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Author Page for Dave Brockington

Born in San Jose, grew up in Seattle, received a Ph.D. in poli sci from University of Washington, worked for three years at Universiteit Twente in Enschede, Netherlands, and have worked at the University of Plymouth for eight academic years now in Plymouth, United Kingdom.

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Time to Read Fever Pitch Again

[ 7 ] March 19, 2011 |

And remember what it was like when Arsenal had no hopes, dreams, or aspirations.  West Brom 2 – 2 Arsenal.  WTH?



[ 12 ] March 18, 2011 |

In the absence of our experts on International Relations, I’ll put this out there for discussion:  the UN security council resolution surprises me (note the abstention of both China and Russia).  What surprises me more is the reaction of Gaddafi.

Ideology in the Name of Austerity

[ 25 ] March 17, 2011 |

(aka Ramblings in the Name of a Coherent Blog Post)

As I’ve argued here before, the policy proposals of the recently ascendant right, in both the United Kingdom and the United States, disingenuously uses the excuse of austerity in order to sell impose a blatantly ideological program of spending cuts (and paradoxically in the United States at least, tax cuts as well) .  Dionne writes about this in his Post column this past Sunday:

A phony metaphor is being used to hijack the nation’s political conversation and skew public policies to benefit better-off Americans and hurt most others.

In the UK this has been, and will continue to be, a watershed in the rolling back of the state.  Examples include wholesale “reform” of the NHS (opposed by no less than the British Medical Association), and large scale job losses in the public sector (132,000 in 2010 alone, and this represents only the leading edge of the cuts).

Universities are not immune.  Given the job losses elsewhere in the economy, a sound long term approach would be to enhance, rather than stifle, universities.  Cuts for the 2011-12 academic year have been released, and it’s not a relaxing read  — only one university will not see an overall reduction in financing — with more dramatic cuts on their way.  My august institution of higher learning enjoys a 4.9% cut for next year.  The coalition government perseveres, even though data from the IMF suggest that perhaps this isn’t the most prudent approach.  (See additional warnings by an IMF-convened conference here, and a warning by the US Ambassador to the UK that the spending cuts proposed by the coalition government as bonkers here.)

The same is true in the US, with wide ranging ideologically motivated cuts suggested (e.g. Planned Parenthood, NPR) that promise an insignificant reduction of the deficit (the stated goal, remember).  At least the US has an empowered opposition to this ideology, with the Democrats holding the executive branch, and on paper at least, half of the legislative branch.  Or does it?  The Democrats, as genetically determined, are disorganized according to this account.  At least Labour here in the UK have found their voice, but it’s a toothless voice: Labour are powerless to do anything at all.

So, it looks as though we’re taking to the streets.  Public sector unions are planning a million-strong strike this June, including the university union, in the name of pensions.  Additionally, all universities in the UK will be striking for, I think, one day only next Thursday.  At least I hope it’s only one day, as by carefully tended recklessly expended personal finances can’t afford much more than a single day.

But hell, this is one way to get out of a couple lectures.

Well, That’s One Solution to the Immigration Non-Problem

[ 32 ] March 16, 2011 |

When I first saw this, I briefly thought that I had wandered into the Onion by mistake.  Kansas state rep Virgil Peck (R, of course) suggested that the “immigration problem” could be solved with a method similar to that proposed for feral hogs in the very same state legislature: execution by helicopter.  When the story was elaborated upon at TPM, I took it seriously — this is the sort of thing that can’t be made up.  Peck even offered a response:

Asked about his comment, Peck was unapologetic. “I was just speaking like a southeast Kansas person,” he said.  He said most of his constituents are extremely upset with illegal immigration and the state and federal government response.

Because Kansas suffers from a crippling number of illegal immigrants.  At an estimated 47,000, if banded together they could almost fill the Kansas Jayhawks Memorial Stadium.  Of course, what Peck and his ilk are likely more concerned about is this mass of immigrants descending upon historic Lawrence-Dumont stadium in Wichita, capacity 6400, home to the Wichita Wingnuts baseball club.

Yes, the Wichita Wingnuts.  Peck’s home town of Tyro is only about 130 miles from Wichita; he might even be a fan.

Labour Rising?

[ 9 ] March 11, 2011 |

The latest YouGov poll has Labour on an 11 point lead.  Don’t get too excited, for the past couple of weeks this daily poll has had Labour around six to seven points up, so it’s likely an outlier.  However, it’s still not the best news for the coalition.  The government continues to suggest policies that don’t exactly excite the electorate, against a backdrop of an economic rebound that isn’t.  In response to the “it’s not about saving money, it’s about fairness” reform of public sector pensions, there’s a decent chance of a strike action of up to a million public sector employees will happen in June (including my union, balloting is currently underway).

Electorally, it wasn’t a surprise that Labour held Barnsley Central in the by-election last week.  The media were excited about the Lib Dems falling to sixth place, and UKIP finishing a strong second, but that’s not analytically interesting.  As the LSE blog correctly suggests, the real news is the cratering of the coalition partners’ joint share of the vote; it collapsed from 35% in the May general election to just 12.5% last week.  This calls the sustainability of the coalition into question.

If this were a normal single-party government with a healthy majority, this wouldn’t be an issue: it would ride out the storm and hope for better news in two or three years.  However, this is a different scenario.  There are two possible bordering on plausible ways that the government can fall.

First, this is an awkward coalition with deep internal divisions within the junior partner.  There is a possibility that over some issue, the Lib Dems leave the coalition, or more likely given Nick Clegg’s stubborn vanity, they fracture, with backbenchers breaking from supporting the government.  Second, as they perceive the Liberal Democrats to be unreliable, fickle coalition partners, there’s a rumour that the Tories will call a snap election in May, coinciding with the Local elections and the AV referendum, in order to achieve their own working majority.

A snap election won’t happen.  I agree with my former students over at Britain Votes that there is no rational basis for calling an early election; indeed it would be counter productive for the Conservatives, and the appeal of a snap election only diminished with the result in Barnsley Central.  It would also be ill-advised for the LibDems to break from the coalition.  They’re averaging around 10% in the polls, down from the 23% they won in the 2010 election.  They would be forced to defend policies unpopular with the electorate, and more salient, very unpopular with their own electoral support.  The LibDems would hemorrhage seats, and sitting LD MPs shouldn’t be expected to embrace the promise of unemployment that at least half, and more likely 75%, would face.

I suspect that the coalition will stubbornly solider on.  While both scenarios above are possible, they’re not rational.  It’s marginally more likely that a disgruntled segment of LibDem backbenchers withdrawing support from the government on principle, not electoral calculation, but lacking this, the government has four years to persevere in the hope of a more forgiving electoral and economic context by 2015.


[ 3 ] March 11, 2011 |

This can’t end well.

When is Terrorism not Terrorism?

[ 41 ] March 9, 2011 |

This is an easy question for Represenative Peter King, current Chair of the Homeland Security Committee and defender of the Irish Republican Army, to answer:

“I understand why people who are misinformed might see a parallel. The fact is, the I.R.A. never attacked the United States. And my loyalty is to the United States.”

That’s just great, Pete.  While my proclivities on the Irish question are of a clear nationalist bent, this is ludicrous.  The majority of incidents on this list, limited to Great Britain (it takes no imagination to suggest that a similar list for Ireland would be considerably longer), were done in the name of a “legitimate force battling British repression”.  I find it difficult to accept a definition of these events that does not only include, but is limited to, the word “terrorism”.

Yes, it was a “dirty war” on both sides (though I’ve yet to find an empirical example of a “clean war”), but denying that the IRA were terrorists is disingenuous as one chairs a hearing into the supposed “radicalization of American Muslims”.  Nearly 30 years ago, King once said: “We must pledge ourselves to support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry”, but he forgot to mention Birmingham, London, Manchester, etc.  I’m further curious where he would place the Omagh bombing in his convenient taxonomy.

Coincidentally, one of my lectures tomorrow deals with the trade-offs between civil liberties and security inherent to the “war on terror” in a comparative framework.  I cover the four Prevention of Terrorism Acts from 1974-1989, the Acts of 2000 and 2006, and the much beloved PATRIOT Act in the US.  I may just have to bring up Rep. King tomorrow to see how my (mostly British)  students respond to his definition.

I Knew I Voted for Obama for Some Reason

[ 13 ] March 4, 2011 |

In addition to declaring the month of March Irish American Heritage Month (because we didn’t have enough positive attention?He needed to solidify the Irish Catholic vote?), Obama is to serve his own White House brewed beer on the 17th:

President Obama has officially declared March 2011 Irish American Heritage Month. More importantly the White House also announced that the president would be brewing his own beer called White House Honey Ale for St.Patrick’ Day.

Forget about health care reform or the repeal of DADT; as a brewer, beer judge, and beer writer of some repute in a former life, I can only see this as a positive development for the Republic.  (h/t Jamie Jurado)

Tactical Voting Under the Alternative Vote (UK Edition)

[ 27 ] March 3, 2011 |

The UK is scheduled to hold a referendum on May 5 to determine whether or not to adopt the Alternative Vote for Parliamentary elections.  This is the first UK-wide referendum since 1975, and to my knowledge (ergo my students’ knowledge) only the second referendum to apply to the entire United Kingdom.

I still hold the opinion that this was a sell out on the part of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.  AV is not proportional representation.  While it’s also not a plurality system, it is in the end a majoritarian system.  For those unfamiliar with how AV works (and I can’t imagine that’s a particularly large percentage of the LGM readership), the blog over at the LSE has an excellent “simple guide” to electoral systems.

While AV is not PR, it does greatly diminish the incentive for a voter to vote tactically.  Of course, this incentive doesn’t entirely disappear, as Tom Clark writes at The Guardian.  However, Clark severely overstates his case, and seems to confuse the empirical presence of “wasted votes” with the behavior of tactical voting.  While AV does not ensure 100% sincere voting as a residue of incentive to vote tactically is left behind, his argument implies that this residue will translate into tactical voting in those contexts where it is present.  I don’t think this will be the case.

Tactical voting requires that a voter possess  a certain level of information about the choice set, and the relative standing of the various options.  The current configuration of Westminster elections is perhaps the most fertile ground for tactical voting: single member constituencies, only two parties with a realistic chance of forming a government, and the combination of a nationally strong third party (for now) with pockets of strength for regional nationalist parties (e.g. Plaid Cymru, the SNP).  Under AV, most of this goes away.  The vast majority of choice sets requiring a tactical calculation on the part of the voter are Conservative-Labour, Conservative-LibDem, or LibDem-Labour marginals.  Yet the following is typical of the examples offered by Clark:

Third-placed Labour supporters in Dwyfor Meirionnydd would very probably have suffered a similar fate in 2010. Chances are Ukip, independent and Lib Dem transfers would have handed Plaid Cymru a majority before they had any say.

This is “very probably” empirical reality, but for tactical voting to actually occur in this constituency under AV, it would require Labour supporters to have near perfect information regarding the chances of each of the six candidates running for the seat: Plaid Cymru, Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Independent, and UKIP, as well as reasonably solid information regarding the second choices of their fellow electors in this constituency, in order for these supporters to draw the conclusion that neither their first choice would matter, nor would any subsequent choices be counted: a classic wasted vote.  Such an assumption regarding the level, reliability, and validity of information is staggering.  Yet under the old rules, 14% of the electorate in this constituency still voted for Labour, presumably a sincere vote, when information should have been relatively cheap to acquire indicating that the seat was solidly Plaid (at 44%) and the Tories did finish second at 22%.

While AV will not completely eliminate the incentives for tactical voting, it does greatly diminish them.

I’ll have more to say about this in the near future, but it’s been a magnificently busy academic year for me and now I must rush off for another responsibility.  However, the end to the madness is in sight: term is over in a few weeks, and by the end of April two fresh conference papers will have both been written and presented.

Ideally, in that order.

Pedantic Pet Peeves, Methodological Edition

[ 12 ] February 17, 2011 |

Nate Silver writes an interesting piece about a minor debate surrounding the utility (or lack thereof) of favorable ratings for (largely potential in the case of 2012) presidential candidates this far in advance of the election.  The article linked is technically a response to a rejoinder by Michigan political scientist Brendan Nyhan to an earlier article of Silver’s.  Much like the Arab world and middle east, this debate is currently underway; Nyhan posted a followup yesterday.

Reviewing both sets of articles, I find Nyhan’s arguments more convincing, perhaps not surprising given his training.  In his first piece, Silver suggested that the Republican field — at this point in time — could be considered weak.  Nyhan’s initial reply can be distilled down to so what? While Silver might have misattributed to Nyhan the claim that early polls in primaries are “useless” and “don’t matter” (my quick read of the articles in question is that it’s ambiguous, but the headline for Nyhan’s HuffPost article on the topic would perhaps have been better stated by dropping the word “Primary”) , that’s a secondary topic.  The main point Nyhan makes, citing both Hibbs and Bartels, is that the ephemeral concept known as candidate quality, image, etc., however measured, only has an effect at the margins of an election.  While, as Silver contends, the observations that we have from polling data this far in advance of a presidential election are neither useless nor do they lack salience, they simply don’t matter nearly as much as other factors.  We know what the important determinants will be in advance of the 2012 election: the state of the economy, employment figures, sociotropic assessments of the state of the country, and the interminable wars (or to the right, who lost Egypt), not the relative strength or weakness of the Republican field in February 2011.

Indeed, to underscore this point, Nyhan reproduces a figure from the Hibbs model explaining the performance of the incumbent party in presidential elections with a parsimonious index of growth in GDP and military fatalities.  The model fit (such as it is in a bivariate model) is .90.  Silver, obviously examining a different question — the predictive capability of early net favorable ratings on later net favorable ratings, has a much weaker correlation: .63.  And this brings us to my pet peeve:

That is not a terribly strong correlation by any means, and the number might change some if the study covered more years and included candidates like Mr. Dole and Mr. Reagan. Nevertheless, the relationship is highly statistically significant (italics added). Even at this early stage, polls tell us something — not everything, not a lot, but something — about how the candidates are liable to be perceived next year following the primaries.

It doesn’t matter how statistically significant an estimate is.  Period.  An estimate is either significant or not, based on the degree to which one wants to minimize the risk of a false positive.  The industry standard, of course, is .05, but some are comfortable at .10 (especially when theory justifies the use of a one-tailed test), others prefer .01, but again largely irrelevant.  Responsible analyses report the estimate itself, the standard error, and the p-value, so those of us playing along at home can reach our own judgment. What matters more is the strength of the the observed relationship.  In very large samples (large N studies), even the weakest observed relationships are significant.  I have a couple papers out with Ns in excess of 40,000: virtually everything in the model was significant, if however irrelevant in substance.  Likewise, even strong relationships can be rendered insignificant with a small N sample (because, perhaps, it doesn’t really exist in the population).

Furthermore, statistical significance is only really applicable to drawing inferences from your sample to the target population.  In other words, is what we observe in the sample likewise probably going on in the target population?  I recongize that this is pedantry of the highest order, and Silver doesn’t have the universe of data for his target population, but he comes damned close.  Significance has achieved a currency of its own in both the scientific and broder society, to the point where it is overinterpreted. I once made this point with an article submission, arguing as I had the universe of data, significance tests were technically irrelevant.  Both the reviewers and the editor still wanted to see them . . . that argument never flies.  Everything important was “significant”, and the article was published.

In reality, Silver reports a relationship that doesn’t tell us a whole lot about the bigger picture.  Yes, there is a relationship between net approvals early and late in a campaign, and by this metric the Republican field is atypically “weak” at this point in a campaign, but this affords us limited insight into the chances of either party come 2012.

I also suspect that if you divide the net favorable figures into “well known” and “not well known”, there’s considerably more variance amongst the latter candidates, as attitudes regarding the former have had more time to take hold.  This interests me, but right now I lack the time to do even this simple analysis.

It’s About Time

[ 12 ] February 12, 2011 |

“Sarah Palin Hires Political Advisor”.

You mean she didn’t already have one?  No way.

I’ve applied for a few jobs over the past five months, and . . . well . . . at least I didn’t get turned down for this one, although it’s secretly the one I wanted the most.

Observations on Privatizing Britain and its Trees

[ 35 ] February 2, 2011 |

The United Kingdom is clearly running out of things to privatize. Thus far, in a few short months, the following has been passed or is under serious consideration:

The university system has been effectively privatized by eliminating funding, though oddly without ceding control.  Students face tuition increases of 200% from 2012.  This will only partially offset the loss in funding from the state, thus universities will likely make entire departments (and the associated academic positions within) redundant.  Here at Plymouth, we recently went through a rough period in 2008 where over 200 positions were eliminated (as I’ve written about before).  Yet, our Vice Chancellor (and “Chief Executive”, a title that prior to the incumbent did not exist) has made national news with a 20% pay rise in the last year alone: the largest percentage increase in the UK.  This led one national paper to coin “The Plymouth Model” : slash jobs and costs (in our case, the wage bill decreased from 59% to 53% of expenses) and be richly rewarded by your Board of Governors.  While commenters in the nationals decry our VC’s £283K salary, a writer over at Labour Left writes in measured anger about it, and bemused students label it insensitive, the University, of course, must justify it somehow.  Granted, it’s not the fault of the VC that she received a massive raise; it’s the Board of Governors (and hell, I wouldn’t say ‘no’ to a 20% pay rise either —   beats the virtually unmeasurable increase I did somehow wander into this year).  So when the Board argues that the VC deserved the raise because “the University has hit stretching strategic targets and is now on a sound financial footing and is thriving” in a release to the local paper also distributed in email to all staff, I relaxed, safe in the knowledge that we won’t have another massive round of staff redundancies due to this “sound financial footing / thriving” malarkey.

At least my institution of higher learning tops one league table.

The NHS.  While the suggested reforms are not explicitly selling off the Health Service, many correctly suspect that this is the direction this government would like to proceed.  See an overview here at Left Foot Forward on how virtually everybody disagrees with the Government’s reasoning and justification.

The BBC.  Not an explicit privatization, not even in a creeping form, by freezing the license fee in name of austerity for five years (yes, I happily paid my £145 for the year this December), the BBC has had to make significant cuts to both its on line presence and to the world service.

Since they’ve taken case of higher education and are working on the Health Service, what could possibly be left to sell off?

Trees. That’s right, the Government is selling off the (quaintly named) New Forest, Forest of Dean, sites in the Lake District, etc.; the goal is to sell off 100% of the publicly owned “English forest estate”.  Ideally, the “heritage” sites will go to charities.  This plan was originally mooted, as everything is now, in the name of austerity in order to reduce the deficit, but it turns out that over 20 years this scheme will lose money for the state.  An on line petition has been circulating in opposition to this plan here.

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