Sabl’s law is safe: the Obama vote is sociotropic, not subjunctive.

A survey that’s being glossed as showing that voters are thinking subjunctively in fact shows that they’re voting sociotropically (voting based on what they see as the country’s economic condition, not their own).

A recent Heartland Monitor poll commissioned by the National Journal has gotten a lot of attention. Ezra Klein (in a take seconded by Ed Kilgore), calls it the “poll result that explains the election.” More important, though he for some reason doesn’t note the fact, Ezra’s reading would require upending one of the most important and respected laws of social science, namely Sabl’s Law: “No argument can succeed in American politics if it contains a subjunctive.” Needless to say, Ezra is wrong and the law is still infallible. Continue reading “Sabl’s law is safe: the Obama vote is sociotropic, not subjunctive.”

Unmusical chairs and Chinese whispers

A fine image of the dilemma of authority in China.

The preordained successor to Hu Jintao at the top of the government of China, Vice-President Xi Jinping, disappeared for two weeks in early September, cancelling a meeting with Hillary Clinton. He’s back in circulation but no official explanation has been offered. A mid-level insider, the former leader of Hong Kong, has offered that Mr. Xi hurt his back engaging in some sport or other. Possible; but so are the conspiracy theories that it was a last-minute power struggle.

Why else should the date of the Party congress – in October! – to ratify the handover not been fixed? The guy responsible for the logistics of assembling 2270 delegates must be tearing his hair out and wishing he’d never pushed for the job. The sabre-rattling and demonstrations against Japan over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islets have probably been orchestrated by somebody, though they may rebound on the whole leadership.

The visible confusion and sense of dangerous undercurrents made me think of this work by the Chinese artist Shao Fan from 2005, in the Victoria and Albert museum in London.

“King chair” by Shao Fan, V&A, London

Photo JW

Continue reading “Unmusical chairs and Chinese whispers”

Container deposit laws

My past keeps recycling, and everything old is new again.  Last year I was asked to write papers about NIMBY issues affecting nuclear waste recycling and high speed rail development, something I last worked on three decades ago.  Now the Massachusetts “bottle bill” is in the news again, with a proposal to extend it to water bottles.  This 1981 legislation, originally conceived as a litter reduction measure (for which it works very well), requires deposits for bottles in which various drinks are sold (usually at least beer and soft drinks) redeemable from a merchant selling the same product (the right way) or at a recycling center (the wrong way, as California implemented it).  The political history of this policy is something of a mystery.  Back in the day, it was very controversial (I know because I wrote a supportive policy analysis for Massachusetts government when I worked there in the Environmental Affairs office;  in the end it was passed over the governor’s veto and I count as some sort of coup that I kept my job nevertheless) and gave me a bunch of memorable encounters with lobbyists and the like.

It was also complicated. My colleague Bob Leone warned me when I got embroiled with it that the bottle bill was much more complicated in fact, given the structure and technology of the beverage industry, than anyone on either side of the debate realized, and he was right.  It continues to puzzle me that ten states (CA,VT,NY,CT,MA,IA,MI,OR,ME,HI) have bottle bills (laws).  After this much experience, I would think it would be clear that it’s either a bad idea  or a good idea, but only one has repealed theirs (DE), and no new bottle bills have been enacted since the initial flurry. Also, I understand “VT but not NH”, but not “OR and CA but not WA”, nor “MI and IA but not WI or MN”.  Strange.

The MA proposal to cover water bottles is a fine idea, partly because water bottles are all over the place and just as litterous as beer cans, partly because bottled water, especially in places like Massachusetts with excellent tap water, is a thumb in the eye of poor Gaia in many ways.  Hauling it around, and the bottles themselves, are profoundly ungreen. We’ve finally managed to mostly drive it out of lunches and meetings at UC Berkeley and many other institutions, and right-thinking people are getting the idea, but something a lot like a tax on this wretched product is a policy winner and I wish the Bay State forces of light well in their enterprise.

I do not think that word means what the WaPo thinks it does

Romney won the Maine caucuses and the CPAC straw poll, and the Washington Post tells us:

Coupled with his victory in Saturday’s straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, the Maine win gives the GOP front-runner and former Massachusetts governor a substantial [sic] boost heading into a 17-day period in which there will be no contests.

Wow.  His margin in Maine was 194 votes; at the CPAC 238; if that scores a substantial boost, there’s been some really serious grade inflation down your newsrooms.

Worth two thousand words

Alan Abramowitz’ proof that there is no such thing as an “anti-incumbent” election that sweeps out incumbents from both parties–in 2000 words and two charts, and the charts are quite literally worth two thousand words.

There’s been recent speculation that 2012 will be a double or even “triple-flip” election. In this scenario control of the Presidency, the House, and the Senate would all (or two out of three) change party hands in opposite directions, giving us President Romney and Speaker Pelosi (and maybe Senate Majority Leader McConnell). The scenario presupposes an anti-incumbent election in which disgust with government and the economy is so acute that voters throw the bums out indiscriminately.

Alan Abramowitz, demolishing the idea, uses almost exactly two thousand words. But in confirmation of the cliché, I’m happy to ignore the words and simply reproduce instead his two perfect scatterplots (data sources left out of the graphics below, but in original).

For the House, here are Democratic and Republican incumbent losses, by year:















And for the Senate:
















We are done here. Time to move on.

(h/t: John Sides at The Monkey Cage)

Is America a Conservative Country?

That’s what pundits would have you believe, that we’re a “center-right” nation, that Reaganism is deep in the electorate’s bones, yadda yadda yadda.  But does the data bear it out?  Well, no.


James A. Stimson is a political scientist at the UNC-Chapel Hill, and one of the most well-respected public opinion researchers in the nation.  For years, he has developed a factor analysis of public opinion, developing a measure of the public’s ideological “mood”: the higher the number, the more liberal the public is.  Here is his most recent plot:

Does This Look Like a Reagan Revolution to You?


Whatever this graph tells us, it certainly belies the notion that Reaganism has had a major impact on US public opinion.  Currently, the public’s “mood” lies somewhere between 57 and 58, slightly above its level in 1972, and far above where it stood in 1981, the apex of the Reagan era.  Indeed, if anything, it shows that as soon as the public got a taste of the Gipper, it turned sharply in the other direction, as it did when George W. Bush was appointed by the Supreme Court.  That doesn’t mean that Reagan came from nowhere: the 70’s represented a sharp rightward shift.  Ditto with Gingrich ascendancy, which essentially caught up with great conservatism in the 1990’s.

Note well, however, that current opinion is not even close to the heights of conservatism, and is closer if anything to the Great Society of the mid-60’s and Nixonian liberalism of the early 70’s.  So this is a period when the public mood is somewhat sympathetic to progressivism.

Why during such a period the Right has been successful at framing and dominating the policy debate is an exercise left to the reader.


Terrorism’s real victims: the citizens of failed states—because the terrorists want them to fail.

It’s often said that terrorist groups are a relatively minor threat to the U.S. compared to plain-old states. That’s true. But due to their unique interest in failed rather than strong states, they’re a profound threat to the people who live where they’re based.

It’s often said that terrorist groups, are, compared to plain old states, a relatively minor threat to the security of the U.S. and other Western countries. That’s true. But due to their unique interest in failed rather than strong states, they’re a profound threat to the people who live where they’re based.

I thought of this while reading a reflective and thoughtful article  (therefore pushed quickly off the front web page) in today’s L.A. Times. The article was less about the latest horrific bombing in Somalia than about what it means about the Shabab’s factions and their strategies.  I’m sure that smart political scientists had thought of this already (consider this a bleg for citations), but I hadn’t.

The money quotes:

A suicide truck bombing that killed an estimated 70 people, including students hoping for foreign scholarships, underscores the intent of an Islamic militant group to ensure that Somalia remains ungovernable and a secure base for its global struggle against the West.


Continue reading “Terrorism’s real victims: the citizens of failed states—because the terrorists want them to fail.”

Misleading Predictions About Why Obama “Can’t Win” in 2012

In another edition of how misunderstanding statistics can lead to misleading political predictions, let’s talk about base rates, predictive power and presidential re-election. In psychiatry, there is a fun logical problem in which students are asked to generate an instrument that will accurately classify people with and without schizophrenia in a sample of the population. Students draw up elaborate series of questions and diagnostic procedures and sometimes do as well as being right 95% of the time. But those approaches are all inferior to a different diagnostic system, which classifies all people as non-schizophrenic without bothering to ask them anything. Because only 1% of people have schizophrenia, such a system is correct an impressive 99% of the time. When you are trying to predict something with a very low base rate, most of the time you make a positive prediction (e.g., this person has schizophrenia) you will be wrong, and most of the observations you make about the group for which you make a negative prediction (e.g., this person doesn’t have schizophrenia) will be true but have trivial predictive power because they are true of almost everyone.

Now consider a far more rare condition than schizophrenia: Being elected President of the United States. Only 43 of the hundreds of millions of people who have been U.S. citizens have been President, and an even more infinitesimal fraction of the U.S. population has been re-elected President. This incredibly low base rate opens the field for many predictions that seem on their face to show great historical understanding and political acumen but are in fact of dubious value.

For example, do you remember that George H.W. Bush was not going to get elected because no sitting Vice-President had been elected President since Martin Van Buren? At that point, 34 people in U.S. history had been elected President, of whom 3 were sitting Vice-Presidents. This success rate compares very favorably to the chance of the average American, or the average politician or even the average politician seeking the Presidency. It would have been more reasonable to say that as a sitting Vice-President George H.W. Bush was unusually well-positioned to be elected President.

The G.H.W. Bush prediction also illustrates another tactic of faux-sage prognosticators, namely shaping the frame of reference to make the statistic more extreme. The U.S. had elected and re-elected former Vice-President Richard Nixon in living memory, so the ominous G.H.W. Bush statistic was artfully limited to “sitting” vice-presidents. And the time frame was chopped off at Martin Van Buren to misrepresent the full picture of U.S. electoral behavior; two other sitting Vice-Presidents had been elected before MVB. It’s a bit like saying Rick Perry cannot win because for the first 223 years of our history no Governor of Texas ever became President.

Fast-forward to President Obama, whom you may have heard cannot win in 2012 because no President has been re-elected with high unemployment. After it was pointed out that FDR and Ronald Reagan were both re-elected with high unemployment, the shocking historico-statistical proof of Obama’s political demise was re-framed to “No President since World War II other than Ronald Reagan has been re-elected with high unemployment”. But so what? Only 5 people have been twice elected President since World War II, and an infinite number of things is true of all the people who haven’t.

No one who wasn’t from California, Texas or Arkansas has been re-elected President since World War II (Doom for Obama!). No one whose last name starts with an O has been re-elected President since World War II (Double doom!). No one who was African-American has been re-elected (Triple Doom! Hey wait a minute, how did he get elected the first time…he was African-American then wasn’t he?). At least President Obama can take comfort in the fact that every single left-handed President who ran for re-election since World War II has won, as long as you don’t count George H.W. Bush.

Approval Ratings of Congress, Parties and The President: Apples and Oranges

How often in your life have you heard a political commentator say something like “Well 50% of Americans may disapprove of the job the President is doing, but he is still better off than Members of Congress, of whom 70% of Americans disapprove”?

Countless op-eds, essays and news stories travel the same lines. Typically, they try to forecast elections by analyzing presidential approval ratings and Congressional approval ratings (or approval ratings of one of the parties).

But approval ratings of groups of politicians can’t be interpreted in the same fashion as approval ratings of individual politicians, particularly if we are trying to guess what will happen in an election. At least three flies trod the ointment:

(1) Everyone who responds to a poll about Presidential approval is expressing an opinion about the same person. But poll respondents who express approval or disapproval of a large group of people (e.g., Congress or the Democratic Party) could be giving an opinion about different individuals or subgroups within that greater whole. Their opinions therefore can’t be reasonably aggregated as if they had the same meaning. For example, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid-loving respondents’ disapproval of “Congress” may refer to how they loathe the Tea Party Caucus whereas Tea Party respondents’ disapproval may reflect how they detest Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

(2) Ever wonder why pre-election polls often show that voters are overwhelmingly hostile to incumbents yet the results of the ensuing elections indicate that those same voters went out and supported an incumbent? Human beings have a self-serving cognitive bias when they make personally relevant judgments. If you ask a smoker “What proportion of people who smoke just like you will get lung cancer?”, and then ask “What is your own chance of getting lung cancer?” the smoker will usually explain why, for some reason or other, their personal risk is lower than what they quoted for the group of people who smoke just like them. The same phenomenon can be at play when someone tells you that 90% of the Congress are bums who should be thrown out of office, but also maintains that “Good Old Representative Smith” in their own district happens to be in the 10% of paragons on the Hill. You can’t play this self-serving cognitive game with yourself when a pollster asks you about whether you approve of the President because we all have the same President. If you think my President is a bum, by definition you think yours is too.

(3) Everyone can vote for the President, but no one gets to vote for more than a small slice of “the Congress” or one of the major parties. If you disapprove of the President, you have the power to act on the object of your disapproval when you vote. But even if you loathe most of the Congress and/or one party, you don’t have much power to translate those attitudes into action in your voting. That’s another reason why Presidential approval ratings can’t be interpreted in the same frame as generic party or Congressional approval ratings

How can you compare apples and apples when forecasting elections? Analyze data from those polls that follow questions about approval of the President with queries about approval of the Congressional Representative for the respondent’s own district and each of the individual Senators from the respondent’s home state.

Power and its corruption

The malignant narcissism of a Saddam Hussein is at the extreme of a spectrum of power-induced pathologies.

Keith, in his brilliant post below on dictatorship and malignant narcissism, is surely right to say that no one in a republican system – not even a Nixon – can be quite as crazy as a true dictator, because there’s too much in the environment that he doesn’t control. I would emphasize here the importance of free press in keeping officials sane by confronting them with external reality; a Rick Perry Administration might be able to partially tune that out by relying on Fox News, but that would still be a far cry from a world in which nothing is published that departs from the party line.

Still, the difference is in degree, not in tendency. Acton was right that all power corrupts, though only absolute power corrupts absolutely. Karl Deutsch analyzes this problem in The Nerves of Government. I don’t have the book in front of me, but here’s a fairly close paraphrase of the key paragraph:

Learning means adjusting your ideas to fit the world. Power is the capacity to adjust the world to fit your ideas. So power means the ability not to learn from your mistakes.

Continue reading “Power and its corruption”