The Horserace

A truism for those of us who study the media and political coverage is what an amazingly bad job the mainstream media does covering political campaigns.  The coverage is almost exclusively on the game of politics, who's ahead and who's behind, i.e., the horserace, and sadly lacking in the actual information that citizens in a democracy need.  It is pretty clear that most political reporters: 1) love this game aspect of politics, and 2) are woefully uninformed and disinterested about the policy matters which profoundly affect American lives.  Despite a lot of media self-flagellation, the coverage is worse than ever.  The Times has the details on a recent study conducted by Pew and Harvard (quite ironically, this story is written by Katherine Seeley whom is a high priestess of this fatuous journalism).  The highlights:

Almost two-thirds of all stories (print, television, radio and
online) focused on the political aspects of the campaign, while only 1
percent focused on the candidates? public records.

Only 12 percent of stories seemed relevant to voters? decision making; the rest were more about tactics and strategy.

Elizabeth Edwards, wife of John Edwards, a Democrat, got more attention than 10 of the 19 candidates then in the race and nearly as much as her husband.

And the following is a really important point– the public not only deserves better, but wants better:

The campaign coverage has been sharply at odds with what the public
says it wants, the study found, with voters eager to know more about
the candidates? positions on issues and their personal backgrounds,
more about lesser-known candidates and more about debates.

But
the media is even more obsessed this time around with questions of
tactics and strategy, despite what the study described as a
?generational struggle? in both parties. Horse-race stories accounted
for 63 percent of reports this year compared with what the study said
was about 55 percent in 2000 and 2004.

All this, of course, very much reinforces the point I like to hammer home to my students: be aware of what you actually are learning and, importantly, what you are not learning from the media from their distorted focus on the horserace
.

Free Rice

One of my students just sent me a link to a really cool website: Freerice.com.  You test your vocabularly with progressively harder words and the more correct answers you get, the more the sites advertisers contribute to a UN food program.  There are 50 levels of vocabulary words.  I made it up to level 44, where I was done in by words I had never come close to seeing.  Its quite addictive– give it a try (and let me know if you beat level 44).

UPDATE: So, one of my students actually sent me the screenshot of his 45 today, so I was compelled to get back at it (yes, I am that pathetic).  New high: 46.

Classic Mr. T (& more)

Let's go with two cool website posts in a row.  I also just discovered Hulu via this Salon blog which highlights all the ways it is very cool. Its got entire episodes of new and classic TV shows, and even some movies, in high quality streaming video.  For all of you who missed “The A Team” (the show that gave Mr. T his such-deserved fame) the first time around, here's your chance!  And I should note, that I credit my successful election to West Springfield Elementary student council president in 1983 to my “Mr T says vote for Steven G” posters.

The Politics of Fear

It is a great thing that Paul Krugman's columns are no longer hidden away behind the NYT's subscription wall.  He had a terrific column today outlining just how outrageous the Republicans attempts to scare us these days are:

In America?s darkest hour, Franklin Delano Roosevelt urged the nation
not to succumb to ?nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.? But that
was then.

Today, many of the men who hope to be the next president ? including
all of the candidates with a significant chance of receiving the
Republican nomination ? have made unreasoning, unjustified terror the
centerpiece of their campaigns.

Consider, for a moment, the
implications of the fact that Rudy Giuliani is taking foreign policy
advice from Norman Podhoretz, who wants us to start bombing Iran ?as
soon as it is logistically possible.?…

Beyond that, the claim that Iran is on the path to global domination is
beyond ludicrous. Yes, the Iranian regime is a nasty piece of work in
many ways, and it would be a bad thing if that regime acquired nuclear
weapons. But let?s have some perspective, please: we?re talking about a
country with roughly the G.D.P. of Connecticut, and a government whose
military budget is roughly the same as Sweden?s…

And Mike Huckabee, whom reporters like to portray as a nice,
reasonable guy, says that if Hillary Clinton is elected, ?I?m not sure
we?ll have the courage and the will and the resolve to fight the
greatest threat this country?s ever faced in Islamofascism.? Yep, a
bunch of lightly armed terrorists and a fourth-rate military power ?
which aren?t even allies ? pose a greater danger than Hitler?s panzers
or the Soviet nuclear arsenal ever did.

All of this would be funny if it weren?t so serious.

In
the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration adopted fear-mongering as a
political strategy. Instead of treating the attack as what it was ? an
atrocity committed by a fundamentally weak, though ruthless adversary ?
the administration portrayed America as a nation under threat from
every direction.

Most Americans have now regained their
balance. But the Republican base, which lapped up the administration?s
rhetoric about the axis of evil and the war on terror, remains infected
by the fear the Bushies stirred up ? perhaps because fear of terrorists
maps so easily into the base?s older fears, including fear of
dark-skinned people in general.

And the base is looking for a candidate who shares this fear.

Having read this today, I particularly enjoyed Bill Maher's riff (funnier, less insightful) from this week's HBO show.  Then I realized that the occasional Maher columns I see at Salon, are actually his rants from “Real Time.”  Anyway, this was a really good one:

New Rule: This Halloween,
every time you see something that's supposed to scare you, like a
skeleton or a severed head or the ingredients in diet pudding … take
a moment and think about fear: What are you afraid of; what should you
be afraid of. What's really scary this Halloween is that the same group
of idea-free losers who won the last presidential election could win
the next one by making us afraid of the wrong things. Which is why this
year for Halloween, I'm going as something truly horrifying: a melting
polar ice cap…

At the Republican debate this week, Mike Huckabee said, “Islamofascism is the greatest threat we ever faced.” Really? More than the Nazis? And the Russians? And the Redcoats?

In his latest ad, Mitt Romney warns eerily that Muslim jihadists
want to establish an Islamic caliphate covering the whole world,
including America.

And I thought the people scared of gays and Mexicans were paranoid.
Islamic terrorists taking over America? They can barely get across the
monkey bars. Our defense budget is $600 billion a year, they're using
guns they took off a dead Soviet in 1981 — I think we can hold
Charleston.

We're the most powerful nation on earth with the largest economy
and the best military, and we're made to act the fool by a few thousand
cave dwellers who still put out their video on VHS.

At the risk of making this post record length (there was just so much good material in both the Krugman and Maher columns), I realized that Political Science actually has a little light to shed on the matter, too.  Basically, a series of research programs have shown that fear appeals can be quite effective.  When exposed to fear appeals, citizens become more attentive to political information and more open to changing their opinions– obviously something of great potential value in an election campaign.  Political Scientist extraordinaire, Jamie Druckman, nicely summarizes this line of research in a recent Science

Social Security Hype

One of the interesting ironies of Washington politics is that one needs to soberly approach the coming “crisis” in Social Security to be seen as a serious politician.  The truth, though, is that Social Security is actually in pretty good shape, despite all the negative hype.  Medicare, on the other hand, is quite a different story– yet it seems to be warnings about Social Security we always hear about.  TNR's Jonathan Chait puts it in context:

The beginning of the fall season brought to Washington another periodic
upsurge of entitlement hysteria. Newcomers were alarmed, but those of
us who have witnessed the spectacle were able to take it in with some
patience. Entitlement hysteria pops up all at once, sometimes prompted
by a discrete stimulus, such as a report of the Social Security
Trustees, but other times seemingly at random. Affected parties tend to
furrow their brows and scold politicians in particular, and Americans
in general, for our myopia in the face of the demographic tidal wave of
retiring baby boomers who will drown the federal budget with
unsustainable benefits…

Those afflicted with entitlement hysteria are
identifiable not by the realization that big social programs will need
a fix–which is widely understood– but by the urgency and gravity of
their pleas. Entitlement hysterics' favorite statistic is the
retiree-worker ratio. In 1950, they will explain in somber tones, there
were 18 workers for every retiree. But, by 2030, there will be barely
more than two. Absent reform, they warn, we will all be wage slaves,
toiling away as our languid baby-boom masters while away their
declining years on cruise ships and RVs.

There's
some truth to their analysis, but it misses the point in a crucial way.
The two largest entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare, are
in very different shape. The Social Security Trust Fund is scheduled to
last until 2042, at which point we'll have to hike up taxes or trim
spending a bit. Medicare, on the other hand, faces a day of reckoning
in 2019.
[emphasis mine]

Yet, when one looks at the behavior of media elites and politicians, the story is reversed:

Yet one of the oddities of the entitlement
hysterics is that they are far more obsessed with the minor problems of
Social Security than with the massive problems of Medicare. Indeed, if
you look closely at their dire proclamations, they inevitably follow
the same pattern: They begin with an ominous summation about
entitlements–thus lumping together Medicare with Social Security–then
swiftly proceed to demand that Social Security be shored up forthwith.

Russert's
recent harangue at the Democratic presidential debate was a classic
example. He began by warning of the crisis faced by “Social Security
and Medicare” but proceeded to ask no fewer than 14 questions about
Social Security, and zero about Medicare. It's as if he began
fulminating against crime in the greater New York area and then
immediately began demanding a large new police deployment in Chappaqua…

Ten or 20 years ago, you could plausibly deem
Social Security's finances among the most pressing national problems.
Those who were willing to take on the problem were admired for their
farsightedness, bipartisanship, and seriousness of purpose. Social
Security's place on our list of national problems has long since been
overtaken, but, among Washington establishment types who remember those
days, the issue retains its totemic significance. Entitlement hysteria
has become less a response to a crisis than an expression of
statesmanship.

Four days after his debate
inquisition, Russert boasted to an NBC colleague on air, “I tried to
get these candidates to take positions on Iraq, on Social Security, on
the big issues.” They didn't, of course. But noble failure in the face
of complacency and cowardice is the entitlement hysteric's perpetual
burden.

So, should we not worry at all about entitlement problems?  No, but we've got a lot more important things to worry about.

Killer Monkeys!

Slate's always entertaining Explainer column earlier this week addressed the always pertinent question, “What do you do if you're attacked my Monkeys.”  Here's the news story that raises the question:

NEW DELHI (AP) ? Wild monkeys attacked a senior government official
who then fell from a balcony at his home and died Sunday, media
reported.

New Delhi Deputy Mayor S.S. Bajwa was rushed to a
hospital after the attack by a gang of Rhesus macaques, but succumbed
to head injuries sustained in his fall, the Press Trust of India news
agency and The Times of India reported.

Many government
buildings, temples and residential neighborhoods in New Delhi are
overrun by Rhesus macaques, which scare passers-by and occasionally
bite or snatch food from unsuspecting visitors.

Honestly, I'm amazed that a story this bizarre has not had a little more media attenion.  Anyway, Slate is kind enough to provide an answer as to what to do should a similar situation befall you:

What if you can't or won't appease the monkeys with food? You can try
to chase them off by shaking a stick at them, but they might get
violent if cornered. If they don't budge, bop 'em on the head; visitors
to temples in India sometimes carry a stick for just this reason.
Primatologists will sometimes send a macaque warning signal called the open-mouth threat.
Basically, form an “O” with your mouth, lean toward them with your body
and head, and raise your eyebrows. Female victims might seek protection
in a group of men, since monkeys are somewhat afraid of males. But
whatever you do, don't freak out; those who scream, wave their arms,
and run away are only going to make the macaques even more aggressive.

Anyway, don't say you haven't been warned about what to do next time you are faced with killer monkeys.

The Hillary pathology

One of the things that I find most interesting about Hillary Clinton in my role as a political scientist is the absolutely pathological and irrational dislike that so many people (mostly Republicans, of course) have for Hillary Clinton.  After many times of asking people why exactly they hate Hillary so much, the most common answer seems to be a variation on “I just do.”  If they actually provide reasons, the reasons are almost invariably not based on anything to do with political reality.  Anyway, the increasingly pathetic Republican field for president has decided that absent any good plans of their own, simply opposing anything Hillary suggest will substitute for an agenda.  Here's Harold Meyerson on the matter:

My conservative brethren in the op-ed commentariat have made a
disquieting discovery: The Republican candidates for president are
saying nothing that addresses the economic anxieties of the American
middle class. Both David Brooks and Michael Gerson, writing last Friday
in the New York Times and The Post,
respectively, expressed a mixture of amazement and horror at the
disdain that the candidates display toward broadly centrist proposals
to bolster Americans' economic security, and at the candidates'
apparent indifference to their need to craft such proposals of their
own.

“The Democrats propose something” such as expanding health-care
coverage for children or providing federal matching funds for 401(k)
accounts for families of modest means, bemoaned Brooks, “and the
Republicans have no alternative.” Gerson grumbled that the candidates
were taking gleeful potshots at the “baby bonds” notion — providing
newborns with small savings accounts — that Hillary Clinton briefly
floated, despite the fact that the idea has won support from the right
as well as the left.

In fact, with the honorable exception of long-shot candidate Mike
Huckabee, the Republican field seems content with an economic program
that comes down to opposing whatever Hillary Clinton proposes. Rudy
Giuliani, campaigning hard to convince the Republican base to overlook
his heresies on such cultural hot buttons as abortion rights, seeks to
win over the faithful by claiming the mantle of Hillary-Basher Club
Champion. A tax credit for parents struggling to pay their children's
college tuition? Matching funds for 401(k)s? Baby bonds? Crazy notions
all, not because of their substance — Rudy can't be bothered with
their substance — but because they were proposed by — get this –
Hillary! The GOP crowds roar.

As a road map to governance, this is both dim and skimpy. President
Giuliani, Romney, McCain or Thompson can reliably be counted on to be
against whatever Clinton is for. Beyond that, if we total up their
domestic and economic policy proposals, they intend to do almost
nothing at all.

I think it speaks volumes about which of the two parties takes governing more seriously when Democrats are brimming with extensive, well-researched, policy proposals (you may not agree with them, but they are detailed and based upon thorough analysis) and the leading Republicans can do little better than Giuliani's laughable 12 committments and the anti-Hillary approach. 

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