Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The race that is too tough to understand.

Here is the election.princeton.edu final predictions for Senate Races, presented on a handy-dandy scorecard.

And here are the predictions for Governor's races.

Major news media are ignoring an exciting race in Alaska. Is it is too hard to cover because of the time zones and the environment? Or is it too hard to explain? To make the matter worse, people like Sam Wang, of election.princeton.edu, don’t understand the situation in Alaska; and therefore, their math doesn’t add up.

Here’s what you need to know.

In both the gubernatorial and the senate races, the favored candidate is given a 62% chance of a win because he is ahead by one percentage point (plus or minus 3 or more percentage points.) The surprising prediction is that in the Senate, Dan Sullivan (the Republican) is favored, while in the Governor’s race, the Republican is considered more likely to lose.

For that to happen a LOT of Alaskans would have to split their votes, choosing a Republican senator, and a Governor who ran as an Independent and then formed a fusion ticket with the Democratic nominee, Byron Mallot, a leader the Native Rights movement. Given that former AG, Dan Sullivan is to the Native Rights movement what the bus driver who kicked Rosa Parks off the bus is to the Civil Rights Movement, it’s difficult to imagine anyone who would vote for Native Rights Activist Byron Mallot and Former Attorney General Sullivan, prosecutor of Katy John So much the more so in light of the endorsement given to Begich by the Alaska Federation of Natives.

It follows, that at least one of Sam Wang’s two Alaska predictions is wrong. We don’t know which, so the odds that it could be either is 50-50. Therefore, both races are precisely toss-ups. This sounds like some arithmatic sleight of hand, but it is no different from the process by which Dr. Wang averages polls in a particular race. The novelty is that I am averaging a senate race with a governor’s race: I reject the assumption that the two variables are independent. Do the math,  (But note that Dr. Wang is ever so slightly more sure of Sullivan than he is of Walker/Mallot.)

However, and here’s where subjective feeling enters in, I say it is the prediction that Sullivan will beat Begich that is incorrect. I am betting on Mark Begich and I say, it’s easy money. He is an Alaskan, son of an Alaskan congressman, who done good, and we don't set the bar too high up here. (Just google Sarah Palin, or Don Young.) Factor in women's issues and this ain't as hard to figure as some Sci-Fi movie. It's psephology.

Plus: can you say, "ground game?"

“… and tell ‘em Big Mitch sent ya!”

(Written the night BEFORE the election.)

Friday, June 06, 2014

The cure for predator corporations

If you are a corporation and you pay non-unionized labor so little that they can’t live on their salary without government benefits such as food-stamps, WIC, and TANF, then you are a predator corporation. You are taking profits from the labor of others, and not paying for it. Instead, the government is paying for it, and passing the bill along to the taxpayers. Some might say it is highly immoral to “wring[ your] bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

Anyway, it isn’t illegal.

Now, just about any solution to this problem will undoubtedly be condemned as “income redistribution” or, worse, “socialism.” Never mind that anytime you go into Walmart and pay 25 cents for a trinket that they got from China for 10 cents, your income is being redistributed to the Waltons and the Chinese.

But the Republican fetish for free markets regards the Waltons as geniuses who are simply playing by the rules and making money. Ain’t that what capitalism is supposed to be?

Here’s an idea which is so crazy, it just may work.
Supposed you passed a law that said that anybody who works for a non-union shop with more than 500 employees is ineligible for government benefits unless they are paid $15.00/hr.  The Republican anti-government crowd would have to at least acknowledge that it is not an expansion of the social safety net. 

They might even welcome it as a dismantling of what they see as a “welfare state.” Since, by its terms the law would enable some employers to pay union workers less than non-union workers it might be seen as a blow to the unions.

Most states and localities will see a savings from the reduction of need for social services. They can pass the savings along in reduced taxes. Or they can do a little infrastructure building, producing jobs and higher quality of life. Or they can undo some of the cuts to education that been necessitated by the recent reign of austerity.

But you know who isn’t going to like it? That would be the Walton family. You see, their business model doesn’t work without getting someone else to pay for their workers. What will they do when people refuse to work for them unless they are paid enough to live on? And by “paid enough to live on,” I mean, paid by their employers enough to live on. You see, it is just not worth it to work for the Waltons, without subsidies from the government. 

Maybe they will decide that unions aren’t such a bad thing after all. I doubt it, but as they say, it’s hard to predict the future. After all, unions have the power of numbers with which to negotiate a living wage. Maybe the Walton family will have to tighten their belts, though it is hard to imagine what they will have to do without. Maybe the CEO of McDonalds will have to scrape by 4.1 million a year (as he did in 2011) rather than the $13.8 million he was given this year. I think we can all agree that this is a bummer for him but it is not as bad as working for 30 hours a week and making $217.50.

It may be that prices at Walmart and fast food places have to go up. That’s not so bad, either. According to the laws of supply and demand, people may eat less Mickey D. You got a problem with that? It may be that the trinket that Walmart purchased in China for 10 cents to sell to you, may cost you 27 cents instead of two bits. Think of the two cent difference as the amount your locality saved on costs, and if you didn’t get it back on your tax bill, enjoy your new road, or your kid’s music class. By the way, if you would like to manufacture trinkets in American, to sell in your own trinket boutique, you are two cents closer to being able to compete with Chinese imports.

Talk this over with the next economist you meet,

“… and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Catholic vote

In the last six presidential elections the candidate who won the Catholic vote has won the popular vote. Al Gore won the popular vote handily but lost the Supreme Court case of Bush v Gore. (Held: counting votes is unconstitutional.)
President Obama carried the Catholic vote 50 percent to 48 percent while he won the overall national vote 51 percent to 47 percent. That's the third straight Presidential election where the Catholic vote has been a near-carbon copy of the overall vote.

Many Catholic voters are Latino, a group that gave Obama 71% of their votes. Republican attitudes towards immigration aren’t going to win over many of these voters. Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the GOP shouldn’t even bother to field a presidential candidate in 2016 unless Congress passes immigration reform this year. Spoiler alert: they are not going to do it.

The Catholic vote historically was solidly Democratic, but Richard Nixon undertook to create a “new majority” and enlisted Pat Buchanan to capture the Catholic vote. Buchanan suggested, among other things, appointing Italian-Americans to visible positions, going so far as to suggest that the so-called “black seat” or “Jewish seat” on the Supreme Court be given to an ethnic Catholic when it became available. (He was for quotas before he was against them.) Today, there are no Protestants on the Court, and the only Black on the court is Catholic. There are three “ethnic Catholics” – Alito, Scalia, and Sotomeyor.

In 1972 President Nixon, upon the suggestion of Buchanan, wrote to Cardinal Cooke expressing his opposition to abortion and supporting the effort to repeal the liberal N.Y. law. (Interestingly, in the 1970s, conservative Christian protests against sexual immorality began to surface, largely as a reaction to the “permissive sixties” and an emerging prominence of sexual liberties arising from Roe v Wade and the gay rights movement. Christians began to “wake up” and make sexuality issues a priority political cause, per Wiki. I’ll discuss how these voters can be recaptured at a later date.)

The Republican efforts to appeal to Catholic voters achieved some success. Today, it is still assumed that for many Catholic voters -- especially white Catholics -- abortion is a key issue, that many of these voters went for Romney, and that they may go to the Republican nominee in 2016.

I am not so sure that the issue of abortion has as much salience for Catholics as it once had. In a poll in October 2013, thirty-nine percent of all respondents — and 42 percent of self-identified Catholics – felt abortion should be illegal in either “all” or “most” cases. Catholics are just not that different from Americans as a whole.

Pope Francis is not going to change church doctrine regarding this issue. But he has suggested that the church’s focus on abortion can be re-examined. Here is how he put it:
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

It is clear that he prefers to keep the attention on wealth inequality and concern for the poor. His comments on fairness very nearly amount to an open rebuke of Paul Ryan, an early contender for the Republican nomination. For sake of discussion, let’s call the issue of wealth inequality “fairness.”

This is not the place to discuss the many reasons that “fairness” as an issue can be embraced by a huge majority of voters, though they are not necessarily the most motivated. Suffice it to say, that 2016 has the potential to pit populists against plutocrats and Catholics are the natural constituency of the populists. Of course, this is true of Latino Catholics, but it is also true of white Catholics in general, many of whom are blue collars workers including those who are feeling disempowered by the decline of labor union power.

Can the issues of abortion and fairness be linked? It will take more than the formulation that Bill Clinton used, which has been taken up by Hillary Clinton: “Abortion should be safe, legal and rare.”

In point of fact, abortions are down in the United States under President Obama. In 2011, approximately 1.06 million abortions took place in the U.S., down from an estimated 1.21 million abortions in 2008, 1.29 million in 2002, 1.31 million in 2000 and 1.36 million in 1996. The main driver of abortion levels is the economy. Put another way, improving the economic circumstances of the poor is the most effective anti-abortion program available in America.

If this point can be driven home to Catholics, a significant shift in voting patterns can be achieved. “Want to eliminate abortion? Vote Democratic!” “Access to Birth Control means fewer abortions.” “Fairness = fewer abortions.”

One hundred, twenty-seven million voters cast votes in the 2012 election One quarter of the votes (i.e. almost 32 million) were cast by Catholics.

A 51.1 – 47.2 percentage split of the popular vote in favor of Obama produced a margin of victory of 1,053,000 votes, and a decisive victory in the Electoral College. 

If the next Democratic candidate can shift just 2% of the Catholic vote in his or her favor, that’s a 1,280,000 cushion that would virtually guarantee a victory for the Democratic nominee. 

And, if you are listening, Joe Biden, it wouldn’t hurt if the nominee himself was a proud Catholic. And, Joe, if you do decide to run …

“… tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

AIPAC reconsidered.

AIPAC is at a cross-road. It has sided with President Barack Obama in a very public dispute with some of the most pro-Israel members of both houses of Congress.

First the background. The U.S. and Israel share a foreign policy goal of keeping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Israel’s reasons are existential. The American administration is motivated by our strong commitment to Israel, as well as the realpolitik observation that Iran with nuclear weapons is unstable enough all by herself, but if that were to come about, the resultant nuclear arms race in the region would pose unacceptable risks.

The U.S. has waged a campaign against Iran that included sabotage, in which effort they have received support from the Israelis. Iranian nuclear scientists have a habit of dying in suspicious circumstances, though, of course, nobody is taking credit. And then there were the sanctions. Here’s where you can read about the history of the U.S. efforts to first support and then discourage Iran’s nuclear program. (Executive Summary: Democrats are tougher on Iran than Republicans. By far.)

The election of 2008 produced Democratic majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and, of course, a Democratic President. Congress passed “the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), with bi-partisan support and President Obama signed it into law July 1, 2010. The CISADA greatly enhanced restrictions in Iran. The sanctions regime had the desired result: Iran came to the negotiating table.

The negotiations resulted in an interim agreement which I discussed here. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu said that the agreement was the “deal of the century” for the Iranians, but President Obama argued that the interim agreement was a reasonable effort to avoid war, and further that the movement in Congress to pass additional, conditional sanctions would be counter-productive.  This is what he said at the State of the Union address:
 “It is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran's nuclear program -- and rolled back parts of that program -- for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium. 
“It's not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we're engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. 
 “These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran's support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we're clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don't rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.
 “The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible. But let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed. 
“If Iran's leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. But if Iran's leaders do seize the chance -- and we'll know soon enough -- then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.”

That “new sanctions bill” that the President referenced was actually a thing, and AIPAC had been pushing it for months. But last week AIPAC reversed course, and agreed with Democrats who had said that “now is not the time” for new sanctions.  This move angered Republican supporters of the new sanctions bill, and it didn’t go down too well with the Israeli administration. According to the Daily Beast one GOP Senate staffer put it like this: “Republicans responded with a big middle finger.”

How did it happen that AIPAC was on the wrong side of this issue for so long? And how could it be that AIPAC could fail so spectacularly in bringing along the Republicans when it saw the light? And worst of all, how could it possibly get cross-wise with the Israeli administration?

There are people – you may even know some of them – who just hate President Obama. Netanyahu’s strained relationship with the American President has been reported on extensively. Perhaps it is because of Bibi’s close association with Mitt Romney, which led to him breaching the well-known norm of international behavior and interfering in the American internal politics.

More likely, he regards the change in American policy as a cause of the Arab Spring and therefore a dangerous thing. He’s wrong, of course, since as we have seen, the Arab Spring has resulted in the defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, (exactly as I predicted here) and the emergence of a free Libya with the death of Quaddafi. And let's not forget the disarming of the Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles. So, AIPAC could be negative about Obama and be in line with the Israeli PM’s opinion, misguided though it was. And if Bibi said that the interim deal with the Iranians was bad, AIPAC can’t be blamed for saying so. After all, they are the Israel Lobby, aren’t they?

Well, actually, I do blame them for saying that the interim deal was bad. I’m willing to forgive and forget in light of the fact that they have come to the position that I advocated before last Christmas. But I would hope that AIPAC would learn from their mistake. And what was that mistake? The mistake was in confusing Israel’s interests with Bibi Netanyahu’s interests. It has been observed that AIPAC is no longer the Israel Lobby, but rather, the Likud Lobby. (President Shimon Peres and many other prominant Israelis were much less critical of the interim deal than the PM.) 

But Bibi isn’t the only one who doesn’t like Obama. There’s a contingent of Americans who can’t stand the sight of him. I won’t speculate on why that is, though others have suggested that, like everything else in America, considerations of race enter into it.

Although AIPAC has taken steps to reverse the perception (or fact) that it has a right-leaning bias, AIPAC has also reached out with renewed vigor to a core Republican constituency, viz., evangelical Christians. Groups like CUFI (Christians United For Israel) are a natural target audience for this effort.

Some Jews say that Israel – or Jews in general, for that matter – cannot be too selective in her friends. It’s a case I might have made with regard to Israel’s association with apartheid Union of South Africa in a by-gone era. But in that case, I would have been observing Israel’s relationship to a third party. Now, we are looking at the relationship between Israel – a country and a people I love –and the United States, a country that I am proud to call my own.

I am not the first person to question whether or not Israel can trust the love of our Christian brethren. One of the founding documents of Zionism was Leo Pinsker’s, Selbstemanzipation (Auto-emancipation), published in 1882. Or more recently, Bob Dylan wrote, “Well, he got no allies to really speak of; What he gets he must pay for, he don't get it out of love.”

I’m all in favor of making strategic alliances. But in this instance, we see that fundamentalist Christians’ love of Israel was trumped by their Republican hatred of Obama. And since Republican politicians are petrified of being challenged in a primary by some fundamentalist Tea-party buffoon, they dance to whatever tune these fundamentalists call. 

Even if that amounts to a big middle finger to AIPAC.

After all, AIPAC committed an unforgiveable offense: it agreed with Obama. 

“… and tell ’Big Mitch sent ya!”

Sunday, January 12, 2014

What does it mean if Chris Christie survives this political scandal?

Let’s begin with something we can all agree on: Chris Christie is a mean, vindictive son-of-a bitch.

It seems unbelievable that Chris Christie would exact retribution against a mayor in his state for the perfectly reasonable position that he, the mayor, as a democrat should not endorse a Republican candidate for governor. So much the more so because the prank didn’t hit directly at the mayor of Fort Lee, but rather severely inconvenienced (and endangered) Fort Lee residents, most of whom voted for Christie.

Rachel Maddow and Steve Kornacki have other theories to explain why Christie would take such a mean, punitive action. These theories might be right or they might be wrong, but the fact is that the prevailing story is that Christie was just being mean because Mayor Mark Sokolitch of Ft. Lee refused to endorse him.

When such stories are not dismissed out of hand, and indeed, they are widely believed, it’s time to look at the culture that prevails in New Jersey. The picture that emerges is one of a political culture that has been described as “brass knuckles,” where revenge is not merely to be expected, but rather it is engaged in with the glee and √©lan that attaches to a favorite sport.

Let's take a closer look.

Christie hectors a member
of the Teacher's union
When Christie disagreed with the politics of State Senator Raymond Lesniak, a Democrat, whose district includes Elizabeth, the governor shut down the DMV in that city, the fourth largest in the state, to show his displeasure.

Here’s another example: Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop accuses Christie’s office of canceling several meetings with N.J. department heads on the day after he refused to endorse the governor. You may remember that Fulop’s name has already come up in connection with Bridge-gate. Emails reveal that a top Christie aide asks then-Port Authority official David Wildstein whether the agency had responded to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s complaints about the closures. “Radio silence,” Wildstein, a Christie ally, wrote on Sept. 9. “His name comes right after Mayor Fulop.”

In the spring, when Christie asked Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer to endorse him for re-election during a face-to-face meeting, Zimmer, a Democrat, told the governor no. After Hurricane Sandy, she applied to the state for a Hazard Mitigation Grant. When her request for grant funding came back, she said, Hoboken received $300,000 of the $100 million in grants requested — less than 1 percent. Pay-back, as they say in N.J., is a bitch.

Do you will recall that in Christie’s marathon press conference he talked about how important loyalty was to him? After Christie won the last election in a landside, former Gov. Tom Kean, Sr. said, “Chris just won reelection, he’s popular, and there is a sense he would be able to compete everywhere.” Kean is the only Republican in modern political history to score a higher percentage of the vote than Christie did in November. When he ran for reelection in 1985, Kean won with 71 percent of the vote. More importantly, he was Christie’s first political mentor. There’s a guy who deserves loyalty.

Unfortunately, it didn't extend to Kean’s son, Tom, Jr., who was in the Senate. He had a rather public feud with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D), with whom Christie has to work to get legislation through. As part of his effort to produce a Republican majority in the Senate majority, Kean had targeted Sweeney’s seat in the election. This is considered bad manners: New Jersey legislative leaders usually do not target each other for electoral defeat, and it didn’t go down well with Sweeney.

Rather than support his fellow Republican, Christie avoided campaigning in Southern NJ, where Kean hoped to oust Democrats. At a post-election news conference, Christie wouldn’t say he supported Kean’s continued leadership of the Senate caucus. Instead, Christie pointedly said he had just spoken — with Sweeney.

In 2010, when a blizzard paralyzed the state, State Senator Sean T. Kean, (no relation to Tom Kean) a Republican, told a reporter that the “one mistake” the Senate president and governor had made was not calling earlier for a state of emergency, which might have kept more cars off the roads. Christie could not abide that level of criticism. As the NYT tells the story,
Mr. Christie was smarting from criticism that he had remained at Disney World during the storm. When he returned, he held his first news conference in Mr. Kean’s home district. Shortly before, a member of the governor’s staff called Mr. Kean and warned him not to show up. His seat was eliminated in redistricting the following year. 
In another incident, Christie used his line item veto to eliminate a program to help women who suffer from post-partum depression. Why? Because the head of the foundation was married to State Senator Richard Cody, who happens to be a former governor. And what was his gripe against ex-guv Richard Cody? Nothing in particular. “I have to send Codey a message about who’s in charge,” said Chris Christie.

On another occasion, Christie tried to blame Cody for stalling two nominations that were not progressing in the Senate fast enough to please the governor. Quite reasonably, Cody pushed back by pointing out that he had not only signed off on the nominations, but had held a meeting to try to hurry them along. Christie reacted by stripping Cody of the security detail that is customarily afforded former governors. And, just in case that was too subtle, “that same day, his cousin, who had been appointed by Mr. McGreevey to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was fired, as was a close friend and former deputy chief of staff who was then working in the state Office of Consumer Affairs,” according to the NYT.

Last year, another Republican, State Senator Christopher Bateman, voted against the governor’s plan to reorganize the state’s public medical education system. Mr. Bateman had been working with the governor to get a judge appointed in his home county. Suddenly, after months when it looked as if it would happen, the nomination stalled.

Consider the example of noted and respected Rutgers Professor of Political Science Alan Rosenthal. He had been the chair of the New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission in 1992 and again in 2001. His obituary notes that “Rosenthal cast the deciding vote in the 2011 legislative redistricting, a process that dragged on for weeks, approving the map favored by the commission’s Democratic members.”  What happened after that? The two programs at Rutgers that were most dear to Dr. Rosenthal were slashed in the next budget.

Bill Baroni, who resigned over Bridge-gate had in the past been tasked with executing the governor’s vengeance. When Bill Lavin, an officer with a state firefighters’ union, publicly called for more productive dialogue between his organization and the governor, he received a call from Baroni, who said more than once, “The governor told me to make sure you don’t get this message mixed up; say these exact words.” What were those exact words? The New York Times didn’t consider them fit to print, but other sources have said that Mr. Baroni, quoted Mr. Christie as, “Go fuck yourself.”

The question raised by this sordid portrait is this: Suppose Mr. Christie survives this scandal. Will this rough and tumble attitude play well in Iowa where it is assumed that traditional values of courtesy and fair play prevail?

Before Bridge-gate, Cristie was the leading candidate for the Republican nomination. It is not because he was a soft-spoken, “blow-dried” creation of image consultants. Rather, he was famously rude to teachers and other constituents. Although this might have been off-putting, it set him apart from the anodyne Washington politicians. Some regarded his brusque, no-nonsense manner as an endearing quirk. 

As Bridge-gate develops, the public will become more familiar with the dark underside of his cruelty, some of which is catalogued above. Psychologists and social scientists have long been aware of the authoritarian personality type. Originally, it was measured on something called the f-scale. The f stands for fascism. More recently, social scientists have refined the concept and now speak of Right Wing Authoritarian Personality Type.

Call it what you may, but one characteristic is that the authoritarian personality admires a “leader who will use any means necessary.” It values “power and toughness.”

If the good people of Iowa turn from the nice man in the sweater vest who won last go-round, and they decide that what the country needs is a mean son-of-a-bitch to run against Hillary Clinton, then we will know that the soul of the Republican is really, at its core, pretty high on the f scale.

Of course, in the meantime, a steady trickle of revelations may lead to a situation in 2016 where Christie is, at best, irrelevant, and, at worst, a pariah.

“... and tell 'em Big Mitch sent ya!”