Sunday, August 27, 2017

Presidents and natural disasters

Depending on your political memory, a hurricane and a not-terribly-competent president might strike a bit of a chord with you.

Back in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans-- home of the highest art form humanity has ever achieved: jazz.  After the death and destruction, the George W. Bush Administration did not fare well in the public mind for their response.  You may be surprised to read that there is actual, scholarly research on what happens to incumbents when natural disasters hit.  Chris Achen and Larry Bartels wrote a paper a while back called, "Blind Retrospection: Electoral Responses to Drought, Flu and Shark Attacks."  They have since elaborated on the central insights and published a book called Democracy for Realists, which is worth reading, but the basic point of Blind Retrospection is that voters will hold incumbents responsible for events beyond their control, like those in the title.

Of course, not everything is beyond their control.  The governmental response to a crisis is within their control.  The 1916 New Jersey shark attacks were nobody's fault but the sharks'.  Katrina was a complex weather phenomenon.  However, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been run effectively under previous administrations, and... less effectively by Michael "heck of a job, Brownie" Brown, who received the job from George W. Bush primarily as patronage rather than because he had relevant experience to run FEMA.  While nobody caused Katrina to decimate New Orleans, then, administrative incompetence during the response is an actual, legitimate issue.

Nevertheless, Achen and Bartels do point out one of the critical flaws in, well, the concept of democracy, as far as I'm concerned.  If you hadn't noticed, I don't have a high opinion of voters, and Achen and Bartels do show that voters punish incumbents for events that are clearly beyond their control.

So now a bad hurricane is doing some damage to Texas.  How will Trump and his administration respond?  Ineptly.  Why?  They are inept.  Will it matter?  By Achen and Bartels' research, a bit.  Then again, Trump's approval rating is already so low that anyone who would have abandoned him probably already has, so I don't know if it will matter.  Of course, for Trump, this is a live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword kind of thing.  He wants credit for a growing economy.  Well, here's GDP growth, according to our good friend, FRED (Federal Reserve Economic Data), going back to the "Great Recession."

I went back to the "Great Recession," to put 2017 in context, and... no, 2017 isn't exactly spectacular growth.  You can head over to FRED yourself and look at any stats you want.  2017 ain't nothin' special.  It's fine, but nothing special.  What's awesome?  The stock market.  Why?  More on that later, but the basic point is that Trump isn't responsible for the fact that 2017 is experiencing economic growth.  The economic growth we are seeing is basically the norm for post-Great Recession.  If Trump tries to take credit for it, he is taking credit for something that isn't his doing.  The flip side of that is taking the blame for something he didn't cause.  Like a natural disaster.  Achen & Bartels say that kind of shit happens.

Yay, democracy!

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