Archive:

August 2003, Part 4

Jim Miller on Politics




Pseudo-Random Thoughts



What Are The Odds?  I have never much cared for the "horse race" pieces that fill our newspapers and TV news programs as an election approaches.   You know the kind I mean.  Candidate A gained on candidate B after his bold stand against pests in Bug Tussle.  Or, candidate C lost support after women voters saw her new mauve outfit.  The horse race pieces are often incorrect, and nearly always useless.  Voters need to know more about the candidates' records and proposals, and less about some reporter's guesses about gains and losses in the race.

That said, like everyone else who follows politics, I like to try to guess who will win elections.  Not counting the guesses by journalists—which seldom deserve much attention—there are three main ways to predict elections, polls, economic models, and betting.  Polls you know about, and there is no denying that the best ones are good predictors, in the last week or two before the voting.  The farther you get from the election, the worse they are, for obvious reasons.

Political scientists and economists have built economic models to try predict elections and have had some success in capturing the idea that voters vote their pocketbooks, that, when times are good, the votes stick with the incumbents, and when they are bad, they turn the rascals out.  Unfortunately these models have a theoretical defect, a practical problem, and an embarrassing example.  The theoretical defect is that the models are, at least the ones I have seen, ad hoc.  The researcher guesses what might measure voters' intentions, and then tries them out statistically.  Inevitably, with enough experiments, the researcher will find some indicators that have a good fit to past elections, since the numbers are so small.  The models usually get the best fit with the indicators from just before the election, which makes them useless for long term prediction, and problematic even in the short term, since so many economic statistics are revised over time.  The 2000 election showed that the theoretical objections had merit; to my knowledge, every single model predicted that Gore would win by a solid margin.

That leaves betting for long range predictions, and it has a surprisingly good record.   If you want to know who is likely to win an election a month or so from now, don't read David Broder, or check the Gallup site, or find the latest model from Harvard, instead call a bookie.  A study by Justin Wolfers and Andrew Leigh found that betters outperformed both polls and economic models in predicting Australian elections.  (If you would like to know more about the study, see this article or their paper.)   And the same is true of elections in other countries, though predictions elsewhere usually have difficulties not found in Australia, where everyone is required to vote.

There are two American elections that people are following closely enough to attract the bookies, the California recall and the 2004 presidential election.  What do the oddsmakers say about them, as of about 10:00 AM, PST, August 31?

(There is a minor practical problem for Americans.  We can't actually call bookies, since it is illegal to bet on elections in the United States, with one interesting exception.  The exception is an options market run by the University of Iowa business school, that has been offering betting on elections, as an experiment, for some years.  However, there is no law against giving odds, and you can find them in American sources.  And, of course, Britons are free to bet on American elections, and there is often enough interest there so that the larger gambling houses there publish their odds on the net.)

First the California recall:  There are, as I am sure you know, two parts to the election, a vote on recalling Governor Davis, and a vote choosing his successor.  The Iowa options for the first include several scenarios, that the election will be canceled by a court challenge or that Davis will resign.  When I checked the option prices this morning, I found that Davis had 1 chance in 3 of (.330) of staying governor, but better than a 40 per cent chance (.411) of defeating the recall.  In the replacement election, the option prices give Arnold Schwarzenegger a 40 per cent chance of winning (.399), and Cruz Bustamante a 21 per cent chance (.214).  These results are roughly similar to Ron Faucheux's in Campaigns and Elections magazine.  He gives the odds that the recall will succeed at 53.3 per cent, and both Bustamante and Schwarzenegger 30 per cent chances to win the replacement election.  Although Faucheux has a good record, he is not, at least openly, taking bets, so I looked for an actual bookmaker and found different odds at TradeSports.  They give Schwarzenegger a 48 per cent chance of winning the replacement election, and Bustamante a 35 per cent chance.   America's Line, a syndicated odds column, has predictions between TradeSports and Faucheux.  Putting all this together, the bookies are telling us that, though the odds are against him, Davis has a real chance to survive the recall, and Schwarzenegger a better chance of winning the replacement election than Bustamante.

Second, the 2004 presidential election:  The Iowa options market was as surprised by the rise of Howard Dean as many other observers; in their options for the Democratic nomination, they have separate prices for Hillary Clinton (CLIN), Richard Gephardt, John Kerry (KERR), and Joe Lieberman (LIEB), but group Dean in with the rest of the field (ROF).   Ron Faucheux did not make that mistake, as you can see here, where he has just raised Dean's chances of winning the nomination to 16.7 per cent.   And, he thinks Gephardt has a good chance as the "Stop Dean" candidate.  Faucheux has not changed his estimate that George Bush has a 58.3 per cent chance of winning re-election for months.  America's Line gives almost the same odds for Bush (3/5), but a better odds for Dean (5/1).  And, the British bookmaker, William Hill, also puts Bush's chances of winning re-election at about 60 per cent.  Putting this all together, the betters are telling us that Bush currently has a 60 per cent chance of winning re-election, but that it is too soon to say who will win the Democratic nomination, since the sources give such different odds for the nominees.  
- 11:08 AM, 31 August 2003   [link]


Enemies of Bush:  Who?  Fascists like Saddam Hussein?   Radical Islamists like the late Osama bin Laden?  Crackpot Communists like North Korea's Kim Jong Il?  Leftists like the Democratic activists backing Howard Dean?   Yes to all, and, in addition, as Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank confesses, the White House press corps.
In the time-honored political tradition of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer, President Bush invited the White House press corps out to his ranch Wednesday night for a poolside barbecue.
(Milbank adds to his reputation for careless reporting and petulance with this article.   The event was not a barbecue.  And what kind of tough reporter complains about crickets?)
- 7:41 AM, 29 August 2003   [link]


Religious Tests For Judges?  Not formally, but in effect, as Charles Krauthammer explains.  Although Senator Schumer is not formally applying a religious test, he is excluding from the judiciary those who agree on abortion with the Roman Catholic church and other minor sects.  As is so often the case, Bill Clinton is partly to blame for these tests.  In 1992, he broke with centuries old precedent and said that he would use "litmus tests" for judges, at least on the matter of abortion.

(The issue has begun to worry some on the left.  Will Saletan, trying to counter it, argued that the Democrats should charge that Republicans were excluding Conservative and Reform Jews.   This argument fails for the most obvious of reason.  When Clinton sent two pro-abortion Jewish nominees to the Supreme Court (Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg), what did the Republicans do?  Did they filibuster, as the Senate Democrats are doing even for lower court nominees.  No, in fact most Republican Senators voted for them; as Wlady Pleszczynski noted, the two were confirmed by votes of 87-9 and 96-3, respectively.)
- 7:14 AM, 29 August 2003   [link]


Harvard University:  Hard not to be impressed, just by the name, isn't it?  (Not to mention the zillion dollar endowment.)  And the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy sounds like a worthy part of Harvard.  Who could object to a "research center dedicated to exploring the intersection of press, politics and public policy in theory and practice"?   And they may be right when they say the Center "has emerged as a major source for research on U.S. campaigns and elections, journalism and public policy, international news, and race, gender and the press".  So, what in the world is the Shorenstein Center (and Harvard) doing subsidizing the latest work by Al Franken?

Universities value credentials and publications.  They also value experience, including in the case of the Shorenstein Center, experience as a journalist or politician.  Does Al Franken have any academic credentials?  Any academic publications?  Any experience as an academic, a journalist, or a public official?  No, no, and no.   So why was he given a fellowship and 14 (!) research assistants so that he could write a popular book?  Apparently, for them, it is enough that he is a loud, angry, moderately well known leftist.  Remember that the next time you see a report from the Shorenstein Center, or the Kennedy School of Government, or Harvard.
- 11:35 AM, 28 August 2003   [link]


Osama bin Laden Is Still Dead:  Who says so?  Our greatest expert on the Middle East, Bernard Lewis.  I found this assessment in, of all places, Walter Scott's gossip column in the Sunday supplement, Parade.  (It does not seem to be available on line, though part of his column is.)
Q:  After all this time, why haven't we been able to catch Osama bin Laden?—V. K., Louisville, Ky.

A:  Because he's very likely dead.  According to Bernard Lewis, author of The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, recent statements issued by bin Laden don't ring true.  "Bin Laden is a great stylist in the Arabic language," says Professor Lewis, "and all of the statements purporting to come from him are dull and drab.  That's the most convincing evidence we have to date that he died in the American bombing campaign in Afghanistan."
- 10:28 AM, 27 August 2003   [link]


Still Another Health Benefit From Wine?  A chemical found in red wines (and grapes) has promising effects.  
Biologists have found a class of chemicals that they hope will make people live longer by activating an ancient survival reflex.  One of the chemicals, a natural substance known as resveratrol, is found in red wines, particularly those made in cooler climates like that of New York.
As the Instapundit noted, you can get your red wine from California, Chile, and Australia, as well as France.   In fact, you can get wine from any state in the United States, including Alaska.  (Despite the name of the site, it does not include all wineries, as this article explains.)   Two of the three Alaska wineries are, much to my surprise, on Kodiak island, best known for very large bears.  Finally, let me put in a plug for Northwest wines, which are not as well known as they should be.  After California, Washington and Oregon are second and third in the number of wineries.   Both states produce some very fine wines.  I am not a wine expert, but I have noticed that Washington Chardonnays and Oregon Pinot Noirs often win prizes in international competitions.
- 9:45 AM, 27 August 2003   [link]


Howard Dean is Chinese:  Or so thought Seattle resident Allen Potts, an African American who stumbled on to Dean's Seattle rally.  As Robert Jamieson notes in this column, Potts is hardly alone in his ignorance about Dean.  African Americans (and Hispanics) know little about Dean and are unlikely to support him.  Jamieson thinks this is a problem; I think it's a solution.  African Americans have been hurt very badly by their adherence to the Democratic party.  Over and over, for example, the Democrats have put teachers unions ahead of African Americans, and refused to make reforms in urban schools.  If Dean helps make these groups more independent and less tied to the Democratic party, they'll get more attention from both parties.

My guess, right now, is that Dean will never have much personal appeal to either African Americans or Hispanics.  Although a clever politician, without many scruples, Dean does not have the ability to connect to these groups that Bill Clinton, or even Al Gore, do.  I can't, for instance, see this son of a wealthy Wall Street family as very comfortable campaigning in black churches.
- 9:17 AM, 27 August 2003   [link]


Really, I'm Not Making This Up:  We are in a war with terrorists, a war fought all over the world.  In the middle of this war:
A federal judge in San Francisco on Tuesday prohibited the U.S. Navy from testing a powerful sonar system in most of the world's oceans, ruling that the booming sounds to detect enemy submarines could "irreparably harm" whales, dolphins and fish.
There's an obvious point to be made about the extent of the danger from the system, a point anyone who has gone to a rock concert will understand.  Distance matters.  Very possibly, marine mammals and fish could be hurt by the system, if they were right in front of it.  Few will be, and none are likely to be attracted by the sounds.

Some may wonder whether this sonar system could be used in the war on terror.  Possibly.   Both North Korea and Iran have submarines, and both have supported terror.

Here's the full Los Angeles Times story.   (Annoying LA Times registration required.)
- 8:14 AM, 27 August 2003   [link]


Worth Reading:  Debra Saunders draws attention to a curious paradox.   Opponents of the Patriot Act claim that it stifles free speech—and they want Attorney General John Ashcroft stopped from speaking about it:
Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, wrote to Ashcroft that speeches he delivered in U.S. cites to boost the besieged Patriot Act appeared to conflict with congressional rules regarding "publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by Congress."  Conyers objected to Ashcroft's goal of setting the record straight on the USA Patriot Act -- that is, correcting the anti-Patriot Act propaganda -- and suggested that Ashcroft "desist from further speaking engagements" until he could establish that what he was doing was legit.  (DOJ attorneys disagree with Conyers' interpretation.)

In a press release, the American Civil Liberties Union "questioned" the Department of Justice's "use of public money to counter broad public concern about the expansive surveillance powers of the law."
Saunders also notes another curious point.  Those who attack the Patriot Act are certain that it will lead to abuses—but can cite no examples of those abuses.  (I heard an example of just that last weekend, when Democratic state chairman, Paul Berendt, a critic of the act, was asked for examples on a talk radio program.  He could think of none, which did not seem to embarrass him in the least.)

Read the whole thing.
- 10:15 AM, 26 August 2003   [link]


Many Voters Use the National Lampoon Definition of Best,  the top item on a pile of similar items.  Estimates put the advantage of being first on the ballot at about 3 per cent, which is enough to decide many elections.  That's why, as this Los Angeles Times article explains, the ballot positions for all 135 candidates to replace Gray Davis will be scrambled.  (Annoying LA Times registration required.) The 3 per cent estimate is for presidential elections; in other elections, with less publicized candidates, it may well be much larger.

This effect illustrates a general point that is easy to miss, if you are well educated and follow politics closely.  Large numbers of voters are not well informed, and have trouble making choices as the ballot gets complicated.  If we want them to participate in meaningful ways, we must remember their limitations.  For example, it is wise, I think, to have election rules that narrow the choices in the general elections, to 7 candidates, or fewer.
- 9:38 AM, 26 August 2003   [link]


Routine Anti-Americanism, Example 10:  This short article in the anti-American tabloid, the Mirror, shows a reckless disregard for truth.  The Mirror publicizes this idiotic claim by the brother of a Reuters cameraman who was accidentally shot by American forces:
But Nazmi Dana said: "The US troops killed my brother in cold blood.

"Mazen told me by phone a few days before his death that he discovered a mass grave dug by US troops to conceal the bodies of their fellow comrades killed in Iraqi resistance attacks.

"US forces knowingly killed him to prevent him from airing his finding."
This is, of course, crazy.  If Mazen actually said this, it explains much about Reuters, a "news service" with its own streak of anti-Americanism.  There is no such mass grave, and the Mirror knows this.  Note that the Mirror does not even include a denial from American military authorities of this ridiculous idea.  That would spoil the effect of the charge of murder.
- 9:10 AM, 26 August 2003   [link]


Money Losing Leftists:  You can see the influence of ideology in the newspapers, on television, and in the movies, by the willingness of leftists to lose money.  The Seattle PI is losing money, and losing market share to the Seattle Times.   It is especially weak in the Seattle suburbs, where there are many conservatives and the Republican party is much stronger than it is in Seattle.  In spite of all this, the newspaper published this guest column, with the simple message that conservatives are stupid and unenlightened.  The circulation manager at the PI must have wept when he saw this insult to potential customers.

(The column is just a little misleading.  It is true that you find far more Democrats (and liberals) where college professors gather.  It is also true that you will find more among the illiterates and those with almost no education.  Republicans have a higher average education than Democrats, but there are more Democrats at both the top and bottom.  While we are on the subject of comparisons, I might add that criminals are far more likely to be Democrats than Republicans.  And, of course, Washington state's senior senator, Democrat Patty Murray, is a consistent winner of the "not a rocket scientist award" given to the dumbest senators.)

You can see another example in the special treatment ABC has given to former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos.   His program, once in first place under moderate conservative David Brinkley, has fallen to third.  Is ABC looking for a new host?  No, at least not yet.  Instead they are bringing in help for Stephanopoulos, with a new producer and fancier graphics.

And you can see still another example in Michael Medved's Hollywood vs. America.   Hollywood, which used make piles of money with pro-religious films like The Ten Commandments or The Robe now makes anti-religious films that lose money.   Hollywood used to make family films that everyone could see; now they make many R-rated films that exclude children, and often lose money.  Medved, who worked in Hollywood, says that film executives make these money-losing decisions out of a desire to be fashionably left.

Most of the money being lost belongs to other people, of course, not the leftists making the decisions.  (Shareholders in these companies may want to raise questions at the annual meeting over this, but that's a separate matter.)  But, not all the money.  In the PI's case, some of those making these decisions may actually be risking their careers in order to publish silly pieces like that column.  I am not intimately familiar with the newspaper business, but I doubt that you enhance your resume by helping destroy a newspaper.
- 8:31 AM, 26 August 2003   [link]


Worth Reading:  General Ion Mihai Pacepa was, as he puts it, "a former Romanian spy chief who used to take orders from the Soviet KGB".  In this column, he describes what may have happened to Saddam's weapons:
The Soviet Union and all its bloc states always had a standard operating procedure for deep sixing weapons of mass destruction—in Romanian it was codenamed "Sarindar, meaning "emergency exit."  I implemented it in Libya.  It was for ridding Third World despots of all trace of their chemical weapons if the Western imperialists ever got near them.  We wanted to make sure they would never be traced back to us, and we also wanted to frustrate the West by not giving them anything they could make propaganda with.

All chemical weapons were to be immediately burned or buried deep at sea.  Technological documentation, however, would be preserved in microfiche buried in waterproof containers for future reconstruction.  Chemical weapons, especially those produced in Third World countries, which lack sophisticated production facilities, often do not retain lethal properties after a few months on the shelf and are routinely dumped anyway.  And all chemical weapons plants had a civilian cover making detection difficult, regardless of the circumstances.
There was a propaganda program to go with the destruction of the weapons and the concealment of the plans.  Pacepa's argument that this is what happened to Saddam's weapons seems quite plausible.  One should always be cautious about believing accounts from people who have switched sides, but I know of no reason to distrust him.
- 8:32 AM, 25 August 2003   [link]


If You Have the Same Respect for the UN that I do, you'll want to see last Friday's Jack Higgins cartoon.  It takes three steps to get there.   First, click here, and then on "Higgins".  Then use the previous arrow below his current cartoon to scroll back to August 22.  Trust me, it's worth it.  Amazingly, this cartoon made it into the Sunday New York Times.
- 8:05 AM, 25 August 2003   [link]


Keep Them Beggars:  Roy Hattersley advises people to give money to street beggars without checking to see whether they even need it.  That these handouts will encourage them to stay beggars, which is cruel, does not change his mind.
So I am open to the criticism that I have a vested interest in beggars being left to rot on the streets rather than persuaded or, if necessary, driven into accepting more congenial accommodation.

Perhaps I do.
Perhaps?  It is this kind of moral mistake that George Bush's "compassionate conservatism" tries to correct.  Hattersley's handouts makes him feel pleasant temporarily, but encourages the beggars who receive them to continue their self destructive behavior.  It is easy to see what is important to Hattersley, not the welfare of the beggars, but his own feelings.
- 7:11 AM, 25 August 2003   [link]