Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Father's Day Reflection on the Politics of Fear

I have been watching politics unfold for a long time—first as a young idealist hopeful to make the world a better place, later as a student of history interested in understanding the stories of our past, and now as a scholar and analyst helping others to understand the process and its intricacies. But today I write as a father concerned for the future of our political discourse. I’m specifically concerned when I see certain American politicians turn to fearmongering as a way to manipulate the electorate.

Politics has never been for the faint of heart, and very often, civil discourse can get drowned out by those who choose to be nastier than perhaps is necessary or over-simplistic in their rhetoric. And yet, this year—this time—is different. The tone is nastier, more simplistic, and more willing to disregard basic facts than at any time I have seen. It is a politics based upon raw emotion, rather than dispassionate analysis.

During this political season, I have seen candidates both nationally and here in Montana resort to the divisive language of “us” versus “them,” pretending that they are leaders for “telling it like it is.” These candidates purport to say what regular politicians refuse to voice, and because of that, they argue, we should lend them our support. They are not corruptible, they claim, because they are “one of us” and not “one of them.” They come from outside the contemptible, “broken” political system. They can make America, and Montana, great again because only they have the will to do the tough things the venal politicians in the pocket of special interests refuse to stomach.

These candidates aren’t tough and principled. They are master manipulators asking us to give in to our basest fears. They are unscrupulous charlatans selling us bill of goods.

That’s not leadership. It calls to mind the Red Panic following World War I, or the McCarthyism of the 1950s. Have we lost all decency?

Leaders don’t play on people’s fears. They acknowledge our fears, but inspire us to overcome them. They ask us to move beyond fear and bind us together. They do not push us apart. Leaders, like all of us, are not perfect. They make mistakes. But they fundamentally strive to bring out the best in us as a people, together.

Make no mistake: Political disputes are healthy and good in a republic. We should disagree and do so vigorously. The problem is when that discourse becomes poisoned by a desire to win a political argument at all costs. This mentality encourages doubling down on fear to marshal our darkest doubts against our perceived enemies. It fosters and deepens divisions between us. It is especially dangerous when that fear encourages a majority “us” versus a minority “them”—stoked by too cute by half political framing that skews facts to make a convenient argument.

All is not yet lost. We—the people—are at a time of choosing, Ronald Reagan once said. We can chose candidates that manipulate our fears to advance their campaign, or we can chose candidates who wish to overcome them. We can chose hucksters who have no fidelity to truth or civil discourse.

Or we can choose leaders.

May Americans be inspired to act together this election season “by the better angels of our nature” rather than give into our fear. If we choose to surrender to the “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,” then not only is our republic imperiled, but we really have lost our collective national soul.

May we choose wisely. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Why Did Terry Nelson's performance last night made me curious?

On Election Night, both Mike Dennison and I were struck by the vote totals obtained by Terry Nelson, who was running for the Republican nomination for Governor, and Eric Mills, who was running for the nonpartisan Supreme Court. Nelson obtained 24 percent of the vote, and Mills received 20 percent of the vote. Neither ran a campaign of any note, nor did they spend any money. Nelson had raised $1,300 but spent none of it. Mills had $300. Why did they do so well without spending any money? It was curious.

I said as much on air, and sent out a tweet about the Republican primary vote totals earlier today. Former standout student Kendall Cotton suggested it wasn't odd--about 25 percent of primary voters go to the second candidate since 1996. He suggested it was par for the course--there's not much to see here. Move along.

Then why did Governor Bullock manage to get 92 percent of the vote and his opponent only 8 percent? I actually expected there would be more of a Democratic protest vote given that he is on his third Lt. Governor and the persistent attacks in paid media over the Governor's use of his plane. So it seemed odder still that Greg Gianforte, who I presumed had pretty much universal Republican support, would have done better than 75 percent. Especially given the fact that his opponent spent nothing.

Kendall's explanation sounded interesting. But then I looked at campaign finance expenditures from Follow The Money. Take a peak:

1996. Natelson received 23 percent of the vote in 1996 Republican primary. He spent $125,000.
2000. Natelson received 43 percent of the vote in the 2000 Republican primary. He spent $219,000.
2004. John Vincent received 27 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. He spent $48,000.
2008. Larry Steele spent $2,073 in the Republican primary and got 19 percent of the vote.

Only Steele fits the pattern of almost no money spent and a vote share north of 10 or 15 percent. Otherwise, all the candidates spent some money--and many had some name recognition from their involvement in politics.

So, we have an observation: Terry Nelson spends no money. Hardly campaigns. And gets 24 percent of the vote while Greg Gianforte spends a considerable sum and gets 75 percent of the vote. We might conclude that:

1. Republicans are ornery and about a quarter just vote against the presumed nominee because they don't like presumed nominees (then why, pray, are Democrats less ornery this year?)

2. Some Republicans are not satisfied with Greg Gianforte as their major party nominee.

3. Something else is going on. Perhaps Democrats are crossing over (but really? With the Sanders-Clinton race)?

Does this mean Greg Gianforte will have trouble winning in the fall? It depends on whether 1, 2, or 3 are operative in this instance. He might go on to victory against Steve Bullock with a unified Republican Party. Or, he might have some lingering trouble with his base--a la Congressman Rehberg in 2012, when candidate Teske (spending about $20,000) received a similar share of the vote. And the Congressman did have some trouble with the base--as some Republicans (as detailed in Battle for the Big Sky) abandoned him for Libertarian Dan Cox and others for incumbent Democrat Jon Tester.

I lead you to draw your own conclusions.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The True Costs of Denying Public Access: Worse Health Outcomes for the Poor?

Vox had an interesting piece today examining the relationship between income and age expectancy. You can read it here. As one might expect, they report that growing income inequality is related to a growing gap in age expectancy. But there’s another factor seemingly related to how long one lives: Where one lives. Here’s a brief snippet explaining the importance of geography and longevity:

To Chetty's surprise, the strongest pattern in the data was the role geography played: Low-income individuals lived the longest (and had more healthy behaviors) in cities like New York and San Francisco with populations that are, on average, well educated, and high-income.

What leapt out at me, however, was not the connection between urbanity and life expectancy for the poor. Another geographic pattern became apparent as I scanned two charts reporting the life expectancy gap by income in each state: Access to public land. Here are both charts as reported by Vox. The one on the left looks at men; the second, on the right, at women. Click on them to enlarge.


Look at the states clustered at the top: many have substantial public land holdings. Montana is number one for men, and 10th for women. Like a good social scientist, I combined the data in the two charts and added a percentage of total public land ownership variable to the mix. I calculated the longevity gaps between the richest 25 percent and the poorest 25 percent of men and women. Finally, I ran a quick correlation between the gaps and the public land variable. The resulting correlation statistic is simply a measure of how well the two measures move together and in which direction. Here’s a screen shot of the results:

The correlation is negative and statistically significant for men and women, suggesting that the more public land in a state, the lower the longevity gap between the richest and poorest quartiles regardless of gender. Further investigation uncovered that the gap between the poorest 25 percent and the second poorest 25 percent also decreases significantly with greater percentages of public land, but the correlation is less strong (-.30 and -.33 for men and women, respectively, versus the -.47 and -.43 reported above).

It’s hard to make too much of this relationship, as I have not controlled for a whole host of other demographic and behavioral factors that explain health outcomes. Until I’ve done that, it’s hard to see how strong the effect of public land access is on public health outcomes and whether it withstands controlling for these other factors. Correlation is not causation. People who value public land access are very likely different in many respects from those who do not. Certainly, people who move away from a place without much public land in favor of a place with lots of public space are probably going to have different habits and leisure activities than those who stay put. And places with public land are also quite different from places without. Without examining all of these factors, the relationship between life expectancy and public land access is not completely clear.

With those caveats made, an important finding mentioned in the VOX article is the association between poverty and two key factors associated with lower life expectancy: obesity and sedentariness. Clearly, greater access to the great outdoors would help combat both—and this access may be even more important for the poorest among us to increase their life expectancy. Providing and protecting access to public land might be one of the best ways to mitigate one the most dire consequences of rising income inequality.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Montana 49th in Wages? Not Exactly.

This Sunday, you’ll get to watch Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte face off with me and Mike Dennison in the MTN studios on Face the State. I'll post a link once it has been uploaded. This is the first time I’ve interacted with Mr. Gianforte extensively, and I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. It should be an exciting race.
Greg Gianforte: Founder of RightNow Technologies and Republican candidate for Governor

During the show, you’ll hear me express skepticism about Mr. Gianforte’s claim that Montana is 49th in wages. I wanted to provide some context for that discussion, and explain why I don’t think this number is a particularly good measure of Montana’s overall economic health--and how I think it undercuts the argument being made by Mr. Gianforte.

As a political scientist, I like quantitative data. At the same time, when we use quantitative data, it is important to know how the data are calculated and the potential ways in which that calculation can introduce bias into our measures. It is true that Montana is not as economically well-off as other states. But are we really only better than Mississippi? I found that hard to believe. Here are three other measures of the economy and how Montana ranks:

U.S. Census
Per Capita Household Income (2014): 38th
Per Capita Income (2014): 34th

Bureau of Labor Statistics
Unemployment (November 2015): Tied for 12th (with Kansas)

Not first or even in the top half for per capita or household income, but not nearly rock bottom as the 49th in wages number suggests. And the unemployment picture is stellar. So what gives? Do we really have such low pay?

Back in April, many Montana media outlets reported that according to tax data compiled by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), Montana was 49th in wages. No one took any time, however, to actually do a deep dig into that number. Once I heard Gianforte using the number repeatedly during his statewide announcement tour, I decided to do exactly that. 

I clicked on the methodology portion of the website, reading carefully about how the wage number is calculated. TRAC took the aggregate total of wage and salary-based income as reported on individual tax returns and divided that number by the number of tax returns received from the state. That led to the determination that at $33,180, Montana is 49th in average wages—just above Mississippi.

But there are two problems with this method. First, consider that some people derive no income from wages in a tax year. Some of these people are retired, some are students, and others live off of capital gains or other sources of passive income. Yet, these folks need to file a tax return—but are included in the data to compute the wage average despite having zero wages. This will serve to drag down the average wages. You might argue that this is the case in every state—and that’s true. But, if a state skews older (which Montana does) or has a high number of retirees receiving income from passive investments (see Big Sky, for example), then this biases the wage average downward. 

(In fact, Florida, New Mexico, West Virginia, South Dakota, Arkansas, and Maine are all at the bottom 11 and they are some of the oldest states in the US) 

Second, consider the nature of Montana’s economy. In 2015, we ranked number 1 (and, indeed, have been number 1 for quite some time) in the Kauffman Index of Startups. Put simply, we are a state full of small businesses and sole proprietorships—with people eager and willing to take risks. Many farmers, ranchers, telecommuters, tax accountants, consultants, plumbers, tradespeople and the like do not report W2 wage income either. I know this because for many years my wife was a consultant and she had no W2 income. Instead, all of her income was reported as business income—a separate line of a 1040 form. That means that many Montanans, who had good jobs, also report zero on the W2 line of their 1040s. And, that means they drag down the state’s wage average, too. Again, this is a double hit. Their income is included as zero AND they their tax return is included in the denominator for the overall wage average.

I argue this number very poorly reflects on the state of Montana’s job picture and I am skeptical of its use. There is no doubt in my mind that Montana can have a stronger economy and there’s a path for an even better future for our state. That’s a debate we need to have in this Governor’s race. But it is important, while having a conversation about that future, that we use the best numbers to decide what policies we need to pursue to keep Montana the Last (but not 49th), Best Place.