On political information

October 22, 2011

Some random theorizing I was doing today in the wake of some political discussions.

Two statements that I think are indisputably true:

(1) In any democracy, some small subset of the citizenry will be better informed about politics than the rest of the population. Following Popkin, we could call them high-information and low-information voters. Here I will call them normal and sophisticated voters.

(2) The cost of obtaining political information has shrunk dramatically in the past 15 years. Anyone interested in politics can easily obtain a wealth of official information, news reporting, commentary, and political analysis.

One statement that I believe to be true, but I’m not certain about:

(3) Sophisticated voters are more likely than low-information voters to think strategically about politics. That is, when a normal voter watches a political debate, they are more likely to only think about what the candidates are saying. A sophisticated voter is more likely to think about why they are saying what they are saying.

Three plausibly-testable hypotheses that may follow from the above the statements:

H1. The proportion of sophisticated voters in America is growing.

H2. The relative level of sophistication among even normal voters is growing.

H3. The sum total of political media is increasingly geared toward sophisticated voters.

I propose all of this because I’m finding myself continually to be in conversations with people I would usually consider to be normal voters, who are expressing strategic reactions, rather than face-value reactions, to political events. I was discussing the GOP field of candidates with several such people last week, and I was struck by the degree of strategic analysis they were bringing to bear on the conversation. When I asked them what they thought of the candidates, they didn’t respond by telling me what they liked or disliked about Romney, Perry, or Cain. Instead, they told me what they thought were the causes of Cain’s rise in the polls and how the other candidates should perhaps respond. When I asked about their opinion of the president, they didn’t give me an opinion of him, they gave me a dissection of what variable are going to affect his re-election, and what strategy he should use between now and then.

This, I thought, was remarkable. In essence, they were no longer thinking like common voters; they were thinking like amateur campaign managers. That’s something I would usually associate with sophisticated voters. So what is going on here? Of course, it’s always possible that I’m just seeing this wrong; my supposed former-normal voters were actually always sophisticated. But I don’t think that’s the case. My hunch is that there’s a pretty clear causal chain here: the small but growing number of sophisticated voters are hungry for lots of political information of the strategic variety; the cable news shows and internet content is providing that for them as a market-response; however, this is having an affect on the broader media environment, making it geared more toward sophisticated strategic information than regular old reporting of the facts. As a result, any normal voter who meets a certain baseline (i.e. consumes any political news) is being turned into a sophisticated voters.

A couple of caveats for clarification. I’m not sure that my conception of the “sophisticated” voter necessarily means that voters are getting smarter, or more consistently ideological. I’m not making the case that there are more ideologues. It just strikes me that more people are now in tune with the strategic goals of political debaters, and are evaluating what they see within that frame. I don’t think that has anything to do with political knowledge. Second, I’m not claiming that this is affecting all voters; the large swath of voters who collect almost zero political information on a regular basis shouldn’t be affected by this. Second, I’m not sure how deep this goes: it may just be the case that it’s only happening in DC, or among already-sophisticated voters. But I don’t think that matters. Any expansion on this dimension strikes as both interesting and consequential.

So what are the consequences? One is that I think there is an eventual tipping point at which the theatrical aspect of politics gets worn away, simply because they aren’t enough voters left to fool with it. We seem to already be approaching something like that in the Senate, where an increasing number of voters have a decent-enough grasp of the rules to demand that their representatives take full advantage of them and play hardball. Similarly, I think more and more people are understanding events like debates as strategic opportunities rather than information-distributing events. I don’t think this is a bad thing; wiping away the veneer of political discourse and reducing the game to interests and institutional rules is not inherently a bad thing. It might generate cynicism, but it would be cynicism as the cost of reality. And I’ll take realists over romantics every day of the week for my electorate.

A second consequence that occurs to me is that as a greater percentage of people become sophisticated observers of politics, something strange happens to those who remain normal voters: they may become self-conscious of their position as non-sophisticates, or at least as outside of the political conversation. If everyone with an even passing interest in politics becomes a strategic thinker, and the media increasingly plays to that reality, and the discourse of sophisticated politics becomes a discourse of strategy, I would think that political discourse would become both (a) more noticeable to the normal voter; and (b) simultaneously more distant. It would be like if the number of people in your community who spoke a foreign language suddenly increased substantially, both face-t0-face and in the news. It would have to become noticeable. I have no idea what the upshot of this is, and even less of an idea of whether it’s a good or bad thing.

Anyway, still thinking this through. Any feedback would be appreciated.


Samuel Popkin, The Reasoning Voter (University of Chicago Press), 1991.


It doesn’t matter. But in what way?

October 21, 2011

There are a lot of things in politics that just don’t matter much. That is, they don’t have any independent effect on the political outcome — which candidate wins, what policy passes, etc. This is often true even about things that seem like they should matter a lot, especially in the world of campaigns and elections. Primary debates don’t seem to matter much. Who you choose for your running mate doesn’t seem to matter much. Hell, there’s an entire literature in political science that says campaigns themselves don’t really matter all that much.

One thing that I think gets overlooked, however, is the way in which something doesn’t matter. I know that sounds silly, but hear me out. Some things literally don’t matter; they have zero independent effect on the outcome. On the other hand, some things don’t matter because they don’t generate a comparative advantage in any direction. The former category is filled with things that both theoretically and empirically seem meaningless or utterly unrelated to outcomes. For instance, best I can tell, candidate penmanship has zero effect on election outcomes (God help me if there’s some political science literature out there that says otherwise). The latter category  is filled with things that theoretically and empirically might actually matter a whole lot. Take, for instance, money in presidential general elections. In a vacuum, it could be important. But because both sides can raise a ton of money, there’s a declining marginal utility of money in an election, and no one is really that much better at spending money than anyone else, the end result is that no one can get a comparative advantage. And thus it doesn’t really matter.

I see two important dimensions in the world of things that don’t matter because of comparative advantage problems: differentiation and measurability. Let’s say you are running a campaign and have to make a choice. The choice matters less when there is little difference between the options, and also when you can measure that difference precisely, such that there’s little variance in your estimation of the difference. Let me use a sports analogy to get at this point: football kickers in the NFL.  From the point of view of an individual team, kickers don’t really matter much. No one drafts kickers with their top picks, and no one trades good players for a kicker. The kickers aren’t even paid that much. But there’s no doubt that the kicking game in football matters — it directly affects the outcome of lots and lots of games.

The problem is that no one can really get a comparative advantage with kickers, for two reasons: there’s no variation in ability, and the ability is easy to measure. The top 35 kickers in the world are pretty much equally as good as one another, and the skill they possess is so easily quantifiable that it’s almost impossible to make a bad judgment in acquisition. Yes, the top few are a little better than the pack and the bottom few a little worse, but overall there’s just not much difference, and we can measure and know that precisely. Now, the situation changes dramatically when you switch to high school football (or even college); there is enormous variation in kicker ability there, and thus a comparative advantage can be gained.

Now, is any of this actually important in politics? I’m not sure, but my hunch is that it might be. When we say that something doesn’t matter much, often what we are implicitly saying is that it doesn’t matter much so long as the candidate/campaign is sufficiently skilled in decision-making, because they will make decisions that, while perhaps sub-optimal, are at least good enough to effectively neutralize the possibility of a comparative disadvantage. It’s like when we say a House Member is unbeatable; he’s not actually unbeatable, he’s only unbeatable if he continues to do the things he’s doing with his votes, constituent service, and the like (Mayhew 1974).

And this directly points to the idea of mistakes/miscalculations as well as lack of skill. Two examples: the choice of Palin as running mate by McCain in ’08, and the way the Cain campaign has handled the abortion flap in the past few days. In the abstract, these are things that don’t matter: vice-presidential nominee selection and minor gaffes in soft media interviews. But they did matter, because the campaigns handled both things so poorly that a comparative advantage was derived by any opposing candidate. In the case of McCain, it strikes me as a miscalculation borne of poor measurement; they simply didn’t research Palin enough to realize she wasn’t at the minimum threshold which makes a VP nominee not matter (see political science studies here, here, and here for analysis of the unusually-large-for-a-VP effect Palin had.) In the case of Cain, it just looks like an unskilled choice; there are a lot of ways to handle such a gaffe and yet they somehow managed to choose a way that did not allow a quick escape.

These are rare situations at the national campaign level. So two things emerge: first, we should expect a lot more things to matter in elections as the election becomes more localized and amateur. Second is that things that don’t matter tend not to matter because campaigns tend to be good at avoiding comparative disadvantages in situations where no comparative advantage exists. Which, in turn, I think suggests that campaigns are rightfully risk-averse; managing the downside of things is often the only way to get even a potential advantage — simply minimize your mistakes and hope your opponent makes more. Even among things that don’t matter.


David Mayhew, The Electoral Connection, Yale University Press, 1974.


A House Divided

October 20, 2011

People keep pointing me toward  E.J. Dionne’s op-ed in today’s Post. I’m not all that enthused about it, in part because the analogy is absurdly tortured and the  history is a bit stylized, but mostly because I don’t see how the lesson of Lincoln can be applied here. Let me explain.

Dionne’s pitch is pretty simple: Lincoln was a moderate anti-slavery man, who ran in 1860 with a conciliatory attitude toward the south, and continued that policy not only during the secession crisis, but also after the war began. He carefully worked to hold the center, ever fearful that if perceived as an abolitionist, both he and the cause would be sunk. The conciliation, however, got him nowhere. Meanwhile, public opinion in the north was drifting toward the abolitionists, who believed that ending slavery was the only way to solidify the section and win the war. Lincoln then seized the opportunity by abandoning his centrist position and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, a year and a half into the war.

Dionne then transfers this analogy to present-day. Obama is situated similarly to Lincoln, facing a hardened opposition that refuses to respond to his centrist overtures, and a growing leftist movement is making inroads with public opinion. As Dionne says, “[b]y following Lincoln’s example and acting against the injustices of our time, Obama could also come to occupy the high ground.”

But here’s the problem: what do you do? Even if you fully accept Dionne’s reading of history — and while I would quibble with a lot of it, it’s certainly not unreasonable — you still have to face up to the biggest shortcoming of the analogy: there’s no equivalent of the Emancipation Proclamation available to president Obama. Part of the simplicity of Lincoln’s situation is that he was able to act  in a way that was both decisive and unilateral. The total sum of the injustice of slavery was not 100% rectified by freeing the slaves, but it was about as complete of a solution as anyone could possibly demand. No one who agreed with the ends was suggesting alternative means, or worried that Lincoln’s means would not achieve the ends. And Lincoln was able to execute the policy via nothing more than an executive order and an expansive-but-perfectly-plausible reading of Article II of the Constitution.

I would respectfully suggest that Obama has no such recourse. It’s telling that Dionne does not make specific suggestions for what the president should do; it’s pretty hard to think of concrete policy actions he can unilaterally take regarding economic inequality and perceived excesses of the financial sector. If we were to reverse the analogy, it would be like demanding Lincoln free the slaves, but require him to do it by legislation and with the southerners allowed to vote. Yes, Occupy Wall Street may be genuinely moving public opinion. But it doesn’t just have to get center-left Democrats like Obama (i.e. the median northern voter in 1862) to take up more aggressively liberal positions, it needs to move at least some right-of-center voters to those positions (i.e. the median national voter in 1860). Obama’s main opposition, unlike Lincoln’s, has yet to exit the democratic process.

More to the point, the one specific that Dionne mentions — higher taxes for the wealthy — has been proposed by Obama time and again since the 2008 election. And in the context of the current debate on the left, it’s small beer. Raising taxes on the runaway wealthy— while certainly noble — is not going to fix the economy, close the deficit, or significantly lower unemployment. And even if that is the sum total of policy necessary to grab the high ground in the face of the abolitionist-like angst, you still have the southerners to deal with. One highly likely outcome is that you are left with a campaign issue and not a policy. Ditto on the jobs package. Ditto on another stimulus. Ditto on pretty much everything.

But, I can hear you thinking, maybe that’s what Dionne is saying! Obama should move his stated preferences to the left and capture the moral high ground in preparation for the 2012 election. In that case, Dionne has not exactly written a new column. And while I know a lot of people think that’s a good strategy, I think it’s dubious. The president has already reshaped some of his policy ideas to conform to an election narrative of GOP obstructionism. If he moves them further left in a way that makes it plain that he’s not interested in policy outcomes right now, the voters are unlikely to cancel out the blame for gridlock. Much more likely is that the President will lose.

Lincoln was a smart politician, who understood his political context and how to modify his policies within it. I’m not convinced his move would be to lurch left right now. And I don’t think Obama’s will be either.

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GOP Debate: Let’s get historical!

October 19, 2011

I always cringe when candidates start to riff on U.S. history in debates, but last night, thankfully, wasn’t too bad.

Gingrich, not surprisingly, threw out a couple of historical items that I thought were noteworthy. First, the question was raised by the moderator regarding the relevance of Romney’s Mormon faith and all that jazz.  A few other candidates spoke, and then Gingrich said this:

Well, I think if the question is, does faith matter? Absolutely. How can you have a country which is founded on truths which begins we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights? How can you have the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 which says religion, morality and knowledge being important, education matters. That’s the order: religion, morality and knowledge.

Now, I happen to think that none of us should rush in judgment of others in the way in which they approach God. And I think that all of us up here I believe would agree.

There’s a little to quibble with here — the first truth in the Declaration of Independence is “that all men are created equal,” not “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights,” which is actually second — but mostly he gets the basic facts more or less right. He also twisted the Northwest Ordinance a little bit. It does indeed say, in Article 3, that religion, morality, and knowledge are necessary to good government and happiness, and therefore schools should be encouraged. But that (was and) is as much an argument for increased state and federal funding of education as it is for (what I take to be) Gingrich’s point about curriculum. But again, nothing too bad here.

A bit more annoyingly, Gingrich also misrepresented the basic thrust of the Northwest Ordinance as it relates to religion, which is unequivocally toleration, and not the promotion of religion in schools. The Ordinance declares “civil and religious liberty” the basis upon which the colonies/states and their laws “are erected.”  And Article 1 reads, “No person, demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner, shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments, in the said territory.” Gingrich could have even mentioned that in making his second point, maybe throwing in a nice quip about Romney being politically molested or something. I don’t have any doubt that Gingrich is broadly committed to religious liberty and not interested in making Mormonism a political issue, so I can’t see how it would have hurt. And it might have helped if people have doubts about Perry’s commitment to the same, post-Jeffress.

Gingrich also brought up the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which regular readers know I have a fair amount of interest in. Here’s Newt:

As the nominee, I will challenge Obama to meet the Lincoln-Douglas standard of seven three-hour debate, — no moderator, only a timekeeper.

Well, that’s certainly factually correct — Lincoln and Douglas debated seven times in 1858 and there was no moderation. (Each candidate spoke for 90 minutes, in a 60-90-30 format, alternating in each debate which candidate went first).

People always ask me if I think a Lincoln-Douglas style debate could work in the modern age. This is really two questions; first, would modern general-election candidates agree to participate in such a debate and, second, would the debate be a positive to our political process relative to the existing presidential debate structure.

On the first, I’m skeptical. Modern campaigns have gotten pretty good at understanding how to deal with the 60 second or 30 second response time to a question (just as politicians have gotten good at the same thing with reporters’ questions), and I’m not sure they’d want to roll the dice on something totally new, given how unknown the results would be. Campaigns in general do not love debates; they are semi-uncontrollable situations, and campaigns tend to dislike the potential volatility. Especially campaigns that are in the lead, or have more resources, or have candidates that aren’t as good at debating. In effect, there’s usually at least one candidate looking at the debate as something to be survived without providing the opponent an opportunity for a powerful, unscripted moment. There’s a general norm right now that holds the presidential debates together, and I think a candidate would suffer some from refusing to participate. But I also think the norm is pretty fragile; it wouldn’t shock me if a candidate sometime in the next handful of cycles refused to debate.

On the second question— would it be helpful — I’m even more skeptical. I don’t think the 60-90-30 format would work at all. That strikes me as a recipe for tuning voters out. Three hours is a long time, and even a half-hour speech is long enough to completely turn people off. Part of this is the changing nature of the purpose of debates: in 1858, the debate served partially as an mechanism of information transmittal in a less information-intensive environment: twelve thousand people showed up in Ottawa for the first Lincoln-Douglas debate in part because they wanted to see what the men looked like and get a feel for who they were as people. Did they look smart? Did they sound smart? Did they conduct themselves well? These are things not readily available on the printed page in 1858, but delivered in sensory overload now. I just don’t think people would watch for that long. So the format would have to be modified. Maybe you could do 10 or 15 minute alternating blocks of time, but I’m not even sure of that.

But what about an unmoderated debate? Again, I’m pretty skeptical. Theoretically, it’s really appealing to me. But my sense is that the campaigns would work hard to suppress the potential fireworks (either through pre-debate agreement on groundrules, or candidate strategy in the actual speeches) and you’d end up with something that looked a lot more like a couple of guys just giving their stump speeches. Even if it worked as well as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, I’m not sure most people would be all that impressed; the fact is that even the best political debates don’t come close to anyone’s good government normative idealized notion of them. Yes, the Lincoln-Douglas debates took on the issue of slavery in a relatively substantive manner, but they also were rife with name-calling, half-truths, distortions, ad hominem attacks, ducking of issues, and everything else you associate with modern debates. Just as a competitive market serves the consumer but not any individual firm, candidates are not necessarily particularly well served by the ideal debate for voters.

I’d be happy to give it a try — I don’t see a lot of harm from having a Lincoln-Douglas debate — but unlike Newt, I don’t see it as much of a benefit to anyone, and certainly not a panacea to anything related to our political/electoral system.

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Tuesday APD blogging: The case of the federal calendar

October 18, 2011

There’s a tendency in popular political culture to assign the Framers a laughably extreme degree of reverence, one way or another. In one popular view, they’re treated as god-like figures who could do no wrong and wrote an infallible Constitution, with neither the men nor the Constitution worthy of anything but complete adulation. In the other view, they’re or a bunch of rich elites who designed a self-serving barely-democratic government, which rigged the system against the common man and completely sidestepped the obvious moral question of the day.

Obviously, both of those views are silly. But it takes a fair amount of looking to find a more honest assessment of the Framers; that they were reasonably noble but still self-interested representatives, struggling to adjudicate complicated multi-dimensional issues of political power, with little precedent to guide them and no crystal ball to see an utterly unfathomable future, and through part skill and part luck they landed on a pretty darn good constitutional design, which turned out to have a pile of flaws but a basic stability that allowed a modern nation to emerge mostly unscathed, despite being born in the age of both industrial and democratic revolution.

Here I want to discuss an often-overlooked error the Framers made — the design of the federal political calendar. Prior to the 20th amendment, the calendar was frustratingly out of sync, with serious consequences. In Article 1, section 4 of the Constitution, the framers wrote that the Congress “shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by Law appoint a different Day.” December was chosen, in part, because it was compatible with the agricultural calendar. So far, so good (although it’s always dangerous when legislatively designing an institution to put a hard start date on it).

The problem arose when the terms of the Representatives, Senators, and President began on March 4, 1789. This created an utterly peculiar situation: the first session of each Congress was set to begin in December of the odd-numbered years, with the Members having been elected a full 13-months prior, in November of the prior even-numbered year. Even worse, the second session of any Congress did not begin until December of the even-numbered year, after the elections had been held for the next Congress (generating the concept of the “lame duck”). Furthermore, the second session was known as the “short session” because it was only 3-months long, leaving little time to do anything besides the appropriations bills.

This had enormous ramifications in the 19th century: during any two-Congress presidential administration, both second sessions were lame ducks, and the first session of the second Congress was conducted with the presidential election looming. As David Potter has written, this tended toward the first-session of the first Congress of an administration being the key chance for major legislative successes. Dilatory actions in the second session could produce large concessions, as the hard-deadline of March 3 loomed; indeed, an enormous amount of second-session legislation was signed on March 3, often with the President sitting in the Capitol racing to beat a midnight deadline.

So where did the March 4th date come from? The framers did not specify on which date the new government of the United States would begin, in part because it was not known how long the ratification of the Constitution would take in the states. Most likely, they thought the ratification of the Constitution would be complete by spring 1788, such that elections could be held during the summer, followed by the selection of Senators and Presidential electors, all in time for the government to begin on the first Monday of December 1788. That way, the terms of the President and Members would correspond to the constitutional calendar, with the first session of each Congress beginning at the same time .

However, the ninth state did not ratify the Constitution until the end of June 1788 and only 11 states had ratified by September. Since there was not enough time to hold elections and begin the new government in December of 1788, the Continental Congress was faced with an unappealing choice:  either delay the start of the still-fragile new government for an entire year (and begin in December 1789) or set a start date for the new government that did not coincide with the constitutionally-set calendar. So on September 13, 1788, the Continental Congress — based on the practical need for time to hold elections and select Presidential electors in the states, as well as a desire not to delay the new government for an entire year — specified the first Wednesday in January 1789 as the day for electors to be appointed in the states, the first Wednesday in February 1789 as the date for the electors to assemble and cast votes for President, and  the first Wednesday in March  as the start day for the new government.

This is a worse problem then it initially appears. Once the new government began on March 4th, the date could only be altered by Constitutional amendment, since the terms of the Representatives, Senators, and President were fixed at exactly two, six, and four years, respectively. (They couldn’t simply shorten the 1st Congress and start the terms of the 2nd Congress in December).  The only plausible remedy would be Constitutional amendment. (What the Continental Congress should have done was originally make the date of the terms of the first Members retro-active to December 1788, allowing the 2nd Congress to be elected in summer 1790 and begin in December 1790; instead, the 2nd Congress was elected in summer/Fall 1790, the 1st Congress had its second session beginning in December 1790, the 2nd Congress began its term in March 1791, and the 2nd Congress’s first session began in December 1791).

So why didn’t they remedy the situation via Constitutional amendment until 1933? There’s a folklore belief that the delay between FDR’s election and the his inauguration was what spurred the amendment into being, but that’s largely urban legend: similar proposed amendments had passed the Senate every Congress since 1923, and the successful amendment was out of Congress well prior to the 1932 election, with specific language that it would not go into effect, even if passed, in time for the 73rd Congress. A more likely candidate for the non-fix was the old Senate: prior to the ratification of the 17th amendment in 1913, action by the state legislature was needed to pick Senators. But virtually all state legislatures held their sessions early in the new year, after later Fall elections. If the federal calendar was adjusted to pull the terms of Members back from March into December, there was a real possibility of a large number of absent Senators in the first session, the state legislatures having not yet met.

Well, what about adjusting the start date of the session to match the March 4 term date? That was not possible, either, for an even more basic reason: the weather. I’ll let the Senate Committee on the Judiciary explain that:

[It is true that you could have a session] after the 4th of March, but [this would] not give the new Congress very much time for the consideration of important national questions before the summer heat in the Capital City makes even existence difficult and good work almost impossible. it is conceded by all that the best time for legislatures to do work is during the winter months. Practically all the States of the Union recognize this fact and provide for the meeting of their legislatures near the 1st of January.

More evidence for Nelson Polsby’s air-conditioning theory of American politics!

When the 20th amendment was drawn up and ratified, it also fixed a nagging secondary problem of the old calendar: since the President’s term and the congressional terms were identical, in any case where no one got a majority of the electoral votes and thus Presidential selection was handed to the House, it was the old outgoing House that got to vote, which made little sense. Under the 20th amendment, the Presidential term begins 18 days after the term of the new Congress, allowing the incoming House to choose the President in such a situation.


Max Farrand and David Maydole Matteson, The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, vol. 2 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), pp. 197-202 (August 8, 1787).

Worthington C. Ford, ed.,  Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, vol. 34 (Washington, D.C., 1904-37), pp. 522-523.

Potter, David. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, Harper (1977).

United States Congress, Senate, S. Rep. No. 26, 72d Cong., 1st Sess. (Washington: GPO, 1932).


On populists and the establishment

October 17, 2011

Jonathan Bernstein has a post today that I highly recommend, about the problem with the political term ‘establishment:’

Which is why I try to avoid the term “establishment.” It conjures up, to me at least, a monolithic group of insiders who either control or fail to control everyone else. But that’s just not the case in either political party. There certainly are highly influential groups and organizations and even people, but which ones exactly have more influence depends on context and circumstance and changes all the time, as far as I can tell. Dividing off a set of those people as an “establishment” just doesn’t help us understand what’s going on.

That strikes me as both correct and important. Read the whole thing. I’d only add a few tangent thoughts:

The persistence of the term ‘establishment’ — and the idea — is cultural-electoral. There’s a soft populism to which many (if not most) American voters respond well, and a wide range of candidates and causes in both parties try to tap into it by setting up an imaginary elite to serve as the boogeyman, and set themselves up as the saviors against such an establishment. There’s a vaule to being perceived as an insurgent in Amreican politics — both for popular an self-delusion reasons —  and that can’t be done without an “establishment” to n’surge ‘gainst. The narrative frame is almost always conspiratorial populism; that some small elite force is destroying the common man not through legitimate small-d democratic victory, but through unfair financial and/or other  manipulation. Most of the time in a pluralist political society, insurgents aren’t purely the raggedy masses and the establishment isn’t the Wizard of Oz. But that’s the required sales pitch.

As famously described by Hofstader’s essay, the narrative frame is underwritten by the twin emotional responses of paranoia and anger. Over and over again, the “establishment” is nothing more than the perceived object of populist fears. And those fears are, historically, pretty widespread in America: the Jeffersonians in fear of the Federalist/Bristish alliance, jacksonians vs. the Bank, anti-slavery vs. the Slave Power, western silverites vs. Eastern Gold, progressives vs. Big Business, isoloationists vs. Internationalists, the tea party vs. Washington, occupy wall street vs. Corporations.  And it comes as no surprise that the opponents of these populist movements tend to try to undercut the populist nature of them: think of the pro-slavery forces deriding abolition in Kansas as nothing more than a handful of men with lots of Massachusetts money; or OWS/Tea Party being cut down as financial-backed by a few liberal/conservative interests.

It’s also my sense is that populism-fueled insurgencies are hard to hold together, or at least it’s hard to keep the populism in the insurgency once it gets to a politically-viable size.  The process of normalizing true insurgencies into concrete political interests undercuts the emotional/narrative strength of their theses. After all, if you gain enough political power to exact change, have you not simply become the establishment? Strong populist movements, both within parties and between them, tend to fizzle. They either grow so large as to force them to become more pragmatic than any true believer can handle, or they get co-opted and fail to gain the strength required for continued relevent existence. In any case, they almost certainly attenuate as they grow: think of abolition as it expanded into anti-slavery, or 1880s/90s Populism as it became Democratic Bryanism.

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Sunday whimsy: political conversations with my family

October 16, 2011

I’m in northern New York right now, back to my hometown for the weekend for my nephew’s 1st birthday party. Always a good place to talk politics, and some pretty memorable conversations with the family:

Friday morning, on the plane

Me [talking to my wife]: [something about the Obama administration]

Anna [my 3-year old daughter]: Who’s O-bom-uh? What are you guys talking about?

Me: President Obama.

Anna: Like on our place mats at dinner?

Me: Yes, that’s right. The leader of our country. We might pick a new President next year. What do you think of that?

Anna: When will you be President?

Me: Well, I’m not old enough.

Anna: You’re plenty old, Dad! You should be President next.

Me: Would you vote for me?

Anna: Ummmm. Maybe. I think Abby [my 1-year-old] would.

Friday midday, at my mom’s house

Mom [RFK liberal, mild follower of politics, not thrilled with Obama]: Who’s this Herman Cain clown?

Me: Why do you say ‘clown’?

Mom: Isn’t he just a rich pizza baron? Why do the Republicans like him?

Me: I’m not sure his polling numbers are reflective of deep attachments. He’s probably just…

Mom [interrupting]: I saw him talking about the social security system in Chile. And his 9-9-9 thing seems gimmicky.

Me: Well, he’s not going to win the nomination.

Mom: He just seems like Perot to me. Except black.

Friday evening, at childhood best friend’s house

Me: You been following the GOP debates?

Friend [center-right Republican; very religious Catholic family]: A little. Seems like Romney and a bunch of crazies right now. I can’t really see any of the rest of them as President.

Me: No kidding. I was meaning to ask you and [wife] — how would you feel about a Mormon President?

Friend: Interesting, hadn’t thought of it. Wouldn’t bother me at all, but I could see that being an issue for some. I doubt any Catholics care, but the Baptists might. But geez, the Mormon thing would make great late night fodder. They’d ride that for four years.What do you think?

Me: Not sure. I would think it a small marginal effect, maybe something like the magnitude of people who would have voted for Obama, but didn’t because he was African-American.

Friend: I could see that. On the other hand, Obama being black is about the only thing I like about him!

Me: Ha! What do you mean?

Friend: Makes me feel good about our country that a black man can win the presidency.

Me: I know what you mean. Did you see Perry at the frat house at Dartmouth?

Friend: I heard something about that. Was it like the Sweeney thing at Union?

Me: I wish. He just said that the American Revolution was in the 16th century.

Friend: So Romney’s going to President, I guess.

Me: Yeah.

My sister’s house, Saturday afternoon

My sister’s father-in-law [moderate to conservative, GOP leaner; follows politics]: So what’s going on in Washington?

Me: Gridlock on the Hill, that’s for sure. The election has more or less started.

SFIL: You think it’s going to be Romney?

Me: Yes, and I think he’ll be President in 2013. You?

SFIL: Well, I think Obama is cooked if it’s Romney. If it’s someone else, he’ll have a chance.

Me: I agree. I think he could beat…

SFIL [interrupting]: and I guess if the economy comes back he could beat Romney. But that’s a big if.

Me: Would you vote for Perry against Obama?

SFIL: God. I don’t know. That might be a in-the-booth decision.

Me: What about Cain?

SFIL: No chance.

Me: [joking] Racist!

SFIL: [joking] Oh, yeah. Me and all the segregationists will be forced to go with the half-black dude! [More serious] I just can’t pick a guy to be president who has zero experience. I mean, I don’t even think I could have voted for Ike. Maybe.  But a pizza guy? Come on, that’s just ridiculous.

My mom’s house, Sunday afternoon

My aunt [preacher's daughter and preacher's wife; liberal; mild follower of politics]: So who’s going to be President?

Me: Romney. Maybe not more likely than not, but definitely plurality favorite right now.

Aunt: Don’t you think he’s a little slippery? And [joking] what about the whole Mormon thing? Polygamy ain’t going far.

Me: You mean [husband] didn’t preach it this morning?

Aunt: Oh, yeah right. Might as well have, no one was there.

Me: What did you mean by slippery?

Aunt: He just seems a little slick? You know, like you can’t trust him.

Me: Weren’t you a Hillary supporter?

Aunt: Yeah, but we all knew she was a cold-blooded killer. Romney seems more like an empty suit.

Me: So who do you like?

Aunt: I’ll probably just vote for Obama.

Me: [joking] there you go again, all the Jesus-freaks voting for the socialist. Stop taking the Gospel so seriously.

Aunt: [laughing] you know, [husband] actually pitched that to me as a sermon a few months ago.

Me: Really? Since when does [husband] do political sermons?

Aunt: He doesn’t. I think he was just fed up the whole Republican gay marriage thing. Get over it, right?

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On Civil Disobedience and draft card burning

October 15, 2011

Forty-six years ago today — October 15, 1965 — David J. Miller, a 24-year old Christian pacifist of the Catholic Worker Movement, burned his draft card in Manhattan, and became the first person arrested and convicted under P.L. 89-152 (79 Stat. 586; August 31, 1965), which had altered the Selective Service statute by four words and thus made it a crime to knowingly destroy or knowingly mutilate a draft card. Three years later, in United States vs. O’Brien, the Supreme Court upheld the statute as a legitimate exercise of congressional power, and not way a violation of freedom of speech under the 1st amendment. Miller served 22 months in jail.

How should a libertarian think about all of this? Four points:

1) Conscription is fundamentally incompatible with libertarianism. I won’t go as far as to say that libertarianism fundamentally requires a pacifist orientation toward war (although I think it might, and does for me at any rate). But I’m positive it rules out conscription. The cornerstone of all civil liberties is the right to freedom of lawful movement without state interference. Without that, the citizens are nothing more than a resource of the state, their lives subsumed completely to the goal of the nation. That’s completely backwards; when we don’t like something that has that feature, we label it fascism. Any state that has the power to lawfully take complete control of an otherwise law-abiding citizen’s body against his will is, by definition, acting in something like a totalitarian manner.

That such state power is approved by a legitimate democratic legislature is of no matter. If any state, democratic or otherwise, cannot induce its citizens to defend the nation or engage in a war through a market-incentivized volunteer military, such a nation is probably not worthy of defense, or such a war is probably not worth carrying out. I consider the abolition of conscription in the United States to be the singular triumph of libertarianism in the 20th century. Whatever negative side-effects it has caused (the skewing of the military toward the poor; the consequences of war falling more unevenly upon society) are lamentable, but cannot justify a return to a policy that is fundamentally counter to any basic notion of individual freedom.

2) Civil disobedience is a legitimate way to oppose laws. For me, a legitimate act of civil disobedience requires three components: first, the law under protest must be the law that is violated; it’s not civil disobedience to protest an unjust law by throwing bricks through windows, that’s called a riot. Second, the disobedience must be carried out non-violently. This usually follows from the first component, but not always. Think about African Americans protesting segregation by sitting at lunch counters or riding in whites-only seats on buses. Carried out peacefully, this is the essence of civil disobedience; but if sitting at lunch counter requires you to violently force your way to the seat, or results in a fistfight, it will become largely counterproductive. This means, I think, that any practitioner of civil disobedience must be prepared to take a beating without retaliating, as many African Americans nobly did. Third, anyone using civil disobedience must willingly and cheerfully accept the current punishment under the unjust law. Civil disobedience cannot become an excuse for law-breaking. A fourth point is that civil disobedience is at its strongest when it is paired with unjust restrictions on access to the democratic process — think African-Americans protesting segregation or people under 21 protesting conscription prior to the 26th amendment.

3) Burning a draft card is not exactly civil disobedience, per se. Well, that’s not exactly right. If the burning was a protest against the law against burning, then it would be civil disobedience. But the burning of draft cards was a protest against conscription itself, which is kind of like not paying your property tax to protest laws that restrict lawn-watering to certain days; it’s related in a clear way, but it’s not the obvious way to go. Those opposed to conscription who wanted to use civil disobedience should have refused induction into the military, not burnt their draft cards. On the other hand, it’s not clear to me that draft card burners saw them selves as being civil disobedients; most of them challenged the law in court rather then submitting to the punishment, indicating that they did not believe the burnings to be against the law, but instead constitutionally-protected actions. Even more to the point, I’m not sure the anti-war movement in the 60′s was anti-conscription per se; maybe they just thought the Vietnam war was horrible policy that was falling on their shoulders, and that some future war might justify conscription.

4) Burning draft cards in violation of the law was probably bad strategy. No doubt, it was a dumb law. But the point of the burnings was symbolic; a public defiance of an entire system of war-making, in many cases. But such symbolism could be achieved without literal law-breaking; why not just burn your library card and pretend it’s your draft card? Or print up some fake draft cards and burn those? To me, this highlights the emotional aspect of the anti-war movement, the fueling of a political movement by powerful, but irrational, means. If people wanted to go to jail on purpose to highlight and publicize the immorality of the war, I guess that’s a fine strategy. But I think that was a flawed strategy, too. Because it made the protesters the story, rather than the war. Unlike civil rights protesters, anti-war protesters in the 60′s (save Vietnam veterans) were, almost by definition, not the objects of the unjust laws. A sizeable percentage of them were college students exempt from the draft; virtually all of them had not been drafted. That made them good candidates to carry signs and peacefully protest public policy. But to burn a draft card was to insert yourself politically into a fight that you had not yet been drawn into. Incredibly symbolic? For sure. Strategically wise? I doubt it. In fact, I would assume that the draft card burning (as opposed to the street protests) was counterproductive; it probably hardened the opinion of those who were in favor of the war and may have been responsive to simple policy arguments against it.

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How would Watergate have played out absent the 25th amendment?

October 14, 2011

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the 25th amendment, which did three things: formally specified that if the President leaves office prior to his term ending, the Vice President becomes President (as opposed to “acting President” or “having the powers of the Presidency devlove to them,” which was ambigous in the original Constitution); put in place a system for replacement of the Vice President in the case of his office being absent, with Presidential nomination and majority confirmation in both chambers of Congress (as opposed to the old system of a vacant Vice-Presidency); and provided a detailed set of instructions for dealing with a temporarily incapacitated President.

The 25th amendment was passed in 1967, and the first two sections of it came into immediate use: Vice-President Agnew resigned in October 1973 in the face of a bribery scandal, was replaced by Nixon’s nomination and Congress’s confirmation of Ford (nominated 10/12/73; Senate confirmed 11/27/73; House confirmed 12/6/73), who in turn became President when Nixon resigned (8/9/74), and the nominated Nelson Rockefellar for VP (8/20/74), who was confirmed by the House and Senate (12/19/1974).

This, of course, raises a question: how would the politics of Watergate differed if the 25th amendment had not been ratified at the time?

First, let’s side aside dynamic thinking and assume everything went as it did: if Agnew and Nixon had both resigned with no 25th amendment in place, Speaker of the House Carl Albert would have been next in line under the Succession Act (which is an authorized power of Congress under Article II and, for President-elect under the 20th amendemnt the Constitution) and would have become Acting President, if he had chosen to resign as Speaker of the House. If he chose not to resign or otherwise declined the office, James Eastland, then president pro tempore of the Senate, would have become Acting President if he chose to resign from the Senate. It’s known that Albert had a strong aversion to becoming Acting President; after Watergate subsided, Albert stated that had he needed to be Acting President in the case where Nixon had resigned prior to Ford’s confirmation as VP, he would have resigned the Presidency as soon as Ford was confirmed, as he did not believe a Democratic Speaker should stand in the way of a national electorate that had chosen the Repubilcan Party.

But it’s more realistic to think about this dynamically. Three questions come to mind:

1) Absent the 25th amendment, would Nixon have resigned? ;

2) Absent the 25th amendment, would the House have impeached Nixon? The Senate convicted?; and

3) Absent the 25th amendment, would Albert have accepted the job of Acting President?

First off, I should say that it’s entirely possible that the absence of the 25th amendment and thus the absence of Vice-President Ford may have had exactly no effect on the political trajectory of Watergate. Maybe the release of the Smoking Gun tapes in the wake of U.S. vs. Nixon completely sealed the President’s fate.

But I’m not so  sure.

Let’s start with the issue of Nixon resigning. I think Nixon would have taken an even more aggressive public stance in the absence of the 25th amendment. At the very least,  Nixon and his congressional allies would have been able to get significant public and DC traction throughout 1973 and 1974 with the argument that the entire scandal was a partisan witchhunt, especially prior to the release of the tapes in earlt August 1974. This might have emboldened House Republicans on the Judiciary Committee to stand more  firmly against impeachment in July 1974. If instead of a 10-7 split against impeachment, the House GOPers on the committee had been unanimous against it, that would have radically changed the narrative heading into August.

After the tapes came out August 5th, all GOP Members of the Judiciary Committee announced they would switch their vote in favor of impeachment. But the GOP Members of the House were invariably following public opinion at some level, and a concerted effort by the White House to show Watergate as a ploy to put Albert in the presidency may have been well received by a segment of the population. And, of course, both GOP House Members and GOP voters would have been reluctant to take steps that would create a Democratic President.

In essence, impeachment became a foregone conclusion, in part, because the policy stakes were so low: Ford was a likeable fellow and a center-right conservative. Why keep a crook in office when the alternative is nothing more than a non-crook with similar views? Totally different story if the man waiting in the wings is a northern Democrat. The non-partisan consequences of impeachment/resignation, therefore, may have affected the entire context of the debate over Watergate.

The only precedent we have for any of this is the Johnson impeachment in 1868, which had been the exact same scenario as the above hypothetical: Lincoln had been shot and Johnson had ascended from the Vice-Presidency. Although he was not technically from the opposition party, it was an ideological/power spat with the Radical Republicans that had led to his impeachment, and they stood to directly benefit from it: the Succession Act of 1792 called for the president pro tempore of the Senate to become Acting President, which would have put Benjamin Wade (R-OH) in the office.

Wade’s strong position in favor of impeachment and conviction have been thought to have been part of Johnson’s acquitall; the seven Republicans who voted against conviction in the Senate were thought to have done sone, in part, because of their personal dislike of Wade and/or their dispproval of Wade’s soft campaign in favor of the removal of Johnson. That’s probably evidence in favor of an argument that a looming Albert presidency would have changed things significantly in 1974. In fact, it may be strong evidence: Wade would have been President for only 10 months, as the trial occurred in May 1868 (under the old March-to-March calender). Albert would have been President from probably two years or more.

And thus, I think Nixon would have tried to ride it out, or at least delayed resignation, perhaps until the House vote on impeachment. A party-line vote on impeachment would have boded will for aquittal in the Senate, and Nixon could always resign after the vote if it was a landslide in the House. I mean, he only resigned in actuality when it became clear that he was not only going to be impeached by a massive supermajority but also convicted. Had there been any shadow of a doubt to that, he may have stuck it out. A looming Albert presidency might have created just that doubt. At least for a while.

Second, would impeachment have happened? Conviction? I think impeachment would have happened. The tapes that came out in August provided clear evidence that Nixon had used the power of his position to cover-up a political break-in, and that he knew CREEP and White House staff were involved. I’m less certain about conviction. With Ford waiting in line, I think conviction was almost certain, and perhaps by a massive (90+) supermajority. But as with resignation, the GOP may have held together in oposition more tightly in the face of an Albert presidency. If a large number of House GOP Members (say 80%+) had voted against impeachment, I think the Senate may have failed to convict.  There were 58 Democrats and 42 Republicans, meaning 9 GOP votes were needed. It’s possible that would not have happened.

Would Albert have accepted Acting President? This is a very tough call. He would have been very reluctant. As noted above, he was not thrilled with the prospect of assuming the office if Nixon had resigned prior to the Ford confirmation. And had his assumption of the office been the result of his own party’s actions in Congress, that would have perhaps made him even more queasy about the possibility. Throw in the fact that Albert was thought to have a drinking problem, and it becomes highly questionable whether he would have taken the office.

On the other hand, one thing that may have made him decide to take Acting President was who was waiting in the wings: the president pro tempore of the Senate was  James Eastland, a southern segregationist and notoriously ferocious opponent of civil rights. The thought of Eastland as Acting President (barring some move by the Senate to replace him prior to a Nixon resignation and Albert waffling they saw coming) may have put enormous pressure on Albert to take the office.


Posterior Perry-bility: A (semi-serious) Bayesian update of Rick Perry

October 13, 2011

As we continue to adjust the trims on our Who Will Be the Nominee© model, let’s assess Rick Perry’s chances of the GOP nomination, given his track record in the first four debates.

If we go with the traditional political science wisdom that campaigns don’t matter that much (good review of topic here), then  new information we receive is not affecting the outcome so much as  just revealing the true state of the world.

And that means it’s clearly time to whip out some Bayesian analysis! Let’s get right to the priors.

Priors (as of 9/6, before first debate)

Probability (Perry is GOP nominee) = 39% = .39  [estimated from intrade]

Probability (Perry is not GOP nominee (i.e. Loser Perry)) = 61% = .61 [inverse of above]

Probability (Nominee Perry has four mediocre-at-best debates) = 20% = .20 [feels about right]

Probability (Loser Perry has four mediocre-at-best debates ) = 40% = .40 [again, feels about right]


Perry has had four mediocre-at-best-debates.

At the Reagan Library (/7), he failed to impress and looked unprepared on Social Security. At the Tea Party Express debate (9/12), he was hammered on HPV and did not recover well. In Orlando at the Fox debate (9/22), his performance was described by the Weekly Standard as “disqualifying.” At Dartmouth (10/11), he announced he had no jobs plan, gave the impression he had disappeared, and then spent his post-debate meet and greet at Beta Theta Pi riffing on America’s 16th century revolution.


Given this observed event, what is our updated probability that Perry is the GOP nominee?


Use Bayesian inference.

Probability Perry is GOP nominee given four mediocre-at-best-debates = ((Probability he has four mediocre debates  if he is the nominee)(Probability he is the nominee)) / (((Probability he has four mediocre debates given he is the nominee) (Probability he is the nominee)) + ((Probability he has four mediocre debates if he is not the nominee) (Probability he is not the nominee)))

Written in simple notation:

P(Nom |E1) = ( P(E 1| Nom) P(Nom) ) / (( P(E1 | Nom) P(Nom) ) + (P(E1 | Loser) P(Loser)))

P(Nom|E1) = (.20)(.39 ) / ((.20) (.39) + (.4) (.61))

P(Nom|E1) = .24


Updated probability Perry is GOP nominee given four mediocre debate performances = 24%


Still viable, confirming some recent wisdom.  But looking a lot less like the GOP nominee than he did six weeks ago. Given that he is currently trading around 11% on Intrade, the above analysis suggests the market might be overreacting, creating an opportunity for some value investing.

Obviously, you can quibble with the estimated priors. Who the hell am I to assign specific percentages to debate-failure probabilities? And that’s the key theoretical question raised by the analysis: what’s the true gap between the probability of the nominee having four bad debates and the probability of a non-nominee having four bad debates. My priors say it’s about twice as likely. Yours may differ, even substantially.

But if you accept the priors as reasonable — that nominee Perry would have about a 1 in 5 chance of four mediocre debates, and Loser Perry about double that chance — then the conclusion is that Perry still has a reasonable likelihood of being the nominee, but the probability has decreased a fair amount.

Someone check my math. Everyone assess my priors.

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On legislative volume

October 12, 2011

Below is a chart I made during lunch today that plots the number of public laws passed by October 1 of the first session of Congress vs. the number of laws passed during the remaining 15 months of the Congress. It plots the past 19 Congresses (93rd-111th) and a predicted value for the 112th (labeled in purple). Unified government is labeled in green and divided government is labeled in red (the 107th Congress, when Jeffords switched parties, is labeled as divided). The lot does not differentiate between major and trivial legislatio n; it is strictly limited to the number of public laws.

Four comments :

1) In general, only a small percentage of legislation is passed prior to October 1 of the first session. Over the 20 Congresses in the plot, an average of only 16% of the total legislation in a Congress is passed prior to 10/1 of the first session. This is both surprising and not surprising. It’s not surprising because it takes time to develop legislation and move it through the chambers; committees need to hold hearings, write bills, mark them up, and then jockey for floor time. On the other hand, 16% is still a lot lower than I would have guessed, especially since the second session almost always wraps up its second session work prior to the election in November.

2) There is an unsurprising positive correlation between the two variables. Simply put, Congresses that pass more legislation prior to 10/1 first session tend to pass more legislation post-10/1. Not rocket science. And also not that important, because a huge part of the absolute volume difference is institutional:  we haven’t filtered out trivial commemorative legislation or other non-controversial items, and my guess is that they drive a lot of the result. Prior to the 1995 ban on such legislation, commemoratives were a sizable chunk of all public laws. So a high volume of pre-10/1 legislation is likely to correspond to a high volume of post-10/1 legislation — there were just lots of non-controversial public laws at all times. And that’s the case: all of the highest volume years are pre-1995; all but one of the lowest are post-1995.

3) The 35 public laws passed by the 112th Congress is not a huge X-axis outlier. It’s the second lowest absolute number, but the pre-10/1 output of the 112th is not all that much less than other post-1995 divided Congresses. As mentioned above, comparing the 112th to a pre-1995 Congress raises the issue or the commemorative legislation. I haven’t gone back and filtered that out of the older Congresses, but I suspect it would have a large effect.

4) The outliers (may) tell an odd story. Notice the five biggest outliers from the trendline, circled in red. Those are instances in which either a proportionately large amount of legislation was passed after 10/1 (96th and 106th) or a proportionately small amount of legislation was passed after 10/1 (103rd, 110th, 111th).  What’s odd about those Congresses is that they all preceded changes from either unified to divided government (96th, 103rd, 111th) or from divided government to unified government (106th and 110th — although the Jeffords switch quickly reversed the 106th point). In fact, in the entire sample. on the 94th Congress preceded a change from unified/divided government and did not stray from the trendline.

I don’t know what to make of this. I guess we could make up a story about the coming election tides either locking up Congress or getting it into gear. But the pattern doesn’t match up how we might expect: if that story was true, then we’d expect a unified government to get into gear when they were about to lose control, and a divided government to lock up when one side or the other looked poised for victory. Instead, we get lockup in both the 110th and 111th, one of which created unified government and the other of which created divided government.

So perhaps it’s a spurious finding. But it’s a darn interesting one. If anyone has seen any research on legislative productivity as it relates to perceived coming changes in unified/divided government, let me know.

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On a common Senate fallacy

October 11, 2011

Over at The Plum Line, Greg Sargent describes the Senate as ‘out of touch’ over its likely vote-down of a jobs bill:

The key provisions in the jobs bill have strong public support. They are backed by majorities of moderates and independents. Unemployment is basically a national emergency. Yet we’re now at the point where we don’t even know if a simple majority of the Senate will support a sensible, balanced measure to deal with that emergency — Dems can probably only afford to lose two or three defectors — that contains ideas that both parties have supported in the past.

People constantly say things like this when the Senate rejects an idea that seems popular in public opinion. But one simple explanation is often forgotten: the Senate is malapportioned!

Yes, everyone “knows” that, but a lot of times people seem to overlook one of the basic consequences: a Senate vote will often not match aggregate public opinion, even if every single Senator is explicitly following the public opinion of his/her constituents. Unlike the House, which at least theoretically is weighted like a public opinion poll, the structure of the Senate makes no pretense to being a reflection of national public opinion. (Of course, the House can suffer the same problem; any aggregation of district preferences — no matter how perfectly apportioned — could stray from national preferences. But it’s much more pronounced in the Senate).

Now, you can ask Senators to take a Burkean trustee view of representation and vote the national good. That may or may not be warranted in any individual case, including this one. But I think it’s a fallacy to imply in these situations that at least some Senators must be inherently doing something against the wishes of their constituents if national public opinion goes one way and the Senate goes another. The institution, for better or worse, is simply not built that way.

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Did William Jennigs Bryan’s “cross of gold” speech crash the economy?

October 11, 2011

That’s the claim Yoni Appelbuam made over the weekend. Over at his excellent blog, Seth Masket rejects the thesis:

I can’t claim to be any sort of an expert on the Gilded Age economy. I’m sure Appelbaum pursues this line of research in greater detail elsewhere, and I really don’t have data to counter him here. But given how little power presidential speeches actually have, I’m skeptical of his argument. Were investors really so skittish and naive as to believe that the claims of a presidential nominee were soon to become law? Even if Bryan were to somehow win (McKinley beat him 51-47), would he be able to get this agenda through Congress? (Republicans held a 246-104 majority in the House at the time Bryan delivered his speech.)

I suppose this is possible. I mean, if Rick Perry were nominated next year and gave a speech at his convention promising to move the U.S. to a monetary system based solely on tungsten, yeah, some folks might panic a bit. But my guess would be that the relationship between Bryan’s 1896 address and American economic problems was one of correlation rather than causation.

I don’t have the economic data (or chops) either, but I think there’s a case to be made for causation. Not causation based on the speech itself, but based on how the speech affected the convention and what the convention revealed to the markets. I guess this puts me somewhere in the middle between Appelbaum and Masket. I don’t think the speech itself could have possibly crashed the economy. But the speech was both reflective of, and constitutive to, the information that the markets were incorporating from the convention. Here’s the story:

Prior to the convention, it was almost certainly known to the markets that the clear majority of delegates were silver men. But it wasn’t obvious that silver was going to win in either the platform or with the nominee. Especially the latter: the 2/3 rule, in place at the Democratic conventions since 1832, required that a candidate get a supermajority for nomination. And from a general election point of view, the Democratic Party in the late 19th century was built on a shaky proposition: combine the solid south with western populism but somehow also win New York and a handful of other northern states. The only successful path to doing this was to subsume the majority silver faction to a pro-gold northerner, and keep the platform either silent or watery on money issues.  Given that such a logic had held in 1892, and there was a pro-gold Democrat in the White House (Cleveland), both the eastern Democratic establishment and their financial friends might have been optimistic going into the convention.

But at the convention, it suddenly became clear that the silver men were no longer interested in compromise. They had the delegates and intended to wield power. The outgoing national party committee, still narrowly in favor of gold, nominated a pro-gold New Yorker for temporary chair of the convention. The silver men defeated him with their own man. When the permanent roll was built, the two contested delegations (Nebraska and Michigan) were both decided in favor of silver. In short, the silver delegates at the convention  announced that, this time, they meant business: they were gathering the seats they needed to ensure 2/3 representation and allow them to nominate their own man.

But it still wasn’t clear if they would take the steps that would truly fracture the party: putting a clear silver plank into the party platform, and nominating a pro-silver candidate. The gold men argued that doing those things would guarantee a GOP victory in November, and also would result in a bolting of pro-gold northeastern Dems from the party. (Both of these things happened, although the Palmer/Buckner National Democratic ticket was not viable or competitive in the campaign). It was during the platform fight that Bryan gave his “cross of gold” speech.  And whether or not the speech had a national impact, it certainly had an impact at the convention, throwing the silver men into a complete frenzy on the floor. A 15 minute parade ensued.

After the parade, the silver plank won. And the next day, Bryan was nominated. As Richard Bensel (2007) has written, this too was a surprise: he was not considered a major candidate going into the convention. Just a two-term former Congressmen, he was only 36 years old and had recently stood for Senate and not won. He was certainly a favorite son in Nebraska and a powerful speaker, but he was not in the top handful of names in 1896 prior to the speech.

So, while I agree with Masket that the speech itself did not independently crash the economy, it was correlated with things that might have had that impact. Going into the convention, the markets knew that the Democratic Party was majority silver delegates, but that in the past the need to hold the party together had resulted in pro-gold candidates and murky non-money platforms, which had successfully won the White House in 1892. At the convention, it was revealed that the silver men were no longer compromising, were going to risk fracturing the party by putting in a strong silver plank, and planned to nominate a 36 year old Nebraskan who more or less came out of nowhere by giving the most powerful pro-silver speech to date. In effect, the Democratic Party had been captured by silver.

I would think that such a development would strongly worry the eastern financial elite. Whether it was enough to re-crash the economy, I don’t know. As I said, I don’t have the economic data (or chops).


Bensel, Richard. 2007. A Calculated Enchatment of Passion: Bryan and the “Cross of Gold” in the 1896 Democratic National Convention. In Skowronek, Stephen and Matthew Glassman, ed. Formative Acts: American Politics in the Making (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press). pp. 77-104.

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Happy Illigitimate Federal Holiday Day!

October 10, 2011

I had the day off today. It’s Columbus Day. As usual, I got a lot of gruff from my non-federal-employee neighbors who can’t even fathom having Columbus Day off. I’m pretty sure they have a point: Columbus Day is, bar far, the least legitimate federal holiday. What follows is some psuedo social science to back up this claim.

There are ten federal holidays: New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans’ Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The chart below plots them on two dimensions.

1) To what degree would the event be celebrated/commemorated absent the federal holiday. Was the holiday significant prior to government recognition? Would it be without it? Does the private sector shut down? In essence, is the government holiday just a reflection of private reality, or is the holiday driven by the law.

2) To what degree is the day off itself a cultural event. Do people get together with family or friends? Are there parades? Do you go over and see your neighbors for a barbecue? Do you think/talk about it at your dinner table? In essence, to what degree do you know its a holiday besides the fact that you aren’t going to work.

Here’s an analysis of what I see in the chart.

The big four stand far ahead of the rest. Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, and Independence day  all rate high on both dimensions. Christmas (10 on the private-reality scale / 10 on the cultural scale) is ahead of everything else on both the private-reality dimension and the cultural significance dimension. Thanksgiving (8/9) is only slightly behind Christmas on the cultural dimension, but a few paces back on the private-reality scale. New Year’s (9/8) is probably the reverse of that: only slightly behind Christmas on the private-reality dimension, but a few paces back on cultural significance. Independence Day (8/8), I think, is a few paces back on both dimensions.

Two secondary holidays were historically more important. Both Veteran’s Day (6/4) and Memorial Day (5/3) were much more important holidays 50 years ago, from what I perceive. You still have the parades and wreath layings, but you also see some things now that would never have happened in the 50s: the public schools in my town are open on Veteran’s Day. In addition, whereas Veteran’s Day would have been an automatic private sector day off 50 years ago, today it is either not a day off or a flex day for many private sector employees.

Labor Day is a complete outlier. I didn’t put a trend line in the chart, but most of the data would have fit it nicely. Not Labor Day (1/6). That’s the one holiday that is an absolute cultural touchstone in America, but very, very few people would observe it in any way if it wasn’t a day off. It really has become a day to play hooky from work with all your neighbors.

I’m not sure how to classify either of the “person” days. Washington’s Birthday (2/1) has been stripped of a lot of meaning now that many people believe the holiday is “President’s Day.” (It’s not, at least at the federal level). They day has some historical significance, but like Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, it was probably a lot stronger in generations past. I imagine Washington’s Birthday was something of a big deal in the 19th century, even as a private celebratory day. As a contemporary matter, it has no real cultural impact that I can detect.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day (4/1) is an even tougher call. I’m pretty sure there would be strong private celebrations of it if it did not exist, especially in the African-American community (although I’m pretty sure they would be on April 4 — the day he was assassinated — not on a Monday near his birthday (January 15) ). The cultural significance is tough to judge, too. I notice a little bit every year, like speech readings and other academic things, but again, I don’t have a great sense of what goes on in the African-American community. And I suspect there might be a fair amount there.

There’s one fake holiday on both dimensions. And that’s Columbus Day. Everyone always tries to tell me that it’s a big Italian-American thing, but I’ve never seen any evidence of that. I guess the Knights of Columbus must do something, but I’ll be damned if I’ve ever heard of anyone going to something like that. It’s not like the Hibernians on St. Paddy’s Day. In fact, I think the counter-protests to the day (which I saw first hand at Yale) were the only discernible group event I ever saw.


On Representation

October 9, 2011

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about representation. And how it’s changing. In particular, I’ve been thinking about how the modern communications environment — social media, the blogs, twitter, and so on — has changed the representational contexts for Members of the House, and consequentially their representational capacities and strategies.

Much of this is still congealing in my head, but here are five tentative observations:

1) The opportunities for surrogate representation have increased dramatically. In her excellent APSR article, Jane Mansbridge defines surrogate representation as happening when Members represent constituents outside their district. In the traditional formulation, this often happens around specific issues with dispersed national constituencies: Dennis Kucinich representing anti-war advocates, Barney Frank representing gay rights advocates, and so forth. My sense is that, twenty years ago, very few Members were engaged in such surrogate activities. They simply did not have the resource capacity. Members were (and still are) barred from sending franked postal mail outside of their districts. The only way to get a national audience was to get on TV — which usually meant having at least the power of a committee chair, or doing something extraordinarily provocative. And it would have been crazy to suggest spending any significant portion of campaign money on outside-the-district activities.

Today, the entire playing field has been rearranged. Even backbench Members can seek a national followings with relative ease, and at virtually no cost. The Internet, and in particular the social media application like Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook, have zero marginal cost. One can stake out an issue, make a concerted effort to become a national leader on the issue, and have some chance of success, all without expending pretty much any marginal resources. The upside is clear: national leadership on issue means a higher political profile both inside and outside the House, more campaign fundraising opportunities, and (lest we forget) greater opportunity to influence public policy. My sense is that Members are beginning to alter their representational strategies around these facts: connecting themselves to national movements, inserting themselves into national policy debates more often, and modifying their fundraising strategies to more optimistically look for out-of-district money. And the more that Members engage in surrogate representation, the less they engage in traditional district representation.

2) But so has the pressure to nationalize your representation. One consequence I see to this increased capacity for nationalizing your representation is that the very existence of the possibility has coincided with at least some necessity of doing so, even if you don’t want to. Member communications used to be pretty simple. For example, back in the 90s, when I was a lowly intern in a House Member’s office, the sorting procedure for the incoming mail was pretty simple: if it was from our district, put it in the priority pile. If it was from outside the district, determine whether it was personal mail from a constituent. If it was, put it in another pile so that we could direct it to the correct office. If it was from outside the district and not personal constituent mail, throw it away.

Now? Even if Members would prefer only to interact with their electoral constituents, it’s not possible.  The volume of email and other electronic communications coming into the House is dwarfing traditional mail, and there’s no quick way to tell if it’s coming from your district or not. Which means that the information context Members are facing in their offices is much more national in scope, even after they’ve tried to filter it. This has consequences. For one, it forces a complete rethinking of an office communications strategy. But it also distorts one’s perspective of district opinion, and tends to orient Members toward national public policy; people from outside the district are much more likely to communicate about policy issues than distributive politics such as grants or earmarks.

But it goes deeper than this. Electoral challengers are nationalizing their representation, too. Why wouldn’t they? If a Twitter townhall  focused on a national issue or a viral youtube clip can expand your potential fundraising base, get your name in faraway papers, and maybe get you invited onto a cable news show, there’s almost no incentive not to do it. Add on that nationalizing a challenger campaign can create an army of psuedo-activists to target the incumbent and its a no-brainer. And thus Members choosing not to undertake a new media strategy are at a serious disadvantage. And pretty much any new media strategy is inherently a nationalized strategy from a infrastructure perspective.

3) Such trends would be in conflict with the basic electoral logic and Fenno-esque model of constituent relations. Certain things have not changed. The most important, of course, is that only people in the district can vote. But there are other important things too: district offices have to be in the district, franked mail still can only go to the distict, and so forth. So the electoral connection, and most of the resources available to maintain it, are still tied squarely to the district. And this means that Members will always be tied, first and foremost, to the district. The largest Fenno constitency that the Member sees — the geographic constituency — still rules. But it may not be the largest constituency the Member sees anymore when he looks bak home from Washington. The national constitunecy may now enter his or her thinking — whether he wants it or not; whether he knows it or not — in a way that fundamentally rearranges the lens through which he sees his district.

This has potential implications. The most important thing that comes to mind is that the Member may greater incentives now than ever to try and shape his district in a more national mold. This would be akin to Mansbridge’s idea of “educating” the constituency under an anticipatory representation model. But it might just be a Member choosing to frame issues in the district in a national way, or choosing to emphasize national over local issues when communicating to the district.

4) But the constituents themselves may be nationalizing. Nationalizing their representational profile, of course, is also potentially dangerous from a Member perpsective. As Mayhew writes in The Electoral Connection, Members treat national partisan or ideological swings as acts of god that they can’t control; they instead focus on what they can control, mostly district-related things. To tie one’s fortunes to the national party is to place one’s future in someone else’s hands. But this may dovetail with what is happening to constituents: it’s not crazy to suggest that voters themselves are nationalizing as well. And if that’s the case, then Members may be forced into a national representational context, one that affords them less safety from trends they cannot contorl.

5) I think this may be playing a part in the recent trend of nationalized House elections. 2006, 2008, and 2010 were all House elections in which national politics was said to play an unusually big role, at least in comparison to the conventional wisdom about House elections and the local/national divide. There are all sorts of hypotheses that we can come up with to explain this. But one is simply that voters, challengers, and Members are all themselves more embedded into a national political culture, in no small part because of the information firehouse and the communications technology. Thay may be a consequecne of other trends — such as ideological sorting of the parties — but it also may be a constitutive cause of such trends. Or both. It’s obviously far too small a sample to definitively say that old-school local House elections are a dying breed, but at this point I wouldn’t bet against it without some odds.

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A Thing Worth Reading

October 8, 2011

Yesterday was the 153rd anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debate at Galesburg — October 7, 1858, the fifth of the seven debates the two men had between August and October that year. To me, it is the finest of the debates to read, and I highly recommend sitting down with its full text.

Douglas and Lincoln represented something of the center right and center left of northern opinion on slavery in 1858; Lincoln a clear anti-slavery man but far from an abolitionist, Douglas personally opposed to slavery and far from a friend to the south, but completely opposed to any anti-slavery movement that might threaten the union and fundamentally against the idea of one state telling another how to mange its internal affairs in a federal union. In the debate, each sought to attack the weakness of the other’s position by promoting their own. And listening to each reckon with the moral aspect of slavery and the seriousness of the threat to the union, all within the context of a political-electoral speech, is undeniably moving.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates were set up with one man speaking for 60 minutes, the other for 90, and then the first again for 30. They took turns going first; in Galesburg, Douglas went first. The most interesting part of his speech, for me, was when he emphatically derided the rise of the Republican Party. Over 100 years after the war ended, in his incredible history of the 1850′s, David Potter wrote about the metamorphosis of the political parties:

If Calhoun had been alive to witness [the 1856 election], he might have observed a further snapping of the cords of Union [that he spoke about in 1850]. The Whig cord has snapped between 1852 and 1856, and the Democratic cord had been drawn very taut by the sectional distortion of the party’s geographical equilibrium. It could not stand much more tension without snapping also. As for the Republican party, it claimed to be the only one that asserted nationalist principles, but it was totally sectional in its constituency, with no pretense to bisectionalism, and it could not be regarded as a cord of union at all.

Douglas, speaking first at Galesburg, made much the same point:

Now, let me ask you whether the country has any interest in sustaining this organization known as the Republican party. That party is unlike all other political organizations in this country. All other parties have been national in their character — have avowed their principles alike in the slave and free States, in Kentucky as well as Illinois, in Louisiana as well as in Massachusetts. Such was the case with the Old Whig party, and such was and is the case with the Democratic party. Whigs and Democrats could proclaim their principles boldly and fearlessly in the North and in the South, in the East and in the West, wherever the Constitution ruled and the American flag waved over American soil.

But now you have a sectional organization, a party which appeals to the Northern section of the Union against the Southern, a party which appeals to Northern passion, Northern pride, Northern ambition, and Northern prejudices, against Southern people, the Southern States, and Southern institutions. The leaders of that party hope that they will be able to unite the Northern States in one great sectional party, and inasmuch as the North is the stronger section, that they will thus be enabled to outvote, conquer, govern, and control the South. Hence you find that they now make speeches advocating principles and measures which cannot be defended in any slave-holding State of this Union, Is there a Republican residing in Galesburg who can travel into Kentucky, and carry his principles with him across the Ohio? What Republican from Massachusetts can visit the Old Dominion without leaving his principles behind him when he crosses Mason’s and Dixon’s line? Permit me to say to you in perfect good humor, but in all sincerity, that no political creed is sound which cannot be proclaimed fearlessly in every State of this Union where the Federal Constitution is the supreme law of the land.

When Lincoln spoke, he did not address this political concern directly. But I love this section, which touches the idea:

The judge tells us, in proceeding, that he is opposed to making any odious distinctions between free and slave States. I am altogether unaware that the Republicans are in favor of making any odious distinctions between the free and slave States. But there still is a difference, I think, between Judge Douglas and the Republicans in this. I suppose that the real reference between Judge Douglas and his friends and the Republicans, on the contrary, is that the judge is not in favor of making any difference between slavery and liberty — that he is in favor of eradicating, of pressing out of view, the questions of preference in this country for free or slave institutions; and consequently every sentiment he utters discards the idea that there is any wrong in slavery. Everything that emanates from him or his coadjutors in their course of policy carefully excludes the thought that there is anything wrong in slavery. All their arguments, if you will consider them, will be seen to exclude the thought that there is anything whatever wrong in slavery. If you will take the judge’s speeches, and select the short and pointed sentences expressed by him, — as his declaration that he “don’t care whether slavery is voted up or down,” — you will see at once that this is perfectly logical, if you do not admit that slavery is wrong. If you do admit that it is wrong, Judge Douglas cannot logically say he don’t care whether a wrong is voted up or voted down. Judge Douglas declares that if any community wants slavery they have a right to have it. He can say that logically, if he says that there is no wrong in slavery; but if you admit that there is a wrong in it, he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do wrong.

He insists that, upon the score of equality, the owners of slaves and owners of property — of horses and every other sort of property — should be alike, and hold them alike in a new Territory. That is perfectly logical, if the two species of property are alike, and are equally founded in right. But if you admit that one of them is wrong, you cannot institute any equality between right and wrong. And from this difference of sentiment — the belief on the part of one that the institution is wrong, and a policy springing from that belief which looks to the arrest of the enlargement of that wrong; and this other sentiment, that it is no wrong, and a policy sprung from that sentiment which will tolerate no idea of preventing that wrong from growing larger, and looks to there never being an end of it through all the existence of things — arises the real difference between Judge Douglas and his friends on the one hand, and the Republicans on the other. Now, I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social, and political evil, having due regard for its actual existence amongst us, and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and to all the constitutional obligations which have been thrown about it; but who, nevertheless, desire a policy that looks to the prevention of it as a wrong, and looks hopefully to the time when as a wrong it may come to an end.

The contrast is striking, especially since Douglas and Lincoln are both northerners and both are happy that there is no slavery in Illinois. They are, in the big picture, on the same side. At least relative to the southerners. This should give you some idea of how difficult the abolitionists had it, and how much variety of opinion existed in the north, even when you excluded the pro-southern doughfaces (which, of course, some counted Douglas among prior to his fallout with the Buchanan administration over Kansas) and the outright pro-slavery northerners.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates are also important because of the implicit structural commentary they provide. As I’ve written about before, they are the most important example of why the 17th amendment was necessary, and why it shouldn’t be repealed, especially if you value federalism: these “races” for Senate were distorting state elections. This is one of the dirty little secrets of the 19th century. Lincoln and Douglas were running for the U.S. Senate, but they weren’t actually running; the voters listening to those debates were only going to be allowed to vote for the state legislature (and U.S. House, of course), which in turn would select Lincoln (if the Republicans had control) or Douglas (as it happened, when the Democrats won control).

See the potential problem? In an election ostensibly for state officials, many voters were making their decision based on the consequences for the national government. This accelerated in the later 19th century, to the point where state-level candidates were sometimes nothing more than pass-throughs for a Senate vote. Except that they got to run the state government for the next two years.  That’s not good if you are interested in federalism, and I don’t think it’s good in a democracy, in general. By switching to a direct vote system, not only was the Senate made a more directly democratic body, but state elections were freed from the yoke of Senate elections, allowing citizens greater freedom of personal choice when picking their state representatives.

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On non-debatable motions

October 7, 2011

Last night was an interesting scene in the Senate, as Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader McConnell got into some strategic maneuvering that resulted in the Senate overruling the presiding officer and setting a new precedent regarding dilatory motions post-cloture. The best write-up I’ve seen is Sarah Binder’s at the Monkey Cage, which also includes a helpful explanatory comment from Stephen Smith. I agree with both of them that what happened last night is not particularly analogous the “nuclear option” in the way that some media and blog commentators are likening it. There was no constitutional question addressed; the Senate simply set a new precedent. It may be a foreshadowing of things to come, but in and of itself it was a not-super-uncommon method for arriving at a new minor restriction in the post-cloture rights of the minority.

As quick as possible, here’s what happened: Cloture had been invoked. Reid and McConnell were negotiating for some amendments to come to the floor. A motion was made to suspend the rules so that a non-germane amendment — not normally allowed in this situation — could be offered. Reid made a point of order that a motion to suspend to the rules was dilatory under Rule XXII. On the advice of the parliamentarian, the presiding officer disagreed, and ruled that the motion was fine. Reid appealed the ruling, meaning that the Senate would vote to sustain or overrule the presiding officer. They overruled, which in effect sets a new Senate precedent that motions to suspend the rules are dilatory if offered post-cloture, and therefore can be struck by a point of order.

One pretty technical question someone asked me that I think is worth reviewing is this: why didn’t McConnell and the GOP filibuster the vote on the appeal of the ruling of the chair? There’s a pretty simple answer: the Senate was operating under the post-cloture rules of Senate Rule XXII, which include the following: Points of order, including questions of relevancy, and appeals from the decision of the Presiding Officer, shall be decided without debate. Under regular order in the Senate, McConnell could have prevented the vote on the appeal of the ruling, since (most) appeals are fully debatable. But because the Senate was operating under post-cloture rules, Reid could appeal the ruling knowing that the motion to appeal was not debatable, and thus would immediately be entitled to majority vote. Had a similar situation arose under regular order, Reid would have been in a much tougher situation. Since the appeal could be filibustered, that would have been a dead-end, since a stalemate would presumably have forced the Majority Leader to bargain and cave to some GOP demands.

The larger point for people to remember is that invoking cloture on something doesn’t end the proceedings; it simply activates the post-cloture rules as found in Rule XXII. Those rules, among other things, put a cap on total remaining debate (30 hours), allow only germane amendments that were written and filed prior to cloture, and empower the chair to dispense with certain dilatory motions. In practice, once cloture is achieved many of the Rule XXII rights (especially the right to 30 more hours of debate) are waived by unanimous consent. But if the minority wants to play hardball and/or make a point, they can drag out votes for quite some time after cloture is invoked. And that has consequences, particularly if there are multiple cloture motions that will have to be sequentially invoked in order to move the legislation.

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On Carpetbagging

October 6, 2011

Someone asked me an interesting question today: what percentage of Senators were born in the same state that they represent? The answer for the 112th Congress is 58%. That got me thinking about the question historically; what does the trend look like? It’s not obvious what the answer should be — you have the cross-cutting forces of 19th century western expansion (which presumably means lots of western Members who were born in the east) and much lower geographical mobility (which presumably means a much higher citizen population in each state that was born in the state).

Anyway, I went and grabbed enough data to get a quick and dirty answer. The chart below plots the percentage of Representatives and Senators who were born in the same state they currently represent, from the 1st through the 104th Congress (I don’t have the more recent data handy).

Three points:

1) The historical trends are probably due to expansion and mobility. The downward trend in the 19th century almost certainly reflects Representatives and Senators from new western states, where the percentage of people born out of state was extremely high for quite some time. The upward trend in the first half of the 20th century probably reflects the end of new state creation and the generational effect of more people being born in the western states. The downward trend after world war two is almost certainly due to increased geographic mobility, both because a greater number of people live in more than one state in their life, and also because this creates less voter attachment to “their” state. I’ve never seen any writing that posits a relationship between the fact that the early west was populated by non-westerners and the behavior of the Members such people elected, but the non-local roots of westerners certainly played a role in territorial politics, so I imagine there might be some fruit there for an enterprising scholar.

2) The gap between the Senate and the House. There are a bunch of theoretical stories that we can come up with to explain it. One is that Representatives have had, historically, a closer electoral relation to the people than Senators, and thus we might expect that the people prefer Representatives who are from their community. Another would be a  17th amendment story — that the state legislature tended to not care if someone was from the state, whereas the citizen population was more concerned with such factors and thus more often chose home-states. Both of these theories would explain the closing of the gap in the mid-20th century, as Senators were popularly elected beginning in 1914 (one cycle complete in 1918) and (in a not-unrelated development) began behaving more like Representatives in their constituent-relations activities.

3) The South. Using ICPSR definitions of the region (i.e confederacy minus Tennessee) and not counting the 37th-39th Congresses (1861-1867), here’s the chart:

Two things stand out, neither of which is particularly surprising. First, it appears that historically, a higher percentage of southern Representatives and Senators were born in-state. I suspect this is also true of the northeast, and confirms the hypothesis that western Members are the cause of the lower aggregate in-state numbers. Second point: the post-civil war carpetbagging is plain to see, and quite striking. Not until around the 51st-55th Congresses do the in-state Representative numbers return to pre-war levels. That was the 1890s!

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On institutional mirages

October 5, 2011

It looks like there is renewed interest among some Senators for biennial budgeting — that is, budgeting and appropriating for the federal government on a 2-year calendar instead of an annual calendar. The Senate Budget Committee held a hearing yesterday on the topic, and both Chairman Conrad and Ranking Member Sessions seems quite interested in submitting legislation to the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction that would include, among other budget process changes, provisions for biennial budgeting . Two other biennial budgeting bills (S. 211 and S. 1274) are also  floating around the Senate right now.

This is an idea that has been kicking around Congress for decades, and it has a very simple allure: if the budget and appropriations process only happened once per Congress, not only would there be more time to craft the appropriations bills, but there also would be an entire session of Congress in which no such bills had to be produced, allowing for better oversight and an overall reduction in the appropriations workload. Similarly, agencies would benefit from a 2-year perspective, as all three budgetary phases (development, execution, and auditing) would overlap less, allowing each to receive more careful consideration.

Count me as a skeptic. Five quick points, two big picture and three mechanical:

1) The institutional structure is probably not the problem. Everyone keeps saying that the current budget and appropriations process is broken. But fundamentally, the difficulty with the current process is ideological; it’s a political problem. People disagree on how much total money the federal government should spend, and to what priorities that money should be distributed. Yes, the Senate floor moves slowly and, yes, the committee calendars are quite crowded from February to July, but I’m not sure expanding the time available would remedy that. Part of the politics at this point relies on the idea of looming deadlines forcing concessions; if you move those deadlines back, you are just as likely to see the gamesmanship expand to fill that space as you are to see it remedy the problem. And thus you might end up with the appropriations process taking up more time than it previously did, and sucking the political oxygen out of an even greater portion of the calendar.

And look, I’m certainly not one to tell you that institutions don’t matter. Quite the opposite. But in this case, people are looking at the wrong institutions. The appropriations bills are hardly different than other legislation; in fact, they have some institutional advantages over regular legislation in terms of their ability to move through the chambers. The only thing that makes them different is that, unlike regular legislation that stands or falls against the status quo, if the appropriations bills don’t pass, the status quo shifts to shutdown. If your concern is that the appropriations bills get bogged down and eat up too much of the legislative calendar, then your concerns are bigger than the appropriations bills; it becomes a question of anti-majoritarian rules in the Senate, or inter-chamber gridlock, etc. All of which largely return us to an ideological fight. None of which disappear under biennial budgeting.

2) Biennial budgeting would probably raise the stakes. Presumably, the intensity of the political fight over a biennial budget resolution and any biennial appropriations bills would be pretty big. If you think the current, annual process has too much brinkmanship, what would the biennial process look like as the fiscal 2-year deadline approached? After all, it would be the only chance for Members elected to a given Congress to put their mark on regular appropriations legislation. Ditto for the lobbyist and interest groups, executive branch agencies, and the President. It’s hard to imagine it not becoming a crisis point. And without the threat of next year’s budget season starting, you’d have one less reason to end the standoff.

3) It might just spill over into an increase in supplementals. If you try to plan 30-months out, as the biennial process would force agencies to do, there’s going to be a lot of noise in the forecast. Which means that Congress will be faced with two choices: give the President / OMB / agency heads wider latitude in the off-year budgets, or write a lot more supplemental and emergency appropriations Acts than under the current process. Neither choice is great, but the latter is particularly worrisome; if the point is to streamline appropriations and save time/energy, moving supplemental bills through both chambers is a serious drag on any efficiency gains.

4) What would the calendar look like? Right now the president submits his budget in February for the fiscal year that starts in October. If you kept that but made it a 2-year system, then you wouldn’t gain any time on the front end; you’d still have to have it done by September 30. All the potential gains would be in the out-year. So we’d almost certainly see as much omnibus legislation and brinkmanship as we currently see, all else equal. And probably more because the outcome would be twice as important. Another option would be to make the 2-years funded by any Congress include the first year of the following Congress; in effect, the current Congress would not need to do any appropriations bills until October 1 of the second session. But this has problems too. It leaves the process looming over the entire Congress, and places the deadline right in front of the election. Second, it might encourage Members to run out the clock if political advantage was waiting in the next Congress; with the stakes so high, it might make delay until after the election and start of the new Congress very attractive.

5) What would be biennial? The budget and appropriations process has at least three components that could be made biennial. First is the authorization process. Would the Defense authorization bill go biennial? Second is the budget resolution. Would it be a single, biennial resolution? Or perhaps a single action that made two annual resolutions at once? Finally, would the appropriations all become 2-year appropriations, or would it be the two separate annual appropriations, one for each of two years? Any combination of these systems could plausibly work, but it’s not clear which would be best.

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Flux Capacitor

October 4, 2011

Two new pieces of data today as we continue to adjust the trims on our Who Will Be the Nominee© model, neither of which I think has particular importance in shaping the ultimate answer, but both of which I think are worthy launching points for tangential discussions. First, Chris Christie has announced he’s out. Second, Herman Cain is leading the field in three new state-level polls.

I would suggest, echoing Jonathan Bernstein, that Christie’s decision was probably made more out of strategic hopelessness than out of any sort of conviction or intuition. There’s really not a great space for him to enter this field, unless his plan was to remain a Rorschach test for the hopes and dreams of conservatives across the spectrum. Which is, of course, impossible once you actually start campaigning for President. And despite the longings of the lonely northeast conservatives, this just ain’t your grandfather’s GOP, and (with apologies to Celtics fans) Thomas Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller are not walking through that door. Nor would they win the nomination if they did. And even if Christie were to run, his plan almost certainly would not have been to join Huntsman in trying to outflank Romney to the left; his path to victory, however vague, would have been to take his turn in Perry’s shoes, trying to unseat Romney from the right, I think.

With Christie out of the way and Perry seemingly falling out of invisible-primary favor, I think we are at a point in which a non-announced candidate could step into the race and make a reasonable, immediate impact. If Palin decides to run, this strikes me as the moment. Ditto Giuliani. Not that I think either of them stand much chance, or that either of them is going to run. But there is a media vacuum, of sorts, and that is plausible important, I suppose.

And this brings me to Cain. Yes, three polls conducted by one firm on one day are not worth, as they say, a warm bucket of piss. But I’m also completely not surprised that this sort of unstable opinion fluctuation is occurring. That it happened to Cain? I guess that’s a bit surprising. But that it is happening in general? Not at all. Primaries — especially large field primaries — are to a certain degree coordination games. Many of the candidates are ideologically similar and most agree with each other on the fundamental party issues. So voter opinion is fluid and shifts in opinion are hardly the stuff of iron-willed conviction. Heck, most candidate “surges” probably just reflect media attention on the newest flavor of the week, which may or may not reflect underlying reality. So any trends that happen prior to, you know, the actual primaries is likely to include a lot of fluidity if candidates don’t live up to the personality or other expectations of the half-paying-attention chattering class on any given day or week. But when the actual voting starts, we could very easily be looking at Romney vs. Perry. In fact, it’s still the odds-on favorite.

But even if the opinion polls accurately reflect the true state of the world (and not just weekly coverage variation and semi-random trends from loosely-committed voters), it’s still not surprising. Whether driven by first-person or media-filtered observation, it doesn’t seem at all unusual to me that an opinion poll is showing odd movement regarding candidate support. Non-Romney primary voters and opinion leaders are continually seeking a candidate who can defeat him; they can coordinate on different individuals until one sticks, without any penalty and without giving up their right to return to a previously-tried candidate. In fact, putting every non-Romney candidate front and center is the best way to try and bring him down; it’s not even necessary that the candidate who does the most damage become the nominee. It’s almost Darwinian: they tried Bachmann, they tried Perry, and now they are trying Cain. Soon enough they will probably be back to Perry. (Of course, if Cain continues to gain popularity, it will require a massive re-evaluation of racial theories of GOP hostility toward Obama.)

I use the word “try” loosely. It’s not like anyone is pulling the strings here on a puppet. The aggregation for such things is more natural (and thus harder to control) than any oligarchic intent, although I do think that money and opinion leaders can strongly shape it. But this leads to my final point: imagine you are the political party, or at least that you have total dictatorial control over the party. If your goal is to maximize the utility of holding the Presidency in 2013, then your basic calculation is simple: evaluate each candidate by multiplying their estimated probability of winning the office times their estimated utility as President. Off the cuff, of course, Romney scores high on the probability of winning, but probably only mediocre on utility, for a conservative party.

Cain, on the other hand, doesn’t score particularly high on either count. His probability of winning is probably somewhat lower than the other candidates, simply because he’s an inexperienced politician. And for the same reason, his utility in office is probably low. He may not have the first clue how to wield political power. But that’s not his biggest downside, from the point of view of a party in 2012. His real problem is that the variance on the estimated probability and utility is massive. His unknown qualities, which might be appealing in some contexts, are horrifying to a party in this context. The 2012 election is a rare situation in which an incumbent president might not be a favorite to win the office. That strikes me as the exact situation in which an opposition party has no interest in nominating anything but a safe candidate of known quantity, who may not have the highest potential utility, but has little danger of imploding during the general election and blowing the opportunity.

I will continue to believe this as long as Cain is popular. If the powers-that-be in the GOP have as much influence over the candidate field as I think they do (which is, to say, a decent amount), Cain cannot possibly be the nominee. Party leaders know this by strategy. The chattering class knows this by calculation. And I think the average voter knows this, by intuition. Untested candidates with little political experience might be plausibly party selections in seemingly hopeless situations. But in this case, my money is still on the GOP to select Romney, save a safe conservative arising from the ashes or Rick Perry proving himself as such.

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On Unusual Occupations

October 3, 2011

Occupy Wall Street. Well then.

I’m hesitant to wade into these waters because of something my father — who was no stranger to a good Vietnam anti-war demonstration — used to always say: the only rational reason to go to a street protest is to meet girls. Period.

But, then again, he brought something of a liberal elitist’s narrow mindset to the term rational. Street protest certainly seems not only appropriate, but almost necessary for those shut out of the normal democratic process (i.e. African-Americans denied the right to vote; people under 21 who were being drafted pre-26th amendment; etc.). Not that any of that applies in this case. But as a libertarian, I’m willing to let a thousand flowers bloom; neither the means nor ends of others’ peaceful political activities need be rational in our own eyes. And the very practice of political activity, no matter how irrational or wacky, probably has some significant civil society benefits.

Three quick points:

1) Who are they and what do they want? That’s the $64k question that pretty much everyone and their brother is writing about today.  For now, they are a movement with more inertia than specific ideas. Ezra Klein goes at it here.  Nick Kristoff here. An interesting piece here. You can find suggestions for what they should demand here, and here. The ever-witty anarchist Who is IOZ? also chimes in, with expected comments.

One thing that struck me as I read the evidently-associated tumblr to the group is how much formal education they seem to have, and how important that is to their individual (and perhaps group) pysche. On the front page of the tumblr when I read it, twelve out of the fifteen essays mentioned their educational background in the first sentence or two.

In fact, a lot of angst in the essays struck me a bit on the elitist-entitled side. It has a lot of the traces of the old mugwump attitude. You “have an master’s degree from a top university” and you “can’t even get an interview”? Welcome to the real world.You’re “about to receive your PhD … from an Ivy League school” and there are “no jobs waiting for you?” How dare they! I certainly feel bad for anyone who is out of work, but I have a hard time thinking of these kinds of stories as bubbling up from a massive and increasingly-downtrodden underclass. It’s more reminiscent of the grousing I used to hear in graduate school.

2) Everyone wants to compare them to the Tea Party. From what I can see — and again I’m getting this exclusively from reading articles and examining related websites — they definitely share a certain conspiratorial populism. In fact, if you stripped away the aesthetics of each group, you might find a lot of core agreement among the two groups, especially as to who the boogeymen are: bankers, Wall Street, the federal government. You can sort of imagine coming up with a short, 300-word manifesto that both groups would be enthusiastic about, especially if you left the details vague enough.

On the other hand, Occupy Wall Street seems like the quintessential non-radical liberal social movement, almost to the point of self-parody. It’s completely amorphous and seemingly void of any thrust toward concrete political change. Those who are willing to consider themselves “spokespersons” seem to talk more about process than substance. There is constant reference to building a community, and a future time and place in which that community will have enough power that concrete change will come almost naturally. As usual: good luck, and I’ll believe it when I see it.

Maybe it’s too young or maybe it’s too early (existing liberal groups seemed to have finally taken notice and are starting to join forces), but my rule of thumb is that social movements without specific and clear goals tend to fizzle; they end up attracting every radical and his gripes, and becoming a circus platform for the same. If you think about the most successful and/or enduring social movements — the abolitionist movement; the prohibition movement; the 20th century civil rights movement; both sides of the abortion debate — they all had/have very specific concrete political goals.

This is not to say that Occupy Wall Street can’t channel it’s amorphous energy into political action — the Tea Party has been reasonably successful in going from street theater to concrete political influence — but it certainly feels like it has a long way to go.

3) This is exactly the kind of movement that liberals easily romanticize and conservatives easily dismiss. One thing I love about being a libertarian is that I tend to have lots of liberal friends and lots of conservative friends with whom I talk politics, which I think is somewhat rare. At any rate, I’m fully expecting to get the wide-eyed dreamer optimism about Occupy Wall Street from my liberal friends this week, and what I like to call the dirty-hippies-law-and-order speech from my conservative pals. Hell, I’ll be disappointed with anything less.

But I do think there’s some change in the air as far as street protest politics is concerned. My sense is that a lot of people subscribe to an old conventional wisdom that sees street protests as the province of liberals, something that conservatives just don’t do. And maybe’s that is historically true. But in the last generation or so, the picture has become much more muddled. The pro-life movement is probably the largest social movement in America, and the Tea Party has used street theater as an important tool in their political strategy. I doubt this will alter the frame through which liberals and conservatives consider Occupy Wall Street. But it’s something to think about.

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Word Cloud Answers

October 1, 2011

Yesterday, I posted four word clouds built from presidential inaugural addresses. Here are the answers, and a brief discussion of each.

Cloud #1 is Lincoln’s 1st inaugural address, delivered March 4, 1861, on the East Portico of the Capitol. I thought this one was easy. Even if you weren’t sure, seeing the words “Union” and “Constitution” would make it your guess. And if you spotted “slavery” or “section,” then the only real possibilities are Lincoln 1861 or Buchanan 1857. I guess it would have been devious of me to put up Buchanan’s inaugural, since it could easily be mistaken in a word cloud for Lincoln’s. (Click on the clouds to enlarge them).

Lincoln first inaugural

Buchanan inaugural

One of the more striking things to see is a word cloud comparison of Lincoln’s first inaugural and his second. As many people know, the first address was focused on trying to hold the union together following the secession of the Gulf states. Lincoln makes a detailed argument about the benefits of union, the problems of secession, and the common future of the sections. The second inaugural, four years later, is toward the end of the war, and is by far the more famous: it is short, terse, and thick with religious language. It reads almost like a plea to God. Whereas “Constitution,” “States,” and “Union” are the most common words in the first, “God” and “War” are the most common in the second:

Lincoln’s second inaugural

Cloud #2 is FDR’s 1st inaugural address, delivered March 4, 1933, on the East Portico of the Capitol.

I thought this difficult, but quite gettable. If you spotted the word “emergency,” I think that gives it away: aside from Lincoln’s first inaugural, I don’t associate that word with any other inaugural besides FDR’s 1st. And I don’t think you could ever confuse Lincoln 1861 with FDR 1933 — the absence of “Union” alone would make 1861 a dubious guess.

As a side note, it’s interesting to compare FDR’s 4th inaugural (January 1945) to Lincoln’s 2nd. Both were toward the end of wars that were going to be won, but which had taken heavy tolls and were seemingly still many battles from completion. Both addresses were short, and both were very different than typical inaugurals. Here’s FDR’s 1945 cloud:

Cloud #3 is Reagan’s 1st inaugural address, delivered January 20, 1981, on the West Front of the Capitol. Cloud #4 is Obama’s inaugural address, delivered January 20, 2009, on the West Front of the Capitol.

Reagan 1981

Obama 2009

I think looking at these clouds in direct comparison is interesting because (a) they more or less have the same optimistic outlook when you scan the words, but (b) you would never mistake one for the other. For example, a quick scan of the Regan cloud prominently evokes the phrase PEOPLE MUST BELIEVE AMERICA, while the Obama cloud prominently displays NEW GENERATION AMERICA NATION. I guess those are theoretically two different ideas, but in practice they are more or less just a liberal and conservative expression of the same thing: we should be optimistic about the future of the United States, and our time is now.

One question the Reagan/Obama clouds raise is “How homogenous has the modern inaugural address become?” To give us some leverage on this, here are the Clinton 1993 and Bush 2001 clouds:

Clinton 1993 cloud

Bush 2001 cloud

As with the Reagan/Obama divide, it certainly seems like the Clinton cloud evokes a sense of America’s leading place in the world community, while the Bush cloud evokes a sense of nationalistic pride. As one might expect, the liberal cloud is somewhat more future looking, while the conservative cloud tends to emphasize the past.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed the quiz.

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Friday whimsy: Inaugural Address Word Clouds

September 30, 2011

I like presidential inaugurations. I like the symbolism of transferring power in a republic. I like the assembly of the entire government in one place. I like that they take place at the Capitol, subtly and whiggishly marking the legislature — and not the President — as the fundamental governmental entity. I like the flags and the bunting. And call me a sucker and a sentimentalist, I even like the speeches.

And so a pop quiz. Name the presidential inaugural address from which each of the following word clouds were formed. It’s not easy, but I think all four can be gotten with a little bit of thought. If you have trouble getting them at first glance, make sure you examine the smaller words; they hold a lot of clues. Answers and discussion tomorrow. (Click on the clouds to enlarge them.)

Cloud #1:

Cloud #2:

Cloud #3:

Cloud #4:


On last night

September 29, 2011

There are a million people writing great things on the Internet today about last night. I’m going to tell a story:

I was sitting in a bar in Boston — I think it was the Beacon Hill Pub —  a year or two after I got out of college, maybe 2001. It was a late afternoon in August, and I was with a bunch of buddies, just hanging out.  The bar was almost empty, and everyone there was watching the Red Sox game. It was a pretty standard mostly-empty-bar baseball crowd.  Two patrons in particular, however, stuck out. The first was a man who must have been about 60. He was sitting alone at the end of the bar, wearing a red sweatshirt, and quietly muttering “fuck the Yankees” over and over again while he drank his beer. (Note: the Red Sox were not playing the Yankees on the TV).

Given his age, I made up a back story in my head for him: he was probably 6 years old when Pesky held the ball in the ’46 Series and 8 when they dumped the 1-game playoff to the Indians, and then spent the rest of his youth watching the Yankees win a dozen pennants and a pile of World Series. It was that kind of formative baseball experience that would produce this kind of 60-year-old. And my own experience agreed: my first vivid memory of the baseball playoffs was the ’86 Series, when I was 8. I’m sitting with my dad watching game 6 — we’re yankees fans, so obviously we’re rooting for the Mets — and when Stanley throws the wild pitch, my father — who up to this moment had been dead quiet —  just starts laughing hysterically. And then I do to. And then Buckner and now we’re both roaring again, uncontrollably. And then Strawberry hits that towering cheery-on-top-of-the-sundae homer in the 8th inning of game 7 and we both start laughing again. And to this day, whenever something goes wrong for the Red Sox, I start laughing. So I understand how these things happen.

The other guy of note in the bar, my friends and I actually talked to him. Another Red Sox fan, huge Boston accent. He had a childhood baseball story too. Turns out he was 7 years old during the ’75 Series. And it also turns out that he never really got over it. It was all he wanted to talk about. He quizzed us on the Reds’ starting lineup (we got everyone but Cesar Geronimo), he recounted in detail his living room reaction to the Armbrister/Fisk non-interference call in game 3, he told us about Tiant’s complete game in game 4. And then he started to talk about game 6. After a short monologue he says, “You guys know who hit the big home run in that game, right?” And one of us says, “yeah, Carlton Fisk.” And he then instantly answered with a firm “No! That’s what everyone says. But the answer is Bernie Carbo! His homer in the 8th was the important one. That’s when I knew the Sox were going to win the game, and the Series!” And then we sat in silence for a few seconds. Finally, one of my buddies says, “Yeah? So what happened in game 7?” And the guy looks straight at us and says, “That’s what I’m still trying to figure out.” And then he walked away.

Somewhere in Boston, there’s a kid who’s going to spend the rest of his life trying to figure out what the hell happened last night.

Five other quick thoughts, hopefully not duplicating anything you’ve read already today:

3) The Sox collapse is like a microcosm of all their great tragedies. The month-long nature of it makes it  a lot like ’78. So does Dan Johnson’s Dent-ish homer. Crawford’s non-catch in left field is reminiscent of Pesky/Stanley/Buckner. The two easy outs in the 9th were very ’86 Game 6ish.  Longoria’s homer was very Boone-ish ’03.  Add in that the Yankees were involved — by losing — and that just sends it into the stratosphere.

1) Dan Johnson is like Bucky Dent crossed with Bernie Carbo. No way that homer happened. I mean, Johnson makes Dent look like a triple-crown contender. “That little shit hit a god damn 300 foot pop-fly.” That’s Tip O’neil, in his autobiography, talking about Dent’s homer. He might as well have been talking about Johnson.  But I bet, like Carbo, he ends up taking a back seat in our memories in the coming years. Longoria’s game-winner is going to be the iconic clip.

2) Last night wasn’t possible ten years ago. The fan experience is just different now. I had all three game available to me on my TV, which itself probably wouldn’t have been possible in the 90′s. But Twitter took those games through the roof. Maybe there have been Twitter sports moments before, but last night was the first time I felt like I was watching the games with dozens of other people, despite sitting alone on my couch. I remember watching game 5 of the 2004 ALCS (the 14-inning marathon at Fenway) alone in my apartment, in the dark, barely blinking. A totally different feeling (no doubt, in part,  because I was rooting for the Yankees), and an amazing one in its own right. But had Twitter existed then, I’m pretty sure it would have made it even better (worse).

4) Baseball drama is more rare, but much more satisfying, than any other sports drama. As plenty of people have said over the years, it’s partly because of the lack of clock. You get these great closeups of the pitcher reading the signs, the batter digging in, the runner leading off first. But you never know exactly when the action is going to start. And then the pitch is way outside and the tension is released and starts building again. But I also think it’s because of the one-on-one confrontations. Yes, it’s a team game, but the success and failure is individual. And I think that makes us relate to it differently. It’s more personal.

5) There’s no cosmic justice for baseball. How else could Tampa make that comeback last night with less than 30k fans coming out to the park? That’s just embarrassing.

As for me, I tweeted the follwoing about 45 minutes before it all ended:  Whether the Sox blow this tonight or tomorrow or at Daddy stadium in the ALCS, it’s going to be wonderful history to watch. Which it was. And, yes, I stayed true to form: after Papelbon gave up the tying run I started involuntarily giggling. And then when Crawford dropped the ball, I started uncontrollably laughing. This being the 21st century, I followed that up with a tweet 15 seconds later: hahahahahaha.


In (partial) defense of less democracy

September 28, 2011

Former CBO and OMB director Peter Orzag had an article in the New Republic on Monday that made two claims: first, that political polarization in America is causing legislative gridlock that is reducing the capacity for even basic government functions; and second, that the solution to this problem is to shift some decision-making away from the legislature and toward institutional actors that are more insulated from the small-d democratic will of the voters.

Not surprisingly, there’s been a tidal wave of criticism. Michael Poterma thinks Orzag is just whining. Andrew Gelman calls him an elitist. Drudge is running the headline “Former Obama budget director: ‘we need less democracy’ to ‘counter gridlock’…”. DIA says his solutions are “useless” because they can’t be implemented. David Dayen says it’d be bad if they were.  Ditto from Paul Krugman. The comments at Hot Air are unbelievable. And so on and so forth. I have no intention of defending Orzag here: he indeed comes off in the article as a smug elitist who thinks he could solve everything if it just weren’t for the pesky voters.

Still, I thought Ezra Klein succinctly made the most important point: Orzag’s implicit premise — that democracy causes polarization and, in turn, gridlock  — is wrong. Instead, the causes of gridlock are institutional, either baked into the Constitutional cake (separation of powers between political actors elected by different constituencies on different time-lines; multiple veto points; supermajority hurdles) or arrived at through the development of institutional rules (committee system; filibuster; etc.). In effect, it’s the anti-majoritarian character of the institutions that is causing the gridlock; a majoritarian parliamentary system (in effect, a sovereign House) could in theory be incredibly democratic, incredibly polarized, and experience almost no gridlock. Ezra also made an important second point: many of Orzag’s ideas aren’t even anti-democratic in any sense. For instance, tying UI and the payroll tax to the unemployment rate may or may not be good public policy, but it’s a policy decision that is produced by the regular democratic process and has no effect on said process.

And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that a lot of the animosity toward the Orzag article is rooted in an impulse that I think is fundamentally wrong: the idea that more democracy always equals good, and that less democracy always equals bad. A lot of people tend to apply this sort of democracy=good  frame by default when evaluating institutional designs, and I think it’s a mistake.

Eight rambling points, none really about Orzag or his article:

1. Democracy is the least-worst form of government ever devised. I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I’m one of those anti-democracy cynics you often run into in casual policy debates. Such people, if you press them, will usually reveal themselves as elitists who are more or less disdainful of the wisdom of pretty much everyone else. Their trick is to force you to compare democracy as practiced against some normative ideal, without ever themselves proposing a real-world alternative. The truth is that Churchill was right. No real-world alternative even comes close. Democracy gives government leaders the most incentive to act in a way least-harmful to the people. That’s far from perfect, but it’s as good as you’ll get. Unless you still believe in benevolent monarchs and philosopher kings.

Cranky partisans and Euro-philes will also sometimes argue that American democracy is inferior to parliamentary democracy, but that’s mostly because they haven’t lived under it and seen it in action, which creates the same ideal vs. as-practiced false construct. The varieties of western democracy each have their benefits and drawbacks, but I have never seen evidence that any single system is inherently better than any other, at least not in any qualitative way. Might America be better off under a parliamentary system? Perhaps, but I doubt it would substantially alter a meta-evaluation of the quality or desirability of American democracy. It would still be pretty good, and people would still routinely complain about it.

2. Democracy isn’t best in every circumstance. This is the heart of the problem. Because democracy is, at the systemic level, by far the best available governing arrangement, people tend to assume it’s the best arrangement in all situations. But there are specific situations in which non-democratic systems enjoy advantages over democracies. Two examples are commonly given: first, war-making stamina. Dictatorships can continue to fight long after democracies would have surrendered due to negative public opinion. Would a democratic Russia have survived the German assault on the Eastern front? Would the western allies have been able to weather that level of casualties? I doubt it. (Of course, I’d rather have democratic control over the decision to go to war, as monarchs/dictators have a penchant for starting silly and unncessary wars.)

The second set of examples is far more important: democracies are not good at long-term planning, because the short-term electoral calendar gets in the way. Dictators can overcome J-curves when instituting things like market reforms precisely because they aren’t accountable to voters in the short-term. And so there are situations in which a democracy may want to mimic a less-accountable form of government, for the purpose of passing J-curve type policies. Therefore, legislators seeking to make good public policy have an incentive to devise institutions that are less democratically accountable, so that the long-term interests of the people can be met without electoral backlash against the short-term negative consequences followed by policy reversal of the long-term plan.

3. There’s an important distinction between democracy and majoritarianism. This is expanding on Ezra’s point. You can have a system of government that is very democratic and at the same time non-majoritiarian (consider a direct democracy with a supermajority requirement), and you can also have the opposite (consider a sovereign majoritarian parliamentary republic in which all MPs were elected indirectly by local legislatures, which themselves were elected by a very narrow franchise). So they are distinct concepts. One addresses the proximity of the citizen population to the decisions; the other addresses the amount of agreement required among that citizen population.

People tend to confuse these things when they attack arrangements or ideas that they consider anti-democratic. The filibuster isn’t really anti-democratic, it’s just anti-majoritarian. Ditto with unanimous jury requirements. Same thing with the veto power. On the other hand, a repeal of the 17th amendment woudn’t really be anti-majoritarian, but it would definitely be anti-democratic. Once you separate the two ideas, I’m pretty sure that most people have a bigger problem with non-majoritarian systems than they do with mildly non-democratic systems. (Although, in general, I believe most people are situational majoritarians. For example, many people hate the filibuster and deride it with every argument under the sun about things like “the will of the people” when it blocks policies they like. When it helps them, they are mum. Such people also tend to not complain about the veto power, which is probably more anti-majoritarian than the filibuster.)

4. Broadly speaking, America has become more democratic during the last 200 years. In 1789, America was something of a democracy, and almost certainly the most democratic nation in the world. But a contemporary nation with an America-circa-1789 democracy wouldn’t seem particularly democratic. Voting was limited in many states to white men who met property and other qualifications; only one-half of one branch of the federal government was chosen through popular election; and many of the liberal rights that we consider necessary ingredients of a functioning modern democracy, such as a free press or the right to a jury trial, were not constitutionally guaranteed at either the federal or state level.

Over time, the trappings of mass-democracy developed. Civil liberties were amended into the constitution in the 1790′s. Universal white male suffrage was more or less achieved by 1832. Mass political parties arose. Popular voting for the electoral college were adopted everywhere by 1868. The franchise was guaranteed to non-whites and to women by the early 20th century. Ditto for the direct election of Senator. In short, 18th century concerns about the sustainability of a mass democracy were proven to be unnecessary worries, and many were unraveled over the first 100 or so years of the nation.

5. The contemporary United States is one of the most democratic nations on earth. Most people don’t realize it, but from a comparative perspective, America is one of the most election-intensive nations. Americans spend more time voting than pretty much any other citizenry.  As Anthony King has described, American politicians are perhaps the most vulnerable in the western world: they face re-election more often, they are helped less by their parties, and  they must do more self-fundraising. The consequence is that American politicians tend to be hyper-sensitive to their constituents, given their comparative electoral connection. And this has policy consequences, especially when trying to solve problems that have long-term benefits but incur short-term costs.

Again, this doesn’t address the anti-majoritarian concern; that’s still there. But the U.S. is a very democratic system, perhaps to a fault. After all, this is one of the most common complaints in DC: that the elected officials spend too much time thinking about campaigns and elections, and not enough time thinking about policy. The two-year cycle is often described as too short for the modern age, forcing Members to start fundraising earlier in the cycle, leaving little time for actual governance. Which leads a lot of people to the logical conclusion that the terms of Members of the House should be extended by Constitutional amendment, perhaps to 3 years. But note that this is a clear anti-democratic move. If you think it’s a good idea, then you (indirectly) agree with the thrust of Orzag’s piece. But my sense is that many people who think congressional terms should be extended would be fierce critics of his article.

6. There’s a difference between “less democratic” and “not democratic.” This is important. The pre-17th amendment Senate was democratic, it was just less directly democratic than the post-17th amendment Senate. It’s similar to the difference between a direct democracy and a republic. No matter how many independent commissions Congress sets up, it’s still Congress setting them up and it’s still always possible for Congress to dismantle them. Yes, there’s the “ratcheting up” problem of the presidential veto and giving power to the executive branch, but the general principle still holds: if somewhat more than the majority of Americans have a burning desire to dismantle the Fed and for monetary policy to be handled in Congress, it will eventually happen. You can say a lot of things about Congress, but you can’t say they aren’t responsive to the burning desires of their constituents.

It seems silly to me to say that an entity making decisions X lengths down the chain from the voters is somehow not democratic and yet an entity X-1 lengths away from the voters is perfectly democratic. We’re dealing in degrees here, not cutpoints. I don’t think of cabinet secretaries as non-democratic decision makers; but, in effect, that would be the consequence of a logic that asserts any entity Congress devises and grants decision-making authority to  is so far removed from the voters that it can’t be considered democratic.

7. There are specific democratic reforms which have proven mediocre at best. In general, the direct democracy reforms of progressive-era westerners have not achieved the ends that were expected. The ballot initiative process is one such reform that leaps instantly to mind. Especially in California, it doesn’t seem to function as one’s normative desires might hope. Same thing with the recall provisions in various states; they don’t seem to do anything but keep people focused on electoral politics rather than policy politics. I also think the shift toward primaries in presidential nominating has been a mixed-result. There are definitely people who disagree, but I don’t see any evidence they have made the outcomes or the process better. But I think, overall, the consequential reduction in party power and rise of individual candidate power has had something of a negative effect on presidential-party relations and presidential-congressional relations.

There’s a related issue here, as well, and that’s transparency. In theory, transparency of decision-making in government is completely unrelated to democracy. You can have highly democratic non-transparent systems, and quite transparent non-democratic systems. But in practice, they tend to go hand in hand, and people who prefer more democracy (or more majoritarianism) tend to prefer more transparency. My sense is that the increase in transparency in the past generation or so has, at best, produced mixed results . In the House, two notable examples are the move toward recorded votes in the committee of the whole and the opening up to the public of committee markups. The intended effect of both of these reforms — to expose the policy process and make legislators accountable — is certainly noble, but I don’t think the objective has been met. For example, one unintended consequence of the open mark-up is that most of the real debate over the bill has been moved into the backrooms, prior to the markup. This makes sense: especially when the fight is intra-party, Members have all sorts of incentives not to air their grievances with each other in public. So the markups themselves are often dog and pony shows, and the real deals are now even further from public view than before.

8. There are specific anti-democratic reforms that have proven useful. Five years ago, I don’t think it would have been the least bit controversial when Orzag said in his article that an independent central bank was an excellent anti-democratic policy device. And I still don’t think there’s any doubt that it is. As Romney said the other night when the GOP candidates were piling on Bernake and the Fed, what’s the alternative? Should Congress Be Setting Monetary Policy? I think that’s exactly right, and it goes to the crux of the democracy argument: are there decisions that should be made in a setting more removed than Congress from electoral politics? And I think the answer is yes. Some of the critics of Orzag have made the point that entities like the Fed have not done particularly well in their technocratic decision-making as of late. But I think this again is a false comparison against a normative ideal: is there any evidence that Congress would have made better monetary policy decisions than the Fed over the last two years?

Orzag also uses the BRAC base closure example, and I think that (along with the Fed) partially refutes DIA, whose premise is that Congress could never set up such institutions correctly, because the will that is allegedly lacking (to solve the problem) will also be lacking to produce the insulated institution. But BRAC and the Fed were both produced by congressional legislation, and in the case of BRAC, Members came to actually like how it operated, because even when their base got closed, it wasn’t because they lost the politics (and were therefore ‘weak’ or could be blamed), but they still got to vote against it to boot!


None of this is intended to be a defense of Orzag. As I said above, I think his article is silly, because he’s proposing a solution to a premise that I think is demonstrably false. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to remember that democratic decision making comes in many flavors, and that removing difficult policy decisions from direct democratic accountability isn’t fundamentally an elitist usurpation of the will of the people. It’s just a different arrangement of the institutional furniture in complex structure that is utterly democratic in the meta-sense.

Update (9/28 3:05pm): Jon Bernstein offers some insightful thoughts in response to the above, which I pretty much completely agree with.  Here’s a snippet:

Independent commissions are useful only in cases in which politicians agree on what should be done but do not want the credit for doing it. It’s possible that these commissions are under-utilized by Congress right now, but mostly for relatively small and technical things. You’re not going to get a Grand Bargain out of a commission unless leading politicians from both sides secretly want a Grand Bargain on similar terms in the first place, and that’s not the case right now.

That strikes me as both correct and important. Go read the whole thing.


On leadership

September 27, 2011

According to news reports, Senator Blunt is considering running for a party leadership position in the Senate, in the wake of Senator Alexander’s announcement that he will be stepping down as Republican Conference Chair in January. This got me thinking about congressional history. Senator Blunt, you see, served in the leadership in the House prior to his election to the Senate.

And thus a question: how many times has someone served in both the House leadership and the Senate leadership?

In order to make the analysis easier, we’ll limit it to top leadership posts in both chambers (Speaker, Majority/Minority Leader, and Majority/Minority Whip), and we’ll restrict ourselves to the 20th century, when the non-Speaker leadership positions became more formalized.

We can break the question into two parts. First: how many Members who served in a top House leadership position have gone on to serve in the Senate (or vice-versa)?

Theoretically, we shouldn’t expect too many. While it’s true that many (if not most) Representatives would jump at a good opportunity to join the Senate, it’s also the case that doing so resets all of your seniority and accumulated power. Therefore, we should expect that, all else equal, Members of the House with significant power and/or seniority should be less likely to seek a Senate seat.

According to my quick run of the data, 341 people have served in both the House and Senate since 1900. Of those 341, only six had served in the top leadership posts in the House at some point during their career:

  • Oscar Underwood (D-AL), who served as Whip and Majority/Minority Leader;
  • James Watson (R-IN), who served as Whip;
  • Frederick Gillett (R-MA), who served as Speaker;
  • John Sparkman (D-AL), who served as Whip;
  • Trent Lott (R-MS), who served as Whip; and
  • Roy Blunt (R-MO), who served as Whip and (interim) Majority Leader

Underwood, Sparkman, and Lott were elected to the Senate while serving in the House leadership. Watson, Gillett, and Blunt had previously served, but were not currently top leaders at the time of their Senate election.

Second question: did any of these men go on to serve in the Senate leadership? Yes.

Lott, as many people undoubtedly remember, was Majority Leader; Underwood and Watson were also Majority Leader. Gillett only served one term in the Senate. Sparkman, as it turns out, is the only one of them who had a long Senate career, but never served in the leadership. And Blunt, evidently, is seeking to start a climb up the leadership.

So 3 of 5 served in the Senate leadership, and Blunt may very well someday make it 4 of 6.

This probably says something about the ambition track.  That 2/3 of the House leaders who went on to the Senate either served in leadership or look like they will seek service in the leadership probably indicates that such a preference is not only constrained by the institutional context and contingent events during ones career, but also by the personal characteristics and preferences Members bring to Congress. It’s unlikely that the institutional context in which these men arrived in the Senate just happen to once again make the leadership path an obvious choice; far more likely is that these men were natural leaders, and sought the jobs independent of context.

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On political donations

September 26, 2011

Following Matt Yglesias, Jon Bernstein offers his advice on the most efficient way to donate to campaigns:

So there’s no mathematical equation for exactly how to spend your money, but Yglesias is certainly right: it’s hard to see presidential re-election as a good use of money, no matter how important the president is (and remember: as much as I’ll talk about presidential weakness around here, I’ve also always pointed out that the president is the single most important single elected official). My guess is that for most partisans, the best choices are open Congressional (House and Senate) primaries in party-friendly seats with retiring Members, and close Senate general elections. But then again I should mention that I tend to have a strong and probably unjustifiable bias towards national politics; it may be that state legislative races and local races are really the best bets for many people.

I think this is pretty much on the button, but I’d add a few things:

1) Presidential election candidates fundraise more or less like elite university annual funds. That is, they rely on the big donors for the actual money raising, and on the small donors to up their “participation” level. That’s why if you are planning to give $25 to your college, you might as well just give $5, or even $1. All they want you for is so that they can increase their “X% of alumni gave this year!” blurb, and the corresponding U.S. News and World Report statistic. Presidential general election campaigns are a bit different, in that they have a hard cap on the high-end donations, but it’s the same principle. If you are planning on giving less than $100, your main purpose to them it that they can report a wider donor base.

2) I would lean toward Bernstein’s half-nod for local races. Maybe this is just my sentimental libertarian heart, but I firmly believe that the preponderance of important government decisions made by your elected officials each year are concentrated at the local or state level. If you have kids, I’m positive this is true: unless there is a depression or conscription, the school board, local government, and state government decisions over the public schools will be the most important for you and your family.

But the kicker is that (a) no one pays attention to these elections; (b) they are funded on shoestrings, especially school board elections in the northeast, where pretty much each high school has its own board; and consequently (c) a very small amount of money/time/energy can swing a school board race. Even donating the maximum in every possible avenue at the presidential level will not give you the same bang for your buck as $1000 dumped into a school board race. Obviously, the President has a lot more power than any local official. But your odds of influencing a national election with even $10k aren’t much greater than influencing it with your one vote. So send it local.

3) There are a lot of important corollaries here. First, dollars to doughnuts says you are spending an amount of time disproportionate to its relative importance on national politics. My sense is that this is an middle and upper-middle class problem. Ever work a job that put you in a breakroom with a bunch of working-class guys? Those guys are ridiculously knowledgeable about local issues, and my sense is that it’s because they intuitively recognize its direct importance, and they don’t have the luxury of not paying attention to the most important issues for them, even if national politics is far more sexy.

Second, if you want to get involved with politics as a candidate, run for school board. Period. There’s simply no better way to make an actual difference in politics, and the impact to BS ratio is far better than anything you can find at any higher level of government. Not only are school boards making decisions over extremely important things, but they are also quasi-executive bodies masquerading as legislatures, so you not only get to deal with making policy, but also with implementing it and carrying it out.


On anti-incumbency and partisan landslides

September 26, 2011

I’m starting to once again hear about the “anti-incumbent attitude” of voters, and the effect this will have in 2012. As I wrote back in Spring 2010, I think too many people confuse anti-incumbency with ideological landslide. But I was just fiddling (for other reasons) with some election data, and saw something mildly interesting.

I think it’s important to differentiate the two ideas — anti-incumbency and partisan landslide — as collapsing them reduces our ability to describe elections. For example, there may have an anti-incumbent attitude in the 2010 election, but I don’t see a lot of evidence that it electorally manifested itself.  Yes, the proportion of incumbents who returned to the House (78.2%) was the second lowest  since 1948, but of the 90 seats that were vacated by an incumbent, 66 were former Democratic seats won by Republicans, while only 3 were former Republican seats won by Democrats (21 retiree seats were won by the occupying party). If very few incumbents of the winning party lose re-election, it hard to call it an anti-incumbency situation, per se. It’s just a garden-variety ass-whippin’, in the form of a  partisan/ideological landslide.

And so while I certainly can see the anti-incumbent attitude in the current polling data, I’m not inclined to put too much stock into it having a large electoral effect. Yes, approval ratings of both congressional parties are at historical lows, such that we are definitely in uncharted waters, but I think the safe assumption, following the historical evidence, is that anti-incumbency only really manifests itself when you have bi-partisan support for truly unwanted policy (like the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854***) or bi-partisan blame for corruption (like 1992). Anything else, and it’s more likely that the aggregate electorate is just going to punish one party or another (like 1890 or 1930 or 1994).

What would evidence for actual anti-incumbency look like, differentiated from ideological drift? Well, one scenario that would be  a low incumbency retention rate paired with a low partisan seat swing. Imagine if every incumbent in the House lost, but the net partisan seat gain was zero. That’s probably good evidence. I say probably because it’s not airtight — voters of both parties could have become more radical and remove their incumbents for ideological reasons, for example.

Anyway, here’s a simple plot of incumbent return rate vs. absolute partisan seat swing, 1952-2010:

The trend line, not surprisingly, provides a pretty strong correlation between incumbency return % and absolute seat swing — aggregate incumbent defeats tend to reflect partisan or ideological drift . But check out the outlier. That’s 1992, when only 75% of Members returned to Congress, but the total seat swing was only 11 seats. Again, this isn’t air-tight evidence of anti-incumbency; it’s possible that many otherwise-electable Members retired and were replaced by partisan comrades. But a lot of what we know about 1992 says otherwise: the House banking and post office scandals were symbols of an institution in decline, many of the Member retirements were to preempt losses, and both parties suffered double-digit defeats in seats they were trying to defend.


***For the unfamiliar, 1854 bears a second look, because that’s a true anti-incumbency result: going into the election, the partisan breakdown in the House was approximately 150 Dems and 75 Whigs. When Congress reconvened after the election, the breakdown was 84 Democrats,  60 Whigs, 62 American Party (“know-nothings”), and 46 Republicans. I can’t see how that will ever be topped — the majority party loses almost half its seats, the minority party loses a fifth of its seats, and they all go to a minor party that previously held no seats and a new party that didn’t exist a year earlier!

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Research Note: On writing your congressman

September 26, 2011

It’s no secret that the Internet has radically transformed the practice of legislative politics on Capitol Hill. Information is everywhere, and moves like lightning. Staffers are no longer chained to their desks and their hard-line telephones. And, perhaps most importantly, the relay of information from the Hill to the rest of the country (and vice-versa) has been reduced, time-wise, to basically zero. As soon as it happens here, it’s known everywhere. And not only is the information relay faster after something happens, but the outside, non-Hill world feels closer to the policy-making process before anything happens. And that has consequences.

Despite this, people sometimes underestimate the magnitude of the change. To which I respond with this graph (click on to see full size if you are on the main page), which plots incoming mail to the House of Representatives since 2002, as a function of delivery medium. The top line (blue) is incoming emails, the bottom line (black) incoming postal mail.

A few notes: first, the uptick in emails in 2007 that defies the otherwise steady ascent is probably due to several spam attacks that got by the House filtering system. Second, good email data is not available prior to 1998, but any estimate would put it significantly lower than the numbers for 1998. Finally, incoming postal mail does not include mail sent to Member district offices, just mail sent to Capitol Hill.

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Sports Fan, Stats Geek?

September 24, 2011

A quick plug for Ben Morris and his Skeptical Sports Analysis blog. Ben’s an old poker buddy of mine from Yale and he recently won the 2011 ESPN Stat Geek Smackdown.  One look at his blog will convince you that he’s not only a killer sports statistician, but he’s also an engaging and humorous writer. And he’s about to lay down the full-court geekery tomorrow with a live blog of the entire NFL day. Should be awesome.


Shutdown 101: The Politics

September 24, 2011

Yesterday, I wrote about the basic mechanics of a government shutdown. Today, I’ll quickly cover a little bit of the politics. I’m not going to spend a lot of time writing about the specifics of the current debate. You can get the facts from a variety of journalistic sources, and some pretty darn good analysis from the myriad of great bloggers who follow Hill politics. What I’m going to talk about is some of the structural/institutional issues that affect shutdown politics, which tend to be overlooked by observers. Six quick points:

1) The politics of a shutdown is primarily driven by the deadline(s). This may seem obvious, but the implications aren’t often appreciated. With normal legislating, even if the issues are massive (i.e. Civil Rights Act), the consequences of non-action is merely the status quo. In a lot of cases that’s not a great result. But if you thought you’d have it sewn up by November and it took until December, no big deal. In fact, if everything falls apart, you still haven’t gone backwards. No so with the appropriations process (or other deadline-based legislation, or sunset legislation); the consequence of non-action is shutdown, which from a political standpoint is a very volatile situation, which means it’s a risky one that people tend to avoid. Which means that people try to extract concessions by holding out. Which means things are rarely settled until very close to the deadline.

It also means that some of the axioms of Hill politics come into play: something (i.e. anything) tends to beat nothing. If you can produce a plausible solution, you tend to win the politics against an opponent who has nothing besides their opposition to your solution. On the other hand, there’s a corollary to this: something that is proven impossible isn’t any better than nothing. This is particularly true in our current (and rare) configuration of divided government: whenever the House passes something, they have, well, something. This trumps the Senate’s nothing, but only until the Senate decisively defeats/tables it. Then it’s mostly the equivalent of nothing. You might get a little credit for passing that something, but not much.

Related to the deadline is a second concept: the appropriations process is more or less routine. That is, it happens every year. And therefore it is really hard to get the public all up in a twist about the substance of the issue. Despite being fundamentally constitutive to the functioning of the government, there’s not much that’s very sexy about appropriations. It’s obviously a monster deal to the ideological and financially-consequential interests that surround the money, but that still doesn’t excite the public imagination the way a hot-button social issue or foreign policy debate will. People can talk all they want about reducing or not reducing the size of government. It doesn’t translate into people paying attention to annual approps. On the other hand, shutting the government down does get people’s attention, both prospectively and after-the-fact. Which means that the public politics of the shutdown tend to focus on the shutdown, and not on the appropriations. Which tends to mean it’s better to focus your strategic public efforts on the consequences, not on the substance.

2) There are two different deadlines (and maybe three). The first, and obvious, one is the day the current appropriations or continuing resolution runs out, which is annually October 1, but also can be whenever a continuing resolution put in place to extend that deadline expires. This is the drop-dead date the government actually shutting down. The second deadline point (which I call the invisible deadline) is the point at which it no longer becomes feasible to finish the appropriations bills, either individually or as an omnibus/consolidated. This deadline is more flexible, as it can occur weeks before the drop-dead deadline if everyone agrees the appropriations bills won’t be done, or it can be just days or hours before the drop-dead deadline, when it becomes apparent that negotiations on the actual bills will not produce results by the drop-dead deadline. Finally, there’s the date far into the future in which everyone will give up trying to pass the appropriations bills, and just pass a long-term continuing resolution, that funds the remainder of the year. (That has consequences too, but I’ll save them for if/when we get close to that contingency).

In any case, the consequence of passing the invisible deadline is that the politics shift, from the politics of appropriations to the politics of a continuing resolution (CR), and thus shutdown. I guess the upshot here is that shutdown politics do not revolve around appropriations in the tactical sense. That’s the strategic battle, or strategic theater for the battle. The actual shutdown is fought on the terms of the continuing resolution, since the question is never whether to finish the approps bills or shut the government down, it’s always whether to temporarily fund the government while finishing the bills, or shut the government down while finishing the bills. I don’t think this point can be emphasized enough: the bills have to be finished whether the government shuts down or not; the issue at hand prior to a shutdown is always over whether to temporarily fund the government while finishing the bills.

3) The politics of a CR revolve around proposed additions to a “clean” resolution. A basic CR simply says, “we are appropriating the amounts necessary for you to keep spending money at the same rate as last year. You may do this until we either pass your actual appropriation, or until date X,” where X is some date in the future. It’s merely a holding pattern. A CR becomes controversial when people start trying to add things to it. Things like supplemental or emergency appropriations, or across-the-board cuts, or line-item adjustments to particular accounts.

One upshot of all this is that it quickly becomes incomprehensible to anyone outside the beltway: as the deadline for the shutdown approaches, the debate is fundamentally not over annual appropriations, it’s over whether to have a clean CR or one with additions. On one side of the debate, a party wants to add something to the clean CR; the other side will either demand a clean CR, or attempt to extract a counter-policy in exchange for clearing the addition. Right now, the Democrats would prefer to add disaster relief funding to the CR; Republicans may or may not prefer that to a clean CR, but they are demanding certain cuts in exchange for the addition to the CR. The debate will really heat as the deadline approaches: at some point, someone will suggest a clean CR, and the other side will have to accept/reject it.

4) The politics completely changes again if the government actually does shutdown. As described yesterday, most shutdowns in the last 35 years have been only for a few days, and the longest was three weeks. Whatever the playing field prior to the shutdown, a winner and loser are relatively quickly determined afterwards. It’s probably a slightly negative-sum game for the parties, but my sense is that you usually see a capitulation rather than a compromise after an actual shutdown. I haven’t looked at it systematically, but my anecdotal sense is that most shutdowns include pretty strong miscalculations by one party or the other. Again, I don’t think all shutdowns are negative-sum utter failures; it’s definitely possible to strategically plan and win a shutdown, or goad someone into mistakenly doing so, but the variance is so high as to whether or not you’ll get blamed, that it hardly seems good strategy to purposefully bring one on. One thing that instantly changes is the media frame: national news gets saturated with one new kind of story:  “look what federal agency” isn’t performing it’s vital function and/or “check out these road signs that say Yellowstone isn’t open.” Another thing is that the clock starts ticking a lot faster: the media/chattering class pressure for a deal ramps up exponentially.  It’s not at all clear that the parties respond well to this change in frame/politics.

5) Agencies hate shutdown politics and CRs, and this year may be even more so. Normally, aggregate appropriations increase each year, and clean CRs temporarily delay that increase.  In a typical shutdown/CR situation, the agencies are annoyed because of the uncertainty: they have to start their new fiscal year without both without knowing their budget number, and with only the pro-rated CR amounts available to them from the previous year. But in the current climate, things change quite a bit. Aggregate appropriations are scheduled to decrease, and clean CRs temporarily delay a decrease. Now they agencies know almost for certain that their budgets are going to be cut; therefore, operating under last year’s money is both easier and harder: easier because your pro-rated funds will be more than you will end up getting anyway, so it’s not like you have to plan for some additional spending and deal with less in the meantime; harder, because you can’t spend all your CR pro-rated money, or else you are going to put yourself in a real hole when the final numbers come out, and you’ve outspent it on a pro-rated basis. Basically, agencies need to have huge discipline in these circumstances.

6) The fiscal calendar and the electoral calendar make for strange bedfellows. I’m not sure this was fully appreciated in 1976 when they moved the start of the fiscal year from June 1 to October 1, which is significantly close to the November election in even-numbered years. In election years, finishing the annual appropriations in late September is theoretically the last thing any given Congress will do. If they are successfully completed, the Congress may not come back for any substantive work until after the election and the new year, when the next Congress begins. But it’s also true that any significant actions Congress considers taking in September of an election year is potentially going to make for an important election issue. This makes appropriations politics even more high-profile than it would normally be, which is pretty high to begin with. As such, it’s not uncommon or CRs to push the final decision making past the election. And the results of the election can often make one side or the other prefer to finish the appropriation in the next Congress, when the balance of power may be different in the chambers (or the White House.)

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On Turning Off the Lights: Shutdown 101

September 23, 2011

Now that the specter of a government shutdown is (once again) upon us, it’s probably a good idea to review what that actually means. There’s a lot of information out there that presents government shutdowns in very precise legal terms, but it can be a slog to read it. I’m going to try and do it more conversationally here, such that it’s easier to understand. Of course, this means I’ll be talking generally and not in precise language. I’ll try to provide links to official documents when available — obviously check with those primary sources before making any real decision.

Here we’ll cover the mechanics of a shutdown, maybe tomorrow I’ll do a follow-up post on the politics. Today I’ll do it question and answer style, hopefully in a way that seems natural.

What the heck is a “shutdown”?

The actual term is “funding gap.” According to Article I, section 9 of the Constitution, no money can be drawn from the Treasury, except under appropriation made by law. So if the current appropriations expire and no new ones have been passed by Congress, then no money can be drawn from the Treasury. And that means, in the broadest sense, the government can’t pay for anything — salaries, supplies, etc. Which means, more or less, that the government has to cease operations, or shutdown.

What do you mean “expire”?

Whenever Congress appropriates money, they indicate what period of time the money can be used. The vast majority of appropriations are annual, meaning they are for the period of one fiscal year. Some appropriations, such as money for construction projects, might be earmarked as multi-year. And some money appropriated by Congress is “no-year” money, meaning it can be spent at any time in the future, so long as it is used for its lawful purpose.

When do the current annual appropriations expire?

October 1, the end of Fiscal Year 2011.

So when there is a shutdown, the whole government just stops operating?

Not exactly. Under the Constitution, no money can be disbursed from the Treasury. But the Constitution doesn’t prohibit the government from incurring obligations; the government is theoretically still free to enter into contracts, hire and employ labor, etc. They just can’t pay off these obligations. Kinda like if you had a credit card, but no ability to pay it at the end of the month because your checking account was frozen.

But my friend is a federal employee, and he’s not allowed to go to work during a shutdown.

That’s right, because while the Constitution only prohibits disbursement, there’s a federal law (the Anti-Deficiency Act) that prohibits the obligation of federal money in the absence of an appropriation, with criminal penalties for agency heads who violate it. In effect, the ADA freezes the credit card, whereas the Constitution freezes the checking account. So if your friend’s agency had him come to work, it would be in violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act, because the agency would be obligating money without an appropriation, but it would not be in violation of the Constitution, because your friend’s salary would not be disbursed from the Treasury.

I don’t get this obligation / disbursement business. Explain.

When Congress appropriates money to an agency, it gives it to them as budget authority. That simply gives the agency an amount on a piece of paper, which is the amount of money that can legally obligate for lawful purposes. It’s not like Congress directs the Treasury to go dump X amount of gold off at the agency. So when the agency spends money, it doesn’t literally hand over cash to its employees or creditors, it simply enters into an obligation to pay them (be it salaries for employees or funds for capital purchases). The agency then notifies Treasury, and Treasury ultimately transfers the funds to the creditor. All the money is kept at Treasury. I think the credit card / checking account analogy, while not actually perfect, is the best way to think about it. Congress gives each agency an amount on a credit card, which they are allowed to spend. But it’s all linked to one checking account, which is controlled by Treasury. The Constitution shuts off the checking account when no appropriation exists. The Anti-Deficiency Act shuts off the credit card.

But now we’re back to question: does the whole government just stop operating?

Nope. The Anti-Deficiency Act includes an exception for the “safety of human life or the protection of property.”  Subsequent opinions of the Attorney General (found in appendices here), opinions of the DOJ Office of Legal Counsel, and guidance of GAO / Comptroller General have clarified that regular agency operations do not fall under this exception. In past shutdowns, OMB opinions have considered the following types of things to fall under the exception: military and national security, public safety such as air traffic control, care of patients in hospitals and prisoners in prisons (and wildlife at the national zoo), things necessary to protect federal property and continue the functions of the Treasury, and disaster relief, among other things. Under common sense interpretations, the heat can also be left on at federal buildings.

Don’t let all these exceptions distort the bottom line: if no appropriations bills have been enacted, the vast majority of federal agencies will shut down.

So some federal employees keep working and some do not?

Right. Those who must continue to go to work are called “excepted” or “essential.” All others (“non-excepted” or “non-essential” are furloughed).

So the excepted employees still get paid?

Not during the shutdown. Remember, the exception only allows the government to obligate the money (i.e. put it on the credit card) without violating the Anti-deficiency Act. Until an appropriation is passed by law, the Constitution prohibits disbursement of the money by the Treasury. So yes, the soldiers will continue to work and continue to earn money, but they will not receive a check until an appropriation is passed by law. In effect, the government legally owes them money, but can’t pay them.

And the non-excepted employees will not get paid?

Yes and no. The government will not be incurring an obligation for the non-excepted employees, so they do not legally owe them anything. But in past shutdowns, Congress has often passed legislation retroactively paying non-excepted federal employees for the period that they were furloughed.

What about transfer payments like Social Security?

Social Security is funded through a permanent appropriation, meaning that the recipient benefits themselves are not affected by a shutdown. However, employees at the SSA could theoretically be non-excepted. In past shutdowns, OMB opinions have considered SSA employees required to process recipient benefits as excepted, and all checks have been sent out.

I thought there were usually 12 appropriations bills in Congress. What if half of them have passed?

You’d have a partial shutdown. The Constitution doesn’t require or concern itself with how Congress divides up its appropriations bills. If the State Department appropriations for FY2012 have been passed into law, then the shutdown doesn’t affect them whatsoever. This is not an uncommon situation; during the second shutdown in FY1996, some of the bills had been passed already.

Second shutdown? How could that happen?

Because there is another way to avoid a shutdown besides passing all the appropriations bills. And that is to pass what is called a continuing resolution (or CR), which is just a fancy term for a law that says, in effect, “money can be continued to be spent for a certain period of time while we work to get the annual appropriations bills passed.” Such a law can be written to cover any amount of time Congress desires. For instance, the CR under consideration right now would fund the government until November 18, with the hope that the appropriations bills could be completed by then. So you could, in theory, have a shutdown that starts on October 1, lasts until a CR is passed on October 5, but then starts again on November 15 (or whenever), when the CR expires. This is what happened in FY1996.

Does the legislative branch operate during a shutdown?

If the Legislative Branch Appropriations Act is not passed, then the legislative branch is subject to the Anti-Deficiency Act and, of course, the Constitution. In the first FY1996 shutdown, various interpretations and rulings held that congressional employees necessary to the legislative process were excepted, with the decision of their necessity left to individual employing authority, which is most cases were the Members themselves. Support services, such as the cafeterias, were not open.

How often have there been shutdowns?

There have been 17 shutdowns since FY1977. The last two were in FY1996, and lasted 5 and 21 days, respectively. Many of the other shutdowns lasted only 1 to 3 days.

What causes shutdowns?

Politics, my friend, politics. Maybe we’ll get into that tomorrow…

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How often does the majority lose in the House?

September 22, 2011

That’s the question being asked over at The Monkey Cage. I don’t have any hard data, but my anecdotal memory says:

1) In general, not very often.

2) The losses comes in a bunch of flavors: pulling a doomed bill prior to a vote (ex: Boehner debt bill, July 2011), losing a final passage vote (ex. TARP attempt #1, September 2008), and losing a vote on a rule (crime bill, August 1994). The leadership pulls bills that are going to lose more often than they actually lose a vote. My sense is that rules votes fail less often than final passage votes, but they are both rare events.

3) The most recent final passage loss I can remember is TARP attempt #1, September ’08. Three years ago next week.

4) I can’t remember a rule going down during that time period.

5) My intuition is — and again this is anecdotal — that the majority leadership lost more often a generation ago, in part because the parties weren’t as ideologically homogeneous, in part because the leadership had less control over the backbenchers, and in part because the leadership was generally more inclined to let bills (like appropriations bills) come out of committee and onto the floor relatively un-vetted and under open-rules.

If you have insight or hard data, I’m all ears.

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Aftermath of the CR failure

September 22, 2011

By a vote of 190-230, the House yesterday failed to pass the continuing resolution (CR) that would temporarily fund the government while FY2012 appropriations are completed. Forty-eight conservative Republicans voted against the bill, largely arguing that it did not cut enough spending; all but 6 Democrats also voted against it, largely because it forces emergency spending for recent natural disasters to be offset with spending cuts.

Bills do not fail on the floor of the House very often. [UPDATE: See this post for more info.] This is because the  majority leadership has almost total agenda control. They choose what is brought to the floor, they have a majority on the floor, and a majority can pass a bill. Even in cases when a measure gets to the floor and the leadership realizes there is not majority support for it, they don’t have to lose a vote: they can pull the bill and not have to take the vote. So what happened yesterday?  Either the leadership thought they had the votes, and was blindsided by defections either left or right or both (probable), or they were playing a strategic game of chicken with either the Senate or the House Dems (unlikely but plausible).

So what now? Three points:

1) A shutdown just became more likely. Or, more accurately, our current information reveals that the probability of a shutdown is higher than previously thought.  The last two major issues in the house (the FY11 long-term CR and the Budget Control Act) were passed by the center holding together against the wings of each party. It’s not clear now that such a center exists. The Democrats and conservative Republicans have both signaled a position, and buying up votes on the left or right may lose as many votes on the other side as it gains.

2) In the meantime, the House leadership has a strategic choice to make today. The Rules committee met last night to pass a same-day waiver, so the wheels are in motion to bring a new bill to the floor today. The leadership can bring back a more conservative bill and pass it on a party-line vote. Or they can dump the offsets and try to win back the centrist Democratic votes. If they do the former, it lays down a marker and escalates the strategic game of chicken against the Senate. But it doesn’t really get us closer to a deal, and portends a long week. If the do the latter, they run the risk of an all-out conservative revolt. My intuition is that the latter is the plausible endgame here. But this isn’t the end. Expect a more conservative bill today.

3) How will the Senate respond? Majority Leader Reid has indicated that any offset bill is a dead-letter in the Senate, but it’s not obvious he has the votes to hold that together in the face of a shutdown. If a non-offset bill can’t sustain itself in the Senate, then one endgame seems pretty simple: buy up any liberal filibuster, pass an off-set compromise based on the House-failed bill, and roll both wings in the House by putting it back on the floor there, where I think it would pass in a second go-round. But if Reid can demonstrate that no offset bill can sustain itself in the Senate, the brinkmanship could really escalate, especially because the opposition of the House Dems will solidify.

Jonathan Bernstein, who has been predicting CR shutdown crisis while many of us (including me) thought the BCA would prevent it, gets a lot of credit right now. Read more »

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On the credibility of veto threats

September 21, 2011

Simple question: how credible is Obama’s recent veto threat, and what effect does it have in the context of veto bargaining?

Three points:

1) In general, I don’t think a veto threat is very credible for the President this Congress. The Senate is controlled by the Democrats, and thus any legislation coming out of Congress automatically has something of a Democratic stamp-of-approval on it. There’s just no way around this. Everyone is now attuned to the idea that 41 Senators can stop legislation. So if 60 Senators sign-on, the perception is that you have a bipartisan deal, and it’s hard to imagine the President actually vetoing any legislation that is described that way. And if he can’t veto it, then the veto threats are empty, and veto bargaining should be theoretically worthless. It’s just cheap talk.

For this exact reason, it seemed highly unlikely to me that Obama would carry out his various veto threats earlier this year against either a long-term CR or a debt-ceiling deal, since either would-be law coming out of Congress was more or less required to have the support of at least a dozen Senate Democrats. Perhaps Obama could have aimed his veto threat at just such conservative Democrats, in hopes that they won’t cave in to GOP pressure to pass a rather conservative package. But it doesn’t really seem likely.  The 12th most conservative Democrat is someone like Hagan or Begich or Benet. Are their ideal points really that far from Obama’s?

As such, I think this illustrates one reason Obama has it harder than Clinton did post-1995. Since the GOP held both the House and Senate then, Clinton had a much stronger bargaining position, and the veto threats were much more real. Any legislation coming out of Congress was inherently Republican legislation, and that made it easy for Clinton to threaten, and follow-through, with vetoes. And that meant that veto bargaining held some real promise.

As a more general historical matter, we’re in a relatively unprecedented divided government situation. As it happens, I think there have only been three instances since world war 2 in which one party has controlled the Senate and the other party has controlled the House: the 107th Congress after Jeffords switched parties (2001-2002); the first three Congresses of the Reagan presidency (97th-99th Congresses, 1981-1986); and the famous “do-nothing” 80th Congress (1947-1948). Bush didn’t veto anything in the 107th. Reagan vetoes a lot, 59 bills in those six years. Truman vetoes dozens upon dozens of bills in the 80th, but given the conservative coalition, it probably was closer to a typical divided-government situation than a cross-chamber split.

Further exploration of these situation might be useful. Charles Cameron’s book on veto bargaining suggests that divided government should increase the instances of inter-branch bargaining and veto threats, as the ideal points of the President and Congress drift apart from each other. But this tells us little about the current situation, in which one chamber of Congress may have an ideal point theoretically close to the President.

2) That said, the legislation arising from the Joint Select Committee provides a special situation. The expedited procedures included in the Budget Control Act regarding legislation produced by the so-called supercommittee create a majoritarian set of rules for Senate consideration. The motion to proceed to the legislation is not debatable; the measure is privileged for disposition; time limitations are placed on consideration; and a majoritarian up/down vote occurs after the time limits expire. In this situation, a conservative package might very well draw the necessary four Democratic/Indy votes. It’s not hard to imagine a package unliked by Obama that  Nelson, McCaskill, Lieberman, and Webb all support. In this case, Obama’s ideal point my well be far enough away from the Senate median voter’s ideal point that a veto threat might be credible, and thus veto bargaining effective. In effect, Obama would be saying to the GOP and the four most conservative Democrats: don’t bother. This may or may not dissuade them — position taking matters — but it would certainly force them back to the drawing board post-veto, which might force them back to the drawing board prior to any position taking opportunities.

I think this is an under-appreciated effect of the Budget Control Act — it makes the President more relevant politically. And this is precisely because it opens up the possibility of a very conservative bill coming out of Congress, without any real possibility of a very liberal bill coming out of Congress. That doesn’t mean it helps the President achieve his ideal point; quite to the contrary, it moves the median bill coming out of Congress to the right. But that very fact means that the President might plausibly veto the result, and thus he has room to play politics with the bill in a way that he otherwise would not. In effect, under the rules of the Budget Control Act, the politics of the deficit look a lot more like Clinton vs. the GOP than they otherwise would. And that, I think, helps the President politically if not on policy.

3) Another possibility is that Congress could unify in an “irresponsible position”; that might provoke a veto. Imagine a scenario in which Congress decides that both the supercommittee cuts and the sequestrations are completely unpalatable, or a situation in which the supercommittee comes up with basically nothing. In either case, it might be tempting for Congress to write legislation that more or less overrides the Budget Control Act, blocking the sequestration of the defense funds and entitlement cuts and perhaps comes up with minimal window-dressing cuts as a show piece. Assuming such action could get through the House, this would be an ideal candidate for a veto, since it would plausibly allow the president to take the “responsible” position against a recalcitrant Congress, forcing them to either accept the sequestration cuts or actually come up with a more substantial alternative-plan.

What do people out there think? Do Obama’s veto threats mean anything, or are they just cheap talk? Is the supercommittee legislation fundamentally different? Read more »

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