Grain of Salt

I want to bring a post by Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics on why we should take the polling results that are being published with a grain of salt to your attention:

On a hunch, I went back and looked at the poll errors for 2013-15, and it became apparent that the errors for 2016 followed much the same pattern: They were concentrated in areas with large numbers of whites without college degrees. Indeed, the size of the poll error correlated heavily with whites-without-college-degree share (p<.001); you could explain about one-third of the difference in the size of poll miss just from knowing the share of the electorate that was whites without a college degree. We all know what happened next. Trump surprised observers by winning states that Republican presidential candidates hadn’t carried since Debbie Gibson and Tiffany fought it out for top placement in the Top 40 charts. The misses were particularly pronounced in the Midwest.

Have pollsters corrected the mistakes they made in 2016?

So, I went back and looked at the Democratic bias in the polls for swing states in 2014, 2016, and 2018. I could not use North Carolina, since there was no statewide race there in 2018. One problem I encountered is that in 2018 many states were under-polled, so RCP didn’t create an average. I’ve gone back and averaged the October polls for those states, if available (note that we don’t have three polls in October for Minnesota in 2016, hence the asterisk there). As a check on this approach, I’ve also included the error from the 538 “polls-only” model for 2018.

The results are something of a mixed bag, but overall it isn’t clear that the pollsters have really fixed the problem at all. While the bias toward Democrats was smaller in 2018 than in 2016, the bias overall was similar to what we saw in 2014, especially in the Midwest. If people remember, the polls in 2018 suggested that we should today have Democratic governors in Ohio, Iowa and Florida, and new Democratic senators in Indiana, Missouri and Florida. Obviously this did not come to pass.

Moreover, almost all of the errors pointed the same way: Republicans overperformed the polls in every Midwestern state except for Minnesota Senate/governor and Wisconsin Senate (none of which were particularly competitive).

The point here is not that the polls are intentionally biased or that we shouldn’t trust them or that we should trust them. It’s that we shouldn’t bet the farm on polls. We don’t know whether they’ll be off this year, by how much, or in which direction.

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Shared Sacrifice

Both Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker are on the wrong track in managing the city and state, respectively. The editors of the Chicago Tribune observe:

If Lori Lightfoot were CEO and not Chicago’s mayor, the job cuts would be underway. Sometimes organizations must reduce personnel to survive or thrive, and that’s where Chicago government is right now, in financial survival mode due to COVID-19. So cue the layoffs and furloughs … if the city were a corporation.

This thought experiment usually ends quickly in Illinois. While CEOs concentrate on the bottom line, mayors and governors focus on reelection. Government workers in Cook County and Springfield are members of Democrat-led public employee unions that raise money and contribute foot soldiers, and it’s tough to fire your friends. It’s easier for political leaders to borrow money or raise taxes and increase fees, as slyly as possible, than to issue pink slips.

Pritzker’s handling of the state is even worse than Lightfoot’s of the city:

Gov. J.B. Pritzker is in the same boat. Where governors across the country reduced personnel and spending as revenues dropped off this spring, Pritzker did not. The coronavirus pandemic has taken a huge chunk out of tax revenues from restaurants, tourism and the convention trade due to his mandated shutdowns. Other governors separated essential and nonessential services and made appropriate reductions. Pritzker’s only solution so far has been to wait for the federal government and pass the blame. That’s not a plan.

They conclude:

Chicago is not a business, but it is a large organization reeling from a budget crisis. The only responsible way forward is to cut spending, and that means reducing the size and scope of city government, and the number of employees.

Don’t expect responsibility from them—they’re politicians. I strongly suspect they’ll continue to borrow and raise taxes as long as those remain options. They are unlikely to remain options for long. Chicago’s and Illinois’s credit ratings are just about as low as they can go. I wonder what Gov. Pritzker will do if his “Fair Tax” fails to pass the upcoming referendum?

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Trump Horror Stories Du Jour

I don’t really have much to say about the various stories about President Trump’s outrageous comments and actions that are leading the news today. They’re not really surprising to me.

I agree with some of the things that Donald Trump has done as president; I disagree with others. I don’t plan on voting for him for president because I don’t think he has earned a second term. I didn’t think that Barack Obama had earned a second term, either, so I didn’t vote for him in 2012. Presidents running for re-election are sort of like movie sequels. Would the president have been elected the first time around based on the accomplishments of his first term?

In his selection of vice president Joe Biden has called my voting for him into question. I will not vote for Kamala Harris for president. I could vote for Joe Biden if a) he’d take, pass, and publish the results of a cognitive assessment and b) I were convinced he’d serve all four years of his term.

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What Do You Mean “We”?

The BBC comments on a report on biodiversity that has recently been released by the World Wildlife Fund:

Wildlife populations have fallen by more than two-thirds in less than 50 years, according to a major report by the conservation group WWF.

The report says this “catastrophic decline” shows no sign of slowing.

And it warns that nature is being destroyed by humans at a rate never seen before.

Wildlife is “in freefall” as we burn forests, over-fish our seas and destroy wild areas, says Tanya Steele, chief executive at WWF.

“We are wrecking our world – the one place we call home – risking our health, security and survival here on Earth. Now nature is sending us a desperate SOS and time is running out.”

The article is alarming but grossly misleading. When you dig a little farther by going to the IUCN Red Sheet of endangered species, it conveys a somewhat different message. No less alarming but a lot less actionable.

The largest number of endangered species is in East Asia (129), sub-Saharan Africa (82), and then South and South-East Asia (65). The number in North America is 37 while the number in Europe is 15.

“We”, defined as the people of North America and Europe, can do very little about it. Oh, yes, we could start paying other countries to take steps to curb the destruction of habitat that is most responsible for reducing biodiversity but those countries don’t actually have the societal infrastructure to accomplish it. So we’d pay them and they’d keep right on doing what they’re doing.

We’ve been trying to curb the activities of Chinese and Japanese factory fishing trawlers for decades without a great deal of success. When they pass over a stretch of ocean, nothing living is left behind.

Sadly, short of measures that are unthinkable, those species of plants, animals, reptiles, and fish in Sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, and South or South-East Asia are doomed.

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Managing the Decoupling

In his most recent Washington Post column, David Ignatius is worried about the risks of a fracturing of Chimerica:

The United States and China have an increasingly competitive relationship, but they need each other, too, like conjoined twins. Hasty attempts at separation could harm them both. Open research made U.S. technology great; making it more difficult for the best brains to live and work here would be folly.

I think he’s in clinical denial. It should have been obvious in 2010 when China imposed export quotas on rare earths but it has become absolutely undeniable during the COVID-19 lockdowns. We can’t afford to be dependent on China for strategic materials, pharmaceuticals, or food additives.

The question is no longer should we decouple from China but how should we manage the decoupling? I would propose that publicly traded companies be required to have alternative supply chains that don’t go through China at all. I’ve made other proposals from time to time but that should be enough to make a few heads explode.

IMO Mr. Ignatius’s preoccupation with artificial intelligence is truly baffling. IMO he’s overestimating its significance. When I was in grad school (which is now more than 50 years ago) AI was a grab bag of not particularly closely related strategies. That’s still the case and there have been very few new developments in AI over the last 50 years. What has happened is that hardware has gotten much cheaper. I was one of the few people who had a personal computer nearly 50 years ago. I built it from thrown away components I repaired. It occupied most of a good-sized bookshelf and it was several orders of magnitude less capable than the smartphone you now carry. A lot of that is presently dependent on China. That’s a risk we can’t live with.

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Reforming the Senate

I think that Ben Sasse’s ideas on reforming the Senate, expressed here in his Wall Street Journal op-ed, have merit:

What would the Founding Fathers think of America if they came back to life? Their eyes would surely bug out first at our technology and wealth. But I suspect they’d also be stunned by the deformed structure of our government. The Congress they envisioned is all but dead. The Senate in particular is supposed to be the place where Americans hammer out our biggest challenges with debate. That hasn’t happened for decades—and the rot is bipartisan.

His proposals are

  1. Ban cameras from Senate proceedings
  2. Abolish standing committees
  3. Reduce the time spent in committees and increase floor time, putting some of it under the control of committees
  4. Require senators to live in dormitories
  5. Change senate terms to a single 12 year term (term limits)
  6. Repeal the 17th amendment
  7. Sunset everything and start over
  8. Enact real budgets

I think he’s on the right track. You may notice that I have proposed #4 and #6 myself from time to time.

The Senate as presently constituted serves no real purpose—it’s redundant to the House. Abolishing the filibuster would make it even more so. As I see it the problems with the Senate aren’t limited to the Senate—the House has the same problems and those problems are party politics, the election system, the committee system, and the power of lobbyists and the permanent bureaucracy.

In addition to #4 and #6 I would suggest:

  • Reduce the power of committee chairmen and the majority leader
  • Get rid of the seniority rules. Make committee membership and chairmanship determined by lot. Rotate chairmanship among committee members.
  • Make contacts with lobbyists while the Senate is in session an ethics violation. I also think that it should be illegal to lobby a senator unless you are a constituent of the senator, you are lobbying on behalf of a constituent, and you are physically present in the senator’s state. That would require a constitutional amendment, though.
  • Senate rules should require that all bills introduced be limited to a single matter and the matter should be in the bill’s title.

Note that nothing in my list would require amending the Constitution. I also think that the members of both the House and Senate are too old. The average age of representatives is 58 while the average age of senators is 62. That is in strong contrast to the United Kingdom, France, and Germany where members of its legislatures are considerably younger. Term limits is one way of doing that but I’d prefer abolishing pensions for elected officials—they should be illegal. Either would require amending the Constitution.

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Back to the Future

The editors of the Wall Street Journal point out some of the risks inherent in mass mail-in voting:

The simple fact is that mass mail voting introduces slack into the election system. Unrealistic deadlines are one problem. For an election held on Nov. 3, voters in 10 states can request an absentee ballot on Nov. 2, according to a report last week by the U.S. Postal Service’s inspector general. During this year’s primary season, the audit says, more than a million ballots were sent to voters in the seven days before an election, placing them “at high risk” of tardiness.

The Postal Service audit describes how seven USPS processing centers performed from April through June. About 8% of identifiable election and political mail, or 1.6 million pieces, was delivered late. Don’t blame the new Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy: He took over June 15.

Some states try to factor in delays by counting ballot stragglers, up to 10 days late in Ohio, as long as they’re postmarked by Election Day. Alas, the audit finds that “ballots are not always being postmarked as required.” Other hangups abound: A Michigan voting envelope was printed without an address for the correct elections office, which “caused the ballot to be returned to the voter.” Ballots can also be rejected by local workers, who eyeball a voter’s signature to see if it matches the version on file.

In this year’s primaries, according to a tally by NPR, 558,032 absentee votes were tossed out. Al Gore won the nationwide popular vote in 2000 by 543,895. The discarded ballots this spring included 23,196 in Wisconsin, a state Mr. Trump won last time by 22,748. Some states give voters a week, or 14 days in Illinois, to “cure” bad signatures. Yet a study of Florida in 2018 found that mail-vote rejection rates were twice as high for black as for white voters.

The finagling over late ballots and messy signatures might stall the reporting of credible results. About a dozen states, including Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, don’t begin processing absentee votes until Election Day, per the National Conference of State Legislatures. In the absence of a partisan skew, this might not matter. But a recent Journal poll says that 66% of Trump supporters intend to vote in person, compared with 26% of Biden backers.

I’ve pointed out before that such “slack” as they call it was the norm for most of U. S. history but it definitely runs against the grain for moderns accustomed to immediate gratification. Certainly mail-in voting at a scale never seen before, the delays inherent in that process, the vagaries of state laws governing mail-in voting, the very divided nature of the electorate, and the perception that the stakes of this election are very high increase the likelihood that the 2020 election will be decided in the courts, the least democratic of our branches of government.

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Martyrs and Merits

Don’t waste your breath arguing that George Floyd is not a proper object of pity or outrage. Reasoned arguments won’t make a bit of difference. Horst Wessel or Che Guevara weren’t good objects for martyrs, either. All that was important was the power of the propaganda. My dad heard the “Horst Wessel Song” so frequently in his European travels that he could still sing it from memory 30 years later and fully 20 years after the cause for which it was the anthem had been thoroughly discredited. Alberto Korda’s photo of Che Guevara is still the most famous photograph in the world, still adorning many T-shirts worn by college students, more than a half century after his death.

Even the causes don’t matter much—it’s the propaganda. The more it’s repeated and the more effective it is to begin with, the greater and more pervasive its effects. I think that Martin Gurri is probably right. Were the objectives of the protesters really turned into actionable programs, they would probably evaporate. It would become obvious just how vapid they are.

The causes will change into corporations or rackets or both in due course.

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The Usual Suspects

There’s nothing particularly new in Martin Gurri’s breakdown at City Journal of the reasons that the protests of the last several months in many cities in the U. S. and, indeed, some in Europe as well have been as violent as they have but his presentation of them is organized reasonably well. In addition it ties in nicely with some recurrent themes around here so, naturally, it caught my eye. The first reason he identifies is visual imagery:

Today, we swim in an ocean of information that carries us, willing or not, toward particular destinations. George Floyd died before a battery of cell-phone cameras. One horrific video went massively viral: without this direct visual experience, it is unlikely that such a remote event could have been transformed into a global cause. We watch Floyd die with our own eyes and share in the anger and disgust of the crowd. Sheltered in our homes, far from the strife in Minneapolis, we have been swept along to certain political conclusions.

In a real sense, the digital environment represents the triumph of the image over the printed word. Because it provides the illusion of immediacy, the visual is viscerally persuasive: not surprisingly, the web-savvy public has learned to deploy images to powerful political effect.

I found the second reason he points out insightful:

The second piece of the puzzle concerns the mind-set of the protesters. To understand this, we must first grasp that the public is many, not one. Digital herding on subject matter is matched, when it comes to political opinion, by a fracturing of the public into raging war-bands. Protesters today might be anarchists, Black Lives Matter enthusiasts, Bernie Sanders–style progressives, identitarians of contradictory kinds, old-fashioned liberals, or vaguely idealistic twentysomethings. Their visions of the future diverge wildly, but they are united and mobilized by a shared loathing of the established order. They stand ferociously against. They see the present as a nightmare of injustice. That, incidentally, can be true for both the Right and the Left: the Right glorifying America’s past as the greatness from which we have fallen, the Left rejecting that past as a fallen state that pollutes the present.

Note, in particular, this point:

The protests I have studied have had speed and agility but little depth. The same slogans appear around the world: “I can’t breathe,” “Silence is violence,” “Black Lives Matter.” Beyond the slogans, we hear the same calls for generalities like “racial equity” or “social justice.” Beyond that, there’s nothing—no agreed-upon proposals to achieve these ideals, no organization, no leadership, no coherent ideology. Any hint of a positive program would likely shatter the movement into its component war-bands, so revolt has come to mean an exercise in pure negation, in the repudiation of the status quo without an alternative in sight. At this point, the question of nihilism becomes impossible to avoid.

The third contributing factor to the violence of the protests is the titanic incompetence of elected officials:

The last piece of the puzzle is the behavior of elected officials. I have written of a crisis of authority: this was a collapse in the self-confidence of our ruling elites. It started at the top. President Trump alternated between bluster about shooting looters and bizarre photo ops. The president has been roundly criticized for his actions, but every other elite player in this drama behaved as egregiously. While Minneapolis burned, Governor Tim Walz of Minnesota rambled on about how the people of his state were “second in happiness behind Hawaii.” Jacob Frey, mayor of Minneapolis, claimed involvement in the riots by “white supremacists, members of organized crime,” and “possibly even foreign actors,” raising the specter of Russian president Vladimir Putin walking the mean streets of his city. Frey sobbed as he knelt by Floyd’s casket. The governor of Georgia burst into tears while discussing the damage to Atlanta. It was a display of infantile panic by the people who should have been the adults in the room.

To those observations I should add one of my own. I don’t think the protests could have been turned to violence with such alacrity without social media. The method of presentation (visual imagery, video) and the organizational medium are not synonymous. Social media allowed individuals predisposed to violence to collaborate, urge each other on, plan, and prepare.

There is a connecting thread that links his three explanations: visualcy. The printed word mobilizes the intellect; visual images work on the emotions. In a literate society reason tempers outbursts, is a medium for persuasion, and lends itself to solving problems. A pre-literate or, like our own, a post-literate society is more agonistic. Rather than competence, leaders produce showy displays of emotion.

None of these factors is likely to abate soon. Fasten your seatbelts, we’re in for a bumpy ride.

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Dearth

Despite the significant events going on, I’m having difficulty finding something to post about. I think that in many cases the real story is being ignored in favor of the anti-Trump angle. I’ve been tired of the political infighting for months, years. And I’m tired of thinly-sourced stories making headlines for days on end.

Some major stories are incredibly under-reported. For example, approaching 20,000 people have been arrested around the country on charges related to the riots in various cities. Los Angeles, of all places, has had the largest number of arrests followed by New York City. That should be big news but it’s not.

I would write about Black Lives Matter but I find it incredibly difficult to write anything meaningful about it. To the extent that the group has a manifesto, I see little to nothing actionable in it. That life is harder for blacks than for whites should be obvious. Maybe it’s just obvious to me because my parents inculcated that recognition into me from an early age. Are police officers afraid of blacks? Of course they are. Does that excuse unarmed young black men being gunned down in the streets? No. I think there are many, many problems with present day policing—everything from the people who are becoming police officers to how they’re trained to police culture. We didn’t get to where we are overnight and things won’t change overnight but we’re in a “when do we want it?—now” culture.

What worries me the most about what I see going on around me is that I’m concerned that the last 70 years of progress in race relations are being thrown under the bus in pursuit of I don’t know what.

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