Archive for October, 2010

The Expectations Game

I was at a get together Saturday where most of the guests were conservative Republicans.    Two of them, in fact, are running for state office.    Since I am not conservative (more of a ‘left libertarian’), and because I work in academia, the conversations were different than those to which I’m accustomed.   Nonetheless a few things stood out: a) there was a lot of agreement between us, even if I am from a different part of the political spectrum; b) contrary to liberal prejudices about conservatives, these were intelligent, pragmatic people, and c) they are absolutely convinced there is going to be a GOP blowout this year.  Talk of the GOP winning 60 or 80 seats, and maybe taking the Senate was stated with near certainty.

That got me to wondering — is a Republican blowout an almost certainty, or do the Democrats have a chance to limit their loses and keep control of the House and Senate?    I recently wrote about the different scenarios for the election, leaving open the possibility that Democrats could bounce back (as well as the chance of a complete GOP blowout).    The Democrats bouncing back would still mean losing over two dozen house seats and a few Senate seats, but that given the expectations held by the pundits and the Republicans, anything short of the GOP capturing at least one branch of Congress would be seen as a victory for the Democrats.

The problem is that no matter how you look at an election cycle like this, you can find pundits and arguments supporting your most favored outcome.    And if you go with history and a quantitative analysis of existing polls, it seems to indicate a good likelihood of GOP gains of over forty (though likely not over fifty).

The argument that the GOP will run away with a victory of historical proportions is built on the expectation that the close races will swing overwhelmingly Republican in the waning days of the election because that is what happens in “wave” elections.   The argument that the Democrats will bounce back and retain a majority of the House is built on the notion that the Republicans have peaked, and the tea party rhetoric gives the Democrats a chance to build enthusiasm as people start to think of what it will mean with the Republicans in power.

The Democrats point to polls that show some signs of optimism in close House and Senate races, as well as improvement in Obama’s approval ratings recently.   Yet the data for these is slight, and Obama’s approval hangs at near 50%, where it’s been virtually all year (though it dipped down to near 42 a few weeks ago).

I think there are strong reasons to doubt an additional Republican “late surge.”  I think their support has peaked, and they’ll need to continue pressing to gain control of the House.  I doubt they can win the Senate.   There are also strong reasons to doubt the Democratic resurgence.   In general the polls are stable, and off year elections give Republicans a structural advantage — their voters are always more likely to vote.   Moreover, the races are individual and not a national referendum on either Obama or the tea party.  As such, people are unlikely to suddenly shift support.   On the other hand, incumbents still have advantages, even in an anti-incumbent year, and that may help save a few Democrats in trouble.

The best thing the Democrats have going for them is the expectations game.    The Republicans could gain 35 House seats and the story line will be GOP disappointment.   That sets the bar low for the Democrats.   A resurgence from predicted losses from 45 to 35 isn’t that hard to imagine, especially if one looks at how close these races are.  There are signs that Democrats are closing the enthusiasm gap.

Yet Gallup reports that in a high voter turn out scenario the GOP has a 12% lead, with 18% in a low voter turnout.    That also is bad news for the Democrats in every category except the expectations game.  There even a later Gallup survey showing the numbers narrowing to 8 and 10, for instance, would be seen as a sign of a comeback, even though those numbers would be exceedingly bad if it turned into a reality on November 2nd.

Finally, expectations are exceedingly high for the Republicans to accomplish something if elected.   It was losing at that expectations game that helped Bill Clinton recover from the 1994 drubbing of Congressional Democrats and easily win a second term in 1996.  It’s also the reason why the Democrats are in trouble — they won promising a new style of leadership in Washington, yet problems haven’t gone away.

So each party really has to play the hand they are dealt.  The Democrats have to put up a fight and embrace the low expectations.  They could lose 35 seats now, a drubbing in any year, but appear to have won in light of the expectations of a massive Republican surge.   The GOP is like the heavyweight champ, people expect not only a victory but a KO punch.   They have to try to keep momentum and support strong — they may not have the expectations game going for them, but at this point they do have the polls.

Finally, no matter who wins, it’s clear that we can go from massive Democratic support to massive Republican support virtually overnight.  It’s not because of what the party activists want in either party, but due to the fact the public wants them to work together and solve some problems.  If that can be accomplished after this election it will be a very good year no matter what the outcomes.   That’s the real message voters are trying to send.

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Being In Control

(Warning: this is a self-indulgent reflection about myself, and is for that reason probably quite boring to others.   But hey, it’s my blog, I can do this sometimes)

I was talking with a friend about the importance of feeling in control of how things are going — in life, at work, when planning a party, etc.   Feeling in control is rather important to this person, though she herself is not a controlling or manipulating person.  It’s just that she likes things to unfold as they should, and finds herself very irritated and often angry when people or circumstances take a different path.    If she’s done a lot of work to prepare an event or activity, it seems a personal affront when people decide to ignore her instructions or skip the event.   This person likes to plan ahead, know when things are happening, who will be at parties, and what the expectations are.

I am pretty much the opposite.   While some people plan their way through life, I tend to improvise.    My friend is very organized, keeps a calendar, and is quite neat.  I’m comfortable being disorganized.  I don’t keep a calendar and tend to tackle tasks haphazardly.

My approach yields benefits and drawbacks.   Compared to my friend, I don’t to get irritated as much when things don’t go as planned.     I remember back when I was night manager of a pizza place a colleague of mine would get panicky whenever we were understaffed and got a large rush.  She’d be running around, angry at the scheduling manager for not staffing us right, mad if the ovenman couldn’t handle all the pizzas,  and pushing people to make their pizzas faster.

I would shift into high speed mode, to be sure (and as with dish washing, I was a fast pizza maker), but would try to calm people down.  “OK, we’re understaffed, let’s just do our best and not panic.”  I’d make jokes, hand out free coupon cards to customers who had to wait, give them free beverages while they were waiting, and figure that the extra money we were making compared to our labor costs warranted that treatment.   “A rush is no reason to stop having fun…”   I did expect the workers to do their best — this was a job after all — but they can’t change the fact we’re understaffed in a rush!

Even when I do plan (I am the main organizer of the travel courses, planning hotels, itineraries, etc.) I’m willing to see the plan shift — a plan is only an idea of what should happen, but if events demand, we can improvise.   Simply, I know I’m not in control of how my life unfolds:  the events and people around me, or the circumstances that shape my future.  I’m fine with that.

Nonetheless: This is my life, damn it, I’m going to be in control of it.  My life.

By that I mean I try to control my choices and to some extent my mood.  I do not easily yield to someone else’s desires or demands unless I want to.   Now, often I want to – I like helping people, and have no problem doing things friends and family ask me to do.   I like doing things that make others happy, so I tend to try to help out whenever I can.    But I rebel in cases either where expectations are made that I think are inappropriate, or when people demand I do things.  I don’t like taking orders or following rules.

While that sounds immature (and especially if I’m tired I’m sure I too often take that to a point where I’m acting immature), I think it balances with my ability to accept not being in control of the circumstances and people around me.  You gotta take life as it comes, and respond to people with the default assumption that the people I’m dealing with are basically good even if they do things that are not what I want.   That makes it easier to not be offended by what people say or do, or not get upset when they make decisions that seem disrespectful or ignorant of my desires/needs.  I don’t want to be controlled, I certainly shouldn’t expect to be in control of others!

Circumstances are also out of my control.   For instance, once I knock over a glass of soda I put too close to the edge of the table, that event is outside my control.   I shouldn’t get upset because I or someone else put the glass there (though I could do a ‘note to self’ — place the glass more safely next time).   Once a decision was made in the past it becomes engulfed in that field of circumstances, and anger at it is misplaced.  Absent a time machine, it can’t be undone.   I can control how I react — grab paper towels and clean up the spill.

Now, what about when horrific things happen, like a traffic death or a murder — can those be labeled mere circumstances?   Before answering that I’d note that a lot of people get upset and stressed out over the minor incidents so often that being able to take the minor stresses as they come by remaining calm and “in control” would make life easier.   But I’d argue that in theory the same is true for life’s tragedies.   I’m not going to pretend that it would be easy to cope with, say, falling off a ladder and losing a leg.   But if that happens, anger and resentment would be drags on one’s energy and the capacity to find a positive direction to take life.  That’s why forgiveness is so liberating, it’s taking anger and resentment at an unchangeable past event and lets it go — the energy spent on anger can then be used in the present.

So I do like to be in control after all, but not of other people or the external events of the day.  Rather, I take control of and responsibility for the choices I make, and my capacity to enjoy life.   That is at one level very selfish, but it also makes it easier to selfishly choose to help others.  It also seems to work, I genuinely enjoy life and can at least handle the little ups and downs of the day without losing a sense of happiness/contentment.    Not always, of course, but overall I think attitude really matters in life — to control what I can control, and accept and adapt to the rest.

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Reliving 1976

Lately I have taken bits of time here and there to start transcribing my old journals.   I’m currently in the summer of ’76, which was in some ways idyllic.  I was 16, had a car, worked at a restaurant busing tables and washing dishes, and spent most of my time playing tennis, hanging around with friends, and having crushes on different girls (and a first real kiss).

As I read it Sioux Falls of 1976 comes alive again — hanging around the tennis courts at Frank Olson park, working at the First Edition Restaurant, a full summer including a back packing trip to the Black Hills with my friends Dan and Brad, a super fun high school debate camp at Augustana College (and my crush on Elaine and really a trio of girls from the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area).

I can picture myself driving around in the 1963 Chevy Bel Aire, working late nights cleaning the restaurant, spending most days playing in some way.    We didn’t drink, smoke, and certainly didn’t even think of doing any drugs — but played a lot of tennis and had fun.   A clean wholesome but awesome summer.   Instead of texting or even calling we’d drive over to each others houses and see if anyone was home.

I’ve always had a fond view of that summer.  I recall it as sunny every day.  And it was the driest year of Sioux Falls history, only 11 inches of precipitation all year, which was great for a 16 year old having fun, not so good for the farmers.  As I read through my journal I realize it also was amazingly stress free.  My job (30 – 40 hours a week) had me work mostly evenings busing tables and doing dishes.   I could do that work easily — in fact I was complimented as the fastest dishwasher the manager “Walter” had ever seen.   (And I recall devouring half eaten steaks or left over fries that the waiters dumped in the dishwashing bins).

Daytime I was constantly on the move — visiting friends, playing tennis, hanging out.  The days were social and fun, and thanks to my job I had money to go out for pizza, pay for gas for the car, and even get back packing gear for the big trip to the Black Hills.

I’m just starting on this journal transcription project, but I’m impressed by how thorough the journals are.  I described most days in detail, recounting conversations, and events.  As I read it I can picture Sioux Falls circa 1976.  Frank Olson park in my mind is exactly how it looked then (it helps that I don’t know how it looks now).    My parents did not intrude at all in my life that summer; I came and went as I pleased, even when I worked until 2:00 AM, or was gone all day playing tennis or visiting friends.   I had some chores, but they weren’t intense.

In the first part of June I had a crush on a 14 year old named Joanna.   My best friend was going out with her older sister (the family had girls aged 11, 14, 16, 17, and 18, and also a boy aged 13 with whom I also got along well).   A lot of us hung around their house that summer, playing chess, checkers, talking and heading to the park for tennis (or to watch their brother’s ball games).   I have to wonder what their parents thought about us hanging around so much!  Later I’d have a crush on the 16 year old (Kathy) and with her I’d have my first kiss.

I did have some political commentary.  I didn’t like Jimmy Carter, I wanted Reagan to beat Ford in the primaries (he didn’t), and defended North Korea during our backpacking trip after they shot some US soldiers.   I was a jerk at times (refusing to clean up after a shower at a friends’ aunt’s house in Rapid City because I didn’t like being ordered around — Brad should have smacked me), but overall I’m enjoying getting to know my younger self through these words.

I’ll blog about that summer every now and then as I go through the transcription process, perhaps reflecting on what that era was like, or a particular event I happen to transcribe that day.    I suspect there will be a few blog entries comparing the current era to that bicentennial celebration year.   Moreover, as the journal transcription will be slow, and my journals continue through the rest of my high school time, this my be fodder for blog entries for some time to come.

For today, I just want to issue a profound thank you to Scott Erb, the 16 year old boy who in June, 1976 decided his life was fun and interesting enough to record in a detailed journal.   The gift my young self is giving his 50 year old “future self” is priceless.

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TARP Cost $50 Billion?

It may not help the Democrats during the 2010 election cycle, but in the long run the Toxic Asset Relief Program so vilified by Republicans and pundits may turn out to not only be cheap (and could even earn money for the government), but be remembered as the program that rescued the American economy when there was a severe risk of global depression.

I’m not convinced that we’ll avoid “Great Depression 2.”  I’m still of the opinion we’re in it, though perhaps with thoughtful policy it can be ended without lasting the length and causing the amount of suffering brought on by the first Great Depression.   Of course, the consistent economic growth pulling the US out of the depression from 1933 to 1937 led President Roosevelt to abandon his policies and work to try to balance the budget — that brought the depression back in 1938.     But with economic numbers starting to improve, and the news about the fact that TARP did not blow a huge hole in the deficit after all, this oft maligned government program may end up being seen as one of the most enlightened acts of the Bush Administration.

It’s easy now to forget the panic that set in after the collapse of Lehman brothers.   Insiders were convinced that we stood at the precipice of a major economic collapse which could stall the economy completely if something were not done.   Major corporations were at risk, and there was even talk about McDonald’s being unable to make payroll.  The fear that we were about to fall to 30% unemployment and major bank failures nation wide was real.   Those events were very possible in September 2008.

Yet from the start the efforts of Treasury Secretary Paulson and President Bush to find a way to prevent economic meltdown were fraught with politics.    While they feared the worst, mainstream citizens and even many politicians did not see the threat.   Following an ideological mantra of “let the market handle it,” they didn’t understand that in this interconnected global economy it wasn’t just “letting bad banks fail,” but accepting a systemic failure that would wreck havoc on both those actors who made bad choices, and innocent businesses caught up in the maelstrom.   Simplistic ideological slogans make bad policy, after all.

John McCain originally sought to suspend the campaign to deal with the crisis, and headed back to Washington where he found himself paralyzed by politics.   He supported the measure, but his party was showing skepticism.    His weak performance in that affair helped galvanize support for Obama who in this stood behind the unpopular President Bush.

As the economy continued to sputter through 2009 and 2010, TARP has become something everyone loves to hate.  $700 billion to bankers!   They’re posting profits — they didn’t need it!  The markets were circumvented, TARP is running up the deficit, it was unnecessary and wasteful.  McCain even lamely claimed that he was lied to about what the bill did when a primary challengers attacked him for voting yes.

But sometimes the short term view is wrong.   Now that TARP looks ready to be not only cheap, but ultimately will post a profit, it’s clearly NOT the horrific waste of money people made it out to be.    Moreover, criticism that it rewarded bankers or failed to reform the system is misguided.   At that point speed was of the essence, if not done in time the downward spiral could have gone out of control.   All they could do is gird up the system as it was, flaws and all.   Once the system stabilized and we were out of danger of economic collapse, then time could be spent talking about reform.   At that point, liquidity was needed.

A lot of economics is driven by psychology.  The fact that a massive influx of capital showed the capacity of the US government to reinforce the system at a time of weakness helped give banks, investors, foreign markets, and US businesses the confidence that while a recession was inevitable, there was no need to panic.   The system would still buckle; the Dow fell over 40% at one point, and without the subsequent stimulus package we’d still have risked seeing unemployment over 20%.     Collapse, however, was averted.

President Bush had a difficult Presidency.  Misjudgments on Iraq, massive deficit spending during an economic boom, and other mistakes hurt the US on many levels.  Yet when faced with this most dangerous crisis to his the US in recent history – far more dangerous to the national interest than the attacks of 9-11 — he did what was necessary and pulled the US economy from the abyss.

It’ll take awhile for the pundits to abandon their vilification or TARP and get the $700 billion sum out of their heads.  The anti-TARP narrative is pretty entrenched.  But over time the reality of the heroic effort to save the global economy from the danger of a disastrous collapse will be appreciated and recognized.

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Poll Watching

Today is October 2nd, and if you’re interested in the 2010 elections, today is really the time to start paying attention.   Three scenarios exist, and any one of them is possible:

1.  Major Republican gains, such as a take over of the house and a near take over of the Senate. This is the current pundit favorite, as a mix of bad poll numbers for Democratic candidates, an economy on the skids, and the usual troubles for a first term President in the off year elections combine to create a potential perfect storm for the Democrats.   While Republicans overstate support for their causes (just as Democrats did in 2008) the pendulum has swung, and 2010 will be a year for the Republicans like 2008 was for the Democrats.   Some see voters breaking GOP late, creating a wave election that could easily sweep the GOP into power in both the House and Senate.

2.  Big GOP gains, but short of a House and Senate take over. This view suggests Republican support has peaked and the Democrats have appeared under-enthused distant from the election, especially as the “tea party” and economic woes have dominated the news.   But as the campaigns get in focus, incumbents will remind voters why they voted for them, negatives on “new” candidates will grow, and the current expectations of a GOP “wave” will fade.  Given the expectations the GOP now has, even a great off year would feel like a failure if they don’t gain control of at least the House.

3.  A Democratic resurgence as a backlash against the tea party and fear of GOP policies.   A final view says that the US public still blames the GOP for the economy and as the election nears and more coverage is given to tea party candidate and extreme rhetoric from some Republican candidates, Democrats will regain enthusiasm and the “late wave” will swing a lot of “leans Republican” races over to the Democratic column.   The Democrats will still lose seats, but nowhere near enough to endanger the House, and may only two or three on the Senate side.   Even if they gain 25 seats such a result will be a devastating loss for a fired up GOP, and give the Democrats another chance to hope the economy is better in 2012.

Two websites are worth reading.    One is the conservative website Real Clear Politics list of latest election polls. The key is to look for trends, not cherry pick one time results.    As I write this (the site is updated constantly) the latest “generic” poll has the Democrats up 5% over the GOP.   However, almost all recent polls have as big or even bigger lead for the Republicans.  Is this poll (from Newsweek) an outlier, or is it the sign of a trend?   Particular races as well may show trends.    If the GOP lead is solid, these polls should not drift into the “blue” column much in coming weeks.  If we are to get a GOP wave, the GOP should solidify their leads and towards the end build on them.

Another is Nate Silver’s New York Times website “538: Politics Done Right.”   He has a political science approach, using quantitative methods to try to gauge the election and make predictions.   He is very forthright about his methodology, and those with a Poli-Sci bent (and understanding of statistical methods and modeling) can dig through and see what his assumptions are.   If you don’t want to go that far, watch his predicitions.  Right now (as I write this), he predicts a 67% chance of the GOP taking the House, expecting a 46 seat gain for the GOP.   For the Senate he predicts the Democrats will lose seven, holding on to the majority with 52 seats.   Here again, look for trends.

His assumptions may be off, and if so his predictions could be way off base.   He has an 87% chance of a Le Page win in the Maine Governor’s race, even though the most recent poll shows a dead heat.    There are similar quibbles one can make in races affecting both parties.  So far, his model has been stable and has shown the GOP holding on to and sometimes strengthening its position.  Now that it’s October, it’ll be worth watching with more interest.

And, of course, there are other issues at play.  There is an intense battle within the Republican party for the heart and soul of that party.  The tea party movement fancies itself as representing a massive change in direction, believing it is a movement that will gain strength and alter American politics.   Most establishment Republicans see it as a short term rally built on the poor economy and disappointment with Obama’s inability to bring real change.   If the GOP looks too extreme, independents will flee back to the Democrats, especially as demographics increase Hispanic voters angry with tea party views on immigration.   If the Republicans do not gain the House, look for the “tea party” to fizzle and pragmatic Republicans to re-establish party control.   If the Republicans ride a wave into majorities in one or both houses, they risk an internal battle that could benefit the Democrats greatly in 2012.   After all, as much as the Democrats seem on the ropes now, the Republicans looked just as bad two years ago.

To those who would accuse me of watching the horse race instead of writing about the important issues at play, well, I blog about important issues sometimes too.   But following electoral dynamics is fun, especially in a year as potentially volatile and fascinating this one.

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Getting Started with Quantum Life

(Note, this is part 5 of a series called “Quantum Life,” in which I post the contents of a strange ‘guide book’ I found for a game called “Quantum Life.”  It is in English, which it calls a “Quantum Life language,” unable to capture all the complexities of the world as it really is.  I’m not sure where this book came from.):

Getting Started with Quantum Life

If you have decided to play Quantum Life, the usual starting point is to experience life in somewhat limited form, the so called “Quantum Life Experience.”  This is usually a pleasurable existence in that you are directly connected with the Quantum Life environment but maintain a strong link with the collective whole.   It is common for people doing this to remain aware of their true existence during these rounds of play, apparently in violation of the requirement of ignorance of reality.    This means suffering and pain can easily be mitigated by a shift of focus.

You have probably heard this referred to as the “Quantum Life Experience,” engaged in by people curious about the sensations and experiences promised by the game, but unwilling to separate themselves from knowledge of their connection to the collective whole.   In the game these “players” are considered to be plants, insects, and animals.    Depending on the kind of stimulation desired, people choose different forms.   In some cases (such as many insects and lower form animals) an individual becomes a “swarm” or “herd” of a particular life form.

Players can also co-exist as animals, insects, fish or plants even as they enter life as a human ignorant of their connection to the collective whole.   This can be either to compliment their particular life choices, or balance out the expected experiences for a particular round of play.   Someone entering with the purpose of suffering may also exist as a deep water fish so that in times of intense pain the mind can shift focus to a completely different kind of existence, thereby limiting the impact of the negative experience.

Players who want to use these as a path towards entering the game completely can also choose forms that have a partial veil of ignorance — the connection with the collective whole is felt, but not completely.    These are higher level animals such as apes, or animals that have relationships with humans, such as pets or horses used for work or transportation.    In such an existence rudimentary individual thought takes place, but the connection to the collective whole also guides behavior.   Such existences can help players decide if they want to enter as a human.

To Be Human

A human is a player who is ignorant of the collective whole (except for the connections noted earlier in the manual), and fully immersed in the game.    Humans acquire a new kind of knowledge, however, a knowledge of good and evil.  While connected to the collective whole, a natural goodness pervades all existence due to the harmony of unity (such states are inherently hard to communicate using a Quantum Life language like English).   Once separated from knowledge of that connection, humans have to navigate notions of “self” and “other.”   This creates a lower sort of knowledge, that being between “good” (the self in harmony with the other, approaching what one would experience in the collective whole) and “evil” (the self in conflict with the other, the antithesis of experience within the collective whole.)

This knowledge, generated from the very limited contact humans have with their real existence, comes forth as an emotion, feeling, or yearning.   It can be ignored or overwhelmed by other desires, or followed.   It includes pain at seeing another suffer, a desire to be with others and become friends, and other very basic human traits.   This defines the essential core of what a human is: a creature guided by a rudimentary knowledge of  good and evil, in a world where choices have to be made.

Usually new players start with “lives” where human choices are relatively easy to make.   This involves injecting oneself into situations of cultural rigidity and clear rules.   The freedom to make choices contrary to one’s core internal knowledge of what is good is limited; the game is structured to make the costs of such choices obviously high and thus unlikely to be made.   Here players practice learning how to live, how to make choices that correspond to what is “good.”

Players move foward choosing more complex lives and situations, in each case creating possible temptations away from the good, as well as circumstances making it more difficult to recognize good from evil.   As noted earlier, fear becomes the primary obstacle to choosing good.   It is recommended that players spend time with game counselors inbetween rounds of play (lives) to determine the level appropriate for the next round.    A player moving too quickly to more complex life situations is more likely to fall into temptation and develop fears that linger and grow, sometimes over numerous rounds of play (this is where it’s possible to become addicted to Quantum Life).

Players also gain more control over their game (life) circumstances as they play more often.   New players have to start with “level one” existence, involving an emphasis on physical stimulation and a need to explore and obtain material well being.  The main fear danger is fear of not having enough to survive.     So, with that broad overview in mind, let’s look at a typical round of play, or a “life.”

(I’ll stop copying the manual for today — I’ll try to find time to post more of it in the near future, between my normal blog posts).

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