Monday, March 31, 2008

Obama wins in Texas (is this news?)

I thought everybody knew this, but I forgot that the instinct of the media are to "never let the facts get in the way of a good story". That, by the way is what journalists say about themselves, but the phrase originated in Texas.

It was known already on March 4th that Senator Obama had won the caucuses by such a substantial margin that an overall lead in delegates from Texas was to be expected. Still, it was reported as a win for Clinton. And an important one, too: Bill Clinton the night I saw him here said that winning Texas and Ohio was key to his wife remaining in the race. So the perception that she won trumped the fact that she lost.

Why? The mainstream media in every recent national race has built up the underdog and torn down the front runner producing as tight a race as possible. I believe it's called selling advertising. Clinton's continuation in the race is necessary for the exciting narrative they've constructed of a 'virtual tie' to continue. 'Statistical dead heats' beat major weather as being an endless source of media distraction, and they will automatically create one any time they can. To the extent (for example) that even a nut like Huckabee is treated as a contender long after his sell-by date has passed.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Hey Rush! Ever thought of this?

A lot of the people you are encouraging to cross-register and go to caucuses might just have a different experience there than the one you imagine. They will go to caucus and meet, not rabid feminazis, not screaming angry black men, not unshaven, unwashed organic earth-firsters, but ordinary hardworking Americans who love their country and are just trying to put food on the table. People who think the Gummint should bail out working people first and wealthy (but over-greedy) financial institutions second. People who wish they had never heard the words "pre-existing condition". People whose children are dying in Iraq.

All that screaming you do about how awful liberals are might just seem pretty dumb then. I welcome those people to our process, Rush.

In the electoral college, both Clinton and Obama lose

At the end of the day wht counts is electoral votes, not primary or general election votes. So to see what a Clinton-McCain or Obama-McCain matchup would look like converted to electoral votes, the site has compiled electoral maps based on polling of potential presidential races. While the popular vote polls show a tight race in which Obama is consistently ahead, when converted to an electoral vote map, the situation is very different. In short, Clinton and Obama are both trailing now. This is a followup on my earlier post here.

All the usual caveats apply.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Bumpersticker: Republicans for Obama

Seen at the democratic county caucus meeting for delegation chairs. More than one. And I guess that they will actually vote for Obama, unlike the Hillary republicans, who will switch in the general.

It *should* go down to the wire

Everyone seems to be upset about the current stalemate in the democratic party, worrying about the damage being done. The only thing about this that bothers me is the long time gaps between the last few contests, ones that won't change the outcome one bit. That and the democrats' tendency to attack each other rather than their opponent.

But there are several good things about the situation:

1) The republican scream machine doesn't know who to attack. It's hard to sustain a level of hysteria against two opponents at once who are so different. And hysteria is all the republicans have to offer this time around.
2) The drama keeps the base engaged, and gives them time to talk to their undecided friends.
3) The dem nominee will get a big bump when the nomination is resolved.
4) Both candidates are building structures in 50 states that will be hugely useful in the general election.
5) John McCain doesn't know what kind of campaign to prepare for.

If we can just refrain from attacking each other, we'll be fine.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Electoral Math favors Clinton?

Everyone is freaking out about superdelegates, credentials, brokered conventions, Youtube, "hope" and so forth. Once again, people are so fixated on vote totals, about who is two points ahead against McCain this week, they are missing some very fundamental points.

The web site has just gone live with a set of projected electoral maps that is fascinating. While Senator Obama is once again winnning the projected popular vote vs. Senator McCain by a larger margin than Senator Clinton, when you look at the projected electoral college, the situation is very different: Clinton beats McCain by a substantial electoral margin, and Obama loses, by about the same margin.

The interesting thing is that Obama puts a lot more states into play than Clinton, who lives up to her reputation as a polarizing figure. So Obama swings a lot of small states into the weakly democrat category and a lot of solid Republican states become weak Republican states. Good for him. BUT Senator Clinton flips Florida to the blue, and that is what makes the difference. No wonder she's hanging in there. I would too.

As many other people have noticed, Senator Clinton's natural strategy will be a traditional democratic "big state" strategy such as we have seen from John Kerry and Al Gore before him. Senator Obama on the other hand is better suited to a Howard Dean-style 50-state strategy, where a passel of little states could bleed the Republicans to death despite their taking Florida.

All this has serious practical consequences. McCain is financially weaker than either Clinton or Obama is likely to be, and cannot afford to make any wrong bets. Consequently, his campaign must be in a panic trying to decide which of two *very* different opponents to prepare for. If he invests money now to defend (the Midwest against Obama, he may lose Florida to Clinton. If he ignores the Midwest too long, winning Florida may be a poor consolation for a loss to Obama.

Running a campaign means getting expensive people on the ground *now*, which both democratic campaigns have already. You should see what they're doing in Texas! Senator McCain may find himself way behind the 8-ball in states where he would normally enjoy a big advantage. There must be some people tearing their hair about about this protracted democratic navel-gaze. I think it's good for the Democrats!

Now, these projections have to be taken with a grain or two tons of salt, but it's the electoral vote that counts, as we all know, and not what's a "big state", who's got momentum, or what my pastor's hairdresser said on youtube.

April will be Science and Technology month on this blog

I will concentrate on science and technology issues next month, and try to elaborate some things I've learned in the trenches of basic science that might have relevance to the current political debate.

Texas Caucus update

I wrote before about what I saw a potential shenanigans by Clinton supporters at the Caucus. I have to apologize, and I will edit my post to reflect this: The lady in question was a pledged Clinton delegate whose phone number we had gotten by mistake. That means by saying she was undecided she was swinging our way, not the other way! That said, I have no wish to influence her decision. She has a moral obligation to represent the wishes of the people who elected her, and I'd prefer she do that. Otherwise it's us that were up to no good!

In general, there was some disorganized craziness which the heroic efforts of my wife appear to have sorted out. We will see at the Obama delegate party tonight at my house. I think we will have a full Obama delegation ready to go Saturday morning and win a state delegate (worth about 1/100 of a national delegate) for Senator Obama.

Republican PC hypocrisy

There's an excellent article in Salon discussing the problem with hysteric jingoists declaring certain opinions or utterances off-limits regardless of context. I have a bit of a different take on it, then I promise never to mention Rev. Wright again.

I've had it up to here with right wingers who cry about, on the one hand "Happy Holidays" or "Waitperson" as somehow evidence of a communist plot to control their mind. Then they turn around and whine about Rev. Wright saying "God Damn America" as if that were the same as planting a bomb. Last time I looked this was a free country with a vibrant political discourse. It might be in poor taste for me to write God Damn America or even Nigger in my blog, but by God I have a right to do it! As Reverend Wright had a right to say what he said. And just because Senator Obama may have listened to him say it, so what? We'll judge the content of his character by what he says and does. He may have learned an entirely different lesson from that sermon than the one simple-minded people might assume.

Monday, March 24, 2008

"The president carries the biggest burden, obviously," Cheney said.

Excuse me while I vomit.

Local Clinton cheaters? NOT -- see update above.

Some people think the primary election is over in Texas. Some people are wrong. There are still 35 delegates to the national convention up for grabs in the state caucus process that started on primary night, March 4th. That night we elected delegates for Senator Obama and Senator Clinton to the Senate district convention on Saturday, which will elect delegates to the state convention (about 8000 state delegates and alternates).

We called up all the Obama delegates from our precinct to talk strategy, and found out that one of our delegates is now "undecided". We also know that she has been to a state convention before (ie has been active in Democratic politics) and is the sister of a Clinton delegate from our precinct.

It turns out that at the precinct level we are not pledged, but are in fact free to vote our conscience. What that means is that there is nothing wrong with being undecided. What bothers me is the idea that she probably signed up as an Obama delegate with the intention of switching. There's something wrong with that. Our precinct is large enough to elect a state delegate all by itself, and we have a big margin, so her flipping by itself does not endanger our Obama senate-district delegate. But what if there are others?

We've been to several Obama training sessions, rallies, and so forth, and are in several mailing lists, and never has this subject come up. What I'm saying is, there's no way you can say "both sides do this": it's cheating. And it looks like there's nothing we can do about it. The rules seem to be set up to permit this kind of thing.

These shenanigans do seem to fit with the general attitude of the Clinton camp. They believe the nomination is rightfully theirs, justifying all measures fair and foul necessary to obtain it.

The delegates from the Senate district convention are pledged, at least.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Barack Obama writes his own speeches!!

Why doesn't anybody out there in the American media notice that Senator Obama is the first presidential candidate in a generation (more?) who writes his own speeches?

My guess: Embarrassment.

The media these days mostly operates as a blank slate that is written upon by appropriately crafted press releases, mostly composed by political operatives and other partisan individuals. This is responsible for the linked phenomena of he-said she-said journalism, pack journalism, and the decline of the very idea of objective reality. Part of the reason is the successful management and co-opting of the press by the Bush administration. The other part is the purchase of the media largely by right-leaning or outright right-wing corporate interests.

If it wasn't for the internet, we would be in really deep trouble.

But to tie up my original assertion, to admit that a politician who is *actually* running the show, is actually the author of not only his ideas but his words is to admit their own intellectual bankruptcy.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The coming Iraq war user fee

UPDATE: A similar piece, with different methods and a slightly different result here.

The right is big into user fees, so let's try this one out: Let's pay for the Iraq war with one. A reasonable estimate of the costs of the war include the direct costs of materiel and salaries of soldiers and contractors, and also the indirect costs of health care, pensions, rebuilding of US military infrastructure and regional foreign aid. Most estimates that take these things into account come out around $3T for the total cost over 10 years. That's up just 5 orders of magnitude from the ~$50 million estimates the Bush Administration advanced pre-war. It doesn't take into account opportunity costs for things we could have done with it that would have saved or made us money like ending poverty in this country, or investing in education, basic research or stuff like that.

Model 1: Pay up front.

If we had to just pay now, like we would have to for a package tour or any other private commitment, the price is $10,000 for each of 300,000,000 American men, women and children. However, only about half of us are gainfully employed, so the number is about $20,000 per taxpayer, in round numbers.

Model 2: Finance it.

Let's say we take that $20K tab and put it on the plastic at 18% per year compounded monthly and pay it over 10 years. That's $360/month. If we assume a cheaper rate, say 5%, then the monthly cost is $212. No problem! That 2.25% Fed rate you heard about? Forget it, that's not for us, it's only for deep-pockets financial institutions.

Model 3: Gasoline surcharge

Current (2007) US gas consumption is about 388 million gallons a day. That's 142 billion gallons a year. If we simply split the cost over the projected consumption, we get about 2 bucks a gallon Iraq war surcharge. Cheap! But of course consumption is not static, it increases every year. If it increases at 3%, the Bush Iraq war surcharge is down to $1.65/gal. But, as we found out in the 80's, peoples consumption does react to price changes (this is called the price elasticity of demand). Or the surcharge might tip the economy into a recession. Or the economy might already be in recession. If consumption drops by 3% a year instead of rising, then we have to take that into account and set the surcharge accordingly, at $2.25/gallon. Not that much more.

Bottom line:

You're in for $20K up front, or $212/month over 10 years, or $2 a gallon. Already. Whether you like it or not.

How do you want to pay for that sir? Cash or credit?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Horror of Bear, Stearns.

Marxists often derisively refer to capital markets as a casino for the very wealthy, rigged to their advantage, and designed to protect them from harm in any downturn. Regarding the events of the past week and the actions by the Fed, it's not hard to see their point of view.

The fed is bailing out the financial industry, with 30 billion dollar gifts to wealthy investment houses. At the same time, many of these bad loans were taken out by ordinary working people who were simply duped by that same financial system. The cheaters as a group are *rewarded* for being cheats. And big investment banks that fail are shown that they will be bailed out when the S. really hits the F.

The system ought to work so that ordinary people get bailed out first. These mortgages aren't that hard to identify: They are taken out by families that hold one mortgage and occupy a dwelling. They should be bought up and re-negotiated. Ben Bernanke has much more sympathy for the bad boys of the financial class than for home owning families, so see who he tends to first.

The other people who are really scrod are Bear Stearns employees who held a substantial fraction of their 401K portfolio Enron-like in their employer's stock. The CEOs of corporations should be required to *personally* guarantee the value of employee-held stock in pension plans.

Noblesse Oblige. And it would be a nice brake on reckless tactics. How much did the CEO of BS take home in bonuses this year already? They should be up for grabs right now to discourage this kind of thing.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Setting the bar higher

Let me expand on my remarks yesterday. Besides the content of the speech, which was remarkable, there were two aspects of the "More Perfect Union" speech that really stand out.

1) Barack Obama said, in effect, black people, I speak for you. And then turned around and said white people, I speak for you too. In a credible way that left many people who hadn't thought much about him before audibly moved. This is something that really sets Obama apart from other politicians.

2) Barack Obama set his speech in nuanced and refined language that a cynic would assume would fly over the heads of the American people. On one of my favorite radio shows this morning, "Connect the Dots" the point was made that eloquence is a weapon very rarely deployed in American politics. We regularly assume that our leaders will talk down to us, speak to the lowest common denominator. Certainly Dubya and Bubba did that. I can only applaud this new approach. Lots of people have promised to raise the tone of political discourse in Washington. I think they forget that this requires both a will and a capability to do so that almost nobody has anymore. Barack Obama appears to have both.

Can it be that attacks like we saw on Gore and Kerry simply won't work on a subtle and eloquent speaker like Obama? He certainly seems to fend off every attack with a seemingly effortless grace. I'm sure that somewhere the people behind the "swiftboat veterans" are sharpening their knives, will Obama dissect their mindless arguments with logical clarity? I sure hope so. I sure hope so.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Reporting the reports on BHO's Philly speech

Barack Obama has set the bar pretty high for the American people, and even higher for the press. Essentially, he says, if you report this as "Barack won't disown former pastor" you are playing with the old deck. Affirming an outmoded way of thinking about politics and about race. Will the media hear the message or go for the sound bite? The titles of their stories are most instructive:

Reuters: "Obama denounces preacher, says can't disown him". Missed the point of the speech entirely, interested only in the distraction of Pastor Wright, not in the larger issue. D. Update: Reuters changed the second clause to "urges race healing", give them a C for that.

LA times: "Obama confronts nation's race issues" Fair and neutral title. Not about the horse race at least. B+

Boston Globe: "Obama calls for racial unity" Much closer to the actual content of the speech. B+

AP: "Obama Confronts Racial Division in US" Even better. B+ UPDATE: Really bad article though, uses words like "racially tinged" and "pointed" to suggest that Barack is calling out whitey, by the ubiquitous and loathsome nedra Pickler. F.

Washington Times: "Activists go wild over Obama speech." Ignores the speech entirely and focuses on the "wild activists" reaction to the speech. F.

Baltimore Sun: "Obama speaks of anger, hope and a "racial stalemate"" Excellent concise statement of the content of the speech. A-

Wall Street Journal: "Will Obama’s Speech Work?" The most complex title yet -- "work" from a horse race perspective, to take away HRC's momentum and turn attention to his leadership? Or work in changing the debate in america form racial division to conciliation? Have to read this one, I wonder which way they go with it. A if they mean both, F if only the former.

So, we'll see. I haven't seen the speech yet, I've only read it. That inures me from the seductive effects of BHO's "soaring oratory". What I read this morning is for me personally up there with the great speeches of all time.

Monday, March 17, 2008

It won't be a brokered convention

I'm back from Japan.

Starting on August 25th is the Democratic National Convention in Denver. At some point there will be a vote, and since there are two candidates, that first vote will produce a majority. Maybe some delegates will hold out for Edwards or Kucinich and need to be placated -- they are unlikely to be enough to require even a second ballot.

A brokered convention a la 1968 is impossible. What everyone is worried about is the necessity to broker a deal *before* the convention, in order that the presumptive candidate can take on John McCain. This is a mess the Democratic leadership made for itself. Could nobody imagine this close a race? They should have planned better.

Close races are exciting. The media love them, more than they love either candidate. As much as possible they will tear the front runner down and build the underdog up until they are even. An even race is suspenseful, it's a *story*, it makes money for everybody. The evaporation of Guiuliani, Romney (remember Fred Thompson) et al., means that there's even more media pressure to keep the Democratic race even.

That's why it's going to come down to Denver.