Campaign finance reform is far from a political panacea

Does money have too much influence in American politics?  Yep.  (Though one look no further than Jeb’s campaign to see the obvious limits).  Do we really need some meaningful campaign finance reform?  Absolutely.  Would even the very best possible reform solve what ails or political system?  No way.  Seth Masket is on the task in his latest Pacific Standard column:

The real nugget of Sanders’ reforms is the Fair Elections Now Act, and it’s not a bad proposal. It’s certainly more thoughtful than previous campaign finance efforts that simply sought to put caps on how much people could donate to candidates or parties. What FENA does is set a modest threshold for candidate fundraising to demonstrate their viability. For example, candidates for the House of Representatives would need to raise $50,000 across at least 1,500 donors.

If they meet this threshold, public financing would kick in. The government would provide the candidate with enough funding to run competitive primary and general election campaigns. If they wished to raise more money, they could do so in a way that magnifies the contributions of smaller donors. The government would give the candidate five times each private donation they’d received of $100 or less.

This is actually not a very radical proposal. Several states (Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine) have recently been using public financing in state legislative races…

It’s also worth noting that small donors—the sorts of donors valorized by such reforms and generally believed to have purer souls than those who donate thousands at a single time—have their own agendas. Those who contribute small amounts tend to be more ideologically extreme than other donors. To the extent politicians would be more dependent upon them for election and re-election, such a reform could end up making government actually more dysfunctional.

Good points, but this paragraph is Masket’s brilliant key nugget:

For another, it’s still just really hard to find direct evidence that donations, even a lot of them, change the votes of politicians. To hear Sanders’ supporters describe it, his money is pure and comes from his hundreds of thousands of supporters who want nothing more than a better future for the country, while Hillary Clinton is a shill for corporations and the military industrial complex, and her affiliated super PACs have corrupted her outlook. Isn’t it interesting, then, thatthey voted identically 93 percent of the time they served in the Senate together? Is the hope that a complete re-structuring of the campaign finance system will make politicians seven percent less attuned to wealthy corporate interests? [emphasis mine]

And, of course, a smart and sober conclusion:

The reform proposal at the core of Sanders’ revolution is actually not that revolutionary, and it could actually do some good. But it’s hard to see it dramatically re-structuring our electoral system, no less inducing other societal shifts. And it actually has some costs built into it, such as a potential increase in polarization. So certainly peruse and consider it, but don’t expect it to bring about the revolution.

Yeah, that.

Lead is political

Great column from Nicholas  Kristof:

In Flint, 4.9 percent of children tested for lead turned out to have elevated levels. That’s inexcusable. But in 2014 in New York State outside of New York City, the figure was 6.7 percent. In Pennsylvania, 8.5 percent. On the west side of Detroit, one-fifth of the children tested in 2014 had lead poisoning. In Iowa for 2012, the most recent year available, an astonishing 32 percent of children tested had elevated lead levels. (I calculated most of these numbers from C.D.C. data.)

Across America, 535,000 children ages 1 through 5 suffer lead poisoning, by C.D.C. estimates…

Yet anti-lead programs have been dismantled in recent years because in 2012 Congress slashed the funding for lead programs at the C.D.C. by 93 percent. [emphases mine] After an outcry, some money was restored, but even now these lead programs have only a bit more than half the funding they once had.

Lead poisoning is an old problem: An Australian doctor, Lockhart Gibson, diagnosed the first case in 1904.

Then in 1943, a doctor in Boston encountered a young boy who had tried to stab his teacher, and remembered that the same boy had suffered lead poisoning years earlier. Researchers soon found that early exposure to lead impairs brain development and is strongly associated with later violent or criminal behavior.

Yet the lead industry ferociously fought attempts at regulation. It wasn’t until the 1970s and ’80s that lead was largely removed from gasoline, and until 2008 that a regulation reduced lead in paint to a reasonable level. Millions of children continue to suffer brain impairment because of the greed of the lead industry…

Today the continuing poisoning of half a million American children is tolerated partly because the victims often are low-income children of color.

Truly appalling that our country lacks the political will to stop poisoning any of our children with lead.

Bernie the hedgehog

Let me be clear.  I like Bernie Sanders.  I think he’s doing a great job bringing important issues to the fore of national and Democratic politics.  I think he is a thoughtful and passionate advocate for these issues.  I’m therefore glad he is campaigning for president.  That said, I truly do not believe he would make a very good president (nonetheless, I still think he would be far better than of the Republicans who currently seem capable of capturing the nomination).

Among other reasons, I think that he really does have an overly-simplistic view of politics.  He is, in short, a hedgehog.  Political Psychologist Phil Tetlock has done a lot of great work looking at expert prediction as a matter of being a hedgehog or a fox– here’s a nice summary:

It’s a matter of judgement style, first expressed by the ancient Greek warrior poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one great thing.” The idea was later expanded by essayist Isaiah Berlin. In Tetlock’s interpretation, Hedgehogs have one grand theory (Marxist, Libertarian, whatever) which they are happy to extend into many domains, relishing its parsimony, and expressing their views with great confidence. Foxes, on the other hand are skeptical about grand theories, diffident in their forecasts, and ready to adjust their ideas based on actual events.

The aggregate success rate of Foxes is significantly greater, Tetlock found, especially in short-term forecasts. And Hedgehogs routinely fare worse than Foxes, especially in long-term forecasts. They even fare worse than normal attention-paying dilletantes — apparently blinded by their extensive expertise and beautiful theory. Furthermore, Foxes win not only in the accuracy of their predictions but also the accuracy of the likelihood they assign to their predictions— in this they are closer to the admirable discipline of weather forecasters.

The Atlantic’s David Graham clearly sees Sanders in the Hedgehog vein and Hillary as the fox.  Graham:

Sanders knows that what the country needs—the only thing it needs—is a political and economic revolution. Clinton knows the country needs progressive policies on a range of matters and a pragmatic, realistic strategy to implement them…

That divide was clear from their opening statements, with Sanders immediately jumping to his familiar mantra about a rigged economy and a corrupt campaign-finance scheme. Clinton’s answer was not so laser focused, discussing a general need for the nation to “live up to our values in the 21st century,” and checking off not just the economy, but racism, sexism, and more. This split is not new, of course, but with Martin O’Malley off the stage and out of the race, and the Democratic contest tighter than ever, the division has never been so clear. It led to an unusually interesting debate, with the two candidates frequently addressing each other directly and delving into detail.

At times, it was clear why Sanders’s hedgehog approach has been so popular with many Democrats—the ones who nearly delivered him an upset win in the Iowa caucuses, and the ones in New Hampshire who favor him by some 20 points in polls. That was especially true as they squabbled over who is a true progressive and as Clinton tried to defend her highly remunerative speeches to Goldman Sachs. But at other times, it seemed more like a limitation. Quizzed on foreign policy, Sanders seemed at sea about events overseas.

Yes, there’s some advantages to being a hedgehog– and Graham points them out.  But it’s pretty clear you want a president that’s a fox.  And say what you will, there’s no way that Sanders is a fox.   (And for what it’s worth, James Fallows, as astute a political observer as there is, endorses Graham’s characterization).

And while we’re at it, there’s honestly few people in my experience who get how government really works as well as Norm Ornstein (Ornstein is a Political Science PhD who has somehow kept affiliation with the American Enterprise Institute while being a centrist and remarkably straight-shooter on the problems with the modern GOP).  Anyway, Ornstein is quite skeptical of Sanders’ potential to be an effective president:

Let’s say Sanders is accurate enough that his nomination would lead to his election via a bump in turnout from young voters and other populists disgusted by inequality, the billionaire class privilege and the distorted campaign-money system. Let’s say that he survives the billion dollars that might be spent by the Koch brothers’ alliance, the business community, the Republican candidate, and the Republican Party to destroy him as an unreconstructed socialist who will raise everybody’s taxes…

The odds that a Sanders victory would lead to a Democratic House or a majority of more than one in the Senate are very slim…

Republicans, no doubt, would have the same approach they had when Obama first got elected in a sweeping party victory, voting as a united parliamentary minority against every presidential initiative…

So all of Sanders’s initiatives would start as non-starters. [all emphases mine] Here, his theory of election and governance comes into play. He would go to the public, a public disgusted with Washington and its corrupt ties to the billionaire class and to business, and force members of Congress to their knees, shifting the debate and the agenda his way…

One of the enduring themes of our democracy is that inscribed in the Capitol, a quote from Alexander Hamilton: “Here, sir, the people govern.” But the notion that public opinion governs the agenda or the actions of Congress is, at best, a stretch. Going over the heads of Congress has long been a staple of frustrated presidents, and it has almost never worked; see Bill Clinton on health care and George W. Bush on Social Security among other recent examples. And these days, with most congressional districts resembling homogeneous echo chambers, created by a combination of people sorting themselves geographically and the distortions of redistricting, national public opinion has limited bearing on congressional leaders…

Sanders as president would be left with two main options: reduce his goals to aim for more incremental progress, or adopt a defensive approach to keep Obama’s policies from being rolled back—exactly what he has condemned in Hillary Clinton’s approach to governance. And while Sanders has been a more effective lawmaker than Cruz (or Rubio, for that matter, as demonstrated by Rick Santorum’s embarrassing failure on Morning Joe to find one accomplishment for his endorsee) there is little evidence that he has or could build the kinds of relationships with other members of Congress, or find ways to move the now humongous boulder up the hill (or Hill) of a thoroughly dysfunctional governing process. And, of course, he would face the deep disappointment of the activists he has inspired…

Could Clinton do better? Yes. First, she has an entirely realistic understanding of where American politics are, something she would carry into the White House on the first day. Progress can be made, on health delivery, financial regulation, the tax system, energy and infrastructure, but it will be a series of incremental steps, a tenth or a quarter of a loaf at a time. Second, in her time in the Senate she showed an impressive ability to build relationships with her Republican colleagues; many of them privately praise her even as they will do their duty and condemn her through the campaign. And she knows enough about the executive branch to use its tools effectively early on to protect the Obama legacy and extend it a bit further…

No candidate now running will transform the system in 2016. But some candidates would have an easier time governing through the dysfunction. Ron Brownstein and others have noted that facing that reality could seriously hamper Hillary Clinton in her outreach to voters demanding inspiration, not perspiration. That could well be true. But it also reflects her realistic understanding of the limits of American politics in this unfortunate day and age.

Is Hillary, a great leader, inspiring, lacking personal baggage, etc.?  God no.  Does she represent a politician who is 1) more likely to win a general election than Bernie? and 2) a Democrat who is actually more likely to accomplish policy goals liberals would prefer?  I would say the balance of the evidence very strongly points to yes on both.

Quick hits (part II)

1) In Madison, Wisconsin they actually invested in replacing in lead pipes before they caused any trouble.  Alas, most cities are not willing to make the investment until it’s too late.

2) Terrific interview with a food safety expert.  I especially resent the way in which public health is held hostage to interest group politics in this area:

If salmonella is so problematic, why hasn’t the government protected consumers from it? 

There’s a case that goes back to the 1970s, American Health Association (AHA) vs. Earl Butz, who was the secretary of agriculture under President Nixon. The AHA didn’t even know about E. coli 0157, the kind that gets people really sick, back then. They were focused on salmonella, and they wanted to put a label on it that said ‘hey consumer, you need to cook this,’ and the meat industry went nuts, they said no way we’re not going to do this. So the AHA sued the government because they thought it was necessary, and the government sided with the industry, and in essence said it was a naturally occurring bacterium on meat, which is untrue, and housewives—this is actually in the case, I swear—know how to cook it, what to do to make this food safe. That mentality is just below the surface in the meat industry, whether it’s the beef, chicken, or any other facet. That sort of mentality that there’s really nothing we can do about it, and it’s really the consumer that is at fault if anybody gets sick, it’s their problem. This is exactly the argument that the industry waged in 1994, with E. coli, but there the government changed its tone because there were 700 people who got sick and 4 children who died, and it was kind of hard to ignore that.

3) On the “ag gag” law in North Carolina.  Damn it, business should be free to do any sort of horrible thing they want without fear that somebody might surreptitiously record them doing so and thereby possibly face accountability.  Thanks to NC Republicans for standing up for important values.

4) You don’t need me to tell you how amazingly unserious Republican presidential candidates are on foreign policy.  But Fred Kaplan will.

5) Just some social science showing that men are (not surprisingly) absurdly over-confident, as compared to women.

6) Howard Dean and Iowa will remain one of my favorite anecdotes to explain the role of expectations and media coverage for years to come.  So many people just don’t get what happened.  Nate Silver and friends do.  Good stuff.

7) Republicans seem to think high-deductible health plans are cure-alls for health care costs.  Evidence strongly suggests otherwise (when has that ever affected Republican legislators?).  That said, we can be much smarter about how we use deductibles.  Nice piece in the Upshot:

Some health economists say the solution to the problem may be smarter but more complicated forms of health insurance that provide patients with important care free, but charge them for treatments with fewer proven benefits. Mr. Chernew, for one, argues that ordinary deductibles are too “blunt” an instrument, but smarter insurance plans could harness economic incentives to reduce wasteful health spending without discouraging needed care. If such plans held down costs as well as deductibles, they could keep insurance affordable without as many risks. The theory behind such plans is compelling, but given how bad people are at shopping for health care, more empirical evidence is needed to know how well it works in practice.

8) What were the people at Simon Fraser University in Canada thinking when they thought this video was remotely appropriate?

9) Digging into the Iowa polls suggests trouble ahead for Ted Cruz.

10) Nice Op-Ed about the current government in NC and among other things, their disdain for public education.  And and N&O Editorial on our “teacher shortage by design.”

 

11) Interesting essay on how we shouldn’t judge people with “tramp stamps” and how we definitely shouldn’t call them that.  Am I a bad person if I’m not convinced?  Anyway, this statistics was really suprising:

For the first time in decades, women are more likely to have tattoos than men. In 2013,47 percent of women under 35 reported having a tattoo, compared with only 25 percent of men. And this rising demographic isn’t solely due to the trendiness of tattoo culture.

12) Lee Drutman reviews Rick Hasen’s new book on campaign finance and suggests we really need to move away from “corruption” and re-think about how we conceptualize the problem.

13) On how Hillary Clinton actually properly used social science in her get-out-the-vote efforts in Iowa (unlike Ted Cruz).

14) This summary of evidence on learning says highlighting and re-reading is a waste of time.  I’m very familiar with the evidence that says testing yourself is the best way to study (and I emphasize this to my students), but I cannot imagine pulling off the grades I did without marking (in the margins, actual highlights take way too long) and re-reading key passages in texts.

15) Vox interviewed some political scientists on the electability of Cruz and Trump.  Masket says Cruz is more electable than Trump, and I’m with him:

Masket said he recognized that Trump is more moderate on some issues than Cruz. But while Cruz may have more extreme policy positions, he is the better candidate, because Trump could really drive away Republican elites and voters.

Masket pointed to several issues in particular on which this group regards Trump as fundamentally unreliable: the social safety net, the military, abortion, and taxes.

“A large number of more ‘establishment’ Republican elites may bolt the party and support a third party candidate should Trump win a majority of delegates. Even if that doesn’t happen, a sizable number of Republicans might simply not vote,” Masket said in an email.

He didn’t argue that Cruz is a great general election candidate. But since Cruz has proven consistently conservative, he would at least be able to unite the Republican Party and ensure that its voters go to the ballot box.

“[Cruz] is basically in line with the party on most of its key issues,” Masket said. “Nominating him could put them at a slight disadvantage due to his extremism, but there’s little chance of him actually splitting the party.”

I sure would love for it to be either of them, though, because no doubt they would fare worse than Rubio (or anybody else from the “establishment” lane).

16) This Vox article on potential mosquito eradication frames it as bad news that the best estimates suggesting we could have the biotechnology for widespread mosquito eradication in 3-5 years.  WTF?  That kind of technology within even 10 years would be unbelievable awesome and save so many lives.

17) Beautiful example of motivated reasoning in action.  Somehow, most all Democrats are better off than 8 years ago today and most Republicans are worse off.  I actually am better off.  Or maybe I’m only imagining it because I’m a Democrat.

Quick hits (part I)

1) The State Superintendent of Public Instruction in NC suggested that NC teachers get a 10% pay raise, which would still not even bring us up to the national average.  NC Republicans, of course, think this idea entirely untenable.

2) Can we start expecting kids to get kicked out of school based on their DNA?  Maybe.  Here’s one case.

 

3) Great look at the http://www.vox.com/2016/2/5/10918164/donald-trump-morality of the presidential candidates.  Some of what you would expect; some you wouldn’t.

4) An Iowa voter confronts Cruz with the reality of taking Obamacare away.

5) Why are American colleges obsessed with leadership?  Good question.  We can’t all be leaders.

6) Great Chronicle of Higher Ed interview with the Virginia Tech professor behind the Flint/lead story:

Q. Do you have any sense that perverse incentive structures prevented scientists from exposing the problem in Flint sooner?

A. Yes, I do. In Flint the agencies paid to protect these people weren’t solving the problem. They were the problem. What faculty person out there is going to take on their state, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency?

I don’t blame anyone, because I know the culture of academia. You are your funding network as a professor. You can destroy that network that took you 25 years to build with one word. I’ve done it. When was the last time you heard anyone in academia publicly criticize a funding agency, no matter how outrageous their behavior? We just don’t do these things.

If an environmental injustice is occurring, someone in a government agency is not doing their job. Everyone we wanted to partner said, Well, this sounds really cool, but we want to work with the government. We want to work with the city. And I’m like, You’re living in a fantasy land, because these people are the problem.

7) This history of Japan video is almost too awesome to be believed.  Seriously, trust me on this.

8) Is Dodd-Frank perfect?  No.  Is it actually working?  Yes, says Drum (and the data).  A more elaborate post on the same topic from Wonkblog (nicely titled “What Republicans and Bernie Sanders get wrong about Wall Street.”)

9) NFL stadiums are such a rip-off to their communities.  Let the damn owners pay for them.  St Louis will still be saddled with debt for a stadium that now becomes a white elephant.

10) Very nice piece on all that’s wrong with the college admissions process.  I don’t plan on encouraging my own kids to apply for anything more elite than our fine NC universities in part because the process has become so nuts.

11) Loved this Dylan Matthews case against NH and Iowa always being first.  Especially this Part

Iowa and New Hampshire have plenty of defenders. Their arguments are all bad. The most serious attempt to defend Iowa’s place in the system is the 2010 book Why Iowa?by political scientists David Redlawsk, Caroline Tolbert, and Todd Donovan. They argue that the caucus system creates more informed (albeit fewer) voters, and that the sequential primary system lets candidates be heard and informs voters in later primaries.

They put together a good argument, but it’s not an argument for Iowa. It’s an argument for sequential voting. Indeed, the authors conclude with a proposal for a “caucus window,”in which any number of states could hold caucuses, followed by a national primary.

“We suggest that the national parties could opt for a process in which any number of states could hold caucuses on the first voting day of the sequence,” they write. “Another alternative would have the parties retaining a sequence in which Iowa, or some other relatively small state, is granted first-in-the-nation priority.”

At most, the virtues of caucuses and sequential primaries argue for having one small state go first. But they don’t argue for that state being Iowa or New Hampshire.

12) Lessons from Flint about how we make weather and climate (and much environmental) policy.

13) What happens to your brain when you get stoned every day for five years?  It’s not great, but not as bad as you might think.

14) Loved this Onion headline, “Middle-Aged Man In Gym Locker Room Puts Shirt On Before Underwear.”  Used to see a guy like this at the OSU gym all the time and it bugged the hell out of me.

15) The real reason I’m supporting Hillary– her campaign spends the most on pizza.

16) Ezra Klein with a good take on Thursday’s debate:

And where Clinton’s experience gives her deep knowledge of virtually every facet of American policymaking, Sanders’s career has let him focus on the issues he cares about, and left him poorly informed on international affairs.

Which is all to say that Clinton has the benefits and drawbacks of an insider, and Sanders has the benefits and drawbacks of an outsider. Her view of the political system is realistic, her knowledge of the issues is deep, and her social ties are strong. All these qualities would likely make her an effective president. But they also mean she’s captured by the political system, and that she is implicated in virtually everything Americans hate about it.

Sanders’s view of the political system is idealistic, his ideas are unbounded by pragmatic concerns and interest group objections, and his calls for political revolution are thrilling. All these qualities make him an inspiring candidate. But they also mean he’ll be perceived as an enemy by the very system he intends to lead, and that his promises of sweeping change might collapse into total disappointment.

17) We’ve reached the point where conservatives have deluded themselves into believing there’s actually more racism against white people than Black people.  And I’ve got a bridge I want to sell you.

18) The government changed the font on highways signs to make them more readable.  Apparently, in real world conditions they actually were not so the font is changing back.

19) Drug shortages are leading to some real rationing and some real hard decisions.

Photo of the day

Given that I went to the circus this week, this shot from National Geographic Found seems appropriate:

Children read a Sylvan Drew Circus billboard, 1931. Photograph by Jacob J. Gayer, National Geographic Creative

Children read a Sylvan Drew Circus billboard, 1931.PHOTOGRAPH BY JACOB J. GAYER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Marco Rubio shows how to be a successful Islamophobe

Though Rubio has definitely shown he can be a charismatic and likable fellow, I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that there may be not such a good person underneath.  Yesterday, President Obama gave a well-received speech at a mosque asking for tolerance, diversity, etc., and Rubio used this to claim that Obama is “dividing us.”  Sure, it’s all politics, but I was truly appalled when I read about this.

Smartest take I’ve seen on the matter comes from Vox’s Max Fisher on how how Rubio, being an “establishment” candidate has managed to avoid the media pile-on Trump would take for such obviously inappropriate comments:

When President Obama gave a speech on Wednesday at a Baltimore mosque to discuss inclusion and Islamophobia, then, it wasn’t exactly shocking that some Republican candidates looked for a way to criticize it. So I’m not going to pretend to be surprised that Marco Rubio took issue with the speech.

But Rubio’s line of criticism didn’t target Obama. It targeted the very idea that anti-Muslim bigotry is a problem worth confronting, implying that such bigotry is not just permissible but indeed serves an important function.

“Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque,” Rubio said at a New Hampshire town hall. “Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims. Of course there’s going to be discrimination in America of every kind. But the bigger issue is radical Islam.” [emphases mine]

Rubio then compared anti-Muslim bigotry to friendly sports rivalries, and argued that Obama’s speech was really the thing causing division. “But again, it’s this constant pitting people against each other — that I can’t stand that. It’s hurting our country badly,” Rubio said. “We can disagree on things, right? I’m a Dolphin fan, you’re a Patriot fan.” He warned that Obama was dividing America “along ethnic lines and racial lines and economic lines and religious lines.”

But what is really striking to me about Rubio’s comments is the media’s reaction, which has been fairly muted in contrast to how it covered Islamophobic comments from Donald Trump. That’s not to say that the media is endorsing or ignoring Rubio here, but the pretty clear distinction in coverage shows how an establishment candidate like Rubio can navigate the media’s unwritten rules and get away with participating in the tide of Islamophobia that has already become violent

Rubio’s message is that Obama went to the mosque because he has a secret agenda to “pit people against each other” and to divide Americans “along ethnic lines and racial lines”; that anti-Muslim bigotry is a non-problem on par with sports rivalries; and that challenging this bigotry somehow undercuts the effort to address “the bigger issue,” which is “radical Islam,” and that this is the real threat.

Rubio’s implied message is not just that anti-Muslim bigotry is overstated, but that efforts to combat bigotry are worrying because they “divide” Americans and because they enable the “radical Islam” that threatens Americans — and which Rubio has previously said credibly threatens the destruction of the United States itself.

And because I know Jon K will want the principle of charity, Fisher grants it, and Rubio still doesn’t look good:

If you want to be sympathetic, you could argue that Rubio sees combating Islamophobia as an unnecessary distraction. But unless you assume that all Muslims are at least potentially linked to “radical Islam,” or that Islamophobia is a useful tool in fighting terrorism, it’s not clear why Rubio sees the two issues as connected. The sympathetic reading doesn’t look much better here.

Even if Rubio doesn’t really believe all this, I find it very disturbing (though, admittedly, not all that surprising), that he thinks this is the best way to connect with Republican primary voters.  Some real leadership might be admitting that even Obama can actually be right and we should be more tolerant of Muslims in America, the vast majority of whom are good people.  Instead, like Trump, he is pandering to the absolute worst of the right.  And should he become president, that really scares me.

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