Ads Don’t Matter in Presidential Elections

John SidesJohn Sides is a very smart political science professor at George Washington University. But sometimes, he’s kind of boring. Like today, when he was over at Wonk Blog and explained, Four Reasons It’s Hard to Campaign Your Way to the Presidency. I have to assume that he was trying to counter the idea that the well-run campaign is the one that finishes first. No one I read makes that argument. In anything, I personally go too far the other direction: the only thing that matters are the fundamentals. I’ll admit that there are people who who hold clearly incorrect opinions on how a president gets elected. But are we really going to spend all of our time trying to correct fools who will never learn anyway? Does Dr. Sides think the likes of Cokie Roberts reads Wonk Blog?

There is one argument that I have heard from time to time over the last six months. It goes like this: Obama won the election because he spent money early to define Romney as an out of touch plutocrat and Romney was never able to get past that label. Sides counters this by noting that Obama only really pushed that narrative for two weeks in July. I would go further: people already thought that Romney was an out of touch plutocrat. If the ads worked, it was only because they reminded people why they hated Romney. There is a tendency among political pundits to assume that the people are empty vessels just waiting to be filled up with politician talking points. It doesn’t take much time listening to Romney himself to decide that he is an out of touch plutocrat:

Sides’ four reasons are not that interesting. They all come down to the same basic thing: commercials are just not that useful in presidential campaigns. It is one thing for corporate money to flood into California and confuse the population about GMO labeling. In that case, there is either going to be labeling or there isn’t. With a presidential campaign, one of the guys is going to become president. And for most people, it isn’t going to matter all that much which—or at least, that’s what they think until they look back on two years with the Republican president. And that gets to Sides’ best observation: there are ads on both sides pushing against each other. It is hard to get much advantage in such a situation.

The only thing that happened in the 2012 presidential campaign that had a notable effect outside the economic fundamentals was the Obama get out the vote (GOTV) operation. Sides didn’t discuss this, because it wasn’t inside the context of his article. But it is part of the campaign. And I care about it, because it goes along with my guiding philosophy of elections: people almost always vote the same and the only difference is who decides to vote. The fact that Obama had an highly effective GOTV effort probably did earn him an few million extra votes. Was that enough to swing the election? No. But under the right circumstances, it could have been. What’s more, it is something that will continue to help liberals. Even if the Republicans get very good at GOTV, most of their backers already vote. They don’t have the potential to greatly improve their numbers.

As to Sides’ general argument: I agree. Advertising doesn’t mean that much in most elections. But pundits will continue to cover elections as though they do. It is fun to cover and it is fun to read (or watch).

Coup d’Etat and Economists

Dean BakerIf I found myself in charge of a new country after a coup d’etat, and was limited to a single economist to help me build the new country, I wouldn’t want some Nobel Prize winner—not even someone like Paul Krugman. The reason is that those who win such a prize are brilliant in certain ways, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much when it comes to practical economics. After all, one only needs a single great idea (and often not even that) to get a Nobel. As we’ve seen with any number of brilliant Chicago School economists: when it comes to the actual economy that all of us struggle with each day, they are usually driven much more by their ideological preferences rather than what the profession generally has to teach about the economy.

Take for example the idea of Ricardian equivalence. This is an idea from David Ricardo, an economist who followed closely on the heels of Adam Smith. The idea is that there is a limit to government stimulus.[1] If the government decides to spend beyond its income, the taxpayers will assume that this means that future taxes will have to be raised to pay off the spending. As a result of this, the taxpayers will reduce their spending to provide for the taxes that they know are coming. There is one obvious problem with this theory: people aren’t nearly as rational as economists always assume. And there are other problems. But if we assume that the model is completely accurate, it still doesn’t prove that stimulus doesn’t work.

An example will help. Let’s assume the government provides stimulus over 2 years that they will pay off by issuing 30 year bonds. The taxpayers will not set aside all the money to pay their taxes in that 2 years. They put aside a much smaller amount for the 30 years over which the bonds will mature. Thus, a big government stimulus will not be offset by a huge reduction in spending by the private sector. And this is the case even if Ricardian equivalence is right, which is far from certain.

I bring this up, because lots of distinguished economists argued that the 2009 stimulus bill (ARRA) couldn’t help the economy because of Ricardian equivalence. They weren’t talking long term, here. Instead, they just didn’t understand a basic economic fact. They were lost in the mythical fairy land were theory is reality. Economics as a whole is prone to this mistake, but conservatives are especially prone to it. I’ve been thinking about this since Dean Baker wrote yesterday, “As a general rule economists are not very good at economics.”

A lot of people wonder why Baker has never been given a Nobel Prize. After all, he is consistently right about pretty much everything. Check out this Birthday Boasts article last year about a lot (but certainly not all) of the things he’s been right about that most of his fellow economists have been wrong about. But really: they don’t give out Nobel Prizes for that kind of thing. Instead, they give out such prizes to focused work on something (usually) very small. Although I may find people like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz very useful in understanding economic policy, it isn’t because of their Nobel Prize winning work.[2]

Baker’s article is about how the world should never have taken Reinhart-Rogoff 90% debit cliff seriously in the first place. As I noted last month:

The second reason I didn’t accept this paper comes from an idea that Dean Baker has been drilling into my brain the last few years: debt-to-GDP ratios are meaningless. What matters is the interest burden of the debt. A government will have no more difficulty managing a 50% debt-to-GDP ratio at 4% than it will a 100% dbt-to-GDP ratio at 2%. Or let me personalize it: would owing $2,000 on a credit card really matter if the bank only charged you $5 per year in interest?

When put this way, economics starts to sound like a very simple science that requires little more than common sense. Indeed, that’s how Baker noticed the housing bubble years before it exploded: house prices had always stayed pretty much flat when adjusted for inflation. Then, in 1995, they started going way up. There was no reason to believe that there was a real reason for houses to be worth more. So Baker’s conclusion: it was a bubble.

When I have my Augusto Pinochet moment of being able to rebuild a country after a coup, I will not reach out to a brilliant, but ideologically blinded Nobel Prize winning economist like Milton Friedman. Nor will I consult with much more clear-sighted Nobel laureates like Krugman and Stiglitz (although they would both make excellent seconds). Instead, I would pick Dean Baker because I think he sees the world as it is rather than as it ought to be. Of course, it matters that he is a liberal and thus cares about the effects policies have on people. But in an economic adviser, the first thing you want is someone who can see the world clearly. And on the right especially, we get ideology before reality or people. Now all I have to do is find a good coup d’etat opportunity.


[1] Actually, this is more how it seems to be used today by conservatives, especially following Robert J. Barro’s work. The original idea is more general: taxes and debt are the same because the people know they will have to pay for it one way or another. Apparently, Ricardo himself didn’t believe that such an equivalence existed. This gets to the heart of something that is wrong with science generally: ideas are often celebrated more because they are interesting than that they are right.

[2] I am not, however, saying that their research is irrelevant. Krugman’s work on liquidity traps and Japan have been really helpful in analyzing what we are currently going through. But that isn’t the work he got the Nobel for. Stiglitz’s work was on asymmetric information in economic models. That does not have a direct relationship to our economy. It does, however, show how screwed up economics as a science has been. The idea that information asymmetries would not be fundamental to the science demonstrates how lost in theory land it has always been.

Bill Maher Spouts Anti-Muslim Racism

Glenn GreenwaldThis is an amazing bit of video from Friday’s Real Time with Glenn Greenwald really taking Bill Maher to task on his anti-Islam rhetoric. Greenwald is making a kind of Some People Push Back argument. He is saying that it is outrageous for Americans to be shocked at the violence in the Middle East when we have been by far the most violent player in the region. But as is often the case, Maher pushes the argument in a religious direction and really shows off his ignorance. For one thing, he notes that Islam has been around long before America became a country. I guess the implication is that Islam was very violent then, but that isn’t the case. Then he states that for the last 200 years, Christianity has been violent. That’s almost too ignorant to be believed.

Maher is demonstrating the biggest problem I have with the New Atheists. They all have a strong tendency to be apologists for Christianity and Judaism. This isn’t so much because they defend these faiths. It is just that they lose all perspective when it comes to Islam. It is the usual mechanism by which racism justifies itself. When a Christian bombs an abortion clinic, they don’t tar all Christians with the act: Christianity is most clearly not the reason for the attack. But when a Muslim blows something up, it most clearly is because of the religion. It is madness. And it is very often explained by quoting evil things in the Koran and nice things in the Bible. But it could just as easily be the other way around. It isn’t, because Bill Maher and other neocons know a priori their conclusions.

What I find most amazing is how parochial people like Bill Maher and Sam Harris are. They think themselves anything but. However, they attack what is foreign and forgive what is close by. Sure, Christians may be silly, but they aren’t violent. So everything is seen from a western or American point of view. The Christians can’t be terrorists because they are part of us, attacking another part of us. But when young Muslims attack the Boston Marathon, it is an attack of them against us. All of this thinking leads to neoconservative policy. And as much as Maher and Harris might claim otherwise, it is really nothing more than racism.

Greenwald is right and Maher is wrong:

Florence Nightingale and Soviet Spies

Florence NightingaleOn this day in 1918, Julius Rosenberg was born. He was very clearly spying for the USSR, and our government put him and his wife Ethel to death to 1953. I hate this whole episode. First, it is far from clear that Ethel had anything to do with this case. Also, all the other conspirators were given prison sentences, rather than death. So why were these two killed? I really think they became a symbol of the evil Soviet Union infiltrating our country and our culture. What’s more, there was the whole idea that the Soviets weren’t smart enough to make an atomic bomb, they must have stolen it from us. So basically, the Rosenbergs paid the ultimate price to make Americans feel better about the Soviets getting the bomb. I’m sure if we could have, we would have made another Jewish couple pay for Sputnik 1. I used to think, “We are better than this.” Now I just think, “This is who we are.”

The great French composer Gabriel Faure was born on this day in 1845. It is hard to encapsulate his style. At his best, I think of him as pre-Debussy. And I mean that as a compliment; Debussy is often too impressionistic. Faure never loses focus on the music as you can see in this piano version of Sicilienne opus 78:

The great philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti was born on or about this day in 1895. I used to read him when I was a kid. I think I learned a bit from him, especially about the difference between affectation and a genuine response to the external world. I still struggle with that. But there is nothing affected about my crush on Katharine Hepburn who was born in 1907. Talk show host Tom Snyder was born in 1936. And comedian George Carlin was born in 1937.

The quotable Yogi Berra is 88 today. Burt Bacharach is 85. Steve Winwood is 65, so I guess we won’t be hearing anything from him in the future. Miller’s Crossing star Gabriel Byrne is 63. Ving Rhames is 54. And Emilio Estevez is 51.

The day, however, belongs to Florence Nightingale who was born on this day back in 1820. In general, her exploits during the Crimean War are believed to be newspaper hype. But she did go on to found a nursing school that effectively started professional nursing. She was also very important in the move to display statistical information in graphical form. Today we take this stuff for granted, but it was a huge leap forward in making information intelligible. Today, we see this kind of presentation of data in People.

Happy Birthday, Florence Nightingale!