May 2011


Keep talking

For the most part, I’m not interested in giving the Koch brothers legitimate political advice; even if I were so interested, they’re probably not reading this anyway. But I will say that David Koch, in knocking Barack Obama over the Bin Laden raid, is wasting an opportunity:

He just made the decision, it was obvious where the guy is. He was one of the worst terrorists organizing attacks on the United States. I mean, no president in his right mind would not approve that decision to go eliminate him. So he’s getting a lot of recognition and his polls have jumped up, but his decision was the easiest of them all. The real hard work was done by the intelligence and the SEALs.

Never mind that there actually was some significant risk in approving this operation, and never mind that both George W. Bush and John McCain foreswore undertaking such an operation without consulting Pakistan and its unreliable intelligence service — Koch also called Obama a “hardcore socialist” and “scary,” so it’s not like these comments are an example of reasoned public policy thinking. Going after Obama does two things that are both bad for Koch (and the other right-wingers who are doing the same). First, it makes Koch look like a petty whiner. That may not be a super-big deal for him, because he’s not running for anything, but thanks to Scott Walker, Koch is now a fairly well-known figure in ultra-conservative politics and should be thinking about his image.

But much more importantly, the longer the Bin Laden raid is salient in the public mind, the longer Obama’s approval will stay inflated. Krosnick and Kinder produced a seminal paper over 20 years ago on the effects of priming on presidential approval. Back then they looked at data from a 1986 survey that was in the field when the Iran-Contra affair came to light. What they found, not surprisingly, is that Ronald Reagan’s Central America policy played a larger role in his job approval after the revelations than before. In that case it was bad for the president, because the salient new information was negative; in the modern example, it’s good for the president, because the new information is seen as positive by the public. If Koch and the rest would avoid turning this into a confrontation, either by simply congratulating Obama or by just shutting up, the press would lose an easy way to keep the story bigger and more lively, it would fade from salience more quickly, returning the focus to the economic issues on which Obama is vulnerable.

But David, by all means, keep talking.

Filed: We R in Control || 16:34, May 5 || No Comments »


Probably the biggest exaggeration maybe in American history

Condi Rice on George W. Bush’s bullhorn speech:

“But President Bush had at Ground Zero probably the most important moment maybe in American history. It was when this wounded nation watched their commander-in-chief stand on that rubble and say that they will hear us, we are going to avenge this.”

I suppose it could go without saying that this was said on Fox News.

Filed: We R in Control || 18:33, May 3 || No Comments »


Are counterintuitive policies politically possible?

Lately I’ve been wrestling with the idea that “common sense” will always win out when policy is rendered through appeals to public opinion. That is, whatever option seems most intuitively correct — even if theory or empirical data suggest it’s wrong — will gather the most public support and will have the best chance of being translated into policy. This function might wax and wane with populism in general, such that in the crisis moments when populism peaks, common sense has its greatest sway over policy outcomes.

Our current economic black hole and the associated “debate” over raising the debt ceiling — which is not so much a debate as two sides agreeing about what must be done with one side nonetheless demanding payment for doing so — provide a terrific test case. Since becoming aware of the existence of the federal debt on January 20, 2009, many Republicans have leaned heavily on the common sense notion that, once in debt, further spending just makes things worse. “On what planet do they try to reduce the deficit by spending even more?” Tim Pawlenty asked the crowd at CPAC. And of course, that feels right to many people — after all, spending must be what got us in debt in the first place.

But also of course, it’s totally wrong. People and organizations spend to get out of debt all the time — it’s called investing. As an example, when I left the workforce to go to grad school, I had household debt. Nevertheless, I took on more debt in the form of student loans to cover my first year. Now I have a higher-paying job, more opportunity for advancement and less debt. Likewise, firms that are in the red borrow so that they continue to spend money, hopefully in ways that will increase future revenue and take them into profit. This isn’t rocket science. It’s not even Keynesian economics, which suggests that the government should engage in counter-cyclical budgeting (that is, spending in bad times and saving in good times) in order to offset lost demand from the private sector, also encouraging deficit spending in the current economic climate.

And yet, 63% of Americans oppose raising the debt ceiling. Votes to raise the debt ceiling typically succeed, but they also are often undertaken in a partisan fashion, which may ultimately leave many Democratic members of Congress vulnerable to “Rep. So-and-So voted to raise the debt ceiling and enable Obama’s shopping spree!” attacks. Perhaps this all goes back to the catch-all explanation for poor policy and contradictory bits of public opinion: Too many people don’t know anything, but think they know enough to have formed fairly solid opinions. That’s a really unsatisfying conclusion for a variety of reasons, but it’s hard not to see at the core of politicians’ ability to exploit the public’s reflexive reliance on “common sense” as a policy foundation.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 13:50, May 3 || No Comments »