New Hampshire thoughts

Given Hillary's narrow win last night over Obama, the scenario that took place between Iowa and NH is about the best possible thing that could have happened to her.  The media does not judge campaign performance on any absolute level, but simply relative to expectations.  Given the media's pre-existing dislike for Hillary and a series of polls that showed a clear movement toward and clear lead for Obama, the political media was all set to write Hillary off.  Thus, her rather small victory, which might have even been considered disappointing considering her recent substantial lead in NH polls just a few weeks ago, is rather a dramatic, come-from-behind victory that completely shattered expectations.  Thus, although Hillary only won by a narrow margin (and given the way the Democrats allocate delegates probably only received a handful more than Obama), this is actually a huge victory for her.  Of course, if our political media behaved rationally this would be covered as an important, but narrow victory that is just a small part of the overall battle.  The political scientist (and teacher) in me is very excited that the campaign is really on, and not destined to be the boring cakewalk Kerry ended up having in 2004.  Heck, today was just the first day of classes and I would hate not to have the Democratic nomination wrapped up before we even got to discuss it during the semester.  Here's to a brokered convention!

The (un)Fair tax

One of the interesting things about Huckabee's campaign is that the press has largely ignored the fact that he has an absolutely ludicrous tax plan– the Fair Tax.  Berkely economics (and blogger) Brad Delong, nicely deconstructs this absurd plan for Salon:

Enter the FairTax. It promises to be a game changer. It would abolish
the IRS and all current federal taxes, including Medicare, Social
Security, and personal and corporate income taxes, and replace them
with a national, across-the-board, 23 percent point-of-purchase retail
sales tax. It would also give each household a multi-thousand-dollar
“prebate” every year on their expected annual taxes and exempt people
living below the poverty line from taxes altogether…

From another perspective, however, you have to scorn Huckabee. He is
adding yet more layers of confusion to America's conversation about
taxes. Huckabee says that the FairTax would mean a 23 percent sales tax
rate on all items. First of all, the real tax rate proposed is 30
percent. The FairTax would add 30 cents to every dollar spent, but
since 30 cents is 23 percent of $1.30, the FairTaxers call the rate 23
percent.

Second, and more important, both conservative and liberal economists
believe the real rate would end up even higher. Estimates of the actual
rate of taxation required for the FairTax to be “revenue neutral”
(meaning for it to bring in exactly the same amount of revenue that the
federal government collects under the current system) start at 30 percent and keep climbing. William Gale of the liberal Brookings Institution think tank says it's a de facto 44 percent
sales tax. Calculations go still higher once you add in all the
necessary and politically inevitable exemptions on big-ticket items —
like a new home or hospital care. Congress' Joint Committee on
Taxation, which draws members from both parties and both houses, says
the real rate would be 57 percent. (And this leaves aside the enormous
federal outlay required by the “prebates,” which even FairTax advocates
say would cost the government $485 billion per year.)

Here's the kicker:

Also, Huckabee calls his proposal a “fair” tax. But it's a mammoth tax cut for the crowd making more than $200,000 a year and a substantial tax increase
for those making between $30,000 and $200,000 a year. Does this make
economic sense? It is hard to see how: What makes the $200,000-plus
crowd especially deserving of a tax cut?…

Does the FairTax make political sense? It is hard to see how — at
least not if people know what he is really proposing. After all, a lot
more people make between $30,000 and $200,000 a year than make more
than $200,000. Politicians prefer, other things being equal, to take
positions that are advantageous to more people rather than those that
are advantageous to fewer.

So, how can Huckabee get away with this?

I believe the reason is that he is counting on people not knowing
what he is really promising. I believe he is counting on the nigh total
fecklessness of America's press corps — a fecklessness that I at least
now see as deployed with a sharp partisan edge. As economist John Irons
laments on his blog, ArgMax.com: “I'm not sure how he is getting away
with adopting the FairTax as part of his platform. Wouldn't Democrats
be skewered in the media if they proposed a tax increase on people
making between $30,000 and $200,000?” Yes.

But Huckabee is a Republican. And it is different if you are a
Republican. The New York Times in its big Huckabee profile by Zev
Chafets said:

Huckabee's answer to his opponents on the fiscal
right has been his Fair Tax proposal … Governor Huckabee promises
that this plan would be “like waving a magic wand, releasing us from
pain and unfairness.” Some reputable economists think the scheme is
practicable. Many others regard it as fanciful … In any case, the
Fair Tax proposal is based on extremely complex projections.

And that's all the crack journalism of the New York Times has to say. If you are seeking information in a daily newspaper, look elsewhere — I recommend the Financial Times.

Delong goes on to further explain just how politically infeasible and policy-wise unsound the plan is, should you be curious.  For now, just remember that the “Fair Tax” would most likely mean increasing your taxes so the rich could pay less.  As for my readers in the $200,000+ tax bracket– “Hello, Douglas.”

Why campaign coverage is so bad

In short, because campaign reporters are little better than nervous new college freshman, even after years on the job.  God forbid one of them should have an opinion out of line with their peers.  Christopher Hayes offers a brief dissection of the problem:

WHY CAMPAIGN COVERAGE SO OFTEN SUCKS

MANCHESTER, NH — Before I post about dynamics of the race as it's
playing out here, a quick thought about the psychology of the political
press . Reporting at event like this is exciting and invigorating, but
it's also terrifying. I've done it now a number of times at conventions
and such, and in the past I was pretty much alone the entire time. I
didn't know any other reporters, so I kept to myself and tried to
navigate the tangle of schedules and parking lots and hotels and event
venues. It's daunting and the whole time you think: “Am I missing
something? What's going? Oh man, I should go interview that guy in the
parka with the fifteen buttons on his hat.” You fear getting lost, or
missing some important piece of news, or making an ass out of yourself
when you have to muster up that little burst of confidence it takes to
walk up to a stranger and start asking them questions.

Of course, it's amazing work. But I realized for the first time
yesterday, that this essential terror isn't just a byproduct of
inexperience. It never goes away .
Veteran reporters are just as panicked about getting lost or missing
something, just as confused about who to talk to. This why reporters
move in packs. It's like the first week of freshman orientation, when
you hopped around to parties in groups of three dozen, because no one
wanted to miss something or knew where anything was.

Hayes is also kind enough to offer actual common-sense solutions to the structural problems that create this problem.  My favorite, give stories to reporters who actually know what they are talking about:

Assign campaign coverage to beat reporters. When Obama released his tax plan. the article
that ran in the TImes about the plan was authored by the Obama beat
reporter Jeff Zeleny. Zeleny?s a perfectly good political reporter, and
he?s been following Obama since ?03, when he was writing for the Trib,
but there?s no earthly reason to think he?s well-equipped to report on
a tax plan. Meanwhile, the Times happens to have on staff the
Pulizer-Prize-winning David Cay Johnston,
who is unquestionably the single best tax reporter in the country. Why
wouldn?t you assign him to write the piece about Obama?s tax plan? The
same goes for every substantive area of policy.

I can't help but wonder how much better our political discourse might be if we actually had better political reporting.

Obama vs. McCain?

Well, as it turns out my current prediction of Obama vs. McCain is not the least bit original.  A nifty feature that Slate.com has been running tracks the fortunes of the candidates on political futures markets.  You can bet real money and get a real payoff based on picking the winning nominee for each party.  It has been amazing to see the changes in these markets since Iowa.  Hillary has gone from a huge lead over Obama to a significant deficit in just since Iowa.  On the Republican side, McCain has had an amazing political resurrection to become the favorite after practically dropping off the charts this summer (Romney is in a well-deserved free fall).  These markets, apparently, have quite a history of successful prediction (they have that whole Wisdom of Crowds thing going for them).  Anyway, it is quite interesting to see the graphical displays of how these markets chart the fortunes of the candidates– well worth a look.   

Obama in ’08?

It really seems stupid to suggest that based on a single caucus, no matter how much money and energy spent there, that Obama will be the Democratic nominee.  Yet, I'm increasingly thinking that is the case.  For as long as people have been asking me about the Democratic race, my answer has been essentially that Hillary has the best chance of any particular candidate, but that whatever person emerges as a clear challenger to Hillary will be the most likely winner.  I think that it is pretty safe to say now that Obama is that clear challenger.  I've read in a number of places lately, from both ordinary voters and political elites, saying that Hillary is “nobody's second choice.”  Even in her best national polls, Hillary does not top 50%.  I really think very few of that majority of Democrats who do not prefer Hillary already can be persuaded to her cause.  I would not be in the least bit surprised to see Hillary get the nomination, but if I were a betting man, I would put my money on Obama right now.

Where Steve goes out on a limb with a prediction

I hate being asked to make predictions because, sadly, I'm no better at them than most people whose job does not involve following politics for a living.  Nonetheless, surfing the blogosphere tonight, I said to myself (a thought that's been building), you know, I just think McCain may be the Republican nominee.  Sure, I'm probably wrong, but in case I'm right, I've got evidence that I actually predicted it before any votes were cast.  Why McCain?  Basically, because he's the only Republican who is not deeply flawed and at some point even some of those Republicans who hate him because he has his own mind 10-15% of the time will get over the fact and vote for him. 

Why the Iowa Caucus is un-democratic and un-American

Well, I'm back and hopefully refreshed from a nice Christmas vacation and ready to start blogging again.  And alas, the Iowa Caucus is right on top of us.  I've written before about just how amazingly stupid it is that this one unrepresentative state with a crazy process has so much influence (and this year, seemingly more influence than ever), but Slate has a double-bill today from Christopher Hitchens and Jeff Greenfield that totally slams the Caucus.  First Greenfield:

Iowa's vaunted precinct caucuses?especially those of the Democratic
Party?violate some of the most elemental values of a vibrant and open
political process. As far as a mechanism for selecting a president is
concerned, you might end up with Iowa's model if you set out to design
a system that discouraged participation and violated basic democratic
values.

By nature, a caucus suppresses turnout. If you can't show up at 7 p.m.,
you don't participate; there's no absentee ballot and no early voting
because the fiction is that at a caucus, you're supposed to deliberate.
So, if you work the nightshift?if you're a cop, a firefighter, an
emergency room nurse, a waitress?and you can't change your hours,
you're shut out. Beyond that, the Democratic Party's caucus method
requires not 10 to 15 minutes at a polling place, but two or three
hours in a school lunchroom or library. This is why turnout?measured by
eligible voters?ran under 6 percent in 2000 (the last time both parties
held contests)…

 When you show up at a Democratic caucus, you and your fellow
participants divide up into different corners of a room, based on who
you are for. You don't submit a secret ballot; you stand up to be
publicly counted. What if you're in a union and want to pick someone
your union hasn't endorsed, and your shop steward is there, watching
you from across the room? Or the person who holds your mortgage? Or
your spouse? Tough. “It is free, it is open, and you are there of your
own volition,” says Carrie Giddins, the Iowa Democratic Party's
director of communications. But of course, you are also in a polling
place on election day of your own volition?and most free societies
think that it's a good idea to let voters keep their choices to
themselves.

Then there's the missing principle of “one person,
one vote.” …

What this means, in effect, is that beyond a certain point, it doesn't
matter if your candidate can turn out 200 or 10,000 participants in a
particular precinct, because that precinct has only so much
delegate-purchasing power. It matters not just how many participants a
candidate can turn out, but whether he can turn them out all over the
place. A candidate who won a lot of the precincts narrowly would wind
up winning a bigger portion of the delegates than a rival who piled up
votes in one corner of Iowa?even if that corner yielded a higher
overall number of supporters. It's all the disproportional
representation of the Electoral College, in miniature. And that was the
price for forming the Union, not a guide for running elections…

Hitchens' column excels at taking the media to task for the extraordinarly excessive coverage.  The simple fact is the riciculous beast that is the Iowa caucus is entirely a creation of the media.  If they reported it for what it is– a poorly attended, un-democratic, quasi-election in a small, unrepresetantive state, the candidates would not move their families to Iowa:

It's also that campaign aides are showing up at Iowan homes “with DVD's
that [explain]  how the caucuses work.” Nobody needs a DVD to
understand one-person-one-vote, a level playing field, and a secret
ballot. The DVD and the other gifts and goodies (Sen. Barack Obama is
promising free baby-sitting on Thursday) are required precisely because
none of those conditions applies in Iowa. In a genuine democratic
process, these Tammany tactics would long ago have been declared
illegal. But this is not a democratic process, and besides, as my old
friend Michael Kinsley used to say about Washington, the scandal is
never about what's illegal. It's about what's legal….

Now, something as absurd and counterdemocratic as this can be so
only if the media say it is so, and every four years for as long as I
can remember, the profession has been promising to swear off the bottle
and stop treating the Iowa caucuses as if they were a primary, let
alone an election. Credit Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post for being the first writer this year to try to hold his fellow journalists to that pledge:

Without
that massive media boost, prevailing in Iowa would be seen for what it
is: an important first victory that amounts to scoring a run in the top
of the first inning…

It's only when you read an honest reporter like Dan Balz that you
appreciate the depth and extent of the fraud that is being practiced on
us all. “In a primary,” as he put it,
“voters quietly fill out their ballots and leave. In the caucuses, they
are required to come and stay for several hours, and there are no
secret ballots. In the presence of friends, neighbors and occasionally
strangers, Iowa Democrats vote with their feet, by raising their hands
and moving to different parts of the room to signify their support for
one candidate or another. ? [F]or Democrats, it is not a one-person,
one-vote system. ? Inducements are allowed; bribes are not.” One has to
love that last sentence.

And the last word to Greenfield:

The process might be a good way for Iowa to pick its party convention
delegates, though I frankly doubt even that. It is an absolutely
terrible way in which to select candidates for the presidency, and it
makes the United States look and feel like a banana republic both at
home and overseas.

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