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.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Legsilative Effectiveness and Influence: It's more than Passing Bills

How does one measure influence and the effectiveness of legislators? This is not a trivial question, as voters have to make sense of competing claims during election years when deciding whether to return an incumbent for another two or six year term. Of course, incumbents seek to inflate their importance and influence, while their opponents attempt the opposite. Justin Grimmer wrote a fascinating account of how legislators attempt to puff up their credentials in press releases, claiming credit for government spending and appropriations which are routine--the legislator likely had little role in procuring. 

I am drawn again to the topic of legislative effectiveness and influence by a recent post by Don Pogreba at his new website, The Montana Post. Pogreba contrasts the legislative accomplishments of Senator Tester with those of Senator Daines, suggesting that Tester is far more accomplished than Daines—inferring that Daines has little influence in Washington and does nothing of substance in the U.S. Senate.

Unfortunately, I thought the piece trivializes an important issue to sell a partisan point. Both parties are guilty of simplifying this issue to create a narrative useful to them. Let’s elevate the conversation, and see what political science can offer. Who is more effective: Daines or Tester?
I addressed the issue of influence and effectiveness in Battle for the Big Sky, as a key argument Team Tester made about Congressman Rehberg was that he had accomplished little of substance during his decade plus in the House of Representatives. I wrote this in evaluating the effectiveness of Tester and Rehberg as lawmakers:

            On average, House members passed less than one bill in the 109th through the 111th       Congresses that became law, according to data compiled by the Congressional Bills Project. In the Senate, it isn’t much better: Senators passed fewer than two bills on  average that were signed by the president over the same period.17 Of the 42 bills and resolutions sponsored by Tester during his first four years in office, two passed. Rehberg  passed seven of the 82 bills and resolutions he introduced between 2001 and 2010.18 In neither case do Rehberg nor Tester stand out as successful legislators, but their efforts are less reflective of their individual abilities than they are of governing in an era of   polarization and divided government. Senior members of both chambers tend to be more success­ful because they often have committee chairmanships that provide them with the opportunity and responsibility to advance legislation central to their party’s legislative agendas.

A couple of points are important. First, it’s really hard to pass a bill. Second, it’s really hard for House members to be effective in sponsoring bills—but it is “relatively” easier for Senators to get their legislation made into law. Third, appropriators don’t often sponsor bills and exert influence through earmarks instead. Finally, seniority matters: Freshmen simply don’t pass bills they sponsor in either chamber often. 

Let’s compare apples to apples. In 2007, Senator Tester was a part of the new Democratic majority. According to GovTrack, the same source Pogrebra uses to assess Senator Daines’ performance, Senator Tester did not have a bill sponsored by him (not counting co-sponsored bills) pass that year. In 2015, Senator Daines was also in his first year in the Senate as part of a new Republican majority. And, no surprise, he did not have a single bill sponsored by him become law. 

But sponsoring bills is only one way to think about legislative effectiveness. Indeed, it is a measure that is not terribly useful when looking at freshmen legislators. I noted in Battle for the Big Sky that the Senate gives far more opportunities for senators to participate directly in the legislative process through floor amendments. This is the similar tactic that my Georgia State colleague, Jeff Lazarus, employed to compare the legislative effectiveness of Senators Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Read the piece here; Lazarus concluded that Clinton was the far more effective legislator, owing in part to the support she marshalled for her amendments.

Tester effectively used amendments to advance his legislative priorities, particularly for a freshman Senator in the majority. While he ranked second to last among his class in the passage of sponsored bills (in the first four years of his first term), he was the second most successful Senate amender among the cohort elected in 2006. Of the 38 amendments he sponsored, eleven were adopted on the floor. Again, this data is from my book.
Senator Daines, in the 114th Congress, sponsored 55 floor amendments (Data for this analysis was obtained from Only five were adopted by the chamber—for a success rate of nine percent. How does that rank among Republican freshmen? 

Eleven Republican freshmen were elected in 2014. Six had higher amendment passage rates than Daines, five had lower success rates. Senators Rounds and Sullivan had 32 percent of their amendments agreed to (about Tester’s success rate), but both sponsored fewer amendments (19 and 41 respectively). At the bottom end of the scale, Oklahoma Senator James Lankford sponsored 34 amendments and had only one receive Senate assent (for a passage rate of 3 percent). Among freshmen, Daines also sponsored the most amendments—eight more than Colorado Senator Corey Gardner (17 percent success rate).

Legislative effectiveness is tricky to measure and must be placed both in career and institutional context. Daines’ inability to pass legislation sponsored by him should not surprise given his relative junior status—and Tester found himself in precisely the same boat when he arrived in Washington. Looking at amendments, Daines is less effective than Tester was early in his career. Tester’s experience as a successful legislator in the Montana Senate has carried over to the U.S. Senate. Daines, whose experience was in the private sector and not in politics prior to arriving on Capitol Hill, likely has had a steep learning curve when it comes to legislative maneuvering on the Senate floor.

One final and related point: political scientists have long argued that term limits are bad for legislatures. As David Mayhew notes in America’s Congress, some of the country’s most important, historic legislative measures were drafted and passed by members of Congress late in their careers. As the above analysis and discussion demonstrates, passing laws is the business of seasoned legislators and not those new to Capitol Hill. It is also not a particularly useful way to measure whether a legislator is effective or not earlier in their careers—especially not in isolation. There are also other ways to think about legislative effectiveness, including casework and pork brought back home. Both of these are hard to measure, and in the case of pork, ever more difficult to obtain given the recent ban on earmarks. Legislative effectiveness is multi-faceted and needs to be placed into comparative contexts.