Friday, May 8, 2020

A Charge to the MSU Class of 2020: The Citizen as Essential Worker

Today, the Department of Political Science celebrated its graduates at our traditional Friday-Before-Graduation party. Alas, this year--because of COVID-19--we had to celebrate via Web Ex. We laughed, we cried, we shared memories over the past four years we've spent together.

Every year, a faculty member is chosen to give a charge to the graduates. I became the new head this past December after a stint filling in for a semester while Dr. Wilmer was on sabbatical. I decided to give the charge myself this year. What follows is the speech I delivered to these fantastic students who will go out into the world and do wonderful things. I will miss them, but at the same time, our nation needs their energy, their passion, and their brilliance now more than ever.



A Charge to the MSU Class of 2020: The Citizen as Essential Worker
September 11, 2001. I’ll wager a bet that none of you graduating today have a clear memory of that moment. I certainly do, and whenever I hear mention of 9-11, my mind snaps instantly back to a particular image:  A plume of smoke pouring from the North Tower of the World Trade Center right before—in the background—a plane steers toward the South Tower. That plane is Flight 175, destined to slam into that second tower shortly after 9 a.m. Eastern Time. Why does my mind go there? I think it’s because that image encapsulates the realization that—at that exact moment—it was clear what America was facing: A terrorist attack and likely war with those harboring the monsters who killed thousands of innocent men, women, and children. That still frame, to me, is one of those key turning points in a nation’s history. We are still wrestling with the consequences of that horrible day nearly twenty years later.
Right now, we are living through another momentous time which will shape our collective futures for a generation or more. What’s your picture representing this moment?
For me, it’s a photo of a young man with black hair and bronzed skin. He’s clad in green medical scrubs, standing astride an intersection in downtown Denver. His arms are crossed, he’s wearing a medical mask, and he’s—angry? Determined? Outraged? It’s hard to see with his mouth covered.
In front of him is a large pickup truck—a brand-spanking new silver Ram 1500. An older, heavy-set woman, wearing a T-shirt with USA emblazoned on the front, is leaning out of the passenger window—(Screaming? Glaring? It’s not clear)—at the medical worker blocking her car. She’s holding a placard with the words, “Land of the Free” flush against the side of the truck’s door. Is she going to or departing from a rally opposing the stay at home order put in place by Colorado’s Governor? We don’t know—and that’s fitting because there is so much uncertainty in the depths of this pandemic.
For me, that’s the COVID-19 moment. With whom do you identity, graduates? The defiant healthcare worker or the woman demanding her freedom?
It was a stifling hot summer in Philadelphia when 56 men affixed their signatures to parchment, detailing to the world how King George had violated the social contract—and that the only remedy was to sunder the binds tying the 13 American colonies to England. Freedoms had been withheld and denied, yes. But those freedoms had been trampled upon by a government that was not representative. The colonies had no members of Parliament. We had no say in the decisions made for us. The Declaration is often remembered—and idealized—because it is viewed as an expression of the freedoms that people ought to enjoy by virtue of their humanity—rights that no government should easily deny.
But as much as Jefferson’s Declaration is one of independence from Britain, it is also a Declaration of Inter-dependence among those proclaiming the birth of a new nation. Let’s not forget the concluding sentence:
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Back to that picture in Denver. It’s easy to say don’t tread on me—like that woman in the ginormous pickup truck. Oh, I bet it felt so damn good to release all that frustration. Haven’t we felt some of that? Don’t you hunger for companionship—to go to the grocery store sans mask, to hug your friends, to belly up to the bar for a drink with your buddies after a long day of school?
But then there’s that man clad in protective gear in front of that car, reminding us that those hugs, those trips to the grocery store without sanitizer, those shared beers, or an in-person graduation celebration—can come at great cost. Perhaps not for us—but maybe for that nurse in the ER, the grocery store clerk checking us out, the bartender pouring that beer, or the elderly relative sitting in the Field House as you walk across the stage.
Freedom without responsibility to each other is just another form of tyranny. The Founding Fathers got it; they knew that a declaration of freedom is worth no more than the paper upon which it is printed without care for each other. The freedoms we now enjoy were collectively earned and are collectively defended. Are the costs we bear now any higher than those born by previous generations charged with protecting this nation? It is a point worth pondering.
Our inter-dependence is essential, so I find it disturbing that the Department of Homeland Security’s definition of so-called essential workers neglected perhaps the most important job of all: Citizen. Our allegiance in this liberal democracy of ours is to each other—we are all essential. To be free, we citizens must all hang together— at six feet apart (!)—or surely, we will hang separately.
Graduates of the Class of 2020. I remind you that to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity required the founders to strive for a more perfect union. To be more perfect: Together. Your charge is to work on that union as citizens, mindful of what we owe each other, while being kind to ourselves and others during these turbulent times.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

How COVID-19 Might Transform the Montana Senate Race

In political science, there's a well-known phenomenon known as the "Rally Around the Flag Effect". Quite simply, when the nation is under threat, the public turn to and give their support to the president. Two very good examples of this are the Presidents Bush: When Iraq invaded Kuwait and the Twin Towers were attacked on September 11th, Presidents George HW Bush and George W. Bush enjoyed a quick surge in public support in public opinion polls.






It is also the case that other executives experience surges in public support during time of crisis. We've seen Governor Cuomo's numbers surge in New York, and it's surely the case that other governors are suddenly more popular during this unprecedented and difficult global crisis.


Part of the rally effect is likely in part due to the fact that a crisis moment is a focusing event for the media: it drives other stories off the front pages. In the case of 9-11 and the current COVID-19 pandemic, these stories became the only story covered by the media. Nearly every cable channel turned to 9-11 coverage, sporting events were cancelled, and travel halted. In the case of COVID-19, there is almost nothing else to cover: not only are sporting events cancelled as they were during 9-11, but nearly everything else in society has ground to a halt. The only way to avoid COVID-19 is to read a book or binge shows on Netflix.

How does the singular coverage of a crisis by the media potentially generate a rally effect? Executives are the actors who receive the bulk of the coverage during the crisis. Governors and presidents have emergency powers they can draw upon--often enshrined in constitutions and in statutes--which empower them to respond decisively and quickly to coordinate relief efforts. Legislators obviously respond by passing appropriations and emergency legislation to address the crisis, but it is the responsibilities of executives to put those directives and appropriations to work. As a result--with all eyes focused on the crisis--governors simply get more media attention and that attention is very often positive. The sheer act of moving--of doing--to make people feel safe can generate goodwill from the public. Governors also provide information from the many executive agencies they lead and which are responsible for addressing the crisis. Legislators simply get lost in the shuffle: there are too many and while their response can be just as crucial, it can seem by comparison less dramatic and direct.

How does this matter for the U.S. Senate race here in Montana? It could very well matter a lot. Why? Because in a period where electioneering is challenging at best, Governor Bullock is dominating earned media. And that earned media is overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, positive. Steve Daines, on the other hand, is receiving almost no coverage by comparison.

How do I know? I ran the numbers. Here at Montana State University, I have access to Access World News--a database of news coverage spanning the globe. Very simply, I selected media coverage in Montana from April 2019 through the March 30, 2020, searching for "Bullock" and "Daines" respectively. I also did a similar search for former Governor Brian Schweitzer between April 2011 and March 2012 to provide a baseline comparison to Governor Bullock's coverage. The results are reported in Figure 1, which reports the trend in coverage by the total number of articles mentioning Bullock, Daines, and Schweitzer by month. I simply counted all articles--including editorials and letters to the editors.

Figure 1: MT Media Mentions April 2019 (2011) to March 2020 (2012)


Under normal circumstances, one might expect that Governor Bullock to receive minimal coverage after the conclusion of the legislative session when--for all intents and purposes--he's a lame duck. This should also be the case for Schweitzer, who was in a similar position at the end of his second term. If one compares Governor Bullock's coverage to Governor Schweitzer's, that seems to be the pattern for both of them until March. There's a spike in May 2012 and May 2019 for each: Schweitzer responded to a series of terrible floods in the state, while Bullock announced his presidential run. Senator Daines' coverage is a bit lower than Governor Bullock's during this period, but not appreciably so--in fact, he even receives more mentions in January and February of 2020.

And then, the Corona virus hits the US, and Governor Bullock goes from 184 articles mentioning him in February to 809 in March--while Senator Daines stays essentially the same.

A closer look at March in Figure 2 maps this even more precisely. At the beginning of the month, Daines and Bullock had a near-parity in media coverage up to and including the day Bullock declared his intention to contest Daines' Senate seat.  But, as the COVID crisis hit America, Bullock's coverage began to take off while Daines remained steady: 36 stories on March 12, 28 on the day Governor Bullock announced the state's first COVID cases, 51 on March 16, 36 on the day Bullock extended school closures (March 24), and 69 (the series high) when the Governor announced his shelter in place order.

Figure 2: MT Media Mentions in March 2019


By comparison, Daines' best day was 16 articles on March 17 when the Senate came back into session to discuss the House COVID-19 relief package. 

The nature of the global pandemic has upended daily life. It certainly has turned electioneering upside down; how does one campaign when you can't hold rallies, hang out with voters, pop in to TV studios for interviews, or raise money? It may also have changed some of the dynamics in the Montana Senate race, giving Governor Bullock a crucial early advantage in the spring that under normal circumstances he would not have.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Profound Ignorance of Senators Lamar Alexander and Steve Daines

NOTE: I re-titled the blog after watching Senator Daines' recent comments on impeachment on the Senate floor. The ignorance extends to him as well, apparently.

Senator Lamar Alexander’s explanation for who should decide what to do about the president’s actions in Ukraine is absurd,  and represents fundamental ignorance about the Founders.
In an interview with Chuck Todd, Senator Alexander suggests that while he found the actions by President Trump concerning the withholding of aid to Ukraine inappropriate, the were not impeachable and—furthermore—that whether they merit removal is a judgment best left to the people. Here the link to the clip: https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2020-election/lamar-alexander-says-senate-should-not-substitute-its-judgment-voters-n1128286


Let’s address the final point first: the people, and not the Senate, should decide in the forthcoming election whether the Ukraine allegations merit removal. Hogwash. 

First, the Founders were not democrats (small d) but republicans (small r). All kinds of checks and balances are put in place to insulate government institutions from the voice of the people because the Founders feared mob rule—particularly mob rule swayed by a demagogue. The Founders created the Electoral College, with voters casting votes for electors who—according to the scheme laid out in the Constitution—were supposed to exercise independent judgment when selecting the president. Furthermore, the founders expected (wrongly, it turns out) that it would be challenging for any candidate to achieve a majority of votes in the electoral college; thus, the House of Representatives would often decide who would serve as president. All of these factors point quite clearly to the notion that will of the people is really to be refined by several institutional checks and filters.

So, to Alexander’s point: No. It’s up to the Senators to decide whether the act is impeachable or not. Not the people in elections. That represents a profound ignorance of the Constitution and the situation facing the Founders.

To the second point about to what constitutes a high crime and misdemeanor, it is absolutely clear that the Founders were petrified about foreign influence in elections and the conduct of national affairs. This is why the citizenship and residency requirements exist for the presidency: To prevent a European puppet from taking the throne. I have to assume at some point Senator Alexander read President Washington’s Farewell address, which cautions the nation about entangling foreign alliances. Seeking foreign involvement in an election is precisely what President Trump did (and Alexander does not contest this point), which is precisely what the Founders thought was dangerous. And, to be plain, it is exactly the Senate that should decide these issues because they are supposed to be removed from the passions of the people given their longer terms and (at least at the Founding) their indirect election. I read the Federalist papers in college. Did they?

Then, there’s the stubborn fact (as John Adams would write) that the president broke the law: His withholding the aid in the first place was an illegal impounding (I cover this in my presidency and Congress class; Congress appropriates, and the Supreme Court has upheld this repeatedly) and he was accepting aid to assist in his reelection (breaking those silly campaign finance laws put into place after massive abuses by the Nixon campaign forces that had little to do with Watergate).

Finally, the issue of removal from office and the ability to run for president in the future. Yes, a grave action indeed—but again, given the fear of Kings and demagogues, again, this is precisely why the Senate must have this ability. The danger is a president who is supported by the majority of the people—that pesky majority tyranny that Madison warned against—who must be removed from the ballot because they can manipulate the popular will to retain office and work their will to oppress the minority. The Senate is a check on this! As Hamilton himself wrote (and Congressman Schiff quoted during the Senate trial):


When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits — despotic in his ordinary demeanour — known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty — when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join in the cry of danger to liberty — to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion — to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day — It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’


On a personal note, I worked as a field staffer for Senator Alexander fresh out of college more than twenty years ago—on his presidential campaign. To say that I am disappointed in his position and behavior is a gross understatement. America deserved better from him—and the rest of the Republican caucus in the U.S. Senate. If you are upset, you know what to do. Vote like your life depends on it--because it does.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Carhartt, Bloodlines, and Place of Birth: The Recurrent Battle Over Who’s the Most Montanan


This is a special guest post by Kal Munis, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia. Kal is a lifelong Montanan, and is an alum of both Montana State and the University of Montana. I expect to feature his work often here.

With the 2018 midterm elections just a little over seven months away, candidates have begun to ramp up efforts to distinguish themselves from one another. In addition to the various typical dimensions on which we might expect those aspiring to represent us to stress their unique qualifications—such as prior political experience, policy positions and past accomplishments—there is another conspicuous characteristic upon which political candidates in Montana attempt to out-maneuver one another: successfully conveying that they possess an authentic Montanan identity.
 Typically, candidates try to signal to voters that they share with them various attachments to the customs, values, and lived experiences particular to their geographical constituency. They do so in numerous ways including in video advertisements, mailers, press releases, emails, social media postings and other campaign media. It should be noted that these activities don’t stop at election day—indeed, many politicians will continue to cultivate their image of place-based authenticity as a component of what political scientists refer to as their “home-style.”
Candidates in Montana and elsewhere clearly engage in this behavior cycle after cycle due a belief in the campaign community that it is an effective practice. In a content analysis of all video based advertisements that were paid for by campaigns during the 2012 and 2014 U.S. Senate elections, I found that these types of ads are widespread throughout the country, with the highest level of usage being clustered in Western states such as Montana. Despite their seeming ubiquitousness, it remains unknown whether campaigns' decisions to deploy these appeals are evidence based or the product of folk-wisdom based inertia.
 Irrespective of their effectiveness, however, some pundits (and voters—see the comments on this ad) have remarked that excessive hand-wringing over which candidate is the most Montanan borders on xenophobic, particularly when such concerns are tied to place of birth. At the same time, however, it seems widely accepted that the success of many candidates in Montana, particularly Democrats Senator Jon Tester and Governor Steve Bullock (as well as former Governor Brian Schweitzer), has been largely predicated on their ability to connect with voters on the basis of place.
In large part, the mechanism through which this connection has been fostered in Montana, as well as that upon which many campaign appeals based on place identity are made, is the candidate's birthplace. For successful Democratic candidates in Montana, it seems that part of the litmus test has been whether they’re a native of the state. For a recent example, look no further than Governor Bullock’s successful 2016 reelection bid against then Republican gubernatorial candidate and current U.S. Representative Greg Gianforte. In that race, the Bullock campaign was able to successfully paint Gianforte as an outsider with deep connections to California and New Jersey. So out of touch with Montana was Gianforte, according to Bullock’s campaign, that he was willing to try to run roughshod over that which many Montanans hold to be most sacred: public lands. The narrative was simple: Bullock, a native Montanan, respects and maintains Montana values, whereas Gianforte—a Californian multi-millionaire by way of New Jersey—does not. The result, meanwhile, was shocking, as returns revealed that Bullock defeated Gianforte by 4 points, all while Gianforte’s co-partisan in the presidential race, Donald Trump, crushed his Democratic foe by a staggering 22 points.
As part of the 2018 midterm elections, Tester will defend his Senate seat and multiple Republicans are competing in their party’s primary to challenge him. Currently, most observers regard Matt Rosendale as being the front runner among these challengers. And, if recent advertisements are any indication, it would seem that several left-aligned groups, including the Montana Democratic Party, consider him to be the front-runner as well.
In a recent advertisement, the MTDP makes an overtly place identity charged indictment of “Maryland Matt” Rosendale, namely that he is an outsider who “doesn’t share our Montana values.” In the ad, the MTDP takes a ‘don’t just take our word for it’ strategy by relying mostly upon statements made by (or on behalf of) prominent Montana Republicans, as well as upon a compilation of footage of Rosendale himself butchering the pronunciation of the state he is running to represent in Washington. The statements (which are attributed variously to current U.S. Senate primary opponent Russ Fagg, former U.S. House primary opponent and current Secretary of State Cory Stapleton, and to a PAC that supported Ryan Zinke in the 2014 Republican primary for the U.S. House of Representatives) all suggest that Rosendale’s non-native born status should be viewed as a deficiency in the eyes of voters. Of these statements, Stapleton’s makes the case against Rosendale’s non-native status most powerfully, stating “we don’t need that East Coast value here in Montana, we don’t need somebody from the East Coast representing us in Montana, we need a Montanan representing us on the East Coast.”
This theme, though in decidedly less antagonistic tone, was on display yet again a few weeks ago in Bozeman at the Republican U.S. Senate candidate forum (not a debate!) put on by the College Republicans at Montana State University. The forum, which featured Rosendale and his three opponents, Troy Downing (a fellow non-native from California), Albert Olszewski, and Russel Fagg, saw all candidates take pains to stress their connections to Montana and demonstrate their embrace of Montana values. Rosendale and Downing (the non-native candidates) did so in decidedly apologetic fashion, with the following statement by Downing being emblematic of the tone: “I’ve always been a Montanan, it just took me 31 years to get here.” Fagg and Olszewski (the native candidates), meanwhile made their born and raised Montanan bonafides front and center from the outset, with Fagg, for example, noting that he “has the Montana roots, the Montana endorsements, (and) the Montana donations.”
It was a portion of Fagg’s closing statement as well as Rosendale’s that followed, however, that really drew my attention. In his last appeal to the crowd in Bozeman that night, Fagg made his case that his native Montana roots would be critical to defeating native Jon Tester in 2018. “I’m a fourth generation Montanan…and (my family) has live and loved Montana since before Montana was a state,” he said “[…] and the reason that’s important, I appreciate everyone that has moved to Montana because they love Montana, but the Democrats are going to unmercifully beat up two of my opponents because they moved here nine years ago (Downing) and fifteen years ago (Rosendale). It may not be fair, but it’s the truth. If you put me on that ticket, that takes that argument away from Senator Tester.” Fagg then went on to note that he has to date collected the lion’s share of endorsements from prominent Montana Republicans from well-known names such as Marc Racicot and Denny Rehberg (Rosendale, meanwhile, has the support of prominent national Republicans such U.S. Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee) before passing the mic to Rosendale.
Fagg’s point was brought into stark relief just moments later when Rosendale mispronounced “Montana” so badly that even I, a social scientist who studies the role of place-based identities in politics, couldn’t help but to find it grating. In my defense, it was the contrast of Rosendale’s mispronunciation and Fagg’s ominous message regarding the importance of Montana roots in eyes of Montana voters that made the moment so powerful. And, apparently I wasn’t the only one to notice—the MTDP released the “Maryland Matt” ad just a few days later and appeared to indirectly reference the forum in a short blurb accompanying the ad’s posting.
Do voters care about where candidates were born? To begin to investigate this question, I draw upon data from three different surveys that I have fielded (one in Autumn 2015, one in Spring 2017, and another in early fall 2017) utilizing Mechanical Turk samples. All respondents in these surveys reside in the United States. Within each survey, I included a question asking whether and how important respondents thought it was that candidates running for Congress in their state had been born there. In the most recent two surveys, an additional question was asked regarding whether respondents felt that candidates born in their state were more likely to understand the values and needs of people in their state.

Table 1: How important do you think it is for candidates running for Congress
in your state to have been born in your state?


Fall 2015
Spring 2017
Fall 2017
Extremely Important
25
(5%)

200
(11%)

130
(11%)
Very Important
117
(25%)

368
(20%)

255
(22%)
Moderately Important
136
(29%)

496
(28%)

300
(26%)
Slightly Important
87
(18%)

320
(18%)

232
(18%)
Not at all important
111
(23%)
423
(23%)
229
(23%)
N
476
1,807
1,146

Results for the first question are remarkably stable across all three samples, as can be seen in Table 1. In the most recent sample, one third of respondents indicated that they felt candidate place of birth to be highly important (including both the “extremely important” and “highly important” categories). A little over a quarter of respondents indicated candidate place of birth to be moderately important. Meanwhile, a minority of respondents (41%) indicated that candidate place of birth is only slightly important or not important at all to them.

Table 1: In general, do you think that candidates born in your state are better
at understanding the values and needs of people in your state?

Spring 2017
Fall 2017
Yes
853
(47%)

554
(48%)
No
287
(16%)

144
(13%)
Unsure
667
(37%)

450
(39%)
N
1,807
1,146

            As for respondents’ perceptions regarding whether native born candidates are more likely to better understand the values and needs of their constituency, a large plurality in both samples (an average of 47.5%) indicated that they felt this was the case, with a small minority (an average of 14%) of respondents saying this wasn’t likely to be the case. A large number of respondents in both samples indicated that they were unsure regarding this question (38%). These results are presented in Table 2.
            To further explore responses to these questions, I use various methods (including ANOVA, OLS, and logistic regression) to model the relationship between responses to these questions and respondents’ partisanship.[1] First, I estimate the association between how important respondents rated candidate birthplace and respondents’ partisanship while controlling for the influence of other background characteristics. Results show that, on average, the place of birth of political candidates is significantly more important to Republicans (by about 25%) than it is for Democrats even after controlling for the influence of respondents' level of educational attainment, gender, self-reported recent voting history, and whether the respondent lived in a rural area. Moreover, further analysis reveals that Republicans’ average importance rating of candidate place of birth is significantly higher than that of independents as well, though Democrats and independents do not differ significantly from one another in this respect. Finally, I model the association between partisanship and perceptions of whether being born in state imparts upon candidates a special constituency related knowledge (all while again controlling for a number of other related factors). Results indicate that Republicans are 4.5 times more likely on average to indicate that candidates born in their state typically better understand the values and problems associated with that state.
            Taken together, these results suggest that many Americans see candidate place of birth as being an important attribute of political candidates. More specifically, a majority of people in my sample indicated that it is at least moderately important that candidates be born in the state that they seek to represent in Congress, with a full third indicating that they feel it is highly important. Moreover, a plurality of respondents indicated that they believe that candidates born in the state they are running in are more likely to understand the needs and values of their constituency. Results also indicate a significant association between these considerations and partisanship, with Republicans endorsing both to a greater extent than non-Republicans on average. All of this is especially noteworthy considering that these results are derived from a sample comprising survey respondents from all across the United States. And, in terms of demographic characteristics, the sample skews slightly younger, more liberal, and more educated than the American population as a whole—as well as Montana. So, if anything, I would expect the patterns and statistical associations described above to increase in magnitude if the sample were one perfectly representative of Montana.
            Finally, in relating all of this back to Montana politics, the results presented here seem to lend some credence to Republican candidate Russ Fagg’s (as well as many others) warning to Republican primary voters that (in)congruence between where candidates are born and the district they hope to represent is important to voters—and, at least in this sample, especially amongst self-identified Republicans. And, since Tester will almost certainly have to win over a considerable percentage of voters who recently voted for our Republican president, these results suggest that one fruitful path for him to do so would be to continue to appeal to voters on the basis of shared Montana values and identity (as Bullock did in his successful 2016 reelection bid). Whether and to what degree he is able to do so could very well be moderated by whether a native-born Republican, such as Fagg or Olszewski, is at the top of the Republican ticket.
B. Kal Munis is, amongst other things, a 6th generation Montana native and alumnus of both Montana State University and the University of Montana. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter @KalMunis.


[1] If you want more specifics on the data and my analyses, please send me an email or leave a comment below.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Correlation Does Not Equal Causation: Lawsuits, Pirates, Forest Fire, and Global Warming

Yesterday, The Washington Post published an op-ed piece written by Montana Republican Senator Steve Daines about the awful wildfire season we’ve been experiencing here in Montana and the West. It is good to bring attention to an issue that has gotten lost in the coverage of the widespread devastation hitting Texas, Florida, and now Puerto Rico during an unusually intense start to the hurricane season.

It is troubling, however, how Senator Daines takes a very complicated issue—the causes and consequences of wildfire—and lays blame squarely on the shoulders of “radical environmentalists” and their lawsuits, which he purports prevent efforts to clear and thin trees by forest managers.  If these lawsuits would only cease, writes Daines, wildfires would be less intensive, less pervasive, and produce fewer damaging greenhouse gases. And, perhaps as importantly, Montanans would have more jobs as there would be more timber for mills to process into lumber. Stop the lawsuits, and everyone would benefit!

Senator Daines was a champion debater in high school, and like a skilled orator, he does his best to frame the facts to best advance his core thesis. In so doing, he intentionally obscures or downplays the biggest drivers of fire: temperature and climate. At best, that’s disingenuous. At worst, it gives us false hope for the power of forest management in stemming the effects of wildfire in the West.

Let’s unpack just one point Senator Daines makes in his article: the association between acres burned and declining timber harvests. Daines tells us that “If you look at the decline in timber harvests on National Forest land since 1990, you can’t miss the correlation between harvesting and wildfire. Harvests drastically declined and, combined with the legal obstacles preventing the removal of fire fuel, wildfires grew larger and more severe. We have effectively increased the risk of wildfire by allowing cluttered forest floors to build up with more material that can burn.”

The logic seems crystal clear: Declining timber harvests have increased fuel loads, which lead to more and more intensive forest fires. The reason? Lawsuits from the aforementioned radical environmentalists. And Senator Daines links to a study conducted by The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service in support of his claim that “an abundance of science shows that a properly managed forest would reduce the size and severity of wildfires.” Stop the lawsuits, and we’ll have better managed forests with smaller and less severe wildfires, he argues.

If only it were so simple. This Sunday morning, MTN is airing a Face the State devoted to the problem of fire in the West. I encourage you to tune in. In preparing for the show, it was immediately apparent to me how complicated the issue of fire is in the American West even if I am not a fire ecologist—or any kind of ecologist.

But there’s one thing I do know as a social scientist—and it’s something that Senator Daines surely knows, too, as an engineer: Correlation does not equal causation. Senator Daines makes a causal claim when he asks us to look at the correlation between timber harvests and forest fire intensity. But simple bivariate relationships are not evidence that X generates Y; indeed, these simple associations are often misleading without having undergone a rigorous statistical analysis. (For a bit of fun, check out this website (LINK) devoted to correlations which are not causally related, such as the decline of pirates and rising global temperatures or people falling and drowning in pools and the release of Nicolas Cage movies). If I were to draw a causal conclusion from these relationships, we should be able to fix global warming by issuing more letters of marque or keeping Nicolas Cage away from the box office. Clearly, that’s absurd! And it is just as absurd to make forest policy based upon two trends moving together without a deeper analysis controlling for other factors.
Clearly, to address global warming, we need...Pirates!

Most troubling is that Senator Daines conspicuously ignores two key factors in his opinion piece: climate and temperature. According to fire ecologists and foresters, those are the key drivers of fire intensity and growth—and forest management or lack thereof plays a much smaller role (this recent example). You would hardly know that, however, from reading the Senator’s article.  You also would not know that fire is an essential part of a healthy Western forest which requires its regenerative powers to remain in balance and even to allow certain species to propagate (such as the ubiquitous lodge pole pine).

Finally, an abundance of science clearly demonstrates that carbon emissions by humans is a critical factor responsible for climate change which is leading to hotter and drier summers in the West. To reduce the likelihood of the West burning, we should pursue policies that would reduce those emissions. Senator Daines claims that thinning our forests would reduce the release of dangerous greenhouse gases, but has refused to acknowledge in this piece and elsewhere that carbonemissions from the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for precisely the conditions most directly responsible for leaving our forests in cinders.

I could go on, as Dr. Diana Six of UM, a leading expert on pine beetles, has argued that thinning itself by pine beetles helps our forests adapt to the new realities of a warming world and that thinning by cuts might stymie an important natural process. Declining timber yields in Montana have less to do with lawsuits and more to do with the free market (lumber companies moving south where trees grow faster and wages are lower) and unfair trade practices (government subsidies for timber in Canada)—here’s an extensive report on the issue published in 2005.

Bottom line: There are no silver bullets when it comes to fire in the West, and we need our elected officials to start leading an honest discussion instead of providing us with false hope and convenient scape goats for a problem that is much larger and messier than Senator Daines suggests.



Sunday, August 13, 2017

Our Republic: We Better Start Keeping It. Fast.



I’m a political scientist—with an emphasis on the science.  I’ve viewed my role in the public sphere as inserting into debates what political scientists have learned about political processes and institutions—and to try to keep both sides faithful to the empirics. At heart, I’ve always been a skeptic and my training as a political scientist makes me even more so. I'm not one to join partisan frays. It's not my style. I just go where data lead.

The election of Donald Trump, someone who had zero political experience, certainly sent my skepticism into high gear given the data. Limited political experience does not often equate with political success. One major exception is Dwight David Eisenhower, but he is the exception who proves the rule. Eisenhower was an exceptional student of leadership and, as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, developed a well-honed ability to convince, negotiate and compromise with many talented, egoistic generals as they fought the Third Reich to rid the world of Nazism.

During the fall campaign, a video of historian David McCullough made the rounds on social media. I’ve long admired McCullough’s accessible and well-written history, especially his biography of Truman.

In the video, McCullough draws our attention to Eisenhower’s four qualities of leadership, noting that Trump exhibited none of those qualities. He had neither character, ability, experience, nor responsibility. In short, McCullough did not believe Trump was suited for the presidency. He was especially not suited to articulating a clear moral purpose and acting as the conciliator in chief in times of national sorrow and crisis.

Trump’s repeated failure as a leader over the past eight months should not surprise. He was as prepared for the presidency as I am to do any kind of home or car repair.

Yet the president can be a poor leader and the nation can survive: We managed the ineptitude of Hoover and Carter. What is most troubling is that Trump himself, through apparently carefully contrived acts, may be encouraging values antithetical to the Republic itself.

That causes me great alarm and concern, as it should every American regardless of party.

There are certain moral certainties, bright lines in the sand, that are not debated in civilized society. Racism, white supremacy, and support for Nazism are among them. No race, no people, no ethnicity is superior to any other. Advocating violence against someone else because they are different than you is wrong. Killing innocent people is wrong. Full stop.

An easy test of leadership, methinks, is denouncing yesterday’s terrible events in Charlottesville with clarity and precision. “Nazism, racism, and violence are acts of terrorism, and have no place in our Republic and receive my strongest condemnation” would’ve been a good start. Perhaps you might have taken a cue from Vice President Pence, who had no problem naming who was the blame for yesterday's events: "We have no tolerance for hate and violence from white supremacists, neo-Nazis or the KKK," said Pence, calling them "dangerous fringe groups" today in Colombia.

Instead, the President issued a statement that was ambiguous at best, but spoke volumes: Calling out racism, Nazism, and white supremacy wasn’t on the table. Best case? He’s a coward and inept. I'm less inclined to believe this is the case: He's spoken out clearly concerning acts of terrorism undertaken by Muslims in the past. And Trump certainly has no trouble telling us what he thinks most of the time. That leaves the worst case: He’s sympathetic to their cause.

Many Americans voted for Trump because they were angry at what they believe our country had become. Others voted for Trump simply because he was the Republican nominee. Still others voted for him because they couldn’t stomach Hillary Clinton. It is not for me to judge a person who voted for Trump. That’s their business, and frankly, that’s water under the bridge

We’ve seen Trump can’t stomach doing what’s right when the path is clear, and may be conspiring with forces seeking to undermine the very foundation of our Republic. It doesn’t matter how you voted, but how you answer the question: “What now?”

If you are troubled with what you’ve seen, at least we have a constitutional system with multiple points of access. Write to the president; tell him how you feel (although I'm skeptical that would matter). Write to your congressional delegation: Remember, ambition counters ambition in our system of separated (but shared) powers. Write to your state parties and tell them to make changes to the primary system that will make it more likely better candidates survive the nomination process (ironically, that may mean a little less democracy in the primaries and more control to party elites who were overwhelmingly opposed to Trump). But do something. Be heard, while you still can.

We have a democracy. That is, as Ben Franklin said, as long as we can keep it. We’ve kept it for more than 200 years.

Whether we keep it for another 200 depends on the choices you make now.

Just in case you need a refresher course on leadership, here’s how great leaders should behave:

1.       Responsibility. Eisenhower, on the eve of D-Day, prepared this statement should the landings fail:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I
 have  withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on  the  best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone."

2.       Character. George W. Bush after 9-11.

3.       Ability and Experience. LBJ and the Voting Rights Act.

4.       Fortitude. Ronald Reagan in Berlin at the Brandenburg Gates.

5.       All of the Above. Churchill. 1940, as France fell and Britain stood alone.

Ask our members of Congress to display the leadership our President will not.