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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Looks Like Kansas Court to Help Greg Orman

Greg OrmanYou probably know what has been going on in the Kansas Senate race, but I’ll give you a brief refresher. The Republican Party in Kansas have been so extreme that even many Republicans are turning against it. Art Laffer convinced the state of Kansas that if they just lowered taxes on the rich, there would be economic growth and (Perhaps you’ve heard this before?) the tax cuts would pay for themselves! Instead, what they got was ruinous budget deficits. I wrote about this in some depth back in May, Art Laffer’s Toxic Prescription.

Part of the displeasure with the Republicans in Kansas is with their current senior Senator Pat Roberts, who is very unpopular. He is technically in a three-way race with Democrat Chad Taylor and independent Greg Orman. In that race, Roberts would likely eke out a minor win. Given that Orman was doing much better against Roberts than Taylor, Taylor decided to drop out of the race. In a two-way race, Orman is about ten percentage points ahead of Roberts. So clearly, the Republicans would like to keep Taylor on the ballot.

Not to fear! Kansas has one of the most partisan and unethical Secretaries of State in the nation, Kris Kobach. He has refused to remove Taylor’s name from the ballot based upon some technicalities. Taylor decided to take the issue to court and today, the Kansas Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Kobach v Taylor. Rick Hasen at Election Law Blog watched the whole thing and concluded that Taylor is likely to win the case.

The case has turned out to be different than most people expected. The issue seemed to be that Taylor had worked with the Secretary of State’s office to make sure he did everything right. As a result, the papers he filed should be enough. But the justices didn’t seem that interested in hearing about that. They were more interested in the fact that Kobach allowed other similar petitions to be approved. They didn’t say it, but it is clear enough what this means: Kobach is doing this only to help his party. And Kobach has a history of this. He’s a good example of the revolutionary right that doesn’t see our political system and its norms as valid. Whatever pushes Kobach’s proto-fascist ideology is good.

Even if Taylor loses this case, there is a very good chance that Orman will beat Roberts anyway. Even though Taylor has only dropped out of the race less than two weeks ago, the word is out and a poll released today shows only 6% of those asked plan to vote for him, giving Orman a 7% lead even if Taylor remains on the ballot.

Regardless, the Republicans have gone into Kansas in a big way now. They know that Kansas is likely the state that will decide which party controls the Senate. So there will be a lot of attacks on Orman and his numbers will go down. So he needs all the Democratic support he can get. If the Kansas Supreme Court forces Kobach to take Taylor’s name off the ballot, it will be a great help to Orman.

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Sometimes a Great Ken Kesey

Ken KeseyOn this day in 1935, the great American novelist Ken Kesey was born. I really only know him from his two novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. But he wrote more than this and I suppose I will have to go back and find what else he did. Certainly, those are two of the greatest American novels ever written. And he is probably the greatest writer of his generation, except for maybe Heller, but certainly not Salinger or Capote or Roth — as great as they may be.

There are generally two things that I think about with regard to Kesey’s work. First is his decision to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the first person. He could have written it in the third person and it probably would have worked well enough. But there would have been various problems. One is simply the way the plot is told. There would be no reason not to know far more of what’s going on outside the ward. But because Chief is thought to be mute, he is allowed limited access to staff meetings. But the most important aspect of the first person narrative is that the book is about Chief. One of the great disappointments in the film (as great as it is), is that we don’t get to see Chief’s evolution from mental illness to mental health.

The second thing about Kesey’s work is the way he shifts point of view in Sometimes a Great Notion. Basically, he does what Virginia Woolf’s does in To the Lighthouse. But Kesey is far more clear. Reading Woolf is like floating around at see, being pushed his way and that. It isn’t about the story but rather the journey. Kesey is interested in telling a story. And he has great insight into character that isn’t really true of the early stream of consciousness writers.

In 1989, Kesey wrote a novel collectively with 13 graduate students at the University of Oregon, Caverns. Three years later, he wrote his first novel in almost three decades, Sailor Song. And then he wrote a collaboration with Ken Babbs, Last Go Round. All of them sound interesting. I will have to see if I can dig them up. Until then…

Happy birthday Ken Kesey!

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The Saviour and the True Meaning of Love

The SaviourFollowing is the complete video of the 2005 short film, The Saviour. It is written and directed by Australian filmmaker Peter Templeman. And it is a good example of something I tell people all the time: short films are generally far better than feature films. I think there is a simple reason for this. Most feature films don’t have 90 minutes of content. They are padded. What’s more, feature films are expected to make money. So they are far more commodity than art. Short films are generally works of love and so are artful or at least reflect the filmmaker. And they are as long as they need to be. No one ever pads a ten minute film with five minutes of nonsense just to reach that magic 15 minute length.

The Saviour is a magical film. I suppose that everyone will see it in their own way and I highly recommend watching it before you read what I have to say. I don’t believe in “spoilers,” but The Saviour is the kind of film where you really ought to make up your own mind before allowing me to poison you. The basic story is that a young Christian missionary has had an affair with a married woman he is trying to convert. She has cut it off, and he is obsessed. He believes he will save her from what must be a bad marriage, given that she was willing to commit adultery with him.

So, have you watched it? It is 16 minutes of your life that you won’t regret.

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2014 Will Not Be a Wave Election, but Maybe 2016

Jeffrey LordIndirectly through Jonathan Bernstein, I came upon a jaw dropping article by Jeffrey Lord in The American Spectator, 2014: a Wave Election or an Earthquake? The article goes into some detail describing what the difference is between a “wave” election and an “earthquake” election. It doesn’t help that he seems to have made up the term “earthquake election.” But according to him, a wave election is when one party does really well but it is ephemeral. An earthquake election is where one party does really well and it represents a long lasting political realignment.

The problem with the article is the subtext. This conservative hack is certain that the Republicans will win big in November. Never mind that polls indicate that the Democrats just look stronger and stronger in the Senate and have always looked good in the governorship races. Lord just knows this is a big year for the Republicans.

He also doesn’t actually get the idea of a wave election right. Both 2008 and 2010 were wave elections because the prevailing political tide dragged along a lot of candidates who wouldn’t normally have been elected. Even if the Republicans do really well this year, it won’t be a wave. In the Senate, we are seeing the results of the Democrats’ 2008 wave. There are a lot of Democratic Senators up for re-election in states that are generally pretty hostile to Democrats. The fact that only one of the six main Senate election models give the Republicans an even modest advantage (Just 4 percentage points!) shows this is no kind of wave.

But Lord has a major ax to grind. He claims that the Republicans made major gains in 1994 because Clinton turned to the left. He also claims Carter (the proto-New Democrat who was really quite conservative) lost to Reagan because he was liberal and not because of the bad economy and the Iran hostage crisis. Clearly, Lord is one of the true believers who thinks that if only the Republicans ran the Platonic ideal of the pure conservative, they would win elections for the next century.

Similarly, he complains (This is unbelievable!) that Thad Cochran isn’t a real conservative because he voted to affirm Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. He likens Ginsburg to Robert Bork. So okay, Jeffrey Lord is not just a conservative hack, he’s also an ignoramus. But he is entirely typical of the whole of the Republican Party. What we hear from him today goes right along with what we heard everywhere in 2012 about Mitt Romney winning the presidency. Remember Peggy Noonan’s belief that Romney was going to win because she was seeing more yard signs? That’s what’s going on here.

In Lord’s defense, he does write, “The GOP establishment panicking over re-electing Pat Roberts in red state Kansas is not a sign of an earthquake election — and maybe not even a wave election.” There are 33 Senate seats up for election this year. Of them, 21 are currently held by Democrats. The Republicans should easily be able to take the Senate. But there is a very good chance that they won’t even be able to do that. Regardless of what happens, 2014 will not be a wave election.

But if the economy keeps improving, 2016 will be a wave election. For the Democrats. And it might even be an earthquake.

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