Thursday, June 30, 2016

The strange place of abortion in modern ideological politics

I suppose I should address that SCOTUS ruling, if Trump won't.  In political science terms, abortion is a weird issue, and as usual, I go back to good, ole' Phil Converse and "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics."  Warning: unmutual political thoughts to follow.

Is a blastocyst/zygote/embryo/fetus/whatever a human being?

1)  If yes, then abortion at that stage is murder, and must be treated as such, with appropriate criminal penalties.

2)  If no, then abortion at that stage is not murder, and should be completely unrestricted.

One's position on abortion, then, should be determined by one's biological/philosophical interpretation of "human being."  Either it's murder or it's not.

And that has precisely what to do with the appropriateness of taxation to support a welfare state/social safety net (pick the term you prefer based on your policy preferences)?

Nothing.  Nothing whatsoever.  Which brings us to that article I mention over, and over again.  "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics," by Phil Converse.  Ideology is about constraint.  To be liberal is to be constrained to take liberal positions on multiple issues, and to be conservative is to be constrained to take conservative positions on multiple issues.  Constraint, though, is rarely logical.  And that's what's going on here.  There is no logical constraint that gets you high taxes to support wealth redistribution and lax abortion laws, nor supply-side economics and restrictive abortion laws.

Why?  Because abortion is really about when human life begins.  Wealth redistribution is about something else entirely.  They got nothin' to do with one another.  Who put them together?

Go read Political Ideologies and Political Parties in America, by Hans Noel.  Hans is actually a co-author on my favorite book to trash, The Party Decides, but he acknowledged its shortcomings long before people like Jonathan Bernstein, so give proper respect to Hans.  And his book on ideology really is important.

The critical idea is that coalition merchants basically put ideas together in the form of abstract log-rolls.  Modern liberalism comes about when the pro-choice side cuts a deal with the FDR/LBJ/welfare state-expanding side, along with the civil rights movement, and modern conservatism is the result of a deal cut between the white southerners ejected from the Democratic Party during the civil rights era, the business community, and eventually, the evangelicals over abortion/gay marriage etc.  These deals need leaders, and their work takes time and effort.  That's where Noel's argument gets its power.

When does human life begin, and what does the answer to that question have to do with the appropriateness of wealth redistribution?  I'll leave the first question to you.  The answer to the second question is, nothing.  But, your answer to the first tells me something about your beliefs on the second because you have been influenced by coalition merchants.

And so have the justices on the Supreme Court.  As far as I'm concerned, they're all just politicians in silly costumes.  I'll probably do a post on that eventually.

I'll leave you with this...


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Politicians don't pander, but Trump does

One of the more fascinating pieces of recent news was Trump backing away from his ban-all-muslims policy, which got me thinking about a very important book: Politicians Don't Pander, by Lawrence Jacobs and Robert Shapiro.  It's the kind of book I love-- surprising to lay-people, but logical and hard to refute.

The gist of it is that politicians don't really take insincere policy positions very often.  Instead, they look for ways to maximize the public appeal of their real positions.  Emphasis, strategic framing, all of that can play into how politicians portray their policy positions, but they don't tend to just pander.

In fact, if you look at the work of John R. Lott, most of the voting patterns of Members of Congress looks pretty sincere.  When legislators either announce their retirements, or lose a primary and then face a lame duck term or something like that, they are immune to electoral pressure for the rest of their time in office.  Does their voting behavior change?  Nope.  Not much at all.  Why?  It was sincere all along.

Most politicians are surprisingly sincere in their actual policy behavior. They'll try to pitch their positions strategically, sure, but they aren't just craven panderers.

And then there's Trump.  And his muslim ban.  He's walking it back.  Was the muslim ban sincere?  Is the less-extreme version sincere?  The point with Trump is that we can't tell.  What makes Trump different from politicians isn't that he's a straight talker.  What makes Trump different from politicians is that he does pander because he has no coherent thoughts on policy, because he hasn't had to deal with it before.  He says what he thinks will help him at the time.  That can be different when running in the Republican primary and when running in the general election.  We will see more changes.  Why?  Because unlike real politicians, Trump panders.

Now, go read Jacobs and Shapiro.  Trump is the exception because he isn't a politician.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

If you only love American music, you just suck

It's Tuesday.  Zika?  Dilma Rousseff?  And you probably only hear about Brazil because soon, a bunch of jock douchebags are going to go there, and run and jump around like a bunch of assholes in the hope that someone will put a stupid necklace around their necks.  I hate sports.  Too bad.  Brazil has a great musical culture.  And I don't mean "Girl from Ipanema."  I hate that damned song.


... but ignore the state-by-state polls for now

Yesterday, I argued that it was time to start taking HRC's lead in the national polls seriously.  Short of a major event to change the dynamics of the campaign, which is, of course, possible, she is the likely winner in November.  So, we should all obsess over the national polling averages to an unhealthy level.  Because really, if you read this pretentious, little blog, you weren't doing that already...

Of course, we don't elect presidents by a nationwide popular vote.  We have a convoluted vote aggregation system that allocates "electoral votes" in a winner-take-all manner by state (except Nebraska and Maine), and whoever gets over 269 wins.  So, we should watch the state polls, right?

Not so fast.  First, while a popular vote/electoral vote split is possible (2000), it requires an extraordinarily close election (like 2000).  If HRC's lead is in the 6 to 7 point range, it is closer to Obama's lead over McCain in 2008.  You don't get a popular vote/electoral vote split when one candidate has a 6 point lead in the popular vote.

HRC's lead will probably shrink.  That big a lead is just absurdly high and unstable.  (Watch my will power...  Not... going... to... make... the... obvious... joke... )  If and when it does, that is when to start paying attention to the state-by-state polls, because that will tell you which ones to watch.

So, this all comes down to some basic statistics and political science.

1)  Swing states tend to swing together.  The basic underlying forces of an election operate nationwide, which pull all states together.  So, whatever tends to pull Ohio in one direction tends to pull Florida the same way.  That's why we look at the national polls now.  Yes, it confuses some people that the national economy matters more than state-level economic data, but the world does not conform to your expectations.

2)  The potential versus actual battlegrounds.  This is about costs.  Running a campaign is expensive.  Here are the main potential battlegrounds, given the partisan balances of the states:  Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Colorado, North Carolina, Missouri.  Then maybe add in New Hampshire, New Mexico or a few other/smaller states depending on circumstances, but the point is that there are a lot of people in potential battleground states.  In reality, that will get narrowed.  And we don't know yet where.  Probably Ohio and Florida because it's usually Ohio and Florida, but until we know where, we don't know which states to watch.  A few cycles ago, we wouldn't have known to watch Virginia, and that's the point!  If the battlegrounds can change, we need to wait to see what they are this cycle.

3)  Remember that we need a lot of polls for the averaging technique to work.  We won't have that, particularly in the right battleground states, until much later.

So, if you go over to RealClearPolitics or the other sites right now, they will give you the current state-level polls and fret-and-fuss about how such-and-such a VP nominee might affect the electoral map, but that's all bullshit right now.  As I said yesterday, the nationwide polling averages tell you how things stand right now.  HRC has a clear lead.  State-level analysis or anything like that?  It just doesn't make sense yet, and won't for a while.

And if Trump is dumb enough to waste his efforts trying to win New York and California, it won't matter anyway.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Let's start paying attention to the polls

It is now time to pay attention to the polls.  Not any one poll, but the polling averages.

The RealClearPolitics polling average puts HRC ahead of Trump by an average of 6.7 points.  Pay attention to that, not the 12 point lead in the latest WaPo poll.  Run a lot of polls, and some will give you outlying results.  That's why we look at averages.

Do you need more than that?  No.  Perhaps you have heard of Nate Silver, a man whose powers of mathematics are so great that they allowed him to travel back in time and invent the field of statistics!  Why, I heard he once poisoned a man in Reno just to use a survival model to see how long it would take him to die!  (Trust me, that was funny if you're a statistics geek).

Anyway, there are a lot of prognosticators who use a lot of bells and whistles.  They add nothing.  Just watch the arithmetic mean of the polls.  Everything else is just a show for the rubes.

And what the polling averages are telling us now is that HRC has maintained a consistent lead since wrapping this thing up.  You have to go back to mid May to find that cluster of polls with Trump holding a narrow lead.  So, what was I saying then?  Look for yourself here.  Specifically, scroll down to that section with "BIG CAVEAT," in all caps.

As I said then, Sanders was still either deluding himself or lying to his followers about his chances.  Now that he is in the fading process and moving towards backing HRC, the Democrats are unifying, and HRC is taking the lead.  Her lead his held since.  Maybe we can dispense with the discussion of whether or not HRC is a weak candidate.  As you can see here, I never really bought that.

Now go back to my April 20 post.  I said that this would be an entertaining but inconsequential campaign because opinions of HRC and Trump are just already locked in.

What would have to happen to take HRC's lead away?  Here are some possibilities:

1)  An economic collapse.  Always a possibility, particularly with Brexit.  Never discount the chances of this.

2)  An uncomplicated terrorist attack, i.e., without the hate crime/assault weapon angles to complicate the politics.

3)  An Eagleton event.  Look him up, kids.

4)  Anti-Trump riots backfiring against HRC.

5)  A Nader-type third party candidate.

That's five off the top of my head.  Nobody should have any certainty about anything in this batshit crazy election.  Maybe it's time to resurrect my 2016 disclaimer, but HRC has a lead.  It is relatively stable, or as stable as anything can be right now.

For now, watch that polling average.  You now have my permission to obsess over it.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

A side note on Brexit and the possible prescience of Charles Stross

I recently read Halting State, by Charles Stross.  Not his best, in my opinion, but fun.  The book was set in a near future Scotland, which had voted for independence, and joined the EU.  Now that the UK voted for Brexit, Scotland is reconsidering the independence vote.  We'll see, Charlie...

George F. Will supports Hillary Clinton

Yup.  You read that right.  And it makes sense.  George F. Will is the living embodiment of sneering elitism, and Trump is the embodiment of bombastic anti-intellectualism.  Of course Will must support the candidate who supports higher taxes than he wants but doesn't fling her own feces at passers-by.  Of course, I must always bear a grudge against Will for a long-ago column lamenting the fact that some professors insist on wearing blue jeans in the classroom, which I have done every day of my professional career, but I'll let that slide today and talk about the issue at hand.

Will doesn't just look at Trump and see recklessness.  Will comes from what I call the Chamber of Commerce wing of the Republican Party.  This creates the potential for a... buzzword!  Long ago, E.E. Schattschneider (fuck you, auto-correct, and fuck you, George Will for disapproving of me for typing "fuck you") wrote a classic in political science called A Semisovereign People.  (Again I say, fuck you, auto-correct, "semisovereign" was EE's word, not mine).  Part of the book was about party change and how "cross-cutting issues" lead to intra-party divisions, and change over time.  See?  Buzzword!  The division between Trump and Will is a classic demonstration of a cross-cutting issue within the Republican Party.  Will is what Paul Krugman would call a freshwater economics type.  Deregulation, low taxes and... free trade.  Trump has taken up the banner of trade protectionism, and with it, a kind of anti-intellectual isolationism that is incompatible with the George Will faction of the party that was leery of Trump anyway.

Trade is a weird issue.  I keep getting asked whether it has the potential to fracture the party system, and it just doesn't have enough direct impact on enough people's lives to have a big electoral impact.  But, it is one of the many issues that contributes to tension between Trump and the neverTrumpers, who can now count George Will among their members.

To be sure, Will has a lot of issues with Trump besides trade.  I am vastly oversimplifying for the sake of a connection to questions I have been asked in the past.  I just think it's a useful connection.

I wonder how many Silkwood showers Will had to take after announcing his Hillary support?

If you don't love bluegrass, you hate America

One more on leavin'...  Besides, this is the best duo around.


Saturday, June 25, 2016

What Brexit means for November

OK, nobody really cares what I think about the UK or Europe.  I study American politics, so here's what Brexit means for us.

Direct implications:  a very, very minor benefit for The Donald.  Anything that hurts the economy helps the party out of power at the presidential level.  The stock market tells you that pretty much everyone with a brain and a stake thinks that Brexit is economically bad.  I'll leave it to others to discuss the dysfunction of Brussels and whether or not it is worth the disruption for the UK, but economically, this helps pretty much nobody.  The damage to us is minimal.  Stock traders over-react to everything, and it is unlikely that Brexit will cause anything even remotely like the 2008 worldwide financial collapse, but we trade with Britain and Europe.  So, what hurts them hurts us.  That helps the out-party at the presidential level.  No wonder Donny-boy was happy about the vote.

Indirect implications:  the rise of nationalism?  Does the nationalistic impulse behind the Brexit vote presage a pro-Trump vote as a similar nationalistic vote here?  That's a much bigger stretch.  As I said in yesterday's main post, the trouble we had trying to study the Brexit vote was that there was really nothing like it.  Presidential elections?  Don't we have those, like, every four years, or something?  They can default to normal patterns for which there were no such fall-backs in Britain.

Nationalism is real, and nationalistic impulses are behind both Brexit and Trump support, but these are very different types of elections, and I don't see American voters taking cues from Brits.

If you don't love country, you hate 'mer'ca

There are so many great country songs about leavin' that I hardly knew where to start.  But here's my favorite...


Friday, June 24, 2016

If you don't love jazz, you hate America

Yeah, um...


And to top it all off, Ralph Stanley just died...

As Ray Wylie Hubbard once said, in music, Ralph Stanley has killed more people than Ice-T.


On stocks today...

I have a lot of interests.  Politics, music, sci-fi, heck, even fancy pocket knives.  Among my more serious interests: investment.  Markets are panicking.  Don't panic.  The ironic thing you learn when you study the market is that you shouldn't do anything in circumstances like this, or really any circumstance.  That's right.  The smartest investment strategy is to ignore market movement.  Period.  The markets have already gone down.  Don't sell after they go down.  What does Warren Buffett say you should do?  Put your money in a passively managed S&P index fund and leave it there.  Only those with inside information have any business trading stocks.  In other words, unless you are risking a prison term, don't trade.  Just invest.

If you have a time machine, then go back in time, and sell your stocks yesterday afternoon.  Then, go back a century-plus and kill baby Hitler.  That was a stupid debate, wasn't it?

Then relax.

One of my annoying musical puns that everyone ignores...

Brexit, pursued by a bear (market)

Brexit: When political science does and doesn't make a prediction

I'm going to start with a little story.  There will be a lot of quoted quotes.  I'll dispense with most of the quote marks.  You'll see why.

My grad school mentor, Nelson W. Polsby, was fond of referencing former Washington Post editor Bill Bradlee, who used to say that he wanted subscribers to pick up their copy of the paper every morning, look at the headline, and say, "holy shit!"  (Nelson's wording).  Nelson thought that journalists would need to call up professors and ask, "holy shit, right prof?  Holy shit?"  And our job, according to Nelson, was to tell them, "no, not holy shit.  This is exactly what we expect, and well within the scope of history, and here are the books you should read."

1)  You can see why I dispensed with most of the quote marks.

2)  If you are one of the very few regular readers, you can see either Nelson's influence on me, or why I latched onto him in grad school, and not somebody else.  I do get a kick out of telling people they need to read the books I've already read.

Anyway, let's check the Washington Post web page this morning and... OH HOLY FUCKING SHIT!

Wait a minute.  Let me put on my 'professor hat.'  I'm supposed to tell everyone that this isn't a holy shit moment.  Scope of history, nothing new under the sun, and... oh I can't do it.  Holy fucking shit!  Brexit is happening!

So, Brexit is happening, but Grexit didn't, even though Greece had to close their banks and impose currency controls for days, giving them all of the pain of Grexit with none of the benefits... Ummm...

Time for some admissions.  I made wrong calls in both cases.  Once Greece closed their banks that summer, I thought Grexit was a done deal.  Once the polls started to shift this week, I thought Brexit was moving off the table.  Yeah, maybe this is why I'm an Americanist.

But there is more to it, and the title of the post hints at it.  With Brexit, we were doing something that we call, in social science, trying to predict outside the bounds of our data set.  A nationwide referendum on leaving the EU just isn't something we had seen before.  Of course, we had seen the Scotland vote on leaving the UK, and they stayed, but not the same thing.  This is a unique event.  The problem with a unique event is that we have no models.

Contrast that with presidential general elections (as opposed to primaries, which, see my comments here).  Same thing, over and over again, so he have good models.  Brexit?  No history.  No history means no models.  No models means uncharted territory.

Yes, I was surprised.  The polls were close, but moving against Brexit.

Still, sorry Nelson, but this is a "holy shit" moment.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Why the House of Representatives must work the way it does, and why sit-ins can't work (I promise not to talk about guns)

How many coworkers do you have?  Five?  Ten?  How many are batshit crazy?  (And if you say "none," take a look in the mirror).

Now, imagine if you had 434 coworkers, and the nutty ones reinforced their own worst impulses.  Congress has a lot of crazy people.  I wrote a paper about it: Going Off The Rails On A Crazy Train.  To my knowledge, I am the only political scientist ever to use the phrase "zoological scatology" in a publication, and I might be the only one ever to get away with the phrase "batshit crazy" in peer review.  Bow down before my Carlin-fu.

Now, imagine if there were no rules in the House of Representatives.  Imagine if anyone in Congress could force a vote on any bill they wanted.  Chaos.  Vote after vote after vote on petty, stupid shit, poorly thought out bills, wildly unconstitutional bills, bills that contradict other bills, no time for even staff to read the bills, no time for anything...

There needs to be some mechanism...  Some Hobbesian beast must arise from the depths... Some... leviathan.  Some... Legislative Leviathan, by Gary C. Cox and Mathew D. McCubbins, 1993.

Congress can't vote on everything.  Somebody needs to exercise what we call "negative agenda control," which means somebody needs to block certain items-- a lot of items, actually-- from ever getting a vote, in order to prevent chaos.  That "somebody," that Hobbesian leviathan, is the majority party.  If the majority party in the House of Representatives doesn't want a bill to come up for a vote, it won't.  Why not?  Because the Speaker of the House has the power to set the legislative schedule.  He can just not schedule a vote.  It is a little more complicated than that, but not much, and for a simple blog post, that'll do fine.

Is there a way around it?  Yes.  A "discharge petition."  Yes, I just used the word, "discharge," in the context of Congress, and you can't un-read it.  Ha-ha!

Here's how it works.  If 218 Representatives sign the petition, the Speaker has to call for a vote on a "closed rule," meaning no amendments allowed.  218 is a bare majority.  Cool deal, right?  Wrong.  They never work.  Well, almost never.  The last time one worked?  2002.  It hasn't worked in 14 years.  Why?  1)  The majority party is unified, so their unwillingness to vote for the bill and their unwillingness to sign the petition are the same things, and 2) the Speaker will shoot their puppies if they sign the petition, and only Ted Cruz is that sociopathic, and he's a Senator.  Discharge petitions don't work.

That brings us to this stupid, little sit-in.  It won't work.  It can't work.  Why aren't the Democrats focusing everyone's attention on their painful discharge?  Because they can't get the signatures, and they know it.  And they couldn't get the votes for passage even if they did get a floor vote.  The House cannot vote on every proposal.  The majority party exercises negative agenda control because if they didn't, the House would descend into chaos.

And that's different from our modern politics, how?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Does it matter if Donald Trump's campaign is broke?

In 2008, Barack Obama broke his pledge to accept federal matching funds because acceptance of those funds came with a string attached:  spending limits.   He realized that he could raise enough on his own to spend more than he could with matching funds.  McCain couldn't.  McCain was stuck with only around $80 million to around $300 million for Obama.  Despite that financial advantage, Obama did no better than political science models predicted.  The economy in 2008 was terrible.  A generic Democrat should have gotten between 53 and 55% of the vote.  Obama got 53%.  Money just doesn't matter that much.

You may have heard, but we may now be seeing the start of a campaign with an even greater mismatch.  Every job has at least one miserable task.  Mine?  Grading.  Grading sucks.  Every professor will give you that same answer.  Ask any politician what the worst part of the job is, and they'll all give you the same answer:  fundraising.  Nobody likes asking for money.  Donald Trump flat-out refuses to do it.  Why?  It's degrading, and his whole schtick is an obsession with dominance games.  So, his campaign has virtually no money.  He keeps promising to fund his own campaign, but as we all know, he is nowhere near as rich as he claims, and kind of a cheapskate.  My favorite of the latest is that he gave his old, dead (yay!) lawyer, Roy Cohn (yes, the very same), a pair of fake diamond cufflinks, dressed up as the real deal.

So, he won't fund his own campaign, and won't ask for money.  That will leave him at a "YUUUGE" financial disadvantage to HRC.

Does anyone read John Scalzi?  Is Nick Weinstein writing this thing?  Nobody gets my references.  But hey, nobody reads my blog, so screw it.

Anyway, the question is whether or not this matters.  It didn't in 2008, but HRC will be at a bigger financial advantage.  What Trump will have is the same thing he had in the primaries:  free media attention.  The press will cover his every tweet, and cut away from whatever they are doing for every press conference, every rally and every pseudo-event.

Trump's lack of campaign money is a symptom of an underlying problem, not the problem itself.  It is reflective of his lack of discipline and the fact that elites don't think he has a chance, as demonstrated by the fact that the betting markets still give HRC such an edge.  Don't write Trump off.  He has surprised us before, and anything can happen.  The economy is growing tepidly, the Democrats have won two in a row, and overconfident predictions are a recipe for crow-induced indigestion.  But, take Trump's ironic money troubles as a symptom of the bigger, underlying problem.

Then again, maybe Trump will pull a Ross Perot and withdraw from the race, citing Republican threats to his family.  Would it really be any crazier than Trump running out of money?

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Tuesday music: If you only love American music, you just suck

As promised, the new series.  I intended to focus mostly on non-western music, but with the Brexit vote coming up, this seemed like the best choice.  There is no more English song, no more English performer, and no more appropriate timing (only one day off)...


Can a candidate win by framing the election?

Yesterday's post addressed the issue-attention cycle, and how the need for news that's, you know, new, will shift attention to different issues over time.  Issues can, in principle, affect electoral outcomes.  As I have referenced before, the critical concept in political science is what we call "issue ownership."  Some issues are commonly thought to be Democratically-advantaged, and others Republican-advantaged.  As a general rule, voters trust Democrats on issues like Social Security, and as a general rule, voters trust Republicans on issues like international security.  If voters are thinking largely about the idea of privatizing Social Security, they will skew Democratic, whereas if they are thinking about ISIS, they will probably skew Republican.

There are two questions this raises.  First, to what degree must we pay attention to the day-to-day news cycle, assessing the implications of every news story for the horse race?  Second, to what degree can a campaign control the outcome by controlling the news cycle?

I've given you my answer to the first many times.  Not much at all.  Short of a 9/11-scale event, the day-to-day events in an election cycle are largely meaningless, and Sides & Vavreck's The Gamble is still right that most so-called "game-changing" events in a campaign do nothing.  Even Romney's 47% comment did roughly squat.  Yes, I obsess over the news, but I'm a sick, sick person.

The second is the harder question, and I'll refer to another important component of Sides & Vavreck's book.  Most campaigns are basically a tug-of-war.  Each candidate attempts to draw voters' attention, via the media, to the issues that most benefit them.  The problem is that since each candidate does it, unless one candidate is dramatically better at it, the net effect is that they basically cancel each other out.  Thus, in the end, the only things that really matter all that much are the fundamentals, like the state of the economy.  Sides & Vavreck aren't quite as much on the fundamentalist end as I am, but few are.

What happens, though, when one campaign is incompetent?  I have asked before whether Trump is a political virtuoso, or the equivalent of "The Spice Girls," meaning a talentless hack whose schtick happened to appeal to one segment at one time.  At least Tony Clifton is entertaining, if you are a mean-spirited person like me.

Trump's campaign is showing all signs of gross ineptitude.  He finally got around to firing the campaign manager who assaulted a reporter, right after responding to a mass shooting/terrorist attack/hate crime by congratulating himself, and on and on and on.  His own party leaders are distancing themselves from him.  Paul Ryan has raised the idea of suing Trump as president.  Trump suggested that the drunken patrons of Pulse should have been armed, and shot up the place, and Wayne LaPierre responded by saying that Trump had gone too far.  The RNC is currently debating whether or not to change the rules to steal the nomination at the convention even though Trump didn't just get a plurality of the delegates-- he got a majority.

Right now, Trump looks like the most inept candidate we have ever seen. When he insisted that a judge be removed from his case solely on the basis of ethnicity, I pondered whether or not it was a Todd Akin-level mistake.  We're running a social science experiment.

If it is possible for one candidate to be too weak to set the agenda, it will be Trump.  If that advantages his opponent, HRC will win an election that the Democrats have no business winning.  The Democrats have won two in a row, and the economy is growing only tepidly.  However, if this is truly a mismatch, then Trump's ineptitude will allow HRC to frame the election in a beneficial way, and steal one for the Dems.

What would that frame be?  Competence.  As I wrote before, this is all about "valence."  If campaign competence matters, HRC will frame the election around the "valence" issue of policy competence (a distinction I take from Walter Stone's research with varying co-authors whose names I don't feel like looking up-- sorry), and win an election the Dems have no business winning.  Otherwise, the contest to frame the election is just a game of tug-of-war where everything cancels out, and we come down to the state of the economy.

I would like to thank the Republican Party for helping me run an experiment that we could never get through IRB* approval.  Thanks, guys!



*Institutional Review Board:  any research on human subjects must be reviewed in advance by the researcher's IRB to ensure that no harm will come to human subjects.  Bunch'a Killjoys...

Incidentally, can't wait for the new season of Killjoys...

Monday, June 20, 2016

The issue attention cycle: why guns won't disappear, but the issue will fade from the agenda

As promised yesterday, let's talk about why we'll stop talking about gun control very, very soon.  For all of my references to gun control supporters and opponents, it is worth remembering that very few people are truly, centrally motivated by guns as an issue.  Most people are partisans.  Guns are just one of the many issues that feed into partisanship.

What we discuss, then, is driven by the issue attention cycle.  That cycle frequently begins with a sudden, dramatic event.  Mass shootings, for example.  The cycle then moves to a discussion of potential policy responses.  Those responses depend largely on the "frame."  Note that there are three frames competing to explain Orlando:

1)  Guns
2)  Terrorism/radical Islam
3)  Anti-LGBT hate crimes

Policy responses depend on the frame.  Policy responses frequently take the form of "common sense."  Note that any appeal to "common sense" is a refusal to make a coherent argument.  It is, in fact, a denial of the responsibility to make a coherent argument, and an ad hominem attack on anyone who disagrees.  Common sense dictates that the earth is flat, matter is contiguous, heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones, and the sun revolves around the earth.  I have no patience for those who appeal to "common sense."

Whether policy change occurs or not depends on underlying political factors, specifically the preferences of those in control of each branch of government.  However, once events cease to occur, there is no longer anything for the media to cover.  Their attention must shift, and hence so must the public's.  At that point, gun control will fade from the public agenda.  That will occur either when negotiations within the Senate fail, leading to a down-vote on the measures that Murphy was pushing, or when the House defeats any gun control measures.  At that point, the story is over.

Which returns us to the basic observation about why nobody talks about those 10,000 people who die every day due to waterborne pathogens.  It just isn't news, so there is nothing to sustain the attention.  Instead, Americans ever-so-briefly obsess over 49 clubbers in Orlando, liberals because it involved guns, and conservatives because a muslim pulled the trigger, but in a few weeks, they won't even care about that.  They'll probably care too much about some idiotic sporting nonsense.  I hate sports.  Did I mention that I'm unmutual?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

What we talk about when we talk about guns, and why my approach is unmutual

Readers (at least those who haven't been chased away) may notice that I approach the political question of gun control in a manner that is rather unusual.  I have pointed out that each side tends to ignore counterarguments, I then pointed out the absurdity and moral hypocrisy of obsessing over gun deaths while ignoring far more widespread deaths due to causes like waterborne pathogens, I talked about sloppy comparisons to Australia (here and here), and I addressed the fact that engineers can work around narrow restrictions.  I have tried to keep things grounded in history and economics.

What I haven't done is tell you whether or not I like guns, or whether I think we would be better off with more or fewer guns, which is ironic because that's pretty much all you get from most gun control debates.

The political debate over gun control tends to be indistinguishable from a normative discussion of guns themselves.  Guns good!  So gun control bad!  Or, guns bad!  So gun control good!





Thank you, Phil.

Therein lies the basic problem about the debates over gun control.  Advocates of gun control are motivated primarily by negative attitudes towards guns themselves.  To a gun control advocate, guns kill, so guns are bad, so anything that restricts guns is good.  Opponents of gun control like guns.  They are motivated primarily by positive attitudes towards guns.  To an opponent of gun control, guns are defenders of liberty, and since liberty is good, guns are good, and since gun control restricts that which defends liberty, gun control is bad.  Few arguments on gun control are more sophisticated than Phil Hartman/Frankenstein's argument about fire.

And people are capable of more sophistication.  This may be the most surprising thing to read from me, but think about North Korea.  Only Donald Trump could defend Kim Jong Un, and yet few are dumb enough to advocate going to war with the DPRK.  Somehow, as I mentioned in an earlier post, gun control just brings out the derp in everyone.

So, a few more observations about why gun control debates tend to be so mind-numbingly stupid.

1)  Immediacy.  The fear of guns is a more immediate fear than the fear of a nuclear attack from North Korea.

2)  Tribalism.  Guns, and attitudes towards them signal tribal membership.

3)  Nobody studies economics, or thinks to apply it as a general tool of analysis.

4)  Tradeoffs are hard to accept.

5)  Unsolvable problems are hard to accept.

6)  Some people have biases towards action.

7)  Some people have biases towards inaction.

8)  Different circumstances can cause the same people to have different types of biases re: 6 & 7

For those who want me to get back to poll-crunching and such, don't worry!  Anthony Downs once wrote about "the issue attention cycle."  We'll stop talking about gun control pretty fast, and get back to talking about the unfathomable candidacy of Donald Trump.  There!  More political science for your Sunday!

Incidentally, though, people have been reading these posts, but nobody has said anything.  I am curious how people have thought about the unmutual perspective on the politics of gun control.

If you don't love bluegrass, you hate America

So it wasn't actually Southern, but...  (And for those concerned with history, the title is a joke since the piece is an instrumental).


Saturday, June 18, 2016

The AR-15

OK, I don't actually know much about the AR-15 specifically.  I know a little about guns from table top RPGs (think D&D, but modern, so with guns), but I know a lot about knives.  I got my first Swiss Army knife when I was a cub scout, around 8, and I have carried a pocket knife ever since, when legally allowed.

Different localities have different laws on knives, but at the federal level, there are some restrictions on "switchblades."  Let's get something out of the way right now.  Switchblades are stupid.  Even if an attacker wanted to use a knife as a weapon (and knives are problematic weapons for many reasons), a switchblade has two intrinsic problems:  1)  the mechanism is a failure point, and 2) the "k-chnk" noise nullifies the element of surprise.  There are other problems to conventional switchblade designs, which can be addressed with alternative engineering, but basically, switchblades are stupid.

Just because switchblades are stupid, though, doesn't mean people won't want them.  So, manufacturers have spent years finding ways to design knives that operate in ways that mimic switchblades without running afoul of switchblade laws.  The result has included the "assisted open" design.  Perhaps the most famous, at least among the knife crowd, is the "Kershaw leek," designed by Ken Onion (get it?).  Why is this not a switchblade?  Well, federal switchblade laws say that a knife is a switchblade if it has a button in the handle of the knife that triggers the mechanism releasing the blade.  That isn't how the leek is designed.  Instead, the blade itself has a blunt extension that sticks out past the other end when closed.  See that little triangle thingy when the knife is closed?  That's the blunt end of the blade.  Press it in, and you are pressing the blade out.  Once you press that out just enough, a spring takes over, and the blade shoots out.  Like a switchblade.  Functionally, exactly like a switchblade.  Except that instead of the button being in the handle, you are just pressing a "flipper" on the blade itself so that the blade "flips" open.

Not a switchblade, except that from a user's perspective, it operates exactly like a switchblade.  Assisted-opening mechanisms have been knife manufacturers' response to restrictions on switchblades, and anyone who wants a switchblade can get something that functions the exact same way but doesn't meet the technical definition.

The postscript here is Freddie Gray.  You probably know that name.  You know what the cops used as a reason to arrest him?  An assisted-open knife.  They called it a switchblade, even though it wasn't, under the legal definition.  Gee, I wonder if there was some characteristic of Freddie Gray that made the cops unlikely to apply the law in a fair way to him...  Gee, I wonder if that might have any additional relevance to any other discussion of the distinction between legal and illegal weapons...

So I promised a post on the AR-15.  What does any of this have to do with the AR-15?  Currently, gun control advocates are obsessed with banning either the AR-15 itself, or guns like it.  Ban the AR-15 itself, and its competitors would obviously gain a lot of market share.  Invest in whoever manufactures other assault rifles!  If somebody banned that style of gun?  Then watch how engineers find ways to build around the restrictions, just like knife manufacturers and assisted-opening mechanisms.  Engineers are smarter than gun control advocates, and there's no such thing as a set of rules that can't be hacked.

And that's before we get into the black market issue, the Ruby Ridge issue, and all of the other topics I have been addressing recently.

And yes, I own a Kershaw leek.  Just because they're stupid doesn't mean they aren't kinda cool.  It's a glorified letter opener.  I open letters with it.  Or, rather, I open junk mail with it.

If you don't love country, you hate 'mer'ca

Friday, June 17, 2016

If you don't love jazz, you hate America

OK, I'm reaching with this one, but it's great anyway

Guns, Australia and Ruby Ridge

Continuing on yesterday's Australia theme...

On April 19, 2011, George Stephanopoulos interviewed Donald Trump, and asked The Donald about getting the Saudis to increase oil production and bring down oil prices.  By the way, anybody check oil prices lately?  Regardless, here's how Trump said he would do it:

Trump:Oh, it’s so easy George. It’s so easy. It’s all about the messenger. They wouldn’t even be there if it wasn’t for us. If it weren’t for us, they wouldn’t be there. These 12 guys sit around a table and they say, "Let’s just screw the United States." And frankly, the rest of the world.
Stephanopoulos:But it’s not just the messenger.
Trump:They wouldn’t even be there.
Stephanopoulos:It’s the message. And so finish this sentence. "If you don’t produce more oil--"
Trump:Look. I’m going to look ‘em in the eye and say, "Fellas, you’ve had your fun. Your fun is over."

Quick!  Make that genius President!  What does this have to do with Australia or guns?  Well, remember Charleton Heston's famous line about how you'll get his gun when you pry it from his cold, dead hand?  Um, who has his gun now?

Moses aside, gun people in this country have spent the last several decades riling themselves up about how the federal government is coming to take their guns away and impose a new world order on them.  Are they crazy?  Lots of 'em are, sure.  Are they racist too?  Was anybody really surprised when Cliven Bundy said this?



No.  No, we weren't.  So, there are a bunch of paranoid, largely racist people who really love their guns, who believe that the federal government is coming to confiscate their guns to impose a new world order and destroy freedom and liberty.  But, the federal government can pass a gun ban, Australia-style, and then tell these people, Donald Trump-style, that they've had their fun, and they'll just go along, peacefully hand over their guns, and we'll all sit around singing kumbaya.

What would really happen if this country passed an Australia-style gun ban?  What would really happen if federal agents started showing up trying to confiscate everyone's guns?

That brings us to a name that none of my students are old enough to remember:  Randy Weaver.  Randy Weaver was a gun-toting, paranoid, racist nut-job who holed up in his compound in Ruby Ridge, Idaho when the Feds came for his guns.  Bloodbath ensued.

This is a difficult event for you to research.  If you simply Google "ruby ridge," one of the first hits will be from a web site called "Storm Front."  If you don't know it, that's because you aren't a neo-Nazi, white-supremacist, piece of fucking shit.  Those people idolize Randy Weaver and think of him as Crispus fucking Attucks, except, you know, white.

The basic point, though, is that if the federal government ever did try to round up and confiscate people's guns in this country, we know exactly what would happen because we've seen it.  Ruby Ridge, on a massive scale.

Liberals who dream of an Australia-style gun ban in the US should be given the same advice given to the Berniacs who dream of Denmark.  Just move there.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

On gun control and comparisons to Australia

On Sunday, I predicted that conservatives would assert that liberals plan to confiscate everyone's guns, and that liberals would aid in that portrayal by favorably referencing Australia as often as possible.

Sure enough, Australia has entered the discussion again.  So let's talk about vegemite.  Vegemite is a yeast extract that Australians love.  Non-Australians tend to think it tastes like gym socks.  If you banned vegemite sales in the US, nobody would complain.  Obviously, that means you could ban vegemite in Australia with no problems whatsoever, right?

Economics time!  Wanna learn a new buzz word?  Of course you do!  Why else would you be reading this pretentious, little blog?  "Elasticity of demand."

Price goes up, willingness to buy goes down.  That isn't always the case.  Conspicuous consumption and all that, but for the most part, price goes up, willingness to buy goes down.  But by how much?  Let's say you have a severe medical problem, and you need a drug to keep you alive.  Some megadouchebag named Martin Shkreli jacks up the price.  You still have to pay it.  So, the same quantity gets sold.  That way, megadouchebag Martin Shkreli gets rich by exploiting the "inelasticity" of your demand for the drug.

On the other hand, let's say Starbucks raises the price of a latte by the same percentage.  You might stop buying lattes.  You might at least find another way to get your caffeine fix.  Why?  Because your demand for lattes is more "elastic."

The other fun thing about elasticity of demand is that not everybody has the same elasticity.  I love coffee.  I brew my own at home (french press, for those who care to know), but I'll pay for the beans even if they jack up the price by a lot.  If you don't care much about the quality of your coffee, you won't.  But I'm a hipster.  I admit it.

Coffee.  Vegemite.  What does any of this have to do with guns?  Simple.  Banning stuff doesn't make it go away.  I work on a college campus.  Specifically, an engineering-focused campus with a lot of math geeks, but I have previously been affiliated with institutions like Berkeley and Oberlin.  I'm not sure if you know this, but certain organic substances that are Schedule 1, federally prohibited substances are actually quite common on such campuses!  It's true!  Clutch those pearls!

Banning a good pushes it to the black market.  That imposes risk on its production, distribution and sale.  That raises its price.  That only reduces the consumption of the good by an amount determined by its elasticity of demand.  If demand for a good is "inelastic," that means the quantity demanded doesn't go down very much even when the price goes up, like my demand for coffee.  Ban it, and the same quantity gets consumed, just at a higher price on the black market.  If demand is "elastic," then banning it pushes the price up to a point at which the quantity demanded goes down significantly 'cuz people don't really want it that much.

Americans don't give a crap about vegemite.  Ban it, and nobody will buy it.  Nobody is buying it here now.  Try to ban it in Australia and problems will ensue.  Why?  Because the demand for vegemite in Australia is different from the demand for vegemite in the US.

And in the scheme of things, Australia and the US are pretty culturally similar.  We sort of even speak the same language.


Maybe not.  Anyway, even given our similarities, we can and do have different demand curves for the same goods, so there is no empirical reason to believe that demand for guns is as elastic in the US as it was in Australia.  And if it isn't, then doing here what Australia did would have very different consequences.

So here's a question.  Does the fact that we haven't confiscated everyone's guns, even after a series of mass shootings, tell us something about the elasticity of demand for guns in the US?

If so, then you can't assume that passing an Australia-like law here would have the same effect, and if not, are you maybe hanging around Berkeley or Oberlin and using some substance that is a federally-banned, Schedule 1 substance?  And if that's true, then maybe you should think about what happens when the government bans something that people don't like...

Liberals who tout Australia as a model need to consider the possibility that the political circumstances that generated the law in Australia were the same circumstances that dictated its consequences, and that the fact that we have different political circumstances here means that we cannot assume similar consequences.

In macroeconomic policy, we distinguish between supply-side and demand-side economics.  Funny how liberals ignore the demand side of the equation on guns.

Sorry, but policy is hard.  Anybody who tells you otherwise is Donald Trump.

As long as I'm talking about Australia and guns, here's a thoughtful song from a great Australian bluesman (and great guitarist) on the topic.  Jeff Lang is great.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Political effects of Orlando

Now that I've chased off all my readers, I'll get back to what I really do:  analysis of electoral politics.  Nobody should turn to me for moralizing anyway.

As a general rule, I discount the effects of individual events on election results.  I'm what we call a "fundamentalist."  Elections come down to the fundamentals:  the state of the economy, underlying partisan divisions, etc.  Everything else is just noise.  Back during the primaries, I picked on Sides and Vavreck's The Gamble, but I think they have it pretty much right on the general election side of things.  Everything that commentators call a "game changer" winds up changing nothing.  Sides & Vavreck call these events "game-samers."  Even Romney's 47% video did roughly bupkis.

A shooting in June?  I don't see why that breaks the game-changer/game-samer mold.  And even if it did have an effect, in which direction?  There is an old idea in political science called "issue ownership," which is that there are certain issues that intrinsically benefit one party or another.  National security and crime are "owned" by Republicans, for various reasons, so anything that brings those issues to the forefront can benefit them.  Then again, the Orlando shootings involved an attack on the LGBT community, and public opinion has turned very much in favor of at least the LGB part.  That could play to the Democrats' advantage.

Obviously, there's the Islam thing, and that could play to the Republican's advantage.  Then again, the Democrats tend to be very strategic about the gun control measures they propose, keeping them to the extremely popular measures, which could work to the Democrats' advantage.

Basically, this is an odd hodgepodge of elements, and predicting the net effect is hard.  And that brings me back to my fundamentalist leanings.  The economy.  Then again, my favorite model has always been the Abramowitz "Time for a Change Model."  That model currently predicts a Republican victory, and Abramowitz himself doesn't buy it.  Read for yourself here.

Right now, PredictWise gives HRC a 74% chance of beating Trump.  The RealClearPolitics polling average has HRC up by an average of 5.5 points, with the latest poll-- post-Orlando-- putting her up by 12 points.

In 2015, the polls and the prediction markets diverged in the Republican contest, with the polls giving Trump the advantage, and the prediction markets discounting it.  Now, both the polls and prediction markets agree.  And they disagree with my favorite prediction model.

This is a tie election.  The Orlando shooting is random noise in a tie election.  In a tie election, in a sense, everything can matter, but in another sense, nothing matters because everything is just canceled out.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

New music series for Tuesdays: If you only love American music, you just suck

As readers know, I have been doing a music series on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays with the themes, "If you don't love __, you hate America."  Given today's post, I'm adding a new series for Tuesdays on non-American music.  To start things off, I can think of no better choice than oud master, Hamza el Din.


Putting Orlando in perspective

By my rough estimate, 10,000 people will die today due to waterborne pathogens.  10,000 died yesterday.  Another 10,000 the day before.  Another 10,000 the day before.  Another 10,000 the day before.

10,000 will die tomorrow.  Another 10,000 will die on Thursday.  10,000 more on Friday.  20,000 next weekend.

Shall I continue, or have I made my point?

My estimate comes from the World Health Organization.  A quick search on their site gave me an estimate a few years old of 3.4 million deaths due to waterborne pathogens per year.  Dividing by 365, that gave me just over 9315.  Adjusting a few years for growing population, I rounded up.

If you want to see murder rates from the FBI data, here's the link.

When a "mass shooting" occurs, people talk about it as an "epidemic."  That sullies the term.  An epidemic is the obscene death rate from waterborne pathogens.  You aren't going to be shot.  You aren't going to be killed by a terrorist.  You are much more likely to die in a car accident, or as a result of your own fat, lazy American lifestyle.  What happened in Orlando was horrible for the victims, their friends and family.  And it was a threat to the LGBT community that must be taken seriously.  But there are worse epidemics of diseases you've never heard of.

So why do people obsess over shit like Orlando?  I'm a political scientist, so I should probably put this in social science terms.

1)  News is news because it's rare.  The 10,000 people who will die today due to waterborne pathogens?  Not news.  So you won't hear about it.

2)  Most of them live in impoverished countries.  Even the Whole Food-shopping, self-righteously-worldly lefties don't really care as much about faceless people in distant and impoverished countries as nightclubbers in Orlando.  If that's you, go fuck yourself.

3)  It can't happen to me.  This isn't really about sympathy.  It's about personal fear.  In America, we have clean water.  Mostly.  If we don't live in Flint.  Regardless, most Americans at least reasonably think they are more at risk of dying due to gun violence than waterborne pathogens, and fuck the rest of the world, because me, me, me.

4)  As Tversky & Kahneman pointed out long ago, people suck at evaluating comparative risks.  We are simply seeing biases play into #3.

5)  Delusions of government competence.  There are things the government can do.  And there are things they can't do.  Stopping a lone shooter?  Nope.  They suck at that.  But, liberals have ridiculous fantasies about how the government can snap its fingers and make guns disappear, and conservatives harbor delusions that tough talk and bluster can scare Muslims into converting to Christianity.

6)  Delusions of incompetence.  Strangely, people forget that we really could do something about the waterborne pathogen issue if we cared.  We know how to sanitize water.  It isn't even that expensive, comparatively.  The fact that the problem is elsewhere doesn't mean we can't fix it.

Your probability of dying in an incident of gun violence is absurdly low.  If you worry about it, you are an idiot.  Your probability of dying in a terrorist attack is absurdly low.  If you worry about it, you are an idiot.  Far more people die due to waterborne pathogens than either.  They just do it elsewhere.  If you spend more time or energy worrying about, or trying to push for policies on gun control or terrorist surveillance, then you are a horrible person.

And I haven't even bothered talking about malaria.  Do you know how cheap mosquito nets are?

Quit whining about guns and/or terrorism.  10,000 people will die today due to waterborne pathogens, and His Holiness, Barack Obama won't be giving a heartfelt speech about it, nor will throngs of people engage in candle-light vigils, nor will politicians make ridiculous, position-taking stances on bills that won't pass and wouldn't do anything anyway.

And think about this.  Donald Trump doesn't give a shit about waterborne pathogens in impoverished countries.  If you are more concerned with Orlando too, then you are no better than Donald Fucking Trump.

Yes, I'm an asshole.  I never claimed otherwise.

OK, that was a downer.  Here's this...


Monday, June 13, 2016

Gun control debates and the universality of "derp"

Continuing on yesterday's theme, let's talk about gun control.  Or rather, let's talk about how people talk about gun control.  There is no issue about which public debate is more universally absurd in a specific, technical way.  Here is where I borrow a term heavily used in the economics blogosphere.  Perhaps you have encountered it.  "Derp."  It's true origins are unclear, but best stated, it translates to: responding to counterarguments or counter-evidence by loudly restating your "priors."

Priors:  a term from Bayesian statistics, meaning your initial beliefs before observing evidence.

So, "derp" means imperviousness to logic or evidence.  And on gun control, derp is universal.  Yesterday, I picked on the liberals a bit harder, so I'll start with the conservatives today.

The standard conservative argument on gun control generally goes as follows.  Gun control is a slippery slope.  Once you start, the inevitable result is the Third Reich, concentration camps, the whole deal.  There is, of course, a big problem with this argument.  Nearly every industrialized country in the world has much stricter gun laws than we do, and despite decades of such laws, they haven't slid into fascism.  Point this out to NRA members, and they simply have difficulty wrapping their brains around the concept.  Instead, they revert to Nazi references.  Derp!

Now it's time for your medicine, liberals.  The liberal line these days is that background checks are just obvious and indisputably a good idea.  Here's the problem.  So, a convicted criminal, prone to reoffend in a violent way goes to buy a gun from a legal dealer, and is turned away.  So, he leads a life on the straight and narrow because that violent crime he would have committed?  Doing so would have required going to a black market gun dealer rather than a legal gun dealer.  Well, sure, more violent crime would be a great idea, but not if I have to buy that gun illegally!

The ridiculousness of background checks, of course, is that the people who are affected by them are the very same ones who know how to skirt them.  Convicted criminals are the ones who have the easiest time finding black market dealers.

Point this out to a gun control advocate, and what do you get?  "People are DYING!!!!!!"  We need to do SOMETHING!!!!!!!!  Why can't we just have background checks?!  They're so simple and obvious!"  Derp.

Why does gun control bring out the derp in everyone?  I don't know.  I'll think about it.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The impending discussion of gun control

I posted something a while back that dared to talk about gun control without doing the standard "WE NEED GUN CONTROL NOW NOW NOW" that you usually get from members of the academy and other lefties.  I am, of course, unmutual.  For obvious reasons, we are about to have yet another discussion of gun control.  I will make a few simple observations.

1)  The House of Representatives and the Senate are majority Republican.  Most members of both chambers oppose gun control on principle.  That is why they are Republicans.  Stop assuming that everyone who disagrees with you is bought off (in this case, by the NRA).  No, they just disagree with you.  (Yes, I assume most readers lean left.  Feel free to correct me if I am wrong).

2)  Paul Ryan controls the agenda in the House.  If he doesn't want something to pass, it won't go to the floor.  No floor vote, no passage.  Paul Ryan opposes gun control.  Nothing will pass.  End of story.

3)  Quit whining about public opinion and how much voters supposedly want gun control.  Brown v. Board was wildly unpopular.  That didn't make it wrong.  If you want to argue about policy, argue about policy.

4)  If you do argue about public opinion, make sure to address salience.  All other things being equal, a committed minority will defeat an apathetic majority, and there are more strong opponents of gun control than strong supporters.

5)  From what I have read so far, Omar Mateen did not have a criminal record, which has been true of many mass shooters.  Background checks for those with criminal records would do nothing for such cases.  Yet, liberals will probably go back to demanding background checks because they are popular.  This is the equivalent of sub-letting a room to a con artist, getting your stuff stolen, and then deciding it means you need better locks.

6)  Omar Mateen appears to have been under suspicion of links to terrorists, but was not connected to any direct investigations.  Liberals will probably insist that those on the terrorist watch list be prohibited from getting guns.  It is amazing how liberals' beliefs in due process disappear when it comes time to freak out about guns.

7)  Liberals will propose minor, completely ineffectual and meaningless gun control efforts.  Conservatives will respond by acting as though liberals are actually trying to take away everyone's guns.  They will be aided in this lie by the fact that liberals will adoringly reference Australia, which really did take away people's guns.

8)  Conservatives will focus on the fact that the shooter appears to have been an Islamic terrorist.  Liberals are irrationally afraid of guns, and conservatives are irrationally afraid of Islamic terrorists.  That makes this the perfect recipe for a total loss of sanity.

If you don't love bluegrass, you hate America

Jerry Douglas takes a break from bluegrass because, well, ...


Saturday, June 11, 2016

Gary Johnson and libertarianism

And so begins the charade of acting as though third party candidates have a chance...  Gary Johnson is, unsurprisingly, the Libertarian Party's nominee for 2016, and RealClearPolitics has even started to include him in its polling averages.  Combine that with widespread dissatisfaction within the Republican Party about Donald Trump, and you have the recipe for this year's version of the old delusion that third parties can do anything other than act as spoilers.  Realistically, a Johnson candidacy can do little more than help Clinton by giving disaffected Republicans a non-Trump option while Democrats unify around HRC, but I want to spend some time today talking about the concept of libertarianism as an ideology.

So let's go back to that piece I keep referencing by Philip Converse-- "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics."  Converse lesson for today:  ideology is about constraint.  To have an ideology is to be constrained to hold a set of policy positions consistent with that ideology.  To be liberal is to hold liberal beliefs.  To be conservative is to hold conservative beliefs, and to be libertarian is to hold libertarian beliefs.

Here's the thing about constraint, though.  Not all constraints are logical.  There is no single, guiding principle behind any ideology.  Libertarians, though, claim to have one:  small government.  Less government regulation on business, lower taxes, less government regulation of social behavior.  Logical consistency, right?  Perhaps compared to liberalism or conservatism, but if the premise is that the government that governs least is the government that governs best, the logically consistent conclusion is anarchism.  Libertarians will generally carve out an exception for things like the military, but once you start carving out those exceptions, you are no longer logically consistent.

What are the logically consistent ideologies?  Well, anarchism.  Also, totalitarianism.  Anything else is a middle ground, which means concessions, which are always at least somewhat ad hoc.

And yet, actual libertarians are few and far between.  True libertarianism requires abandonment of programs like Medicare, which is exceptionally popular.  Libertarianism has great branding:  "I'm socially liberal, and fiscally conservative."  Sounds great, right?  What does it mean?  Nothing.  "Socially liberal" is modestly defined in terms of abortion and gay marriage, but libertarianism requires the legalization of all narcotics, and few believe in that.  "Fiscally conservative," is about as weakly defined a term as there is.  Does that mean cutting taxes, which is what most self-identified "conservatives" primarily advocate?  Does it mean cutting spending?  If so, on what?  Does it mean balancing the budget?  Even if that means increasing taxes?  The term has no meaning.  Hence, the phrase has no meaning.  Great brand label, though.

So we return, as always, to Phil Converse.  Ideology is about constraint.  Very few voters are "constrained," in ideological terms.  Most voters have a hodgepodge mix of liberal and conservative opinions, very few are truly libertarian, and most voters are just simple-minded partisans anyway.  Which is why the Libertarian Party has this guy, who just wants to free his little bird (see?  I was going somewhere with today's music...)


If you don't love country, you hate 'mer'ca

Friday, June 10, 2016

If you don't love jazz, you hate America

For the budding romance between Clinton and Sanders...


The importance of cue-giving: Sanders' voters will embrace Clinton

A few weeks ago, I had an exchange with a fellow political scientist who is a loyal Democrat so averse to Sanders that I look like a 20-year-old stoner by comparison.  My fellow political scientist asserted that Sanders was undermining Clinton's campaign, and thereby helping Trump.  My response was that it was too early to tell, but signs indicated that Sanders would come around, and so would his voters.  Yesterday seems to vindicate that view.  This is all about cue-giving.

So, here's some political science to start your weekend.  I keep referencing an article that really is the best thing ever written on public opinion-- Philip Converse's "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics."  One of the many important observations in the article was that most people don't think directly about political issues in terms of abstract principles.  Rather, even the most comparatively sophisticated of voters have to rely on cues from elites whom they trust, and regardless of what people say now, everyone has elites whom they trust.  Even the tin foil hat crowd, if we can use the term, "elite," for those who deal in conspiracy theories.  (Hey, a major party is nominating one of them...)

As cue-givers turn, then, so do the recipients of their cues because those recipients don't really have abstract principles to guide them.  And that brings us to Bernie Sanders.

The question for Sanders has always been whether he would be Ted Kennedy in 1980, or Hillary Clinton in 2008 after losing because, no, he never, ever had a chance.  Originally, he even knew it.  Then, he convinced himself otherwise because when you surround yourself with adoring throngs who are too stoned to give you a reality check, you start believing them.  Regardless, Kennedy never really closed ranks around Carter in 1980, leaving the Democratic Party relatively divided.  Clinton did in 2008, despite the fact that many of her supporters-- the "PUMA's" (Party Unity, My Ass)-- asserted that they could never back Obama.

And yet they did.  Why?  Because voters don't really have abstract principles.  They follow cues.  When Clinton gave her people the cue to support Obama, they did.  Sanders will give his people cues to support Clinton.  They will.

Why will Sanders do this when Ted Kennedy didn't?  Maybe pot makes him more compliant than the booze did for Teddy, but more likely, Sanders started out as a protest candidate trying to pull Clinton to the left anyway.  Once reminded of that, he could declare victory based on changes to HRC's campaign rhetoric, and back her out of fear of a Trump presidency.

Sanders will back Clinton, his supporters will do as they're told, and Phil Converse is still right.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

What we have learned about Trump in the last week or so

A few weeks ago, I mused about the nature of a "strong" candidate, and what makes a presidential candidate better at appealing to voters than others.  I posed two hypotheses about Donald Trump: 1) he is a brilliant campaigner, whose primary campaign was carefully and strategically crafted for the preferences of Republican primary voters, or 2) Trump is the equivalent of a talentless pop star whose offensively bad music happens to fit the mercurial and philistine tastes of 13 year olds during one particular month, thereby getting famous on the basis of dumb luck.

The question would be answered by whether or not Trump changes in dramatic ways when the contest moves to the general election.  Apparently not. In yesterday's post, I suggested that Trump bashing the judge on the "Trump University" case for being "Mexican" might be a Todd Akin-"legitimate rape" moment.  That remains to be seen. As of now, the polling average at RealClearPolitics still shows a narrow Clinton lead, but we'll see if that opens up at all when the public has time to digest Trump's latest.

Regardless, the incident answers the question about Trump.  Was his primary schtick really just schtick, or just who he is?  Think of this from a lawyer's perspective-- specifically, the lawyer defending Trump in the "Trump University" lawsuit.  What would a responsible lawyer do if his or her client gave a televised speech, bashing the judge in the case for being "Mexican," and asserting that only white people could serve as judges on his cases.  An intelligent lawyer would drop the client unless being paid a truly Sanders-seizure-inducing amount of money.  And even then...  Bashing the judge in this way is basically the dumbest thing a client can possibly do.  First of all, any intelligent lawyer will tell clients never to discuss on on-going trial in public.  Second, don't go out of your way to antagonize the judge.  Third, REALLY don't do that on racial/ethnic grounds.

Nothing about Trump is strategic.  The way he is handling the "Trump University" lawsuit is beyond stupid.  Next, we get to find out what happens when one party nominates a presidential candidate who has the self discipline of a puppy with ADHD.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Has Donald Trump made a Todd Akin-level mistake?

Donald Trump insists that the judge hearing the class action lawsuit against "Trump University" should be removed from the case because he is "Mexican," later amended to the claim that his "Mexican heritage" makes him incapable of giving Trump a fair trial.  Now, the Speaker of the House has described Trump's comments as "textbook racism."  Mark Kirk, the incumbent Senator from Illinois, has withdrawn his endorsement, although he cites Trump's temperamental unsuitability to hold the nuclear codes.

Remember, also, that nobody has more to lose from a Clinton presidency than Paul Ryan, who will be forced to raise the debt ceiling without concessions, thereby incurring the wrath of the "knuckleheads" (John Boehner's term) who ousted the previous speaker.  That's the guy referring to "textbook racism."

Has Trump made a Todd Akin-level mistake?

Does anybody remember Todd Akin?  I do.  Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) pulled off what I consider to be the greatest strategic maneuver in modern political history.  She faced reelection in 2012, and was written off as a sure-loser given her politics and the dynamics of the state.  So, she decided to intervene in the Republican primary to try to give herself the easiest opponent to beat.  She picked Representative Todd Akin, who is, let's just say, about one neuron short of a synapse.

McCaskill ran ads, in the primary, telling Republican primary voters that they shouldn't support Akin because he is too conservative.  Did I mention that she did this during the Republican primary?  Too conservative...

Akin won the primary, and McCaskill got the opponent she wanted.  Then, Akin opened his mouth, and this came out...



And thus did Claire McCaskill secure her reelection in a contest she had no business winning.  After that point, Akin was toast.

Has Trump entered Todd Akin territory?  Jonathan Bernstein is even suggesting that the Republicans could dump Trump at the convention.  But, it is worth pointing out that nobody has more reputational reason to hope that Trump doesn't get the formal nod than Bernstein.  Bernstein repeatedly insisted that The Party Decides is absolute, proven gospel truth.  In other words, party elites always get their way in presidential nominations.  And Bernstein insisted this long after it was clear that Trump had the nomination locked up.  Will the Republicans dump Trump?  No, but they might run away from him as fast as possible.

Republicans are now in a tough bind.  Trump will continue doing things like asserting that only white judges can hear his cases, plural.  And the rest of the party leadership will continue to be asked to either defend or renounce the things that Trump will say.  The party will have a hard time unifying if Republican leaders are regularly asked to defend Trump's rhetoric.

The question is whether or not they remain more divided than the Democrats.  All other things being equal, the more divided party tends to lose.  That's just a minor factor in presidential elections because most of the time, both parties unify.  Trump makes that really hard for Republicans.

That brings us to Sanders-- a blathering moron and a hypocritical, whiney little cry-Bernie who can't do math and doesn't understand that he lost the race long ago.  (In the past, I have pointed out his indifference to math and economics, accused him of being more Tea Party than Ted Cruz, equated him with the Black Knight from Monty Python & The Holy Grail, and pointed out that his inability to defeat Clinton debunks the central premise of his campaign. If you are reading this blog, you are accustomed to my Sanders-bashing.  I really just don't have a shred of respect for the guy, and never did. Damned goo-goos...).  Anyway, does Sanders go the way of Ted Kennedy in 1980, or Hillary Clinton in 2008?  Ted Kennedy kept sulking after he failed to take the nomination from Carter, and the party probably suffered a bit for it.  Not as much as the girl he murdered in a drunk-driving accident, but Carter did lose.  HRC eventually got on board with Obama, the party unified, and Obama won.

At this point, I don't know.  Sanders is an idiot, and predicting the behavior of idiots is hard for those of us steeped in rational choice theory (microeconomics).  However, we know that Republicans will either have to rally behind someone they keep having to denounce as racist, or let Clinton win.

Buckle up, folks...

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Stop asking what happens if Hillary Clinton gets indicted

... because it won't happen.  Every time I talk about the election, this comes up.  I won't waste much time on why it won't happen, but there is some fascinating political science behind the impulse.  Hey, political science!  Awesome, right?

Let's say I work in an electronics store.  If I tell customers that they can get better deals on better equipment on Amazon, I'm probably violating company policy.  I can be fired, but not indicted.  On the other hand, if I put a credit card skimmer in one of the store's machines and sell the credit card numbers on-line, I can get arrested.  Company policy versus criminal law.  Hillary Clinton's email server ran afoul of some administrative rules in certain circumstances.  Does that tell you something about her?  Yup.  Yesterday, I suggested that it indicated the kind of paranoid impulses that drove Nixon.  That should be relevant when evaluating Hillary Clinton.  But it didn't violate criminal law.  If one of the email dumps shows a trail in which classified information was given to someone who shouldn't have it, then that would be trouble.  Was Clinton stupid enough to do that?  Probably not.  So, the indictment won't happen.

And yet it keeps coming back up.  People are so convinced...  And yet, most people can't really tell you exactly why they think Clinton is so corrupt.  They might blather nonsensically about some speeches to Goldman Sachs (not to name names...), but there is nothing even remotely corrupt about being paid to give speeches.  It's what ex-politicians do, and firms pay for it as a matter of what Thorsten Veblen called "conspicuous consumption."  Yes, I just positively referenced a sociologist.  I'll do penance later.  Basically, though, Goldman Sachs paid a bunch of money to have Clinton show up at an event to show attendees that they had the money to do it.  That's how the lecture circuit works.

Beyond that, there is mostly a vague sense that Clinton simply must be corrupt.  That vague but persistent sense is a demonstration of what Milton Lodge (a political scientist, this time) calls "on-line processing."  No, not computers.  The basic idea is simple.  You hear a piece of information.  You update your assessment of the person involved, and then forget the information itself.  Thus, you keep a running tally of positives and negatives without even remembering the elements that went into the tally.  It is a "heuristic," or, mental short-cut.

Those of us who have been paying attention to the Clintons for decades have heard story after story alleging corruption.  The allegations never go anywhere-- remember that the impeachment was about Bill lying about a blow job-- but the fact that the allegation is made goes into the running tally of corrupt/not-corrupt assessments.

Hillary Clinton has never been indicted.  She will never be indicted.  She has been subjected to more and more lengthy investigations than any politician ever (probably, although I wonder if anyone has ever actually counted).  The old saying goes that a good prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich.  If nobody has managed to indict Hillary Clinton yet, what does that mean?  It means she is either much smarter and more careful than Nixon (obviously a possibility), or the allegations of corruption are overblown, and everyone convinced otherwise is engaged in what Milton Lodge calls "on-line processing."

Hurray for political science!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Time to bash Hillary Clinton

The current election season has provided so many rich targets, from Tony Clifton to The Black Knight that I haven't gotten around to Hillary Clinton.  It is a strange year when Clinton is the least interesting candidate in the race.

So let's talk about history.  For literary value, no president tops Richard Nixon-- a Shakespearean figure if ever there was one.  Nixon was one of the smartest presidents we have had, yet coming from a poor background, he was always raging against whomever he saw as the elites looking down on him.  And he really was smarter than they were.  He was also a classic Shakespearean tragic figure, undone by the flaws of paranoia and vindictiveness.

That paranoia is perhaps his most well-documented trait.  His involvement in politics on the national stage was as a player in the House Un-American Activities Committee, which investigated communist conspiracies, which its members saw everywhere.  Some were real, some were not.  But, the paranoia was Nixon's driving factor.  Speaking of communist conspiracies, everyone watches The Americans, right?  It's better than Breaking Bad.  There.  I said it.

Anyway, that driving paranoia was the same factor that led Nixon to tape every conversation, Watergate, cover-ups, blah, blah, blah.  You know the story.

Then there's the famous "enemies list."  Nixon never forgot a slight, and never let rationality get in the way of vengeance.  While he promised to end the Vietnam War in his 1968 campaign, his actions both in Vietnam and throughout Southeast Asia made his "peace with honor" schtick hard for many to swallow.

Yet, Nixon was also deeply pragmatic when it came to domestic politics.  Following on President Johnson's term, Nixon sought not to undo the "Great Society" programs that Johnson created, but to expand them.  He fought Ted Kennedy's attempts at a broader healthcare reform, but looked for real compromises with the increasingly liberal Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.  In the end, though, whatever involvement he had in domestic policy was overshadowed by the legacy of Watergate, as our Shakespearean figure's paranoia brought him down.

Remember Hillary?  This is a post about Hillary.  Clinton's animosity towards, and fear of the media is perhaps rivaled only by Nixon.  Justified or not, Clinton is about as closed to journalists as any presidential candidate ever.  The email scandal, while not actually criminal according to anything released by now, is merely a demonstration of that paranoia.  Keeping her own email server was just a rather stupid way of trying to allow her to maintain secrecy, and should remind us all of Nixon.

On foreign policy, while Clinton is unlikely to order secret bombings in Cambodia, it is worth reminding everyone that "neo-conservatism" grew out of disaffected liberals.  Despotic regimes that violate the principles of liberalism must be confronted, according to neo-conservative lines of thinking, and it isn't difficult to see strains of that in Clinton and her approach to foreign policy.  Is she likely to nuke a country for making jokes about her hand size the way Trump might?  No, but her paranoid impulses are not limited to domestic politics.

And then there's the brutality of her political methods.  Liberals determined to back her shouldn't forget what she tried to pull in 2008.  Florida and Michigan tried to hold their primaries before DNC rules permitted.  The DNC ruled that Florida and Michigan should be stripped of their delegates.  All of the candidates agreed, and everyone but Clinton even took their names off the ballot in Michigan.  Once Clinton fell behind Obama in the delegate count, though, she insisted that Michigan get all of its delegates, and that they go to Clinton even though she was the only major candidate with her name on the ballot.  Running without opposition is how Saddam Hussein kept "winning elections."  But doesn't it sound like the kind of thing Nixon would do?

So there you have it, folks.  2016 will pit Richard Nixon against Tony Clifton.  Keep dreamin', Bernie...


Sunday, June 5, 2016

The makings of a violent election

Back in March, when the Republican nomination contest was still unsettled, I posted this about Trump's habit of encouraging violence against protesters.  If you look back at what I wrote, one of my two main points was that Trump's propensity to not just provoke, but actively encourage violence made him stand out as unique on the political scene in such a way that the media would have a difficult time maintaining the illusion of symmetry.

Well, any journalists worried about the challenge of trying to describe Democrats and Republicans as symmetric can breathe a sigh of relief.  The growing pattern of violence among Trump protesters really should shut up the smug, self-righteous liberals who think of their side as intrinsically superior and incapable of sinking to the same depths as those horrible Republicans.  Yes, Trump is different from Clinton because Trump actively encourages violence, but let's talk about the voters.

If you couldn't tell by now, I'm a misanthrope.  I don't really like anyone.  Except my wife.  I like her.

Anyway, there are plenty of other places to read polemics about incivility, blah, blah, blah.  If you are reading my blog, you want some political science.

So let's talk about partisanship.  If there is one point I beat into my students' heads (sorry-not-sorry about the violent imagery), it is that party identification is the core concept that explains most of political beliefs and behavior.  If you can know one fact about a person, the fact that gives you the most information, politically speaking, is that person's party identification.

So, what is party identification, really?  Ummm....

Well, we don't have a really good answer.  My general answer comes from my interpretation of an old article by Philip Converse, called, "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics."  The core observation of that article is that most people are cognitively incapable of grasping abstract concepts like liberalism and conservatism.  So, they think in more simplistic terms.  A plurality of voters, according to Converse, think in terms of group identification.  By extension, then, I would assert that partisanship is merely a form of group identification, frequently determined by other social groupings, like race, class, etc.

Group identification, of course, leads to in-group/out-group categorization.  And, according to Alan Abramowitz, that now leads us to "negative partisanship," where people are motivated, not by positive attitudes towards their own party, but negative attitudes towards the opposing party.

There's a lot to that concept, but I'm not fully on board yet.  On the Trump side, there is clear animosity towards Latinos, not just immigrants, as we can see from Trump's insistence that a judge, born in Indiana, must be removed from his case because of Latino heritage.  On the left, there is certainly animosity towards Trump himself and his followers.  And this is becoming violent on both sides.  Negative attitudes towards the opposing party are certainly there.

Where I'm not convinced is the lack of positive attitudes towards one's own party.  There are two other possibilities.  First, there is the possibility that negative attitudes towards peoples' own party is just a manifestation of the general decline in trust towards political institutions.  That brings us to PIG-PIE-PAO.  Mmmmmm....  Pie....  This is the distinction that V.O. Key drew between "parties in government," "parties in the electorate," and, "parties as organizations."  Parties, according to Key, were tripartite institutions.  I'm not convinced that people dislike the members of their own party in the electorate.  The existence of an out-group requires the existence of an in-group.

Then, there is the possibility that we are observing the "socially desirable response."  If there is a response to a survey question that people think will make them look better, they will give it.  Claiming to dislike/distrust one's own party makes one look cynical, and cynicism is cool, right?

I'm not a cynic.  I'm a nihilist.

Anyway, the point is that while negative attitudes towards the opposing party are real, stronger than ever, and prompting increasing incidents of violence, attitudes towards peoples' own parties are less clear.  One way or another, strap in.  This one will be ugly.