Wednesday, February 21, 2018

New Content Has MIgrated Over to My Facebook Page

I will continue to keep The Optimistic Leftist site updated with links to new articles and reports. But my thoughts on current political and other developments will now be exclusively on my Facebook page. I urge you to visit!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Yes Trump's Approval Rating Is Up, No That Doesn't Mean the Democrats Won't Succeed in November

Trump's approval rating has clearly gone up in the last month, from a little under 40 percent to a little under 42 percent, according to the 538 composite. That's not nothing and, all else equal, good for the Republicans. But it doesn't change much about expectations for the upcoming election, which are still quite poor for the GOP.

Models, of course, disagree on how grim the forecast is for the Republicans, so any given model should not be taken as the last word. But Seth Masket at Mischiefs of Faction cites a midterm model that illustrates how difficult the situation is for them. The model is a simple one that relies on just Presidential approval and growth in real per capita disposable income (RDI). What it says is this:
[The model] predicts Democrats will pick up 45 to 50 House seats this fall, and take over 15 to 20 state legislative chambers. A loss of just 24 House seats would flip House control to the Democrats….
Most years, this model works fairly well. It predicted Democrats losing 46 House seats in 2010 (they lost 63), and it predicted Republicans losing 40 House seats in 2006 (they lost 31).
You can see in the chart above how this works, with Trump's approval running a little over 40 percent and RDI growth around 1 percent in the last year. It's apparent that moving Trump's approval rating around a little bit at a given level of economic growth does not change the forecast much. Plus Trump's approval rating have been bouncing around between 37 and 42 percent since early last April  so it's hard to see the kind of mega-spike that might really change things. 

A huge increase in RDI growth seems unlikely also though, of course, anything is possible. But as Masket observes: 
Even if RDI growth jumped to 3 percent…the model would still predict Republicans to lose 37 House seats, more than enough to lose control of the chamber, and 14 state legislative chambers.
So the fundamentals don't look good for Team Red. But it's just one model so should be treated with caution. After all, there are lots of other factors like the various structural advantages Republicans take into an election like this. But even those have been declining as Nate Cohn has pointed out, knocking a couple of points off of the GOP's "thumb on the scales". This includes the effects of anti-gerrymandering court decisions, Democratic fundraising and candidate recruitment and Republican retirements.

It's a long time 'til election day. But the basic story continues to be a positive one for Democrats, as these data and the results of recent special elections suggest.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Immigration Paradox

Here are three things we know about the American public and immigration.

1. The American public is becoming more favorable, not less favorable, toward immigration. In fact,  the public is not only more favorable but it is now at historically high levels of favorability toward immigration and immigrants. From a recent article by Derek Thompson:
·         The share of Americans calling for lower levels of immigration has fallen from a high of 65 percent in the mid-1990s to just 35 percent, near its record low.
·         A 2017 Gallup poll found that fears that immigrants bring crime, take jobs from native-born families, or damage the budget and overall economy are all at all-time lows.
·         In the same poll, the percentage of Americans saying immigrants “mostly help” the economy reached its highest point since Gallup began asking the question in 1993.
·         A Pew Research poll asking if immigrants “strengthen [the] country with their hard work and talents” similarly found affirmative responses at an all-time high.
Pretty much all relevant polling data say the same thing. Here are a couple charts from the two leading academic surveys, the General Social Survey and the American National Election Study:

Moreover, as the polling data also show very consistently, the public is very supportive of the DREAMers and opposed to building a wall on the border with Mexico.

2. The places with the most immigration tend to be the ones least supportive of Trump and a hard line on immigration. Conversely, of course, if the exposure to immigrants is limited, that tends to correlate with high support for Trump and being hostile to immigration. This chart from Ron Brownstein sums up the situation well:

And yet...despite a public that's trending favorable toward immigrants, especially in areas where they are common, we have the third thing we know about the public and immigration:

3. Anti-immigrant feelings now have more political salience than they have had a very long time and that is hurting the Democrats. It is clearly the case that for an important minority of--primarily white noncollege--voters, they feel intensely enough about this issue to respond positively to anti-immigrant messages and candidates. Trump would not be President if this were not true. And the GOP hopes they can continue to use this issue to keep these voters away from the Democratic party, a strategy that has worked to perfection in Rustbelt and other declining areas of the country.

Can the Democrats resolve this immigration paradox so they do not suffer politically for being pro-immigrant in country that is increasingly pro-immigrant? We shall see. But it would appear they need to think carefully about how to reach voters outside of blue America who do not start with the presumption that immigration is beneficial. Otherwise,the immigration paradox is likely to continue, and continue to hurt the Democrats.

Game-Changer in Germany?

Guest post by Judith Meyer

Last night, Angela Merkel said in an interview that she'd be ready to lead a minority government in Germany if the SPD base rejects the coalition agreement. So far, she and the CDU always said that they would call for new elections. This is big:

The threat of calling new elections was their main deterrent 
- for SPD MPs & related workers who are afraid of losing their seats (because the SPD poll results are currently much worse than the last election results)
- for SPD base members who don't want to witness the ignominy of their party losing its status as Germany's second biggest party
- for people who are afraid of AfD getting more seats in a new election, or 
- for people who think it's irresponsible and undemocratic to send the voters back to the polls. 

Removing this threat now presumably means that a lot more SPD members will feel free to vote against the Grand Coalition. This is borne out on Twitter, many people are posting things like "I was undecided but now I know how to vote", and of course the young socialists already started hammering this message (that a No is not a catastrophe, despite previous scaremongering from the SPD leadership) on all channels. They will have more opportunities to do so during their city tour over the next weeks.

Why would Merkel remove this threat?

Possible explanation 1: She loves to commission secret polls, so maybe she is reacting to one of the survey companies coming back with the message that the SPD base is likely to reject the coalition agreement. German news have created an expectation, helped by her previous words, that the end of the Grand Coalition would also be the end of her chancellorship. Usurpers are already lining up; she is getting urged to name the next generation. So this way she can lay claim to another period in office no matter whether the SPD rejects the coalition or not. If she wants to keep working with the SPD this would also work out: the SPD leaders could honour the letter of the results by not entering a Grand Coalition, while breaching the spirit of the results by voting with a CDU minority government on most of the issues covered in the coalition treaty. The SPD leadership had previously (was it December or November?) thought along those lines, inventing a kind of coalition that is less than a Grand Coalition but more than a minority government, with a treaty outlining how to vote on only the most important items and allowing the parties to diverge on other issues. 

Possible explanation 2: She is actively sabotaging the Grand Coalition now because the resistance in the CDU to the agreement has been so strong. Some CDU people said that it's just as well a CDU party assembly has to approve the treaty (they may reject it, but tend to be a docile lot), because it would not be certain to pass if there was an all-member vote among CDU members as there is among SPD members. She might have even given the SPD so many important ministries (controlling well more than half of the government's budget), and nothing in terms of policy, in order to provoke in-fighting and intentionally letting the Grand Coalition agreement be downvoted. Though this last bit is probably a bit far-fetched, her actively wishing to sabotage the Grand Coalition at this point, with all the backlash that happened in both parties, and with the ministry assignment being back up in the air, is thinkable.  

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Science Fiction Saturday: A Darkling Sea

James Cambias' A Darkling Sea is an outstanding hard SF novel that does very, very well what is very, very hard to to: convincingly portray an utterly alien species. It was a challenging idea, creating an intelligent species that lives underwater around hydrothermal vents. But he pulls it off. Here's the basic setup of the book:
We begin on a remote scientific outpost stationed on Ilmatar, a watery moon very much like the moon Europa in our solar system — and it's in orbit around a gas giant very much like Jupiter. Protected from cosmic radiation by kilometers of thick ice, a vast civilization has evolved in the deep oceans of the moon, its cities rising around deep sea vents that provide warmth and nutrients. It's a fascinating idea, based on what we already know about extremophile creatures that inhabit these volcanic vents on Earth. Just as they do on our planet, vents on Ilmatar release nutrients that support many plants and animals. 
Our human explorers know very little about the moon's intelligent Ilmatarans, crustacean-like creatures with a kind of early Victorian culture where science is still fairly crude and there's a rigid class hierarchy ruled by landowners. We get a lot of crunchy, hard sci-fi details about the scientists' underwater facility, and their nanotech diving equipment that converts the local seawater to breathable gas. Cambias also lavishes incredible detail on the million-year-old Ilmataran culture, treating us to images of their ancient vent cities, showing us how they write books by tying knots in string the way the Inca did, and even exploring how, blind in their dark undersea world, they "see" only by sonar.

 We meet Broadtail, a young Ilmataran scientist who studies his culture's own ancient history — and, later, human culture too. His human counterpart is Rob, a tech expert on the human expedition to observe the Ilmataran culture and environment. Rob is involved in an unfortunate incident that brings the two alien cultures face to face: He's filming one of the human scientists, a kind of Jacques Cousteau-style celebrity, when things go wrong. The celebrity swims too close to Broadtail and his colleagues, who perceive him with their sonar senses for the first time — and collect him as a scientific specimen so they can dissect him in their lab.
This proves to be a grave diplomatic mistake. Not only are the Ilmatarans now aware of the humans, but the humans are in violation of a non-interference treaty they've agreed to with the scientifically-advanced but isolationist aliens known as the Sholen. The bulk of the novel deals with how the Sholen and humans feud over their different approaches to making contact (or not) with newly-discovered intelligent creatures. 
This is a good one! Highly recommended. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Obscure Music Friday: Bela Lugosi's Dead

Bela Lugosi songs are deplorably thin on the ground, but I did happen upon this 1982 gem by the English post-punk band Bauhaus. Bela is dead and gone but I'm sure you are still looking, as I am,  for "A race of atomic supermen which will conquer the world!"

Thursday, February 8, 2018

White Working Class Women to the Rescue!

As any fair reading of the data reveals, the white working-class vote is still Democrats’ critical weakness. This is especially worrisome because white non-college voters remain a larger group than white college voters in almost all states — and are far larger in the Rust Belt states that gave the Democrats so much trouble in 2016: Iowa is 62 percent white non-college versus 31 percent white college; Michigan is 54 percent white non-college versus 28 percent white college; Ohio splits 55 percent to 29 percent; Pennsylvania 51 percent to 31 percent; and Wisconsin 58 percent to 32 percent.

Can the Democrats improve on their recent dreadful performance among this demographic in 2018? If so, they could build on what appears to be a significant shift in their favor among college-educated whites to power a true wave election in November that reaches beyond obvious targets in upscale suburban districts. 

Disaggregated Gallup approval data provided to Ronald Brownstein indicates that there is a real opening among white noncollege women voters for big Democratic gains. These are voters who played a huge role in delivering Trump's gains in 2016, particularly in the Rustbelt. But many of these women have soured on Trump since the election. Brownstein's data are quite compelling here:
In the Rustbelt states that decided 2016, Trump has slipped into a much more precarious position with these women: Gallup put his 2017 approval with them at 45 percent in Pennsylvania, 42 percent in Michigan, and 39 percent or less in Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Compared to his 2016 vote, his 2017 approval among blue-collar white women in the Rustbelt represented some of his largest declines anywhere—18 percentage points in Ohio and 19 in Wisconsin and Minnesota. That erosion, which intensified during Trump’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, creates the opening for Democrats to contest blue-collar and non-urban House seats this fall through the Midwest and Northeast.
Will the Democrats capitalize on this opening? We shall see whether the Democrats can craft an approach that goes beyond their current Congressional agenda to reach hearts and minds among these voters. If they can, the 2018 payoff could be enormous.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Revenge of the Places That Don't Matter

This is the phrase of economic geographer Andres Rodriguez-Pose. And it's a compelling way of thinking about recent populist surges. Rodriguez-Pose's basic point is that if you overlay the distribution of lagging or declining areas that increasingly don't seem to matter to a country's prosperity on the distribution of populist voting, these distributions match up quite well. And this is no coincidence: voters in these "don't matter" areas are taking revenge on the elites that don't seem to care about them by powering the emergence of politicians and parties that claim they will redress the balance between areas that matter and those that now don't.

Ronald Brownstein digs into how this dynamic is working out in the United States in a recent column
[I]t is the diverse major metropolitan areas that voted in preponderant numbers against Trump that have clearly emerged as the nation's engines of growth. In the process, the big blue metros have pulled further away from the small town and rural communities that provide the foundation of Trump's support.
The key to this divergence has been the large metro areas' dominance of the job opportunities created by the diffusion of digital technologies, largely in white-collar industries from business consulting to software development. Meanwhile, smaller places remain much more reliant on resource extraction (like oil and gas production), manufacturing and agriculture, which have not grown nearly as reliably, or explosively, as the digital economy.
"We have two quite different economies, and what is happening in recent years is growth is largely emanating from these big county metros," says Mark Muro, director of policy at the Metropolitan Policy Program. "These are not political trends. They are deep economic and technological long waves. And while we are in the midst of this long wave, we are not near the end of it."
In 2016, Clinton won fewer than 500 counties and Trump won more than 2,600. But the counties that Clinton carried accounted for 72% of the nation's increased economic output from 2014 through 2016, the most recent years for which figures are available, according to Brookings. The Clinton counties accounted for 66% of the new job growth over that period as well.
In both output and employment the Clinton counties over that recent period accounted for an even higher percentage of the new growth than they did from 2010 through 2016, the full period of recovery from the financial crash of 2008.
The tilt away from Trump is even more pronounced at the very top of the economic pyramid. Of the 30 counties that generated the largest share of new jobs from 2014 through 2016, Trump carried only two: Collin County (north of Dallas) and Maricopa (Arizona), where Republican-leaning suburbs slightly outvoted a strongly Democratic metro core in Phoenix.
Clinton carried all the other places leading the employment growth list. That included not only such blue state behemoths as Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Seattle, but also the economic hubs in purple and even Republican-leaning states, from Miami, Oakland County (outside Detroit), to Mecklenburg (Charlotte) and Wake (Raleigh) counties in North Carolina, and Dallas, Bexar (San Antonio) and Travis counties (Austin) in Texas.
In all, Brookings calculated, Clinton won 79 of the 100 counties that contributed the most to economic growth from 2014 to 2016, and 76 of the 100 that generated the most job growth.
Trump's struggles even in the metro areas of red states underscore how virtually every region of the country is experiencing the same consolidation of economic opportunity into Democratic-leaning urban areas also typically marked by increasing racial diversity.
"The consolidation of economic opportunity". An innocent-sounding phrase, but one that is currently having a huge effect on our politics and social fabric. Brookings has more data on just how bad these disparities are becoming:
[T]he data…show a truly eye-popping divergence of big-, medium-, small-sized communities’ growth progress—one that’s getting worse. On population growth, for example, the 53 very largest metro areas (those with populations over one million residents) have accounted for fully 93.3 percent of the nation’s population growth since the crisis, but an incredible 96.4 percent of it since 2014 (though they account for just 56 percent of the overall population). Even more significantly, the biggest metros generated fully two-thirds of output growth on the economic front and 73 percent of employment gains between 2010 and 2016—figures that actually have increased since 2014, when they reached nearly 72 and 74 percent.
By contrast, smaller metropolitan areas with less than 250,000 people—representing 9 percent of the nation’s population—have lost ground. Since 2010, in fact, these communities made a negative contribution of -6.5 percent to the nation’s growth, with their contribution ticking up modestly in the last two years and their output and employment growth contributions declining to less than 3 percent and 5 percent of the national total, respectively. As for the rural tier [14 percent of the population], the trends have been even worse. By the 2014 to 2016 period, rural communities’ contribution to national population growth had turned negative and the ebbing of the earlier oil and gas boom saw output and employment growth decline precipitously as a share of national gains.
These trends suggest that economic trends left to themselves are not likely to make voters in places that don't matter feel like they do. The great challenge for the Democrats is to reverse that perception and convince voters economic opportunity can be distributed more equally. It is either that or "the revenge of the places that don't matter" will continue. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Trump's State Approval Ratings: The Key to 2018

There is nothing more important than the overall political environment for the magnitude of Democratic gains in 2018. The poorer that environment is for Republicans, the better the Democrats will do in any given race with any given candidate. And there is nothing more important to that environment than President Trump's approval ratings which, as those who pay at least some attention to politics know, have generally been dismal at the national level. 

But the 2018 races are run not nationally but in the individual states, so it is important to have a sense of how Trump is viewed in individual states to assess Democratic prospects. That is why the state approval ratings just released by Gallup are so useful, because they provide an approval rating for Trump in all 50 states. (The ratings are average ratings from 2017; Trump's overall approval rating today appear to be slightly higher--a point or two--than its 2017 average, so the Gallup data cited here may be slightly underestimating his current state approval ratings).

The state ratings are particularly interesting in light of where the real battles of 2018 are likely to be fought. As Philip Bump has noted, 64 competitive House seats held by Republicans are in states where Trump's approval rating is under 50 percent; 60 of these seats are in states where his rating is below 45 percent and 34 are in states where his rating dips below 40 percent. 

One way to get a sense of just how much the political environment in a given state has shifted since Trump's election is to compare Trump's margin in 2016 with his net approval rating (approval minus disapproval) from the Gallup data. The results are rather striking when we look at states with key races. 

The states with the largest number of competitive House seats held by Republicans are: California (8); Pennsylvania (6); New York (5); New Jersey (4); Virginia (4); Illinois (4) and Ohio (4). Trump's average approval rating in these states is 36 percent (low of 29 percent in California and high of 45 percent in Ohio). And on average Trump's net approval rating in these states is 12 points worse than the margin he attained in these states in the 2016 election. For example, Trump carried Ohio by 8 points in 2016; his net approval rating in 2017 was -5. Interestingly, the only state where the shift against Trump was not in double digits was California. But here his margin in 2016 was already -30, so he slipped to "only" -36 in net approval rating.

Drilling down a little bit farther, the same patterns can be found in most states with competitive Senate, governor's and/or state legislature elections. In Arizona, where Democrats are targeting Jeff Flake's open Senate, as well as seeking to make big gains in the state House and Senate, Trump's net approval is now -12, a 16 point shift compared to his 2016 margin. In Florida, where the Democrats are defending a Senate seat and targeting Republican governor Rick Scott and the state Senate, Trump is also at -12, 13 points worse than his 2016 showing. In Iowa, where the Democrats are after the governorship and serious gains in the state House and Senate, Trump's net approval is -9, 18 points worse than his victory margin in the state in 2016. In Nevada, where Democrats have good chances to flip Dean Heller's Senate seat and the governor's mansion, Trump is at -11, 13 points worse than 2016. Even in North Dakota and West Virginia, two states with Democratic-held Senate seats where Trump has (in relative terms) sky-high net approval ratings of 18 and 26 points, respectively, these ratings still trail Trump's 2016 election margins by 16 points. 

Most astonishingly, in Texas where the Democrats are after three House seats and have an outside shot at Ted Cruz' Senate seat, Trump's net approval is at -15, a stunning 24 point decline from Trump's victory margin in 2016. But a word of caution here. Gallup's net approval ratings are among all adults, a group that tends to be pro-Democratic relative to the likely or actual voting pool and this difference, as Harry Enten has pointed out, is particularly large in Texas. So don't break out the champagne toasts for blue Texas quite yet.

Still, all in all, favorable data for Democratic prospects in the most important states in 2018. I shall have more to say in the future about the demographics of specific states and Congressional Districts and how this may play into the political trends summarized in this piece.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Science Fiction Saturday: Locus Magazine Best of the Year

Locus Magazine is a tremendous resource for anyone interested in science fiction. I've been reading it religiously for 25 years; nothing else comes close to its coverage of the genre. And in fact one of the nice things about SF as a field is it's compact enough that you can pretty effectively keep track on what's going on by just reading this one publication.

Which is why it's always a thrill to get the gala February issue of the magazine, where all their reviewers look back at the previous year's novels and short fiction and write up their recommendations and impressions. In addition, the reviewers and editors of the magazine do a collective mind meld to come up with the consensus best of the year for their "Recommended Reading List". 

Here's the SF novels reading list:
§  The Rift, Nina Allan (Titan US; Titan UK)
§  The Massacre of Mankind, Stephen Baxter (Gollancz; Crown)
§  The Berlin Project, Gregory Benford (Saga)
§  Persepolis Rising, James S.A. Corey (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
§  Walkaway, Cory Doctorow (Tor; Head of Zeus)
§  Gnomon, Nick Harkaway (Heinemann; Knopf 2018)
§  The Stars Are Legion, Kameron Hurley (Saga; Angry Robot UK)
§  Mother Go, James Patrick Kelly (Audible)
§  The Moon and the Other, John Kessel (Saga)
§  Tomorrow’s Kin, Nancy Kress (Tor)
§  Shattered Minds, Laura Lam (Tor; Macmillan)
§  Provenance, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
§  Raven Stratagem, Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris US; Solaris UK)
§  The Corporation Wars: Emergence, Ken MacLeod (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
§  Austral, Paul McAuley (Gollancz)
§  Luna: Wolf Moon, Ian McDonald (Tor; Gollancz)
§  The Last Good Man, Linda Nagata (Mythic Island)
§  Null States, Malka Older ( Publishing)
§  Seven Surrenders, Ada Palmer (Tor; Head of Zeus)
§  The Wrong Stars, Tim Pratt (Angry Robot US; Angry Robot UK)
§  From the Wreck, Jane Rawson (Transit Lounge)
§  The Real-Town Murders, Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
§  New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
§  The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi (Tor US; Tor UK)
§  Sourdough, Robin Sloan (MCD; Atlantic UK)
§  Empire Games, Charles Stross (Tor; Tor UK)
§  Borne, Jeff VanderMeer (MCD; HarperCollins Canada; Fourth Estate)
§  Bannerless, Carrie Vaughn (John Joseph Adams)
The other lists, including fantasy, horror and short fiction, can be found here. And you might consider subscribing; the magazine provides a great service to the field and nobody's getting rich doing it.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Obscure Music Friday: The Seeds

The Seeds were a California garage-psych-punk band of the 1960's, led by the late, great Sky Saxon (fantastic name!) with a ridiculously raw sound that was, despite its perhaps limited musical merit, pretty cool! Check out this song, "Pushin' Too Hard" from their first and best album. The entry for Allmusic on this album captures well what The Seeds were all about. 
Of the great garage punk bands of the 1960s, some were louder (the Sonics), some were angrier (the Music Machine), and some were trippier (the 13th Floor Elevators), but few seemed like a bad influence on so many levels as the Seeds. The Seeds had long hair, a gloriously lamentable fashion sense, an attitude that was at once petulant and lackadaisical, and music that sounded aimless, horny, agitated, and stoned all at once. Is it any wonder America's delinquent youth loved them? The Seeds' aural signature was as distinctive as any band of their era, and they got a bit fancier with their formula as they went along, but they never captured their essential seediness with more impressive concision than they did on their self-titled debut album from 1966. Dominated by the fierce, drawling yelp of Sky Saxon's vocals and Daryl Hooper's hypnotically repetitive keyboard patterns, and supported by the snarling report of Jan Savage's guitar and Rick Andridge's implacable drumming, the Seeds had a limited bag of melodic tricks, but they hardly seemed to care that roughly half their songs sounded identical, as Saxon bellowed about people who had done him wrong in some way or another (usually women) and the band locked into cyclical grooves that picked up impressive momentum when they gained enough traction (especially "Evil Hoodoo," "You Can't Be Trusted," and the Seeds' signature tune "Pushin' Too Hard").