Addressing Global Warming Won’t Hurt Economy, Not That it Matters

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman wants you to know that it would cost very little to fight climate change, Errors and Emissions. In fact, he wants you to know that doing so might actually improve the economy and spur economic growth. I want him to know that I already knew that. I discussed this last year, Environmentalism Good for Economy Right Now. But he does provide some new work that shows things are even better than anyone thought.

The problem is that this doesn’t matter in the least. Let us consider the twentieth century during which time many tens of millions of Americans had their lives shortened and degraded all in the name of cigarette company profits. Was this good for the economy as a whole? Certainly not. People actively poisoning themselves did not make the auto industry more competitive. It didn’t expand the steel industry. It didn’t make the United States the biggest in the world. No. It made a very small number of people very rich. And in the name of those profits, we let millions of people die. The damage continues to be done.

So even if we discovered that taxing carbon would increase the standard of living of Americans by 50% and make roses smell ever so much better and provide lollipops for the kids, we would not tax carbon. I hate to be a killjoy, but this bears repeating at least a hundred times per day: we do not live in a democracy. It doesn’t matter what is best for the people or the country. What matters is what is good for the powerful. And even though doing something about global warming might be good for the computer industry, the privilege of the computer industry will stop it from standing with the people and against the oil industry.

If the government chooses the people over of the oil companies, who’s next? First they reduced the profits of the oil billionaires and I did not speak out — because my billions came from a different industry…

You know how conservatives are always complaining about how poor people lack impulse control? They are a paragon of virtue compared to the rich. At least the poor know that there are limits on their power. For example, they know that if they jaywalk, some police officer might shoot them in the head because he was “afraid.” But the rich live in a different world where their economic desires are all fulfilled. Thus, they have no impulse control. And why should they have impulse control? Global warming is very unlikely to be so bad that they can’t move to a good location and watch the billions of little people suffer and die from a distance.

Still, I think it is important to get the news out that addressing climate change is not bad for the economy. There are a whole lot of people who argue that it is. I’ve discussed before the three stages of global warming denial, It’s Raining, But Not for Long:

  1. There is no global warming!
  2. There is global warming, but humans aren’t the cause!
  3. Humans are causing global warming, but there is nothing we can do!

But the truth is that there is a fourth stage: “There are things we could do about global warming but it will destroy out economy!” And so it is satisfying to bat down that claim as well. But it won’t matter. There will always be another stage of global warming denial. If all else fails, they will start claiming that addressing global warming will not really provide lollipops as I promised earlier. So it’s hopeless!

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Beloved Cultural Icon Adam West

Adam WestAdam West is 86 years old today. Hooray! Really: hooray! I don’t think there is a more beloved American actor. First, he brought us the only superhero to the screen that is as campy and ridiculous as superheroes ought to be. And then in recent years, he has played the charming Mayor West on Family Guy, the only man who is truly deserving of Meg. I love him to death and I hope he lives to be 124 — the theoretical limit for humans.

He was born in Walla Walla, Washington — a town so generic that even two names can’t make it memorable. He got his bachelor’s degree in literature and then he was drafted into the Army for what I assume must have been the Korean War. In the army, he became an announcer for American Forces Network television. As a result, after the war, he pretty much fell into television.

He was a bit player throughout the early 1960s until he landed the ultimate gig in the title role of Batman. Although it only ran for three years, there were 120 episodes. Plus, of course, there was the 1966 Batman film. This probably did not make him rich. As I recall, actors of that time only got residuals for the first half dozen repeats. The rest of the money went — Of course! — to the money men who made no creative contribution to the show.

This led to a difficult time for West following the show. He was typecast. But he still managed to work. He did what he could to push past that, including working in low budget films like Zombie Nightmare (which is actually a pretty damned good film). Eventually, of course, he became the cultural icon that he is today. I think for a long time, people thought the original Batman television show was an embarrassment. But it wasn’t. It was brilliant. Really: go back and watch it. You’ll see. Here are highlights from the 1966 film:

Happy birthday Adam West!

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Two Jokes and a Song for Scotland

Scottish FlagIn Amadeus, Mozart tells Emperor Joseph, “I’m a vulgar man…” Well, I’m not a vulgar man. At least I don’t think I am. Instead, I am a silly man. I delight in pretty much the same things I delighted in at five. And although I flatter myself that I have a sophisticated sense of humor, most of my writing is much more silly than clever. In fact, last night on the Colbert Report, the segment on Prince Hawkcat made me gasp for air because it was so funny.

This is why I bring you what many probably consider silly jokes. And given that today the Scots are voting on independence, I thought I would offer up a Scottish joke or two. But before that, let me just go on record about this vote. I really wish the independence movement had worked out their currency issue. It is certainly the case that we now know that countries need their own currencies so they can weather the various financial crises that will be brought on by the dark forces of the Power Elite. But overall, I think they ought to go for it. And they should blame it on Margaret Thatcher. And embarrassing David Cameron is a big boost.

What’s more, Roy Edroso makes a great argument for being in favor of Scottish independence: the people who are against it are such wankers like David Frum. Of course, if I had to bet, I’d say that it will not pass. I heard that in the lead up to our own Revolutionary War, only about a third of the country was in favor of independence. So it is a tough sell. But we’ll know soon enough.

In the mean time, here is a very silly joke by keta, posted over on alicublog (lightly edited for language):

This Scottish bloke goes on a skiing holiday to Canada. After a hard day on the slopes he retires to a bar at the bottom of the mountain.

Into about five or six whiskeys, he looks up and notices a stuffed animal with antlers on the wall.

He asks the barman, “What the hell is that?”

The barman says, “It’s a moose.”

The Scottish chap says, “Bloody hell! How big are the cats?”

In response, commenter Spaghetti Lee offered another good joke:

So this American is vacationing in Scotland. He goes into the local pub and says “I hear you Scots know how to hold your liquor. Well, I’ve got a hundred American dollars for the first man who can do ten shots of whisky back to back.”

No one takes him up on his offer. One man even gets up and leaves. About ten minutes later, he returns and says “Is your bet still good?”

The American says yes. The bartender sets up the shot glasses and the Scot downs them all back to back. The whole bar cheers and the American sheepishly hands over the money. “If you don’t mind me asking, where’d you go for those ten minutes?”

The Scotsman says “Ach, I went to the pub down the street to make sure I could do it, first.”

Good luck, Scotland! If it becomes independent, I think Oi Polloi’s “Don’t Burn the Witch” should be its national anthem:

I love these guys!

Put to death in flames and smoke
You were used as a scapegoat
Troubles blamed upon the witch
When they should’ve really burned the rich.

Get down on your knees in their church
You refused and worshipped the earth
They tried to stamp out all you stood for
Wise woman power and herbal lore.

Inquisition in the middle ages
Phallocentric Christian outrages
There are those who’d bring back those days
Don’t let the right-wing Christian nutters have their way.

Don’t burn the witch!

Update (18 September 2014 11:03 pm)

It went as I expected. The Los Angeles Times has reported, Scottish Voters Reject Independence From Britain. But it was closer than anyone would have predicted a few months ago. The vote went down 45-55. With that much discontent, this is not over. I hope that that the UK makes accommodation for Scotland as they have promised. But now that the pressure is off, I suspect that nothing will be done.

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Chuch Norris Shockingly Argues for War

Chuck Norris Blurred to YouthfulnessI’ve never been that fond of liberal actors talking politics, because I know how crazy it makes conservatives. This is despite (or maybe because) of the fact that they are usually fairly well informed. That’s especially true of the likes of Mark Ruffalo. But these days, it seems that it is much more likely for conservative actors to talk politics. And, of course, the right eats it up. It often takes the very silly form of Coach star Craig T Nelson complaining about people getting government aid when no one helped him when he was on welfare and getting food stamps. It isn’t surprising that a political movement that mostly appeals to the dimwitted people would also appeal to the dimwitted actor.

But even I was impressed to see that Chuck Norris is a columnist over at Townhall. He is described there like this, “Chuck Norris is a columnist and impossible to kill.” It goes along with a photograph that is completely washed out to avoid showing his grizzled 74-year-old face. He’s almost unrecognizable. But he is over at the conservative website holding court on matters of foreign policy. On Tuesday, he offered up, America at the Tipping Point (Part 3). It has that oh so scary picture of the guy with the ISIS flag. Be afraid, be very afraid!

He is angry at Obama, of course. You see, in January, the government said that ISIS was about 10,000 strong. But the CIA now says it has between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters. Thanks Obama! That was only nine months ago. If ISIS continues to grow at this rate, within a decade, the entire country will be members of ISIS! The only choice we have is a full-scale invasion.

And he should know because he checked with Marxist historian Vijay Prashad. Prashad noted, quite correctly, that the bombing campaign is not going to do much good to stop ISIS. Of course, Prashad is against American imperialism. And his claim is not a call to arms. But Norris will use anyone to get his preferred policy, which is now and forever to attack. And why not, after all, he is “impossible to kill.”

Next, Norris brought up the Ultimate Conservative Answer™. This is used always. We should go to war because British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appeased Hitler. But as I discussed earlier this year, Neville Chamberlain Was Right, Chamberlain did what his military command wanted him to do. The British were under no illusions that they were going to have to go to war with Hitler. But they weren’t prepared and the Munich Pact gave them valuable time. But Norris like pretty much all conservatives thinks otherwise because he wants a convenient way to call for war in all circumstances all the time.

Norris also goes after Ford for appeasing the communists. I don’t even know what he’s talking about. But then even better, he goes after Carter for appeasing “the ayatollahs”! Let me leave this one to Charlie Pierce:

Let’s back up the ol’ history chuck wagon and set a spell. See, what happened to Carter happened, not because he “appeased” the ayatollahs, but because he appeased (among other folks) a leaky bag of old sins named Henry Kissinger and allowed the Shah of Iran, the torturer and tyrant that we foisted on the people of Iran, into this country for medical treatment. That led to the assault on the American embassy and the taking of the hostages and the incredible boost to Ted Koppel’s career. In response, Carter froze their assets and made the Iranian economy scream. He also tried an ill-fated rescue attempt that went wrong in the desert.

You know what appeasing the ayatollahs looks like?

Promising them if they hold the hostages, they’ll get a better deal from another president. Unfreezing the assets almost as soon as you take the oath. Secretly selling them advanced weaponry because you had use for the profits of this illegal arms sale to fund an illegal war.

That’s what appeasement looks like.

And that wasn’t Carter.

That was the next guy.

The main part of his argument comes from the religious book qua history, The Miracle of Freedom: 7 Tipping Points That Saved the World. In particular, he is interested in how Muslims almost took over the world in the eight century. Because all would have been lost had the Christians not have been in control of Europe while they enforced the Dark Ages. Islam was actually the more liberal religion at that time, and on the verge of its Golden Age. This says a whole lot about Chuck Norris. After quoting something he heard on The History Channel, he concluded:

As the West — particularly the US — squares off against the barbaric Islamic State, could we be facing another tipping point in the course of the world? Will we, like those in the Battle of Tours, rise to the occasion, or will we cower in retreat and isolation?

Like most modern American conservatives, this is not about politics. Norris wants a holy war. The truly vile fundamentalists of ISIS have a certain appeal to the likes of Chuck Norris. He too wants to oppress everyone with religion. The only difference is that he wants to oppress everyone with a different religion. So I say we send him over to Iraq. He should be able to win this holy war all by himself. After all, he is “impossible to kill.”

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Presidential Candidates Almost Never Decide Elections

Gary Hart and Donna RiceJonathan Bernstein made a good point today, Gary Hart Was Never Going to Be President. It followed up on a Matt Bai article in The New York Times, How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics. Now I know the conventional wisdom: Gary Hart was a handsome politician in the mold of John Kennedy and if only Donna Rice hadn’t been so damned attractive, the Democrats would have gained the presidency in 1988 and today roses would smell better than they do!

The problem with this is that it is all wrong. Now I don’t know if Hart might have gotten the Democratic nomination. But I worked on Michael Dukakis’ campaign, and I can tell you something: he was a fine candidate. Sure, he wasn’t exciting. But after the “excitement” of the Reagan years, a lot of people were interested in having a competent manager in charge at the White House. And yes, there was Willie Horton, Dukakis’ emotional disconnect regarding the rape and murder of his wife, and the ill-advised photo-op in the tank. But he was a fine candidate.

And he would have won if the economy was tanking. But it wasn’t. My unemployment model of presidential elections indicates that Bush had almost twice the chance of beating Dukakis as Clinton had of beating Bush. In other words, the election was Bush’s to lose. And it didn’t matter who the Democrats nominated. The unemployment rate was low and it was getting lower. The American electorate did what it always does: rewarded the party in power.

I bring this up not to put down Gary Hart. I actually kind of like the guy. But Democrats really have to get over this idea that who they nominate to be president matters. Or at least in general that’s the case. In 2004, the Democrats could have won the election. If we had nominate Howard Dean and he had kept the election focused on the Iraq War, he might have overcome the economic fundamentals in that race. But even there, it is unlikely; the economics were really in Bush’s favor.

But what all this means takes us back to what Thomas Frank is always ranting about. It may not be true that America is just waiting for a great economic liberal (although I think they are). But in a presidential election, the Democrats should nominate the most liberal candidate they can. Remember that many liberals were thrilled that the Republicans nominated Reagan in 1980 because they knew he was such an extremist. But the American people would vote for Stalin if the economics were bad enough.

In 2016, there are basically two possibilities. Either the economy will have tanked and the next president will be Rand Paul or some other crazy Republican. Or the economy will hold and the next president will be Hillary Clinton. But if we nominated Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, it would lead to the same outcome. If Clinton wins, it means that Sanders and Warren would have won.

The lesson for the Democratic voter is simple: pick the candidate you like, not the one you think will do well in the general election. Because that will be decided by broader economic issues that you have no control over.

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The Questions Economics Does Not Want to Ask

Mark ThomaMark Thoma is an interesting character. He’s an internet legend. For almost a decade, he’s been cranking out the blog Economist’s View, which is almost a clearing house of writing about economics. I get the impression he must read a thousand words per minute given the amount of information that he provides. If you are interested in economics, you read his blog every day. It’s as simple as that.

But other than the clear leftward tilt of material he highlights, we don’t get that much comment from him. That’s why I am always startled when I read an article by him, as I did yesterday at The Fiscal Times, Can New Economic Thinking Solve the Next Crisis? He isn’t the kind of guy to make a lot of noise or come off emotional the way that Paul Krugman or Brad DeLong do. Nor do you ever see that the kind of snarky satire of Dean Baker. But Thoma makes his points well, with subtlety even while being every bit as subversive as any economist.

I’m no economist, as any number of actual economists have pointed out to me over the years. But if I were to talk about rational expectations models (which I have), I would rant about how stupid they are. And I wouldn’t be wrong. As an old atmospheric modeler, I know a thing or two about models and the people who create them. And perhaps the most profound thing I know is that people model what they find easy to model. And then they try to justify ignoring what is not in their models. And when it comes to many modelers, the models become more real than the thing they are trying to model. So even though I see that real business cycle (RBC) models can provide insights into the way economies work, I scoff at them.

But Mark Thoma doesn’t. In his article he says of course these models are good. It’s a good thing to do because for many economists, these models are more dear than their children. (Fun fact: most economists raise their children in Skinner boxes.) He points out that models are just tools. (A fact that many modelers forget.) And that the real issue for the economics profession is that over the last couple of decades, it has become very limited in the kinds of questions that people are allowed to ask.

One example he provides is that by using representative agent models, economists could not model financial markets. How could you if each agent thought the same thing about a financial asset? If they both think it will go up in value, then the one who owns it isn’t going to sell it. The point here is that tools have to be developed to answer questions. It does us little good to simply apply our existing tools to problems that can be solved with them. This takes us to the old saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Of course, Thoma is too nice a guy to come right out and say the truth: the problem isn’t just that the economics profession fell in love with its tools. It has embraced a political philosophy that believes that markets are perfect. Economists missed the financial crisis because they didn’t believe it could happen. And as a result of that, they didn’t build necessary models because they didn’t believe they were necessary. It’s like building a model of the geographical distribution of unicorns. What’s the point?

The problem that I see is that even after the financial crisis and the housing bubble, much of the economics profession still seems to think that such things cannot happen. Economics has always been a field of study with an especially big problem with ideological priors. And so there will always be people on both sides of the political divide banging the drum for their ideologies. But there is a truth in the matter. And you can see it in the models of investment banks and government bureaus — places where getting the correct answer matters. And they all use models that are basically Keynesian.

As Deep Throat said, “That should tell you a lot.”

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Adrien-Marie Legendre

Adrien-Marie LegendreOn this day in 1752, the great mathematician Adrien-Marie Legendre was born. He was born to a rich family, which is more or less the way it goes. You see, if you were born poor, you were lucky to get to learn to read. If you look at the history of great thinkers, they mostly came from the middle of the income scale. The rich were too busy counting their money. They didn’t have to do anything, so they didn’t. And the poor were too busy not starving. So that left the children of the artisans and shopkeepers. But Legendre was a bit different.

But when revolution came to France, Legendre lost his fortune. But he wasn’t part of the useless rich, and so he survived. He was named one of the six members on the mathematics panel of the Institut National des Sciences et des Arts. And shortly before his death, he was made officer of the Légion d’Honneur.

What he is most well known for is one of the most powerful tools of mathematical physics: the Legendre transformation. As I wrote last year, “It allows you to transform a function from one set of variables to another. There are two classic examples of this. One is to transform the Lagrangian formulation of classical mechanics into the Hamiltonian formalism. The other is the transformation of thermodynamic internal energy—which we can’t measure—into enthalpy and other variables that we can measure.” It is a beautiful thing.

Happy birthday Adrien-Marie Legendre!

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We Should Do Something About Global Warming But Won’t

This Changes EverythingIt’s very cloudy outside here in Northern California. It’s dark too. The clouds are thick. We will almost certainly get a few sprinkles. And then it will be back into the 90s next week. I fully expect that California will be abandoned within 50 years. I’m also expecting the United States to invade Canada on this same time scale. For over a hundred years, the United States has had some of the best farm land in the world. But that land is moving north. On the plus side, we may have the perfect climate to grow blue agave and God knows we’ll likely need more Tequila than we have previously.

What’s interesting about global warming is that the Unite States has always had the most to lose from it. Yet more than any country, we have stood in the way of doing anything about it. Sure: there are other countries that are against it, but if the United States had been on board, it wouldn’t have mattered. We had that kind of power. We still do. But we won’t for long. Rule number one for the Price: keep your army well fed! That’s going to get harder and harder.

Naomi Klein has a new book out, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. I haven’t read it yet. But Joe Romm has a brief introduction to it at Think Progress, This Changes Everything: Naomi Klein Is Right, Unchecked Capitalism Will Destroy Civilization. He summarizes the book as making three points. First, because we’ve denied the problem for well over two decades, our options are much worse. Second, the choice is between the end of civilization and the end of capitalism as we have come to know it. And third, it would be “morally monstrous” to choose capitalism over civilization.

Note that neither Klein nor Romm are against capitalism itself — just the kind of capitalism that we have now: the kind of capitalism that is mostly mythical, that doesn’t produce anything, that claims that people are only free if one person can have as much wealth as the rest of the people in his country combined. But the sad thing is that it really doesn’t matter. In the United States especially, to question the absolute “free market” paper tablets that Ayn Rand provided us means that you are a Socialist! And the people who believe this — who are extremely powerful — would rather destroy civilization than to concede that markets, and by extension themselves, are not perfect.

As Mr Tolstoy told us, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Good civilizations are all alike because they managed to look out for their people and the long term interests of the state. But bad civilizations suck in their own ways. Why did the Roman Empire fall? Who cares! It tells us nothing about why the American Empire is falling. Our civilization is dying because we have allowed a small number of people to become too powerful. And they have developed a kind of philosophy that is destroying the civilization.

Apparently, Klein has some ideas on how we can save our civilization. And Romm notes that Americans are not too keen on capitalism anyway. He even quotes (Twice!) the evil wordsmith Frank Luntz saying that Americans think that capitalism is immoral. But am I really to believe that we are going to have a discussion of this? Back in 2012, the vast majority of Californians were in favor of GMO labeling of food — a reasonable law even if, like me, you have no problem with GMOs. But Monsanto came in and spent just $8 million in this very big television market and the law went down to a resounding defeat.

So as crops fail and property values decline, the people will be upset. But the power elites will be there to make them understand that this is better than the alternative, Socialism! And anyway, global warming will cause all kinds of strife all over the world. There will be any number of groups who are angry because they are starving to death. And our government will be able to label them terrorists. And everyone will agree: they’re the ones who are the problem.

As for the real problem, we will do what we always do: nothing.


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Adolph Reed on Obama Before He Was President

Adolph Reed JrHe’s a vacuous opportunist. I’ve never been an Obama supporter. I’ve known him since the very beginning of his political career, which was his campaign for the seat in my state senate district in Chicago. He struck me then as a vacuous opportunist, a good performer with an ear for how to make white liberals like him. I argued at the time that his fundamental political center of gravity, beneath an empty rhetoric of hope and change and new directions, is neoliberal.

—Adolph Reed Jr
Obama No (28 April 2008)

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The Senate Model Arguments

Nate SilverThere has been a bit of relatively polite insulting going on in the election model community. Based upon my observations, Sam Wang started it. But that isn’t to blame him. I think it was basically defensive. All the other big modeling outfits were saying that the Republicans were heavily favored to take over the Senate next year and he just didn’t see it. His argument is a simple one: all the models based upon fundamentals are actually less accurate because they are just throwing in noise. So his approach to models is really the best you can do: look at what the polls are saying.

Today at Vox we see a little pushback, Nate Silver: Sam Wang’s Model Showing Democratic Senate Advantage “Is Wrong.” That’s a provocative headline and distorts what Silver is actually saying. Nate Silver is kind of a punk, but he is still a numbers a guy and is careful about what he says. (He’s kind of like me when I was that age but with huge success that greatly raises his arrogance level.) So we should pay close attention to what he has to say.

Sam WangHis complaint is that Wang’s model doesn’t include the uncertainty that is inherent in polls. In a sense, this doesn’t seem a valid complaint. Wang provides two probabilities. The first is the percent chance the Democrats will hold the Senate if the election were held today. Currently, this is 80%. He also provides the percent chance the Democrats will hold the Senate in November. This number is only 70%. But what I think Silver is getting at is that his model is more like a Monte Carlo simulation, and without getting into the mathematics, they do tend to tamp down strong conclusions. When I was doing Monte Carlo simulations of atmospheric chemistry and climate models, they had a shockingly consistent tendency to produce errors right around 40%, regardless of how complex or simple the model.

Regardless, I don’t see Sam Wang’s model as being all that certain. His current 70% chance of the Democrats keeping control of the Senate is not much different from 65% and 67% probabilities that FiveThirtyEight and The Upshot gave Republicans not long ago, not to mention the 86% that The Monkey Cage produced. Given that all of these models have now come down to roughly 50%, it would seem their greater uncertainty doesn’t mean a whole lot.

I think what is really going on is that Nate Silver is feeling a little underappreciated. And also maybe insecure. In you look at the Vox Senate model roundup, you will see that the FiveThirtyEight model is the outlier. All the models predict the Republicans with 49 or 50 seats, but FiveThirtyEight predicts 52. Now that isn’t quite as bad as it sounds. The model currently gives the Republicans only a 53% of taking control of the Senate. It is just that the most likely scenario is the Republicans getting 52 seats. There is a 14% chance of this. Just the same, there is a 13% chance of them getting 50 seats and another 13% change of them getting only 49 seats.

At this point, the best bet is that the Senate will be evenly divided with the President of Vice to decide. If that turns out to be the case, it will be yet again that Sam Wang looks good, because he’s been predicting the Democrats retaining control of the Senate for a long time. It will be those who claim the importance of political science fundamentals who will have explaining to do.


I don’t want there to be any confusion as to where I stand. I think political science can tell us a whole lot about American politics. But in terms of predictions, the only thing that I’ve found that is really important is the economic trend leading up to presidential elections. In off-year elections, it seems to be a mess. I have my eyes peeled for any fundamentals that are important in these cases. But thus far, all I see is a lot of correlation and very little causation.

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