Oct 18, 2012

Told you so (charitable giving edition)

Nice to see a debunking of the myth that conservatives give more to charity. But I called Brooks's BS five years ago.

Oct 13, 2012

The GRIMS should contemplate the meaning of "I"

What possesses about half of American voters that will make them vote for Mitt Romney for President?

The Grim is an omen of doom in Harry Potter*
I want to understand it because the idea is as foreign to me as taking a pin to a fair, popping every child's balloon, and then swallowing the pin. It also feels equally mean and self-destructive. So I tried to boil it down to a short list of simple reasons why people vote for Romney (or Republican in general). I contend that every Republican voter is driven by at least one of five factors, which can be summarized in an acronym: GRIMS.

G is for greed, R is for racism, M is for misogyny, S is for stupidity. (Where is I? Don't be impatient; I'll give it a special treatment at the end.)

Greed is an obvious factor. For wealthy voters, it is, by most measures, individually rational. If you earn more than about $200,000 per year, or have a multi-million-dollar estate to leave to your heirs, you (or your heirs) will likely be able to consume more goodies if Republicans run the country. If your income is in millions or your estate in tens of millions (or more), you will certainly be significantly richer under Republicans. I may consider you selfish or narrow-minded, but I can't really blame you for voting your purse. I could point to billionaires who vote Democratic—who are willing to bear a personal cost for a better society—but it's your vote and you could do much worse than voting based on your personal material interest. After all, you are in the one percent, maybe two, hardly a group that decides elections. (If you are not wealthy, this paragraph is not about you. If you think it is, please skip to the letter S.)

Racism is an obvious factor in this presidential election and in the last one, but it is almost as important when both candidates are of the same race (whatever that means). Many voters are attracted to the Republican opposition to various social programs. At first, this appears puzzling because polls regularly show that people generally support social programs, and not just "earned benefits" like Social Security, but also "welfare" programs like Medicaid. However, digging deeper leads to a discovery that many people like those programs for "people like me", but think that "those other people" tend to abuse them. The "other" are, of course, those of different race or ethnicity, or immigrants (but mostly those of different race or ethnicity).

Misogyny: what is generally manifested as abortion policy is really all about equal rights for women. (Note that opposition to abortion and opposition to equal pay are correlated.) If you are personally morally opposed to abortion, there is no reason for you to want to use state power to impose your moral views on others. Plenty of such people are pro-choice and many of them vote for Democrats. If you truly believe abortion is murder, I can see why you'd want to outlaw it, but the moment you say you'd allow exceptions for rape or incest, you have admitted you don't believe that abortion is murder at all. Since those who oppose the rape/incest exception are generally considered extreme even by most Republicans, I will not discuss them here, as people on the extremes of the political spectrum don't decide elections unless the election is so close that the turnout of core partisan voters is critical. But my main question is why the election is close in the first place. That's not because of the 10-15% who truly believe that abortion is murder. All other so called "pro-life" voters really want to put women "in their place" and shame them for being sexual at all. If you are anti-abortion, but actively involved in distributing free contraceptives and contraception (not just abstinence) advice, then what I said does not apply to you. All other "pro-lifers", shame on you and don't complain.

Stupidity is, of course, a factor in most people's decisions, and I don't deny that a lot of people vote Democratic for stupid reasons as well. But this post is about why people vote Republican. Denying evolution or climate change are two stupid ideas adopted and promoted by the Republican Party. (Romney doesn't subscribe to either, AFAIK, but he'll still win the deniers' vote overwhelmingly, for reasons discussed later, under "I".) The idea that tax cuts for the rich trickle down and benefit everyone, or that one day you'll be rich and will benefit from those tax cuts, is stupid wishful thinking. Believing that Obama is a socialist who is destroying America's businesses and burdening most people with excessive taxes and regulations is stupid. Ditto for believing that Obamacare is a government takeover of health care that will introduce death panels and force you to lose the insurance you have. Same for believing that Obama is weak in foreign policy, that he apologizes for American values or that he is hostile to Israel. And, of course, ditto for the idea that he is a Kenyan-born Muslim, but that really belongs under the letter R. The list goes on and on, but you get the picture.

I skipped the middle of the acronym, but now it's time to go back to the letter I. Initially, I meant it to stand for ignorance, as I wanted to separate it from stupidity. Technically, ignorance is a state of being uninformed or misinformed, and thus can be remedied by supplying information, while stupidity is an inability to think properly, absorb information, and form reasonable conclusions, and can rarely be helped. Strictly speaking, most of the examples I listed under stupidity are evidence of ignorance, and not necessarily of stupidity. However, I am not convinced that the distinction is meaningful here. The facts are easily accessible to everyone. More than that: most of them are hard to escape from. Schools teach evolution. Your pay stub lists the tax withholding. Obama's birth certificate has been published everywhere. Everybody has seen these things. People aren't really ignorant of the facts. What they are is willfully ignorant, and that's broadly in the realm of stupidity, or perhaps delusion. In any case, it is a personal, rather than circumstantial, shortcoming. So I decided to leave ignorance out of the list. Plus, there is a more compelling "I" word there.

Another reason I looked for a different word is that the list so far fails to explain too many voters. Although I can comfortably say that practically every Republican in Congress today, and every Republican who ran for President in this cycle, with a possible exception of Huntsman (Gary Johnson is incredibly stupid on economic policy), exhibits at least one of the four characteristics discussed so far, not every Republican voter does. First, there are reasonable conservative thinkers whom I read regularly. Although some of them have been ostracized by the institutional Right, and others have tried to keep out of politics, I suspect that most of them will, in the end, hold their noses and vote for Romney (and probably for the down-ticket Republicans as well, unless those are some extreme Tea Partiers). I also know enough people who have expressed preference for Romney, but whom I can't place in any of the four groups, based on what I know (or think I know) about them.

Really, the core topic of this post is how to explain Romney voters who are not idiots. Everything else is not all that interesting. Of course the stupid misogynist racists will vote Republican, as will the dirty rich. Dog bites man.

So here we go: I stands for identity. Politics is tribal, and most people identify with a group. Often that means identifying with a party. It is hard for a "lifelong Republican" to break with his party, even if he thinks the party has changed so much that he hardly belongs in it. For some people, it is hard to support a candidate opposed by the vast majority of their friends and family. And this feeling of loyalty to the tribe gets internalized and takes root—not least because tribe membership is partly explained by the individual's psychological makeup.

Oh, good. That means I can be comfortable around those Romney voters and not feel compelled to put them in a "greedy", "racist", "misogynist" or "stupid" drawer. They just identify with their tribe, it's practically like being of different ethnicity or religious persuasion. And it's not like our tribes are in a bloody war. It's OK.

Well, sort of. I don't hate people for belonging to that tribe. But, honestly, I don't hate people for being stupid, or (as you must have noticed above) even for being greedy. (Racism and misogyny are more serious offenses. No guarantees there.) It's not about hate. Nobody will get in a fist fight. However, I am not sure this tribal identity thing is more benign than "ignorance" would have been in its place, or than stupidity is. Plus, it may be a root cause for other items on the list.

I mentioned that willful ignorance is more like stupidity. But no one wills one's own stupidity. Why do people will their own ignorance? Because it is beneficial for them to do so. There is a hackneyed (but true) saying that it is hard to teach a man something if his salary depends on not knowing it. It is similar with non-material incentives. Learning is uncomfortable if it contradicts one's religious dogma, challenges one's values, or distances one from one's tribe. To avoid that discomfort, people close their eyes and ears and refuse to learn, or they find alternative sources of more convenient "facts". As a result, they end up ignorant, stupid, or delusional. That may be puzzling to others, as the same individuals may be evidently knowledgeable, smart and sane in other areas. Their compartmentalized stupidity is an outgrowth of their tribal identity.

This is nothing new. It is a long-standing standard explanation for smart people who believe in weird things. It probably comes up most often as an explanation of a smart, educated person who denies evolution. But it extends far beyond religious dogma. It is the main driver of politics, and is the main reason that the political discourse is generally idiotic.

So this is a challenge for my Republican friends: think about whether you really like the tribe you identify with. Think about the fact that you couldn't win any national election without some unsavory groups (the racists). Think about the party tenets that are demonstrably false. Think about the lies and bullshit your politicians say, and need to say. Yeah, I know that all politicians lie, but come on, your party is an order of magnitude worse.

And, when you've thought about it, ask yourself: Is this the "I" that describes me?

* Image by Cliff Wright. Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/glasgow_and_west/8008247.stm

Oct 12, 2012

Causes of Romney bounce

I believe the polls, but I don't believe that Romney gained 4-5% based on the debate alone. That just doesn't happen, especially not in an election with so few undecided voters. I think it is a mistake to attribute all the movement to a single cause, as if there were no other events in the last week.

Last week's debate was Wednesday night, and there was another important event Friday morning: the jobs report. So, my hypothesis is that some of the Romney bounce is due to the jobs report.

Now you think I'm nuts. The jobs report was exceptionally good, and thus presumably favorable to the incumbent. Also, didn't I just in the last post explain that it didn't matter? Am I changing my positions like Romney?

Oh, but what I explained was that the substance of the report —the facts reported—couldn't matter for the polls. But there was another event associated with the report: Republicans started spreading conspiracy theories about it, and the media treated those conspiracy theories as if they were respectable ideas. What would be the expected effect on a "low-information" voter? A suspicion that Obama is the new Nixon, of course!

So I think that the irresponsibility of the media in giving free advertising space to the nuts has been a factor in the Romney bounce, and I would guess that it may account for up to half of it.

The poll movements are consistent with my hypothesis: first came a bounce, then it appeared to fade, but then it increased again and stabilized. This can, of course, be a coincidence, as those daily movements were well within the range of normal statistical fluctuations. But at least they provide a prima facie case for two causes, separated by a couple of days.

Oct 10, 2012

Cooking the numbers: a half-baked idea

Many have commented on the Republican conspiracy theories about BLS cooking the September employment numbers to help Obama's reelection. Enough has been said about how preposterous those theories are and how irresponsible the media have been in covering them as if they deserved some respect. I have nothing to add to that, but I am puzzled that I haven't seen anyone ask an obvious question:

How do those people think embellished statistics would help a candidate in an election?

Seriously. Do you know any person who would decide for whom to vote, or whether to vote, based on the published unemployment rate? Can you imagine somebody thinking, "I wasn't going to vote for Obama when the unemployment rate was 8.1%. But wow, the unemployment rate is 7.8% now, and by golly, I'm voting to reelect the President!"?

OK, there may be two or three Aspergians nationwide who are so much into economic data that  oher shethey set a voting decision rule based on such statistics. But, if such people exist, I bet they live in DC anyway (working for the government or some think tank), and DC's electoral votes are already spoken for.

Other than that hypothetical and vanishingly small demographic, no voter thinks that way. Most voters don't even know what the unemployment rate is, and those who know couldn't care less.

Of course, people care about the economy. But they don't care about abstractions. They care about how they are doing, and how their friends and relatives are doing. They react to what they experience. If you are unemployed, and the unemployment rate declines from 8% to 6%, did you somehow become less unemployed? Nothing has changed for you. Things did change for a lot of other people, and they are now more likely to reelect the current officials. That's why job numbers matter for the election. But they don't matter to any individual voter.

That's why you don't see a bounce for Obama in the polls after the good economic news, unlike the day before, when his advantage diminished because of the poor debate performance. But the debate—however irrelevant in substance—was news to every individual. By contrast, the employment numbers were news in the aggregate, but not to individuals. Nobody's experience of the economy changed with the publication of those numbers.

That is not to say that those job numbers are not reflected in the polls. Of course they are—in polls conducted in September. Think about it: if more people became employed in September, more people liked the current administration in September. Incidentally, Obama's poll numbers did improve in September, although we'll never know how much of that was due to the improving economy, how much  to the energized Democratic Convention, and how much to Romney's gaffes and the "47%" recording. But, whatever the effect of the economy, it was there in the polls long before it was in the published data.

And this is generally true: economic statistics are lagging indicators of voters' opinions, because they are published with a delay and voters form opinions based on their experiences immediately. To put it another way: the polls predict the economic data, not the other way around.

So how would making up job numbers help reelect the President? In the immortal words of South Park's underpants gnomes:
  1. Cook the numbers
  2. ?????
  3. Second term!!!
The idea that this could work is crazy—even more crazy than the blind, rabid partisanship that transforms otherwise sane people into paranoid conspiracy theorists.