Saturday, November 19, 2016

An Unfortunate Night at the Theater

By now, you have likely seen or read a report of VP-elect Mike Pence's trip to see Hamilton last evening. There were two moments that deserve comment.

The first is that Pence was booed by some noticeable portion of the crowd in attendance when he arrived. I guess when people pay exorbitant prices for theater tickets, they feel entitled to behave this way.  I don't have more attention than three lines of blogging to offer them.The second is that the cast of the show took time after the production for this impromptu monologue. Both moments are included here:

True confession. My wife picked up the soundtrack for the musical after she saw the show some months ago. (The rest of us are waiting for the ticket prices to come down.) We love the story. We love the music. I suppose we are smart enough to have understood the relevance of the story and music for the world we live in today.

Guess what. Mike Pence is, too. Is there some other reason the cast thinks he showed up last evening? Is there some reason why the cast members of Hamilton think so little of their own talents and artistry, their ability to convey this relevance on the stage, that they have to deliver a sanctimonious monologue at the end? Theater works better when we let the work speak for itself.

If the cast wanted to follow up with the VP-elect, they could do it privately in a way that encourages him to take a second step, not publicly in a way that dissolves the goodwill that should follow from his first step. And if anyone wants to protest and resist the incoming administration, the best advice comes from my MIT classmate, Luigi Zingales, in yesterday's New York Times op-ed, The Right Way to Resist Trump.

Addendum: A similar argument, made with more credibility, from Steven Van Zandt.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What Makes a Swing State Swing?

An article by my friend and former Bush Administration colleague Chuck Blahous provides a defense of the electoral college based on the claim that it focuses the presidential candidates on swing states. Here's the essence of the argument:

In an electoral college system, however, the campaigns are induced to focus less on the sheer size of a state and more on its political moderation.  The so-called swing or battleground states are those states with roughly equal numbers of voters potentially willing to back different candidates, such that an extra successful effort by one candidate could tip the balance.  This is not a theoretical concept, but rather an observable phenomenon. For example, this year the candidates repeatedly visited swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio and New Hampshire.  Tiny New Hampshire, with its mere four electoral votes, received more candidate attention than California with its 55.  Why?  It is because New Hampshire was open to being persuaded by either candidate, whereas California was not.

As I noted to Chuck in some Facebook comments, I don't think this is true.  A state can be a "swing state" because it contains a lot of voters who are political moderates and thus swing voters. But a state can also be a "swing state" because it contains a roughly equal number of Democratic voters and Republican voters, who are no more persuadable than their counterparts in other states that have less equal numbers. In the latter case, the "political moderation" benefits of the electoral college don't materialize. From my experience, the Democrats in New Hampshire (where I work) are just as partisan and no more open to persuasion to vote for a Republican than the Democrats in Vermont (where I live). Chuck is correct that candidates respond to incentives and deluge the New Hampshire media market with advertising, but these advertisements may simply be efforts to turn out their base of partisans in larger numbers than their opponent's base of partisans.

To add some further support to my hypothesis, I would note that the political advertising done in New Hampshire during the general election was not particularly targeted to swing voters. All the negativity seemed like an effort to drive turnout by the candidate's base or to depress turnout by the opponent's base. I cannot recall an advertisement that tried to appeal to moderates who might be undecided (e.g. here's a problem we need to solve in a way that respects the valid points on both sides of the political spectrum.)

Much of Chuck's article is about what would happen in the counterfactual case where the national popular vote determined the winner. He is right that candidates would likely gravitate to their strongholds to try to drive turnout by their base. (President Bush remarked, when queried about his failure to capture the popular vote majority in 2000, that if that was the objective, he would have campaigned in Texas and "run up the score.") My simple model of what candidates are doing, now and in the counterfactual, is to devote their resources where the "price per vote" is the lowest. The price they pay is with their own time and with advertising. Population density matters for economizing on their time, but I presume that media buys are more expensive when they reach more people, so that it is not clear that media dollars would flow to the largest markets. Further, the media buys presumably depend on total population, not "total population likely to be sympathetic to your message." In this case, more politically diverse areas -- swing states -- would be further disadvantaged.

Addendum: How sad, I have finally repeated a post title without realizing it. Fortunately, the message is consistent.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Five Suggestions for the President-Elect

By now, if you are reading this blog, you know that Donald Trump is the President-Elect. This is not an "I told you so" post, for two reasons. First, of all the subjects for a blog, the horse race aspect of politics is among the least interesting to me, and there were plenty of more qualified experts to get things wildly wrong. Second, I haven't been blogging much over the last few years. Unlike when I started blogging 12 years ago, the blogosphere is now quite crowded. Just as importantly, around the start of 2015, in response to some life events and in anticipation of how unpleasant I thought this campaign would be, I just decided to focus on some other things and give myself the gift of not paying much attention in real time.

It didn't get nearly as unpleasant as I thought it would. We should actually consider ourselves a bit lucky.

For the record, I am a Republican, but I did not vote for Trump. I voted for John Kasich in the Vermont primary and Gary Johnson in yesterday's election. I simply refuse to vote for any candidate who gives clear signals that he or she will abuse power. For different but self-evident reasons, that disqualifies both Trump and Clinton. I would have voted the same way if I lived across the river in New Hampshire, where my vote might actually have mattered.

But I was also not part of this #NeverTrump movement among my fellow Republicans. Now that Trump is President-Elect, he needs support to govern from everybody. That includes me. I'll try to offer my best ideas and most thoughtful reflections from the blog, with greater frequency than during the long campaign. I will start with five ideas.

First, Trump should announce that he expects the Senate to vote on Merrick Garland's nomination before the session ends. He should not tell them his preference for whether Garland is confirmed or not. He should further scold the Republicans for not having acted on it sooner. Draining the swamp requires him to shine a light on political opportunism, regardless of which party exhibits the bad behavior. He owes no particular courtesy to Republicans who shied away from endorsing him, and so he should not spare them the criticism they deserve.

Second, he should acknowledge that our federal budget is on an unsustainable path. He should be clear with the new Congress that he expects a compromise like Simpson-Bowles, or something better, to be on his desk by Day 100. The problem is the baseline. Simpson-Bowles addresses that problem. Resetting the baseline so that it is sustainable does not absolve the Congress of its other fiscal duties, to modify the baseline annually to better reflect priorities as they evolve. This is an issue where we need to act sooner rather than later, and Presidential involvement is absolutely essential. Plus, his involvement gives Congress cover to do something politically unpopular but fiscally prudent. They might actually appreciate it. I make this suggestion in full recognition of the next one.

Third, he needs to recognize that his election coincides with a peak of the labor market, and things are only going to get more challenging from here. He needs to be thinking of rebuilding our decrepit infrastructure as a jobs program for the labor market dislocation that is sure to come. I have been preaching this for nearly 9 years now, most recently here, so I won't repeat all the details. Just make the process of setting priorities as transparent as possible.

Fourth, he should announce that he plans to have national or international summits on key policy issues for each of his first twelve months, led by his newly appointed cabinet officials and senior aides. Bringing the country together, and bringing it together with our fellow nations, requires a distinct forum for putting ideas into discussion. There is no shortage of topics -- race relations, immigration, international trade, education, surveillance, cooperation in the Americas, what's left of NATO, energy security, environmental degradation, homeland security, ... you name it. He should task his Vice President with organizing all of them, with the expectation that the lessons learned from each will inform his policy agenda over the coming years. (Yes, I am envisioning him in his role on The Apprentice as I write this.)

Fifth, he should get up to speed, like yesterday, on potential terrorist threats. The upheaval of this election is just what ISIS ordered. He needs to surround himself with a diversity of experts and listen to what they have to say.

More ideas and reflections to come.

Addendum:  A colleague points me to this recent book, The Politics of Resentment, claiming "Kathy Cramer got it right all along."

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Dark Clouds and Bathroom Bills

David Gergen, CNN senior political analyst and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, gave a commencement speech at Elon University this weekend. You can read about it and follow a link to watch it here. As a North Carolina native, he's reacting to what he perceives as the undoing of progress that his home state has made, particularly with respect to H.B. 2, the Bathroom Bill.

The whole speech is worth your attention, but I would like to focus on a few excerpts. The first one is this:

Then suddenly, without warning, dark clouds arrived. The moderation that characterized our state – the belief among Republicans and Democrats that we are all in this together – gave way to a new, angrier, extremist politics.

I think the first statement in this excerpt is almost always false. Dark clouds take a long time to arrive. The reasons that their arrival appears so suddenly to Gergen are that he's observing from afar, he is happy with the changes that he describes as progress, and the ruling coalition (of self-styled moderates) that is driving the changes appears to be stable. The second statement is closer to true -- the new politics are definitely angrier. Whether they are extreme often depends on where you are sitting.

Consider as well this excerpt from Gergen's admonition to the graduates to engage in public policy:

You will find that many will disagree with you, just as many here will have disagreed with me. But don't let your disagreements make them your enemies. Find common ground, work hard to respect the views of others.

I confess I wasn't following the evolution of transgender rights in North Carolina before this spring. But I suspect that many of the proponents of H.B. 2 would claim that this is exactly what did not happen in Charlotte when it passed Ordinance 7056. Judge for yourself about the public reaction to the people who disagreed with this ordinance or who support H.B. 2. Are the opponents of H.B. 2 not treating them like enemies? Are they working hard to respect the views of others? Empathy is very hard to come by here, on both sides of the issue.

Gergen's admonition is the right advice to us all. But I don't think it is clear from his statement that we can only heed his admonition if we work this out in the legislature -- not the executive branch (through, for example, the 2014 guidance from the Department of Education reinterpret Title IX to cover an issue like transgender rights) or the judicial branch, where the courts will now be called on to resolve this. 

For legislation, I think a good historical example is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and, in particular, Title III on Public Accommodations. The public remedy here is to have single-occupancy bathrooms, as they don't require an occupant to pick a gender in order to know which one to use. They would look like family restrooms you see in public facilities. I would suggest three different remedies. First, as with the ADA, new construction of public facilities should be required to have a requisite number of single-occupancy bathrooms. Second, existing facilities that are sufficiently large and sufficiently public (e.g. a large office building with multiple floors that each have multiple-occupancy, single-sex restrooms on each floor) is to convert some existing facilities to non-gender-specific restrooms. Third, existing facilities that are not large or not very public (e.g. a small inn) should have a much longer time to convert their facilities or more latitude in the ways that they comply.

But passing something like the Americans with Disabilities Act -- one of the last, solid, bipartisan pieces of legislation -- requires a lot of work, including years of education and deliberation to find ways to balance competing concerns. I hope we still have that in us as a democracy.

Monday, April 18, 2016

I Guess I Did See This One Coming

About two years ago, I noted that the Los Angeles Superior Court judge in the Vergara v. California case had overreached when he declared that tenure and other job protections for teachers in primary and secondary public schools are unconstitutional. The plaintiffs' logic was that since poor and minority students were more likely to be saddled with ineffective teachers protected by these provisions, there must be a violation of their civil rights. I predicted that this ruling would be overturned on appeal, and last week, that's just what happened.

Echoing the theme of my earlier post, the Appeals Court ruled:

The court’s job is merely to determine whether the statutes are constitutional, not if they are ‘a good idea,’ ... The evidence did not show that the challenged statutes inevitably cause this impact.

Education is like many public policy issues today -- we spend too much, get too little, and either don't yet know how to improve on those outcomes or don't have the leadership skills to implement what we do know.