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.

Links:

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 Barackobama.com 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 the ‘liberal nigger’, 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 studying 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 a vast literature in political science that lays bare the abysmally low levels of information in 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, 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, 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:

Country

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

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

Proportion of budget/GDP

Population
(millions)
(2006 est.)

Budget expenditure per
Person (thousands)

Germany

$2.73

$1.362

.498

82.4

16.529

France

$2.055

$1.144

.556

60.6

18.877

UK

$2.228

$.951

.426

60.4

15.74

Italy

$1.71

$.8615

.503

58.1

14.827

Norway

$246.9 billion

$131.3 billion

.531

4.5

29.177

Switzerland

$367 billion

$143.6 billion

.391

7.48

19.197

Asia Pacific

Japan

$4.664

$1.775

.380

127.4

13.932

Australia

$612.8 billion

$240.2 billion

.391

20.09

11.95

Developed North American economies

USA

$12.49 trillion

$2.466 trillion

.197

295.7

8.3395

Canada

$1.035

$152.6 billion(est. 2004)

.147

33.09

4.611

Developing country pool:

Country

GDP (2005 est.)

Budgetary Expenditure (2005 est.)

Proportion of budget/GDP

Population
(millions)
(2006 est.)

Budget expenditure per
Person

India

$720 billion

$135 billion

.1875

1,095

123

Pakistan

$89.55 billion

$20.07 billion

.223

162

124

Indonesia

$270 billion

$57.7 billion

.213

245

235

Brazil

$619.7 billion

$172.4 billion

.278

186

927

China

$2.225 trillion

$424.3 billion

.190

1,306

325

Chile

$115.6 billion

$24.75 billion

.214

16

1546

Petro-economies

Iran

$181.2 billion

$60.4 billion

.333

68

888

Saudi Arabia

$264 billion

$89.65

.339

27

3320

Venezuela

$106.1 billion

$41.27 billion

.388

25.375

1626

Nigeria

$77.33 billion

$13.54 billion

.175

128

105

All figures from CIA World Fact Book which can be accessed at: https://www.cia.gov/redirects/factbookredirect.html

Rational Ignorance: Celebrities or Politics

29 Nov

It is a commonly held belief that people are too busy to be informed about policy issues. The argument certainly seems reasonable given the oft-repeated assertion that people are leading increasingly hectic lives with little time for leisure, except that it doesn’t stand well to scrutiny. Americans, as I corroborate below, have ample leisure time and ample access to informational sources.

An average American child between the ages of 8 and 18 spends about 44.5 hours per week, or six and a half hours daily, consuming media, according to a 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation report. More than half of this time is spent in watching television programs, movies, and other videos. The figures are comparable for American adults, who watch more than four hours of television each day or twenty-eight hours each week on average, according to a Nielsen study. Even if we assume that Americans do other tasks, say cook or clean, simultaneously for part of the twenty-eight hours, it is reasonable to conclude that Americans do have a fair amount of leisure time which they spend primarily watching television.

Given that people have ample leisure time and access to information, why do people choose not to be informed about politics? Some researchers have argued that people don’t care about politics because they are rationally disinterested – they don’t feel that they can make a change hence they don’t care to be informed about it. Inarguably fan support is at best peripheral to whether a sports team will either win or lose, then why do people often times posses close to perfect information on the teams (or sport) they follow and argue passionately over the matters related to sports?

Americans are not information averse; they are surprisingly well informed about things they care to know about like celebrity gossip and football. They also spend a fair amount of time and energy collecting, regurgitating and discussing this information. While talking about sports people show a surprising amount of talent for remembering and accurately interpreting statistics. So why is it that Americans are willing to spend time and energy in collecting entertainment and sports while showing little interest in foreign or even domestic policy?

Admittedly policy issues are generally more complex than celebrity news and perhaps people’s interest in entertainment news is driven by the fact that consuming entertainment news is less cognitively demanding. The explanation seems inadequate given people (perhaps mainly men) do keep track of elaborate sports statistics and present well-articulated positions on why a certain team is better than the other. One can perhaps argue that given the general lack of morally divisive issues, people feel more comfortable discussing entertainment news than say abortion. But then certainly there are policy issues that are bereft of morally divisive issues. It seems though that most political information is presented in identity packets rather than ideational packets as in choices are explained and understood as liberal or conservative choices. Choices marked with identity dissuade analysis and reflection, as research has shown, and combined with the chronic lack of factual information on relevant policy topics on American television, there isn’t much hope that people will get to critically think about the problem.

Understanding Voter Disinterest

15 Nov

Voter indifference in the US is commonly understood as an effect of the media environment. For example negative advertisements or availability of entertainment that had pushed news programming to a distinct second. While the above view may very well be true, it is unlikely that is either the sole or even the major cause of the dwindling number of voters.

To understand voter disinterest fully, one must try to see it in a “personal” context that takes into account the rationale behind why a person chooses to engage in a democratic process. By doing so, one may understand the downturn in voter interest as an artifact of the spatial (nation or culture-specific) and temporal (historical) locality. More specifically, US voter’s indifference towards politics can be seen as a side-effect of living in an era where economic and social conditions are relatively (and in absolute terms when measured as life expectancy etc.) good. Given that an average American voter tends to view government’s role in resolving social and economic issues as rather limited, it is not altogether surprising that a US voter may conclude that s/he have little to gain from voting. The contention is corroborated by the fact that the voter group that does rely upon the government – older adult voters, who need Medicaid and Social security benefits, votes most often in the elections.

The lack of growth in citizen’s level of political knowledge (Delli Carpini and Keeter, 1996), in spite of the increase in the amount of information available, can similarly be explained by lack of motivation in voters. Research by Robert Luskin identifies interest and intelligence as key variables affecting the level of political sophistication also ties into the above analysis. Luskin states, “Education, too, may be motivational in part. In an educated society, the blanket ignorance of politics may be a solecism. We learn about the things we care about.” Education, by making a person more aware of the actual role of government and the services it offers, as opposed to the widely perceived peripheral role of government, can make people more motivated to vote.

Rational self-interest or disinterest cannot fully explain voter disinterest in the US. There is an argument to be made, that aside from the differences that emanate from different school systems and the perceived differences in the importance of government’s role in alleviating social or economic problems, nearly all the other differences can be traced to differences between media environments. One key difference in US media markets and media markets in other countries is the lack of a comparatively large public broadcaster. NPR and PBS fare poorly in terms of budget, viewership and production values when compared to their counterparts in say Britain (BBC) or Canada (CBC) or other developed countries. One may impute from the above that the presence of a large public broadcaster in a media market has an important salutary impact on the way politics is covered.

The effect of a large public broadcaster can be understood in terms of the kind of programming shown by public broadcasters – primarily thematic coverage of news. Thematic coverage of news as opposed to incident oriented coverage of news, the most prominent model on network news, allows citizens to trace the arc of accountability to the government or other social and economic factors, according to Shanto Iyengar, a professor at Stanford University. This, in turn, may make a person more motivated to vote

In all, voter disinterest can be more fully understood by analyzing factors influencing voter’s perception of his/her self-interest and government’s role in helping achieve their interests, whether it be security or employment.