Grand Bargain Was Always a Bad Idea

Grand Bargain

Yesterday, over at Political Animal, David Atkins wrote, With Courage, Democrats Can Still Win With Seniors. It is about a new poll that finds that older people would reward a party or candidate who pushed for increased Social Security benefits. Atkins proposes increasing entitlement spending by raising taxes on the rich and cutting corporate welfare. He’s quite right that the Republicans would have an extremely hard time countering that kind of proposal.

Of course, the Democrats will not promise such policies. It all goes back to my much repeated observation that we really don’t live in a democracy. Such ideas are simply “off the table” while very unpopular ideas like cutting Social Security are perennially Good Ideas™. But my question is why Obama spent the whole of his first term looking for the ultimate bipartisan prize: the Grand Bargain. Politically, it made no sense.

Even worse, it made no sense economically. The idea was always that in exchange for the Democrats’ agreeing to cut entitlement spending, the Republicans would agree to raise taxes. Let’s think this through. We are in a liquidity trap — there is too little demand in the economy. So the Grand Bargain would cut government spending. This would be bad for the economy because it would reduce demand. And the Grand Bargain would raise taxes. This would be bad for the economy because it would reduce demand. Economically speaking, the Grand Bargain is a lose-lose proposition.

There’s only one reason for the Grand Bargain: to cut the federal government’s budget deficit. But we need bigger deficits right now, not smaller deficits. Just look at total government spending after the last four recessions. Do you notice anything? The government is not spending the way it normally does and we’ve had effectively no recovery. In 1937, Keynes said, “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity.” But apparently we’ve forgotten. (Or more likely: we now have a major political party that will destroy the economy until they get power.)

Total Government Spending After Recessions

So the Grand Bargain is bad politics. And the Grand Bargain is bad economics. So why is Obama so interested in it? Why do I still fear if the Senate goes Republican next year that he may bring it back with even more concessions? (“I’ll tell you what, if you agree to get rid of just one loophole, I’ll raise the retirement age to 88 and end the food stamp program!”) I think he has a kind of addiction to being seen as The Reasonable One™ among those we refer to as the Very Serious People. A year and a half ago, I wrote, Return of the Son of the Night of the Simpson-Bowles. I noted then that trying to get credit from such people was a fool’s errand because they will always proportion the blame evenly between the Democrats and Republicans.

I would like to think that Obama has learned his lesson, but I don’t think he really has. Nor has the Democratic Party learned the most basic fact about politics in the United States. The one area where the Democratic Party is truly liberal — on social policy — the nation is conservative. On liberal economic policy — which is wildly popular — the party is conservative. But like I said: we don’t live in a democracy — at least one where every person has an equal vote. “All Americans are equal, but some Americans are more equal than others.” But I don’t expect Obama or the rest of the Democratic establishment to ever admit that.

Kroger’s Pathetic Open Carry Apologia

Moms Demand Action Kroger Ad

I didn’t know it, but Kroger is the largest supermarket in the United States. The reason is that the company uses a lot of different names for its outlets. For example, around here in the Bay Area, we have Foods Co. And I have to admit: I liked shopping at Foods Co. But I am more than willing to boycott them. Currently, the grocery chain is being targeted by Moms Demand Action. According to the group, “Kroger, the largest grocery chain in the country, has policies that allow customers to openly carry guns in its stores.” And so they are investing six-figures into an ad campaign using images like the one above.

The idea here is that Kroger forbids skateboards in its stores because they are dangerous. And that is a good policy. But they have no problem with the open carrying of the guns. Most people would agree that people walking around grocery isles with loaded guns is dangerous. But the open carry crowd think it is just fine. And they are freaking out even as they claim there is nothing to see. They claim that it is “bullying.” But then, any political action they disagree with is “bullying.”

This is rich. We have a civilization where we do not need to haul around guns with us. So the ostentation display of guns is a provocative act. But if a mother with her two young children has a problem with some unknown man walking around with a semiautomatic rifle and a 30-round banana clip, then it is her who is the bully. That’s really quite amazing. People don’t have any problem with those who demand that people not do their shopping naked, but the people who request that their children not be placed in harm’s way are bullies. In a sane world, it would be unbelievable. Unfortunately, it is very believable.

One would think that after asking Kroger to change the policy, it would have done so. After all, the vast majority of people do not want to see gun fanatics walking around their grocery stores. But here is the Kroger response (pdf) in full:

The safety of our customers and associates is one of our most important company values. Millions of customers are present in our busy grocery stores every day and we don’t want to put our associates in a position of having to confront a customer who is legally carrying a gun. That is why our long-standing policy on this issue is to follow state and local laws and to ask customers to be respectful of others while shopping. We know that our customers are passionate on both sides of this issue and we trust them to be responsible in our stores.

It’s remarkable for its cognitive dissonance. They don’t want to put their employees in a position of having to confront people with guns. That makes sense. After all, these people have guns. If politely told of the store policy, these people might go crazy and kill the employee. It is also true that a slow checker might set someone with a gun off. Or another customer accidentally bumping into someone with a gun. This is why people walking around with guns everywhere is a bad thing.

Kroger also asks customers to “be respectful of others while shopping.” The problem is that some idiot walking around the store with a gun is by definition not being respectful of others. He is doing it to get in people’s faces — to make a point. He knows full well that seeing some anonymous man walk around with a gun is upsetting to other people, because they have no reason not to think him a murderer.

But what most impresses me is the false equivalence: “our customers are passionate on both sides of this issue.” That’s right, the vast majority of people who want to shop in peace compared to a tiny slice of the population who just want to be annoying. Even the generic polls that ask people about open carry find strong opposition to it. Let a man with an assault rifle walk through a suburban supermarket and then ask those people what they think of open carry.

Most of civilization is not about laws; it is about norms. In general, you shouldn’t have to have policies against carrying guns into supermarkets and churches. But this is what has become of conservatism in the United States. This is why the Senate filibuster had to be neutered. And it is why gun advocates feel they should bring rifles into fast food restaurants. Conservatism has become revolutionary. They care far more about their own extreme ideology than the niceties of getting along in a diverse society. Just the same, I have little doubt that Moms Demand Action will win this fight and Kroger will fold like a card table.

Spam Geography at Frankly Curious

SpamI was looking at my site statistics the other night. The truth is that I don’t do that as much as I used to. It seems that the more traffic you get, the less you care about who is linking to you. But I continue to be semi-obsessed with spam. And so I’m always very interested in how many people are coming here from Latvia. Because here’s the thing: I know that no one in Latvia is reading me. If traffic is coming here from Latvia, it is because they are some of those spamming bastards.

But last night, I noticed something very interesting. In my country statistics, I know how many pages have been requests as well as how many total hits I got. Well, that tells me a lot. The reason is that most pages represent three hits: the page itself, the header image, and the little image in the upper left corner of the article (cans of Spam in this article). Now this is not always true. If someone comes to the home page, they will see ten articles and so there will be twelve hits: page, header, and ten little images. But as a first pass, I can say that for every page, there should be three hits.

Based upon this, I can determine how many real visitors (R) come from any country compared to how many spammers (S) come. This is because spammers are desperate to use as little bandwidth as possible, so they don’t load images. So given that P is the total number of pages requested and H is the total number of hits the site gets, we can solve for the following two equations:

S + R = P
S + 3 × R = H

Based upon this, I was able to determine, within two significant digits, how much real and spam traffic the site gets based upon the first four days of traffic this month:

Country Real Users
Percent Total
United States 100% 7804
Vietnam 12% 465
Great Britain 100% 348
Canada 100% 292
Germany 47% 141
Australia 100% 125
France 27% 113
Philippines 25% 113
India 100% 111
Russian Federation 42% 54
Thailand 100% 47
Brazil 54% 47
Indonesia 85% 43
Sweden 43% 32
Romania 40% 32
Israel 28% 22
New Zealand 16% 18
Bulgaria 24% 16
Colombia 13% 12
Saudi Arabia 2% 11
Poland 9% 9
Ukraine 7% 7
Taiwan 3% 7
China 0% 0
Latvia 0% 0

I’m not sure what exactly that tells me. It is interesting. I’m especially struck by the fact that India is all real people. And that China is no real people. I’m also surprised that Russian is about half real people, because in the past, I’ve gotten an enormous amount of spam from Russian and other former Soviet countries. But this period is a on the light side in terms of spam. It goes in waves and there are months where I get three times as many total visitors, all of the extra ones being spammers.

It is still a great frustration to me that these spammers exist. In terms of this website, they get nothing for their efforts. But they waste a tremendous amount of my time. I wouldn’t mind it so much if it wasn’t all so useless. And the truth is, they don’t even seem to try. Half of all the spam I get comes in from the user name “porn.” I’ll bet 95% of all spam comes in with no more than ten standard terms such as “sex” and “minecraft.” Eventually, I will get around to filtering it automatically.

As for now, it is just nice to know where the spamming bastards are coming from.

Are Fundamentals Helpful in Election Models?

United States SenateAndrew Prokop wrote an excellent article over at Vox yesterday, Why Election Forecasters Disagree About Who Will Win the Senate. It gives far too much attention to Nate Silver, but it still manages to provides little nuggets of information that I had been wondering about. For example, as I had thought, The Monkey Cage model used to be fully fundamentals based. Now that we are so close to the election, it is mostly polls based. That’s why a couple of months ago, it gave the Republicans an 86% chance of taking the Senate and now it only gives them at 53% chance.

But overall, the article doesn’t provide any surprising information. Basically, the differences in the conclusions of the models is based upon just how much each model uses fundamentals like the approval rating of the President. According to the articles, the modelers have looked at the effect of fundamentals in the past at certain points in the election cycle and they have found that they really do predict better than poll-only models. I think there is a major problem with this claim.

Sam WangThese modelers have not looked at the effects of fundamentals-based models before the fact. They’ve developed models based upon what they’ve seen in the past. Basically: they do multiple regressions and see how much each element affects the final result. So of course these models would predict the past better than the polls-only models. The fundamentals-based models have the conclusions built into them to some extent.

No one thinks that these multiple regressions are the truth. There is no theoretical basis for the belief that the President’s approval rating will affect the election outcome. It is simply a tendency that has been experimentally derived. And it turns out that generally the President’s approval rating is correlated with a “generic ballot” where people say who they would rather vote for: a generic Democrat or a generic Republican. Well, as Nate Cohn explained last week, these two have diverged. Obama’s approval rating is very low at about 40%, but the Democrats have a three percentage point advantage in the generic poll. For contrast, the Republicans had a three point advantage in 2010.

Nate CohnWhat I wonder about is if the fundamentals aren’t generally useless in off-year elections. Even in presidential elections, there is really only one important fundamental: economic growth. The change in GDP for the three quarters before the election is responsible for almost half of the variation in how well the parties do. My hunch is that all the other fundamentals are just added noise. Yes, they’ve correlated in the past, but it isn’t real. And that takes us to Sam Wang’s conclusion, “Because polls are a direct measure of opinion, and fundamentals are indirect, it’s generally a risky move to add fundamentals to a measurement.” In other words: fundamentals just add noise to the models.

It is important to remember that these are just models. What’s more, the polling data itself could be wrong. This isn’t a presidential election with nationwide polling. The competitive states are getting decent polling coverage, but they are hardly what we would want. And in the end, it will all come down to who shows up to vote. Right now, the polls are mostly of registered voters. Soon they will provide “likely voter” estimates. As a first brush, this tends to help the Republicans. Just the same, in 2012, many “likely voter” estimates overstated Republican voters because roughly half of the people who said they were unlikely to vote ended up voting anyway. So it is a muddled mess.

I’m back to what I thought a year ago: the Republicans have a 50-50 chance of taking over the Senate. And I’m kind of gloomy on that issue, because I’ve trained myself to be pessimistic in situations like this. Even in 2012 when I predicted that Obama would win 332-206 (which is what he won by), I wasn’t willing to say that Obama was certain to win. The truth is that we just don’t know. But we ought to know the evening of 4 November.

Julie Kavner

Julie KavnerToday, I really should be writing about James Van Allen. But the truth is that I was up really late last night and I just don’t feel up to it. You just can’t write about him without getting into some hardcore physics. So instead, I say unto you: today the great comedic actor Julie Kavner is 64. If you are my age, you know her as Brenda Morgenstern on the 1970s sitcom Rhoda. If you are younger, you know her as the voice of Marge Simpson on The Simpsons. And you might also know here for her work in a number of Woody Allen films.

Her first acting job was as a regular on Rhoda, which is a remarkable start to a career. And basically everything stemmed from there. She became a regular on The Tracey Ullman Show, which I assume is how she got involved in The Simpsons. Other than that, there is nothing much to say.

Here is a very funny bit from The Tracey Ullman Show:

Happy birthday Julie Kavner!