Monday, October 16, 2017

Today's Useful Data: Economic Insecurity and Populism

Four European scholars have released an important study of populist politics in Western democracies. Their conclusion: yep, economic insecurity is central  to, as they put it, both the demand for, and supply of, populism in western countries in recent years. Here are the key bits from a summary of their work that was published on VoxEU:
We argue that economic reasons are the most important causes of the current wave of populism.
In western countries in the last decade a global crisis that has affected both markets and sovereign states simultaneously, leaving many people without a safety net. This had not been the case in the past: the crises of the 1970s were mainly market crises, while in the 1990s there were government crises while markets were thriving. Over the past ten years, neither markets nor governments have had the inability to guarantee economic security. This has shaken the confidence in traditional political parties and institutions. As a result, there has been an increase in fear, aggravated by other threats such as mass migration.
The rare combination of markets’ and governments’ inability to guarantee economic security has shaken the confidence in traditional political parties and institutions, leading to an increase in fear that has been aggravated by other threats such as mass migration. In a recent paper, we show how this global dual crisis affects the demand and supply of populism systematically, and argue that a key for understanding both demand and supply of populism is the effect of economic insecurity on voter turnout.
But what about cultural factors? Don't these populist voters just hate immigrants and people of color and that's all there is to it? Here's what the authors have to say about cultural factors:
Voting, and voting for a populist party, are affected also by two cultural variables:
·   Trust in political parties: People with greater confidence in political parties are more likely to participate in elections, and to vote for a non-populist party. We measured trust on a scale between 0 and 10. A drop of 5 points on this scale would increases the probability of voting for a populist party by 7.7% of the sample mean. Trust in political parties affects participation: a decline in trust of 5 percentage points lowers the chance of participation in elections by 8.8 percentage points, almost 11% of the unconditional mean electoral turnout.

·   Adverse attitudes towards immigrants: Those with more adverse attitudes towards immigrants are less likely to participate in elections, and more likely to vote for a populist party if they participated. These variables are themselves driven by economic insecurity. Using (pseudo) panel data, we can show that people who experienced an increase in economic insecurity lose faith in political parties and develop more adverse attitudes towards immigrants (Figure 1). Hence economic insecurity drives turnout and voting decisions, both directly and indirectly, because it leads people to change their beliefs and attitudes. 
So, there is a cultural channel causing people to vote, and vote for populism but not a cultural cause. The cause is still economic insecurity. Trust and attitudes towards immigrants are proximate causes of the populist vote, not deep drivers. 
Important work. I commend it to you.  

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Science Fiction Saturday: Peter Watts

Peter Watts is a Canadian science fiction writer, trained in marine biology, who writes some of the wildest--and best--science fiction currently out there. His most recent novel, Echopraxia, is quite a ride: 
It's the eve of the twenty-second century: a world where the dearly departed send postcards back from Heaven and evangelicals make scientific breakthroughs by speaking in tongues; where genetically engineered vampires solve problems intractable to baseline humans and soldiers come with zombie switches that shut off self-awareness during combat. And it's all under surveillance by an alien presence that refuses to show itself.
Daniel Bruks is a living fossil: a field biologist in a world where biology has turned computational, a cat's-paw used by terrorists to kill thousands. Taking refuge in the Oregon desert, he's turned his back on a humanity that shatters into strange new subspecies with every heartbeat. But he awakens one night to find himself at the center of a storm that will turn all of history inside-out.
Now he's trapped on a ship bound for the center of the solar system. To his left is a grief-stricken soldier, obsessed by whispered messages from a dead son. To his right is a pilot who hasn't yet found the man she's sworn to kill on sight. A vampire and its entourage of zombie bodyguards lurk in the shadows behind. And dead ahead, a handful of rapture-stricken monks takes them all to a meeting with something they will only call "The Angels of the Asteroids."
Their pilgrimage brings Dan Bruks, the fossil man, face-to-face with the biggest evolutionary breakpoint since the origin of thought itself.
If this book doesn't blow your mind, you're just not paying attention! All his other books are excellent and almost equally mind-blowing. In addition, you can get free pdfs of a lot of his back catalog, completely approved by the author. And he has a very funky blog, with a very funky name, No Moods, Ads or Cutesy Fucking Icons, which I recommend. Time you made this gentleman's acquaintance!

Today's Useful Data: Democrats Have the Big Mo!

Yep, things are looking up for the Democrats in terms of taking back the House in 2018. Not a done deal of course but the direction of change is good. David Wasserman of Cook Political Report explains their latest ratings of House races (including IA-01, pictured above):
President Trump and GOP control of Congress have sparked a 2018 Democratic candidate bonanza. Don't call it "recruitment:" for the most part, these aspirants decided to take the plunge on their own. Many are political newcomers; others have waited years for the right moment to run. And in light of national polling, it was only a matter of time before more GOP-held House seats joined the ranks of the vulnerable…..
Based on recent developments in races and conversations with candidates and operatives on both sides of the aisle, many races have the potential to become more competitive. This week, we're changing our ratings in 12 districts:

Friday, October 13, 2017

Obscure Music Friday: Pearls Before Swine

Pearls Before Swine was a psychedelic folk group from the late sixties who released some truly spectacular work. Their first two albums, One Nation Underground and Balaclava are particularly good but the fourth album, The Use of  Ashes, is very fine as well (it includes the cut "Rocket Man" which is absolutely gorgeous and was the inspiration for Elton John's hit song). 

The group was led by Tom Rapp, who was the driving force behind the ethereal music and beautiful lyrics. He has been hailed by some as an unappreciated genius and that may not be far off the mark. Certainly the music he made was very special indeed. Special, but not lucrative. He gave up music, went to law school and became a civil rights attorney (this profile gives the full story). But he was discovered and re-discovered by various bands and he did eventually release another album in 1999, A Journal of the Plague Year, which is actually quite good. 

Here are the lyrics to the song this post links to, Drop Out!, which was on the first album. Lovely song and if these lyrics don't bring out the inner hippie in you, nothing will!

Drop out with me, just live your life behind your eyes
Your own skies, your own tomorrows
Don't you worry now, don't you worry
Whole world's in too big a hurry

Just be yourself, no one can step inside your mind
From behind, if you just walk and
Don't you worry, girl, don't you worry
Whole world's in too big a hurry

They made the rules and they laid it on us all
Don't you fall 'cause then they'll own you
Don't you worry, girl, don't you worry
Whole world's in too big a hurry

They're using you to kill all the echoes still around
From the sound of calendars crumbling
Don't you worry, girl, don't you worry
Whole world's in too big a hurry

They made the bomb, would they drop it on us all?
Great and small, but must we follow?
Don't you worry, girl, don't you worry
Whole world's in too big a hurry

Drop out with me, just live your life behind your eye
Your own skies, your own tomorrows
Don't you worry girl, don't you worry
Whole world's in too big a hurry

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Today's Useful Data: We ❤ Immigrants

Despite all the publicity anti-immigrant rhetoric and politicians get, it's pretty amazing how positive the trend lines are on what actually-existing Americans think about immigrants. In a recent Pew study, mostly devoted to showing how partisan views of various issues have diverged in recent years, it's worth noting that now almost two in three Americans think immigrants "strengthen the US with their hard work and talents" (highest ever! more than double the number back in 1994!) compared to little more than one in four who think immigrants "burden the country by taking jobs, housing and health care". And sure there is indeed a big divide between the parties on this issue but in recent years that's because both Republican and Democratic partisans have become liberal in their views, but Democrats are getting more liberal faster. This does not sound like a country about to cave in to a wave of anti-immigrant hysteria.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Today's Useful Data: Rustbelt Voters Bail Out on Trump

As Trump's approval ratings continue to fall everywhere, his tenuous hold on the key Rustbelt states that handed him the Presidency is slipping away. Here's the key paragraph from a new Morning Consult analysis of data from 472,000 (!) interviews conducted since Trump's inauguration:
A majority of voters in 25 states and the District of Columbia said they disapproved of the president’s job performance in September, including those residing in Upper Midwest states with large Electoral College hauls that were critical to Trump’s victory over 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton — and some of which are home to some of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats of the 2018 election cycle. Fifty-five percent of respondents in Michigan said they disapproved of Trump, as did 53 percent in Wisconsin and Iowa and 51 percent in Pennsylvania.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Today's Useful Data: Rural Voters Conclude Maybe Trump's Not So Great After All

Eh tu, rural voters? Seems like they're getting ornery out in the sticks with how Trump's handling pretty much everything and his approval ratings are sinking like a stone. Perhaps the rural redoubt for Trump isn't quite as secure as he thought and most pundits assume. Check out the trendlines above from the Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll and read this article on the poll's findings.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Science Fiction Saturday: Ace Double Novels

What were the Ace science fiction double novels? Andrew Liptak explains:
From the start, Ace began an innovative approach to their novels by printing them TĂȘte-bĂȘche style. Each volume contained two short novels, with a book on each side, flipped 180 degrees from the other. A reader would pick up one book, read through it, and flip the book to read the other…..
In October 1953, Ace introduced its first science-fiction novel, pairing up two novels from A.E. van Vogt: The World of Null-A and The Universe Maker. Every other month, a new book would appear on the book rack. Van Vogt’s book was followed in December 1953 by Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Conqueror and Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon. In between, the company published a single novel. Due to their popularity, Ace bumped the production schedule up to a science-fiction double a month in 1958. 
At the price of $0.35 a book (the price would eventually increase to $0.95 per volume in the 21 years that the doubles would be published), [Donald] Wollheim [editor of Ace Books] was able to introduce an incredible range of talent. In the time in which the double novels were published, Ace would publish authors such as Brian Aldiss, Poul Anderson, Isaac AsimovPhilip K. Dick, Gordon R. Dickson, James E. Gunn, Andre Norton, Margaret St. Clair, Robert Silverberg, Jack Vance and hundreds of other authors. Often, a well-known author would be paired up with a newcomer, such as Philip K. Dick, with his first novel The Solar Lottery, who was paired up with Leigh Brackett and her novel The Big Jump
So these books were all over the place, beckoning to the young science fiction addict. In drug store paperback racks, everywhere. And at book sales, where I discovered a stash of them at my local elementary school book sale. What a happy day that was! One of the ones I grabbed is the double novel pictured above. I must have had at least 8 or 10 other ones. Anyway, these double novels were a very important part of the American science fiction landscape in the fifties and sixties and can still provide much retro delight if one chooses carefully. Plus they're just a lot of fun to look at (quite collectible too, I understand).

Some reviews of Ace double novels can be found here and here. Wikipedia also has a complete chronological list of all titles in the series. So fire up that Wayback machine and enjoy.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Obscure Music Friday: Jackie Wilson

Jackie Wilson--"Mr. Excitement"--was a truly amazing singer. What pipes! Yet far too few people know about this incredible, pioneering talent. I'm not saying throw away your Otis Redding and Sam Cooke CDs, but give this dude a listen on the classic song, "Your Love Keeps Lifting Me (Higher and Higher)". 

Thursday, October 5, 2017

California Is the Future

Will the future look more like Trumpian populism and dysfunction or more like what we're seeing in California today? My co-author, Peter Leyden, and I contend in our new piece on Medium that California does indeed foreshadow the future of the country as a whole. We argue:
America is stuck between two historical eras. That’s the best way to understand the strange, unprecedented politics of Trump, the political polarization and paralysis of government, the deep dissatisfaction of public opinion, the lack of trust in all institutions — all of it.
The post-Industrial era that blossomed in the second half of the 20th century is over. That world of secure manufacturing jobs, generally homogenous societies and respected traditional institutions is done. And while it’s over from a dispassionate historical perspective, it’s markedly not done in the minds of many. This is half the problem: Too many people are hanging onto a worldview and way of life that is fast slipping away. The other half of the problem is that almost no one knows what will replace it.
To that we say:
California is the future. That’s the best way to understand the way forward for America, and ultimately the world. California is roughly 15 years ahead of the rest of America in confronting the very different realities of the 21st century.A world of transformative new technologies with capabilities that we are only just beginning to fully comprehend and harness. A polyglot world of diverse mixes of races and ethnicities that are both super-creative and periodically combustible. A world that increasingly is shaped by climate change and the immense challenges it poses for all of us.
California not only has faced up to the 21st-century challenges, but it’s begun to seriously adapt to them. Californians saw waves of new technologies early, then got a jump on leveraging and accommodating them, and occasionally constraining them. They began integrating a massive influx of Latino and Asian immigrants, coping with diversity in schools and work, and coming to terms with whites being the minority. Californians took a beating in climate-related catastrophes like the recent drought, and have aggressively moved forward with some of the most ambitious clean energy and sustainability measures in the world.
California is the future of American politics as well. The once Red and now deep Blue state has largely figured out a new political way forward for itself and by extension for America — as well as for other democracies — that’s up to the new realities and immense challenges of the 21st century. This is the most important insight for this historical juncture, this time of despair. It’s also the most difficult point for Americans on the east coast and the heartland to accept. But there is a compelling case to be made, based on data and an understanding of history, that what’s happening right now in California is going to come to the rest of America much sooner than almost anyone thinks.
I urge you to read the entire article. We will follow up this introductory piece with five articles detailing key parts of our argument. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Don't Knock the Upper Middle Class! Grow It Instead.

It's become a bit fashionable to knock the upper middle class lately. Supposedly, they're "hoarding opportunities", thereby keeping less affluent people down. Bloomberg's excellent economics columnist, Noah Smith, has some stern words for those who point the finger of blame at the upper middle class. 
The real problem isn’t that people are hoarding their spots in the upper-middle class; it’s that there aren’t enough spots to begin with. Instead of focusing on who gets into Harvard, the U.S. should make it cheaper and easier for poor and working-class kids to go to the big public universities that are the real drivers of upward mobility. Instead of moving heaven and earth to ensure that the competition for plum jobs is fairer, the U.S. should focus on increasing the number of plum jobs.
The American Dream may be out of reach for many, but not because it’s being hoarded. The dream doesn’t come in a fixed lump to be parceled out among winners and losers. The goal should be to rebuild the middle class by moving more people into the ranks of the well-off, not to knock down the few who have managed to get there early.
I completely agree with this. Indeed, I'd go farther and argue that the growth of the upper middle class should be celebrated as an indicator of the high living standards that advanced market economies are capable of delivering.

What do we mean by an upper middle class standard of living? To begin with, since families and households vary considerably by size, the same income can mean very different living standards when that income supports a single person or an entire family of four or five. Thus, to clarify this question, it is useful to look at a standard household size and adjust households’ income to fit that standard size. Using a three person household as the standard, economist Stephen Rose has shown that the median adult in the US today enjoys a standard of living equivalent to $65,000 for a family of three.

Using the same standard, Rose defines the upper middle class as those adults whose household incomes are the equivalent of $100,000 a year for a family of three, but less than $350,000. By this measure, over a quarter (29 percent) of US adults are in the upper middle class today. Interestingly, this analysis indicates that the biggest change since 1979 in class positions defined by these standardized income levels has been a dramatic rise in the size of the upper middle size, more than doubling from 13 to 29 percent of adults. The rich ($350,000+) have, as popular perception suggests, also increased, but they are still a very small group, only 1.8 percent of adults.

Also consistent with popular perception, the middle middle class ($50,000-$100,000 in adjusted income) has declined over this time period (down 7 points to 32 percent of adults). But it is also the case that the lower middle class ($30,000-$50,000 in income has declined (down 7 points to 17 percent), as has the poor/near poor (less than $30,000, down 4 points to 20 percent). Thus, the rise of the upper middle class deserves a place of greater significance in the left’s calculations going forward since this group appears to be absorbing the much-publicized declines in middling income groups.

Applying some standard per capita income growth rates to these data, the median adult by midcentury would have an adjusted income of $98, 000 at 1.2 percent growth, $108,000 at 1.5 percent growth and $124,000 at 1.9 percent growth. That means that around half or more of the country by that time would enjoy the living standards of today’s upper middle class (or even better).

Thus, a reasonable aspiration for the left should be to make upper middle class affluence (by today’s standards) a majority lifestyle in coming decades and to raise the rest of population in advanced countries as close to that level as possible. In short, we should be calling for a mass upper middle class not trying to get rid of it.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Today's Useful Data: Who Are the New Immigrants?

Donald Trump's views on immigration are clearly shaped by a vision of Mexican and Central American immigrants surging across the US-Mexico border. Perhaps it is not a surprise that he appears to be out of touch with where today's immigrants are actually coming from.

Demographer William Frey has the facts if he's interested (though I'm sure he's not):
[N]ewly released data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey (ACS) show that…[i]mmigrant growth, thus far this decade, is occurring at a slower pace than the previous two, and is dominated by immigrants from Asia and those with college degrees. Moreover, new Asian and college-educated immigrants are especially prevalent in states that voted for Trump in the 2016 election…..
Clearly, the Trump stereotype of low-skilled, rapidly growing immigrant waves from Mexico does not characterize recent foreign-born gains to the U.S. The new census ACS numbers showing large Asian and college graduate immigrant growth is evident in the majority of states, especially low immigrant states. Many of those states, which backed the president in 2016, contain communities that are aging, losing domestic migrants, and are already benefitting from the infusion of new immigrants.
Ironic, no? 

Monday, October 2, 2017

Today's Useful Data: Using Virginia's House of :Delegates Races to Foretell the Democrats' Future

What can the 2017 elections tell us about 2018? To be sure one must be cautious here, but David Wasserman of Cook Political Report proposes an interesting metric to keep track of: who Democrats do in the elections to the Virginia House of Delegates, all of whom are up for election in 2017. Here you have 100 races in a purple state where turnout should be reasonably high due to the governor's race. This avoids the the confounding factor of very low turnout that we've seen in a number of legislative special elections where the Democrats have done well. Wasserman notes:
Democrats aren't likely to pick up the chamber: they currently hold just 34 seats and would need to gain 17 to win control. Hillary Clinton did carry 17 seats held by Republicans last fall, but many of those are located in transient outer suburbs where Democratic-leaning minorities and young voters tend not to vote in off years. Moreover, Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam isn't blowing out Gillespie, so down-ballot Democrats may not be riding long coattails.
Still, if Democrats managed to pick off 10 or more GOP-held seats, it would send a signal that voters are in the mood to punish President Trump and Republicans - a mirror image of the GOP legislative gains in 2009 that foreshadowed Republicans taking back the House in 2010.
More specifically, Wasserman proposes the following metric for the VA House of Delegates results:

  • < 5 seat Democratic gain--GOP rest easy
  • 5-10 seat Democratic gain--Democrats are at least in contention for taking back the House
  • 10-15 seat Democratic gain--Democrats look on track to regain the House majority
  • 15+ seat Democratic gain--wave election time!
Wasserman provides a handy scorecard of the possible pickups to help you keep track on election night. To be honest, I don't really have a clear sense of how predictive these results will actually be in the end, but I certainly think it's worth paying attention to. And probably more so than all the heavy breathing we'll see about the AL Senate and VA governor results.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Today's Useful Data: Gerrymandering 101

Since Gerrymandering Tuesday is coming up (when the Supreme Court will hear the Wisconsin case), it's time to get clear on what gerrymandering is and how it can conceivably be fixed. I recommend two articles, "Slaying the Partisan Gerrymander" by Sam Wang and Brian Remlinger and "The New Front in the Gerrymandering Wars: Democracy vs. Math" by Emily Bazelon which together make a good, basic primer on gerrymandering and anti-gerrymandering methodologies. Don't know what the "partisan symmetry test" is? You should know about this and also the "efficiency gap" and other relevant measures. These articles will get you up to speed.

Sam Wang's group, the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, also has a very nice site where you can look at particular states and run tests yourself to see the level of gerrymandering under different metrics.

How bad is the problem? Opinions vary, but here's an assessment from the Wang and Remlinger article:
Some analysts claim that Democrats have been at a disadvantage not because of redistricting but because their voters are more clustered geographically. But that geographic pattern does not fully explain Democrats’ recent electoral disadvantage. On the basis of clustering alone, Democrats need to win the national popular vote for the House of Representatives by two percentage points to have an even chance of winning a majority of the seats. But since 2012, gerrymandering has increased the necessary national margin for Democrats to about eight percentage points. In individual gerrymandered states such as North Carolina or Pennsylvania, Democrats need to win by 15 percentage points or more to have a shot at taking a majority.
This is, to say the least, quite unfair and fundamentally anti-democratic. Let's hope the Supremes (we're looking at you, Justice Kennedy) decide to start pushing things back toward a more level playing field.