Some Potential Negatives of Elite Polarization

18 Feb

Growing ideological distance between the parties has produced clearer choices. This added clarity has resulted in improved propensity among voters to make ideologically consistent choices (Levendusky 2010). This is seen as a positive.

However, there may be some negative normative implications as well. If parties have moved away from the center, and if most people are near the center (as data shows), two things follow –
1) The average distance of each of those people from either of the parties has increased. So people’s choices have become impoverished.
2) The penalty of misclassification – for a leaner to mistakenly vote for the wrong party – has increased substantially. It may well be that while propensity of misclassification has decreased, the penalty has increased, leaving aggregate utility slightly worse off.

Secondly, if the government is at least partly in the business of providing public goods that require collective action (distributed costs), the split nature of constituencies and constituency-based entrenched positions may very likely lead to an under-provision of public goods.

Thirdly, and something that is covered in the first point, clearer choices don’t mean the choices that are the best, or even what people want. One would hope that the choices on offer are optimal but we know that monopolies or duopolies under conditions where start-up costs are high to get into the sector have a sparse record to providing something like that.

Fourthly, it also follows that given we have firm partisans, parties will stop broadening their constituencies beyond a certain point due to the law of really rapidly diminishing returns under sorted electorate conditions. This will mean that the policy buckets shrink, and they will have larger incentives to cater to their bases.

Fifthly, the legitimacy of the government is likely to be reduced among the losing camp which has reasons to believe that the ruling coalition doesn’t represent it.

Institutional Distrust

25 Jan

It is sometimes assumed that high levels of institutional distrust in America are peculiar to it. So much so that a variety of theories have been offered to ‘explain’ this peculiarity including, but not limited to, elite polarization, income inequality, polarized media, etc. Empirical support for the ‘American exceptionalism’ however is somewhat less clear – across some major Western democracies (outside of the perennially ‘sunny’ Danes; one may talk about Scandinavian Exceptionalism perhaps), percent who ‘tend not to trust’ [pay attention to the y-axis] national government, national parliament, and political parties is alarmingly high. These high levels raise concerns about the legitimacy of the system.

Affectively Polarized? – Partisan Polarization Among the Masses

9 Jan

The shooting of Representative Giffords has reignited the debate about the extent to which the public is polarized. Some political scientists have answered the question by evaluating data on people’s policy positions over the years. And the data are clear on the question—no, not really.

However, a lack of ‘real’ differences hasn’t always meant a lack of perceived differences. Nor has it meant lack of negative affect. Affective dislike, conditional on similarity, is unsurprising and typical, as the history of racial and ethnic hatred will attest to.

So, we tested to see whether partisans dislike each other. We asked a representative sample of Americans whether certain traits described Republicans and Democrats. From evaluations on 18 traits (selfish, generous, close-minded, honest, etc.), we created a latent measure of partisan affect (ICC here). Here’s a plot of latent partisan affect by partisan self-identification.

The Unscientific Republican

16 Dec

Only 6% of scientists in a random sample of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) identify themselves as Republicans, according to a Pew 2009 Study. Assuming AAAS is not tremendously unrepresentative of scientists as a whole, what explains under-representation of Republicans in science?

While Republicans are under-represented among people with advanced degrees more generally, I here limit myself to offering some possible hypotheses for explaining under-representation of Republicans in science, refraining from any attempt to analyze their validity.

Science education or practice causes liberalism:

  1. Brainwashing: Science is taught by liberals, who brainwash their students into believing their preferred ideology.
  2. Diversity: Upper echelon of science today is racially and culturally? diverse. Interacting with a diverse set of people causes people to become liberal.
  3. Cynical: Science is funded by the government, and people in the field, like elsewhere, love the hand that feeds them.
  4. People practicing science come to see the value of policy guided by science. On some major issues – like climate change and evolution, Republican Party has taken ‘anti-science’ stances.
  5. Science causes people to question religious dogma, become atheists or even anti-theists, etc. causing them to choose a party less aligned with religion.


  1. Intelligence: Intelligence causes liberalism (Kanazawa). Intelligence is one of the things that affect the choice of the discipline and the number of years a person chooses to study. Intelligence is the confounding variable that predicts both.

Liberals select into science, and Republicans select out of it.

  1. Conservatives “have a need for cognitive closure” which is not amenable to open questions and scientific inquiry (Jost).
  2. Concept of “conservatism” is one of maintaining the status quo.
  3. Social dominance orientation: Republicans prefer going into status quo enhancing occupations like economics, business, police; Democrats less so (Sidanius).
  4. Religious people don’t go into science, which they see as anti-religion.

Education of a senator

30 Jun

While top colleges have been known to buck their admission criteria for the wrong reasons, they, on average, admit smarter students and the academic training they provide is above average. So it may be instructive to know what percentage of Senators, the most elite of the political brass, have graced the hallowed corridors of top academic institutions, and if the proportion attending top colleges varies by party.

While 5 of the 42 Republican senators have attended top colleges (in the top 20), 22 of the 57 Democratic senators have done the same (data are posted here). The skew in numbers may be because New England is home to both top schools and many Democratic senators. But the privilege accorded by the accident of geography is no less consequential than one afforded by some more equitable regime.

Discounting elite education, one may want to look at the extent of education. There one finds that whereas 73% of Democratic senators have an advanced degree, only 64% of Republican senators have the same. While again it is likely that going to top schools increases admission to good advanced degree programs, thereby making getting advanced degrees more attractive perhaps, one can conjecture that whatever the reason, some people, due to mere privilege perhaps, have better skills than others.

The Educated Racial Voter

13 Nov
McCain share of white vote by state, and by region
McCain share of white vote by state, and by region; Source: Exit Poll Data by Edison Mitofsky
Obama's vote share among people with a postgraduate degree by state
Obama's vote share among people with a postgraduate degree by state


“Here in Alabama, where Mr. McCain won 60.4 percent of the vote in his best Southern showing, he had the support of nearly 9 in 10 whites, according to exit polls, a figure comparable to other Southern states.”

“Mr. Obama won in only 44 counties in the Appalachian belt, a stretch of 410 counties that runs from New York to Mississippi.”

“Southern counties that voted more heavily Republican this year than in 2004 tended to be poorer, less educated and whiter, a statistical analysis by The New York Times shows.”

New York Times

Andrew Gelman’s take on the 2008 results

“As with previous Republican candidates, McCain did better among the rich than the poor,.. but the pattern has changed among the highest-income categories…”

The 2008 Presidential Campaign in Brief

13 Nov

November 10, 2007: One of the first scandals to break out during the campaign was about planted questions in Hillary’s town hall meetings. “They asked me if I would ask the senator a question. I said, ‘Sure, you know,'” Gallo-Chasanoff told CNN. “He showed me in his binder, he had a piece of paper that had typed out questions on it. And the top one was planned specifically for a college student. It said ‘college student.'” ‘A video on MSNBC shows Gallo-Chasanoff reading the question word for word, and then winking when she was done.’ ABC News

November 10, 2007: “I love my wife and my five sons and their five wives. Wait a second. Let me clarify that. They each have one.” Mitt Romney (Economist gave this quip the title – Best Freudian slip;

December 12, 2007: In kindergarten, Senator Obama wrote an essay titled ‘I Want to Become President.’ “Iis Darmawan, 63, Senator Obama’s kindergarten teacher, remembers him as an exceptionally tall and curly haired child who quickly picked up the local language and had sharp math skills. He wrote an essay titled, ‘I Want To Become President,’ the teacher said.”
From: Clinton campaign’s press release.

December 13, 2007: “It’ll be, ‘When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?'” Shaheen on Obama
Bill Shaheen (husband of NH Senator-elect Jeanne Shaheen; national co-chairman of Clinton’s campaign at that point)

February 24, 2008: Bill Clinton speaking about Hillary’s inability to win caucus states – “the caucuses aren’t good for her. They disproportionately favor upper-income voters who, who, don’t really need a president but feel like they need a change.” Audacity of Hopelessness by Frank Rich

March 8, 2008: “She is a monster, too – that is off the record – she is stooping to anything,” Samantha Power; Obama’s foreign policy adviser.

March 10, 2008: Hillary Clinton chief spokesman Howard Wolfson declared Monday that Clinton does not consider Obama qualified to be vice president.

March 11, 2008: “I will not be discriminated against because I’m white.” Geraldine Ferraro

“If we can’t trust Mitt Romney on Ronald Reagan, how can we trust him to lead America?”
From John McCain’s attack ad on Romney

“The Clintons will be there when they need you,” said a Carter friend. (Maureen Dowd, NY Times)

May 3, 2008: When asked, at the Republican presidential primary debate at Simi Valley, whether any of the candidates did not believe in evolution, three candidates – Tancredo, Brownback, and Huckabee – raised their hands.

May 9, 2008: “Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again.” (Hillary Clinton, Interview with USA Today)

Google News - Clinton Accuses Obama
Google News Archives timeline graph of citations of 'Clinton Accuses Obama' between August 2007 and August 2008

August 21, 2008: “I think – I’ll have my staff get to you. It’s condominiums where – I’ll have them get to you.” (John McCain unsure about the number of houses he owns.)

A special tribute to Palin:

September 24, 2008: “As Putin rears his head and comes into the airspace of the United States of America, where– where do they go? It’s Alaska. It’s just right over the border. (Interview with Katie Couric, CBS News)

In defense of Palin, she never said that she could see Russia from her house. (Time)

September 25, 2008: Couric: And when it comes to establishing your worldview, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?
Palin: I’ve read most of them, again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media.
Couric: What, specifically?
Palin: Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me all these years.
Couric: Can you name a few?
Palin: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news, too.
CBS News

October 1, 2008: “Well, let’s see. There’s — of course — in the great history of America rulings there have been rulings.” Sarah Palin (When asked by Couric to name a Supreme Court decision, other than Roe vs. Wade, that she disagreed with; CBS News)

News Coverage of Sarah Palin

12 Nov
News Coverage of Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden
News Coverage of Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden
Ratio of News stories by day covering Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden
Ratio of News stories by day covering Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden
Coverage of Sarah Palin's interview with Gibson, Couric, and Tina Fey's impersonation on SNL
Coverage of Sarah Palin's interview with Gibson, Couric, and Tina Fey's impersonation on SNL
Ratio of stories citing John McCain that also cited Sarah Palin vis-a-vis Ratio of stories citing Barack Obama that also mentioned Joe Biden
Ratio of stories citing John McCain that also cited Sarah Palin vis-a-vis Ratio of stories citing Barack Obama that also mentioned Joe Biden
Palin's coverage: MSNBC and Fox
Palin's coverage: MSNBC and Fox

A Brief History of Presidential Debates

7 Nov

Presidential debates occupy a unique place in the American political process. Debates trace their ancestry to the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, which were actually between Senators, and focused mostly on the issue of slavery. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were long, often boring, and if voting returns from Illinois counties, where debates were held, are anything to go by, Douglass won, by a rather significant margin. Douglass won the Senate race as well. (Senators were elected by state legislatures at that point in time and the decision of Lincoln and Douglas to publicly debate was controversial.)

The era of televised debates started with Senator Kennedy debating Vice-President Nixon in 1960. The debates came about at the suggestion of Adlai Stevenson whose influential column in The Week first proposed the idea. The debates made history, with footage of Nixon, wiping sweat from this brow, looking unshaven and snappish, firmly embedded in the presidential campaign folklore. But the televised debates of 1960 almost didn’t come off. In 1959, FCC received a complaint from the colorful perennial candidate Lar Daly who was running against the powerful mayor, Richard Daley. Lars complained that television was covering Richard Daley on issues unrelated to the campaign, if there’s such a thing, and argued for, as the law Section 315(a) of Communications Act of 1934 mandated equal time. FCC declined Lars’ request but asked Congress to take action. To address such issues, Congress created four exemptions to equal time law. It ruled that ‘Bonafide candidates’ may appear in Bonafide newscasts, Bona fide news interviews, Bona fide news documentaries, and on the spot coverage of bonafide news events. However, the exemptions made weren’t thought to allow for coverage of the presidential debate. Hence, to allow for the presidential debates, Congress suspended the equal time law for just 1960, and only for candidates running for president, allowing for the 1960 debates to happen.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s reluctance to debate Barry Goldwater meant that the Democrats in Congress shelved the bill to suspend equal time law for the year. 1968 and 1972 had Nixon running for president, and given his prior experience against Kennedy, it meant a summary no to presidential debates. But the history of televised presidential debates is as much a history of politics as telecommunication law intersecting with politics. So let me make a brief detour to talk a little more about Communication law- In 1971, an amendment to the Communications Act required stations make a reasonable amount of time available to federal candidates. Once time is made available under this provision, the equal time requirements of Section 315 did apply. The 1971 amendments also addressed the rates which stations can charge candidates for air time. Before 1971, Congress only required that the rates charged candidates be comparable to those offered to commercial advertisers. Now, Section 315 commands that as the election approaches, stations must offer candidates the rate it offers its most favored advertiser. Thus, if a station gives a discount to a commercial sponsor because it buys a great deal of airtime, the station must offer the same discount to any candidate regardless of how much time he or she purchases.

In 1976, debate coverage was allowed under the Aspen decision, which interpreted presidential debates as following under “on the spot coverage of bona fide news event” exception legislated by Congress in 1959— if the debates were organized someone other than the media, and broadcast live, and in their entirety. This was obviously highly disingenuous but repeated cases in Supreme Court failed to reverse the decision. With the decision in place, people scampered to find an organization willing to organize the debate. League of Women Voters finally accepted the responsibility and organized the 76 debate. The debates were held under their sponsorship till 84, and after 88 under Commission on Presidential Debates. The debates until of recently were the focus of extensive lobbying by the candidates and negotiation on the format (town hall/single moderator or panel of journalists/etc.), podium height, the temperature in the hall, whether candidates could use notes or not, among other things was intense and common. Only now, CPD has been able to leverage its power to limit the list of negotiable items. However, bigger problems remain. Constant questions about the utility of debates, and the rather arbitrary criteria for allowing for a third-party candidate to debate.

Military Experience of US Presidents

23 Apr

The military regularly ranks as the most trusted institution in America on public opinion surveys. Veterans are regularly deified by politicians of every stripe as heroes rendering extraordinary service to the country. Even when politicians are articulating their dissent over a war, they frequently take the time to praise the veterans and to reiterate America’s commitment to its veterans.

The unique status of the veterans and the military in modern American consciousness can perhaps be traced to the revolutionary origins of the United States. The military success in the “War of Independence,” and the “Second War of Independence,” and the heroism of the founders, is an essential part of America’s collective memory (and an essential part of the school history curricula). Tony Judt, writing for NYRB mentions that one of the reasons militarism continues to persist in the US is because,

“Americans, perhaps alone in the world, experienced the twentieth century in a far more positive light. The US was not invaded. It did not lose vast numbers of citizens, or huge swathes of territory, as a result of occupation or dismemberment. Although humiliated in distant neocolonial wars (in Vietnam and now in Iraq), the US has never suffered the full consequences of defeat. [Judt makes a reference here to South’s defeat in the Civil War and subsequent reaction as the exception that proves the rule] Despite their ambivalence toward its recent undertakings, most Americans still feel that the wars their country has fought were mostly “good wars.” The US was greatly enriched by its role in the two world wars and by their outcome, in which respect it has nothing in common with Britain, the only other major country to emerge unambiguously victorious from those struggles but at the cost of near bankruptcy and the loss of empire. And compared with other major twentieth-century combatants, the US lost relatively few soldiers in battle and suffered hardly any civilian casualties.”

Another possible reason for this continued ‘heroification’ of military and veterans is because as a country of immigrants, people do not have the shared history to rally around. In its absence, people have opted to rally behind things that exclude no one. That instinct has been buttressed by generations of strategic political actors and mass culture producers.

The other unique fact that brings the above arguments in sharp relief is the disproportionately (compared to other countries with volunteer armies) large number of veterans in the US. According to the Statistical Abstract of United States for 2004-2005, the country had 24.9 million veterans. The large veteran population is a result of two things: 1. having one of the largest standing armies in the world, and 2. the preponderance of personnel who serve the army only for a few years (many a time as a way to have their college tuitions paid.)

Given the factors outlined above, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the American presidency has been dominated by men with prior military experience. The sheer numbers, however, are still surprising. For 137 of the 219 years the country since its independence, the country has had a military veteran as a president. 29 of its 43 presidents have been veterans. And the longest time America has gone without electing a veteran is 32 year, starting with Taft in 1913 and ending with Roosevelt’s death in 1945. (Incredibly, during this time, the country took part in the two World Wars.)

There are three potential concerns about the numbers. Eight years of George W. Bush’s “service” in the National Guard have been excluded. Five years of Lincoln presidency have been included; Lincoln participated very briefly in the Black Hawk War of 1832. And Millard Fillmore’s tenure isn’t included as his experience in the military was after he had left his presidency. One can question the inclusion of some other presidents, including Madison, whose service was brief again. But such tinkering is unlikely to impact the overall numbers much.

Note: Data on military experience of UK PMs and US Presidents.

Lobbying and The First Amendment

17 Mar

The Oregon Supreme Court defines lobbying as “influencing, or attempting to influence, legislative action through oral or written communication with legislative officials, solicitation of others to influence or attempt to influence legislative action or attempting to obtain the goodwill of legislative officials.” [see David Fidanque and Janet Arenz, Petitioners on Review, vs. State of Oregon]

The proponents of lobbying argue that any law curtailing it impinges on two core First Amendment clauses: Congress shall make no law abridging the right of the people “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” or curtailing the “freedom of speech.” In return, the states have argued that they have substantial interests in preventing corruption, and the perception of corruption.

The courts have long upheld citizens’ rights to petition the government, noting that the idea of democratic government implies the citizen has the right to petition (Capps, 2005). The “right to petition” predates the Bill of Rights and thus is sacrosanct. Furthermore, the courts have also long upheld the idea that lobbying is a way of petitioning one’s representatives. In Liberty Lobby, Inc. v. Pearson (390 F.2d 489, 491, 492 (D.C. Cir. 1967)) [For details on case citation], the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that people involved in trying to affect congressional action by engaging in lobbying activities were exercising their right to petition.

However, the courts have also long recognized that while the right to petition is an essential one, it is also a limited one (Capps, 2005). Hence, the courts have ruled that there is no absolute right of a citizen to speak in person with public officials. In absence of absolute rights, and citing countervailing interests like state’s interest in preventing corruption given the likelihood that lobbying will “promote the temptation to use improper means to gain success”, and maintaining confidence in the public decision-making process, the courts have sided with the government in a host of cases to restrict contingency fee arrangements, impose registration and disclosure requirements on lobbyists, prohibit lobbyists from making political contributions when legislature is in session (N.C. Right to Life, Inc. v. Bartlett, 168 F.3d 705, 717-18 (4th Cir. 1999)), among others. Courts, while ruling in these decisions, have noted that barring such practices do not substantively curtail the right to petition as they don’t impose a significant burden on the petitioning process, and should a law do so, it may be grounds for it being invalid. For example, in the Oregon Supreme Court decision cited above, the Court found that the biennial registration fee imposed by the state on the lobbyists to be more than the cost of registration, and hence invalid.

The underlying strain in these cases has been the need to balance the needs of the citizenry to openly petition its representatives and the needs of the executive and legislative branch to safeguard the system from corruption. While deciding on these cases, the courts have always been keenly cognizant that given there are three equal and separate branches of the government, they have limited rights in imposing the standards of operation within each branch of governance, as long as they do not violate the freedoms and rights guaranteed in the constitution. Simultaneously, the court has recognized in the past the merit of not only reducing the actual occurrence of corruption but also reducing the perception of corruption. In both Buckley v. Valeo (424 U.S. 1 (1976)), and McConnell v. FEC (540 U.S. 93 (2003) – brought after the enactment of McCain-Feingold or BCRA/Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act) the Court has recognized the need to mitigate perceptions of corruption and actual incidence of corruption, and congressional authority to pursue legislation towards that purpose. The Court’s arguments, offered on maintaining the sanctity of the election process of legislators, should theoretically apply to the legislative process as well.

The “freedom of speech” arguments for lobbying stand on less firm grounds. The right to “freedom of speech” is not and should not be seen as a law guaranteeing the “right to be heard.” Similarly, there is no law protecting the right of a citizen to have a private hearing with the legislator or more broadly speaking, private speech.

The Courts have sided with the government in a significant number of cases where the state has shown a plausible case for restricting lobbying based on corruption concerns, and wherever they have found that the restrictions don’t disadvantage some content over others. However, there are legitimate, important rationales that undergird the right to lobby (petition) and courts have been cognizant not to support legislation that is overly broad. The law, however, doesn’t provide guidance on voluntary disavowal of money from lobbyists for campaigning (without the “magic words” that breach express advertising standard). Nor does it restrict lawmakers from running on a platform that upfront states that the said candidate will not accept ‘favors’ (legal ones) from lobbyists, or will not join a lobbying firm if his or her reelection bid fails (close the “revolving door”). Both the Congress and the Executive have significant leeway in enacting significant ethics reforms that will likely sharply curtail the power of “special interests,” and myriad options, including the one chosen by Edwards and Obama, remain open remain for lawmakers to not ‘choose’ to be influenced by ‘lobbyists.’ Combating the influence of special interest would, however, require more widespread measures, especially as public opinion polls become the key determinants of candidate policy positions and as lobbyists’ influence in manipulating opinion through media or ‘astroturfing’ increases. Fewer options exist to combat that except perhaps a more active citizenry.

Last thoughts: “Democratic Senator Max Baucus, the new chair of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, is offering special interest [groups] a chance to go skiing and snowmobiling with him— $2,000-dollars a head, or $5,000-dollars from a political action committee.” reports ABC 7.


“Gouging the Government”: Why a Federal Contingency Fee Lobbying Prohibition is Consistent With First Amendment Freedoms.” 58 Vanderbilt Law Review 1885. Meredith A. Capps. (2005)

Difference in Coverage of Clinton and Obama

12 Mar

The following tables tally up the articles that mention “Barack Obama” or “Hillary Clinton” in their body or title. The results show that both New York Times and Washington Post cover Obama at much lower rates than “US Newspaper and Wires.”

The differences are particularly significant given that most articles follow the “horse race” format, and hence mention both Obama and Clinton.

  WP Clinton* WP Obama* NYT Clinton* NYT Obama* LN Obama* LN Clinton*
Apr-07 85 81 98 113 3479 2324
May-07 110 87 110 93 3309 2373
Jun-07 122 101 112 78 3425 2874
Jul-07 142 104 104 82 3820 3276
Aug-07 119 109 103 76 4070 3201
Sep-07 152 115 160 94 4088 3649
Oct-07 171 108 159 95 4813 4742
Nov-07 174 111 164 108 4391 4445
Dec-07 195 169 194 164 6134 4774
Jan-08 342 354 357 335 15276 10540
Feb-08 315 330 409 436 18857 11658
  LN Ratio WP Ratio NYT Ratio
Apr-07 1.50 0.95 1.15
May-07 1.39 0.79 0.85
Jun-07 1.19 0.83 0.70
Jul-07 1.17 0.73 0.79
Aug-07 1.27 0.92 0.74
Sep-07 1.12 0.76 0.59
Oct-07 1.01 0.63 0.60
Nov-07 0.99 0.64 0.66
Dec-07 1.28 0.87 0.85
Jan-08 1.45 1.04 0.94
Feb-08 1.62 1.05 1.07
Avg. 1.27 0.81 0.78

*Article count from LexisNexis Power Search with search term “Barack Obama” and “Hillary Clinton” respectively. The source field was constrained to “New York Times”, “Washington Post”, and “US Newspaper and Wires” respectively.

Why Obama?

17 Jan

Chaste and I on why Obama is the better candidate for the Democratic primary.

The system of democracy that we have been assigned to only allows us to make comparative judgments between candidates standing for election. We do not get to vote for “ideal” candidates but merely the best among the ones who are running. At this stage, Democratic partisans and independents (in some states) get to choose between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. One of these candidates will eventually represent the Democratic Party in November against a Republican candidate.

The past eight years in this country have been an unmitigated disaster – they have not only been financially ruinous (an average of about $12,000 of debt has been added to the already burdened back of an average American, the dollar has plummeted), they have also proven to be catastrophic for America’s reputation and caused grievous harm on vitally important issues like climate change. All of the major Republican candidates running today – while careful in distancing themselves from Bush – espouse positions that are virtually indistinguishable from that of Bush. There is little doubt in my mind that if we elect another Republican to the White House, we are going to see a rehash of the policies that have proven to be so ruinous. So for all who are concerned about having another Republican in White House come January 2008, it is important to pay attention to electability.

As Frank Rich points out in his column for the NY Times, Republicans are all set to dig up the unending mounds of dirt that emerged from the White House under Clinton Era. The Clinton closet hides more than Lewinsky’s stained blue dress; it also contains sodden episodes like the Whitewater kickbacks, the White House as a guest house for donors, pardoning of Marc Rich, the Clinton library donation from the Saudis, among many others. More than that, Hillary is widely seen (justly or unjustly) as a “divisive” candidate unlikely to win any converts among independents. There is now empirical evidence from the four contests and national opinion polls that that is indeed true, as Obama has handily won amongst independents in each of the contests and leads amongst independents nationwide.

Let me move next to discussing their stances on the Iraq war –a core issue for a lot of Americans not only for its price tag, estimated at over $2 trillion by Columbia and Harvard professors, but also for the active disinformation campaign by the administration and the complicity of press and “opposition” leaders.

Senator Obama had the judgment and the courage to call the Iraq war correctly from the beginning. This was no happenstance or knee-jerk response. “I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars,” he had said in 2002. His argument was based not only on the insultingly egregious evidence presented for going to war but also steeped in pragmatism – he accurately predicted that American troops won’t be greeted with flowers in Iraq. His sound judgment is in part the product of his abiding interest in foreign policy: his major at Columbia was International Relations. It is also due in part to his life experiences: as a boy with a Kenyan father and later an Indonesian stepfather, who spent four years growing up in Indonesia, and who lived in the multicultural swirl of Hawaii. Fareed Zakaria, a former managing editor of Foreign Affairs Magazine and currently Editor of Newsweek International, said that Senator Obama is the only candidate who knows “what it means not to be an American”, an understanding critical to a successful foreign policy in our time. Senator Obama is an admirer of the foreign policy of President Truman who combined the establishment of NATO with the Marshall Plan, and of President Kennedy who combined a military buildup with the establishment of the Peace Corps. He wants to make Foreign Aid a strong component of American foreign policy to establish American military and moral leadership. He is currently the only candidate running for office who is open to talking to Iran without any preconditions.

Senator Obama also has a clear grasp of economic policies. Recently, a Washington Post writer decided to grade all the candidates based on the stimulus packages they proposed to address the recent economic downturn. As the candidates put together these responses relatively quickly, they accurately indicate the quality of the candidates’ understanding of the economy. Senator Obama topped with an A-, Senator Edwards and President Bush had a B-, and Senator Clinton had a C+; the best grade for a Republican candidate was a D+. The article is a very good read so I would recommend that you read it in full.

Senator Obama gives us grounds for trusting his integrity because of his record of putting his money where his mouth is. After graduating from Columbia, he worked for several years as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago, not the regulation one year that most law school applicants work to beef up their resume. After graduating Magna cum Laude from Harvard law, he chose to be a civil rights lawyer rather than making millions as a corporate lawyer.

Senator Obama also has a record of bringing people together to get things done. He has done this at least since his days at Harvard Law when he emerged as the consensus candidate as the president of the Harvard Law Review after bitter acrimony between ideological factions (no mean feat as law students like their own opinions very much, and have nothing to lose from being obdurate). In the U.S. Senate, he has worked with respected Republicans like Senator Lugar over the control of conventional weapons like hand-held anti-aircraft missiles and land mines, as well as with Republican ideologues like Senator Coburn over corporate transparency legislation.

Senator Obama’s main opponent, Senator Clinton often offers up her experience as the reason for preferring her. While Senator Clinton was very competent and successful in her long career as a corporate lawyer, her career in public life has unfortunately been marked by incompetence. Her mishandling of Healthcare reform not only resulted in the Republican landslide of 1994 that swept away strong Democratic majorities in Congress; it put off any serious consideration of Healthcare reform for more than a decade.

If part of the debacle of her Healthcare effort may be attributed to political inexperience, no such excuse exists for her vote to authorize the war on Iraq in 2002. At the same time, Senator Clinton also voted against the Levin amendment, which would have required Mr. Bush to come to Congress for war authorization if he failed to obtain a U.N. resolution. The two votes combined make it clear that Senator Clinton’s authorization for the war on Iraq was unequivocal and not conditional on exhaustive diplomacy as she would have us believe. Senator Clinton had access to the entire National Intelligence Estimate. The full report had considerable reservations about the WMD claims spun by the Bush administration. To date, she has consistently refused to say whether she did or did not read the full report, instead maintaining only that she was briefed on the report. Failure to read the report in an important matter like war would suggest incompetence and a lack of seriousness; her vote after reading the report would suggest that she attached more importance to the spin of the Bush administration and TV Pundits than to the assessments of career civil servants even in important matters like war. (NY Times, Hillary on War)

To err may be human, but not to learn from one’s mistakes is incompetence. Senator Clinton has refused to acknowledge that she even made a mistake in her war authorization vote, which suggests a temperament on which experience is wasted. An instance of this was her vote for the Kyl-Lieberman resolution in 2007, which urged the Bush administration to declare Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (numbering about 120,000) a “terrorist” entity. Many saw this resolution as the basis for a possible invasion of Iran in the future. Senator Clinton claimed that her vote would help negotiations with Iran. Yet calling a major state agency “terrorist,” will only make it difficult for the Iranians to compromise, and the “terrorist” label would increase domestic U.S. pressure against meaningful negotiations with Iran. Senator Clinton’s use of such flawed logic as the basis for a possible war creates grave doubts about the quality of her thinking. Fortunately, The Bush administration adopted a much more judicious and restrained approach than that advocated by Senator Clinton and declared only a small subset of the Revolutionary Guards as a “terrorist” entity. The tension was further defused recently when the National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran has had no nuclear weapons program for the past few years. It however very powerfully brings into question Senator Clinton’s judgment.

Senator Clinton has chosen to run a divisive campaign making liberal use of the gender and race cards. She has recruited surrogates including her own husband to launch a vitriolic campaign, which has only divided the Democratic Party. These are the actions of a candidate who is in ONLY to win. Senator Clinton was already a polarizing influence in the nation as a whole (though this is not entirely her fault). Her calculated dividing of the Democratic Party bodes ill for her chances in November if she is the candidate, and for passing her agenda if she becomes President.

The foregoing shows that when it comes to the qualities we seek in a president, such as soundness of judgment, clarity of understanding, quality of thought, and integrity, Senator Obama is by far the better candidate. He has a much clearer understanding of both foreign policy and of the economy. The domestic programs of all three Democratic candidates are substantially comparable. Senator Obama’s proven record of uniting people and working across the aisle gives him a much better chance of turning his program into legislation.

For all these reasons, I urge you to vote for Senator Obama in the primary on Feb 5.


Get Involved

On February 5th 22 states go head to head in contests that will essentially decide the Democratic candidate. If you support Obama’s candidacy, and would like to get involved, please go to to learn more about how you can contribute. You can donate towards the campaign by clicking here.

Notes on Partisanship

25 Jun

Manipulating the Median Voter Theorem

It is commonly touted that elites are far more partisan than the rank and file. One would have thought that in accordance with the median voter theorem, a simple majority voting model for single dimension issue space proposed by Duncan Black and later popularized by Anthony Downs, the elites would be under pressure to have public ideological profiles that appeal to the median voter.

This seemingly ‘irrational’ behavior of the elites can be explained in a variety of ways—average voter, which includes only the people who do vote, is on average more partisan than an average eligible voter, an average ‘voter’ chooses a candidate based on vague personality and party cues rather than specific issue position cues (to which they are largely unaware), voter’s issue positions are incestuously linked to the positions outlined by the candidates that they ‘like’, and the fact that elites gerrymander the multi-dimensional issue space so that the salient issue(s) on which an average voter votes are ones on which they have positions similar to the ‘median voter’.

Party and Partisanship

While the overall impact of parties has waned over the years, the party ‘line’ exercises more control on candidate’s professed positions. In this world of continuous media coverage, there is increasing pressure to present a consistent party approved stance. At the other end, there is a strong self-selection process, precedent, and certainly fear of how each ‘off-message’ comments would be interpreted in media, that is driving an assembly line in which generally only candidates who profess abiding faith in party ideology succeed in the primaries.

There is a certainly an increasing gap between the message, the voting record, and the candidate opinion, and a deliberately cultivated one. The partisanship is held together by ‘partisan money’, and custom order research produced by think tanks to justify and corroborate any policy initiative that they are asked to.

Media and Partisanship

Horse Race format of covering policy

The other aspect of media’s impact on partisanship has been driven by how it covers political issues – be it immigration or Iraq. The much-decried horse-race coverage, which was once a preserve of election coverage, has now entered the policy domain. A large number of articles in newspapers give an insider view of politicking and impact of a policy decision on the party rather than on say the nation. Now while covering a news story journalists go from politician to politician seeking quotes which they then use to provide worthless hack analysis in words of politicians. Nowhere do journalists stop and question the policy stances independently aside from what the ‘other side’ chose to point out. By doing this, they do two things – they first of all fail to provide substantive useful information to their readers, and secondly by weaving in partisan cues give readers automatic pointers to devalue certain information.

Partisan Identities: Using anger and satire

The rise of humorous “fake” news shows satirizing politics – most prominently “The Daily Show” by John Stewart – over the past decade has been widely seen as an unmitigated positive by a lot of self-identified ‘liberals’. What ‘liberals’, cozy in the success of a liberal comedy show, fail to realize is the pernicious aspect of satire – it delegitimizes opposing viewpoints without proper analysis. It is only time before right-wing ‘news’ channels come up with their liberal baiting satire shows.

The other prominent way to delegitimize opposing opinion is through self-righteous anger. This is, of course, most prominently done by right-wing pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.

While Bill O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone” is a stylized partisan lynching of liberals, Stewart’s satire is the vicious intelligent kind that ridicules the ‘idiots’. The shows use every rhetorical (and editing) trick to not only defeat the opposing party but do so in the most vicious incendiary manner that entertains the partisan viewers.

Both anger and satire are explicit identity building and reaffirmation rituals. What we see when straw man ‘guests’ get grilled on these shows is identify reaffirmation for the viewers – these people in the opposition are actually immoral, corrupt idiots.

Perhaps something of much more concern is the rise of entire partisan news channels. While there wasn’t much ‘news’ on the ‘news channels’ to begin with, and the ‘news’ coverage continues to cede territory to celebrity coverage, whatever shriveled carcass was left is now being preyed upon by explicit partisan coverage. There are no longer undisputed facts—there are now Republican facts and Democratic facts. And of course, both bear little resemblance to actual facts.

The worth of a military man

13 Apr

Marx Weber in 1946 gave a lecture on “Politics as Vocation” in which he described three preeminent qualities of a good politician—passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion. It is the missing last one—the sense of proportion—that I declaim in this column.

NY Times carried an article today about the V-22 Osprey helicopter whose debut “on the battlefield end(ed) a remarkable 25-year struggle for the Marines to build a craft they could call their own.” The specificity of technology being built primarily for the military is mind-boggling. Equally mind-boggling is the amount the military is willing to spend. “The Pentagon has spent $20 billion so far and has budgeted $54.6 billion for it…Each V-22 costs about three times the price of a modern helicopter and nearly the same as a fighter jet. The Marines will get 360 Ospreys, Air Force Special Forces will get 50 and there will be 48 for the Navy.”

The gung-ho patriots may be OK with figures except the program is blighted by safety questions. “On April 8, 2000, 19 marines were killed in a training exercise when a V-22 descended too fast and crashed near Tucson. It was the third V-22 to crash — seven people were killed in two previous crashes…In December 2000, four more marines, including the program’s most experienced pilot, were killed in a crash caused by a burst hydraulic line and software problems.” The hilarious part is how Colonel Mulhern, the V-22 program manager, defends it: “The first marine it saves makes it worth what we paid for it. And I have real confidence that the V-22 will do it.” Yup, it won’t take 20 marines—one more than those killed in testing this white elephant—but just one marine to make it all worth it. And just for the record, a marine’s life is about $54.6 billion. (The “value of a statistical life” is about $7 million or just about 1/8k of a marine’s life. So we would be willing to sacrifice 8k Americans for 1 American Marine.)

All Politics is Identity Politics (Or Soon Will Be)

13 Apr

Identity politics is a phrase that is traditionally reserved for politics of third-world nations with deep ethnic cleavages like India and Fiji. It is rarely used in the context of American politics, yet identity politics is rife in America.

More boldly, I would like to say that in fact, all politics is identity politics and the relative success of parties can be solely judged on how successful they have been in peddling robust identities. I use the word “robust” because it is important that identities be “essential” and fundamental to how one sees himself and hence immune to pressure (or logic) unless of course your identity is based on being data-driven. I make this claim because there is vast literature in political science that lays bare the abysmally low levels of information in the general population and it reasons hence that people must make decisions based on identity affiliation, an assertion that largely bears out in the data.

There are two caveats to the claim that I am making – one is that very few political identities are infinitely tensile – they eventually brook to contrary evidence. Identities can be resilient and make people delusional but often times they have limits. Secondly, political identity for many is a shifting idea determined by what is sexy (a reference to meaningless radical positions held by students) and by what is appropriate or comfortable or stokes one’s prejudices the right way (for example – people don’t ever explicitly call themselves racist. they just feel that all black people are lazy and deal in drugs. and that is true isn’t it – Bill O’Reilly certainly thinks so)

A measure of success would involve the percentage of partisan media one consumes. Identity politics involves a reshaping of the kind of media one consumes, the kind of messages one gets from it, and how s/he chooses to interpret them and “update” (in a Bayesian way) their thinking.

The law of stable yields

Identity politics is the only system that is capable of yielding stable yields and creating a strong unwavering kernel. It is no surprise hence the party in power in the US is the one that has had considerably more success in engaging in identity politics.

A Small Government: US Federal Budget as Proportion of the Economy

11 Dec

The US federal budget is larger than that of any other country in absolute terms. The US government spends more than $2.3 trillion every year, about $500 billion dollars more than Japan, which has the second-largest budget in the world at around $1.7 trillion.

Yet, as a proportion of the economy, the US federal government budget is small. The US federal budget of $2.3 trillion is about one-fifth (.197) of its $12.5 trillion GDP. The average budget-to-GDP ratio in developed countries in Europe is about twice as much. For example, UK’s budget of $951 billion is nearly half of its $2.228 trillion GDP, while France’s budget of $1.144 trillion is a little more than half of its $2.055 trillion GDP. The US budget-to-GDP ratio is closer to the ratios in the developing world. For example, India’s GDP of $720 billion is nearly five times bigger than its budget of about $135 billion. Surprisingly, the US budget-to-GDP ratio also matches the ratio of its left-leaning northern neighbor, Canada.

Petro-economies like Saudi Arabia have budget-to-GDP ratios that fall between those of the developing world and the developed economies in Europe. Petro-economies also fall in the middle in terms of budgetary dollars spent per person. Nigeria, unsurprisingly, is an exception in this regard, with budget numbers far below that of other petro-economies.

In terms of dollars spent per person, the United States is far behind developed EU economies. The budgetary allocation per person in the EU is more than double that in the US.

There are two key caveats in interpreting all this. An exclusive focus on the federal budget understates the total government spending for countries with strong federal structures like the US. But the good thing is that federal spending and state and local spending are not inversely proportional in countries with strong federal structures but are strongly correlated. Hence, while relying solely on federal budgetary expenditure does understate the impact, it doesn’t do it by as big a margin as one would expect. Take, for example, the US, whose total budget at the state level is around $600 billion, adding which pushes total government spending to $3 trillion or still about .25 of the GDP.

Secondly, one must look at not only the size of the budget but also where it is spent. For example, the US military budget accounts for a fifth of its net budget by conservative estimates. In sheer numbers, the US military budget exceeds the total military spending of the rest of the world, but in terms of its size relative to US GDP, it is a measly 4%.

Developed countries pool:


GDP (in trillions, 2005 estimate, unless mentioned otherwise)

Budgetary Expenditure (in trillions, 2005 est. unless mentioned otherwise)

The proportion of budget/GDP

(2006 est.)

Budget expenditure per
Person (thousands)


























$246.9 billion

$131.3 billion





$367 billion

$143.6 billion




Asia Pacific








$612.8 billion

$240.2 billion




Developed North American economies


$12.49 trillion

$2.466 trillion






$152.6 billion(est. 2004)




Developing country pool:


GDP (2005 est.)

Budgetary Expenditure (2005 est.)

The proportion of budget/GDP

(2006 est.)

Budget expenditure per


$720 billion

$135 billion





$89.55 billion

$20.07 billion





$270 billion

$57.7 billion





$619.7 billion

$172.4 billion





$2.225 trillion

$424.3 billion





$115.6 billion

$24.75 billion






$181.2 billion

$60.4 billion




Saudi Arabia

$264 billion






$106.1 billion

$41.27 billion





$77.33 billion

$13.54 billion




All figures from CIA World Fact Book which can be accessed at