October 31, 2004

some predictions

By way of explanation for my lack of posting the last couple of days, I was on a tour of electoral battlegrounds. No, seriously.

Having been to Sioux Falls, Lincoln (NE), Des Moines and Iowa City; read the local newspapers, seen the battle of the lawn signs, and observed reaction to my Run Against Bush t-shirt, I can now make slightly more informed predictions about some electoral races.

I would bet my financial future on Nebraska and South Dakota going Republican in the Electoral College. It will take a much higher mortality rate amongst their National Guard members for Midwestern isolationism to reassert itself. And, there's no isolationist candidate on offer. Oh wait, there is ...

I would put less money, but still some money, on Tom Daschle beating John Thune in the South Dakota Senate race. It would be hard for it to be closer than the squeaker last time, so I'll say Daschle will probably pull it out by 1%-2%. 1% in a small state is not a large number of votes, so the margin for error is small.

I would also put money on Herseth winning (probably more money if there were takers). Daschle is vulnerable to the 'time for a change' sentiment, whereas it's hard to see the voters collectively changing their mind on the decision they made in June to send Herseth to D.C.

Going further south, there is a surprisingly competitive race for the open First District in Nebraska. The Democrat, Matt Connealy is a farmer, and has won the lawn sign (paddock sign, actually) battle in the northeast corner of the state. Whether it'll be enough to overcome 40 years of Republican dominance is an open question. The polls show the Republican, Jeff Fortenberry ahead, and he'll probably win.

Heading east into Iowa, the main game is the Presidential election. If you give me a quarter I'll flip it a few times and try to predict the outcome. None of the Congressional races are close, the Senate race is going to be a blowout for Grassley, and it's a state with cheap media and multiple media markets. The battle for the state house and senate also seems to be hard fought.

One Des Moines area Senate seat (remember, this for a seat in the Iowa Senate) has had a total of $500,000 dumped into the campaign. 3/4 of the ads on the local TV stations seem to be campaign ads, split equally between the presidential race, incumbent Republican congressmen, and a plethora of state legislators.

$500,000. For a little bit of international perspective, the most you can spend on a district race for the New Zealand parliament is $20,000 per campaign. (Districts have about 60,000 people in them in both the Iowa Senate and the New Zealand parliment) Effectively this precludes any TV advertising in New Zealand, with consequent investment in door-knocking, leaflets and town-hall debates. They're spending 8 times as much per voter for a seat in the Iowa Senate!

Even if you allow for Americans being richer and things being more expensive here, my back of the laptop calculation is that they're spending 4 times as much for a seat in the Iowa Senate as a seat in the New Zealand parliament.

With all respect to the good people of Iowa and their Senate, that's absurd. Now, I suspect that you could substitute just about any state for "Iowa", and just about any other Western democracy for "New Zealand" and find that Americans are spending more money to get elected to minor offices than people pay to get elected to national office elsewhere.

You're a rich country, you can probably afford it. Whether it's a good use of the money is questionable. But it's a free country, money is speech, and there's nothing that can be done to change it ...

Posted by robe0419 at 6:59 PM

October 28, 2004

Hummer drivers against Bush

The other day I went for a run with some of the good Minneapolis/St. Paul folks from Run Against Bush.

(In case you're wondering. No, I didn't buy my shirt myself. That would be illegal. It is not illegal for foreign nationals to wear T-shirts with political slogans. Nor is it illegal for foreign nationals to donate their time to U.S. political campaigns. It's just illegal to donate money.)

As we were crossing the road near the State Capitol a guy in a Hummer tooted at us. We looked. We thought he was shaking his fist. He wasn't. He tooted again. We kept looking. He was giving us a big thumbs up.

An anecdote has a sample size of 1, but hey, that's one Hummer driver against Bush! More than I thought was possible.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:05 PM

October 26, 2004

Campaigning is sweaty work

John Edwards in Minneapolis, today, sweating it out.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:40 PM

a Kerry cabinet?

In one of those articles that will either be highly prescient and informative, or totally irrelevant in a week, Carl Cameron looks at who might be in Kerry's cabinet. (Laura Rozen has fewer copyright concerns about copying 90% of the thing).

What struck me as crazy was the idea that Kerry would cherry-pick Democratic Senators for his cabinet. As I said way back in April if Kerry wins he'll really need a friendly Senate to get anything done, especially if Republicans still have a majority in the House (this does not preclude Kerry managing to detach Republicans from the DeLay machine to support his legislation).

Many senior or able Democratic Senators represent states with Republican governors (New York, California etc.). On the flip side, Kerry could do a lot worse than to appoint Republican Senators from Democratic governed states to his Cabinet. Consider that Maine, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Virginia have Democratic governors, and that Collins, Snowe, Warner, Specter or McCain would be moderate Republican candidates for a cabinet position. The Democrats would then pick up a Senate seat.

Do that too much, and it looks cynical. But the Republicans would have a hard time arguing against it, since it would be truly bipartisan.

As for appointing current Democratic governors to cabinet positions. In states where the Democrats have a deep bench (Michigan) this is OK. But in states where the current governor has a vital role to play in making the Democratic party competitive again in that state (Arizona), a hypothetical President Kerry should be mindful of keeping the local party strong.

As for Minnesota ... any President that appointed Pawlenty to a cabinet post would fate us to being led by Carol Molnau. Let's just hope Pawlenty doesn't get a phone call from Washington shortly after the election ...

Posted by robe0419 at 4:12 PM

Intersections designed by auto body repair shops

The Washington Monthly reports that 90% of Republicans are confident the election will be fair. Only 35% of Democrats have similar confidence.

When New Zealand was changing it's electoral system a decade ago, the witty ex-Prime Minister, David Lange, commented that

Letting politicians design electoral systems is like letting panel beaters [=auto body repair people] design intersections

Do you think they have your interests at heart?

The genius of the American political system is that it recognizes that everything is political. The flaw of the American political is that it doesn't know when to stop.

Putting the conduct of elections under the control of partisan officials at the state and county level corrodes the confidence of the other side in the integrity of elections.

There are plenty of fair-minded public-service oriented people out there who would be able to administer elections without suspicion of bias. If places as diverse as Iowa and the United Kingdom can re-apportion districts without parties controlling the process, it surely should be possible for the other 49 states.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:37 PM


The Bush administration's response to the fact that it managed to lose 380 tons of high explosives is that it's no big deal since they destroyed lots of low grade explosives:

The Republicans mounted a similarly vociferous counterattack, charging Mr. Kerry with seizing on the loss of 380 tons of high explosives and never mentioning what Mr. McClellan called "more than 243,000 tons of munitions" that had been destroyed since the invasion. "Coalition forces have cleared and reviewed a total of 10,033 caches of munitions; another 163,000 tons of munitions have been secured and are on line to be destroyed," he said.

This is like saying that it's ok to lose an ounce of gold, because you found five pounds of flour. Or, it's OK you lost a $100 bill because you still have those ten dimes in your pocket.

Posted by robe0419 at 9:11 AM

People get paid for writing that

Why does the New York Times continue to pay David Brooks to write a column that hits about twice for every thrice that it misses? Today is one of the thrice.

On another page you can learn that New York City's equivalent to Princess Kay of the Milky Way appears to be Ms. Subway.

Posted by robe0419 at 8:53 AM

October 25, 2004

Great generalisations in social science

Gregg Easterbrook proves (again) that his cost to The New Republic must be above his value:

Lower income families tend to be highly disorganized.

Is that why they're poor? Because they're disorganized. Or does being poor make you disorganized?

Posted by robe0419 at 9:54 AM

Large brewery. No party.

From the New York Times:

The Iraqi interim government has warned the United States and international nuclear inspectors that nearly 380 tons of powerful conventional explosives - used to demolish buildings, make missile warheads and detonate nuclear weapons - are missing from one of Iraq's most sensitive former military installations.

The huge facility, called Al Qaqaa, was supposed to be under American military control but is now a no man's land, still picked over by looters as recently as Sunday. United Nations weapons inspectors had monitored the explosives for many years, but White House and Pentagon officials acknowledge that the explosives vanished sometime after the American-led invasion last year.
The bomb that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 used less than a pound of the same type of material.

Your government. Keeping you safe from the wolves.

Is this the October surprise we were all looking foward to?

UPDATE: Check out Spencer Ackerman's summary of events in TNR.

Posted by robe0419 at 9:08 AM

October 24, 2004

Not all deaths are created equal (again)

Via Matt Yglesias, a link to a Cato paper (PDF) that argues that the risks of terrorism are comparable to "lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts."

Of course, terrorism is a deliberate, malicious human act that we can do somewhat more to stop than any of these risks. But more people will die in the next year from assault weapons and flu than died on September 11. Both the former causes are cheaper to prevent than terrorist attacks. Unfortunately this President appears incapable of organizing a party in a brewery, let alone anything more complicated, so people will certainly die.

Posted by robe0419 at 5:37 PM


A couple of thoughts on the first World Series game;

  • Keith Foulke. Good pitcher. Got the good job done in the last couple of games. But all the plaudits he gets from the Fox commentary team? I don't think so. Foulke is no Rivera. (Though now Rivera is no Rivera). Foulke gives up too many walks, and in both Game 7 of the ALCS and Game 1 of the World Series there were a few too many moments when the game could have gone the other way, or into extra innings.
  • 15 years ago the fat guy who could hit the ball was still a fixture in cricket. Nowadays with the emphasis on running and fielding the fat guy has either slimmed down or not made it to the professional ranks. Not in baseball. Watching someone like Matthew LeCroy or David Ortiz waddle down the first base line when he hits a single is still a sight to behold. Perhaps the sabermetrics crew will find some way to correlate tubbiness with not getting on base enough and the fat lady will sing for the fat guy in baseball too.

Posted by robe0419 at 5:26 PM

October 23, 2004

In our own image?

One of the interesting things about the way the Iraqi "project" has developed is that the United States has not tried to turn Iraq into a mini United States. In the case of the electoral system, they're turning Iraq into Israel.

For sure, there was that unfortunate attempt early on to privatize everything in sight, but the most important institutional design that's been made is the putative Iraqi electoral system. And that, folks, looks nothing like the one we have here. It's flaws are its own.

First of all, the Iraqi system is unitary and not federal. Not only that, there are no geographic districts at all. Second, the Iraqi system is not open, but closed. The candidate lists are not open to modification by the voters through primaries or write-ins. Third, it's proportional rather than plurality based. Only the last thing has much to recommend it.

Indeed, the proposed Iraqi system looks something a little like what Israel used to have, a pure proportional system with no geographic districts. This is a bit of an irony -- and not much of a recommendation. Any democracy in Israel's situation -- under great external pressure, with religion bound up in politics to boot -- is bound to have some crazy political swings. A pure proportional system is going to exacerbate, not reduce the problems of a tense, fractured society.

You can well understand why a federal system is not being imposed on Iraq, drawing the lines of new states/provinces would be an extra complication. But no geographic districts? The Westminster (=British) system of parliamentary government elected from geographic districts has its flaws, but would be preferable to what's proposed for Iraq.

I have to say that I have some sympathy for the idea that intervention in the Middle East to bring about democratic reform is a necessary thing. But democratic reform is not an impulse or experience whose sole home is in the United States.

This is not going to get me elected to any political office here, but other nations have long democratic traditions too. You might argue that given the sordid history of black disenfranchisement in the South that democracy in the United States is a comparatively recent phenomenon. All this prattling about being the "world's oldest democracy" ignores the experience that other countries have with democracy.

Some of that may come in useful in Iraq and in other parts of the Middle East. The political system that will work for a continental nation of 280 million is not necessarily going to function in a nation of 28 million. But it may have something to add. A little modesty about America's own democratic virtues might actually help with spreading those values and virtues.

Posted by robe0419 at 5:32 PM

Allawi 'execution' watch, day 96

The Australian reports that Richard Armitage

"has rejected as 'nonsense' claims Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi personally executed six suspected insurgents in June.

US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said he believed he had evidence that the claim by two alleged witnesses, as reported on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne's The Age on July 17, was not true.

He is the first senior US official to make such a definitive statement about the report by award-winning journalist Paul McGeough, which alleged Dr Allawi had shot dead six blindfolded suspected insurgents at a Baghdad police station.


The Sydney Morning Herald last night stood by McGeough's story.

Editor Robert Whitehead rejected Mr Armitage's comments, saying the paper had put the timing of the executions over a five-day period.

"To say Allawi was with American officials 'at the time' is not credible.

"I look forward to the US providing the information from their investigation," Mr Whitehead said.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:40 PM

October 22, 2004

People get paid for writing this sh*t

Matt Davis at the left coaster (a fine blog i've just discovered) points us to Jonathan Alter's inane article in Newsweek that argues the Red Sox' victory is a harbinger of Election Day.

I agree, it's kind of cool to see the parallels between sport and politics, but a whole magazine column! But don't take it too seriously!

These are the journalists who are meant to elevate our national conversation, not bring it down to the trivial, personal, random level we sink to in blogs. They're paid for this. I write this blog for free, probably detracting from my lifetime income if I cared to think about it. The idea that I could get a gig in a national print magazine for this level of analysis is freaking amazing.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:16 PM

More on that Churchill analogy

You're probably tired of this, but I'm not finished with why the analogy of Bush to Churchill is just silly. Yet people keep making it, often in conjunction with the point that the "war on terror" is like World War II.

The premise -- that the war on terror is like World War II -- is ridiculous on its face. The ideological threat from radical Islamic groups is grave, but the mortal consequences are smaller. More people will die from the shortage of flu vaccine than from terrorism. Terrorism is not the mortal threat to democracy that Nazi Germany could have been.

Moreover, when World War II began Britain could only count on France. It ill-behoves Republicans now to criticize the Roosevelt administration for not getting involved sooner when it was Midwestern Republican Senators who were the strongest voices in support of keeping America out of the war.

Churchill was also the junior partner in the Atlatntic Alliance. If we're going to compare World War II to the war on terror it might help to remember Roosevelt and the Four Freedoms as well. Or would that be conceding that Democrats can win wars too?

Posted by robe0419 at 1:51 PM

A call to Acton

Yesterday I noted the inanity of some of the media's attempts at fact checking. It's this kind of spurious precision in fact checking that leads to the media saying "both sides are lying," and call it a draw.

One of the differences between the British and American media is the kind of cynicism they have about politicians. The American media assumes that both government and opposition are equally bad. The British media tend to assume that their role is to act as an alternative opposition to the government, and occasionally as an alternative to the opposition party itself. In general the British media assume that the government is likely to be more guilty of dishonesty, influence peddling, and things bordering on corruption than the opposition.

Remember Lord Acton: "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Acton -- an historian, no less -- was writing about a system where you could -- if you were the King -- have absolute power. There's no reason for the American media to forget the first part of the quote, just because the second part isn't applicable anymore.

What it means is that we shouldn't be surprised that the incumbent is more likely to tell lies and to shade the truth than his opponent. That'll be true too when President Kerry faces off against Pawlenty in 2008 ...

Posted by robe0419 at 11:22 AM

Baseball and politics

So, no MA-TX match-up in both "sports."

The good people at the UVA Center for Politics have an intriguing analysis of the relationship between the World Series and the presidential election. A surprisingly high, positive correlation.

Posted by robe0419 at 9:58 AM

October 21, 2004

An alternative history of the Bush administration

In an otherwise very interesting essay in the Village Voice, Rick Perlstein writes:

.... Meanwhile the president, who earned some 500,000 votes less than his opponent, busied himself ramming through a radical legislative program as if he had won by a landslide

The persistence of this meme on the American 'left' is astonishing. If Bush had governed in the bipartisan manner people wished him to, he would be winning election in a canter this time around. It's Bush's incompetence in pursuit of unreality that gives the Democrats a chance to win back the Presidency and maybe the Senate at a time when natural loyalty to the governing party in a time of threat would make Kerry the Thomas Dewey of the early 21st century.

Maybe. I wish I'd had a blog back to put this prediction on the web in 2001 because it was clear to me then that what was going to destroy the Bush administration was just plain incompetence.

Who knows? The scale of the incompetence has been multiplied by the extreme policies pursued, but perhaps it would have infected even a middling bipartisan set of policies.

Things must get worse before they get better!

Posted by robe0419 at 3:16 PM

A week is a long time in baseball

A week ago (a week ago!) I wrote: "On the baseball front, we're getting further away every evening from the possiblity of a Houston-Boston World Series. We might have to wait for the World Series and the Presidential election to feature contenders from the same pair of states."

Now we're just 27 outs away from that!

Posted by robe0419 at 2:53 PM

Watching your denominators

On MPR this morning they had one of those worthy "Fact Check" segments, purporting to keep the candidates honest, but really showing that even the best of American media has no teeth.

They called John Kerry on his claim that unemployment was 5.5%. "In fact" the reporter intoned in a way that suggested she'd caught him understating his income by half on his tax return, "the unemployment rate is 5.4%".

I'm all for accuracy but the unemployment rate was 5.5% in July. It's changed far less dramatically than the casualty level in Iraq. But I digress.

The unemployment rate is pretty low -- it's a rate many countries would be happy to have. But here's the rub -- the labor force participation rate is down from 67.2% in January 2001 to 65.9% today.

In other words the economy is doing so well that there are millions of people who are not even bothering to look for work, who are retiring early, or are staying in school to avoid the job market.

Bottom line: The shortfall in employment is closer to 7% of the labor force than the 5.5% unemployment rate indicates, or about 25% larger than the media has you believe.

(Calculations below the fold).
UPDATE: 26 October. Brad DeLong has similar thoughts

Labor force size in September 2004147483
Population 16 years and over, September 2004223798
Estimated labor force size at January 2001 labor force participation rate of 67.2%150169
Number of unemployed in September 20047964
Difference between potential and actual labor force size2686
Employment shortfall10650
All figures in thousands, from BLS website

Posted by robe0419 at 8:38 AM

October 20, 2004

Things you can't say in the New York Times

Reviewing Jon Stewart's appearance on Crossfire, the New York Times reviewer writes:

There is nothing more painful than watching a comedian turn self-righteous. Unless of course, the comedian is lashing out at smug and self-serving television-news personalities. Jon Stewart could not resist a last dig at CNN's "Crossfire" during his monologue on Comedy Central on Monday night . "They said I wasn't being funny," the star of "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" said, rolling his eyes expressively. "And I said to them: 'I know that. But tomorrow I will go back to being funny," Mr. Stewart said, adding that their show would still be bad, although he used a more vulgar expression.

And that is why his surprise attack on the hosts of CNN's "Crossfire" was so satisfying last Friday. Exchanging his usual goofy teasing for withering contempt, he told Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson that they were partisan hacks and that their pro-wrestling approach to political discourse was "hurting America." (He also used an epithet for the male reproductive organ to describe Mr. Carlson.)

"Crap" and "dick," apparently cannot be printed in the New York Times. I thank them for their contribution to honest conversation and reporting.

Posted by robe0419 at 11:30 AM

October 19, 2004

Jim Ramstad. Only $20 on the take

An interesting list of who's accepted money from Tom DeLay's PAC, and how much they took.

What do those $20 (Jim Ramstad), and $6 (Olympia Snowe) contributions mean? Some of them are clearly people who don't need the money. Others, however, are people who would probably like the money but are more independent minded than a lot of the Republican caucus.

On the other hand, Mark Kennedy and John Kline (how surprising!) are well and truly reaching for DeLay's money.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:18 PM

George Bush is not coming to dinner

Tim Dunlop nails a point I've harped on about for too long: George Bush is not coming to dinner at your place. Not now when he's asking for your vote. Not afterwards.

I don't think there is another country on earth where the issue of whether you'd like to "have a beer" with the candidate--or whatever other criteria you use to define "likeability"--is considered a serious criteria for electing a national leader. Was Margaret Thatcher worried about her "likeability" quotient? Was Churchill? Is John Howard? Tony Blair? Helen Clarke? Silvio Berlusconi? Does another nation even mention the issue?

Posted by robe0419 at 3:33 PM

More inaccuracy in the National Review

Dinesh D'Souza writes:

Arguably the United States took preemptive action in World War II when American forces attacked Germany. Hitler had condemned, but not attacked, the United States. Only Japan attacked the United States. So America's assault on Germany, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, would seem to be a case of legitimate preemptive action.

Germany declared war on the United States. Then the United States declared war on Germany. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, pre-emptive about it.

Is the National Review's history as bad as their economics? It seems so.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:16 PM

October 18, 2004

Top Four Things You Need To Know About America

Before I left New Zealand the good people at Fulbright gave us some handy hints about American life. Amongst the worthy advice on navigating different academic systems and the crazy quilt that is American health care, were four things it was good to know right off the plane. And they're still useful points of advice. I relate them here in the interests of cultural exchange.

  • Don't say toilet. Say bathroom.
  • The banking system is backward. You can't use plastic everywhere.
  • Don't swear so much. Except in New York City.
  • Tip 15% and a dollar for drinks.

Good advice, except that last one.

  • True. Americans don't say toilet. They say bathroom. This is because (1) the toilet is not in a separate room, and (2) people are less frank about these things here. In New Zealand people will excuse themselves by saying "I'm going to take a pee," not "I'm going to the bathroom."
  • True. It has improved (in Minnesota) since 2000, but that's not saying much.

    • In New Zealand you can pay with plastic just about everywhere. The pizza delivery people and the taxis have mobile units that allow you to swipe your card, enter your PIN, and be done with it.
    • What's with the continued use of signatures as the security mechanism when you use a credit/debit card away from an ATM?! In a country as advanced as the United States you'd think it would be possible to secure credit and debit card transations with PIN entry.
    • Why can't recurring inter-bank transfers between personal accounts be set up? In New Zealand, I banked with Bank A, my landlord with Bank B. I sent them no check. I paid them no cash. Every fortnight [=two weeks] the money was transferred from my account to his.
      Just after I'd signed the lease on the first apartment here in Minneapolis, I asked the landlord if he could tell me his bank account details, and he looked at me like I was crazy. When I explained he expressed heartfelt enthusiasm for such an idea. As you would if you had to endorse 40 rent checks every month.

  • True. People don't swear so much here. Pretty amazing in a climate that cries out for the phrase "it's f***ing cold/humid today" to be socially acceptable in all settings three quarters of the time.
  • Not so true. And they repeated this out-dated information at the UMN international student orientation. Thus I went through my first 18 months here tipping 15% on the pre-tax bill. And getting good service from bartenders. That's right, I interpreted it as $1 for each drink.

Posted by robe0419 at 5:52 PM

October 17, 2004

Losing his mind, but keeping his religion

The Guardian's a good newspaper. I think you could run the foreign policy of a small democracy in the South Pacific from its coverage of world affairs.*

And this article is very worrying if true.

* The current New Zealand Prime Minister used to, maybe still does, read the Guardian Weekly and has been heard to praise its comprehensive coverage.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:48 PM

October 16, 2004

reflections on the campaign

Daniel Drezner is a thoughtful, and often thought-provoking, political scientist whose views tend conservative. Indeed he advised the Bush campaign in 2000, and was a political appointee at the Treasury in 2001.

So, it's some sort of statement on where we've come since 2000 that Drezner now puts his probability of voting for Kerry at 80%. No surprise there if you've been watching that probability creep up from around 1/2 through 0.6 and upwards. What was a surprise was the level of vitriol floating round the discussion, the sense that some people clearly have of catastrophic, apocalyptic things happening to the United States have if Kerry is elected.

I say this with a trace of irony, as they might say that I think apocalyptic, catastrophic things will happen if Bush is returned. Actually, no.

Firstly, I think that the catastrophic, apocalyptic stuff, while a possibility won't be as apocalyptic as the Cold War could have ended. The worst that could happen, and it would be really, really bad, is that (1) terrorists could smuggle nuclear weapons into American cities and detonate them, or (2) North Korea or Iran could send a nuclear missile into some city. Let's not be blase about this, but that would be a whole lot better than the risk during the Cold War that hundreds or thousands of nuclear weapons could have been fired in a conflict.

It's possible that the American people realize that terrorism is not the really horrible, existential, life-on-earth threat that it is sometimes made out to be, because [observation number one on the campaign] homeland security and the possibility of terrorist attacks have not played a huge role in the debate.

Terrorism's absence from the campaign is because Iraq has become something between a "sticky situation" and one of the largest strategic blunders ever made by an American president.

By their actions the Bush campaign acknowledge this. Have you heard about the domestic policy proposals Bush has for the next term? And by policy proposals I don't just mean vague platitudes about letting youngsters invest their social security plans in the stock market, I mean actual, thought-out, detailed plans. You won't find them here, and that's probably the best place to find them.

No, apparently the RNC ad-buy for the next couple of weeks is going to be focused on calling Kerry the most liberal senator ever. Is that the best they can do? I mean, there are serious, substantive disagreements you can have with the ideas Kerry has proposed. When you have to put the bogeyman puppet on and make your opponent all scary, it really is a sign of desperation.

Thus, observation two. A government that has a record to run on barely needs to mention the opposition in its campaign.

A president this weak should be staring down the barrel of a 350-190 vote electoral college crushing, but he's not. He's still in the game. He could still win. Observation three: The Democrats have been surprisingly weak at parrying these generic shots on Kerry. The Republicans were always going to portray the Democratic candidate as a flip-flopper. How hard would it have been to brainstorm some pithy response and flood the media with it.

More substantively, Kerry's position on the Iraq war needed to be reduced to an effective one or two sentences, and contrasted with Bush's. They're doing this now, but done right two months ago the election might be all but over.

And now the liberal charge. Please tell me that someone read Wesley Clark's speech laying out in a few paragraphs why the "liberal" label was a proud one to wear; that the United States would not exist were it not for people on the liberal side of the debate; that if the Republicans are going to keep referring to the war on terrorism as being like World War II they should remember it was Roosevelt who was President then.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:33 PM

19-35MB of entertainment

Jon Stewart's hilarious and yet entirely serious appearance on Crossfire can be found here. Worth every penny of your internet access fees.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:05 PM

October 14, 2004

more election prediction sites

I think the "probabilistic-based predictions" are best, and here's another one. At UMN, to boot.

With 3 weeks to go it seems that get out the vote will be absolutely critical in close states.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:47 PM

Defending a low total

I wish William Saletan in Slate had not already used the baseball metaphor about the presidential debate. It's an attractive source of analogies every fourth October. On the baseball front, we're getting further away every evening from the possiblity of a Houston-Boston World Series. We might have to wait for the World Series and the Presidential election to feature contenders from the same pair of states.

Like the Yankees at the beginning of the 9th, the president had a low total -- his domestic record -- to defend when he went out to pitch -- debate -- last night. Predictably enough the Red Sox did not come back in the 9th. It wasn't as predictable that John Kerry would keep on slugging and score runs, but he did.

Prediction time!
ALCS: Yankees in 6.
NLCS: Cardinals in 5.
World Series: Cardinals in 7
Election: Kerry with 289 Electoral Votes (Atlantic coast north of DC. Great Lakes States minus Indiana. NM. Pacific Coast. New Mexico).
Surprise Senate pick-up: Dems in Kentucky.

Posted by robe0419 at 10:26 AM

October 13, 2004


Teresa Heinz Kerry feeds her cows alfalfa because New Zealand scientists say so ...

Posted by robe0419 at 4:16 PM

Health care

Tonight's debate will probably have some time devoted to health care. As it should. After Social Security, the health care system is the biggest problem we've got that government can do something about.

(The economy might be a bigger problem, but it seems to sail along just fine even with gross mismanagement like the corporate tax bill passed yesterday)

I am sympathetic to the notion of some form of universal health care, but also skeptical that that would fly politically. Moreover, it's not immediately clear whether the transition costs would be worth it from where we are now.

Kerry's plan is a good one, both politically and substantively. Politically it doesn't bet the farm on an all-around package that would be great in theory, but hard to get through Congress. Substantively, it puts the highest priority on solving the biggest problems that can be solved by the government. (and I know, I know, you never solve anything in health care systems, you just restart the clock on when you'll solve the next set of problems)

In the American health care system those problems are that we spend lots of money overall to give some people great health care, and some people far less than what they need. One of the reasons this happens is that insurance companies (money-making businesses) understandably don't want to be caught insuring people who get really sick and cost a lot to treat. This is what's known as "catastrophic" events. If a course of treatment goes over $30,000 that's catastrophic. For you, if you don't have insurance. For your insurer, if you do.

The problem is that it's hard to tell in advance who is going to have these catastrophic events. It's worth an insurance company's while to do something to avoid covering these people. This is why some people have problems getting insurance; because they fit the profile of people with a higher risk of catastrophic events.

The bottom line is that insuring catastrophic health care coverage is a miserable business; it's risky and low profit for the companies, and no fun for consumers trying to get good coverage.

Averaged out over 290 million people, however, catastrophic costs are relatively predictable year-to-year. This is why it makes sense to have the largest possible "pool" of people insured together -- the whole country. That is the best part of Kerry's health care plan.

Another good part is that Kerry proposes to cover all children. It's an absolute f***ing scandal that we let children's health care coverage be dependent on whether their parents are in work or not. And it's a scandal too that covering that gap in children's coverage varies so widely from state-to-state.

Some of those 45 million Americans without health insurance that you hear about are mature adults capable of taking risks themselves. I think they're pretty foolish, but hey, if you know when you're going to find out you have cancer, more power to you and your choices ...

Children have no such independent decision to make, and if equality of opportunity means anything, it means giving all children health care coverage until their late teens. It's worth noting that the catastrophic problem and the children's coverage problem are quite different aspects of the health insurance system.

The catastrophic coverage problem is all about the problems of insurance plans being too small relative to the riskiness of the population and the cost of the treatment. It is a problem mainly on the supply side of the insurance market -- companies aren't willing to offer something people want.

Children's health care is, by contrast, relatively predictable and the procedures are generally cheap. For health care providers it's a good steady source of income, and they'd be willing to supply it. The problem is with the way we arrange coverage, through employer-based insurance plans covering families.

We got to have this system through historical accident during the Second World War when the steel companies and steel unions negotiated a contract that included health coverage. Other industries followed; Congress added in tax deductions to make health care premiums a cheaper form of compensation than wage increases, and that's where we are now.

Even if you believe in a 'free market' form of health care provision and insurance coverage, there's no logical reason that it should be tied to current employment.

Good as Kerry's plans are, I don't think he'll be trying to reform that which is a pity. Presented the right way it's an idea that could have support from conservatives as well. The problem with any reform efforts in this direction is that a lot of wealthy people (including the current Senate majority leader) have a stake in the current arrangements.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:12 PM

Dred Scott (again)

Cheery topic, huh? Slavery and abortion!

The LA Times has an interesting follow-up story, where a Bush flack keeps a straight face and says " the president did not intend to draw a parallel between the slavery and abortion cases." Yeah ...

There's much that's galling about this story. One is that the President of the United States who has sworn to uphold the Constitution doesn't know when important clauses were added to it.

Another is that it is the Republican party that now more often abets and benefits from the noxious exploitation of nostalgia for the treasonous, slave-defending Confederacy. And then they want to criticize Dred Scott ... The mind truly boggles at this political application of historical ignorance. Or maybe congitive dissonance!

Posted by robe0419 at 1:57 PM

October 12, 2004

Nation of immigrants?

Trivia question for the day.

Order the following countries, from highest to lowest, in terms of the proportion of foreign born people in their population.
United States
United Kingdom
New Zealand

(Answer below the fold)

1. Australia (23.1%)
2. New Zealand (19.4%)
3. Canada (18.4%)
4. United States (11.4%)
5. United Kingdom (8.4%)

Not what you expected, right?

More details here. (PDF)

Posted by robe0419 at 3:43 PM

Aphorism cookies?

With a bowl of fortune cookies on the front desk at work and desperate to know about the future I took a "sample" of cookies from the bowl, and got no fortune. No fortune. All aphorisms.

There's at least one Asian food manufacturer/distributor in the Twin Cities whose cookies never have any fortunes, they just have aphorisms. Aphorisms like this:

Only the mediocre are always at their best.

Tomorrow may bee too late. Live, think, and act for today.

If you're not rejected at least three times a week, you're not trying hard enough.

It's no good. They're meant to be F-O-R-T-U-N-E cookies, not pithy saying cookies. At best these aphorism cookies tell you a method by which something might happen in the future. At worst -- like the one about mediocre people above -- they summarize historical regularities and stereotypes; nothing about the future. A fortune is a projection into the unknown future, whereas an aphorism is a coarse generalization about past life.

Don't they know white people buy Asian food for the dinner-concluding escapism? Aphorism cookies would be best suited to some hard scrabble diner or grill where all the patrons have been tutored at the school of hard knocks.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:16 PM

Gems from the Guardian

Catching up on some back issues of the Guardian Weekly that arrived while I was out of town, I learnt some interesting things.

The first is that St. Cloud is a "small rural town." I'm no parochial defender of St. Cloud, but more than 60,000 people in the muncipality, and another 100,000 in the "metropolitan statistical area" make it a city.

The second thing I learned, really more curious in its own way, was that some political "polling organisations adjust for height, race, and gender, but argue vehemently against weighting by party identification, saying that it is subject to change."

They adjust for height! In political polling! Well I never.

Posted by robe0419 at 9:33 AM

October 11, 2004

replication, replication, replication

Anyone following the U.S. election horse-race will be familiar with sites like electoral-vote.com, real clear politics, the hedgehog report, and Professor Pollkatz.

Most of these sites (but not Pollkatz) simply average the state polls, and say no more. However, if numerous polls in a short space of time find a candidate has a lead within the margin of error, it's likely that lead is small but real.

The one site that does take these into consideration is Sam Wang's meta-analysis of state polls. I highly recommend checking it out.

Minnesota readers should note that while we're seeing boatloads of ads, and the local media seem to revel in the transition from most longstanding Democratic state to battleground, Wang's site puts the chances of Kerry winning here at near 100%. Indeed, Minnesota is a real example of the small margins replicated in many polls phenomenon.

If you want to use this information to make some money by betting, sorry "trading," on the outcome you're out of luck. The current asking price for a dollar share if Bush wins in Minnesota is already down to 34.5c (By comparison, if you wanted to take a dollar in the event that Bush wins Alabama the asking price is 98c. Bush will lose Alabama when he's caught shagging the Pope in prison, and maybe not even then ...)

Posted by robe0419 at 4:24 PM

Sign wars

The Strib has one of those stories about yard sign wars whose narrative requires no change with the electoral cycle, just the names. (And on the same topic, you should read Michael Froomkin's serialized blog entry about Kerry-Edwards signs in his Miami neighborhood)

As always adolescent boys have been discovered stealing and defacing signs, and hysterical elements in each political party persist in believing that the other party is really responsible for the damage.

Stealing and defacing is par for the course, but it could be worse. Yard signs burn easily.

Posted by robe0419 at 9:32 AM

October 10, 2004

abortion will be illegal (and so will slavery)

That was what Bush meant in his reference to Dred Scott on Friday night.

Not entirely surprisingly we discover that Bush's reference to the Dred Scott case was not a lame attempt to prove he was on the side of the black slave, or a pander to the St. Louis Historical Society. It was a coded reference to Roe vs. Wade. Mark Kleiman, Matthew Yglesias, and Paperweight have more discussion.

Not convinced. Follow any of these links.

If you are concerned about this issue, and know any pro-choice swing voters, they might want to know about Bush's pledge to appoint justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade.

Posted by robe0419 at 11:59 AM

October 9, 2004

Is the Australian Labor Party like the Canadian Conservative party?

No matter how good the economy is, no matter what the electoral system; Any government that wins a fourth term is blessed with a weak opposition party.

There should be little spill-over to the American election, though if Bush gets truly desperate he might try. With just 850 troops on the ground in Iraq, Australia's commitment is symbolic rather than substantive.

Anyone who tries to draw analogies between Howard and Bush has not been watching either closely. Howard's a shrewd survival-oriented politician, in charge of his own destiny; and he already put distance between himself and Bush when he scaled back Australia's commitment in Iraq. If Kerry wins, Howard will shift with the times, and support his policies too.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:37 PM

left turn

For all those curious about how different countries came to drive on different sides of the road, the British driver licensing authority has a handy explanation and a list.

Posted by robe0419 at 10:21 AM

Slavery was legal

This may come as news to the President, if he ever reads this, but slavery was, in fact, legal in 1857 when the Dred Scott case was decided.

What was Bush thinking by bringing this up? That he'd boost his support amongst blacks by coming out against slavery? That people will now compare him favorably with that lousy one-term president, James Buchanan? That the citizens of St. Louis would appreciate the reference to an historic moment in their city's history?

Whatever the reason, it doesn't reflect well on the President.

Posted by robe0419 at 10:17 AM

October 8, 2004

Battle of the Bulge

If, like me, you haven't gotten as much done today as you hoped, you would also have heard about the mysterious bulge in Bush's back last Thursday.

My entry in the magic internet contest to guess what they mystery item is: it's a Camelbak hydration backpack. I know the Camelbak typically has water in it, but judging by Bush's performance I wouldn't be surprised to learn that his had whiskey in it last Thursday.

Posted by robe0419 at 5:53 PM

Dr. Phil meets the candidates

This -- subscription not needed -- in The New Republic is pretty funny too.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:59 PM

enslave Canada

This site is a parody. Substitute "Canada" for "New Zealand," "United States" for "Australia", "Bush" for "Howard" and "Central America" for "East Timor" and you'll be well on your way to wry laughter.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:43 PM

Can I write for Newsweek?

What qualifications do you need to write for Newsweek. Not many, judging by Howard Fineman's efforts:

On one level, Kerry's "position" is a contradictory bundle of confusion. [1] He says the war was a mistake, but he's the guy calling for a gung-ho strategy in Fallujah to root out terrorist nests. [2] As the president has pointed out, Kerry is claiming he can win the support of allies even as he dismisses the contributions of existing ones and calls the entire war a diversion—and [3] even as France and Germany already have said that they aren't going to rally to our side if Kerry wins.

[1] Viewing the war as a mistake is consistent with proposing an aggressive strategy to win it now that we're there ... This is not a contradiction

[2] Has Kerry really dismissed the contributions of existing allies. Or, as he actually pointed out how few there are compared to last time ... by a factor of about 33 to 1, compared to last time.

[3] If France and Germany were to say that they would send troops contingent on a Kerry victory, wouldn't that be the kind of foreign interference in domestic politics we're all meant to disapprove of? And why the continued fascination with France and Germany ponying up the troops? What about India? What about Russia?

and to think that Newsweek is regarded as a quality magazine ...

Posted by robe0419 at 2:11 PM

Kerry will be more likeable than you think

Saw Tim Russert on the Today show this morning, repeating the conventional media wisdom that John Kerry is not as likeable, not as able to connect with the common man as George Bush.

Tim has a better chance to know than most all of the voters out there, since he's met Kerry on numerous occasions. But who knows what he took away from that experience, since he just repeated the conventional lines. Far be it from Tim to introduce any contrary information like the Newsweek poll that shows Kerry more likeable after the first debate.

In any case, this narrative should be good for Kerry. No man can possibly be as wooden and aloof and arrogant and like Thurston Howell III, as Kerry has been made out to be. If Kerry can show a good command of the issues, and just be a reasonably, friendly human being, the post-debate narrative might well be how Kerry suprisised by connecting with the audience. On the other hand, even after his podium-hugging, face-making free-fall last week, the president has nowhere to go but down, since most of the talk is how Bush is likely to do better in this setting.

Perhaps the best thing I learned was that Bush is comfortable delivering his speech while wandering about. So he can walk and talk at the same time ... Better than Gerald Ford, I suppose.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:07 PM

October 7, 2004

enough with the averages, how about the variance?

Most competitive sports -- baseball and cricket being the archetypes -- generate a lot of statistics. Most of them are averages, and very rarely, measures of variability. But it's in the variability that games turn and hard decisions have to be made. That's as true for the coach on the sidelines as for fantasy whatever-ball.

Sticking with baseball and cricket for the moment, some of these numbers are statistics only in the broadest sense, and have little meaning. If you've ever watched cricket, you'll be familiar with phrases from the commentators like "this is a record partnership for the tenth wicket in the second innings between these two countries played in country X."

Translated into baseball commentary: "this is the first time any player from team X has scored a triple in the bottom of the ninth with two out when playing team Y on the road."

Pretty impressive, huh ... Since lifetime bests, team bests, and all-time bests are really quite rare, both baseball and cricket commentators regularly resort to inflating the value of average play by making it the best of all-time in some highly specific context.

I've always been curious who keeps these statistics, and how it's done. Do they have a database at their fingers, so they can calculate these rarities at will? Or do you actually have to remember stuff like that to get on TV? The phrase idiot savant comes to mind.

But these aren't really statistics, they're records.

What you hear a lot of in both sports are references to averages; averages at bat, and the average cost in runs for a pitcher/bowler to get someone out.

And if you're only going to know one number about a player, an average [of some form] is probably the most useful.

What's curious is that we don't hear so much about the variation in players' performances. Stick with me through the next cricket example, because this really does apply to other sports.

In cricket, a batting average of over 30 in international matches is pretty good, over 40 is exceptional, and anything over 50 makes you a legend (get up towards 100 and you will have statues and knighthoods).

But who would you rather have on your team, a guy that gets scores of 9, 0, 105, 1, 4, 97 ... or a guy that racks up 35, 29, 46, 27, 51, 18 ... Probably the second guy.

The analogy to earned run averages in baseball and points per game in basketball should be pretty straightforward.

In fact, the way variation comes out in sports is when people talk about a player's "consistency." There's few sports that don't value consistency, but it's only when a player is truly, maddeningly inconsistent that commentators and journalists bother to make the comparisons.

Cross country team meets, interestingly or trivially, often report the 'packing analysis' or the 'spread' for a team. But this is the only sport I can think of, where some measure of variability is reported. Perhaps there's others.

Look at the individual stats pages for baseball, basketball, or football. All averages. No variation there.

But in the final minutes of the game, who are you going to put out there? The guy that has the lower average, but rarely gets nothing; or the guy that can give you a huge win, but might also fail completely ... Depends how far behind you are really.

Clearly, newspapers are restricted in the amount of stuff they can publish. But the web ... the web has no such restrictions on space. And with sports betting a growing market, it's stranger still we don't hear more specific discussion of consistency and variability in performance.

For now, though, I have a day job and a dissertation that preclude making these calculations myself, and all I can ask is that anyone who uses this thought to win a fantasy football league or sports betting ring, send me some of their winnings.

Posted by robe0419 at 2:11 PM

October 6, 2004

sweeping up after the veeps

Both men would have been outwitted by any half-way competent minister or spokesperson from the British or Australian parliament.

That was my immediate reaction to a debate in which both men spent some time avoiding the questions they had been asked, in a desperate attempt to get to their stump speech or talking points.

It was strange indeed that Cheney passed up the opportunity entirely to respond to some of Edwards' charges. Edwards did slightly better, he responded to some of Cheney's attacks ... several unrelated questions later.

Who knows what it would have been like if it had been a real debate, with a give and take between the candidates. Obviously the format for the debates has to have some pretty tight rules about speaking time and opportunities to respond. But the 2 minute answer, 90 second response, 30 second rebuttal format, and then onto the next question gives the candidates little opportunity to have a conversation with each other, to actually engage and debate.

I can understand that the moderators want to work from a list of pre-determined questions, and not be placed in the position of having to think on their feet in a way that might they unwittingly interject their own opinions into the mix. But, this set-up has most of the disadvantages of a moderator, and few of the advantages.

Edwards did well on foreign policy to hammer home the "notion" (fact!) that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, and that Cheney has lied the most about that.

But really, is it beyond the combined talents of the Democratic Party and the Kerry campaign to think up a 30 second answer to the $87 billion question?!

Kerry and Edwards voted for the $87 billion to be funded by taxes on people earning over $400,000 a year, and against the version that put the bill on the credit card.

I don't know, how about "[Senator Kerry and] I believe that this war is so important that I will ask the wealthiest Americans to make a small sacrifice, and pay for it now, so that our children will be both safe and free of debt. President Bush does not take the war seriously. He can't even ask the American people to pay for it now, and said he would veto any bill that paid for the war now."

As for the charge that Kerry and Edwards have been inconsistent on the Iraq war. Would it be too hard to explain that the October 2002 Senate vote was not a vote for war, but to give the President the authorization to declare war if necessary. Would it be too hard to say that in March 2003 the weapons inspections were revealing that Hussein was not an imminent threat, and that war was not necessary then. I think not. It would just require Kerry to assume the American people have a greater capacity to remember events and follow an argument than Bush assumes they do.

Posted by robe0419 at 11:54 AM

October 5, 2004

why election day should be a national holiday

John Judis' TNR article on voter registration efforts is a good look at the pre-election ground game of registering people likely to vote for you.

For all the talk about money in politics, a lot of political victories still come down to labor, and volunteer labor at that. In the wake of the 2000 election, we heard some talk about how if election day was a national holiday more people would vote.

I'm sure that making election day a national holiday would help turnout some, but not a lot. After all, federal law already guarantees your right to take time off work to vote, and if your November 2 schedule is bad, then an absentee ballot isn't too hard.

No, what a national holiday for election day would do, is give more people the opportunity to help out their chosen political party on the day without having to take a vacation day. That would be a nice thing in a democratic country like this, a national holiday to get involved in politics.

Although things like phones and computers and Palm PDAs have raised the capital:labor ratio a little on election day, the ground work in an election campaign is still mostly about getting out the volunteer labor to remind people to vote, and get them to the polling booth.

The mechanics of that vary little from country-to-country. I'd hazard a guess, based on talking to people older than myself, that they haven't changed much over time.

Basically what you do is identify potential voters before election day ("the list"), and then on election day you work from "the list" in whatever way makes the most sense to get the most votes from it.

Volunteer labor is still the best way of getting the most votes out. People respond better to a real live phone call or door knock than a recorded message. In a somewhat banal way, it does keep people connected in a [small d] democratic way.

The organization of get-out-the-vote seems to vary little between New Zealand and the U.S.A., at least in large cities. Everyone coalesces at a central meeting point (usually a church or community center, with a 1950s era stove and coffee maker to add to the ambience), puts on whatever identifying motif they are allowed, and heads out to drop pamphlets on doorsteps, knock on doors, or pick up 'mobility impaired' voters who need help getting to the voting booth. Others call likely voters, and remind them its election day. Other people are required to monitor each polling place.

Perhaps some clever computer scientist will correct me, but there's not a lot of ways of doing any of that without lots of people.

In the absence of a national holiday, I encourage all of you to take a vacation and help whichever party you support, get out the vote on election day.

Posted by robe0419 at 1:09 PM

October 4, 2004

last thoughts on the debates

After Tuesday night all talk will be about the Cheney-Edwards showdown, so this is getting late in the game for analysis of the debate last Thursday.

The debate, and more particularly, the bandwagon reaction to calling it a Kerry victory, underscore how the challenger can really struggle to get their message out and appear presidential until the debates. Think of Reagan-Carter in 1980, which was close until the [only] debate, and then became a Reagan landslide.

There's been some chatter about how if Kerry can take on Bush on foreign affairs and security, then Kerry will surely do better again on domestic policy.

Not so fast! First off, it's likely that the perceived gap between their performances will narrow, since Kerry appeared to have a good night, and Bush a bad one.

Second, Kerry may well know the subject matter of foreign affairs and security better than he knows domestic issues. (Though what really matters is the issue gap vis a vis Bush) Kerry has concentrated on foreign affairs in the Senate -- it's hardly surprising he appears in control of the subject.

Third, Bush will now have seen Kerry's speaking and debating style, and will have a chance to incorporate that into his own preparation. Forewarned is forearmed.

So, as an objective matter, I'd expect Bush to do better in the next debate. If Bush shows the same signs of impatience and arrogance in the townhall style meeting, and Kerry shows not only that he knows the issues, but that he can connect with voters ("feel their pain"), only then will Kerry be able to pull away.

Bush needs to win both the last two debates; Kerry needs to win just one.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:19 PM

Cardboard cutouts and the Star Spangled Banner

Yesterday's rendition of the Star Spangled Banner at the start of the Twin Cities marathon was very nice; especially since it was 42F, rather than 32F as it was last-time.

The Democrats were the best organized at showing their message out on the course, with many signs and banners. The best of these at the 14 mile mark was the life-size cardboard cut-out of John Kerry giving a thumbs up.

Further along the course, the Democrats were handing out stickers to the middle-to-back of the pack runners, many of whom were festooned with them from there to the finish, passing thousands of voters along the way. The lone woman with her Bush-Cheney sticker on her singlet was greatly outnumbered.

A link for anyone who cares to know how I did.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:10 PM