Category Archives: Politics

Lack of Earmarks Makes Congress Harder to Lead

Scott Frisch and I have an Op-Ed in Roll Call today focusing on the impact of the earmark ban on the ability of Congress to do its work. As of right now it is among the “most emailed” stories on the Roll Call site. Click on the graphic to give it a read.

most emailed

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Gun Rights = Death

Here is something that every proponent of gun rights must accept: The cost of protecting their “right” to own guns is the death of innocent people.

Because individuals own guns in the United States there will be gun violence; people will die. Many of those people will be innocent bystanders; some will be family members, many will be children.

Where there are guns there will be gun-related deaths.

The price of gun ownership is the certain death of people. In 2011 there were 8,583 murders committed with a gun. Yet more people died by suicide and accidental discharge of a gun.

This is what economists call an externality. Externalities are the costs of economic activity that are not directly reflected in the cost of the activity. Externalities are an empirical reality, not “liberal bullshit.”

Deaths caused by guns are a cost of gun ownership that is not reflected in the price of a gun. Loss of life is a cost. The simple cost of a deceased person is that they will no longer add to the overall economy by earning a wage, paying taxes, and buying things. This excludes the costs to their family and friends, to the fabric of society; emergency services add to the costs.

If you are a proponent of gun rights you need to ask yourself: How many dead people per year are you willing to accept as the price of gun right?

You want to own guns? People will die. The equation is simple.

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Mitt Romney’s Sense of Entitlement

Ever since I was a child, I tried to be the best…
So what happened?
My family and friends all said I was blessed…
So what happened?
–Elder Price, “I Believe,” The Book of Mormon

I did not fully understand Mitt Romney until the musical The Book of Mormon opened in Los Angeles in August.

The plot follows two Mormon missionaries who travel to a small village in Africa to win coverts to the faith.

One of the protagonists, Elder Price, fancies himself the golden child of the church. Price has known nothing but success. Clearly, at least to him, he is chosen by god; perfect family, a multitude of friends and admirers, boundless charisma, he is convinced that he is destined to boundless success.

Something incredible…I’ll do something incredible
I want to be the Mormon who changed all of mankind (My best friend…)
It’s something I’ve foreseen: now that I’m nineteen
I’ll do something incredible that blows God’s freaking mind!
–Elder Price, “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” The Book of Mormon

Price’s grand plan begins to fall apart quickly. He does not gain the missionary assignment to Europe that he envisions, instead he draws Africa. He is not paired with one of the other handsome and successful missionaries, he is paired with a nerdy, friendless, pathological liar missionary partner who experiences success converting people in the African village. Elder Cunningham uses his skills as a liar to adapt Mormon beliefs to village beliefs and norms that makes him a success. Price’s faith is shaken.

Why? How? Why would god choose anyone other than Price to be successful? He is the chosen one. He is entitled to success. He has done all the right things.

Elder Price distilled everything that I saw in Mitt Romney: A sense of entitlement to success; a sense of entitlement to the presidency; and a palpable condescension toward those who do not deserve success like him.

Mitt Romney’s contempt for those who are not “blessed” (like him and Elder Price) became uncomfortably obvious when leaked video showed Romney complaining about the “47% of Americans” who were “takers.” As first reported in Mother Jones:

…the GOP presidential nominee told attendees of this $50,000-a-plate dinner that 47 percent of Americans—those who back President Obama—are “victims” who are “dependent upon government” and “pay no income tax.” He noted: “My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

The 47% would never vote for Romney but surely the 53% would; they would reward him with the prize to which he was entitled: the presidency. Romney was so convinced of this that on the day of the election, rather than prepare two speeches for election night (one for victory and one for defeat), he wrote only one speech: A victory speech.

Despite the evidence suggesting that Romney would lose the election (see here and here, for instance), he put his faith in his (now) notoriously wrong internal polls (or a staff unwilling to deliver bad news to their boss), and in a God that would surely deliver votes with his heavenly get-out-the-vote campaign: and he lost.

Did Mitt “man up?” No.

What did Jesus do,
When they sentenced him to die?
Did he try to run away?
Did he just break down and cry?
No, Jesus dug down deep,
Knowing what he had to do-
When faced with his own death,
Jesus knew that he had to…
Man up.
–Elder Cunningham, “Man Up,” The Book of Mormon

In defeat Romney’s sense of entitlement is even more pronounced.

How could Obama possibly beat God’s chosen candidate? By giving “gifts” to voters; by bribing them; by “corrupting” the electoral process.

According to Romney “What the president’s campaign did was focus on certain members of his base coalition. Give them extraordinary financial gifts from the government, and then work very aggressively to turn them out to vote.” Romney continued:

With regards to the young people…a forgiveness of college loan interest was a big gift. Free contraceptives were very big with young, college-aged women. And then, finally, Obamacare also made a difference for them…anybody now 26 years of age and younger was now going to be part of their parents’ plan, and that was a big gift to young people.
[The Obama healthcare plan’s promise of health care coverage] in perpetuity [was behind the intensity of support for the president.] With regards to African American voters, ‘Obamacare’ was a huge plus — and was highly motivational to African American voters. You can imagine for somebody making $25—, or $30—, or $35,000 a year, being told you’re now going to get free healthcare — particularly if you don’t have it, getting free healthcare worth, what, $10,000 a family, in perpetuity, I mean this is huge. Likewise with Hispanic voters, free healthcare was a big plus. But with regards to Hispanic voters, the amnesty for the children of illegals — the so-called DREAM Act kids — was a huge plus for that voting group…
What the president did was he gave them two things. One, he gave them a big gift on immigration with the DREAM Act amnesty program. Number two, he put in place Obamacare which is basically $10,000 a family. I mean it’s a proven political strategy, which is, give a bunch of money from the government to a group and guess what? They’ll vote for you.

Romney, like Elder Price, believes that he is entitled to fortune, entitled to success, and entitled to position. He believes that others should take individual responsibility, but not him. Like Elder Price, Romney’s quest for success is exclusively about advancing his own greatness.

And there’s no limit to
What we can do
Me and you
But mostly me!
–Elder Price, “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” The Book of Mormon
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In the noise following the reelection of Barack Obama one story stands out from others. Presumably upset with the outcome of the election, conservatives have bombarded the White House petition website with proposals to “peacefully grant” states to withdraw from the union.

According to the petition web site, any petition garnering more than 25,000 “signatures” will draw an official response. According to the latest signature count the State of Texas will be getting a response; Florida and Alabama are well on their way to getting a response too.

If I had to guess who is signing these petitions I imagine them to be people who proudly refer to themselves as “patriots.” They cite the Constitution and the founders with supreme (often unearned) confidence. They have the largest American flag on the block, loudly sing the national anthem at sporting events, and shout down liberals that offer even the mildest critique of American policies with chants of “USA, USA, USA.”

They are the people you hear saying things like “America: Love it or leave it!”

I also imagine them to be the people who, upon proudly reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, raise their voices at the line “UNDER GOD!” And then return to their normal voice to recite the next word:


It is as if the larger meaning of the pledge is lost on those reciting it. The pledge is a civic prayer for the country, for our ability to stand together as a people, and work for our common good.

So things did not go the petition-signers’ way in the last election, and now they want to secede from the Union. To hell with the Constitution and the founders. To hell with the flag and their pledge of allegiance to it. That pledge was conditional: “I pledge allegiance only if  my country does what I think is right.”

“We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately” –Benjamin Franklin at the signing of the Declaration of Independence


Citizens living in a democracy must be willing to accept that they are subject the collective decisions of the electorate. Sometimes things go your way; sometimes they do not. As a citizen in a democracy one must accept this basic premise. To do otherwise undermines the democratic bargain we struck two centuries ago. It betrays the Constitution, the founders, and the things these “patriots” claim to love.

Yes the numbers of signers to these petitions is small relative to the size of the populations in those states; but the willingness of our fellows to sign on to such proposals betrays the core concepts of the pledge:

“And to the Republic…One nation…Indivisible…With liberty and justice for all.”

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The We’ve Got Your Back PAC

As the noise of the election subsides the nation faces considerable fiscal challenges. If the president and Congress fail to reach agreement the country will slide off the “fiscal cliff.” Without action tax rates for middle and high income earners will increase, and programs from defense to social services will face automatic across-the-board cuts.

Most experts agree that bringing the federal budget into balance will require a combination of “revenue increases” (including tax increases), and spending cuts.

Reaching a grand bargain on the mix of revenue increases and spending cuts faces stiff resistance on both sides of the aisle.

Republicans are unwilling to entertain the possibility of any tax increase. Many fear that they will draw a primary challenge from the right (funded by groups like the Club for Growth) in two years if they agree to increase taxes. The recent examples of ousted Senators Richard Lugar and Bob Bennett echo in the minds of Republican members of Congress.

Democrats fear entertaining the possibility of cutting spending (and for those in more conservative districts, tax/revenue increases), especially for domestic programs that are important to their constituents. If Democratic members of Congress support cuts sufficient to put a dent in the deficit they anticipate primary challenges supported and funded by the “professional left”—groups like MoveOn and ActBlue.

I am proposing the formation of a Super PAC: The We’ve Got Your Back PAC. This Super PAC will provide monetary and ground support to any member of Congress of either party who puts country before party by supporting a compromise budget plan that includes both tax/revenue increases (unpopular with the political right) and spending cuts, many of which are unpopular with the political left.

We’ve Got Your Back PAC will help ensure that politicians who make tough decisions will have electoral support (money, electoral intelligence, and ground support) come election time.

If we want to “turn Democrats and Republicans into Americans” (to steal from the subtitle of Mickey Edwards’ latest book) it will take the concerted efforts and the combined resources of the political center to protect politicians willing to make tough, potentially career-ending, decisions.

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Politics in a Pint

According to the conventional wisdom, the candidate that wins the American presidential election is the candidate with whom Americans most like to have a beer.

Functionally this means the most “likeable” candidate. In the current political climate Barack Obama is demonstrably more likeable than Willard Mitt Romney. In most polls Obama beats Willard in “likeablity” by 20 or 30 percentage points.

And that is where beer comes in.

The Obama campaign has made liberal use of beer-centric settings in which to highlight the president. It  revealed that the White House has its own home brew operation. A grassroots movement recently succeeded in getting the White House to reveal its home brew recipes.

One of the benefits of highlighting the president’s love of beer is that it emphasizes his normality; he, like me, loves a pint or two of beer.

President Obama is just like me and you.

Accentuating Obama’s love of beer has the additional benefit of highlighting his differences with Willard Romney. As a devout Mormon (like Muslims whose faith outlaws the use of alcohol) Romney is a confirmed teetotaler. Drinking beer or coffee, or smoking is strictly prohibited by his faith.

Romney did admit that:

I tasted a beer and tried a cigarette once as a wayward teenager, and never did it again.

A beer. A cigarette. That is what passes for “wayward” in Willard’s world.

Obama has admitted in print to experimenting with drugs as a teenager and is a reformed smoker. Unlike Romney he is a devotee of a healthy pint as an adult.

In short, Obama is just like the rest of us: Fragile, human. Obama is scarred by experience and molded by his mistakes. Just like most of us.

It is Romney’s life experience that is incomprehensible to most of us.  A devotee of a religion more opaque than Islam; a religion viewed with suspicion by some of Romney’s own supporters.

Romney was raised in an atmosphere of wealth and political power. He attended some the nations top universities–including Harvard. He is enormously rich, has homes sprinkled across America and money spirited away throughout the Caribbean; and he is virtually without vice.

Romney, like his hair, is just too perfect.

That is why Obama is more likeable than Romney. All that communicated by the enjoyment of a simple pint of beer.

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What Broccoli Teaches Us About Politics

The Radical Right-Wing Broccoli Agenda

This is the unedited transcript of a speech delivered earlier today by Presidential Candidate Andrew Pancake to the Broccoli Roundtable Of Central Coastal Occidental and Landlocked Indiana (BROCCOLI).

My fellow Americans.

This November you have a stark choice between two, clear policy options: Would you rather have a government with the power to make you buy broccoli or a government with the power to make you eat broccoli.

According to conservatives, the individual mandate to buy health insurance is a broad grant of authority to government. If government can cause individuals to buy a product like health insurances, that government will have the power to force individuals to buy broccoli. How dare they infringe on the economic choices of Americans they argue.

Now I know that asking individuals to have health insurance is pretty bad. When they get sick they will be able to afford to visit a doctor. When they need costlier medical coverage they will be protected from financial ruin. And that when they get treatment—whether they can afford it or not—that cost will not be shifted to people who have insurance such that their premiums continue to rise to pay for others’ care.

But it is a pretty good idea. At least that is what the liberal Republican from Taxachusetts Mitt Romney thought when he forced the citizens of that state to purchase health insurance.

So maybe government can force people to buy broccoli.

But government should not be able to force an individual to eat broccoli.

And that is why I stand before you today. I submit to you that the conservative vision of government implies a far more intrusive vision of government: A government that can force individuals to eat broccoli.

Now I think people should eat broccoli. It is good for you. And, darn it, I think it tastes good.

But while I think you should have it in the fridge, I do not think we need government to force feed us broccoli! I do not think that jack-booted, government thugs with their government issued forks should break down your door and shove this lovely vegetable down your throat.

But Republicans do.

The Republican platform includes a plank that promises, if elected, Republicans will outlaw abortion even in cases of rape and incest. If a woman is impregnated against her will, without her consent, she will be forced, by government, to carry that zygote to term. Like the man who held her down and forced himself upon her, government would force her to succumb to the government’s superior power over her as an individual.

Republican legislation enacted in several states requires that women undergo ultrasound prior to abortions in order to visualize the zygote inside the womb.

Opponents of “Obamacare” argue that it will insert a government bureaucrat between a woman and her physician.

Republican policies would place the hand of government on top of the physician’s hand as she moves the ultrasound sensor across a woman’s belly, or as a wand is inserted in her vagina.

They say “how dare Pancake infringe on the economic rights of individuals.”

I say “how dare they use the power of government to force a woman to have a child against her will!”

Buy broccoli? Or eat broccoli? That is the question that is laid before you this November.

According to Republicans, government has the power to force a woman into a pregnancy not of her choosing.

A government with the power to force pregnancy on a woman has the power to force Americans to eat broccoli.

I stand here before you a proud friend of broccoli, surrounded by the friends of broccoli.

As a friend of the peaceful, tree-like vegetable, I know that broccoli would like a place in your refrigerator, in your heart and, hopefully, in your mouth. However, even broccoli would agree that government should not force individuals to eat broccoli against their will.

My god bless broccoli, and the women of this country.

Give us freedom from eating broccoli or give us death!

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Vice Presidential Choice as a Leading Indicator: Or, Why the Choice of Mini-Mitt Spells Doom

I am not an expert on the presidency; my academic work is focused on the Congress. Whether that makes me an expert on Congress is a matter of heated debate.

Nonetheless, as an academic political scientist I feel I have a license to speak on any political topic, whether I know anything about it or not. And if we learned anything during the Bush years how I feel is way more important that having any actual license to do anything.

It is well accepted in academic circles, and surely in the punditsphere, that the choice of a vice presidential candidate has no influence over the electoral fortunes of the nominee. Few if any voters will cast a vote for Mitt Romney, the argument goes, because he put Paul Ryan (I like to call him mini-Mitt) on the ticket; not enough to make the difference in the outcome of an election anyway.

I have no reason to question this conventional wisdom.

What I wondered this morning (actually last night as I fell asleep) is whether the choice of a Vice Presidential candidate can be conceived of as a leading indicator; that is, the choice predicts the future performance of the candidate.

In the grand tradition of Arthur Laffer–the father of supply-side (i.e., trickle down) economics–I jotted my thoughts on the back of a napkin. Laffer famously pulled off this trick thus dooming the American economy for decades to come. [full disclosure:  I used a piece of cardboard that was close enough to me that I did not have to get up to grab a napkin–so the story goes, Laffer really used a napkin. The difference between genius and shit is so thin.]

It seems to me that there are two broad considerations that go into the choice of a vice presidential candidate.

  1. Is the campaign thinking about the election or about governing after the election?
  2. Is the campaign looking to preserve its electoral base or expand its electoral coalition?

Enter the napkin, ahem, cardboard.

In pure political science tradition I created a two-by-two table reflecting these two considerations. I then classified each of the vice presidential candidates that I could remember since about the 1960s into one of the four resulting cells. The choice of a time range was completely arbitrary. Mostly I just got tired of trying to remember the names of vice presidential candidates [Note: I know I missed a couple; John Edwards and Joe Lieberman being obvious ones.]

My findings suggest that presidential candidates who choose VP nominees with an eye toward governing and simultaneously expanding their electoral coalition tend to win elections. Those candidates who are motivated primarily by electoral concerns to expand their electoral coalitions also do very well.

Thought of another way, VP choices that a mostly driven by the desire to expand the electoral coalition tend to be successful. Those aimed at conserving an existing alignment or electoral base do not do as well.

Capitalizing on the analysis of another more competent political scientist (because I have little interest in actually running the numbers myself) it turns out that “preservationist” nominees are more ideologically extreme than “expandist” nominees (absolute nominate score .425 versus .308–where a score closer to 1.0 is more extreme).

I did the averages that on the backside of the cardboard so it is probably wrong. But it does support the point that “preservationists” tend to be aimed at the base rather than the general electorate, so I will not check my work.

In short: The most important variable is whether the presidential candidate feels electorally vulnerable, thus opting for the base-conserving nominee, or is willing  to select a running-mate that hazards to expand his electoral coalition. The former won two of eight elections; the latter won seven of ten elections (including Edwards and Lieberman).

I think this supports the idea that vice presidential choice is a leading indicator; the choice of a vice presidential candidate reflects the feeling inside the campaign (or inside the candidate) about the likelihood of winning in the Fall and predicts success pretty well (though not perfectly…hey this is political science not economics…if we were as terrifically successful as economists like Arthur Laffer…).

I am sure that my political science friends will find much to criticize here. Future research, blah, blah, blah…

Since this is an election year I need to end with a line devoted to what this means for 2102. Well, you notice that the choice of Paul Ryan lands in that upper left-hand cell where things do not turn out well for the presidential candidate.

Now chances are that I am wrong. I usually am (e.g. here and here). I don’t put a high value on prediction anyway; I think prediction is totally overrated. The bad part is that I am not as tragically wrong as Arthur Laffer, and he got an institute named after him!

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Romney-Ryan: Mitt Doubles-Down on his Failing Campaign

I was wrong.

I predicted yesterday Mitt Romney would choose Marco Rubio to be his running mate. I often tell people that whatever my prediction happens to be they should vote against it.

Romney chose Paul Ryan to be his Vice Presidential choice. As a Democrat I could not be happier that I was wrong.

What does this choice mean?

For one it means that the Romney campaign felt the election slipping away from them. Ryan is not a choice aimed at expanding Romney’s electoral coalition. He is unknown outside of conservative circles and outside of his home state of Wisconsin (even outside of his district in Wisconsin).

This is a choice aimed at shoring up Romney’s base.

Rather than make a cynical choice by choosing Rubio–a choice that would indicate that the Romney campaign felt it had a chance of winning and wanted to shave a point or two off of Obama’s lead with Latinos–Romney made a stupid choice.

Mitt Romney has hung the Ryan Budget around his neck.

Every element of the Ryan Budget echoes the successful arguments that the Obama campaign has made about Romney over the last few months; that he favors the rich and would gut programs for everyone else.

The Ryan Budget cuts the top tax rate from 35% to 25%. The rich would pay lower taxes (though even 25% is above the 15% effective tax rate that multimillionaire Mitt Romney paid in 2010). It would end Medicare by turning it into a “voucher program” that will leave seniors in the future to pay ever-increasing health premiums. Romney and Ryan would cut food stamps to pay for huge tax cuts for the rich.

The Center for American Progress concluded that the Ryan Budget would cut investments that tend to benefit the middle-class and serve the national interest:

…the Ryan budget will rob Americans of future economic opportunities by slashing more than $871 billion of investment in education and skills training, science and technology research and development, and transportation infrastructure in the decade between 2013 and 2022.

Rather than ask the most fortunate Americans to dedicate themselves to balancing the budget, the Ryan Budget relies on cuts to programs that benefit the poorest and most vulnerable Americans. The U.S. Catholic Bishops have roundly criticized his budget ideas as unjust. Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, CA criticized cuts to nutrition programs:

…deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility efforts must protect and not undermine the needs of poor and vulnerable people. The proposed cuts to programs in the [Ryan Budget] fail this basic moral test.

In the short run this announcement will deliver a bump in the polls; but it does not change the narrative. The choice of Ryan will not change the strategy of the Obama campaign to define Romney as out of touch with the needs of average Americans, it will intensify those arguments and make them more successful.

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Romney-Rubio 2012: You Heard it Here First

Mitt Romney will choose Marco Rubio (R-FL) to be his running mate. The media will hail it as a bold choice. In fact, it will be a cynical choice that reflects a complete lack of ideas and imagination. It will reflect the hollow shell of a formerly Grand Old Party. And it will not result in a Romney Presidency.

Let me explain.

When Barack Obama ran for the Senate in 2004 his opponent was Republican nominee Jack Ryan. In June 2004 Ryan dropped out as a result of a sex scandal involving his ex-wife, actress Jeri Ryan. Left with no candidate to run against Obama, the Illinois Republican Party nominated Maryland Resident Alan Keyes, a prominent African American Republican and former presidential candidate, to stand for election.

Devoid of ideas the Illinois Republican Party seemed to think that African American voters would be flummoxed by a choice between two African American candidates. Perhaps the confusion would lead Keyes to victory. There was no confusion. Obama won the race with more than 70% of the vote, and was victorious in virtually every county in Illinois.

The choice of Keyes was, in my view, one of the most cynical in the history of American politics up to that point. But it marks the beginning of a pattern of cynicism about group identities within the Republican Party. The GOP views group-identity differences as epiphenomenal; they don’t see race or gender, each of us is simply a sack of economic interests.

When in doubt focus on the demographic that is most troubling.

In the 2008 election–as in the current cycle–the Republican nominee John McCain faced a considerable gender gap.  Solution: Put a woman on the ticket; that will even out the gender gap. Women will vote for a woman. Sarah Palin. Apparently women are just as smart as Illinois’ African American voters. It did not work.

Now Mitt Romney faces his critical choice. Which demographics are most difficult for the Romney campaign? African Americans as always will be voting heavily Democratic; but the Republicans do not have a single prominent African American in their stable.  I suppose there is Alan West, but even most Republicans think he is bat-shit crazy.

Women. A problem again for the Republicans. Their relentless attacks on family planning have made women quite cross this year. They could put a woman on the ticket. Ooops, learned that lesson last time.

Where else are there problems? Latinos. The gap in Latino support between Obama and Romney is even more pronounced than the gender gap. Sixty-percent or more of Hispanics report that they will vote for Obama over Romney.

Eureka! Marco Rubio! He is Hispanic. Surely Hispanic voters will find it difficult to vote against a ticket that has the first major party Latino candidate.

And so, Marco Rubio will be the winner in the Veep-stakes. He has two added advantages, of course: He represents a critical swing state in the Senate, and social conservatives love him (and distrust Romney).

But wait. You are a careful student of politics–like a friend of mine–who objected to my logic. “Romney’s problem” he said ” is with Mexican-American voters. Rubio is Cuban”

Oh, but you have not been paying attention to Republican logic over the last decade, now have you? Rubio is a brown person. Brown people do not understand these such subtle distinctions. They will see a brown person on the ticket and vote for Romney-Rubio. That is what passes for innovative thinking in the Republican Party at this juncture.

And, as if I actually needed support for my conjectures, a recent polls suggests that a plurality of Republicans favor putting Rubio on the ticket.

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