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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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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.

Labour Shadow Cabinet Reshuffle

[ 10 ] January 21, 2011 |

Alan Johnson, Shadow Chancellor, resigned yesterday in order to spend more time with his family.  This is one of the rare instances where “spending more time” with one’s family means precisely that.  I’ve written positively about Johnson in the past, and argued that he should have challenged Gordon Brown back in the spring and summer of 2009 for the Labour Party leadership.  Furthermore, it’s not a good sign for Ed Miliband to reshuffle his front bench team only a few months into the job.  While Labour are doing very well in the polls at present, there’s enough evidence to suggest that this is primarily due to opposition to the coalition than it is for anything either Ed Miliband or Labour are offering (which is something I hope to write further on if I find the time).

However, I view this reshuffle as a positive step for Labour.  Johnson was out of his depth as Shadow Chancellor; given the slash and burn policy of the Tories and partners, the opposition require a strong, knowledgeable voice to challenge the Government.  Ed Balls is that person.  It’s sound rational politics for the opposition to remain vague on its own plans while exploiting the unpopularity of the Government’s policies, but at least with Balls in Labour might finally develop a credible alternative.  At least they’ve found a strong voice.

Lost in the Shuffle

[ 23 ] January 21, 2011 |

of the senior Senator from Connecticut declining the opportunity to fail in his re-election bid is the retirement of Kent Conrad.  Lieberman’s retirement generated the news, Conrad’s is more salient for the obvious reasons.  While Conrad is not even in the suburbs of my political preferences, instinctively I’m a pragmatist; I’d rather have a right-leaning Democrat representing the 18 people of North Dakota in the United States Senate than a Republican, especially when control of the chamber is at stake.

The political map of the 2012 Senate elections suggests that control is at stake.  23 Democratic seats are up for election, against 10 Republican seats.  As this represents the results of the 2006 elections, a good year for the Democrats, several of these seats are potentially vulnerable in 2012.  Adding North Dakota to the endangered list does not come at an opportune time.  Nebraska, Montana, Missouri, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland should all be regarded as vulnerable.  The Democrats should “keep” Connecticut, and indeed it would likely be an upgrade from a progressive point of view, but the only seat I’d expect Democrats to possibly gain is Massachusetts (lacking some healthy exposure to the crazy in a few Republican primaries, see below).

Normally, I’d argue that we shouldn’t be all that concerned.  2012 will feature a very different electorate than 2010.  It will be more inclined to vote Democrat, and with several assumptions (the economy rebounds, the President appears successful in his dealings with the Republican House, and signature policy victories such as PPACA become embedded in the public consciousness as perhaps popular) a significantly more pro-Democratic electorate.  There were 101 million votes cast for House candidates in 2008 against 78 million in 2010.  The Republicans did win by around six million votes against that shifting electoral backdrop (the Democrats lost 29 million), which could be interpreted as a Republican high water mark (but even the Republicans shed 10 million votes between 2008 and 2010 in House elections).

However, it’s tenuous to make a turnout based argument in the context of the Senate in 2012.  The numbers from the 2006 Senate elections likewise represented an atypical Democratic year; while the dynamics of the 2012 electorate will be more pro-Democrat than 2010, it won’t be a repeat of 2008.  A saving grace might be successful primary challenges from the right to several Republican incumbents, which could replay Delaware or Nevada.

Losing North Dakota has increased the probability that the Republicans recapture the Senate in 2012.

[updates: link to 2012 Senate seats up for election added above.  I knew I was overlooking something.  also refined the House election vote comparisons between 2008 and 2010 in order to more accurately reflect reality.  Serves me to try to write the lecture I’m giving in 20 minutes and this post simultaneously.]

Random Jetlag Blogging

[ 9 ] January 12, 2011 |

I arrived back on the island where I am currently based “yesterday” morning (January 11).  I slept seven hours “last night”, awaking at 11pm (GMT).  I lecture in two hours or so.  I’m sure it will go well indeed, once I work out just where and when I am.

While the social science on a relationship between what passes for political rhetoric in the USA and the events in Tucson is understandably mixed, it is safe to say that the right wing are not the victims.  Unless, of course, you’re Trent Humphries, co-founder of the Tucson branch of the Tea Party International, who believes that “The Democrats are using this opportunity to bludgeon their opponents.”

Oh, if only we were that organized.  It shouldn’t take too much political moxie to work out that the best way to approach this if you’re on the hard right is to point out that Tucson was a senseless tragedy, that violence has no place in society or even politics, and maybe that some on the right have turned the rhetoric up perhaps a little too high on the inflammatory scale.  What you wouldn’t want to do is claim that you, too, are victims.  But at least he recognizes that guns are likely taking a back seat in politics for the time being: “I’m pretty sure that for a little while yet you won’t be seeing any politician holding an AK-47 or an M16. I’m pretty sure that’s going to go away, and the last place that would go away is Arizona”.

An AK-47?

In this review of the right blogosphere, the narcissism stretches far.  (h/t John Emerson and Mark Devlin).

UPDATE:  I was wrong.  It’s really all about Sarah.  “Blood libel” will henceforth enter the lexicon.

In different news, USMNT center back Oguchi Onyewu has moved on loan from AC Milan to FC Twente Enschede, the defending champions of the Dutch Eredivisie (and also located right across the street and rail line from my old office at U. Twente).

Prop 8 and Standing

[ 34 ] January 6, 2011 |

This is an interesting and perhaps unintended consequence of the legal challenge against California’s Proposition 8.  The 9th Circuit panel considering the appeal to Prop 8’s (un)constitutionality sent (part of) the case back to the California Supreme Court to determine who has standing under California law to defend a state law.  As neither the (then) governor nor the (then) attorney general of California appealed the federal district court ruling striking down Proposition 8, it’s an open question.  If the state refuses to defend its own law, and private citizens lack standing, then the law is struck down by default.

Although I fake it at times in class, I’m not a constitutional (or legal) scholar, so I’ll direct interested parties here for a detailed discussion on the standing issue.  Approaching this question from an institutional and electoral (direct democracy) perspective, I see some troubling precedents in this case.  While I can speak for my fellow LGM authors in suggesting that the blog (and the vast majority of our readers) is opposed to Proposition 8 as policy, this is a procedural / institutional question, not an outcomes question.  If the state can effectively veto “any voter initiative by not defending the state’s voter initiated law in court”, to quote my colleague Todd Donovan, what prevents a Republican-run state (i.e. the governor, attorney general, etc.) from effectively vetoing a progressive initiative voted into law by the electorate?

Jessica Levinson in the above-cited HuffPost article suggests that this might not be a problem:

Is that a problem? Maybe not. The judiciary stands as an important check against the majority. The judicial branch is designed as a break against decisions by the majority that can harm minorities. The judiciary is in many ways the last stop on the train to tyranny of the majority.

I’m partially sympathetic to the reasoning, but not to the ultimate implication.  Yes, the judiciary is central in defending the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority, and in applying constitutional oversight (of course now that we have the Republicans running the House, we can do away with the judiciary altogether).  However, I’m of a mind that for these cases to be effectively decided, the majority ought to be represented.  As a citizen initiative approved by the electorate becomes state law, it is incumbent upon the state to defend said law in court.

The alternative is to allow private groups, with interests more narrowly defined than the state interest, standing in such cases, and I’m not entirely comfortable with that.  Yet our system has more than enough veto points designed into it that I suspect we really don’t need another.


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