Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Obama's stimulus passes...

without any GOP votes in the House.


Simple: the Republicans left in the House represent heavily Republican districts. Nearly every Republican representing a marginal House district lost in either 2006 or 2008.

Therefore, voting against the stimulus was the right vote. Voting for it can open up these House members to a primary challenge--virtually the only way they could lose their seats.

Expect more defections among Republicans in the Senate, given the nature of their more heterogenous constituencies.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama's speech

Very interesting. Some commentary felt that it wasn't as impressive as the event itself, with all the crowds shouting for Obama and the intensely felt passion of the onlookers.

I disagree. First, Obama had a number of things he had to do. First, inspire confidence. Second, tell the hard truth about the tough economic circumstances we're in. Third, strike a clear chord with foreign nations about the intent of the nation internationally from this moment forward.

I thought he did all three, and did them well.

And, if you listened carefully, there were shades of Reagan, JFK, and FDR.

JFK--all call to service.

Reagan--candor about economic problems and an acknowledgment that while tough, Americans can get through this.

FDR--shaming the money lenders.

What was different, strikingly to this listener, was Obama's solution. Reagan, of course, felt that the economic ills were afflicted by government and that government was not the solution. FDR blamed Wall Street. Obama--well, he tried to craft a new path. Government is not always the solution, but it is not always the devil, either. It was interesting that he said we'll do what works and scrap what doesn't--very technocratic, and very Jimmy Carter. Pragmatism was the solution that was being peddled.

The question is, of course, if Obama can be the reconstructive president that Reagan and FDR were. If he can make good on his promise to change the tone in Washington, to get us to grow up, as it were, then perhaps. But the solution that is neither anti- nor pro-governmental strikes me as very Clinton and very pre-emptive. These presidents are successful in their own right, but do not establish long lasting legacies.

I'll keep watching and listening.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A lesson in correlation and causation

One of the foundational texts in voting behavior is the American Voter, published in 1960. This book kick-started the behavioral revolution in the discipline, moving political science away from the study of institutions and legal systems to the examination of individual political behavior.

Campbell et al discuss in the early chapters of the book the funnel of causality. To use their words directly:

"Events are conceived to follow each other in a converging sequence of causal chains, moving from the mouth to the stem of the funnel. The funnel shape is a logical product of the explanatory task chosen. Most of the complex events in the funnel occur as a result of multiple prior causes. Each such event is, in its turn, responsible for multiple effects as well, but our focus of interest narrows as we approach the dependent behavior. We progressively eliminate those effects that do not continue to have relevance for the political act" (p. 24).

What causes someone to vote in a particular way? Lots of things. But the best predictor--the most causally proximate--would be partisanship. It is the best single predictor of political behavior.

I mention all of this in the context of a news story I saw floating about on the web the other day. Apparently, traffic fatalities in Montana were down in 2008, compared to 2007. The reasons offered included increased use of seat belts and more police patrols. And yes, these probably do relate to the decrease in traffic deaths. But are these factors the most causally proximate predictors of the observed behavior (i.e. a decrease in traffic fatalities)? Probably not.

I was surprised that the article did not mention the most likely reason for the decline: fewer highway miles travelled. This, from a press release generated by the US Department of Transportation:

"Americans drove more than 100 billion fewer miles between November 2007 and October 2008 than the same period a year earlier, said U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters, making it the largest continuous decline in American driving in history." Read the whole release here.

Now, sure, one might say Montana probably didn't experience as big of a decline. Wide open spaces, big distances, there's only so much travel you can reduce in a state as big and as sparsely populated as Montana. Well, wrong. Montana's August 2008 travel numbers suggest that we had between a 5 and 6 percent drop in travel compared to August of 2007. That's among the biggest drops in the country (18 other states were in the top category). Check out these maps here.

The moral of the story: the simplest explanation is probably the best, and correlation does not equal causation.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Franken v. Coleman: It's a tie

The Minnesota recount saga continues. The Minnesota Commission in charge of the recount has found that Franken is ahead by 255 votes, but inconsistencies in counting and ballot acceptance/rejection abound. Norm Coleman has decided to sue, preventing Al Franken from receiving the proper certification from the Secretary of State, meaning he cannot be seated by the Senate. So, at the dawn of the 111th Congress, there are only 99 Senators and 1 vacant seat.

There has been talk of the Senate seating Franken and of Republicans filibustering to prevent this. I have a much more simple solution: the Senate can declare the seat vacant, and force another election.

Let's face it: this election is damn close. It is so close we may not really know who really won. For all intents and purposes, it's a tie. Frankly, whoever wins will have very little "mandate" or flexibility to accomplish much anyway. So why not simply do it over?

There is precedent for this. In 1974, the Democratic candidate Durkin led by a slim margin on election night but the election commission recounted and certified the Republican Wyman the winner by 2 votes. The Democratic majority ended up declaring the seat vacant to protests from the Republicans, but this was probably the smartest and best move. Durkin ended up winning the special election, and was defeated in Republican landslide in 1980.