Archive for October, 2010

Restoring Sanity: Stewart and Snowe

The “Restore Sanity” rally hosted by Jon Stewart and (to a lesser extent) Stephen Colbert Saturday drew over 200,000 people, easily doubling the rally Glenn Beck hosted in August, which he vowed would “change the world.”   Yet while both claimed their rally was not political, Beck’s was — having speakers like Sarah Palin and others with a clearly partisan tilt.  The Stewart-Colbert rally actually remained above politics.  The message was simple:  most Americans know how to compromise and figure out how to deal with problems when people disagree.  Thanks to the 24 hour sensationalized cable media and politicians living on emotional sound bits, the government lacks that ability.  Unfortunately, the government has lots of power.

This is certainly a clear shot at folk like Beck and his ilk who want to paint those with a different world view than his (non-Christian, secular, liberal, etc.) as evil, destroying the country, and perhaps even disloyal.  That kind of emotion-driven “paint the other as strange and evil” attitude has a long sordid history in politics, and it usually leads to very dark places.   Ironically, Stewart’s message reminded me of a conversation I had Thursday with Senator Olympia Snowe, a Republican here in Maine.

I told her that I used her as an example in my class of how politics should be about compromise and working with people who have different views on a subject.   She expressed dismay at the partisan market-driven emotion of ideological politics, noting that conservatives have even forgotten who Reagan was.  Reagan was not an ideological “make no compromise” tea party type.  Reagan compromised and worked with Democrats, cutting deals and thus getting things done.   His ability to work with Gorbachev rather than continue Cold War confrontation helped assure a peaceful end to the Cold War.

What if more people thought like Stewart and Snowe, and focused less on demonizing the other than reaching out and saying “OK, we have different views, let’s figure out what we can accomplish.”  That’s the only way our system can work, no party will ever have the power to unilaterally make significant long term change.   At a time when our economy faces crisis, and there are really serious issues involving terrorism and foreign policy, we should be having serious conversations and coming together as a nation.  Instead tea partiers call Obama a Kenyan born socialist, the far left calls tea partiers racist, and when we need to act like adults, the country acts like fourth graders.

Or do we?   Stewart’s final message was one of hope.  Americans are not reflected by the tea party candidates or ideologues from the left.   Americans are not primarily Democratic or Republican, and do not think in terms of “us vs. them.”  Americans do not think compromising on issues of principle is inherently bad; rather, it is inherently necessary just to solve the problems which arise every day.  Americans are not what we see on the cable news or arguing in the Capitol Building.  Olympia Snowe may be a rarity in the Senate, but she’s typical of most Americans — she wants to figure out how people of different views can get work together.

Might I suggest a Snowe-Stewart (or Stewart-Snowe) ticket in 2012?

The Republicans are poised for historic gains on Tuesday, turning around huge loses in 2006 and 2008.  The GOP loudly proclaims that Americans are embracing conservative values, even though two years ago they seemed to embrace what many Republicans labeled socialist values.   In 2008 Democrats thought Americans had embraced their view of the future.  Yet what Americans want is problem solving, not ideology.   They want compromise because without compromise, nothing gets done.  Our system is designed for either compromise or gridlock.   The great Democratic victory of 2008 may give way to the great Republican victory of 2010, and in 2012 things may break again the other way.

In some ways it was ironic to watch so many on the left enjoy themselves watching or attending the Stewart-Colbert rally.   If your party is about to suffer huge defeats, it’s not typical to have such a fun time.   But hey, why not?   Being miserable and stressed doesn’t help the situation, and a well attended mass rally may do some good.   Still, the larger message will hopefully get through:  real Americans talk, debate, compromise, and collaborate.   For ratings big 24 hour cable news thrives on emotion, division, and anger.   So far, the politicians have let themselves be guided by that emotion-driven urge to demonize and simplify.  That has made problems worse, rather than better.

Can sanity be restored, and can the politicians start reflecting real Americans again?   We’ll know answers about the 2010 election in just a few days.   But it’ll take a bit longer to find out if the Stewart- Colbert rally led to any progress on our need to restore sanity so we can make the decisions we need to for our future.

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Maine’s Wild Governor’s Race

Paul LePage (R) is poised to become the next Governor of Maine, despite the fact most Republicans and most voters overall would prefer someone else.  In a crowded Republican primary full of quality candidates, LePage surprised the establishment by winning a plurality with just over a third of the votes.   As a tea party favorite, his supporters were committed and enthused, and with the rest of the GOP field splitting the vote, he came out on top.

Now he is running against a Democrat Libby Mitchell, and three independents.   One, Elliot Cutler, is splitting the vote with Mitchell.   A plurality is all it takes to win, and in those terms LePage is costing into election day with a large lead.   Democrats had hoped that independent Shawn Moody would siphon away votes from LePage, especially after scandals emerged around accusation of tax evasion and some well publicized temper tantrums from a candidate used to running a business and not being questioned and pressured.   Unlike Cutler, Moody lacks money and thus was buried beneath the ads and noise of the campaign.

Earlier it appeared Cutler wasn’t gaining traction.  Mitchell got close to LePage in the polls, and Cutler stayed at around 10%.   But he has been spending lots of money, and a lot of Mainers who think Mitchell is too liberal and LePage too conservative have rallied to Cutler.   Yet in a three person race, it’s hard to know what will happen.

For some this is proof that we need a run off system — the way the current ballot is structured someone can get elected that a large majority of the people don’t want in office.    In one recent poll Le Page got 37% and his opponents 53% — but LePage would win.  But those are the rules of the game, and if either Cutler or Mitchell had generated the core support LePage has achieved, they’d be doing much better.   Here are the scenarios:

1.  A Cutler win is unlikely, but possible.   Although he’s improved in the polls, there is a lot of early voting, and that is likely benefiting Mitchell.   At first I was suspicious of his leap in a couple of recent polls, but today two more corroborated earlier polls, one showing Cutler within 6 of LePage (37-31, with Mitchell at 22).   Maine does have a reputation of supporting independents, and Cutler’s clearly got the wind at his back.

2.  A Mitchell win remains possible, but unlikely.   Until Cutler’s rise in the polls I thought that a mixture of LePage’s mistakes and Mitchell’s organization would eek out a narrow victory for her.   However, she has not run a very effective campaign, while Cutler has saturated the air waves and has ads appear on everything from “Facebook” to the Maine website “Pine Tree Politics.”    Mitchell hasn’t inspired the kind of hard core support that both LePage and Cutler have generated.

So going into the final weekend the race has become wild.  LePage still seems likely to win; he’s staked out about 40% of the vote, leaving Cutler and Mitchell to fight for the other 60%.   Yet he is within striking distance of either challenger.  Strategic voters who want “anyone but LePage” have a dilemma.  Do they vote for Mitchell, in second place most of the race and with the unions and the better organization on her side?  Or do they vote for Cutler, who seems to be doing better in the polls and has a devoted core group of supporters alongside a well funded campaign?   My hunch is that Cutler’s riding the wave now and Mitchell blew her chance.   Yet just two weeks ago it seemed Cutler hadn’t caught on, and Mitchell was surging.

So…all one can do is wait and see.  The Republicans clearly hope that Cutler and Mitchell split the vote evenly, allowing them to win both the GOP primary and the general election on the backs of about 35% of the electorate.    What a strange year this is turning out to be!

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Can the Democrats Hold the House?

(NOTE: click – or scroll down – for my color coded “election night guide” designed to make it easier to follow the results on election night and visualize just how the night is going.)

Can Democrats retain control of the House of Representatives?   Of course.  Are they likely to?   Probably not.   Indeed virtually every political pundit and specialist dismisses talk of a Democratic comeback as wishful thinking.   The depth of that consensus is both impressive and troubling.  It’s impressive because with such clear expert consensus, it’s hard not to consider a GOP House a done deal.   It’s troubling in that whenever there is too firm and consistent a consensus, it feels like a kind of groupthink.   Moreover, elections can bring surprises.   So today I’ll explore the scenarios that see the Democrats defying the odds and remaining in control of the House.

1.  Winning the close ones. Let’s start with the New York Times rankings of races.   The NYT has 152 safe Democratic seats, and 39 leaning Democratic.  There are 174 safe Republicans, and 28 leaning Republican.

If both parties win all their leaners, then it stands at 191 Democrats and 202 Republicans.   That leaves 42 “tossups.”  Assuming that toss ups can go either way, the Democrats would have to win 27 and lose only 15 to hold the House.   That is certainly conceivable.   The Democrats would have a harder time holding on to the races leaning their way, however, which increases the opportunity for the Republicans to expand the size of their gains, and is one reason some are predicting a Republican wave.

Still, winning the close ones is not out of the question for the Democrats.  Most of these are held by Democratic incumbents who, despite the anti-Washington mood, can use the incumbency to their advantage.   There are also some signs that Democrats are “coming home” and efforts to enthuse voters may increase Democratic turn out.    In very close races get out the vote efforts and personal contacts matter; often the incumbent can do better on those fronts.

2.  Systemic bias in the polls.   Polling of House races is often less precise and sophisticated than polling of Senate or Presidential races.   Moreover, it’s spotty.  Yet there could be assumptions about GOP turnout that cause polls to weight their data in favor of one party more than they should.  Rasmussen, for example, has been accused of tending to error on the side of increasing GOP vote count (and there is evidence backing this up).  Finally, there is the recurring concern that people without land lines are not polled, which may under count Democrats.  Much of that, though, can be adjusted in how the data is weighted.

A casual scan of House (and Senate) polls over the past two weeks show that numerous races, including leaners for both parties, have single digit differences, a large number of them under 5%.   Even if the systemic bias is small, that could mean a false read on ten or more races.   Flip ten races and you get a significantly different result.   Instead of, say, the Republicans up 49, the Republicans could be up only 29.  Or they could be up 69.

The chance of systemic bias built into the assumptions of pollsters is real, but it’s also the easiest to grasp if you’re a Democrat wanting to believe things are closer than they appear (or a Republican counting on a wave).     It’s possible, but pollsters have their reputations on the line, and tend to be very careful about their methods and assumptions.   Historically such systemic errors are rare (though it happened to Gallup in 1998), though clearly if that happened this cycle, it could be an historic and dramatic development — and it’s possible.

3.  A Late Democratic Surge.   Some Democrats believe that people on the left have been late to focus on the election, in part because the news has been so bad.   But stories of tea party excesses along with efforts to engage the youth, including a major rally being held by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, will cause an uptick in Democratic enthusiasm and support that will create a mini-wave for the Democrats.

This is counter-intuitive, but conceivable.  If the GOP peaked and Democrats play the last week well, given the closeness of the races a slight improvement to the Democrats might save a significant number of seats.    However, working against them is the fact that most late deciders are independents, and they have been tending Republican in a big way.   Still, so many races are extremely close, and the Republicans have provided fodder for the Democrats to drum up interest — the tea party rhetoric, a Kentucky campaign volunteer smashing the head of an activist from the left, extreme comments by GOP candidates — that the possibility cannot be dismissed.

4.  The Rules of the Game Have Changed. Finally, some Democrats look at the 2008 election and say that although enthusiasm is down, the Obama machine can still turn out a disproportionate number of youth, something pollsters don’t expect in off term elections.  Anyone on facebook has no doubt seen the “commit to vote” messages and certainly the Democrats are working hard to inspire younger voters.   The idea that the dynamics of elections have fundamentally changed due to early voting, social networking, and youth engagement is unpersuasive.  It reminds me of the arguments of late 1999 by dot com traders saying that we had a “new economy” and concern for stock valuations and fears of a bubble were off base.

Perhaps the one way “new rules” could alter the game is if the money being spent on Latino and Black voter outreach significantly improves turnout in those populations.   That is conceivable; some who voted for the first time in 2008 may decide to stick with the habit.    There is a black President, and the immigration issue has evoked often vicious tea party rhetoric against Latinos.   However, there is no way to know if that will translate into anything significant until after the fact.

The biggest problem the Democrats face in these scenarios is that campaign dynamics work both ways.    Each side has similarly plausible scenarios that things will “break their way,” and each is imbued with a dose of wishful thinking.  Still, the Republicans should have some concern.   They are celebrating early, perhaps losing some focus, and thinking about leadership positions and potential internal rivalries after they take control of the House.   That isn’t as harmful in politics as it is in sports, but in very close races losing focus can make a difference.   And that’s probably the greatest hope the Democrats have — the Republicans are assuming victory, and in the last week of the campaign that might make them a bit more mistake prone.

So yes, the Democrats can hold the House.  It would cause great consternation and even anger among many Republicans, and be an embarrassment for most pundits and prognosticators.   Yet it isn’t very likely.  It’s like being behind 35-3 early in the second half, the odds are strongly against a comeback.   Just ask the 1991-92 Houston Oilers and Buffalo Bills.

UPDATE: This article by Nate Silver discusses the fact that “robopolls” tend to favor Republicans, but notes that it’s hard to know precisely what to make of that in terms of figuring out this election cycle.

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Guide to the 2010 Midterm Elections

(UPDATE: Senate added at the end)

Will the Republicans ride a wave to a 60 to 70 seat pick up?  Will the Democrats manage to defy odds and hold the house, limiting loses?  We are nearing the day when these questions will be answered in one of the most fascinating off year elections in recent history.   There are not only nearly 100 seats in play, but the polls show so many of them very close, there is extreme uncertainty.

If you wish, you can print out this post and use it as a guide to election night.   It’s designed to help one see if a Republican wave or a Democratic resurgence is forming, and early on get a sense of how the election is going.   This is difficult to organize since so many races are taking place.   I have decided to: a) organize by poll closing time for states; and b) color code the races to make it easier “at a glance” to see how things are going.   I am not including “safe” seats, but only the seats considered most “in play.”  The code is as follows:

Red: Races Republicans are expected to take easily.
If the Democrats win any of these, that is a good sign for the Democrats.  If they win many, they could well keep the house.

Orange: Races Republicans are considered likely to win.
If Republicans pick up 45 – 50 seats, these are the ones they’ll likely win.  If many of these go the Democrats way, then the House could go either way.  If the Republicans sweep these, then they could well be in for a “wave” election.

Green: Pure toss ups.
These could go either way.   If it splits rather evenly, then the GOP will have the predicted big win.   If most are GOP, then it’s a wave election.   If most go Democratic, the House could still be won by the Democrats.

Blue:  Races the Democrats are expected to win.
These are races the Democrats should win even if it is a big GOP night.  If these go to Republicans, it’s likely a victory of historic proportions for the GOP.

Purple: Races the Democrats are likely to win.
These are the races that lean Democratic.  If the Republicans do good here, they should have an even better than expected night.

Below I have 106 races in play.  If it goes as expected, the Republicans would gain at least 39 seats (expected GOP wins, not including 29 tossups), exactly what they need to control the House.  If the GOP wins half of the toss ups they would gain 53 seats, which is about what people are predicting.  On election night if you see either party dominating the toss ups, or gaining seats that the other party expected to win, that will be a hint of what is to come during the evening.

Polls Closing at 6:00 or 7:00 (For ease I will list the Republican first in each race.  An asterisk at the end means it’s a projected pick up for the party whose color is indicated; for toss ups the current party will be listed)

IN 8: Bucscon vs. Van Haaften *
FL 8: Webster vs. Grayson*
FL 25: Rivera vs. Garcia
FL 24: Kosmas vs. Adams*
VA 5: Hurt vs. Parriello*
IN 9:  Young vs. Hill*
VA 2: Rigell vs. Nye*
FL 22: West vs. Klein*
GA 8: Scott vs. Marshall*
SC 5: Mulvaney vs. Sprat*
GA 2: Keown vs. Bishop (Current: Dem)
VA 11: Fimian vs. Connolly (Current: Dem)
FL 12: Ross vs. Edwards (Current: Rep)
KY 6: Barr vs. Chandler
VA 9: Griffith vs. Boucher
IN 2: Walorski vs. Donnelly
KY 3: Lally vs. Yarmuth
FL 12: Ross vs. Edwards*

Polls Closing at 7:30

OH 15: Stivers vs. Kilroy*
OH 1: Chabot vs. Driehaus*
OH 6: Johnson vs. Wilson*
OH 16: Renacci vs. Bocieri*
NC 8:Johnson vs. Kissel (Current: Dem)
NC 7: Pantano vs. McIntyre (Current: Dem)
NC 11: Miller vs. Schuler (Current: Dem)

OH 18: Gibbs vs. Space (Current: Dem)
WV 1: McKinley vs. Oliverio (Current: Dem)

NC 2: Elmers vs. Etheridge

Polls that Close at 8:00

FL 2: Southerland vs. Boyd*
IL 11: Kinzinger vs. Halvorson*
MS 1: Nunnlee vs. Childers*
NH1: Guinta vs. Shea-Porter*
PA 3: Kelly vs. Dahlkemper*
TN 6: Black vs. Carter*
TN 8: Fincher vs Herron*
TX 17: Flores vs. Edwards*
MD 1: Harris vs. Kratovil*
PA 7: Lentz vs. Meehan*
PA 11: Barletta vs. Kanjorski*
IL 17: Schilling vs. Hare*
AR 1: Crawford vs. Causey*
AR 2: Griffin vs. Elliott*
PA 8: Fitzpatrick vs. Murphy (Current: Dem)
PA 10: Marino vs. Carney (Current: Dem)
RI 1:   Loughlin vs. Cicilline (Current: Dem)
AL 2: Roby vs. Bright (Current: Dem)
IL 14: Hultgren vs. Foster (Current: Dem)
TN 4: Desjarlais vs. Davis (Current: Dem)
IL 10: Dold vs. Seals (Currrent: Rep)
NY 19: Hayworth vs. Hall (Current: Dem)
CT 5: Caliguiri vs. Murphy (Current: Dem)
NJ 3: Runyan vs. Adler (Current: Dem)
MA 10: Perry vs. Keating*
MI 17: Walberg vs. Schauer
MI 9: Razcowski vs. Peters
MS 4: Palazzo vs. Taylor
NY 1: Altschuler vs. Bishop
NY 13: Grimm vs. McMahon
NY 23: Doheney vs. Owens
NY 25: Buerkle vs. Maffei
NH 2: Bass vs. Kuster
CT 4: Debicella vs. Himes
MO 4: Hartzler vs. Skelton
DE AL: Urquhart vs. Carney*

Polls Closing at 9:00

CO 4: Gardner vs. Markey*
KS 3:  Yoder vs. Moore*
LA 3: Sangisetty vs. Landry*
MN 6: Bachmann vs. Clark
NY 29: Reed vs. Zeller*
WI 7: Lassa vs. Duffy*
WI 8: Ribble vs. Kagan*
MI 1: Benishek vs. McDowell*
SD AL: Noem vs. Herseth-Sandlin*
CO 3: Tipton vs. Salazar*
TX 23: Conseco vs. Rodriguez (Current: Dem)
CO 7: Frazier vs. Perlmutter (Current: Dem)

NY 20: Gibson vs. Murphy (Current: Dem)
NY 24: Hannah vs. Arcuri
MN 8: Kravack vs. Oberstar
MN 1: Demmer vs. Waltz
ME 1: Scontras vs. Pingree
LA 2: Cao vs. Richmond*

Polls closing at 10:00

AZ 1: Gosar vs. Kirkpatrick*
AZ 3:  Quayle vs. Hulburd
ND AL: Berg vs. Pomeroy*
AZ 5: Schweikert vs. Mitchell*
NV 3:  Heck vs. Titus (Current: Dem)
AZ 7: McClung vs. Grijalva (Current: Dem)
AZ 8: Kelly vs. Giffords (Current: Dem)
IA 3:  Zaun vs. Boswell (Current: Dem)
NM2: Pierce vs. Teague (Current: Dem)
IA 2:  Miller-Meeks vs. Loebsack
IA 1: Lange vs. Braley

Polls Closing at 11:00

WA 3:  Herrera vs. Heck*
CA 3: Lungren vs. Bera
CA 11: Harmer vs. McNerney*
CA 45: BonoMack vs. Pougnet
WA 8: DelBene vs. Reichert
OR 5: Brunn vs. Schrader (Current: Dem)
CA 20: Vidak vs. Costa (Current: Dem)
WA 2: Koster vs. Larson
WA 9: Muri vs. Smith

CA 47: Van Tran vs. Sanchez

ID 1: Labrador vs. Minnick

HI 1: Djou vs. Hanabusa

SENATE ELECTIONS

The Senate elections are much easier to handicap.   Because there are fewer of them in play, I’ll simply rank them and not worry about the order.  The Republicans need to pick up ten seats to gain control of the Senate.  Indiana, North Dakota and Arkansas, currently in Democratic hands, are sure to go Republican.  To gain the Senate the GOP would have to pick up 7 more seats.  Of the expected GOP wins,  only two are pick ups.   That means they must win five more, which would be all of the toss ups and one of the three currently leaning Democratic (without losing any of those leaning GOP).

In Florida and Alaska moderate Republicans are running as independents due to their dislike of the tea party candidates who won the GOP nod.  This is more likely to make a difference in Alaska where Miller is a very weak candidate (while Rubio in Florida is running an excellent campaign).   Delaware and Nevada would probably be certain GOP if they had not chosen an untested “tea party” challenges.   Murkowski would certainly caucus with the Republicans if she wins Alaska, Crist is more unpredictable.  Again, the Republican candidate is listed first.

FL:  Rubio vs. Meek vs. Crist (I)
LA: Vitter vs. Melancon
IN:  Coats vs. Ellsworth*
NC: Burr vs. Marshall
OH: Portman vs. Fisher
MO: Blunt vs. Carnahan
NH: Ayotte vs. Hodes
KY: Paul vs. Conway
WI: Johnson vs. Conway*
AK: Miller vs. McAdams vs. Murkowski (I)
CO: Buck vs. Bennett (Current: Dem)
NV: Angle Vs. Reid (Current: Dem)
PA: Toomey vs. Sestak (Current: Dem)
IL:  Kirk vs. Giannoulias (Current: Dem)
WV: Raese vs. Manchin
WA: Rossi vs. Murray
CA: Fiorina vs. Boxer
CT: Blumenthal vs. McMahon
DE: Coons vs. O’Donnell
NY: DioGuardi vs. Gillbrand

I hope you all find this useful!

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The True Meaning of Halloween

The Halloween decorations went up after Labor Day.   We’d told the kids (who wanted to get them out in June) that they would have to wait for fall.   When they saw the first colored leaf they insisted we get out the lights, skeletons, cobwebs, spooky posters, spiders, etc.   We have more Halloween decorations than Christmas decorations, and our kids host an annual Halloween party.   This year will be the fourth one, and each year things get a bit more elaborate.

Yesterday we decorated outside for the party — the entry way, and then the back “haunted” woods, including a leaf-filled “dummy” wearing a mask in the playhouse.   Hopefully the weather will cooperate and the kids will be able to play outside.   Halloween is also gaining importance nationally as a holiday.   What once was primarily a night for kids to trick or treat and Wiccans to celebrate has become a national event.    So what is the true meaning of Halloween?

Just as Christmas is not just about Christianity and materialism, Halloween is not just about the occult and candy.   Indeed, just as secular folk celebrate Christmas in terms of peace, love and joy even if they do not share a belief in its religious origins, celebrating Halloween does not require one to believe in ghosts.  Just as Christmas means much more than the materialist excess of holiday spending, Halloween means more than just sugar highs and candy.   But while Christmas has a long track record of having meanings conveyed in cards, movies and songs, Halloween’s true meaning remains a bit unclear.  I’ll take a shot at defining it.

One thing clearly associated with Halloween is spookiness. Scary movies, haunted houses (in Farmington there is both a haunted barn which really spooked the kids, and a corn maze that is haunted on Halloween weekend), and the Simpsons’ annual “Tree House of Horror” attest to that.   Yet it is not really a celebration of fear.   The goal is fun, an enjoyment of confronting something “scary” and laughing about it.    So to me Halloween is about play and the power of imagination.

Imagination inspires costumes, spooky stories, and haunted houses.   We imagine ghosts, ghouls and witches; even my four year old will roll his eyes up and don a blank face with arms outstretched to become a zombie.   Imagination is fun, the limits of the real are dispensed with, as are concerns about what would really happen if creatures could suck our blood and turn us into vampires.     Imagination is play, and Halloween is the ultimate play holiday.   We are all playing, creating scenarios and pretending to believe in all sorts of creatures and story lines.

Halloween is also a very social holiday.   In Farmington the streets are crowded with ‘Trick or Treaters,’ and is truly a community affair.  People put up lavish decorations or props to make things fun for the kids, and at the very least most people have candy to hand out.   If Christmas is more about family, Halloween is about community.     People rarely go door to door any more, visits are planned, and if you want to see someone on the spur of the moment you usually call first.   The days of just “stopping by” are long gone — but on Halloween nearly everyone’s door is open to provide children with a small gift.    It is a social event.

In our society people often lose perspective, driven to anxiety by an apparent contradiction: our lives are both unimportant and extremely meaningful.   No matter how serious things seem to be, in not too long we’ll all be gone and the things we obsess about will be forgotten.    Yet, even if nothing in life is permanent, life is all we have.    How do we reconcile those two facts?

Halloween reflects the answer: recognize the power of imagination and play, and the importance of social contact.    In the film “Life is Beautiful” the capacity of the hero to use imagination and play to make even a holocaust concentration camp more tolerable for a child attests to the importance of play.   No matter where we are or what we’re doing imagination can flourish and help us through, and a sense of play can add to the experience.   When things are bad, imagination can keep us sane by encouraging hope; when things are good, imagination is key to maximizing enjoyment.   Life as play helps us have the energy to act and achieve without succumbing to stress and anxiety.   Life as play is living with perspective.

So I embrace the true meaning of Halloween.  It reminds us to imagine, and to treat life playfully.   Living with perspective means not letting life’s annoyances and pitfalls cause too much anxious stress or depression.   Imagination is to our mental health what diet and exercise are to our physical health.   So happy Halloween!

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Voting is irrational!

But do it anyway.

Some people argue that if everyone acted rationally out of enlightened self-interest,  society would function best.   In such a view problems are only the result of misplaced altruism, a lack of understanding of reality, or notions of self-interest which violate the rights of others (e.g., theft or murder).   However, voting is one behavior which shows that rational self-interest on the individual level could lead to societal results which are harmful.

Rational behavior occurs when a person acts in a way which maximizes expected utility (EU).   Utility simply means the result is beneficial to the individual.   Expected utility takes into account that the individual has to predict what the outcome of action might be (positive and negative), and thus has uncertainty built in.  This means, of course, that a person can be rational but wrong.  Saddam Hussein may have thought that invading Kuwait would be accepted by the US and make Iraq stronger.  He was wrong, but not necessarily irrational.   Calculations of expected utility are rational if they are based on an interpretation of evidence not twisted by some kind of psychological bias or erratic guess.   So let’s take voting.

First, what benefit does one get from voting?   In terms of the election itself, there is a possibility that a candidate one supports will tie or win by one vote.  In such a case, a person’s vote has real value, he or she has determined the winner.   However, in all other cases the individual vote was irrelevant — if the person stayed home, the result would be the same.  One calculates the odds of a race being decided by one vote by considering the historical record of elections, and how often that happens, as well as polls and the dynamics of a given race.   In some local elections it may happen none and then, but in most elections it’s exceedingly rare.

Second, what disadvantage does one get from voting?   It could be monetary (stamp for an absentee ballot), an opportunity cost for time spent voting, and even risks that a car accident or some other  problem might be caused by the actions needed to go vote.    Compare the costs with the exceedingly low probability one’s vote will matter in the outcome, and there is very little reason for anyone to vote.   Staying home and watching The Simpsons would likely yield greater personal benefit.  Thus the expected utility of voting is negative, and the rational thing to do is stay home.

A common retort to such an argument is “what if everyone did that.”   But there is no reason to think an individual’s refusal to vote (especially if they don’t tell anyone, or even lie and say they did) affects what others do.   If one calculates the probability that other people didn’t vote as a result of one person’s refusal to vote, it would be extremely low.  Nonetheless, if ‘everyone did that,’ democracy would perish.   If most people did that, a small minority would have the power to impose their will.

So we really need most people to vote.   It isn’t in their individual rational interest to do so, it is in their collective rational interest. Voting, like so many social activities, is based on societal rather than individual rationality.  We do things because what ever personal cost we pay, we know it’s our duty to our community.    Often these are things we could choose not to do without any consequence.   Stopping to pick up some litter when nobody’s around, contributing to a charity, or volunteering are all aspects of social rationality.

Social rationality is different than individual rationality because one doesn’t calculate expected individual utility, but rather expected collective utility.   If everyone did X, then what would the result be?   The to get away with free loading is not relevant in a calculation of collective utility.  It’s assumed others will do the same thing.

Societies act with collective rationality if there is a strong measure of group cohesion and loyalty, if people feel like they are part of something greater than themselves and thus have a subjective sense of happiness or satisfaction when they adhere to the collective action.   One could argue that the individual benefits by feeling good about voting, or meeting friends at the polling center, but the reason those subjective values carry weight is because the individual is thinking in terms of collective utility.   They know that their own self-interest is tied up in social responsibilities and connections; the self-interest is meaningless outside the collective interest.  It is shaped by ones’ culture, and the actions of others are fundamental to subjective well being.

Societies only work when there is a strong sense of community.  In Communist Russia the state tried to force a collective mentality on people, but the opposite emerged.  People felt no responsibility for community or the collective because that was the realm of the state.  Instead people tried to get away with what they could and saw collective responsibility as outside themselves, a duty for the government, not citizens.  The result was a breakdown of social cohesion and the functioning of society.

Ironically, for democracy and individual rights to thrive, there must be a strong sense of collective utility and social responsibility.   Societies with a strong sense of collective utility will have less conflict and more cooperation, thereby yielding the possibility for greater individual freedom.    You have more liberty as an individual if you see yourself bound up with society.

Voting is the classic example of that apparent paradox.   Individual rationality would lead to actions that destroy democracy and could allow tyranny.   A sense of responsibility and societal cohesion leads one to feel the duty vote.   It is that sense of community which also provides one with positive feelings about the act, of being part of the greater whole, and doing something for the good of society.

So next time someone posits individual liberty as being somehow opposed to a strong sense of community, or tries to claim society is made up solely of individuals acting in terms of their own individual self-interest, remember the importance of collective rational interest.  Without a strong sense of collective rationality, individuals will not act in ways that benefit the entire community, and would thereby endanger democracy and freedom.

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Handicapping the Midterms

Although I am blogging far less about the 2010 midterms than I did in the exciting 2008 Presidential campaign, this year really has some intrigue and uncertainty.   The scenarios I painted just over two weeks ago remain the same, and the evidence still points to a 45-50 seat Republican gain in the House, but recent polls have slightly good news for Democrats (emphasis on slight).

Republicans expect this election to follow the pattern of a “wave” election — late voters switch to the winning side, the GOP, and close races get swept into the “R” column.  This means that every poll which has a Republican leading will yield a Republican victory, and most Democrats still nursing a small lead will likely go down to defeat.   Given the state of current polls, that could mean a pick up of 60 to 80 Republican seats in the house, an historic victory.   Evidence supporting this is the Gallup poll of likely voters, showing that in a low turn out election the GOP has a 17% point lead in the generic ballot.  Even the high turn out scenario shows them with an 11% “enthusiasm” lead.

Yet it could be that this election is more like 2008 — Obama had a big lead in mid-October, and it appeared the country was embracing change.  But as election day neared, the Republicans rebounded and made that election a bit closer.  Simply, Obama’s “wave” was early.    It is possible that the Republican wave peaked in September, and there isn’t a late surge coming.   After all, Democratic disillusionment was extremely high in August into September, and the headlines negative for Obama and the Democrats.    If there is no “second wave” for the GOP, the 45-50 range of pick ups is likely.

Recent polls, however, suggest the possibility of a Democratic late mini-surge.

1.  Obama’s job approval.   Rasmussen has been unsteady — the tracking polls always are, but recently Obama has been close to 50%.   This could indicate an increase in Democratic likely voters, as the poll focuses on likely voters, unlike Gallup.  But Gallup today shows Obama with a 48-44 approval edge, higher than recent polls.   It’s impossible to put much weight on the tracking polls, just a few days ago Rasmussen had Obama down almost ten.  Still, there are signs that his popularity is at least stable, and perhaps improving.

2.  The Senate.   Recent polls suggest that the Democrats are faring marginally better than they used to be in Kentucky (Paul, R +5), Washington State (Murray, D +2) , Colorado (Buck, R +1,+3), Alaska (Miller, R +5), Wisconsin (Johnson, R +2), West Virginia (Raese, R +3), and Pennsylvania (Sestak, D +1).  These are toss ups.   In Nevada Harry Reid faces the fight of his life; unless the Democrats do close the enthusiasm gasp, he is very likely to lose.

If trends do not change, the Republicans will likely gain seven seats with the Senate split 52-48.   To gain a majority they’d need a wave to wipe out Boxer in California (unlikely) and then pull off upsets in Connecticut (even more unlikely) and Washington (the most likely of the three).   The Democrats could, however, really trim their loses if they get the mini-wave.  If the close elections above all went Democratic, they’d lose only two (which would include picking up Alaska, which is bizarre due to a Murkowski’s write in candidacy).  Missouri (Blunt, R +6) is still within reach if the Democrats have a late surge.   The chances of the Democrats losing only one seat is as likely as the Republicans gaining a majority, yet each remains possible.   To break even in the Senate the Democrats would have to capture North Carolina (Burr, R +8).    It looks like it’ll be 52D-48R, but it’s not out of the question that it becomes 49D-51R or 59D-41R (assuming independents caucus as they have been).

3.  The House.   Nearly 100 seats are “in play,” and polls show the races close.   Recent polls have benefited Democrats, but only slightly and in polls of varied methodology.    Examples are NY 19 (leans GOP) where Hall (D, +1) has a slight lead.  MA 10 is a toss up, with Keating ahead, (D, +3).  AZ 3 is another GOP leaner, with Dan Quayle’s son now slightly behind Halburd (D +2).  In Virginia Hurt (R, +6) once had leads over 20% against incumbent Tom Perriello.  It’s still a Democratic longshot, but people sometimes come home to the incumbent.  Another toss up is NY 25, with Maffei (D, + 12) having a larger lead than earlier polling which showed him up 3.   The movement over the past week is distinctly towards Democrats, but in small doses and a scattering of races.   Who knows if this is indicative of anything other than a few local idiosyncrasies.   This gives some evidence against a renewed Republican wave, but is not strong enough to suggest things break Democratic at the end.  The uncertainty level is great.

To show how large the GOP advantage is, if the toss ups were split evenly, the GOP would gain 57 seats for a majority of 235R – 200D.   The toss ups are mostly Democrats in Democratic seats, and if the current situation continues it would probably be a bit less severe of a loss, about 47 seats, or 225R – 210D.  That’s the range most experts predict (45-50 seat gain for the GOP).  If the GOP had a wave and the toss ups almost all went GOP, it would a gain of about 70 (248R – 187D).  If the Democrats took all the tossups they’d only barely hold on to the House, losing 35 (213R – 222D).  However, a late Democratic resurgence — feasible since these are incumbents in often Democratic districts — could flip some currently “leans GOP” seats, trimming Democratic loses to perhaps under 30.    Clearly, the Republicans have the advantage, only their worst case scenarios show them not gaining the House.   (The realm of possibilities include 283R – 152D, R +103 to 173R-262D, D +7 — that spectrum clearly favors the Republicans).

4.  The polls themselves.   There is some evidence that due to methodology Rasmussen has a structural “house effect” that advantages Republicans.   This means that a Rasmussen poll that shows a Republican up three may really indicate an even race.   I find that plausible, but if the enthusiasm gap is as large as many think, Rasmussen’s assumptions could be accurate.  Others claim that the lack of cell phone polling and other factors under counts Democrats.   That seems more like wishful thinking from the left since most polls still have good track records — you can usually trust polls to give you what they claim, a snapshot that is within the margin of error about 90% of the time.  That also means outliers are always present — and one tends to trust outliers that benefit one’s own party and dismiss those which benefit the other.

What to make of this?  It’s really an interesting off year election.  It is also fascinating how fickle the American electorate is.  Strong rejection of the GOP and an embrace of change and President Obama to apparent readiness to give an historic victory to the Republicans.   In 2012, it could shift back the other way.   Lacking the ideological fervor of the party activists, it appears the public just wants to figure out who can actually solve the problems.   It may be that neither can, at least not alone.

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