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.

Afterword

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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The Great White Party

White RepublicanYesterday, over at FiveThirtyEight, David Wasserman wrote, After The Midterms, The Diversity Gap in the House Will Be Wider Than Ever. The numbers are stark. In fact, it would not at all be incorrect to call the Republicans the White Man’s Party. I do a lot of work for a black Baptist church and it has a far larger white constituency than the Republican Party has women or minority groups.

The United States is 31% white male. But the Republicans in the House of Representatives are 89% white male. And the trend is in the wrong direction. It was only 86% before the 2012 election. And since then, it has gotten worse still. There have been six special elections when Republicans won and every one of them was a white male.

Compare this to the Democrats. After the 2012 election, of the 201 Democrats in the House, there were “61 women, 43 African-Americans and six LGBT members.” The Republicans have no openly gay members of the House. But to be fair, the Republican Party has always been a big supporter of self-hating closeted gay politicians. Oh, and in the two special elections since 2012, the Democrats have picked up two more women.

What this all makes me think of is William Buckley statement, “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop…” This is the basis of the Republican Party. Forget “freedom” and “responsibility.” This is all about the fact that white men have traditionally had ultimate power in this country. And they are afraid they are losing it. This is why they vilify the poor, because it is a way of arguing that white men deserve to be rich because they are better. The poor are over-represented by minority groups. This includes the LGBT community, who are poorer than their straight counterparts.

So a conservative really is someone who stands athwart equal opportunity, yelling stop! Worse than that. He doesn’t just yell stop. He uses the privilege that he has from centuries of repressing other groups to distort the system so that those who have been repressed continue to be repressed. At the same time, he yells, “It’s their own fault!” And he works the system he mostly controls to make sure that when he screws up, the government is there to bail him out. At the same time, he yells, “Food stamps are welfare that must be stopped!” And he congratulates himself on all his philanthropy, that mostly involves being a Job Creator™. At the same time, he yells, “If only there were no minimum wage, I’d hire more 8-year-olds to work in my business.”

Well America, what’s it gonna be? Are you going to continue to vote for politicians who not only don’t look like you, they don’t look after you? You might think that the country is badly in need of change. But these rich white Republicans don’t agree. They stand athwart your attempt to improve your life and yell, stop! And they have an army of lawyers, cops, and PR men to enforce their demand.

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The Basis of the NFL Is Violence

On Good Reasons for SuicideAs regular readers know, I hate football. I think it is the most boring game ever invented. The primary focus of the game is very big men running into each other. It has very little of the raw athletic beauty of basketball (which I also find tiresome) or the technical grace of baseball (which I must admit to having a great fondness for). But the recent NFL scandals really have gotten my attention and they’ve made me really angry. But I’m not angry in the way you may assume.

I just do not care. Why is anyone surprised that a bunch of steroid cases playing a game that is modeled on old-style symmetric warfare would produce a bunch of violent men? The game itself appeals to the worst instincts in men. It is one big orgy of testosterone. While the rich have made a fetish of greed, the rest of our society has made a fetish of violence.

What angers me is that this is not the problem of the NFL. This is the problem of the people who watch the NFL. The NFL is approaching the problem the same way that any business would. The new domestic abuse guidelines are a farce, meant to tell the nation that everything’s okay; they have it handled. They take domestic abuse seriously! Of course, they don’t. They take the bad PR of domestic abuse seriously. I’m sure they realize that for a lot of viewers, the fact that players act like animals off the field as well as on only makes the game more exciting. It makes it more real. This is not professional wrestling!

The whole thing reminds me of racism in America. We are a deeply racist country, but we spend most of our time pretending that we aren’t. And then, when some comedian uses the n-word, everyone is outraged. I maintain that this outrage has nothing to do with the word. The outrage is about the fact that someone screwed up and made us admit that, yes, there is racism. But using the n-word is one of the most benign forms of racism. I don’t think Michael Richards was necessarily any more racist than I am. It’s our hidden assumptions about different people that most harm society.

Similarly, with the NFL we glorify violence. But as a society we pretend that it doesn’t mean anything else. It is compartmentalized. The billions we pay to owners and the millions we pay to players of this violent game are not supposed to be about anything but the game — it isn’t about violence! But obviously, the people who play this game well are going to be more testosterone fueled and more violent than the average person. In the eight years that Roger Goodell has been head of the NFL, there have been 56 domestic abuse allegations — that’s seven per year. And I’m sure that is just a small percentage of what’s really going on.

I admit it: I don’t like football. I’d love for it to go away so that people could spend their time in more edifying ways. But I don’t see how anyone can watch the NFL and not acknowledge that an automatic part of that is that women and children will be brutalized off the field. And it isn’t just the players who are doing the violence. Five years ago, a report by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that watching football increased domestic violence. According to an article on it in Slate, “Based on domestic violence police reports from the years 1995-2006, the report finds that when an NFL game ends in an upset, the home state of the losing team experiences a sudden, brief uptick in domestic violence.”

So enjoy your football games. I really don’t mind. But don’t pretend that the associated domestic violence is about bad apples or a cultural problem. Domestic and other forms of violence are fundamental to the game of football.

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JC Penney and the Death of the Middle Class

James Cash PenneyOn this day in 1875, the businessman James Cash Penney was born. He is known for his hugely successful chain JC Penney. He had a kind of Horatio Alger beginning in his life. He worked for a small chain of stores. The owners were so impressed with his work that when they opened a new store, they gave him one-third ownership. After a couple of years when his partners wanted to break up, Penney bought out their interests and the chain was formed. Within ten years, it went from three stores up to 34. By 1929, the chain was nationwide with 1,400 stores. Although he was hit hard by the Great Depression, he weathered it and remained with the chain up to his death at 95 in 1971.

The company has managed to do pretty well in good times and bad. But the last decade has been very tough, as it has been for most businesses that cater to the middle class. This is because the middle class is dying. There is a thought experiment that is worth doing. Consider an economy in which one person owned everything. It couldn’t work because no one would be in a position to buy anything. A successful economy depends upon transactions. The more lopsided the distribution of goods, the less transactions can occur. So in general, an economy that is fairly equal will be one that works the best.

This is a fact that seems to have been forgotten by the rich of the world. Or rather, they believe in the thoroughly repudiated Say’s Law, “Supply creates its own demand.” By this theory, as long as the rich have factories to build things, there will be people to buy them because… Actually, I have no idea why. The idea is ridiculous. As I discussed last month, Wall St Says Economic Inequality Is Bad. And it is bad for the rich as well as the poor.

What James Cash Penney built was great. But he was only able to do it because it was done during a time of a growing middle class. When the Great Depression decimated the middle class, it almost destroyed his chain. And as the middle class has been systematically attacked over the last several decades, it has gotten harder and harder for Penney and other middle class oriented retailers to survive. Because the economy is like an ecosystem. We all depend upon each other. Without customers who are able to buy stuff, the greatest entrepreneur in the world will be helpless.

It really is the case that to save the middle class is to save JC Penney and Walmart. But sadly, after decades of the Job Creator myth and “Greed Is Good” apologetics, I fear the rich have lost their way. They think they can have it all. But they will find that having it all is the same as having nothing. James Cash Penney understood this balance, because he lived through it. He couldn’t depend upon the government to bail him out regardless of how badly he behaved. But he’s dead like all the great businessmen of the past. And now what we have are a bunch of entitled rich people who are indistinguishable from 18th century English Dukes.

Happy birthday James Cash Penney!

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In Defense of Thomas Frank

Thomas FrankYesterday, Thomas Frank wrote his weekly column, All These Effing Geniuses: Ezra Klein, Expert-Driven Journalism, and the Phony Washington Consensus. This morning, Jonathan Chait wrote another “Thomas Frank is an idiot” article, Have Nerds Betrayed the Left? And then Jonathan Bernstein went after him, Democratic Party Wasn’t Always Liberal. And finally, Ed Kilgore spent some time punching the hippie, No, Tom Frank, NAFTA Did Not Create the Christian Right.[1] After writing my generally positive take on Frank’s article, The Dangers of Experts in Politics, I feel the need to defend him.

What really struck me about each criticism was that the writers focused on details while just assuming that his conclusion was silly. Kilgore goes so far as to assume things that Frank did not write. He didn’t even mention NAFTA. Having read Frank for many years, it seems he is talking about the entirety of the New Democratic economic platform. Regardless, Frank’s overall argument is that after the economic conservatism of the 1980s and early 1990s, the people were ready for economic liberalism. And they didn’t get it.

A commenter on my article, Colin Keesee, noted:

I would add that if both parties act the same on economic issues, it is rational for white men in rural America to vote Republican.

Exactly! On social issues, the two parties really do provide a choice. And social conservatism is more popular. Balance that with the extreme conservative economic policies of the Republicans and the slightly less extreme conservative economic policies of the Democrats and there really is no choice. The economy is going to suck for the poor regardless of the party, so they might as well go along with the party that flatters their cultural prejudices.

I don’t think Frank is arguing that all a Democratic politician has to do is embrace economic populism and he will be elected. The entire Democratic brand has been soiled for a large part of the electorate. This is a nationwide problem. But if the cultural conservatives noticed that the Democratic Party was actually pushing policy that helped them economically, the brand would change. I’m with Frank that the current choice for such voters is social and economic conservatism (Republicans) and social liberalism and economic conservatism (Democrats). By voting Republican, they at least get half of what they want; voting Democratic, they get nothing.

Now I probably disagree with Frank in that I think the social liberalism gets in the way of reaching out to these voters. Any single Democrat running in a red district would need to repudiate his social liberalism. Rhetorically, he would need to start sounding like Rick Santorum, who has always had very good economic rhetoric (although there is no doubt if he were ever elected, he’d be economically conservative). But Frank is looking at the broader issue — the long view. The problem with the Democrats is that they spend too much time making compromises for the sake of the next election, while the Republicans succeed in pushing the whole field of debate to the right. And what that means is that the Republicans win even when they lose.

It bothers me that Chait, Bernstein, and Kilgore are so closed to the broader argument. Frank is concerned that the Democratic Party is so conservative on economic policy. The question is why Chait, Bernstein, and Kilgore are not.


[1] I hate that people call Thomas Frank “Tom.” I’ve always taken it as a kind of boast, “I know him so I call him by his nickname.” But in the article, Kilgore notes that he has only met Frank once. So it isn’t even that. Regardless, I find it confusing. I know who “Thomas Frank” is immediately. When people use “Tom Frank,” it confuses me and takes a moment for me to figure out who they are talking about. I wish they would stop doing that.

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