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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On no-longer-quite-as-special interests

September 20, 2011

I was browsing through President Obama’s plan for economic growth and deficit reduction this morning, and a few things came to mind. First, credit to the White House for putting this document out. I’m not an economist, so I can’t really judge it on the merits (there are not-unexpected rave reviews from mainline dems, some grousing from liberals and conservative dems, and critical opinions for conservatives, but that doesn’t really help understand it), but I’m delighted that the document itself exists. I think the refusal of President Obama to commit, in writing, to a white house health care bill in 2009 was both a policy problem and a political misstep. Same thing with a debt-ceiling plan back a few months ago. And I think having to put yourself on the record in writing forces political actors to choose what they really want to say, instead of using vague allusions to lots of policies. Many smart people were surprised about what was, and was not, in the proposal. It leaves out a lot of the big-ticket items previously discussed. But that’s kind of my point. Now it’s real.

And look, I’m no fan of presidential domestic power — I’m about as close to as Whig as you can get in the modern age.  But that ship has sailed, and it has repeatedly infuriated both his friends and adversaries that the President won’t seem to present things beyond general principles. So good for him on this one.

One thing in particular in the plan caught my attention — a proposal to kill some tax breaks for the coal industry:

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Eliminate preferences for the coal industry. The Administration proposes repealing the following tax preferences available for coal activities beginning in 2013: 1) expensing of exploration and development costs; 2) percentage depletion for hard mineral fossil fuels; 3) capital gains treatment for royalties; and 4) the ability to claim the domestic manufacturing deduction against income derived from the production of coal and other hard mineral fossil fuels. This would reduce the deficit by $2 billion over 10 years.

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Did anyone else immediately think of Bobby Byrd when they read this? Because my immediate reaction was wow, I bet this would never have even been put into the plan 3 years ago. (Note again, that I have no opinion on the provision itself, I’m just assuming it’s bad for the coal industry). Byrd was not only a vociferous defender of all things West Virginia, including the coal industry, but also positioned in the Senate — as the chair of the Appropriations Committee — in a way that made his priorities on such things more or less absolute vetoes. Prior to his voluntary stepping aside as Approps chair in 2009 (which may very well have come with the price tag of no cap-and-trade bill in the Senate), liberals would regularly muse that movement on global warming was fundamentally tied to his retirement. And they were only half-joking. Now that’s a powerful Senator. And I can see the debate at the White House over something like this too. Well, it’s only $2 billion dollars…no way that Byrd even looks at this…we can find the money somewhere else.

But being reminded of Byrd also made me think more broadly about his affect on congressional politics. When I wrote about him shortly after his death 15 months ago, I lamented that he left the Senate via death rather than retirement, because I thought his farewell address would have been an important moment in American history. I still believe that, but I also think that the Senate could have very much benefited from a health Bobby Byrd over the ensuing 15 months. I have no doubt that he would have given several important speeches in the wake of the 2010 election, the debt-crisis, and in regard to the super-committee and current politics. And he would have spared no quarter; Byrd was not a man shy to criticize a president of his own party if he thought said president was impeding on the Congress or otherwise not doing his job.  Anyone who ever saw Byrd give a speech — the one I remember best was an opening statement on an Approps markup in 2007 or 2008, when he spent five minutes blasting then-president Bush on the proper role of the executive and the congress in the budget process, a pack room held rapt on his every word — knows that words and rhetoric can matter, even if only very rarely. Read more »

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On the meeting places of legislatures

September 19, 2011

Greetings from Austin, Texas! Blogging will be spotty over the next few days, as I’m down south coordinating a project that I’m undertaking with some folks at the University of Texas.

After my flight landed mid-day today, I had some time to kill, and I managed to get over to the state capitol for a look around. Touring legislatures is something I’m quite fond of, and I came away quite impressed with the Texas Capitol Building. The architecture of the place is interesting, the grounds are charming, and the people were very friendly. The Rotunda is understated but well done, with portraits of all the past state governors on four levels, each level with a balcony looking down. The floor of the Rotunda features a large Texas star in a circle, with five smaller circles orbiting around it, each with the symbol of the other five nations Texas has been a part of (France, Spain, Mexico, CSA, USA). The House and Senate chambers are impressive, with wonderful paintings of Texas history on the walls and large fraternity-like composites of the Members from each elected legislature, all the way back to Texas independence, a quite stunning touch. The legislative reference library was also well done, and obviously a treat for someone who works at CRS. One thing that sticks out is that the lone star symbol of Texas is seemingly everywhere — on the walls, on the floors, on the backs of chairs, on the door hinges. A little much, but very Texas.  Overall, I’d compare the Capitol favorably with the one state capitol I know very well (Albany) and the six others that I have solid recollections of (Richmond, Hartford, Harrisburg, Annapolis, Providence, and Boston).

The nicest thing about the capitol, however, was something that made me feel sad, or at least very nostalgic: there was minimal security, and our ability to wander around, open doors, and check things out was almost unlimited. The legislature is out of session, and both chambers were wide open, with virtually complete public access except for the actual Members’ desks. We walked around the floor of the House and Senate, circumnavigated the galleries, opened doors to unlabeled rooms, and generally just wandered about. The first few times we went into new places, we checked and made sure we were allowed in when we saw someone working. But later on we didn’t even bother: not only were we allowed everywhere, but in a couple of instances, staff or security offered us facts or comments about what we were looking out.

This stands in stark contrast, of course, to what has happened on Capitol Hill in DC. Security is now perhaps the overriding concern at the Capitol, and it makes both tourist and staff access to the Capitol much, much more difficult. No tourists can simply wander around the Capitol building, and even tour-led access is much more restrictive than even five years ago, prior to the opening of the CVC. Even more to the point, the wonderful lawns around the Capitiol, which are still public access as far as I know, are now designed to implicitly discourage their use as picnic spots: there are few benches, and the new architecture of the CVC, complete with small restraining-like walls, makes them seem more like something you look at than something you sit on. It’s almost unimaginable to think about the Capitol in the 1970′s, when anyone could drive their car onto the East front, park, and go wander around inside.

This is not to say any of this is without good reason; obviously, there are qualitative differences between the U.S. Capitol Building and the Texas Capitol Building, first and foremost being that international plots against state capitol buildings are not only few and far between, but also less serious by an order of magnitude even if (god forbid) they were to occur. Plus the visitor traffic to the Hill is several magnitudes greater than the traffic in Austin; crowd control alone would be a nightmare if open-access to the Capitol were allowed again. And, lest we forget,  it’s not the worst thing to stay on the side of caution in such instances.

And yet there’s an overriding sense when you walk around the Capitol that it has, in some ways, become a fortress. Some Members hate that idea, that the “people’s legislature” has constructed walls between, well, the people and the legislature, and many have fought to keep it as accessible as possible while still being consistent with the security needs. But it’s an uphill fight. The frustrating part for me, as someone who is on the Hill everyday, is how easily the high-security environment becomes completely normal. Despite the massive presence of security on the Hill, you don’t really realize how tight it actually is until you visit a place like the Texas Capitol, with people wandering around and picnicking on the lawn. It shocked me when I saw that staff who work at the Austin Capitol do not need to go through a metal detector to gain access to the building. And then it made me sad that I was shocked by it.

Again, I’m not saying we should scale back Capitol security. I’m in no position to judge. The feeling I have is more one of Burkean regret, that something has changed, and it is something that we will never recapture, because the world is a different place. Truth be told, Hill security was probably in need of an upgrade fifteen years ago; even if it is a bit overdone currently,  prior to the tragic shooting of Capitol Police Officers Chestnut and Gibson in 1998, followed by the would-have-been 9/11 attack on the building, there might have been too little security at the Capitol. And the thought of returning to the wide-open free-for-all of the 1970s and prior is silly, just as it would be silly to take the fence down at the White House and allow people to once again roam the lawn.

Still, it was such a wonderful feeling to walk unimpeded around the Texas Capitol today, observing the institutions of democracy at our own pace, in our own way, that it made me long for the ability of people to do the same in Washington. We stood in the Texas House chamber and pondered the ideals and shortcomings of a republic, the debates and representatives who shaped a state and and a nation, and the future of such institutions, both state and federal. And I like to think it had an effect on me, in a way that no guided-tour of the Capitol Visitor Center ever could. That this experience was once available in Washington, and no longer is, is cause for reflection and, yes, sadness. It may be a necessary loss, but it is a loss nonetheless.

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On the effectiveness of campaigns

September 17, 2011

Reading Homestyle with my Congress class right now. On pg. 17, a classic quote about congressional campaigns:

“Seventy-Five percent of all the money we spend in a campaign is wasted. But we don’t know which 75%.”

This quote will ring true to anyone who’s ever worked on a campaign. A friend of mine who has worked hundreds of campaigns actually thinks it drastically underestimates the wasted money.”Switch the 7 for a 9,” he says. “That rings more true.”

I recall one local campaign I worked on in New Haven, we had this real Carville-wannabee as campaign director. On election day, he was in such a frenzy that after we finished calling all the registered partisans to remind them to vote, he started yelling at us to call all of the people not registered to either party. I said to him, “we have no evidence that the independents are breaking in our favor; in fact, we have a lot of reasons to believe they are breaking against us. If we are correct that they are breaking for us, calling them might marginally increase the probability of an already-likely victory. If we are wrong, calling them might significantly increase the probability of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.” He just stared at me for about 5 seconds. Then he barked quite loudly, “Trust me. Just call them.” And then he walked away.

It didn’t matter. We got creamed in that election, almost 2 to 1. But that only proved that the independents had broken against us, and that I probably got someone to vote who otherwise wouldn’t have…for the other guy!

Wasted money indeed. The crazy truth is that the vast majority of campaigns employ a kitchen-sink strategy of spending money any way that it could plausibly be effective, without any hard evidence that such methods have any effect, and certainly no idea of the magnitude of the effect. Just like that kooky campaign director in New Haven having us call indys, occasionally you can’t even be certain that the strategy is not having a negative effect. And there’s a horrible feedback loop: winning campaigns are seen to be models of good strategy, and losing campaigns are seen as models of bad strategy. Marginal effects? Good luck raising that issue.

I bring this up because Sasha Issenberg has written a new book, The Victory Lab, which details how Rick Perry brought on a host of political scientists to do randomized field experiments with his campaign for governor in ’06.

This is interesting in itself; double interesting to me because the political scientists who more or less started this movement (and presumably worked with Perry) were Yale political science faculty, Don Green and Alan Gerber, when I was in graduate school. Their methods aren’t complicated: they simply run controlled field experiments using random assignment, in order to understand what campaign techniques work, and more importantly, how cost-efficient different campaign strategies are. One of their first major pieces compared mailings, phone calls, and door-to-door personal contact, randomized in a get-out-the-vote (GOTV) drive in New Haven. After random assignment of citizens to the treatment groups (including a control group), they apply the treatments and then after the election check the effect on voter turnout, using public records. Instrumental variable regression can be run using the intent-to-treat, and a cost-per-vote can be precisely calculated. In the case of this experiment, door-to-door blew away phone calls and mailers, despite being on the surface far more expensive.

It’s a cool sub-field in behavioral American politics, and certainly one with significant real-world implications. And the extensions are endless; one of the coolest pieces I’ve read studied how social pressure affected GOTV — a treatment group was sent a mailer indicating that whether or not they voted would be revealed to their neighbors. (It significantly increased turnout). One drawback to the line of research is that it’s quite expensive; without start-up cash or a serious hook-up from a campaign, it’s not the kind of research you can just decide you want to do. But that’s one thing that makes the connection with Perry so interesting. If he’s the GOP nominee and allows continued experiments to be run during his national campaign, it could be a massive wellspring of research across a sample and a stakes that has never been subject to these methods before. Very exciting.

Still, there are limits. As another buddy of mine says, all of this research may someday make it possible for campaigns to only waste 2/3 of all the money they collect.

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On Presidential Focus, Presidential Credit, and the Homestead Act

September 17, 2011

There are two distinct ideas floating around the chattering class right now that I think are related. The first is a criticism of the Obama administration — articulated here by Bruce Bartlett — which argues that they made a major mistake by turning to health care after the stimulus passed, instead of staying laser focused on helping the economy.

The second is something that I heard over-and-over again in panels at the American Political Science Association convention three weeks ago, and continue to hear from liberals (and Andrew Sullivan) around DC: Obama is simply not getting credit for all the helpful policies (ARRA, Dodd-Frank, Cash for Clunkers, drawdown in Iraq, killing Bin Laden, ending DADT) enacted since 2009.

As a substantive matter, the Bartlett thesis is refuted by Kevin Drum here, and by Seth Masket here (and, in part, by Jonathan Bernstein here). And I think their points are fundamentally correct: the President, almost regardless of situation, is never “laser focused” on anything. There’s a massive executive branch of workers, policymakers, and advisers who can and do keep the President up to speed on everything. Even in the midst of the health care debate, the President wasn’t even close to single-minded in focus on that; on any (and probably every) given day, the President is focused on a dozen different things, and most of the time the top of that list is national security and international affairs.

Still, I think this rebuttal misses the mark. This isn’t about substantive Presidential attention, it’s about messaging and perception. During the summer of ’09, the President appeared to be single-minded in his focus, and that focus was on health care. It doesn’t matter that this was far from the case; any low or moderate-information voter was going to assume that the President was spending his time on health care, not national security or the economy.

Nor do I think that Bartlett or other critics see this is a substantive progressive-policy mistake.  After all, the President got both the stimulus bill and the health care bill. It’s not like there’s an easy counterfactual in which he gets more policy generation by staying on the economy. (Best case scenario: Dems hold Congress and we’re fighting out health care right now, no?). Rather, the critique is a political-electoral one. It’s point is that Obama might have been able to save his own hide in 2012 if he had been giving a jobs address to Congress in September 2009 instead of a health care address. It doesn’t matter what he’s actually spending his time doing. But it does matter, when the economy is this bad, that people don’t think he’s focusing his energy on other things.

The analogy I’ve been using as of late is Lincoln in the winter of 1863-1864. The Republicans  had passed the Homestead Act in May of 1862. This was not small potatoes; it was one of the longest-standing policy goals of the Republican Party (albeit the party had only been around for 8 years), and had been continually stymied in Congress. The Act was intended by design to deluge the west with free soil settlers, aid in the downfall of slavery, and help conquer the continent. As a national policy, it was probably second only to anti-slavery as a constitutive component of the GOP, especially prior to the war.  Still, it would have been nothing short of insane for Lincoln to make the Homestead Act his focus, as a PR or messaging maneuver. The war was only possible thing to be publicly focused on. That doesn’t mean you don’t ever talk about other things; life and politics and government must go on even in the face of civil war. But it does mean that when you have to choose, you go up to Gettysburg and give an address rather than trumpet your new western land policy.

And this applies double to re-election concerns, which brings us back to the liberals, APSA attendees, and Andrew Sullivan. No matter how awesome Cash for Clunkers or Dodd-Frank or DADT repeal was, all those things are the Homestead Act as far as Obama 2012 is concerned. Political scientists should know better than this; it’s been generations of research that link presidential re-election very tightly to some measure of economic fundamentals, with everything else trailing way behind. To decide that Obama should be re-elected (or receiving better public standing) simply because he passed his own little Homestead Acts is non-sense. And it’s double non-sense because it’s the administration itself which is proclaiming that we are still in the midst of devastating crisis. Now I’m not saying we aren’t; I’m just saying that if you spend 2.5 years telling everyone it’s the modern economic equivalent of the civil war, don’t expect the modern equivalent of the Homestead Act to save you. (Note that I’m not making an argument here against the stimulus or other Obama economic policies; as I’ve written before, trying to explain marginal effects to voters is a nightmare of massive proportions).

Nor do I think the GOP gets off easy here, either. Watching the last two primary debates has been surreal. Somehow, the GOP equivalent of the Homestead Act — reforming social security — has become the central feature of the debates, encased in a general critique of the White House for, evidently, mismanaging the civil war. It’s strikingly off-key, in much the same way Bartlett sees Obama. Perhaps the GOP is resting on the idea that they can win the election without much of a jobs/economic plan of their own, or at least the individuals can get through the primary in that manner. If we push the 1864 analogy further, I don’t know if this makes them War Democrats or Copperheads. But, unlike McClellan and his (misguided) laser-focus on the war, it surely doesn’t make them seem presidential. Read more »

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On the Properties of Great Card Games

September 16, 2011

I’ve come to a rather striking (at least given my past thinking on the matter) conclusion over the past few months: Oh Hell is the greatest card game ever invented. By far. And by that I mean “it’s the most fun game that you will want to regularly play and will be able to regularly play.” Let me explain.

I like to play card games. I’m not talking about poker. (I like that, too, but as they say, Bridge is a card game you can gamble on; poker is a gambling game you play with cards.) I’m talking about real card games: Bridge, Whist, Pitch, Rummy, All Fours, Hearts, Spades, Catch the Ten, and so forth. But I constantly run into a very frustrating situation: I don’t know a lot of other people who like card games as much as I do, and even when I do find myself in a situation with the right people, a lot of game simply “don’t work” for one reason or another: people don’t know how to play, don’t like certain games, etc. As it turns out, most card games do not have the right ingredients to be spontaneously played when the moment strikes a group of people.

So what are the ingredients of a great card game? I would venture that there are four (or five).

1a) Meaningfully complex strategy. This is by far the most important ingredient to any card game. Any decent card game has to provide positive feedback for skillful play; making better decisions than the other players should usually result in victory. I say usually because all card games have an element of luck; the best games are ones in which the the time horizon for long-term skill to overtake short-term luck is short enough to allow better players to win over the course of a game, but also so that weaker players receive a negative feedback for poor strategy. So, ceteris parabis, the more strategic decision points, the better. In any case, at a bare minimum, there has so be some strategic choice involved in the game. Otherwise, no matter how you dress it up, you’re just playing War or Klondike solitaire. Good for passing the time, but not much else. Or maybe you’re just playing Speed or Spit, which are fun but not really strategy games.

1b) Unstable strategy. Closely related to strategy complexity is what I call strategy instability. A game with a stable strategy is one in which you can devise your strategy either prior to the cards even being dealt, or right after they are initially dealt, without worrying too much about having to adjust them during the course of the game in response to your opponents actions. This is partially the downfall of a game like full-books Go Fish or Palace: you get your hand, you watch what cards your opponents plays, but you really don’t need to react strategically to all that much. On the other end of the spectrum, games like Bridge and Whist require not only careful attention to what your opponent is doing, but a rethinking of your strategy based on what they are doing.

2) Rule simplicity. This is the death knell of so many card games, and particularly ones that satisfy the conditions of strategy complexity and instability. If a game can’t be taught to new players in 10 minutes or less, you’re not going to play it that often. This is, far and away, the downfall of Bridge. I spent the better part of two hours a few weeks ago teaching some smart and relatively card-savvy people how to play Bridge, and we still never got around to playing a real game that first night. Just awful. Same with Wisconsin Skat. I’m pretty sure that would be one of the most popular three-person card games in the world, if it didn’t take half the night to teach it to someone.

3) Scalable participants. Nothing is worse than wanting to play one of the great partnership games (Bridge, Bid Whist, Partnership Spades, or even Gabes(!)) and having either just 3 people or, even worse, 5 people. The games that scale are much, much better. Mostly because you have a lot more opportunities to play them.

4) Little down-time. This is the downfall of Pitch, which otherwise would be an amazing game. Way to often, you are barely participating, because you got dealt a junk hand, had no plausible chance of bidding, and during the play you’re cards are so bad that you’re nothing more than an automaton tossing junk into each trick. In effect, all of the strategic complexity disappears, because your hand is so bad that it requires no strategy to play it. A surprising number of games are like this, and it’s a major problem. Bridge suffers from the same problem with the dummy; you can end up sitting out hand after hand if your partner keeps winning bids.

5) Tricks and trumps. When you cut to the chase, there are really only two strategic card games: Rummy and Whist. Almost everything else is just a variation on one of those two. After 30 years of playing card games, I’ve still never found a Rummy variation that can compete with any of the top Whist variations. Perhaps this is more of an opinion or personal preference, but the element of tricks and trumps simply dominates on the level of strategic complexity.

So this is where Oh Hell comes to the rescue. If you know how to play any game that uses tricks and trump, I can teach you how to play in less than two minutes: 13 rounds, in the first round each player gets 1 card, second 2, and so forth, up to round 7 (seven cards), an then back down. In each round, after the deal, a card from the deck is flipped for trump. After that, starting left of the dealer, players make a single bid on exactly how many tricks they will win. The dealer cannot bid a number of tricks such that total bids equal total tricks. After the bids, left of the dealer leads and players must follow suit if they can. Trick winner leads next trick. After all tricks played, players who made exactly their bid score (10+bid) or (5 + round #) if they bid zero tricks, everyone else scores zero. Most points at the end of 13 rounds win.

The beauty of the game is that it satisfies all conditions for a great card game. Obviously, it’s a tricks and trumps game. And you can play with any number of players 3 to 7 (or more if you modify the number of rounds). But the real beauty is that there’s zero down-time. Since each person’s objective is to correctly evaluate the exact number of tricks they can take and then execute that evaluation, the absolute strength/weakness of your hand is of utterly no consequence to the playing of the hand. It is pure genius, because it completely wipes out the boredom of getting bad hands over and over again, as well as the complaints that people are getting “dealt bad cards.” Bad situations can still arise strategically, but there’s no such thing as a bad hand out of the gate.

And, of course, the strategy. Good lord, the strategy. I’ve never met another game that plays and feels like a cross between bride and poker, but this one does. In one sense, you have to plan your tricks out, like Bridge, before the hand starts playing out. But inevitably, the actions of the other players will affect which cards in your hand are the winners and losers, and thus which cards you need to win with and which cards you need to dump. And thus it is often the case that you end up pitching an Ace away on other-led suits, only to later win tricks with trash cards. Like Bridge, you often spend a lot of time pondering how you are going to lose control and then gain it back. But like poker, there a lot of room for bluff-like moves, especially ducking tricks. It’s the most strategically-dynamic card game I’ve ever played.  Even the bidding requires some interesting thinking and tactics, especially in the early/late rounds, when you hold very few cards in your hand.

Oh Hell also has more “eureka” moments than any other card game. It’s the kind of game that makes you feel brilliant, and makes you marvel at other people’s brilliance. In the end, it’s one of the few games that leaves everyone at the table smiling.

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On the possibiltiy of a centrist 3rd party in 2012

September 15, 2011

There has been some recent rumbling — added to today by Chuck Todd — that a credible centrist 3rd party candidate for the Presidency might emerge next Spring. And by the way people are talking, they don’t mean “John Anderson credible,” and they don’t mean “Ross Perot credible.” They mean the real deal: Teddy-Roosevelt-Bull Moose-1912-win-more-electoral-votes-than-one-of-the-major-parties credible. Someone who would have the background to not only qualify in voters’ minds as a legitimate candidate, but also actually be a threat to win the Presidency.

Of course, the mere possibility of this  is predicated on the following three conditions holding true: first, President Obama remaining relatively vulnerable (probably because the economy continues to stagnate or get worse) due to unpopularity among self-described independents; second, the Republican nomination process producing a candidate far enough to the right that a significant number of said independents might still prefer Obama to the Republican nominee, ex ante; and finally, the existence of a plausibly-electable candidate that would have the desire and resources to become a  major player from the center.

In this post, I’d like to consider some of the  institutional constraints that might influence whether or not a credible centrist third party candidacy develop, and put some historical context on the issue. Seven points:

1) How conservative a nominee would the GOP have to nominate to provide the space necessary for a centrist 3rd candidate? Contrary to Chuck Todd, I think probably more conservative than either Perry or Romney. There’s not a lot of evidence right now that Perry is conservative enough or enmeshed enough in the Tea Party to generate the space needed for a centrist challenge. If you take a look at this ideological map of the current candidates, a few things stand out. First, there’s not that much room right now between Perry and Romney, despite all the talk about Romney appealing the moderates and Perry appealing to orthodox conservatives. What is happening is that — as a Downsian model might predict — two ideologically similar candidates are appealing to different portions of the party. So contrary to some conventional wisdom, it’s not obvious that, in a general election, Romney would ideologically appealing to centrists and Perry unpalatable to them.  Furthermore, it’s not clear that Perry would make a bad general election candidate, once the field is cleared and he can safely tack toward the center.

Bachmann, I think, is a different story. Not only is she somewhat more conservative (based on the Poole/Rosenthal method from the linked map), but she is fundamentally and irrevocably associated with the Tea Party, which would be a major selling point of a centrist 3rd party candidate. So I think the chances of a 3rd party candidate were much higher prior to Perry’s entry into the race, when Bachmann had a much greater chance of winning the nomination. If Romney wins the nomination, there will be no 3rd centrist challenge, period. And while I wouldn’t rule out a credible 3rd party challenge in an Obama-Perry race, I think the chances are pretty low, barring some contingent event that dramatically changes the calculus.

2) The nomination system and campaign laws are going to severely limit where the challenge would come from. The campaign finance laws enacted in the early 1970s make it more difficult, on balance, to enter the race late. Fundraising needs to begin early, and so does campaign organization. Consider 1968: Senator Kennedy joined the race on March 16, after McCarthy’s excellent showing against LBJ in the New Hampshire primary. It’s hard to imagine that a 3rd party challenger could start from scratch that late in the current environment. Money cannot be raised fast enough at the current maximum donation levels. Campaigns have also become, in real dollars, more expensive. And such a candidate would be without the help of a major party to organize and support the campaign (unlike Kennedy, had he won the nomination). Which means any centrist challenger would likely need to have one of the following two attributes: enormous private wealth (i.e. Perot 1992), or an existing campaign infrastructure from having already been in the campaign for the GOP nomination (i.e. Anderson 1980).

3) Are there plausibly centrist candidates that have the desire/resources/ideology to do this? The two most-talked about plausible centrists are Huntsman and Romney. Both are already raising money for the primary, and both have significant personal wealth that they could plausible draw upon. Huntsman is an honest-to-god GOP moderate, and Romney wouldn’t have a lot of trouble fitting that bill either, once he was unshackled from the need to court GOP primary votes.   Bloomberg is often mentioned, and he’s got the personal wealth and plausibly the ideology, but probably not the desire. Others who are not currently in the race can probably be written off: Christie is not an un-wealthly person by any means, but has nowhere near money to fund a campaign. Ditto with Daniels, who probably is too conservative, anyway. I presume McCain is too old, too exhausted, and now too tied to the party orthodoxy  to make a go of it. And, just for kicks, remember that the Governator is constitutionally ineligible.

4) Would someone like Romney or Huntsman be willing to fracture the party by putting up a candidacy? I don’t see why not. Huntsman has already worked in the Obama administrations, so his partisan allegiance can’t be total. Romney certainly has a long family history with the party, but his personal allegiance to it is unknown. Circumstantially, you can imagine he has the necessary prerequisites to jump ship. He’s a business-first conservative and a member of religious minority in a party that is increasingly drifting toward the social conservatives and becoming more enthused with a religious base that is at least partially skeptical of Mormonism. It wouldn’t be hard to write the speech he would give upon leaving the party.

5) Where would a Vice Presidential candidate come from?A lot of the talk you hear centers around the idea of a unity ticket — someone like Huntsman or Romney pairing themselves with a conservative Democrat who’s not particularly attached to the party, for the purposes of transcending partisan affiliation completely. Someone like Senator Webb.  While that’s plausible, I think it would just as likely that the pick would come from the right half of the middle. Romney might very will go with Huntsman. Another possibility would be to grab someone more conservative, but still wonkish and plausibly a cross-the-aisle kind of guy. Like Portman. But the bottom line is that it could be anyone; unlike the top of the ticket, existing money or infrastructure resources would be a plus, but not a prerequisite.

6) Could a Romney-Huntsman or Romney-Webb ticket win? I think it’s plausible. The strategic voting possibilities would be fascinating, since virtually every voter would list Romney-Webb as at least their second choice. Remember, there was no opinion polling in 1912 or 1860. Voters had little ability to coordinate. In a serious three-way race in 2012, voters in states where their candidate was obviously going to come in 3rd would have strong incentives to switch their vote to Romeny-Webb, since it would clearly be better for them than allowing the opposite-party candidate from winning. If nothing else, it would be fascinating to observe.

7) Would such a candidacy result in a durable 3rd party? Doubtful. The iron logic of the majority-vote single district system is that it inevitably leads to a two-party structure. Even more so, a third party would not be fielding lower-level candidates, and perhaps not even see itself a creating something durable. A Romney-Huntsman ticket might actually be claiming that it was the “true” Republican party. In any event, don’t expect such a challenge to have a lasting effect — as with Roosevelt, it would be an attempt to shift an existing party onto a different track, not create something new for long-term competition. Read more »

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Congressional Jargon

September 14, 2011

One thing that’s pretty hard to find on the internet is a good guide to the jargon of Capitol Hill. I don’t mean formal terminology related to floor procedure, that can be found in quite a few places. I mean the language that staffers use. Like any profession, the Hill is chock-full of wonderful phrases and sayings. But unlike a lot of other professions, politics tends garner a lot of interest from non-practitioners. Last year, PS published an article with a bunch of jargon (subscription required), but it was kind of short. So I thought I’d post some here. This is just a first edition off the top of my head. As you’ll see, many of these are appropriations-process related, probably because that’s what I have on my brain right now. I’ll do another round in a future post. Enjoy. And feel free to add on in the comments.

Update: There is now a more updated version of this post, available here.

UC: unanimous consent, or unanimous consent agreement. Perhaps the most important phrase in the Senate. If no one objects, the time-consuming process for moving anything on the Senate floor can be reduced to mere seconds. Usage: We need to line everyone up on this, if we can’t get a UC then it’s not going to move.

Run the traps: The process of vetting an idea by making sure all key players sign-off on it. Usage: I think this language will work, but you need to run the traps on it. Start by calling Ben in the Speaker’s office.

Member-level:  In bill or report language negotiations, an issue that can’t be handled by staff and will require Member-to-Member communication. Usage: Q: Can you delete the language on the park issue? A: No. That’s going to have to be a Member-level decision.

Mark: The version of a bill used by a committee when the committee formally acts to amend legislation. Usage: Have you seen the mark for the Defense bill yet?

Rattle the cage: To surprise a hearing witness with unexpected or unwanted questions. Usage: When the secretary comes down here next week, I think the chairman is going to rattle the cage a little.

Embargo: A ban on the disclosure of information of any sort until a certain time. Usage: Here’s the report language for the bill. There’s an embargo on it until 3pm tomorrow.

D’s/R’s: Democrats and Republicans. Usage: If we put that on the floor this week, the D’s are going to be might upset.

Scores: When a provision in a bill costs money, but especially when the provision does not appropriate money, it scores. The Congressional Budget Office evaluates the cost of all bills that come out of committee, and appropriations bills are subject to caps on their budget authority and outlays. So it’s not good when something scores. Usage: I don’t think we can include those riders. They’re both going to score, and we don’t have room under the cap.

Book(s): Short for briefing book(s). The large binders that staff put together for Members and themselves prior to committee and other events, filled with things like statement texts, markup notes, bill language, data, etc. Usage: We’ve got to get moving on this draft. It’s already 9pm and we haven’t even started putting the books together.

Go down: Send bill or report language to GPO for overnight printing. Usage: I’m hoping we can finish this afternoon and go down tonight. That way we can read a bit tomorrow.

Sit and read/ turn pages: Collectively walking through a bill (especially an appropriations bill) out loud with multiple people, to check new drafts against old ones and confirm that language is exactly correct. A slow process. Usage: I’d like to turn pages on Thursday, so adjust your schedule accordingly.

Optics: how a bill or report language or policy will look from a constituent point of view. Usage: I agree with you, John, but the optics of this thing are terrible.

Drop: to introduce a bill. Usage: We need that language ASAP, because we want to drop this bill tomorrow.

Take a haircut: have your appropriation cut by some percentage. Usage: I know you have a lot of needs, but in this climate everyone is going to have to take a haircut.

Plus up: An appropriations increase, especially in contrast. Usage: the overall bill is flat but we gave a plus up to agency XYZ.

Four corners discussion: staff conference that includes majority and minority staff of both House and Senate. Usage: Let’s try to put together a four corners discussion for Tuesday. See if they’ll come over here.

CR: continuing resolution. If all 12 appropriations bills are not signed into law by October 1, the government will have at least a partial shutdown, unless a continuing resolution is passed to temporarily fund things until the regular bills can be passed. Usage: The CR expires on November 3rd. Do you think they’ll have it all done by then, or do you think there will be another CR?

IQ: the most popular correspondence management system on the Hill. Used by Member offices to track and respond to constituent communications. Usage: Our new staff assistant is terrible. Five weeks and he can’t figure out IQ.

SA/LC/LA/LD: Four common positions in a Member office: Staff Assistant, Legislative Correspondent, Legislative Assistant, and Legislative Director. The basic chain of command beneath the chief of staff. Usage: We need to hire two new LAs this month and it looks like our LD might be leaving.

Clerk: lead staffer on a committee or subcommittee, particularly on Appropriations. Largely interchangeable with Staff Director. Calls the roll for committee votes. Usage: I think that’s right, but you better check with the Clerk.

CRS/CBO/GPO/GAO/LOC/AOC: Some of the legislative branch agencies. Congressional Research Service, Congressional Budget Office, Government Printing Office, Government Accountability Office, Library of Congress, Architect of the Capitol. Usage: I can’t believe the roof is leaking again. Get the AOC down here stat.

Give away: to have no floor votes on a day when there were initially going to be votes. Thus, Members are free to return to their districts early, and the Hill quiets down. Usage: I heard they are going to give away Friday this week.

The smell of jet fuel: an allusion to the impatience that sets in when Members are imminently leaving town for the weekend. Such situations can be used to quickly get through mark ups or floor action that might have otherwise taken time. Usage: It’s great we’re going last today. The smell of jet fuel is in the air, so there’s little chance we’ll face many hostile amendments.

Cats and dogs: Small details in a bill. Usage: we’ve pretty much ironed out all the outstanding issues. Just a few cats and dogs left, but nothing major.

CODEL/STAFDEL: Acronym for congressional delegation and staff delegation, the groups that might go on an official trip overseas. Usage: Did we get the money for the CODEL to South Africa yet? No, but I hear its coming.

Hotline: any number of uses related to moving a bill through the Senate by unanimous consent. Formally the decentralized phone system used to clear bills with all Members prior to bringing them to the floor. As a verb, the practice of moving bills in this manner. Usage: When are they going to do the land use bill? They’re going to try to hotline it tomorrow afternoon.

Ramseyers: refers to the Ramseyer’s Rule, which requires committee reports for House bills to include a section that describes how the proposed legislation would alter current law. Usage: I’m so glad we can farm out the Ramseyers to legislative counsel, those are a pain to write.

Side-by-side: A document that places the text of two similar bills (perhaps a House version and a Senate version) next to each, line by line. Allows easier comparison of the exact language difference between the bills. Usage: We’re almost ready for the staff-level conference negotiations, but we need to finish the side-by-side.

Markup notes: a document produced by committee staff for Members to use as a companion to a bill at markup. Most common in appropriations bills. Usage: If you’re having trouble understanding section 5, refer to the markup notes, which have more details.

HR/SR: House recedes or Senate recedes. Notation used in conference negotiations to indicate one chamber or the other giving in on bill language that differs between the chamber-passed versions. Usage: On page 12, section 3, 4, and 5 are all HR’s.

Suspension: Any bill going through the House of Representatives under suspension of the rules, which can move a bill quickly, but requires a 2/3 vote. Usually used with non-controversial legislation. Usage: How many suspensions are we doing today? Read more »

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On Electoral College by Congressional District

September 14, 2011

There’s been a pretty strong reaction by some bloggers on the Internet today (see here and here) because  state legislators in Pennsylvania are considering legislation to change Pennsylvania’s electoral college votes from winner-take-all to a congressional district system: one electoral college vote for each district won, plus two votes for winning the state at-large (this conforms to the Constitutional structure — total representatives + Senators — of the state EC vote distribution). The partisan implications are obvious; whichever presidential candidate was likely to win the state under the at-large system will come out a loser, as at least some proportion of the congressional districts will give their vote to the other candidate. This is likely to hurt the Democrats, as they have won Pennsylvania in recent elections and, at any rate, Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes (back then 21) are part of the math of most plausible Obama maps.

I’m not going to rehash all of the usual arguments about the value of the winner-take-all vs. CD system or the consequences of changing from one system to another nation-wide. You can read about them in this decent political science piece if you like. I will, however, make three  points that I have not seen mentioned:

1) The winner-take-all direct vote system used in almost all states is the product of two strong historical forces. The Constitution is very clear that each state may choose its electors in any way the state legislature directs. This includes the winner-take-all direct votes system, the congressional district direct vote system, a division by proportional statewide vote, a vote of the state legislature, a hand-picking by the governor, a caucus system, a vote by state legislative districts, or anything else you can dream up. It’s not even out of the realm of possibility that the system could contradict other portions of the Constitution. If a state chose to let only people over 40 participate in a direct vote system, it’s not at all clear to me that the federal courts would intervene (it might very well be struck down in state court). The Constitution clearly leaves the decision up to the state legislature.

So why then do all but Nebraska and Maine use the winner-take-all direct vote system? For two reasons. First, the spread of universal suffrage and mass democracy in the early 19th century put pressure on the states to shift the vote from the legislature (which all states had been using as the selection methods in the first two elections) to the people. This trend accelerated in the 1820′s, and by 1828 only Delaware and South Carolina were still picking electors in the state legislature. (South Carolina did not switch to direct vote until after returning from secession).  Second, using a winner-take-all system maximizes the leverage of the state. Candidates need not pay much attention to a state in which the best they can do is win, for example, 6 of 10 electoral votes and the worst they can do is win 4 of 10 electoral votes. In effect, such a state has reduced its electoral votes to 2, and becomes proportionally less important, which in theory means candidates will be less likely to bend policy promises toward the state’s electorate, and definitely means local and state politicians will have fewer chances to appear on stage with the national candidates. Thus individual states, jealous of their political clout within the federal system, had strong incentives to make the electoral votes winner-take-all.

2) I suspect we will see (a few) more congressional district systems in the future. Once upon a time, individual states were less diverse. That is, the interests of the people of the state were narrower and more uniform. This is a lot less true now than it was 100 or 150 years ago. In fact, the sorting of the political parties by ideology has accelerated the trend such that conservatives in state X are much more like conservatives in state Y than they are like liberals in state X. Consequently, it’s not obvious that partisans in any state still have reason to maximize the state leverage in the federal system by using a winner-take-all electoral college system. In effect, national partisan concerns are now far more dominant than state or local concerns, partisan or otherwise. While 150 years ago, the national parties were loose confederations of state parties that had disparate underlying constituencies and policy goals, almost the exact opposite is true now: the state parties are, using the broadest brush, administrative units of a functionally nationalized party system. This overstates the case a bit, I know, but the logic still holds: the national parties have no interest in winner-take-all systems in states they won’t win, and without independent and diverse state parties to constrain things, it is likely that we’ll see more tinkering with electoral college systems in the future.

3) That said, I don’t expect Pennsylvania to change it’s system. Nor do I see a lot of states going to a congressional district system in the near future. While the overarching conditions for maintaining the winner-take-all system are crumbling, the necessary political context to trigger a conversion to a congressional district system is rare. The only time a legislature would theoretically consider a shift would be when either:

(A) they honestly think a congressional district system is better on the merits; or

(B) when they see political advantage in doing so.

Or both. But the problem is that choice A is unrealistic; institutional change in political systems is rarely driven by normative concerns, instead usually occurring as the byproduct of decisions that maximize political interests. But the conditions that make choice B hold are not common: you need a situation in which the state population is likely to vote for candidate A, but the entire state government is controlled by the party of candidate B, and the party of candidate B believes they will not be badly punished by the voters for supporting such a change.

Right now, the second condition holds in Pennsylvania: the GOP controls the state government. The working  assumption is that the first condition also holds — that President Obama is likely to win Pennsylvania. That, however, is not a slam dunk in 2012; the GOP could easily end up costing itself electoral votes by shifting to a congressional district system (although, it should be noted, if President Obama cannot win Pennsylvania, it is unlikely to be the difference in the election). And the third condition is the most dubious: in a world where President Obama wins Pennsylvania in 2012, I think it highly probable that at least some proportion of GOP state legislators (and perhaps some Pennsylvania GOP House Members) will pay an electoral price for supporting a change to the system. Which could make some legislators gun-shy about supporting the change. Therefore, I think it highly unlikely that such a change occurs this cycle.

This is not to say that such changes are not possible. But my guess is that the factors mentioned above will attenuate most impulses to change the systems. Read more »

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Debate Post-Mortem

September 13, 2011

What an odd debate last night. It was surely not Lincoln-Douglas 1858. And yet I think it revealed more about the candidates and the shape of the field than any information we had to date. I thought the format was tiresome. The use of live voters asking questions from remote locations seems like a complete waste of time and money; in essence, it’s either a gimmick to make the debate look like a 18th century New England town hall meeting, or a pure ratings play because viewers must love themselves some minor connection to the event (look, those questions are being asked by someone in Virginia! I live near there!). In either case, it doesn’t produce better (or even more populist) questions. It just creates a forced and obvious fake replication of some sort of community. Allowing questions via Twitter is an interesting concept, but suffers from much the same problem: there are some great follow-up questions running on the ticker via twitter, but those don’t get asked. Wolf Blitzer struck me as a weak moderator, but one thing he did well was to let the candidates have some back and forth; there were a few moments where two candidates (notably Romney and Perry) seemed to be almost having a conversation. I don’t know what that’s worth, but it certainly made for some lively television.

Anyway, on to the debate. There’s a certain conventional wisdom going on right now in the blogsphere/DC chattering class about the meta-implications of these debates. It goes something like this:

Romney is winning among people who are thinking strategically about the 2012 general election and is consistently showing himself to be the most appealing candidate to the median American voter. He’s sensible, intelligent, and presidential. However, these debates are not about winning the general election, they are about positioning yourself to win the Republican primary. In that sense, Perry is destroying Romney. Conservative voters looking to make an emotional attachment to a candidate are almost certainly choosing Perry, and whenever Romney attacks Perry’s right wing orthodoxy, it backfires regardless of how effective the attack is.

I think this CW needs to be tweaked a little bit. For one, not many people are watching these debates. In one way, that’s good for Perry: even if he has a bad night, his poll numbers will remain relatively stable. On the other hand, if few people are watching the debate, then the people who are watching are going to be skewed drastically toward the chattering class. In that case, things might just be coming full-circle and favoring Romney. If you believe in the invisible primary — the idea that the money-and-influence elites still have a huge say in the nominating process despite the early 70′s reforms that brought in all the direct primaries — then Romney’s strategy seems not only clear, but also working: convince all the elites that Perry is a loose-cannon who may blunder a slam-dunk election, and that everyone with money or influence must immediately back Romney and arm him in order to sink Perry before the primary voters make a huge mistake.

That seems to be what Romney is doing. And I think it’s working.

Now, take the latter sentence with a grain of salt. Who really knows, right? Almost by definition, if you are reading this, you aren’t in position to judge either (a) how the average Republican primary voter thinks; or (b) the degree to which the money and influence establishment can push voters away from Perry. But I don’t think there’s any question that this is Romney’s strategy at this point. He’s passing up most opportunities in these debates to prove how conservative he is, and that was once his main goal. Instead, he’s now positioning himself as a sturdy, classic conservative stuck in a lifeboat with half a dozen people who, while maybe more conservative than him, are definitely missing a few nuts and bolts of common sense.

Five points:

1) My predictions from yesterday were pretty far off. It was actually Romney who came out swinging in the attack on Perry and Bachmann who went more subtle. I don’t remember the jobs bill getting a “show of hands” moment, so my prediction there can’t really be judged. And Ron and Herman were off the chain, but not really more than usual. Herman Cain’s references to the Chilean model of social insurance might be brilliant policy, but someone has to tell him that’s it’s a political dead-end to tell voters were going to copy how some other country they’ve never really heard of does something. Double dead-end if you’re trying to win GOP primary voters.

2) This is undoubtedly a two-man race between Romney and Perry. Barring the entry of someone not yet in, that is. And probably even then.  Which raises the secondary question: what are the other people running for? It’s become clear to me that Bachmann is running to be Perry’s Vice President. (Not that I think she will get it). Same with Santorum. Huntsman is running for a serious cabinent post in the Romney administration. Ron Paul is running to swing the debate, particularly over troop withdrawal and issues of empire. Gingrich appears to be running either to try to hold the party together philosophically — he’s incredibly focused on unifying the people on stage, even to the detriment of his own differentiation — or to pump his private-sector businesses.  I have no idea what Cain is angling for, but unlike some people, I don’t think he’s a bad voice to have on stage.

3) Perry got battered bad a few times last night. He still hasn’t found the pitch-perfect response on Social Security. You’d think they’d have more staffers working on that right now. And he can’t seem to get the vaccine mandate off his back. He needs a more forceful response to that question, or he is going to continue to get hammered by Bachmann/Santorum. Right now his line is “I always err on the side of life” and “there was an opt-out.” But the former is obviously a joke — his death penalty policies prove that — and the latter is not explained well. Here, I’ll write him a 30-second response that I think works better:

I 100% agree that parents should have total authority over their children’s health care  — and that’s why our policy in Texas allowed anyone who did not want the vaccine to opt-out. But I will not let fear-mongering and half-truths cloud reality here: the health of our kids is my top priority, this vaccine saves lives, and I think it is 100% appropriate for a state government to promote the health of its citizens  in the manner my administration did. This is no different than wearing a seat belt: we can debate whether people should be required to wear their  seat belts, but it’s ridiculous to debate whether wearing one is a good idea.

4) I thought Perry made one potentially huge sound-bite style error. At one point, he said that he was “offended” if someone thinks “he can be bought” for five thousands dollars, because that’s chump change compared to his “$30 million dollars” he raised in the campaign. I totally understand what he was trying to say — that he’s not going to bend his policies for some drop in the bucket financial addition to his campaign — but it came out sounding like he was saying “it takes a lot more than a measly $5k to buy off this politician!” He also had this weird hesitation as he was saying it, as if he was thinking to himself “oh, shit” as it was coming out of his mouth. And while I would not be surprised  if someone down the road makes an ad or otherwise uses the sound-byte against him, the bigger takeaway is that, once again, Perry has shown he can stick his foot in his mouth in unscripted moments. In the current campaign environment, that’s another plus for Romney in the invisible primary.

5) There are some new populist bogeymen. Or, I should say, some old populist bogeyman. The federal reserve is now under direct attack. Free silver ain’t seen nothing yet. There’s really no better populist conspiracy than a central bank, and American history is rife with this line of thinking. Almost no one — I mean, almost no one in the chattering class let alone the median voter — has a firm understanding of central bank politics. Which means not only does it appear to be an utterly non-transparent, non-democratic, shady institution, but also that no one can defend it, even among people who know it’s vital. Romney had the best response to all this pap last night — he asked the rhetorical question, “What’s the alternative? Do you want Congress setting the interest rates and controlling the money supply?” — but I’m 99.44% sure that went right over the heads of any plausible audience. Except for the invisible primary targets. Which, again, is why I think he’s slowly winning. Read more »

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Five Things I Expect to See in Tonight’s GOP Debate

September 12, 2011

Just some quick hits here. We’ll grade my prognostication tomorrow.

1) Perry with a better answer on social security. Despite the headlines this week, he’s been slowly backpedaling. Even if his plan is to continue with his line of thinking from the first debate, it will be a much better prepared answer this time. I guess you could retort, “How could it not be?”, but I’ll put the bar even a bit higher than that. He must have spent the last week planning for Bachmann’s obvious but still deadly populist shift on the issue.

2) Bachmann with an all-out assualt on Perry. She has to. And it will start with Social Security. She was marginalized in the last debate, and is in danger of being marginalized for good. Her goal has to be to completely discredit Perry. Or start running for vice-president.

3) Romney with a more subtle assault on Perry. For one, he’ll be the main beneficiary of a Bachmann assault, and without having to attack straight-out. Still, his play right now is obvious: line up the entire GOP money-and-influence establishment behind the idea that Perry is a loose-cannon and an unpredictable candidate. He got the Pawlenty endorsement, he’s got Perry heading toward a corner, now he needs to solidify the media narrative. It really doesn’t matter if this plays Perry right into being more of a conservative darling; this strategy is Romney’s only chance to win, so you take it even if it doesn’t offer great odds.

4) A legitimate split between how people respond to Obama’s jobs bill. This is more of a limb. I don’t think anyone will come close to anything that looks like an endorsement of the bill, but I suspect that the liberals will endorse some pieces of it, while the conservatives will take a stand against it and describe it with things like “more of the same,” “political posturing,” and “new taxes.” I guess it’s possible that the whole field could reject it whole cloth, as they did with the “10 to 1″ question on the debt limit, but I think Huntsman and Romney are probably past that now and, especially Romney, have little reason to take such a radical line.

5) Ron Paul and/or Herman Cain off the chain. I thought they both had poor debates last week from a policy perspective. (Paul did ok when he goaded Perry into a confrontation, which is always good for the minor candidates). But it’s getting close to fireworks time for the second-tier; I expect it may begin tonight. Read more »

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Why I won’t be watching football at 1pm Sunday

September 9, 2011

Pretty much everyone and their brother will have the NFL on their TV this Sunday at 1pm. And normally so would I. But this Sunday at 1pm I’ll be watching the USA vs. Ireland in the Rugby World Cup. And you should too.

First off, I should say that the Giants game isn’t until 4pm. If it was at 1, I’d probably tape the rugby. So disregard what I’m about to say if your favorite NFL team plays at 1pm. But if your plan is to watch some random early game that you don’t actually care about, do yourself a favor and watch the rugby game instead. Here’s why. Read more »

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Best otherwise unreleased B-side ever?

September 8, 2011

Music Question: what are the best otherwise-unavailable B-side of all time? That is, what are the best rock songs ever initially released only as the B-side of a single (i.e. not available on the full record). I have eight candidates in mind:

1. Strawberry Fields Forever, The Beatles. This is probably the winner. The Beatles had begun recording for what became Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but Capitol records was interested in having a single, stat. So they took the first two tracks recorded for the album — Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever — and put them on what they called “a double A-side.” And then left them off of the new album. It’s amazing to imagine what Sgt. Pepper could have been if you put those two songs on it and, say, dumped Within You, Without You. There are many other Beatles candidates, since they often left singles off their albums. One that comes to mind is  the up-tempo version of Revolution, which appeared originally as the B-side to the Hey Jude single.

2. Yellow Ledbedder, Pearl Jam. I can remember sitting at a friend’s house in like 1993 or 1994 when someone walked in with the Jeremy single on cassette import. This made no sense to me, because I think everyone in the room owned Ten. It was the first time I had consciously encountered a B-side that was not from the LP.

3. Raw Ramp, T. Rex. This is probably my favorite T. Rex song. It’s on the back of the Bang a Gong (Get it On) single off of Electric Warrior. If you buy Electric Warrior now, it’s included as a bonus track.

4. Pink Cadillac, Bruce Springsteen. This was the back of the Dancing in the Dark single in 1984. I don’t think there’s any question that it is the better song on the single. Evidently, it was cut from Born in the U.S.A. to make room for I’m Going Down. I would probably have chucked Working on the Highway.

5. Highway Chile, Jimi Hendrix Experience. The back of the The Wind Cries Mary single.

6. Hey Hey What Can I Do, Led Zeppelin. It really is shocking that this wasn’t put on Led Zeppelin III. It was just the back of the Immigrant Song single. I think it’s in my top 5 favorite Zepp songs.

7. Into the Groove, Madonna. I would guess that most people think this is on the soundtrack to Desperately Seeking Susan. Nope, it’s the back of the Angel single from Like A Virgin.

8. Sweetest Thing, U2. The back of the Where the Streets Have No Name single. Probably a good thing it was left off The Joshua Tree; it doesn’t really sound like the rest of that album.

Other candidates? Read more »

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On Presidential Debates and Antebellum Nostalgia

September 8, 2011

I enjoyed watching the GOP debate last night, but I also find the format stifling. Part of the problem is that it’s really hard to have a good debate with that many people on stage. But a more general problem with presidential debates is that the candidates themselves refuse to participate in debates unless they are very controlled events. So while I agree with many commentators who would like to see the presidential debates run under a more open-ended and lengthy format, the candidates themselves are a key obstacle in this regard.

What do I mean by this? Well, most people aren’t aware of the actual rules of the debates, which aren’t usually made public. But this 32-page agreement between McCain and Obama in 2008 should quickly disabuse you of the notion that a presidential debate ever has more than a small chance of being an unscripted watershed event in a campaign. The agreement prohibits the candidates from: issuing further debate challenges, appearing in any other debates with any other candidates, asking each other any questions, bringing any notes to the debate, using any video footage of the debate in a future campaign ad, or requesting that the other candidate agree to a pledge. Further, the moderator is almost completely constrained: response times are precisely specified; even when the moderator is given discretion to extend a question, it is often only for one minute, and he directed to give equal time to each candidate, and in some cases constrained as to who follow-up questions must first be directed to. Many actions are scripted: candidates are formally restrained from moving around except as specifically proscribed and must shake hands at specified times. Camera positions and cuts are specified. The size of the podiums is specified. The color scheme of the backdrop must be approved by the campaigns. It’s an enlightening document.

Obviously, presidential elections are serious business, and one would expect thorough rules for the debates. And a lot of the rules makes sense. But the overall feeling you get from reading those rules is that you’re not really watching a debate, just a highly structured joint media appearance. The sense is not that the candidates are submitting to a third-party event, but instead are constructing a bi-partisan event of their own. And since campaigns loathe events that they can’t control, the results are predictable. Honestly, it’s amazing to me that we ever even get presidential debates; it’s a testament to how much of a norm they’ve become, since candidates with solid leads in the polls or significant funding advantages have very little incentive to participate in debates. You see this a lot in local elections, where well-known incumbents refuse to debate, since it can only hurt them, by creating unscripted moments or by giving their opponent free media time and a chance to increase name ID. Obviously, primary and general presidential campaigns do not resemble local elections completely in this regard, but I think the debating norm is more fragile than most people assume.

Still, I don’t want anyone to get too nostalgic for the Lincoln-Douglas debates during their race for the Senate in Illinois in 1858. They are probably rightfully held up as an example of American democracy at its finest, but that doesn’t necessarily make them even close to our normative ideal. I can’t imagine the format of the Lincoln-Douglas debates would thrill anyone today: 60 minutes to one candidate, followed by 90 minutes to the other, followed by a 30 minute rebuttal by the first candidate. No questions from a moderator. Just straight up speeches. Can’t imagine that would engage many voters. I mean, I think I’d have a hard time watching it.

There’s also a tendency to glorify the L-D debates as substantively profound. Yes, the two of them spent most of the seven debates laying out their positions on slavery and its western expansion, but both candidates were just as interested in tarring the other’s position as they were in promoting their own. Douglas was intent on painting Lincoln as an abolitionist who wanted political and social equality for slaves post-freedom; Lincoln hinted that Douglas was himself a part of the slave power conspiracy that produced Dred Scot, and hinted that a Dred Scot II was going to force slavery upon the North. Neither candidates charges were remotely true; Lincoln was a rather conservative Republican (especially in 1858), and Douglas was in the midst of an attempt by what might actually be described as the “slave power” to politically crush him in response to his stand against the expansion of slavery and the LeCompton Constitution.

In sum, I think there’s a pretty hard cap on how effective a political debate can be for the purposes of informing the electorate about the relative positions of the candidates. The candidates have all sorts of strategic incentives to obscure their positions and the positions of their opponents, and that’s as true in a debate as it is during campaign stops and in stump speeches. Likewise, the idea of an unscripted back-and-forth between the candidates is probably fantasy: even if you could get the campaigns to agree to it (unlikely), it would probably not produce the results you were looking for. Just as with press conferences, a good politician can take any question and provide only as much response as he/she wants, without looking too bad. I think the best you can hope for in a debate is that it reveals something about the intelligence, the preparation, and ability to think on the fly of the candidates. Those are not policy positions, but they are plausibly attributes that one my like to see in a candidate. The ability to show them off in a debate is probably at least weakly correlated to the ability to employ them as President. Read more »

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On longshots

September 7, 2011

You hear the following (or similar) almost constantly from some segments of the middle-brow chattering class:

Why is candidate X  still running for President? He is polling at 2% and has no chance.

There is a simple answer: there are lots of reasons to run for President of the United States, and only one of them is to become President of the United States. Here is a partial list of such reasons:

* to become President of the United States

* to get picked Vice President of the United States

* to raise awareness for an issue

* to represent a regional and/or radical ideology

* to become a Secretary in the next President’s cabinet

* to join the list of potential candidates four years later

* to expand your network of fundraising

* to challenge your party’s orthodoxy on one or more issues

* to increase your private sector market value as a commentator or author

All of this also ignores one of the most common reasons — trying to catch lightning in a bottle and hit that 80 to 1 longshot. And a certain level of self-delusion that can convince a campaign that a 10,000 to 1 longshot is actually a 50 to 1 longshot. But leave that aside.

The bottom line is that you can’t assume all candidates are in the race for the purpose of winning the race. For some reason, people see this as obvious when you talk about 3rd party candidates (i.e. Nader), but fail to grasp that the same dynamics are at play in major party primaries. And I think people often underestimate the effects. Without getting all Overton Window-y here, I think it’s pretty sound logic that the inclusion of wider ideologies within party debates can not only alter the preferences of the primary/general electorate, but can also reshape the public perception of the more popular candidates, thus contributing strongly to the outcomes. Again, for some reason this all seems obvious when a major party co-opts the popular plank of a third party candidate, but not as obvious when the challenge comes during the primary and from within the major party.

So, if there’s still enough money to keep the lights on at campaign headquarters, there are lots of reasons to stay in the race, at least until the advantages of dropping out and endorsing another candidate outweigh those reasons.

All of this reminds me of another, similar issue on Capitol Hill: why do Members of Congress introduce so many bills that have no chance of even being considered, nevermind passed? Again, simple answer: there are lots of reasons to introduce a bill: to signal preferences, to appease interests, to put down a marker in a policy debate, to show effort, to enhance bargaining position, to build public support, to gain media attention, and so forth. Throw on that it’s relatively cheap (both in money and time) to write a bill, and the big surprise is not how many are introduced, but that more aren’t. Read more »

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Seeing Like a Party

September 7, 2011

There’s a long and well-known literature in political science that say Members of Congress have three goals: re-election, increasing their internal power within their chamber, and making good public policy for your constituents (For example, see Fenno). In general, the re-election goals takes primacy, because without it, the other two become unattainable. And contrary to what your cynical uncle says, that’s probably a good thing: if Members did not concern themselves with getting re-elected, both the theoretical and practical underpinings of republican representation tend to fall apart.

This is not the kind of political science that is much up for debate; at this point it’s more or less self-evident to everyone. So what becomes interesting in public choice situations is when the three goals come into conflict: when increasing your power in the chamber means casting votes that hurt your re-election chances; when making good public policy for your constituents goes against their own perception of their interests (and thus your re-election chances); and when increasing your power in the chamber necessitates accepting bad public policy. How Members make decisions when these goals come into conflict is perhaps the most interesting aspect of congressional behavior.

One expansion of this line of thinking is to consider the goals of political parties, which are in essence aggregate collections of Members. There are differences, however. Read more »

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On little-known books with large political impacts

September 6, 2011

Warning: history and political science geekery ahead.

Got into an interesting discussion at APSA this past weekend about books that have had large contemporaneous political impacts. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, came up. So did Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson. The hands-down winner, of course, was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Setting aside Lincoln’s famous (and probably apocryphal) quote implying that the book started the war, it is without question the most politically influential book in American history. It’s the best selling book of the 19th century save the Bible, and it’s an overtly political tract, despite being fiction (it’s main target, however, is not exactly slavery per se; the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 is more narrowly in its cross-hairs, and despite being an obvious abolitionist piece in its sentimentality and tone, from the post-war received perspective the book kinda identifies more with the growing anti-slavery ideology of the early 1850′s than the (still then) radical abolitionist movement. Remember, the book was written prior to the Kansas-Nebraska Act).

But there’s another book published in the 1850′s that, while probably not known by 1 out of a 1000 people, also had a huge impact on the late-decade descent into war. Read more »

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Sundry baseball thoughts

September 6, 2011

Thoughts on Strasmas, Safeco Field, and little league pitch count limits. Read more »

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On techological breakthroughs

September 6, 2011

Places a kid raised in the 80′s thought he’d never be: on Twitter. I’ll be writing regularly. @mattglassman312.

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On iconic lunch spots that smell like public bathrooms

August 30, 2011

The institutions of Capitol Hill are falling fast. First they ended the page program. Now comes word that the Hawk n’ Dove is closing in October. Don’t be fooled, either: even though the Hawk will remain a bar location, it’s getting a 100% remodeling by it’s new owners.

Honestly, I don’t love the Hawk. The barroom is overrated, and the entire indoor lunch area smells like a urinal. The private room is great for a small gathering and the waitstaff is definitely friendly, but even my favorite thing on the menu (Park City chicken sandwich) doesn’t hold a candle to a randomly picked sandwich at Mr. Henry’s just down the street.

No, the reason I’ll miss the Hawk are purely Burkean. This was an institution both constitutive and reflective of Capitol Hill. It’s charmingly grimey in the barroom. You’re just as likely to see someone in a $1000 suit as you are someone who looks seriously down on their luck. Everyone talks politics, but even the politicos don’t talk it seriously. No one is going to do you any favors, but the waitstaff is genuinely friendly.

The grandeur of the place is only found in your imagination; seemingly everything has happened there, but anytime you go there, nothing does. The creative destruction of capitalism requires that places like the Hawk eventually move on. I’ll miss it more than I should. Read more »

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Deficit Disorder

August 19, 2011

Once again, we seem to be caught in a short-term/long-term problem. I written about this here and here, although that was more in the purely political/democratic sense of the problem.

The problem now is more purely economic (although political/democratic issues still pervade). The short term problem is that we may be sliding back into a recession (or worse). The long-term problem is that much of the western world has massive sovereign debt issues. More after the jump… Read more »

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On candidates holding odd jobs

August 16, 2011

You could fill the hayloft right now, as they say, with all the talk about Representative Michelle Bachmann’s (R-MN) candidacy for the Republican nomination for president. And yet I haven’t seen a single discussion of what, from a political science perspective, is perhaps the most unusual aspect of Ms. Bachmann’s campaign:

She is a sitting Member of the House of Representatives.

It is hard to overstate how rare it is for major candidates for the Presidency to be Representatives. Only one person — James Garfield — has ever gone from the People’s House to the White House.*** One other sitting Representative has won electoral votes, Speaker of the House Henry Clay in 1824. Since the onset of the modern party convention system in 1832, no major political party has nominated a sitting Representative (save the Republican nomination of Garfield in 1880) for the presidency. Representative John Anderson (R-IL) ran as an independent candidate in 1980, and won 7% of the national popular vote. Only a handful of other sitting Members — Dick Gephardt and Jack Kemp in 1988, Mo Udall in 1976 — even come to mind as serious contenders for major party nominations.

[UPDATE: Reports indicate that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) may be seriously considering running. He'd be an instant serious contender.]

This is not to say that having previously served in the House is a detriment for a Presidential candidate. To the contrary, 19 Presidents and 33 major nominees had, prior to their candidacy, been Members of the House.

Why is this? There’s no definitive answer, but here are four explanations with probable marginal effects: Read more »

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End of an Era

August 8, 2011

Holy cow: the joint leadership of the House of Representatives just ended the Page Program. It’s been around since the 1820′s. Full text of the Boehner/Pelosi letter after the jump.

Read more »

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Poelittlekul EKonnome

August 8, 2011

I’m one of the few people standing on Capitol Hill who has not — at least as of yet — been blamed for the S&P ratings downgrade of U.S. Treasuries and related bonds. And I may be the only person on Capitol Hill who isn’t confident that they somehow know what caused the downgrade and, more importantly, who to blame. Seemingly every politician, staffer, pundit, blogger, and crazy uncle in the whole country seems to know the answer to those two questions.

I have but just three points. Read more »

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On hair metal political analogies

July 27, 2011

In his epic book about heavy metal in the 80′s, Chuck Klosterman writes:

When Open Up and Say Ahh… was released, I remember reading a bunch of reviews where writers claimed it lacked the “rollicking fun” of Poison’s first album, Look What the Cat Dragged In. This confused me, because those same writers had all hated the first record, too.

This phenomenon has recently been transferred to politics. During the course of the debt limit debate, I’ve heard a growing number of liberal voices favorably discuss Reagan, and a smaller (but still significant) number of conservative voices long for the days of Bill Clinton. But partisans hated Reagan and Clinton with a passion that at the time was considered pretty remarkable, even in the context of Nixon and Carter. So it’s sort of rich (but mostly funny) to hear all these cross-party odes to the Gipper and the First Man of Foggy Bottom lately.

As for Poison, it is true that Open Up And Say Ahh… didn’t quite match Look What the Cat Dragged In on the “rollicking fun” meter. But that’s like saying Kobe Bryant isn’t quite as good as Michael Jordan. Read more »

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On Market Reactions to Politics

July 24, 2011

There’s an interesting passage in Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, in which he describes how a couple of amateur wanna-be hedge-fund managers made their fortune by identifying (what they saw as) an anomaly in options pricing. Basically, they observed that companies suffering from cataclysmic events (ex: a serious SEC investigation into company leadership) tended to see their option prices drop by a significant amount, often by 30% or more.

But in the long-term, that’s peculiar for many cases: the decreased option price is building in an estimate of the short-term volatility, but the situation isn’t a bell curve; the true value of the stock is probably discrete, either zero if the company crashes,  or not fundamentally affected if it survives. Therefore, there is a lot of money to be made in identifying whether companies will survive their exogenous shock.

I feel like this same thing is playing out with the debt limit. Read more »

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On Package Deals

July 20, 2011

How do you get a series of related policies through a legislative body when there are large factions with intense preferences against each of the individual policies? Read more »

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On youthful talent

July 20, 2011

Trivia question: most fans of baseball history know that Indians legend Bob Feller struck out 17 batters in a game his rookie year (1935), when he was only 17 years old.  What most people don’t know is that someone else has also struck out as many batters in a game as they were years old. Who is it? Read more »

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On Courage

July 19, 2011

Too many smart people make the mistake of saying that politicians “lack courage.”  Usually when they say this, they mean something like the following:

1) There’s a significant public policy problem on the agenda; and

2) The politician has to choose between policy X, which is normatively desirable but unpopular, and policy Y, which is normatively sub-optimal but popular; and

3) The politician chooses Y over X.

There are several variations on this, the most common being the rather famous J-curve  I’ve written about before, in which X is a good long-term policy that incurs short term pain, and Y is good short-term policy which produces long-term problems.

In any case, the usual “smart” takeaway is that politicians are risk-averse, care more about re-election than good public policy, and are unlikely to “do the right thing” when “the right thing” conflicts with the perceived results of the next election. Other euphemisms (singular and collective) include “lacks leadership,” “failure of the political class,” and any variation of “hack.” As suggested, this can be applied to individual politicians, or Congress/Washington as a whole.

I think the above is basically the conventional wisdom. But I think it is quite a bit off. I’ve got five point to make. Read more »

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Two thoughts

July 11, 2011

Number One – I generally subscribe to the line of thinking that says the surest way to reduce the public and politician appetite for governments spending is to raise taxes and balance the books. Deficit spending — either in the short-term or over the long haul — allows people to get $1 worth of government services for less than a $1 worth of taxes. That’s a strong incentive fore everyone to think positively about spending programs, even ones that are probably not neutrally worth the money. I don’t think any government program is good or bad per se; but I do think that they should be judged neutrally, and that includes judging them based on their true present cost.

This is kind of the opposite of the “starve the beast” strategy that some opponents of governments pending try to employ; instead of refusing to increase taxes, you require an increase in taxes to cover obligations. However, this remedy is sensitive to progressions in the tax code. That is, it works better if the tax burden is shared equally among all, or at least proportionally flat. For example, if the current budget deficit is reconciled by raising taxes only on billionaires, that doesn’t do much to make the average recipient of government spending feel the true cost of the services being received. And so there’s a connection between the cheap cost of government services and the progressiveness of the tax code. My hunch is that’s a secondary reason many people in politics get so worried about raising taxes on the middle-class; not just because it’s, well, raising taxes on the middle class, but also in part because it intellectually exposes the middle class to the true costs.

Number Two – I’m about two press conference mentions of “loopholes” away from kicking in my television. Somehow people in DC seem to have gotten the idea that all tax breaks are “loopholes,” which is pure nonsense. A “loophole” in the tax code is a situation in which someone has cleverly figured out how to save money on their taxes by exploiting an unintentional consequence of the tax structure.  These exists, for sure, and there are many people who make a lot of money by finding them for clients. But the vast, vast majority of things that people are calling “loopholes” are actually intentional tax break carve outs. The child tax credit is not a loophole. The mortgage interest deduction is not a loophole. The untaxed employer-side health care benefits is not a loophole. Oil and gas subsidies are not a loophole. These are intentional pieces of tax legislation, designed for specific purposes (some good, some not so good) and operating exactly as intending. The upshot, of course, is that “fixing the loopholes” isn’t the politics of cleaning up a unintended error that some individuals/companies are exploiting; it’s the politics of reversing an intentional carve-out. And the latter is a lot harder to accomplish than the former.

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Pop quiz

July 8, 2011

Question: When you see on the stock ticker that the price of a barrel of oil has gone up (or down), is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Answer:  I think this question is a whole lot more complicated than it first appears.

I bring this up because I’m watching one of the cable news channels and the talking head just said that the price of oil dropped $2 on the bad jobs report released this morning. Now normally, when the framing is gas prices, oil going down is a good thing. But in this case, the framing is “demand in the American economy,” which means that oil going down is bad because it’s an indicator that economic demand is stagnating.

But this is problematic, of course, because it means that no matter what direction oil goes — up or down — we can theoretically be pessimistic (or happy) about it.

Still, there are other angles too. Higher oil prices are good for oil companies, almost all of which are public entities, and most of which are blue-chip stocks that are owned significantly by public and private pension funds, and comprise significant portions of mainstream mutual funds.  So increased oil prices are probably good for your retirement portfolio, and your state governments balance sheet. Higher oil prices are also associated with a decrease in driving (hedged by a marginal decrease in government gas tax revenue ).

On the other hand, increases in oil prices tend to have systematic inflationary effects, since oil underpins the costs of all goods. Inflation is not great for anyone (except maybe the self-employed who have high capital debt, like farmers), and definitely not good for your pension fund. So that’s a factor. My sense is that there are also trade imbalance effects of oil, although I don’t know enough about international finance to say.

But I do think it’s safe to say that an increase (or decrease) in oil prices is not inherently good or bad for the average American. It fundamentally depends on your financial relationship to oil itself — how much do you drive, how much do you (or your retirement fund) have invested in oil-based equities, and what are the inflationary consequences.


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On winning lotteries

July 5, 2011

You don’t have to be a bleeding-heart liberal to agree that that some proportion of one’s destiny in life is dictated by factors utterly beyond the control of the individual. In fact, my experience has been that despite some arguments to the contrary, conservatives and libertarians are just as willing as liberals to accept such a proposition. The difference, I think, is that conservatives and libertarians are at peace with the consequences, whereas many liberals have a general uneasiness with the idea that individual achievement is ultimately constrained, regardless of effort, by an unequal starting point.

But that’s a different topic.

The question here is simple: if you accept that there are three basic lotteries in life — a genetic one for the innate talents and capacities you possess, a geographic one for the society you happen to be born into, and a financial one for the resources you and your family control at your birth — how would you rank the relative importance of each, and what would you consider as you create your ranking?

More on this later this week. Read more »

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Hollow Victory

June 25, 2011

The New York State legislature has just legalized gay marriage in New York.

For the libertarian reasons I’ve outlined here and here, I don’t think this is the optimal way to address the issue of marriage inequality; it takes a set of special government preferences (for heterosexual married couples) and extends those benefits to a wider group of people (heterosexual and homosexual married couples), while leaving enormous pools of people short of the benefits (single people, people who prefer polygamy, and the huge and growing group of long-term monogamous cohibatators).

It’s kind of like if the civil rights act had said “no discrimination against blacks” instead of “no discrimination on account of race.” Not a bad thing, by any means, but hardly a statement of universal equality on the issue of human sexual relationships. More after the jump. Read more »

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Congress!

June 24, 2011

It is absolutely breathtaking to watch a vigorous, bi-partisan debate on the floor of the House over the war powers of the President. Agree or disagree with the war in Libya, the War Powers Act, the global war on terrorism, or the contemporary reading of the Constitutional war powers of the President, this is fundamentally what the American legislature is supposed to do — have heated debates over declarations of war (not) requested by the executive — and too often does not.

Go Congress!

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Hypocrisy and Libertarianism

June 22, 2011

One of my biggest pet peeves in political discourse is the constant charge of hypocrisy, both explicit and implicit.  They take many forms, most of which you are probably familiar with, and all of which can be grouped into two categories. Read more »

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