October 2010, Part 1

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

They Aren't In a Race:  But, if they were, you would have to be impressed by the way Bush has (almost) closed the gap.
By 47 to 45 percent, Americans say Obama is a better president than George W. Bush.  But that two point margin is down from a 23 point advantage one year ago.

"Democrats may want to think twice about bringing up former President George W. Bush's name while campaigning this year," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.
Just imagine where the two would be if they had received roughly equal treatment from our "mainstream" journalists.

I expected this shift in public opinion, but not this soon.

(And Sarah Palin is only trailing Vice President Biden by 10 points.)
- 1:50 PM, 8 October 2010
More:  Even some Democrats are having second thoughts.
Obama and the Democrats have argued that if Republicans were to gain control of Congress, they would return to the policies of President George W. Bush.  Two-thirds of Democrats share that view and say it would be bad for the country.  But almost a quarter of Democrats say a GOP-led Congress would take the country in a new and better direction or say a return to Bush's policies would be good.
(Emphasis added.)
- 3:04 PM, 8 October 2010   [link]

How Accurate Were The Polls In 2006 And 2008?  Thomas Holbrook has a useful summary.

Most of the polls were within 5 points of the actual vote, but missed more often than would expect just from sampling error.  They might have done better with a smaller time window.
One thing to bear in mind, though, when looking at these error patterns, is that the deck is stacked somewhat against at least some of the polls.   I used a fifteen day window to make sure I had a large number of polls for each year.  One consequence of this is that many of the polls are being compare to an outcome that occured several days after they are conducted.  Assuming that there is at least some real movement in vote intention during this time period, one might expect a greater discrepancy between polls and votes than what is reported above.
Holbrook does not test that idea, by varying his time window, but it is plausible.

(I would have been happier if he had reported the actual errors rather than the absolute errors, since that would have shown us whether there was any overall bias in the polls.)
- 10:12 AM, 7 October 2010   [link]

Glad Nihat Ergun Cleared that up.
Istanbul - Muslim societies would never produce nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction, Turkey's minister of industry and trade said Wednesday.

Nihat Ergun was quoted by the state-run Anatolian Agency as saying that scientists based in an Islamic society would not allow such weapons to be developed.
Though I would be even happier if he had told us why he thinks Pakistan, Saddam's Iraq, Syria, Egypt (which used chemical weapons in Yemen), Iran, and Libya are not Islamic societies.
- 1:06 PM, 6 October 2010   [link]

Ever Wonder How Pollsters Select "Likely" Voters?  It isn't easy, as Mark Blumenthal explains, in the first part of a two-part series.

(Though Blumenthal doesn't say so, it is probably even harder to select likely voters in off-year elections than in presidential years.)
- 8:36 AM, 6 October 2010   [link]

Massachusetts Congressman John Tierney Is In Favor Of Higher Taxes:   So much so that the National Taxpayers Union gave him ratings of just 6 and 13 out of 100, in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

His wife may disagree with the Democratic congressman's position, at least for her family.
The wife of US Representative John F. Tierney is poised to plead guilty tomorrow to federal tax charges for managing a bank account that her brother allegedly used to deposit millions of dollars in illegal gambling profits he raked in from an offshore sports betting operation in Antigua.

Patrice Tierney, 59, who is married to the Salem Democrat, is charged with four counts of aiding and abetting the filing of false tax returns by her brother, Robert Eremian, of St. John's, Antigua.
To be fair, I should add that Congressman Tierney claims that his wife was "betrayed" by her brother.   On the other hand, her brother's record does not inspire trust.
- 7:30 AM, 6 October 2010   [link]

Meanwhile, Back In Barack Obama's Illinois (3):  It's getting more expensive for the state to borrow money.
Illinois capital-markets director John Sinsheimer and Citigroup Inc. bankers took a globe-girdling trip from the U.K. to China in June to persuade investors that the state's $900 million of Build America Bonds were a bargain.

The seven-country visit worked.  The state sold one-fifth of the federally subsidized securities abroad the next month, tapping investors who are the fastest-growing source of borrowed cash for U.S. municipalities.  Illinois, with the lowest credit rating of any state from Moody's Investors Service, dangled yields higher than Mexico, which defaulted on debt in 1982, and Portugal, which costs more to insure against missed payments.
(Emphasis added.)

Is it fair to blame Obama for Illinois' budgetary problems?  Only a little, since he was just a part-time state senator there.  But it is fair to put most of the blame on officials from his party, and, more recently, on Obama allies like former governor Rob Blagojevich.

And I have seen no evidence that Obama did anything to prevent these problems.

(I can't say that I have made a formal study of the matter, but I am inclined to think that, when foreigners start getting into a class of American investments, it is usually a good idea to think hard about getting out of that class.

Earlier posts in this series here and here.)
- 7:15 AM, 6 October 2010   [link]

Dueling Generic Ballots:  Jay Cost tries to reconcile diverging Gallup and Rasmussen results.
Conflicting numbers last night from Gallup and Rasmussen on the generic ballot.  Rasmussen finds a tighter race than earlier, with the GOP holding a three-point lead.  Gallup, meanwhile, says that if the election were held today, the Democrats might be on track for a 1920-style debacle, when the Wilsonian version of the party won just 38 percent of the two-party vote.
I agree with Cost's conclusion that Gallup's results are "unrealistic", but I would add this for perspective:  Judging by elections since 1994, even a three point advantage in the popular vote would give Republicans control of the House.

(A brief review:  The Republicans had control of districting in enough states after recent censuses so that the gerrymanders probably even out, roughly.  But the "majority-minority" districts that were created during the same time tended to concentrate the most loyal Democratic voters — mostly blacks and some Hispanics — in a few districts.

As a result, Republicans should be able to win control of the House with an even split in the popular vote.   That's pretty much what happened in 2000, for instance.)
- 7:37 AM, 5 October 2010   [link]

Now There's A Yard Sign That Makes A Point:  And a valid point, in my opinion.

Dueling Inslee signs

I saw one of these signs this afternoon, and was delighted.  Most yard signs (street signs?) are bland signs, good only for name recognition.  It's great to see one with a message.  (The picture came by email from the Watkins campaign.)

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(Some background for those who don't follow Washington state politics closely.  My congressman, Jay Inslee, though originally from the Seattle area, represented a district east of the Cascades for one term, but was defeated by Doc Hastings in 1994.  He moved back here, and in a more Democratic year, 1998, captured the 1st district, where I live.  We've been unable to get rid of this professional politician ever since, though Inslee has no significant accomplishments in all those years in Congress.

His underdog opponent, James Watkins, is running a vigorous and clever campaign.)
- 5:08 PM, 4 October 2010   [link]

Some California Welfare Recipients may not need the money.
More than $69 million in California welfare money, meant to help the needy pay their rent and clothe their children, has been spent or withdrawn outside the state in recent years, including millions in Las Vegas, hundreds of thousands in Hawaii and thousands on cruise ships sailing from Miami.

State-issued aid cards have been used at hotels, shops, restaurants, ATMs and other places in 49 other states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam, according to data obtained by The Times from the California Department of Social Services.  Las Vegas drew $11.8 million of the cash benefits, far more than any other destination.  The money was accessed from January 2007 through May 2010.
It's good to see the LA Times doing this kind of investigation.
- 12:41 PM, 4 October 2010   [link]

News Tips On Elections:  This morning, I was feeling mischievous and so I sent a tip to one of our local TV stations, Q13:

Dear Q13 folks:

I thought that you would like to know that we have an election just one month from now, and that there are many vigorous campaigns being conducted, right now.

For example, there are brisk contests in these House districts: 8th, 3rd, 2nd, 9th, and 1st, all of them at least partly in your broadcast area.  I can't recall seeing any Q13 stories on any of these races.  As far as I know, Q13 hasn't even told viewers about Congressman Jay Inslee's refusal to debate his opponent, James Watkins.  (Since Inslee hopes to run for governor in 2012, this might interest many outside the 1st district, as well as inside it.)

There are also many sharply-contested state legislative races.  Most aren't that hard to cover, since public-spirited organizations often organize candidate forums.  For example, there's one tonight at 6 PM for the 45th district at the Woodmark hotel at Carillon Point, and there's another a week later at the same place for 48th district candidates.  Both are sponsored by the Kirkland Chamber of Commerce and the Kirkland Rotary.  An enterprising reporter should be able to find many more , without much effort.

If I can help you out in covering these stories, please let me know.

Jim Miller

(If you think that I was being too sarcastic, take a look at Q13's "Politics" web page.  As I write, the only story that even mentioned our elections was an AP story with a little bit on the Murray-Rossi senate race.   Even there, all they told the voters was that the race was close, but that Murray was less threatened than other Democratic incumbents.)

Cross posted at Sound Politics.
- 10:33 AM, 4 October 2010   [link]

We Were Warned About The Coming Financial Crisis In 2005:  By economist Raghuram Rajan.
In 2005, at the annual Jackson Hole, Wyo., conference of the world's leading central bankers, the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, Raghuram Rajan, presented a brilliant paper that constituted the first prominent warning of the coming crisis.  Rajan pointed out that the structure of financial-sector compensation, in combination with complex financial products, gave bankers huge cash incentives to take risks with other people's money, while imposing no penalties for any subsequent losses.   Rajan warned that this bonus culture rewarded bankers for actions that could destroy their own institutions, or even the entire system, and that this could generate a "full-blown financial crisis" and a "catastrophic meltdown."
(Emphasis added.)

You don't have to be an economist to understand that problem, but, as the next paragraph goes on to say, economist Larry Summers didn't.  In fact, he attacked Rajan sharply after hearing the presentation.

Obama chose Larry Summers as an economic advisor, even though he seems to have missed the approaching financial crisis in 2005.  (It's hard to say whether Obama ever paid much attention to Summers.  Probably not, I would guess.  Obama likes to have "names" in apparently advisory positions, but seems to spend little time listening to their advice.)  Rajan might have been a better choice.

(The article I took this from is an attack, from the left, on Summers, and similar economists.  I'm not sure how fair it is to him, in general, but there seems to be no doubt that Rajan was right, and Summers wrong in 2005.  But I may be a bit biased, since Paul Krugman doesn't get along well with Rajan, always a plus in my book.)
- 9:30 AM, 4 October 2010   [link]

Think The United States Has Bank Problems?  Not compared to Ireland.
Still, in a neighborhood of stubbornly high budget deficits and expanding debt burdens, Ireland stands out.  It now looks as if the cost to the government just for supporting its banks could reach up to 50 billion euros, or $68 billion.  That is by far the biggest bill that any country, outside of Iceland, has had to pay, relative to its size, as a result of the financial crisis.

According to Brian Lenihan, the country's finance minister, Ireland will report a budget deficit of 32 percent of gross domestic product in 2010, after accounting for the government's investments in its failing banks.
There are two obvious ways to scale that rescue cost up to American size, by population and by GDP.   You get about the same answer either way, roughly $5 trillion.  (Don't pass this on to anyone in the Obama administration; it might give them ideas.)

(The Times article doesn't tell us much about how Ireland got into this fix, other than saying the country had a real estate boom that went bust in 2007.)
- 7:36 AM, 4 October 2010   [link]

The Power Of Round Numbers:  Shows up everywhere, including at the end of a baseball season.
Two economists at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, while investigating how round numbers influence goals, examined the behavior of major league hitters from 1975 to 2008 who entered what became their final plate appearance of the season with a batting average of .299 or .300 (in at least 200 at-bats).

They found that the 127 hitters at .299 or .300 batted a whopping .463 in that final at-bat, demonstrating a motivation to succeed well beyond normal (and in what was usually an otherwise meaningless game).
And not one of the 61 .299 hitters drew a walk.

Which makes you wonder how well they would hit if they brought the same dedication to every at bat, or even every last at bat in a game.

(Of course modern managers would not be happy with that lack of walks.)
- 8:25 PM, 3 October 2010   [link]

Charles Blow Reveals a Democratic party secret.
The unpleasant fact that these liberals rarely mention, and may not know, is that large swaths of the Democratic base, groups they need to vote in droves next month — blacks, Hispanics and young people — are far less civically literate than their conservative counterparts.

Therein lies the hurdle for the Democrats: How can they excite this part of the base that is not engaged and knowledgeable in an off-year election?  How can they motivate these voters to help Democrats maintain their Congressional majorities when, according to a poll released this week by the Pew Research Center, 42 percent of blacks, 42 percent of Hispanics and 35 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 years old don't even know that Democrats have a majority in the House?  It's sad.  Pathetic, really. But it's a political reality.  (Only 71 percent of Democrats overall knew that Democrats had a majority in the House.  By comparison, 82 percent of Republicans knew it.)
Blow urges Democrats to work harder to inform their base groups, and bring them to the polls.

But he should consider the possibility that informing those voters would move them to vote — for Republicans.  For instance, suppose you are a young person who is vaguely unhappy with Congress, but don't know which party has been running Congress since the 2006 election.  Would learning which party has been in charge make you more likely to vote for Democrat, or a Republican?
- 1:26 PM, 2 October 2010   [link]

Charles Krauthammer And Eugene Robinson Agree:  Obama's Afghanistan strategy is unlikely to produce a victory.

First, Krauthammer.
What kind of commander in chief sends tens of thousands of troops to war announcing in advance a fixed date for beginning their withdrawal?  One who doesn't have his heart in it.  One who doesn't really want to win but is making some kind of political gesture.  One who thinks he has to be seen as trying but is preparing the ground -- meaning, the political cover -- for failure.

Until now, the above was just inference from the president's public rhetoric.  No longer.  Now we have the private quotes.  Bob Woodward's new book, drawing on classified memos and interviews with scores of national security officials, has Obama telling his advisers: "I want an exit strategy."   He tells the country publicly that Afghanistan is a "vital national interest," but he tells his generals that he will not do the kind of patient institution-building that is the very essence of the counterinsurgency strategy that Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus crafted and that he -- Obama -- adopted.
Eugene Robinson, though he tries to shield President Obama from blame, makes a parallel argument.
For me, the most striking revelation from uber-journalist Bob Woodward's new book, "Obama's Wars," is the extent to which the officials who are planning and prosecuting this war recognize how unlikely it is to end well.

Begin with President Obama.  He campaigned on the position that the United States should end the war in Iraq so that more attention and resources could be focused on Afghanistan, which he subsequently has called a "war of necessity."
And then, according to Robinson, Obama decided that it wasn't really a "war of necessity", but was snookered by the Pentagon into an open-ended commitment.

(Robinson does not say, directly, that Obama — and John Kerry before him — were wrong to promise to prosecute the war in Afghanistan more vigorously, but I think that's a fair inference from what he does say.)

What Krauthammer realizes, and Robinson has yet to face, is just how incredibly irresponsible this Obama strategy is.  If Obama believes what Woodward says he believes, then he should be looking for a way to cut our losses, not escalating.

(Robinson begins his column with what he thinks are rhetorical questions:
Would somebody please remind me just what it is that we're achieving in Afghanistan?  Don't all speak at once.  No, I mean what good things we're accomplishing.  Anybody?  Hello?
In fact, there are many good answers to those questions, beginning with preventing another genocide.  Robinson, like Obama, may feel a possible genocide is not worth avoiding, but most Americans would disagree.)
- 9:02 AM, 1 October 2010   [link]

Cato Grades 45 of 50 Governors:  (Four — the governors of Kansas, New Jersey, Virginia, and Utah — are omitted because they haven't been in office long; Alaska's governor is omitted because Alaska's budget is so different from the other states.)

On taxing and spending, the libertarian think tank gives "A" grades to four governors, three of them Republicans, and "F" grades to seven governors, six of them Democrats.

Here's how my own governor earned her "F".

Chris Gregoire of Washington has supported many large tax increases over the years.  In 2005, she raised taxes on cigarettes, gasoline, liquor, and vehicles, and she reestablished an estate tax after a previous version was struck down by the state supreme court.  In the boom years before 2008, Gregoire blocked efforts to cut taxes.  While campaigning for reelection in 2008, Gregoire argued in favor of spending cuts rather than tax increases to balance the budget.  But once reelected, she approved a large tax-hike package including increases in business taxes, sales taxes, cigarette taxes, beer taxes, and candy taxes.  Gregoire seems always to take the big-government side in referendum issues before voters.  She has opposed ballot efforts to cap government budget growth and to require legislative supermajorities to raise taxes.  This year, Gregoire supported putting a measure on the November ballot to create a state income tax, even though state voters have turned down an income tax numerous times in the past.

(Activists, let by the older Bill Gates, are trying again to impose an income tax here, on only the rich they say, though it could be extended by the legislature, two years after it was passed.)

This is a useful exercise, though I would like to see more on the state legislatures, which, after all, do control the purse strings.  For example:  Cato gives the Democratic governor of Wyoming, Dave Freudenthal, a "B" grade.  But I suspect that the heavy Republican majorities in the state legislature (41-18 and 23-7) may explain much of the spending restraint in the state.  Similarly, Cato gives the Republican governor of Hawaii, Linda Lingle, a "C".  But she has been faced with a legislature dominated by Democrats (45-6 and 23-2), and might have done much better with even a few more Republicans to support her.  In my own state, I have long suspected that Governor Gregoire's predecessor, Gary Locke, would have been almost as bad a spendthrift as she has been, — if he had had the same big Democratic majorities in the legislature.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.
- 7:04 AM, 1 October 2010
Correction:  I had the numbers on the grades wrong in the second paragraph.  I've corrected them in the text above.  Thanks to commenter "ewaggin" at Sound Politics for catching my mistake.
- 3:39 PM, 1 October 2010   [link]