hand, actually meeting with constituents might be a good thing for the democratic system.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Second dispatch from Nebraska

The weather has improved considerably -- it's now sunny and over 20ºF! And I kid you not: this place is fascinating from a parties perspective. Here are some things I've learned so far:

  • The Speaker of the Unicam has very few formal powers. Both he and the committee chairs are elected by secret ballot (!), so he can't reward loyal members with sweet committee chairmanships. Nor can he reward or punish people using office funding or staff allocations, as those are required to be equal across offices. Nor can he directly assign bills to friendly or unfriendly committees. A particularly partisan and creative Speaker could, I suppose, come up with ways of controlling the agenda, but it would be real work.
  • Legislators love the Unicam. Legislators I've spoken to in other states often speak with reverence about their own state and some of their colleagues, but usually reference a "system" or "partisanship" or something else that prevents good ideas from becoming law. Nebraska, conversely, seems like a really great place to be a state legislator. The pay is terrible, but with only 49 members, no (official) parties, and no other chamber to whine about/mess things up, they all seem to know each other pretty well and don't see the value in demonizing one another.
  • What is good for legislators is not necessarily good for the folks outside. The parties, at various times in the past, have called for the legislature to become a partisan institution. Apparently, the calls for that were a bit louder a few years ago when there were more Democrats in the chamber and Republican activists thought they could more reliably prevail on legislation in a partisan system. But now with fewer than 15 registered Democrats in the chamber, Republicans figure they will win no matter what, and Dems agree.
  • There's broad agreement that the Unicam is becoming more polarized, and a variety of explanations as to why, including term limits, the influence of a very partisan Governor Heineman, and ramped up recruiting efforts by the Democratic Party. I witnessed a contentious debate about lawsuit immunity on the chamber floor yesterday that broke somewhat along party lines. I'm told this is unusual.
  • There's a secretive society of business leaders in Omaha called the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben (Nebraska spelled backwards). They're mostly focused on business development and philanthropy and host a bizarre annual ball that sounds like something out of Mardi Gras, but apparently they sometimes get involved in politics. I'm trying to learn more about them.
  • Lazlo's in Lincoln's Haymarket neighborhood brews some pretty decent beer.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The clapboard cake

I made this for my son's movie-themed birthday party this past weekend. Yellow cake covered with black (store-purchased) fondant.

First dispatch from Nebraska

I am in Lincoln, Nebraska right now conducting interviews about the nonpartisan state legislature here. It is currently 8 degrees Fahrenheit with blowing snow, and the conditions are considerably better than those I left behind in Denver. The legislators have all shown up for work, although several are surprised I made it out of Colorado.

One curious thing to report so far: Despite lacking parties since the 1930s, the legislative chamber does, in fact, have an aisle (see photo at left). I'm not sure yet who sits on which side, or whether the aisle itself migrates between roll call votes.

Due to weather conditions, I'm trying to spend as much time as possible inside the capitol building. I hope that doesn't end up skewing my results. So far, I can report that the officials I've met with have been very pleasant and accommodating, and they are extremely enamored of the chamber's nonpartisan tradition. I'm also pleased to note that the building has free public wi-fi, ample heat, and no security screening, making it one of the most welcoming capitols I've had the pleasure to visit.

I'm being told I need to try a runza, which is Lincoln's culinary claim to fame. I'm looking.