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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Who's going to win?

In my August political analysis at Research magazine, I discuss efforts to predict the outcome of the presidential race. A longish excerpt, with emphasis added at the end:

Thus, some broad numerical pictures of the race have given a clear, but not overwhelming, edge to Obama. To be sure, those pictures are snapshots, and there could be sharp fluctuations in the months ahead in the polls, prediction markets and forecasting models. The sensitivity of [Nate] Silver’s model to a shift in the S&P 500 illustrates the Obama campaign’s vulnerability to negative economic and financial-market data. 
Moreover, quantitative methods carry the risk of obscuring or downplaying factors that are not readily quantifiable. In the presidential race, one such factor may be the presidential debates, scheduled for October. Both Obama and Romney are capable debaters, albeit ones with somewhat mixed records versus various opponents. In 2008, Obama seemed to win some, lose some versus Hillary Clinton; and to gain an edge in debating John McCain largely because of McCain’s limitations as a debater. 
The 2012 Republican primaries featured an unprecedented number of debates. These encounters had major impacts on the race—undermining Rick Perry, for instance, and for a time aiding Newt Gingrich. Moreover, they gave Romney intensive practice at such encounters. 
By contrast, President Obama goes into this fall’s debates without recent debating experience (except mock exercises with supporters) but now with an extensive White House record to defend. He also has a reputation for eloquence that will raise expectations that he will perform well in debates, and yet as president he also has had some tendency to seem thin-skinned in response to criticism. 
It seems plausible that Romney will benefit considerably from this fall’s debates. Moreover, such a prospect—involving unique, personal interactions that have not taken place yet—is the sort of thing that likely would not get adequately taken into account in polls, prediction markets and forecasting models, showing up only after the fact. 
Prediction: The debates will matter and push poll numbers Romney’s way. But let’s go out on a limb. Prediction: Romney is going to win the election.
There you have it. Now, I won't claim great confidence in this prediction, and won't be making any $10,000 bet. But I think the line of reasoning is valid. I've tried to calibrate my thinking to acknowledge some biases of my own. For one thing, I am an enthusiast of debates, so I may be overstating their importance; on the other hand, their importance in the primaries was even greater than I would've guessed. Moreover, I am planning to vote for Romney, as noted in a recent post, but I think that post and other writings should make clear that I'm not exactly brimming with partisan enthusiasm these days, so wishful thinking is plausibly a fairly small factor in shaping my prediction.

Blue meanings

Mark Helprin wants the red/blue state nomenclature reversed, because red was the color of Communism. A waste of op-ed space, that, but while he's seeing red, I'll note that blue has been the color representing all sorts of things, including the U.N., IBM, royalty, depression, manual labor and, in Iran, mourning. Be careful what associations you demand, Mr. Helprin. And if red symbolizes fervor: if the shoe fits, wear it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

My vote this year

I’ve written fairly extensively in the past few years about how my political opinions have changed, and also about how to a considerable degree they stayed the same while the political spectrum changed. Two pieces I wrote for FrumForum, “How I Joined the Vast RINO Conspiracy,” and “How Did Libertarians Lose Their Way?” recount those shifts.

It might not be obvious from my recent political opinion writings as to how I’ll be voting in the presidential election this year. On one hand, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy criticizing Republicans, including by poking holes in a number of anti-Obama arguments. On the other hand, readers will not find much I’ve written that’s actually pro-Obama.

At FrumForum, I and other writers would sometimes get comments at the bottom of our posts from presumably Democratic readers sniping that our arguments count for little because “you’re going to vote Republican anyway” or words to that effect. Well, in my case, I can say with confidence that I would have voted against the GOP nominee had it been Santorum, Gingrich, Perry, Cain or Bachmann* (and there were times such an outcome seemed all too plausible). I would’ve chosen Obama over any of the above-listed Republicans (though perhaps not over Americans Elect in this parallel universe).

Back to reality now, and the Obama-Romney matchup. The criticism of Obama from many Republicans is that he’s a dangerous radical, a threat to America’s basic framework. I think that’s baloney. This president strikes me as cautious, even plodding; not a bold visionary or ideologue and not a particularly skilled deal-maker; someone who uses high-flown rhetoric that vastly outpaces his achievements; someone who spent two years letting congressional Democrats drive the agenda, the next two in defensive mode.

As for Romney, well, much of that description could apply to him too. A common complaint about him is that he shifts with the political winds. Conservatives worry that he won’t pursue their agenda. Progressives worry he’ll be a captive of conservatives. My guess is both sides will find some of those worries realized in a Romney administration. To me, that’s largely for the good. I want a president who upsets left and right.

It’s possible, but unlikely, that I’ll change my mind between now and November. As it stands, I intend to vote for Romney. A technocratic manager who knows how to restructure failing organizations (read: federal agencies, programs, and also his own party) is not a bad job description for a successful president over the next four years. I’ll have more on specific issues in future posts, and soon will have something on the question of who’s going to win.

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* - Update: The exclusion of Ron Paul from this list was accidental.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sally Ride (1951-2012)

I'm saddened by the loss of Sally Ride, astronaut, scientist, educator and (last and least) former president of Space.com, where she and I were colleagues in 1999-2000. I've written elsewhere about the management of Space.com but would like to point out here that Sally was a class act; indeed, her reasonableness upon being approached with some employee grievances misled me into thinking such approaches might work with that company's top executives more broadly.

She was a decent, thoughtful person albeit a bit aloof. She had concerns about the quality of the science journalism at Space.com, and such concerns were inevitable, given that the company had set up an "Area 51" UFO channel on the website (in the erroneous belief that scientists wouldn't notice or mind such material appearing a couple of clicks away from the astronomy coverage). To make a long story short, Sally was a poor match for Space.com but that reflects on broader circumstances more than on her particular talents, of which there were many.

I didn't know she was gay -- and yet, I sort of knew; I have some vague memory of somebody saying something that suggested that, and I gave it no further thought. Her death has inspired some chin-stroking about feminism, and a typically, tediously, contrarian Slate piece (with any valid point lost behind a fatuous headline). Her life story does not serve well for knee-jerk victimology.

My favorite story about Sally Ride, something I read long ago, had to do with her fixing a broken car in the desert with the cardboard from a roll of toilet paper, if memory serves. This was somebody you'd want in a space shuttle next to you, and in many other situations where the stakes are high and you need someone with intellect and judgment to spare.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Violence curve

This post at Crooked Timber, prompted by the terrible violence in Colorado, is titled "America is a Violent Country," which is fair enough given what the graph shows, but I find more noteworthy the parabolic shape of the graph, with violence soaring from about 1960 to 1980 and then declining since then (while remaining higher than the baseline of other OECD countries). America is a violent country, but how violent can and does vary dramatically over time. What caused that curve to shoot upward and then fall (not quite as fast) downward is a subject that's much more interesting (to me) than the particulars of whatever drove this latest murderer to do what he did.

Political outlook watch

I'd missed this piece by Conor Friedersdorf, "President Romney Would Not Remain a Conservative." For my part, I think that very expectation, however much Romney might distance himself from it, is an important factor in his chance of winning. I'll have more later this month on the election, whom I expect to win and whom I'll be voting for and why. Meanwhile, here's another item of interest, this one by James Pethokoukis: "The 5 economic stats that will decide the election are all pointing down for Obama." To me, the question of what numbers to look at -- polling data, economic variables, prediction markets -- is thought-provoking, and even more so is the question of whether there are some factors that don't tend to show up in quantitative analyses but could be very important in the race. I think the October debates are such a factor, as I'll discuss later this month.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Travel note

David Liu, my college roommate and longtime friend, explains "How a C.E.O. Came to Like First Class."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Monday, July 16, 2012

Blue New Jersey

An interesting post at 538: "In Blue New Jersey, Red Spots May Be Sign of the Past."

I live in the northern suburbs, where the schism between moderates and a rightward-shifting GOP has been obscured by geographic proximity to the more conservative, fairly rural northwestern section of the state; hence, my congressman, Scott Garrett, is one of the most conservative Republicans in Congress. Meanwhile, other parts of Bergen County, further south and east, are virtually guaranteed to have a liberal Democrat in Congress.

Here's my piece from a few months ago on the state's center-right governor and how his combative style has helped him appeal to conservatives nationwide despite his substantive differences with them.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Manhattanhedge to Mormonism

Manhattanhedge, the twice-yearly alignment of sunsets with the city's street grid, has happened again. This event, of course, was made possible by the fact that New York's streets are a grid, thanks to DeWitt Clinton, Simeon De Witt, Gouverneur Morris and John Rutherfurd. I recommend the Museum of the City of New York's exhibit on the subject, which will be closing this Sunday (after which the relevant link will probably be here).

While we're on the subject of DeWitt Clinton's influence, I have long been fascinated by the possibility that he, inadvertently, had something to do with the origin of Mormonism. I first became aware of that with this passage from Richard Brookhiser's 2004 City Journal article:
He also had a deep interest, part archaeological, part fanciful, in the origins of American Indians. He visited ancient mounds in Ohio and, in a common turn of thought for his day, sought to link the ancient history of the New and Old Worlds: perhaps, he wrote, the Indians were descended from the ancient Scythians. Such speculations would bear their gaudiest fruit when Joseph Smith learned, from the Angel Moroni, that the Indians were renegade Israelites.
It's something I'll try to learn more about in further research of my own. In the meantime, this election year, expect to hear a lot, and a lot that's negative, about Mormonism, for some reason.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Rapid op-ed refutations

It's not good to write back-to-back op-ed pieces with arguments that fall apart under scrutiny. Here's Arthur Brooks in the New York Times proclaiming that "Conservatives Are Happier Than Liberals." Here's David Frum pointing out that this claim is based on misleading statistics. Now here's Arthur Brooks in the WSJ announcing that "America Already Is Europe," i.e. a social-welfare state like Spain. And here's Will Wilkinson in The Economist noting that too relies on misleading statistics. For my part, I'll add some puzzlement as to the intersection of Brooks' two arguments--if America already is Europe, shouldn't that give some boost to liberals' happiness levels compared to conservatives'?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Waterfront developments

Back in 1996, I wrote a City Journal article "The Wasted Waterfront," lamenting that so much of New York City's waterfront was derelict or moribund. It's an ironic sign of how much progress has occurred since then that some people now memorialize those conditions as "Lost Waterfronts."

Monday, July 9, 2012

"We are V.I.P."

In my July column, I predicted:
Bain Capital was just the beginning. Expect the Obama campaign to drive hard at pointing out Romney’s extensive campaign contributions from, and personal associations with, the financial sector. Also, expect such criticisms to largely fall flat.
Certainly, I was right about point 1. Whether I'm right that the criticisms will "largely fall flat" remains to be seen, and it is true that Romney's Hamptons fundraiser made for a rather fat target. Here's Peter Beinart:
“A woman in a blue chiffon dress poked her head out of a black Range Rover here on Sunday afternoon and yelled to an aide to Mitt Romney, ‘Is there a V.I.P. entrance. We are V.I.P.’
Thus began yesterday’s nasty little New York Times story entitled, “Romney Donors Out in Force in Hamptons.” It follows snarky coverage of Romney’s Jet Ski-filled vacation at his multi-million dollar New Hampshire estate. Which follows a flurry of reports suggesting that the Obama campaign’s assault on Romney’s record at Bain Capital is hurting him in key states like Ohio.
Of course, if you have to say you're a VIP, you probably aren't. In any case, expect a lot more stories like that Times piece.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Holiday note

Happy Independence Day. Four years ago, I contributed to a sand sculpture project that didn't quite make the cut. In the last two years, I wrote about national and family history here and here. In the upcoming month, I'll have some coverage of the political scene, including not least a prediction on who'll win the presidential race. As always, thanks to those who stop by here at Quicksilber.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Opening minds

Arnold Kling has an interesting post on "Opening Minds, Closing Minds." Excerpt:

The following thought occurred to me recently. Suppose we look at writing on issues where people tend to hold strong opinions that fit with their ideology. Such writing can 
(a) attempt to open the minds of people on the opposite side as the author 
(b) attempt to open minds of people on the same side as the author 
(c) attempt to close minds of people on the same side as the author
So, think about it. Wouldn't you classify most op-eds and blog posts as (c)? Isn't that sort of pathetic? Here are some more thoughts: 
1. The default is (c). If you are not consciously trying to do (a) or (b), then you will almost surely do (c). 
2. Most of us, most of the time, do (c). 
3. Doing (c) 100 % of the time can earn you fame and fortune. Yes, you get criticized for it by people on the other side, but the positive reinforcement you get probably more than makes up for it. 
4. Try to think of folks who try to have a high proportion of (a) and (b). The first ones that I think of are David Brooks and Tyler Cowen. I wish I could think of more.
Me: One thing I liked about writing for FrumForum, when it was actively publishing, was its overt emphasis on (b) and its notable but more subtle capacity for (a).