War Artist Vasily Vereshchagin

Vasily VereshchaginOn this day in 1842, the great Russian painter Vasily Vereshchagin was born. He is best known as a war artist. In the days before photography, armies had painters to immortalize their acts. The job wasn’t as much like a modern photojournalist as it was the poets who warriors have kept around for millennia to write songs of their exploits. Vereshchagin traveled all over the world documenting wars and a lot more. He was one of the first Russian artists to be highly regarded internationally.

At the age of eight, he was sent off to military school. From the age of 16 to 21, he was in the Imperial Russian Navy. At that point, he left and began studying art. A year after that, he was studying in Paris with Jean-Léon Gérôme (who I actually like a lot more). After studying there for a couple of years, he got a commission to travel with a Russian expedition to Turkestan. It was from these travels that my favorite of his paintings came, The Apotheosis of War:

The Apotheosis of War

This painting was not well received by the Imperial Russian Army, but most of his work was more traditional. After this time, he spent a couple of years traveling through India and Tibet where he did a lot of beautiful and, for him, unusual work. But by 1878, Vereshchagin was back with the Army at the Russo-Turkish War. His brother was killed during it and he was seriously wounded himself. Because he was actually a soldier, he saw war in a very objective way. And he didn’t like it. His work became more and more anti-war and didactic. For example, he was highly criticized for Suppression of the Indian Revolt by the English, but I have a hard time believing that it isn’t largely true. The British weren’t close to the worst colonial power, but they were nonetheless a colonial power.

Suppression of the Indian Revolt by the English

In my research of war artists, I’ve found that few of them live to be very old. It is just too easy to die in war zones. If it isn’t the shelling, it is the disease. Vereshchagin was no different. He was invited to come and document the Russo-Japanese War. While traveling on the Russian battleship Petropavlovsk, it struck two mines and sunk. Vereshchagin did not survive.

Happy birthday Vasily Vereshchagin!

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What’s the Matter With Colorado?

Mark UdallEarlier this week, I woke up with a thought in my mind, “I can’t believe Colorado is going Republican!” I wasn’t really thinking about Governor John Hickenlooper, who has been running neck-and-neck with Bob Beauprez the whole campaign. That’s bad enough. But Mark Udall has been losing to Cory Gardner. That’s right, extremist Cory Gardner! And he isn’t losing by a little. Daily Kos currently has him down by four percentage points.

It isn’t that I had been thinking much about it before. In general, I haven’t focused on specific races. But it clearly had been eating away in the back of my mind. My subconscious was screaming at me, “How can this be?!” This, after all, is Colorado: the Amsterdam of America! But you know, maybe that isn’t really the issue. I’m sure that I was effected by a great Jason Jones’ segment on The Daily Show last year, Not-So-Angry Voters.

In the segment, Jones went to Colorado to talk to John Morse, the former state senator who got recalled for his support of incredibly minor gun control legislation. The joke (in more ways than one) is that the legislation was super popular. Morse lost his seat anyway. It’s a funny and anger inspiring segment:

It still isn’t clear why Gardner should be leading Udall by an increasing margin. Is it just that only the right wing freaks have gotten the message and that, like all the people Jason Jones interviewed on streets, the reasonable majority just isn’t engaged? Earlier today, Martin Longman at Political Animal tried to answer this question, A Look at the Colorado Senate Race. He discussed a number of issues, but the most relevant is that Udall has been saving his advertising muscle for the end of the campaign as Jerry Brown did here in California so successfully back in 2010:

The best and most hopeful argument in Udall’s favor that I have heard is that he held his fire on his advertising campaign, allowing Gardner to dominate the airwaves in September in order to have an advantage down the stretch. Reports from Colorado are that Udall ads (from both the campaign and from outside groups) have saturated the markets in recent weeks and are currently ubiquitous. If progressive explanations for Udall’s deficit are accurate, that he hasn’t painted Gardner as the radical that he really is, that has changed now.

We can hope. There are only ten days left until election day. And the strategy doesn’t make that much sense. When Brown used it, he was forced to. He was running against a billionaire who simply could not be outspent. I would think that Udall, being an incumbent, would have had no problem with money. And if he were going to start hammering on Gardner, he would have done it earlier. But what do I know? Really.

There are other reasons to feel hopeful. There is, of course, the fact that midterm polling tends to be pretty far off. But again, Udall is down by four percentage points — that’s a lot. There is also the thought that maybe the Bannock Street Project — the Democrats’ increased get-out-the-vote effort — will help, as may be Colorado’s new all-mail voting system. But as Longman noted, “If the Bannock Street Project is working as anticipated, it should be at least partially evident in the current polls.” That may or may not be true; I’ve always had big questions about the polling outfits’ “likely voter” screens.

If Udall’s ad campaign is going to work, we should start to see it. And there is a tiny data point that does indicate this. The most recent poll shows Udall up by one percentage point. It is a Udall campaign internal poll and those tend to be heavily skewed toward whomever pays for them. (This doesn’t mean the poll itself is bad; but campaigns are unlikely to release bad poll results.) But looking inside the poll, it looks reasonable. For example, Udall is winning the Latino vote 57-30%. That actually seems low to me — indicating that maybe even it is underestimating Udall’s strength.

We will know what’s going on soon enough. It will all come down to who votes. The only thing necessary for the triumph of crazy is for good men to do nothing. “Vote you a**holes!”

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Antibiotics Create False Sense of Security

Aaron CarrollI have lived a long and colorful life — causing myself far more pain that I was born to. Yet the most painful thing I have ever been through was a case of herpes zoster — “shingles.” For five days, I was in so much pain that I did not sleep except for passing out for a few minutes here and there. The thing about shingles is that it is caused by a virus. I finally made it to a doctor on the fifth day and they put me on some kind of antiviral drug. And it was amazing — in its total uselessness.

This only highlights just what amazing things antibiotics are. If it weren’t for antibiotics, I would be dead. At least once they saved my life and maybe more than that. So it truly is remarkable that we have these largely generic drugs that are so highly effective. And it shouldn’t surprise us that doctors give them out like candy. It is a form of defensive medicine that actually has potentially deadly aspects.

I’m not talking about the antibiotic resistance that taking the drug creates, although that is certainly an issue. Instead, I’m talking about an article by Aaron Carroll, On an Antibiotic? You May Be Getting Only a False Sense of Security. In it, he noted that doctors often don’t know if the disease they are treating is caused by bacteria. He started with an extreme example:

The best way to prevent transmission of Ebola in the United States is to identify and quarantine those with the disease as soon as possible. However, the first Ebola patient in this country was, unfortunately, released after going to an emergency room, even though he had symptoms indicative of the disease. He was sent home on antibiotics.

But this seems to be pretty typical. Here, the doctors thought that Thomas Eric Duncan had a sinus infection. The problem with that is that sinus infections are usually viral, not bacterial. So even if Duncan had had a sinus infection, the doctors probably didn’t treat it properly, “Yet antibiotics are regularly prescribed in this manner.” And the issue isn’t just with the people treated.

Carroll is a pediatrician and so he is very familiar with conjunctivitis — “pink eye.” The general rule is that children with this disease are not allowed back at school until they’ve been on antibiotics for 24 hours. One of the problems with this rule is that pink eye is usually caused by a virus. But even when it isn’t, “Drugs simply work differently in different people.” He noted that people with pink eye could be contagious up to ten days after they start a course of antibiotics! The bottom line:

Even in the best-case scenario, being “on an antibiotic” isn’t much protection for others. And often, antibiotics offer no protection at all.

So what do we do about this? Carroll doesn’t have much of a recommendation other than for doctors to recognize that they often prescribe antibiotics more for themselves than for their patients. But I have a thought that has nothing to do with medicine. I think the problem is that our culture has changed in ways that are hurting us. It isn’t just that we pretend that everything must get done now now now! (I have friends who work for content providers and they are on deadline constantly; there is no normalcy.) But the bigger issue, I think, is that now most households have two people who work outside the home. So it is really important to get the kids back to school. It’s madness. And it is probably killing us in more ways than one.

On a personal level, you might want to make sure that what your doctor is giving you is correct. But even if it is, it doesn’t mean you aren’t contagious. Streptococcal pharyngitis – “strep throat” — which is treated really well by antibiotics, doesn’t do much to stop it from spreading from the patient. So try to slow down and spend a little time alone. Learn to meditate. Or start a blog! The two are really not that different.


I want to be clear that I think who manages the home ought to be a couple’s choice. But the big problem is that most jobs don’t pay enough to support a family anymore. I find it interesting that conservatives spend so much time whining about the dissolution of the family, yet they aren’t willing to support economic policies that would facilitate family cohesion. Managing a household is a full time job. We have two income families now because the business community wants higher profits and the government has enforced policies to assure that. It isn’t that way because the American family was just itching to have someone else raise its kids.

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Conservatives Love “America,” Hate America

DigbyThis morning, Digby wrote a few choice words about what she rightly calls, The New “Blame America First Crowd.” It follows from an interview with Douglas MacKinnon about his recent book, The Secessionist States of America: the Blueprint for Creating a Traditional Values Country… Now. He wants to found a new country called “Reagan.” Digby quoted him arguing that the Civil War was illegal, and that Lincoln went to war because the “North realized very quickly that it could not survive economically without the power of the South.” That’s a thigh-slapper! The South had largely missed the industrial revolution because of its reliance on slaves. It was an economic backwater then and to a large extent remains one to this day.

But the point of Digby’s article isn’t that MacKinnon is delusional; it is that MacKinnon, like so many on the far right, hates America. People like him love “America,” of course. “America” is some ideal that they have in their minds in which everyone agrees with them and they are never taxed, yet the Social Security checks keep coming. Mostly, “America” is a big deal in areas where people get a lot more from the federal government than they pay. But most of all, America constantly and always disappoints “America.”

Digby expressed my frustration perfectly:

It’s fine with me if they hate America. Everyone has the right to do that if they choose. But it would be nice if they could be the tiniest bit consistent about this. When the left complains about American policy it is accused of being un-American and called traitors to their country by these same people. And yet when they don’t like American policies they can call for secession and maintain their reputations as All American Patriots at the same time.

In fact from now on I’m going to refer to every right winger who is mad about abortion rights or marriage equality or high taxes the “blame America first crowd” because they have earned that title as honestly as any lefty who complains about America’s foreign policy or criminal justice inequities.

It is extremely weird that we on the left have been labeled un-American when all we want are marginal changes to the current state of things. On the right, they are quite explicit that their patriotism is entirely dependent upon America doing exactly what they want. And despite what many people think, this is not a new phenomenon. It was true at least as far back as the 1950s. The most striking thing in Claire Conner’s Wrapped in the Flag is how often the people at that time repeated what is now the clarion call of the Tea Party, “Take our country back!” The implication is that America as it actually exists is invalid.

What it really all comes down to is that we liberals are supposedly wrong because we complain about foreign policy. But you see, this is part of the whole “America” love problem. Part of the conservative love of “America” depends upon the country being able to do whatever it wants militarily. This is why despite the US spending almost as much as the entire word combined on the military, conservatives claim that we must spend more on the military. The point, however, is that liberals are blaming “America” because we are against fascism and imperialism.

Conservatives think they are the arbiters of what America is all about. Liberals do not share in that delusion. In fact, liberals are quite explicit in thinking that there is a battle for the soul of America. So when a conservative bloviates about how abortion should be illegal, liberals may disagree, but they don’t claim the country wouldn’t be America if Roe v Wade were overturned. It’s all about purity, which is a well established conservative obsession. And this is what allows conservatives to claim that liberals hate America, when it is the conservatives who are always wanting to separate from the country. They care about “America,” and “America” only exists in their minds.

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Could Michelle Nunn Actually Win Georgia?

Michelle NunnAndrew Prokop reported over at Vox yesterday, Election Forecasters Now Give Democrats a Slight Edge in Georgia. And that’s true. Michelle Nunn has been hammering David Perdue who spent most of his career outsourcing, and thinks it is something people should applaud him for. They haven’t been applauding.

It’s the same old story: the things Republicans actually believe in are really unpopular. But I’m sure in the social circle that Perdue is in, it’s a different universe. In it, outsourcing is great, only property owners should be allowed to vote, and taxes must be eliminated for the “job creators.” They are shocked when they get out into the real world and find that these are not widely supported ideas. And this is why conservatives think that liberals shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Unless they understand what “everyone I talk to” knows, they must be ill informed.

If you look at the polls, Nunn really does look like she is beating Perdue — by roughly 2 percentage points. But don’t get too excited. She doesn’t just have to beat Perdue. She has to get over 50% of the vote. If she doesn’t, it goes to a runoff in January. There are two problems with that. First, there is a libertarian, Amanda Swafford, who is consistently getting about 5% of the vote. As I’ve discussed before, libertarians tend to vote Republican. So most of those libertarian votes will go to Perdue in January. The second problem is bigger: voter turnout will be even worse in January, which will help Perdue.

But it is possible that Nunn could get to 50% in the general election. The Daily Kos election model currently has Nunn getting 48.2% of the total vote. As I discussed yesterday, the nationwide polling data for midterms has been off by an average of 2.9 percentage points. The polling for Nunn would only have to be biased against her by 1.8 percentage points. It isn’t out of the question. Just the same, maybe the polls are biased the other way around and Perdue will get 50%. (That’s unlikely; they would have to be running 3 percentage points against him.)

Let’s give the runoff a thought. I think if Nunn loses but still forces a runoff, it’s over. But if Nunn wins and they go to a runoff, I think there will be a lot of resources put to her campaign. And I don’t especially seeing the Republicans’ resources as changing things all that much. Nunn would have two months to continue to beat up on Perdue about how much he thinks it rocks to send jobs overseas. And with an aggressive get-out-the-vote operation, she might just be able to win. But I think it is clear that this is less likely to happen than that she is going to out perform the polls and win outright on 4 November.

It is important to remember, however, that none of this should even be possible. The Georgia electorate is changing, but it hasn’t changed that much. According to the polls, the Democrats are greatly out performing expectations. The Republicans really have nothing to feel good about in this election. And if the Democrats do manage to hold the Senate, there really ought to be suicides on K Street. I don’t expect to see this, however. The Republicans will take what will regardless be gains in the Senate as another reason to continue on with their scorched earth resistance to actually helping the country. Regardless of what happens, this will be the election that people will look back on and say, “That’s when the Republican Party started to lose its grip on national politics.”


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Georges Bizet

Georges BizetOn this day in 1838, the great composer Georges Bizet was born. Had he lived longer, he doubtless would have been hugely influential — especially with regard to opera. But he died suddenly and young. So he exists as a kind of idiosyncratic bit of musical genius in the second half of the 19th century. He is especially known for his great melodies and I think in this way (and many others), he is comparable to Mozart. Sadly, most of Bizet’s professional life was spent arranging and orchestrating the works of others — skills that also shine brightly in his own work.

Bizet’s focus was on composing for the human voice — both opera and song. But he was also a fine composer for orchestra. In fact, the only real success he had during his life was the suite he created based upon incidental music he wrote for the play L’Arlésienne by Alphonse Daudet. But that doesn’t mean the rest of his orchestral music wasn’t great. Take, for example, Petite Suite based upon his Jeux d’Enfants, which was a collection of a dozen piano duets. It is a wonderfully charming work:

Probably the biggest reason that Bizet did not have success as an opera composer during his life is because he worked with poor librettos. In particular, two of his later operas — Les Pêcheurs de Perles and La Jolie Fille de Perth — are great from a musical standpoint, but make weak drama. I don’t tend to think about that much; to me it is all about the music. But that wasn’t the case for the audiences at the time.

Bizet’s last composition is his greatest and his most renowned, Carmen. Sadly, the first performance of the opera did not go well. Ironically, it didn’t go well for the one of the reasons that it has become a classic: it is racy. It tells the story of Jose who is led astray by the seductress Carmen. And after abandoning everything in his life for her, she dumps him for a toreador. In a fit a jealousy, Jose stabs Carmen to death. Here is the last number from the opera, “C’est toi! – C’est moi!” There are no English subtitles, but it should be clear enough what’s going on. Let me just note that after the stabbing, there is a small fantasy sequence. Carmen wasn’t secretly in love with Jose; this is just his brief delusion. Regardless, this is beautiful production:

Happy birthday Georges Bizet!

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Banks Game Dodd-Frank to Irrelevance

Michael CorleoneDean Baker wrote a very short but action packed article this morning, The Banking Industry Wins on Risk Retention With Mortgages. It is following up on Floyd Norris’s article in The New York Times, Banks Again Avoid Having Any Skin in the Game. It is all about the securitization of home loans. This probably sounds familiar because this is what wrecked the economy back in 2008. Given that the financial industry didn’t get harmed for what they did before, like a spoiled child, they never learned.

Norris explained that part of the Dodd-Frank law was to have required “risk retention” or “skin in the game” in their real estate securities. So when a bank bundled up a bunch of mortgages and sold them, it would have to keep a 5% interest. But there was a way around this. If the mortgage was considered super safe, this 5% risk retention wasn’t necessary. What made a loan super safe was if the borrower had a substantial down-payment. For example, if someone put down $100,000 on a $200,000 house, it was unlikely to be a problem because the home would have to go down in value by 50% in order for the bank to lose any money.

But this isn’t going to happen. The problem is that the banks had a lot of support in wanting to get rid of any requirements on loans. The economy is sluggish and people are having a hard time getting loans. So a chorus of voices rose up and said that we must do everything we can to encourage the banks to loan. Sigh. I am so tired of this. This is the neoliberal hellscape we now live in. It would be easier if the government just loaned the money directly. But instead, we have to allow private banks to enrich themselves making home loans, which the government guarantees. The banks do a useless job for a lot money at no risk to themselves.

The bottom line is expressed by Barney Frank, “The loophole has eaten the rule…” Except it is worse than that; maybe it would be better to say, “The loophole ate the rule and then died of poisoning.” And the truth is that it probably doesn’t matter. But bad policies are always enacted when they seem reasonable. It seemed reasonable for Bill Clinton to destroy welfare as long as the economy was doing great. It was only after the dot-com crash that it became clear that we still needed welfare as we had known it. So sure, the securities will be fine this year and net year. They may even be fine for the next decade. But eventually, we’ll see the same thing happen again.

Dean Baker pointed out that loans with no down-payments were four times as likely to default as loans with a 20% down-payment. He added, “It is also worth pointing out that the cost of requiring that banks retain risk on low down payment loans did not mean that people could not get loans without large down payments as often claimed.” It simply would have made loans slightly more expensive. But that was not how it was presented.

The the banks have won. Again. Just as expected. I remember back when we were in the middle of the crisis in 2008, there were bankers saying that the government really did need to regulate the banks because the bankers just couldn’t help themselves. But after the government stepped in and saved them, their tunes changed. Even the most minor of regulations were met with screams, “Socialism!” The bankers managed to water down the initial Dodd-Frank law, which was bad enough. But laws always have to be turned into policies by the bureaucracy. So the bankers have been working that system as well. And in the end, the people of the United States get the Michael Corleone deal that we can’t refuse, “Nothing.”

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That Film About Money

James SchamusI just found out about a film project, We the Economy. It is subtitled, “20 Short Films You Can’t Afford to Miss.” I learned about it indirectly via Tristero over at Digby’s Blog. The recommended films by James Schamus are very good. Sadly, that isn’t true for much of the other films.

I haven’t watched all of the series, but most of what I’ve watched has not impressed me in terms of substance. It’s not a surprise that the group got money to make its highly polished films. I would say they overall tilt decidedly rightward. What’s kind of sad is that in many cases, it isn’t clear that the artists making the films really understand. For example, the film on Debt and Deficits treats short term deficits as though there is a disagreement about them in a recession. That’s not true. There is only a disagreement about them when a Democrat is in the White House.

But of special concern is the Recessions episode. It is visually stunning, but is based upon John Steele Gordon’s ideas about recessions, which are largely that recessions are based upon supply shocks. He gives some minor lip service to the demand side of the equation, but that’s all. For example, he claims that recessions are all about bankers not loaning. Sometimes, certainly. What about right now? Oh, that’s right: we aren’t in a recession! It’s just that millions of people are out of work. I don’t know much of Gordon’s work, but he seems like one of these people — pretty much the standard in policy circles — who thinks all that matters is that the rich bankers are loaning to the rich corporations. What happens to the little people doesn’t matter.

On the other hand, there are some good films. Bob Balaban’s episode on Globalization is pretty good. It deals with the subject in about the only sensible way possible. Globalization isn’t going away. So we need to manage it so that it doesn’t cause so many problems and so much insecurity. It does manage to avoid saying something that is obvious: globalization may have created a lot of jobs overseas, but that didn’t cause the stagnation of wages here. Policy allowed all productivity growth for almost four decades to go just to the capitalists and not to workers.

By far, the best film is James Schamus’ episodes 6 and 7, which together constitute, “That Film About Money.” In one way, it isn’t really that informative on the issue of money — nothing more than you didn’t already learn from It’s a Wonderful Life. But it goes into the messed up way that the financial system is run — especially in the second episode. In fact, the second episode might make you very angry. And it includes some nice interviewed sections with Richard Wolff, who is both charming and brilliant, “If you understand that, you’ll understand why the banks have recovered, and nobody else has!”

This is my playlist combining the two films together. It is a total of 15 minutes long, so it is worth the time:

That sums up the last two decades, “I know what we’ll do: instead of paying you to buy what we produce, we’ll lend you the money!”

The problem with the series is that it is definitely made by and for the TED Talk crowd. It’s smart and well made. It takes pains to appear even handed, while tipping distinctly toward the viewpoint of the power elite. But inside that context, good things get done. And that was especially true of the film by James Schamus.


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Republicans Can Always Find Economists to Justify Their Bad Ideas

Art LefferI’ve written before about the fiasco that’s been going on in Kansas, Art Laffer’s Toxic Prescription. Since the 1970s, Laffer has been selling the same old supply side snake oil. The idea is that cutting taxes will so stimulate the economy that it will actually bring more money into the government in the form of taxes. It isn’t true that there is no such thing as a free lunch, but this supply side myth is not one of those free lunches. Given our low level of taxation, it literally never works. But over three decades of failure has not stopped Laffer from continuing to push this idea.

Kansas is ground zero for this right now. Sam Brownback used Laffer’s ideas as an excuse to do what Republicans always want to do: cut taxes. This is not about economics. This is religious faith, which is why intellectual mediocrities like Art Laffer are held up as heroes on the right. But things have not worked out. The tax cuts have not spurred growth — unemployment is higher than it is in surrounding states. And the government has had huge deficits. The response from Brownback is that these things take time. Just keep waiting and eventually all will be well. Of course, the cuts to education are here today. And if the tax cuts were going to work, they would have worked by now.

But I learned something new about the Kansas story from an article by Mark Binelli in Rolling Stone, The Great Kansas Tea Party Disaster. He noted, “Back in 2011, Arthur Laffer, the Reagan-era godfather of supply-side economics, brought to Wichita by Brownback as a paid consultant…” Interesting. I knew that Laffer had consulted on how to destroy the Kansas economy, but I didn’t know it worked that way.

Here’s the thing. Since supply side economics is a religious faith, you don’t go hire an expert who will look at your options and decide on the best one. You decide what you are going to do and then you hire Art Laffer as a way to justify it. Laffer isn’t an economist; he’s a public relations device. So bringing him in to “consult” is picking your solution, because you know that Art Laffer has only ever had one idea (and it isn’t even his). So if you hire him, that’s the idea that you will get.

Many years ago, I was the head of software development at a high tech start-up. We did amazing work — arguably the best work I’ve ever been part of. But there was a shake-up among the owners and the brilliant founder of the company was pushed out. Suddenly, the company was controlled by a bunch of money guys who didn’t understand anything about technology. They hired a friend with a technological bent, but who was totally unqualified for the job. And he proceeded to destroy pretty much everything that was developed under the company’s founder. That was mostly on the hardware side. But at one point, they decided to hire a software consultant. This guy did work on web-based applications. So he studied what we were doing and — What a surprise! — he decided that we should convert the software to be a web-based application.

This is my experience with consultants. In general, they aren’t the generalists you would think. Instead, there is one thing they know and when hired, they always find that the best solution is that one thing they know. In the case of my clueless employers, I don’t think they understood what they were doing. They probably met the guy at a bar and that was good enough for them. But clearly Brownback knew what he was getting. Laffer was not going to surprise him.

The whole thing is remarkably disingenuous. We actually know pretty well what works in terms of economic policy. But there are always conservative economists around to tell conservatives whatever it is that they want to hear. Alberto Alesina is there to tell them that budget cuts in a recession will create a boom. Greg Mankiw will tell them that stimulus spending is good when a Republican is in the White House, and that it is bad when a Democrat is in the White House. Funny that. And Art Laffer, the one trick pony, will tell them tax cuts will pay for themselves. We would be dealing with more open-minded people if we were dealing with the Spanish Inquisition.

H/T: Ed Kilgore

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One-Third Hope for a Democratic Senate

Sam WangAs you probably know, I’ve been paying pretty close attention to the race for control of the Senate. You can see the six main models listed on the sidebar on the right. And recently, things have not been going so well, as I discussed in, Democrats Are Sad Not Delusional. So I continue to focus on Nate Silver’s model — currently giving Democrats a 36% chance of holding the Senate — and using Sam Wang’s model to remain hopeful.

Right now, Wang’s model gives the Democrats a 45±15% chance of holding the Senate. But it has been as low as 25±15% just a couple of days ago. It isn’t this number that gives me hope. Wang provides a more interesting statistic: the meta-margin. This is how far off the polls would have to be for the election to be a toss-up (50% chance that Democrats would keep control of the Senate). Currently, the value is R+0.4%. That is: Republicans are up by 0.4 percentage points and if the polls are off by 0.4 percentage points in the Republicans favor it would be a toss-up.

Nate SilverThe reason this gives me hope is that polls usually are off by quite a lot more than that. Looking just at midterm elections (presidential election polling is better), the average magnitude of errors on elections since 1990 is 2.9%. Of course, that doesn’t mean that errors would be in the Republicans’ favor. In 1990, 1994, and 2002, the polls were off in the Democrats’ favor — meaning the Republicans did better than expected. But the last two midterms were off in the Republicans’ favor. And the last four elections total greatly favored the Republicans: +3.4%, +0.9%, -0.2%, +2.7%.

This doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The 1998 polls favored the Republicans by 4.9%. Then the 2000 polls favored the Republicans by 2.1%. But then it flipped and favored the Democrats by 4.0% in 2002. So maybe the polls are all making the Democrats look better than they will turn out to be. That would actually make sense, because the Democrats have been polling far better than anyone expected, given the fundamentals of this election. And if that’s the case, this could be a far worse election than I am expecting.

In the end, when I make my predictions going into the election, I’ll stick with the polls. But I hang onto the hope that the meta-margin provides. Of course, it is just a measure of the error that the models predict. Most of them claim that Democrats have about a one-in-three shot of keeping the Senate. And that means there is roughly a one-in-three chance that the Republicans will have a blow-out. So that’s not a lot to hold onto. But it’s something. As always, it will help if you vote.

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