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Archive for April, 2010

Rule of Law!

[ 3 ] April 30, 2010 |

Shorter Duncan Hunter:  I believe that the 14th Amendment should be ignored while we’re on the process of trying to “overrule” it by statute.

I wonder which Republican member of Congress will be the first one to call for a constitutional amendment reinstating Dred Scott as the law of the land?


Silver’s Model on the British Election

[ 8 ] April 30, 2010 |

Following five days in Chicago “working” at my day job, and then a couple days on the Oregon coast celebrating my birthday with my fiancée, it’s time to get back to serious business.  Barring that, I’ll write a general post on the British election.  This was meant to be an omnibus post addressing several topics only tenuously related as having something to do with the British election, but the more I dug into the first topic, the more I had to say.  I’ll leave the rest for a post hopefully later today.

Nate Silver, Renard Sexton, and Daniel Berman have developed a sophisticated, nuanced predictive model.  It has many strengths, so I’ll concentrate instead on a few critiques.[1]  I’ll preface this by saying that I only just read the post on this model, so these are off-the-cuff thoughts.[2]  First, he presents the “uniform national swing” as a bit of a straw argument.  Silver is correct to suggest that its value lies in its simplicity, and that it does on occasion fail miserably — but then too have the very probability sampling based opinion polls in the British context (e.g. 1992) upon which such vote -> seat translations are based.  When it tends to work, even in its lack of precision, it does so because it is assumed that the error for any given deviation in swing is randomly distributed across the entire sample.  In other words, across the 650 constituencies, deviation from a uniform swing average out.  Furthermore, there are sophisticated models, such as that used by the Elections Centre at the University of Plymouth, do factor in a number of additional variables in making seat projections.  Indeed, and somewhat ironically, in the introduction to “Step 2”, he is simply proposing a uniform national swing based on their sophisticated matrix rather than simple polling data: “Originally, this step had been simple: we assumed that the proportion of voters changing hands from one party to the next was the same in each constituency.”  They didn’t reject this approach because it was a uniform swing, but rather because using their matrix, it produced some illogical results.

Usually, the limitations of the uniform swing model are largely irrelevant as it usually does predict who will form the government, and that’s all that really matters.  Much like while we’ve known all along that vote counting is simply another statistical routine infected with concomitant error, that error is usually a hell of a lot smaller than the margin between the 1st and 2nd placed candidates.  Only in extraordinarily close elections does error become salient, the best known example of which was Florida 2000.  In the 2010 British election, the limitations of the uniform swing model are likewise laid bare, as Silver argues.

Second, while Silver believes that this model “embodies what I believe to be sound logic about voter behavior”, he does undersell the notion of the tactical voter, which is a central concept to what we as political scientists understand about voter behavior from both theoretical (e.g. Downs, Duverger, Rae, Lijphart, et al. ad nauseum) and empirical perspectives.  There is quite a bit of empirical literature on tactical (aka strategic) voting to suggest that it does happen, often, and when it does happen, those voters who employ it damn well understand it.  My British students, admittedly while taking political science classes at a university from a prof who does voting behavior , understand the concept of tactical voting intuitively — much better than my American students ever did, or presumably the students at the university in the Netherlands where I used to work.  It is part of the political culture in the United Kingdom in ways not approached in the United States (due to the lack of a strong national third party or strong regional parties) or the Netherlands (due to their use of a single national constituency and list proportional representation, which largely eviscerates the incentives to vote tactically).  Indeed, while Silver suggests that “my impression is also that the phrase “tactical voting” has somewhat too much currency is often used as a band-aid to cover up flaws with the uniform swing model”, that has not been my impression at all, either in conversation or from reading the empirical literature.

Third, regarding retiring incumbents, I’d need to see his regression data before commenting with any depth, but here I’ll offer an impression of my own.  Incumbency simply doesn’t matter anywhere near the way it does in the American context.  Granted, Silver allows for this, so I’m intrigued by the finding, and also by the deviance between the estimate of 1.5% for Labour and the Tories, and 3% for the Lib Dems and others.  What accounts for the effect to begin with?  What explains the deviance between the two sets of parties?  I don’t doubt the finding, but I’d like to better understand the causal mechanism behind it.  I suspect that there is an effect similar to retirements in House (and Senate) elections: members of the party expected to lose seats, especially those in marginal seats to begin with, are far more likely to opt out, so we’d see a lot of Labour retirements in 1979, Tory retirements in 1997, Labour in 2010.  What they take away with retirement from the electoral arena isn’t name recognition the way it’s understood in the US, but rather, I suspect, their mobilizing organizations.

I have one minor and one major point remaining.  The former is that Northern Ireland should be taken out of the equation entirely, and indeed in every “swingometer” and every matrix that translates vote % into seats, this is done.  The three “national” parties in British politics simply do not exist in Northern Ireland, thus the concept of swing to / away from any of the three major parties is irrelevant.  Northern Ireland will elect its 18 MPs from Sinn Fèin, the SDLP, the UUP, and the DUP.  There is an outside chance that there will be a new unionist party in the mix (the TUV), and likewise a chance that the UUP will be electorally eliminated — but this is partially due to the controversy surrounding their “alliance” with the British Conservative Party.  However, it’s as illogical to discuss Labour, Conservative, or Liberal Democrat for these 18 seats as it is for the SNP to gain vote share in Watford.

I assume that the major point is factored into their model, but I’d like to know how — with 2010, constituency boundaries are changed, in some cases quite radically.  In US parlance, it’s redistricting.  Therefore, without precise data on how the new constituencies map onto the old, any model of swing based on 2005 constituencies is open to considerable error.  These data do exist, indeed the media guide on the new constituencies (and how they map onto the old) was produced by my colleagues in my department.

Finally, I would like to highlight one strength in the model: that of regional adjustments.  Yes, Scotland is different than the Southeast, and yes, any variation in swing away from Labour matters where it is located.  This is, to my knowledge, already accounted for by the more sophisticated academic vote% -> seats matrices (I can’t speak for the various media outlets), but it’s good to see this acknowledged.

Regular readers of LGM know I have admired Silver’s work going back to his BP days, and this is no different.  In all, its an impressive, nuanced model, and honestly, I would like to see it succeed as the limitations of assuming a uniform national swing are plain.  However, the uniform swing is not as dire as suggested, some if not a lot of this work has been done, and there are several points, both in the narrative and in the functionality of the model itself that need to be addressed in future iterations of this model.

[1] Because that’s what I do for a living.  In fact, what I should be doing right now is reviewing a manuscript for Electoral Studies, which is two weeks late and slipping later.  Hopefully the editor of ES doesn’t read LGM, and thankfully, for a change, this is the only manuscript I have ‘on my desk’.  (Which means of course once I publish this post and check my work email . . . )

[2] When I review a manuscript, I like to read it, set it aside, and read it again before submitting my review.  The above represents my take on a first read only, and are thus limited in nature, possibly erroneous in places, so consume and dispense with appropriately.

Handheld Activism

[ 2 ] April 30, 2010 |

David at It’s Not a Lecture has some interesting thoughts on iPhone apps and activism:

Tech-savvy and issue-conscious consumers will be getting information not only about how a given product is a buck cheaper down the road or online, but also anything a database of that consumer’s choosing says about the product, brand, or company. And remember, this information comes just moments before the point of purchase, giving the company almost no time to share its side of the story. So when I tried Good Guide I learned that the makers of my breakfast cereal “violated the Clean Water Act.” I never got a link to the company’s explanation.

So think about the databases out there. Think about current events and politics. It’s not just review sites/apps like Yelp (dealing with a somewhat iffy reputation lately). It’s not hard to imagine a mobile app that tells you:

  • If the CEO of the company that made a product contributed to Proposition 8 (Human Rights Campaign could probably tell you)
  • If the manufacturer is headquartered in Arizona, where you can now be pulled over for looking Hispanic (I’m thinking National Council of La Raza might be interested)
  • If a company is a “union buster” (just a matter of time before SEIU launches this bad boy)
  • Class action lawsuits filed against a company (ATLA, anyone?)

Building a comprehensive, accurate, and huge database for mobile apps to access takes time, talent, and resources. Even the Red Laser database isn’t all-encompassing. However, it’s not nearly as hard as it used to be. Some database developers may sacrifice a bit of accuracy to get more volume or speed. Some will probably be built by crowdsourcing – my favorite crowdsourced database comes from the brainiacs at Cornell who helped put the Great Backyard Bird Count online. In the not-too-distant future, government databases will be accessible from your phone – a company’s EDGAR filings with the SEC, actions brought by the EPA, and so on.

Supreme Court Declines To Ride Waaaaaaaaambulance?

[ 7 ] April 30, 2010 |

If I understand the theory advanced by anti-SSM wingers in the Washington state petition case, it’s the same one put forward by that great constitutional scholar Sarah Palin: i.e. that the First Amendment should be understood as insulating speakers from all criticism and all consequences. Fortunately, it looks as if the Supreme Court (with the inevitable exception of Sam Alito) isn’t buying:

People often ask me how it is possible that Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia are such good friends despite their ideological differences. Argument today illuminates what they have in common: They are both the Jurists of Steel. First Ginsburg lays into Bopp about the fact that the initiative’s own sponsors sometimes sell their list of signatures for fundraising purposes, so the names are really only private with regard to the other guys. “So that would be the end of a person’s privacy,” she snaps.

Then Scalia tags in to ask, “Do you have any case in which we have held that the First Amendment applies to activity that consists of legislating or of adopting legislation?” Working himself into an Originalist froth, Scalia notes that “for the first century of our existence, even voting was public—you either did it raising your hand or by voice,” and then scolds that “running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage. And the First Amendment does not protect you from criticism or even nasty phone calls when you exercise your political rights to legislate.” Scalia ends with the admonition that “[y]ou are asking us to enter into a whole new field where we have never gone before.”

Ginsburg says that in his own brief, Bopp admitted that “you cannot tell anything about the signer’s belief from the mere signature.” It may signal support for the proposition or merely support for letting the people decide or a desire to get away from the signature collector. Bopp replies that “With all due respect, we do not say the third. We did say the first and the second.” Ginsburg, looking as angry as I have seen her in a while, draws his attention to the page in his reply brief where all three arguments are laid out.

Justice John Paul Stevens, the model of civility, breaks in to ask the money question: “Wouldn’t it be legitimate public interest to say, I would like to know who signed the petition, because I would like to try to persuade them that their views should be modified?” He adds, “Is there public interest in encouraging debate on the underlying issue?” Bopp replies: “It’s possible, but we think this information is marginal.”

This leads Scalia to bring down the house with: “What about just wanting to know their names so you can criticize them?” Scalia notes that the disclosure of your name is “so you can be out there and be responsible for the positions you have taken.”

Bopp: “Well, then why don’t they require both sides?”

Scalia: “What do you mean, ‘both sides’? The other side hasn’t signed anything.”

Violent threats, of course, are already illegal, but there shouldn’t be any general constitutional right to have your public political actions insulated from any criticism.

Webelo-yal First Person Shooters

[ 16 ] April 30, 2010 |

Young Boy Scouts of America can now earn awards for sitting indoors and playing video games.

That’s right, the Cub Scouts–the junior 8 to 11 ages subset of the Boy Scouts of America–are adding a new “ability badge” to their arsenal of earnable merits for the Tiger, Cub, and Webelos troops. But here’s the catch: The awards aren’t for how many bonus lives you’ve earned, or stars you’ve collected–you have to do stuff like bone up on the ESRB’s rating system and be able to describe why it’s important.

I know what some of you are thinking. Just a trend-driven ploy to bolster recruitment, right? Maybe, but look at it this way: At least these kids get a look at the video games ratings system early on, and under the supervision of trained adults.

Good point: here’s the list of requirements, and they are a blend of wholesome values like media awareness, critical thinking and deference to parents. But what I was actually “thinking” when I read this was about Peter Singer‘s recent work on the relationship between video games and military recruitment, and Cynthia Enloe‘s work on the militarization of our civil society institutions through things as simple (and wholesome) as Campbell’s Soup.

“I’m Kind of a Big Deal”

[ 40 ] April 29, 2010 |

Is Anchorman really the most quoted comedy of the last decade? Seems plausible; alternative candidates?

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Unwarranted Presumptions of Rationality

[ 19 ] April 29, 2010 |

Were that this was true:

Add Mike Huckabee to the list of Republicans criticizing the Arizona law. As I keep saying, Huckabee is dangerous; he’s very conservative and not very well educated, but he’s smart and sane and has a conscience. Unlike Sarah Palin, he could wind up as President.

Certainly, if we were playing “death is not an option” I would much prefer Huckabee to Palin as president. The problem is, I’m not a Republican primary voter, and more to the point I’m not a major Republican businessman or fundraiser. It’s pretty clear from the 2008 primaries that the GOP’s money wing doesn’t want Huckabee, which ends his chances. While I see no reason why they would object to Palin, and hence if she chose to run in the primaries she could definitely win. And while she’s inept and unpopular enough to challenge political science evidence that candidates don’t really matter in presidential elections, any major party candidate can win under the right conditions. Be very afraid.

Aftermath of an Upset

[ 26 ] April 29, 2010 |

Well, unlike me, Olivier called it.

I’m certainly not saying that Ovechkin should be beyond criticism in the wake of his team blowing a 3-1 lead to a significantly superior team. On the other hand, it’s way too early to question whether his status within the game is justified, even leaving aside the fact that if you’re going to make anyone the goat it should be Green. It should also be remembered that at Ovechkin’s age Lemieux had played a grand total of 11 playoff games. (Orr did have two championships by age 23, although God knows he and his much greater supporting casts also lost a lot of series they should have won.) And while this loss was pretty bad, and despite the fact that Ovechkin doesn’t (to put it mildly) have any Messier, Kurri, Coffey, or Fuhr alongside him, he was never part of something like this:

And for reasons I can’t explain, this somehow seems less surprising seeing that the Canadiens are involved. While I suppose they’re the Yankees of hockey, while the Yankees are in the midst of yet another period of dominance comparable to the Ruth, McCarthy, and Stengel eras, the Habs haven’t had a great team since Dryden retired and Lafleur got prematurely old in 1980. For the next fifteen years or so, they were more like the 80s Dodgers — not every really that impressive, but somehow able to pull some pennants/deep playoff runs or championships out of their ass every once every few years.   The ’88 Dodgers are probably the weakest World Champion of my lifetime, and the ’86 Canadiens and ’93 Canadiens are the weakest NHL champions of my time (and also, as far as I’m concerned, settle the question of who the greatest non-Hasek goaltender of the last generation was.) And since Ronald Corey decided that to go Adam Bellow — putting two guys in the charge of the team, despite a completel lack of qualifications, solely because they were part of the last great team — they’ve been just another organization.   And yet…it’s somehow less surprising when the Habs do something like this. And using having someone do his best Roy imitation didn’t hurt…

When Exactly is Violence “Gratuitous”?

[ 20 ] April 29, 2010 |

Just a day after it was released earlier this week, the unnervingly violent anti-genocide music video, “Born Free,” was reportedly deleted by YouTube. Actually, as Wired has confirmed, it was only “buried” to make it much harder to find. But the video was simply posted on Vimeo and other sites, and the outrage over the “censorship” caused a viral response, such that the hit rate over the last few days has meant a version of it is again nearing the top of search lists on YouTube. In effect, the Internet has “routed around” this problem.

The rationale for burying the video in the first place was that it violated YouTube’s standards against gratuitous violence. Did it? Judge for yourself – but only click if you’re willing to be disturbed:

Bourne from Jason Wilson on Vimeo.

It’s violent, to be sure. But does YouTube’s gratuitous violence policy apply to portrayals in film or only to actual violence against actual persons? (Not sure by the look of their Community Guidelines.)

But more broadly, this begs the question of what “gratuitous” actually means and what reasonable standards might be applied in such a case. Is it “gratuitous” to portray the horror of political violence as part of a critique of such violence? I have never thought so; comfortingly shielding ourselves from images of violence is in fact one of the things that leads to an acceptance of or denial of violence. In fact, considering the other kind of clips from R-rated films you can find on YouTube, my guess is it’s the political message of the video that YouTube – and many people – actually find uncomfortable.

However what constitutes “gratuitousness” is, I suspect, an “I know it when I see it” sort of question, so I’ll pass the buck to readers.

Politics Isn’t A Cocktail Party

[ 1 ] April 29, 2010 |

One place where you’re particularly likely to see “but would he/she be fun to have a beer with?” standards applied is Supreme Court nomination hearings and the surrounding discourse. You may remember, for example, that Sam Alito’s baseball-watching and nice family were not only supposed to be relevant for reasons that remain unclear, but were supposed to be evidence that he couldn’t really be that conservative. In a rational world, such cases as Alito and that nice, moderate, beer drinkin’ brush clearin’ Bush/Cheney ticket would put the cocktail party and/or theater critic modes of analysis out of business, but…

EfFacing Privacy

[ 18 ] April 28, 2010 |

From the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

Facebook Privacy Policy circa 2005:

No personal information that you submit to Thefacebook will be available to any user of the Web Site who does not belong to at least one of the groups specified by you in your privacy settings.

Facebook Privacy Policy circa 2006:

We understand you may not want everyone in the world to have the information you share on Facebook; that is why we give you control of your information. Our default privacy settings limit the information displayed in your profile to your school, your specified local area, and other reasonable community limitations that we tell you about.

Facebook Privacy Policy circa 2007:

Profile information you submit to Facebook will be available to users of Facebook who belong to at least one of the networks you allow to access the information through your privacy settings (e.g., school, geography, friends of friends). Your name, school name, and profile picture thumbnail will be available in search results across the Facebook network unless you alter your privacy settings.

Facebook Privacy Policy circa November 2009:

Facebook is designed to make it easy for you to share your information with anyone you want. You decide how much information you feel comfortable sharing on Facebook and you control how it is distributed through your privacy settings. You should review the default privacy settings and change them if necessary to reflect your preferences. You should also consider your settings whenever you share information. …

Information set to “everyone” is publicly available information, may be accessed by everyone on the Internet (including people not logged into Facebook), is subject to indexing by third party search engines, may be associated with you outside of Facebook (such as when you visit other sites on the internet), and may be imported and exported by us and others without privacy limitations. The default privacy setting for certain types of information you post on Facebook is set to “everyone.” You can review and change the default settings in your privacy settings.

Facebook Privacy Policy circa December 2009:

Certain categories of information such as your name, profile photo, list of friends and pages you are a fan of, gender, geographic region, and networks you belong to are considered publicly available to everyone, including Facebook-enhanced applications, and therefore do not have privacy settings. You can, however, limit the ability of others to find this information through search using your search privacy settings.

Current Facebook Privacy Policy, as of April 2010:

When you connect with an application or website it will have access to General Information about you. The term General Information includes your and your friends’ names, profile pictures, gender, user IDs, connections, and any content shared using the Everyone privacy setting. … The default privacy setting for certain types of information you post on Facebook is set to “everyone.” … Because it takes two to connect, your privacy settings only control who can see the connection on your profile page. If you are uncomfortable with the connection being publicly available, you should consider removing (or not making) the connection.

Hat Tip to Siva Vaidhyanathan.

Ooh, Data!

[ 16 ] April 28, 2010 |

One of my colleagues at Patterson threw this together for a presentation to his Economic Statecraft class:

GDP per capita, PPP (constant 2005 international $)
1990 2008 Percent change, 1990-2008 Avg. Annual Pct. Chg, 1991-2008
Armenia 2,936 5,611 91.1% 3.7%
Azerbaijan 4,754 8,102 70.4% 3.0%
Belarus 6,434 11,333 76.1% 3.2%
Estonia 10,147 18,885 86.1% 3.5%
Georgia 5,398 4,526 -16.2% -1.0%
Kazakhstan 7,089 10,458 47.5% 2.2%
Kyrgyz Republic 2,505 2,023 -19.3% -1.2%
Latvia 9,464 14,639 54.7% 2.5%
Lithuania 11,879 16,399 38.0% 1.8%
Moldova 3,882 2,704 -30.3% -2.0%
Russian Federation 12,630 14,706 16.4% 0.8%
Tajikistan 3,064 1,761 -42.5% -3.0%
Turkmenistan 3,749 6,119 63.2% 2.8%
Ukraine 8,063 6,721 -16.6% -1.0%
Uzbekistan 2,002 2,455 22.6% 1.1%
Former Soviet Union 9,446 10,618 12.4% 0.7%
Poland 8,164 16,388 100.7% 3.9%
Romania 7,851 11,761 49.8% 2.3%
Hungary 12,394 18,040 45.6% 2.1%
Bulgaria 7,536 11,259 49.4% 2.3%
Mongolia 2,332 3,297 41.3% 1.9%

The data lead to questions:

This data suggests some countries are much better off than they were in 1990, some much worse off.

1. Do these numbers feel right to you, given your knowledge of home country, and neighboring countries?

2. Assuming the numbers are correct, do you have any hypotheses about why the results are so varied?


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