Curing Washington’s ails

Well, this was over a week ago, but sometimes I’m slow on the draw.  Following up on their Op-Ed about what’s gone wrong in Washington (and, yes, it is disproportionately Republicans fault), Mann and Ornstein hit the Op-Ed pages again to argue about some possible solutions to improving things.  In addition to offering potential solutions, they also kindly point out what won’t work: a third party, term limits, a balanced budget amendment, just waiting for things to get back to normal, (and just because they want to hit a beloved liberal idea as well), public financing of elections.  Now, Mann and Ornstein are right– public financing won’t “restrain special interest spending” but unlike some of the other ideas, it certainly would help make for a more functional democracy.

As for what they advocate, I am a big fan of instant run-off voting,  and certainly eliminating the filibuster, but I find their expanding the electorate (the actually recommend Australian style mandatory voting– we did steal their secret ballot 100+ years ago), recommendations most interesting:

In the United States, such near-universal voting could eliminate the parties’ incentive to diminish the turnout of their opponents’ supporters and to mobilize the ideological extremes. Boosting overall turnout would help tilt the balance back toward where most Americans actually are: closer to the middle.

Other promising avenues to expand the electorate include automating the registration process (so voters can register online and carry their documentation with them when they move from one state to another) and to open up the primaries, as California has done, to all voters. Over time, open primaries could produce more moderate elected officials.

Finally, if we can’t persuade more Americans to vote with the threat of a fine, how about the promise of untold riches? Millions lined up — sometimes wasting all night — for a shot at the Mega Millions lottery in March. How about another lottery, where your vote stub is a ticket, and where the prize is the money collected from the fines of those who didn’t vote? The odds of the mega-jackpot were about 1 in 176 million — we’d like to believe that the chances of fixing American politics are a bit better than that.

Now, I’m not sure any of these things would really “save” our democracy.  But, they are all worth doing and would all certainly improve things.  And, of course, we’re not likely to see any of them.

Photo of the day

I’m feeling kind of lame for not even knowing this is one of the Seven Wonders of the World (via Alan Taylor and a Brazil photo set):

View of Iguazu Falls, one of the Natural Seven Wonders of the World, from the Brazilian side, on April 11, 2012, in Foz de Iguazu, Brazil. The waterfall system, 2.7 km long, consists of 275 falls, and has an annual peak flow of some 6,500 cubic meters a second. An acute drought has hit the famed falls, cutting back the tumbling waters to reveal the rocky sides. Only a third of the usual volume of water is now flowing over the top. (Norberto Duarte/AFP/Getty Images)

And here’s a much less dramatic rainbow, but it actually appeared right in the middle of my back yard:

Inforgraphic of the day

This is just cool:

Photo of the day

From Smithsonian Magazine best nature photographs:

Cane toad

Small World Highly Honored: Cane Toad

“I was visiting a ranch near Laredo in April 2010. The area had experienced a dry spell until massive rains brought about an abundance of toads, frogs, and wildflowers. I knew I had a chance for a great shot when I saw this six-inch-long toad bounding across a field of yellow dogweed.” - Photographer Rolf Nussbaumer

One question

Mike (in Chapel Hill) pointed me to an interesting comment on this Charles Blow post which shows all the areas that Democrats have a public opinion advantage over Republicans.  The basic idea being that the country is becoming more diverse and more open-minded, which is good for Democrats.  True, I suppose, but a lot of good that did in 2010 and a lot of good that will do in November if the economic recovery stagnates.  Anyway, Mike directed me towards this interesting comment:

This is what election politics in the USA boils down to for the most part:

1. Voters who are more bothered by the idea that some people are going to get money or advantages which they don’t deserve than they are bothered by the prospect that some people will be deprived of money or advantages they really DO deserve will vote for Republican candidates.

2. Voters who are more bothered by the idea of people not getting money or opportunities they deserve than the converse, will vote for the Democrats.

You can check this among people you know with a surrogate question. Just ask a person which would be MORE DIFFICULT for him/her if he/she were a lawyer: a)defending a person you think is guilty or b)prosecuting a person you think is innocent. Republicans will answer (a), Democrats will answer (b).

Really interesting idea.  I haven’t tried this yet, but I am curious.  I will definitely try it with my large class in the fall to see just how well it correlates with PID.  Of course, you might as well just ask a basic variation of points 1 and 2.  I.e., are you more bothered by undeserving people receiving thing they don’t really deserve or by deserving people failing to receive what they do?  Now, based on my experiences, that’s really going to strongly correlate with PID.

It’s also why I make a point of explaining to my students that where you have government programs and you have human beings as recipients you will either have a) some level of fraud, b) no fraud but lots of deserving people not receiving benefits, or c) monitoring costs that exceed the costs you lose to fraud.   Now, am I happy about people defrauding the government and wasting our tax dollars?  No.  Do I want the government to take reasonable steps to combat fraud where it can?  Of course.  Most importantly, though, do I simply accept that a certain level of fraud and waste is going to be intrinsic to any complex human activity?  You betcha.

Photo of the day

Well, you know I’m a sucker for historical photos, so I love this In Focus set of the American West from 150 years ago:

The mining town of Gold Hill, just south of Virginia City, Nevada, in 1867. (Timothy O’Sullivan/LOC)

North Carolina is an inelastic swing state

One of my students was trying to tell me about this the other day before I came across it and I thought it sounded like some journalistic hokum of just trying to create a story out of nothing by creating a new term.  Alas, it was actually a really interesting piece by Nate Silver about how we should think about swing states in very different ways depending upon the nature of the state’s electorate.  In short, some states are probably much more susceptible to major shifts in candidate support then others because they have a lot of voters without particularly strong partisan ties (i.e., swing voters).  Other states, in contrast, e.g., North Carolina, have lots of voters who by virtue of demographic characteristics, i.e., African-American, evangelical Christian, are quite likely locked into their vote regardless of the nature of the campaign.  Silver explains:

An inelastic state, by contrast, is one which is relatively insensitive to these changes. In an inelastic state, a five-percentage-point change in the national environment might only affect Mr. Obama’s numbers by three percentage points instead.

Elastic states are those which have a lot of swing voters — that is, voters who could plausibly vote for either party’s candidate…

A good example of an inelastic state is North Carolina. It has quite a few African-American voters, who are almost sure to vote for Mr. Obama. But it also has plenty of rural white Southerners, many of them evangelical conservatives, who almost certainly won’t. To a lesser extent, it also has some highly educated and very liberal white voters in the Research Triangle [hey, that sounds familiar], who are also quite likely to be Obama voters. That doesn’t leave very many voters left over. North Carolina is a swing state (or at least it was in 2008), because the coalition of Democratic base voters was quite close in size to the coalition of Republican base voters. But it wasn’t a state with a lot of persuadablevoters: it’s the kind of place where elections mostly boil down to turnout, and Mr. Obama — with his considerably stronger ground game — was able to edge out a win there in 2008.

Thus, while elastic swing states may come down to which candidate can persuade the most of the  persuadable voters, an inelastic swing state like NC is all about organization and getting your side’s voters to the polls.   Silver has a number of cool charts you should check out, but I like this where he makes a matrix of states by type:

Anyway, I think the idea is pretty cool and definitely suggests that the campaigns should be approaching their strategies in the various swing states according to different principles.

Chart of the day

Thought this Atlantic piece on the price of used televisions was really interesting.  Basically, people way over-price their used TV’s on Craig’s List because they price relative to what they paid for them while the price of TV’s is always dropping.  To wit:

My first thought?  Wow– I need to buy a 32″ LCD!  I already have one, but still, damn that’s cheap!  Of course, if I were to sell my existing it would be for decidedly less than the $400+ I paid in January ’09.

Photo of the day

From a Big Picture set of Daily Life photos:

A Pakistani girl uses an umbrella for shelter from the rain while she and her father herd their sheep, near the site of the demolished compound of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, April 29, 2012. (Muhammed Muheisen/Associated Press)

Finland! Yay!

My Finnish friend (though, by choice, not birth) posted this Independent essay arguing that the Brits (and presumably Americans, too) have a lot to learn from Finland.  This is especially true in the realm of education:

Finland may feature consistently in the world suicide rate top 20, but according to the recent UN World Happiness Report, it’s actually the second-”happiest” country in the world (after nearby Denmark), based not only on wealth, but on political freedom, strong social networks and an absence of corruption. The 2011 Failed States Index, compiled by Washington think tank the Fund for Peace, ranked it the globe’s most “successful” country socially, economically and politically.

Its students are also the best in the West, achieving extraordinarily high scores in a triennial survey for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). According to Anu Partanen, a Finnish journalist writing in The Atlantic: “Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the programme that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.”

Finland rivals East Asian educational hothouses such as Singapore and South Korea, but without those countries’ high-pressure homework expectations. There are no nationally standardised tests, inspections or league tables, no private schools or private universities, and no fees. Competition is frowned upon; co-operation is king.

Alright!  Suicide aside (which I believe can substantially be blamed on the limited sunlight during much of the year) sounds about perfect.  I especially love how their success in education has come through the emphasis on equity (and unmentioned here, very high teacher quality) rather than through testing our killing the kids with homework (the Asian model).

Based on what I’ve read before on Finnish education, I’ve been telling David about it for a while when we discuss problems with American education (among other social science issues) on our afternoon walks of the dog.  Thus, David was quite excited to draw Finland for his country to do a report on for Social Studies this week.  He definitely thinks America needs to be more like Finland (he was pretty shocked to learn that Finland has a 100% literacy rate while the U.S. does not).  Anyway, part of his project was to create a “glog” (graphical weblog, I think) on Finland.  It is from there that I have taken the title of this post.  Check it out.  (The link is interactive, the image below is just a preview).  I know I’ve got a disproportionate share of Finnish readers (yeah, Finland!) I’d love to hear if you really think your country is this great.

The complexity of abortion public opinion, part II

So, I was inspired by my previous post on the matter to actually look at some recent data.   Thanks to NCSU’s subscription to the fabulous Roper poll archive I was able to get the entire dataset for last year’s Gallup survey on abortion attitudes.  Most datasets give you questions about policy opinions or “pro-life vs. pro choice” but not both, but this dataset has both, which is awesome.  I’m going to share five separate crosstabs which make it quite clear that being pro-choice vs. pro-life is more complicated than you might think.

First, you can see that even those who are “pro-life” think abortion should be legal “under certain circumstances.”  Meanwhile, a very high proportion of pro-choice fall there as well.  I do wonder about those roughly 5% of each who seem to be in the completely wrong category.

Also quite interesting to note that waiting periods are broadly popular–even gathering a clear majority of “pro-choice” identifiers.

And as for “partial-birth” abortion, again, even most “pro-choice” supporters think this should be illegal.  Yet almost 1/3 of “pro-life don’t necessarily think it should be illegal.

Here we see more of the strong pro-life/pro-choice split you might expect.  I was wondering if this might be due to the fact that this issue recently became politicized, but then I realized that this is 2011 data, so this is one of the larger policy differences.

And finally, we also see a strong split on federal funding for abortion, but I think it is most noteworthy that over 40% of self-identified pro-life are fine with this, yet among political elites who are pro-life you will very rarely find any support for this.

Short version:  It’s complicated.  It’s very complicated.  Don’t let anybody (i.e., journalists and/or pundits) tell you otherwise.

Milk Machine

I don’t have much to comment on the matter, but I found this Atlantic piece on how sophisticated quantitive analysis and subsequent breeding has turned the modern dairy cow into a super-producing milk machine to be really fascinating.  Some tidbits:

Data-driven predictions are responsible for a massive transformation of America’s dairy cows. While other industries are just catching on to this whole “big data” thing, the animal sciences — and dairy breeding in particular — have been using large amounts of datasince long before VanRaden was calculating the outsized genetic impact of the most sought-after bulls with a pencil and paper in the 1980s.

Dairy breeding is perfect for quantitative analysis.Pedigree records have been assiduously kept;relatively easy artificial insemination has helped centralized genetic information in a small number of key bulls since the 1960s; there are a relatively small and easily measurable number of traits – milk production, fat in the milk, protein in the milk, longevity, udder quality — that breeders want to optimize; each cow works for three or four years, which means that farmers invest thousands of dollars into each animal, so it’s worth it to get the best semen money can buy. The economics push breeders to use the genetics.

The bull market (heh) can be reduced to one key statistic, lifetime net merit, though there are many nuances that the single number cannot capture. Net merit denotes the likely additive value of a bull’s genetics. The number is actually denominated in dollars because it is an estimate of how much a bull’s genetic material will likely improve the revenue from a given cow. A very complicated equation weights all of the factors that go into dairy breeding and — voila — you come out with this single number. For example, a bull that could help a cow make an extra 1000 pounds of milk over her lifetime only gets an increase of $1 in net merit while a bull who will help that same cow produce a pound more protein will get $3.41 more in net merit. An increase of a single month of predicted productive life yields $35 more.

I always tell those pursuing PhD’s in Political Science to really learn their statistics because even if they cannot land a tenure track job, there’s all kinds of avenues open to them with a strong statistical background.  Little did I realize that it could be useful for putting them into the dairy farming world.  Honestly, that kind of number crunching sounds like a lot of fun to me.  But, I think I’ll stick with data on American public opinion.

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