Democrats’ Electoral Chances Less Bad

Ballot BoxAt Real Clear Politics today, Sean Trende published the most cheery piece of analysis I’ve read in months, Could Democrats Gain Senate Seats This Fall? But it’s important to stress the first word in that title. He’s not saying that Democrats are likely to gain seats in the Senate. In fact, he thinks the changes are really really slim. But I have never even considered that the Democrats could increase their majority in the Senate. I’ve just been hoping that we can can limit the damage and maintain the majority.

And there is a good reason why the “limited losses” scenario is cheerful to Democrats. As Trende noted, “[I]f Republicans only gained a seat or two it would be a disaster for them. The intra-party split would be the last thing the GOP needed heading into the 2016 presidential elections, especially since the playing field then is absolutely brutal for them.” So the fact that Trende sees the Democratic prospects improving marginally is very hopeful indeed.

What I find particularly compelling is that the hypothetical future that Trende posited for a Democratic surge strikes me as likely. He suggested that an improving economy and better Obamacare news could sweep many of the marginal Democratic Senate candidates to victory. To me, this isn’t so much a question of if this happens but of how much this will happen. And even today, the Republicans don’t have much to talk about. Their attacks on Obamacare are sounding increasingly shrill—only appealing to the true believers. And their economic arguments are a joke.

But even if things don’t improve much, the November election looks more positive than it did. Yesterday at FiveThirtyEight, Harry Enten wrote, Early Senate Polls Have Plenty to Tell Us About November. In the article, he looked at how accurate early polling is compared to other factors like the popularity of the president. For example, in Kentucky, Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes are even in the polls, even as President Obama has only a 30% approval rating. What are we to make of that?

Enten addressed that question of how reliable early polling is compared to other factors. He concluded, “I analyzed which measure is more indicative come November, and it turns out that polls are a more robust metric even though their numbers are still sparse and there’s still so much time remaining before the election.” But he stressed that presidential approval is still a major factor. So taking both factors into account gives Grimes only a 27% chance of beating McConnell. The situation is equally grim in North Carolina, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

But I still find this extremely positive news. That’s because I do think that Obama’s approval rating will rise over the next six months because of Obamacare and the economy. What’s more, I still hold out high hopes for get-out-the-vote efforts by the Democratic Party. But pretty much any glimmer of hope would encourage me, because I’ve been absolutely despondent the last few months.

As always: it is extremely important that you vote!

The Obamacare War Is Over

Obamacare Signups by Month

That graph comes from an excellent article today by Jonathan Cohn, Obamacare Signups Hit 8 Million. And I will come back to the article and this bit of excellent news. But I present it now as an object of magical properties—for conservatives. They see that huge spike in March and they shout, “The administration has been cooking the books!” And indeed: the administration projection was that March would only have modestly increased signups compared to February.

But I think of myself as very normal when it comes to these things. And do you know when I signed up? Not at the last minute! No, I gave myself a whole day for error: I signed up on 30 March. So the March signup surge—and even more, the late March surge—strikes me as entirely believable. The only thing that I’m surprised about is why the administration didn’t predict it.

Dylan Scott wrote a great article at Talking Points Memo about the Republican reaction to the administration’s recent good news, House GOP Leaders Take up The Banner of Obamacare Trutherism. He focused on House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy’s “debunking” of the original 7 million figure. There are a couple of interesting things in it. First, it is not a debunking; it is just a list of questions. Second, the questions are really minor—some of which have already been answered and cut against the Republican case.

The best question is, “How many paid their first month’s premium but not their second or third?” This follows after the talking point we’ve heard the last two months, “Sure, people are signing up; but they aren’t paying!” Now we know that most are paying—Blue Cross Says “80-85” Percent Of Obamacare Enrollees Are Paying. So now the Republicans push it out to the third month. Did they pay for three straight months? After that it will be six month and before you know it, they will want numbers on the 75-year planning period of Social Security. Have the signups paid until they died?

But as Cohn noted, the news is shockingly good. Even if you assume that only 80% of the people who signed up are actually going to pay for their insurance, that’s still 6.4 million people—roughly what the expectations were without the disastrous website rollout. But the good news isn’t just the number of people who have signed up. The demographics indicate that young people are signing up at exactly the rate they signed up the first year for Romneycare in Massachusetts. There was no “death spiral” then and so there will be no “death spiral” now.

All along in the journey of Obamacare, the reality has outpaced the predictions. And on that issue, Jonathan Chait made a great point this afternoon, Obama Declares Obamacare Victory:

For all the Sturm und Drang, implementing a successful health-care reform was not actually very hard, for the simple reason that the United States started with the worst-designed health-care system in the industrialized world. When you spend far more on health care than any country, and you’re also the only advanced democracy that denies people access to medical care, it’s incredibly easy to design a better system…

If it’s so easy to massively improve health care, why didn’t it happen before? Because passing a health-care reform through Congress is incredibly hard. The system’s waste created an enormous class of beneficiaries with a vested interest in the status quo. And the insecurity of private insurance made Americans terrified of change (which was necessarily complex).

And this is what conservatives have never understood. They act as if reforming health care is a mere matter of drawing up a health-care plan on paper and rounding up the votes, something they could do anytime they really feel like getting around to it, rather than a Herculean political task. They further convinced themselves that administering the new law would prove devilish if not impossible. They had it backwards.

I would only counter by noting that just because Republicans claim healthcare is easy, doesn’t mean they believe that. They just don’t want healthcare. That’s why the only plans they ever get behind are comprised of the same conservative wishlist: “health care tax breaks for individuals, letting people buy insurance across state lines, health savings accounts, tort reform, partially privatizing Medicare, and turning Medicaid over to the states.” None of these items would improve access to or cost of healthcare. The last thing they want is for our healthcare system to be fixed.

What we have right now is a transitional period for the conservatives. McCarthy’s “debunking” is just part of the process of saving face. Eventually, the Republicans will get on with redefining the status quo as including Obamacare. There will always been rhetoric about repealing it, just as conservatives today rant about that socialist FDR and how Social Security should be overturned. But apart from some minor scrimmages, the war is over. America won. The Republicans lost.

Facts Are Ideological if Cons Admit It

Vox Logo - Since They Can't Be Bothered to Make OneJonathan Chait wrote an interesting article this morning about one of my obsessions, Why the New Data Journalism Really Is Partisan. Unfortunately, Chait doesn’t come right now and say what the truth is. So let me lay it out. Yes: liberals and conservatives both have their own base ideologies. Liberals believe that collective action ought to be used to improve society. Conservatives believe that every man is for himself. But since this goes against the beliefs of the vast majority of the population, conservatives have to feign interest in the practical social good of policy, even though they have no interest in it.

This gets to the heart of what always looks like hypocrisy on the part of conservatives. We often scratch our heads when conservatives seem to be resistant to facts. But the hypocrisy is not this, but rather their unwillingness to admit to what they actually believe. I say it all the time, but it can’t be said enough: conservatism is the ideology of the powerful. So it isn’t surprising that they don’t like Obamacare. It cuts government spend, insures poor people, and taxes the rich. Conservatives are ambivalent about the first, uninterested in the second, and despise the third.

This leads us to Stephen Colbert’s great comment, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” I’ve long been annoyed that the Brookings Institution, which is studiously non-partisan and non-ideological in the sense that science is non-ideological, is now referred to in the media as a liberal think tank. It is supposedly the liberal counter to the conservative Heritage Foundation. But I guess in a deeper sense, both groups provide justifications for the two ideologies.

But what’s important here is that conservative intellectuals are something other than what they claim. Liberal intellectuals are really intellectuals. They really are looking at and for the facts. Conservative intellectuals are engaged in apologetics. They do various things in this regard such as cherry picking and often outright distortion. I run into this with libertarians, who are by far the most honest of the conservatives. They almost always try to make practical claims for their beliefs. It is generally easy to show that the claims don’t hold up. And then they retreat to what they really think, which is that it is immoral for collectives to interfere with individual decisions. And that’s fine! We can argue about that. But most conservatives will never admit that their ideology has no interest in creating a better society as a practical matter.

Chait applies this notion of liberal ideology to say that Ezra Klein’s new Vox venture is rightly seen as ideological. And I accept that in the context of Chait’s article. But it is only ideological in a sense that conservatives won’t admit to: it is fact based. So I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to take Colbert’s comment as true as long as conservatives continue to argue that their preferred policies are based on real world results. If they want to have an honest debate, they can depend upon getting no more than 20% of the vote. After they do that, I’ll be more than willing to admit that all my facts are ideological in nature.

Otherwise Chait’s argument is simple relativism: NASA and the Flat Earth Society are equally ideological. And in a narrow sense, that’s true. But it isn’t that interesting. In the end, what matters is what works. The NASA mode leads to satellite communications and cancer treatments. The Flat Earth Society leads to witch burning. The partisan divide is clear enough. But I don’t think such distinctions mean all that much. And I think Chait would agree.

Afterword

I’ve been really impressed with the work that Vox has done so far. It is really worth checking out.

Media’s Skewed Economic Framing

Dean BakerI’m not so concerned about the generally wacky, anti-fact beliefs of conservatives. The much bigger problems come from the assumptions of the mainstream press when it comes to economic issues. It is there that we get the unquestioned framing of the oligarchs. Take for example, the inflation target of the Federal Reserve. A few decades ago, a four percent inflation target was considered just fine. Now it is two percent. In Europe it is “less than” two percent. And the actual inflation in this country is more like 1%. Moderate inflation is good for employment. But low inflation is good for the owners of capital. So what do we get? The inflation that hurts workers and enriches the already rich.

The Fed is supposed to have a dual mandate: keep inflation low and employment high. But in practice, they keep inflation low and don’t much worry about employment unless things are so terrible that the unemployed are coming at them with pitchforks. I never get tired of Matt Yglesias’ remark about this, “If the unemployment and inflation rates were reversed, would the Fed do something about it?” It’s a rhetorical question, because we all know that it would. We can’t allow the bonds of the rich to decrease in value!

Dean Baker highlighted the way that the media frame this, The IMF’s Data Disagree With the NYT on the State of Russia’s Economy. The New York Times published an article, Russia Economy Worsens Even Before Sanctions Hit. You may well have already heard about the terrible Russian economy. Such stories have become a genre. But there isn’t much too them.

They all depend upon the idea that inflation is the worst thing for an economy. Russia has moderately high inflation—currently 6.2%. But this is not disastrous—even for the rich bond holders. But it is apparently pretty good for workers. The unemployment rate in Russia is currently 5.4%. So things are no so bad for Russian workers, but according to the Times, things are bad in a general way because bond holders aren’t making as much money as they think they should.

What’s more, Baker noted that the inflation rate has actually improved:

The IMF projects an inflation rate of 6.2 percent for both this year and next. This is high for members of the 2.0 percent inflation cult that occupies central banks in the west and top economics departments, but folks familiar with economic data know that many countries have had long stretches of healthy growth with higher inflation rates. While the piece did find people who were unhappy about this inflation rate, people with better memories would recall that Russia had double-digit inflation as recently as 2008.

So things have improved in Russian since 2008 and unemployment is low. But the media define this as a bad economy because the oligarchs don’t think they are making enough money. There is “objective” American journalism!

Alexander Cartwright and Baseball

Alexander CartwrightIt is hard to say who invented baseball. This is partly true because, like most games, it evolved over time. But if there was a single inventor of baseball, I think the title has to go to Alexander Cartwright, who was born on this day in 1820. He was a volunteer firefighter and as a group they used to play “bat and ball” games. One day, he and some others decided to created a more complicated game that would appeal to adults. He started with the rules of rounders and altered them, although you can still see clear similarities. My favorite change: you can’t throw a ball to get a runner out. That was probably necessary, because Americans are animals and allowing that rule would probably have caused millions of spinal cord injuries by now.

Cartwright is a responsible for a number of other aspects that define the game today. These include: the diamond shape of the infield; foul balls; uniform base distances; three strikes; and nine active players. The game hasn’t changed that much since then.

Cartwright was a curious fellow. In 1849, he decided to go to California to join in the gold rush. But he never made it there. Instead, he landed in Hawaii, becoming the of Honolulu fire chief in 1850. He lived there the rest of his life, continuing to promote baseball. In this capacity, he became an adviser to the last king of Hawaii, Kalakaua.

Over the years, I have wondered why I like baseball so much. I understand that football is an extremely boring game. But much the same could be said of baseball. Certainly basketball is exciting, but its constant motion can be numbing. What I think distinguishes baseball is that it is clean. The ball is pitched, the ball is hit, the ball is fielded. There is no duplication of effort as there is in football. Everything is spread out so you can see it all. And above all, it is a civilized game: umpires are there to determine the timing of events, not to stop the players from brutalizing each other. But I will admit: I like baseball because I like baseball. It suits my temperament.

Happy birthday Alexander Cartwright!