Archive for October, 2010


Sunday, October 31st, 2010

A wit once told a story that is perhaps apocryphal, but the nonetheless instructive, of a visitor to Princeton University. After some political discussions with a sample of students, the visitor remarked to his friend and professor at the university that the Conservative students seemed somehow sharper and more thoughtful than their Liberal counterparts. The professor responded that all Princeton students are smart, but Conservative students had to swim upstream against the general political flow of campus life had developed stronger rhetorical upper body strength than their Liberal friends.

Not only are Conservatives, particularly, those who live in “blue’’ states, forced to more deeply consider their political positions, they also learn the important lesson that those that differ with them politically are not generally enemies or adversaries. They are probably friends with whom one may have important disagreements.

One to the disadvantages of President Barack’s political life in Chicago is that he was not blessed with many friends with whom he could have robust and amicable disagreements on fundamental political issues. Instead, he spent too much time with the likes of 60s radical and bomber Bill Ayers and radical Pastor Jeremiah Wright.

Obama is generally moderate in demeanor if not political philosophy. Every once in a while he apparently reveals a deep animosity with political competitors. In a speech before Hispanic votes, he exhorted, “We’re going to punish our enemies [emphasis added] and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us.’’ Presumably, Obama was arguing that the majority, or at least a significant minority, of Americans that disagree with him on immigration issues are “enemies.’’ This is particularly alarming since Obama is reluctant to refer to America haters like Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Mahmoud Ahmadineja of Iran as enemies.

It is certainly true that the term “enemy’’ is bandied about too often in political discourse. However, a president, more than others, needs to be far above this. This is particularly true after President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list’’ was used o be badgered with IRS audits and other abuses of executive power. The president is the only elected official that represents all Americans. He needs to use less incendiary rhetoric, and it seems that the press has largely given Obama a pass.

In September 21, 2001, President George W. Bush said, “And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.’’ It was a call for those nations that try to have good relations with the US and at the same time deliberately harbor terrorists, that they would have to chose which side they are on.

The statement was not that those Americans who had disagreements with the manner in which the War on Terror is conducted were “either with or against us.’’ Nonetheless, for the next eight years this statement was used by the Left to suggest was trying to suppress dissent. Conspicuous Conservatives generally don’t do such things because they know that they will be roundly criticized in the Left-leaning press. Obama, by contrast, has not been so taught.

Predictions for the House Election 2010

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

This year is particularly difficult to assess because of the obvious political passion of the new Tea Party Movement. Whether one agrees with the current Administration and Congress or not, the last two years have been consequential, with nearly a trillion dollars of stimulus spending and a complicated and copious health care reform bill. This, coupled with the pain of nearly 10% unemployment that seems stubbornly fixed and a depressed housing market has dramatically changed the political landscape. A president who once enjoyed an approval rating of nearly 70% has seen that approval sink to below 50%.

Typically most Republicans will vote for Republicans, most Democrats will vote for Democrats. The questions are: How motivated these partisans are to vote,? What is the self-identification with the parties? Toward which party will the unaffiliated voters break? These questions make it difficult to model who will be the “likely” voter this year.

Rasmussen was the was the most accurate poll in predicting the presidential outcome in 2008, and is consequently highly respected. trys to average out poll biases by publishing a running average of major polls. Nate Silver of is a statistician who during the last election cycle generated accurate predictions using multiple polls and averaging the results of thousands of computer simulations.

Although I yield to these full-time organizations and professionals for their noble work in making these assessments, I wonder how predictive a simpler approach might be. The Gallup Organization is over 70 years old and has a long track record with respect polling. Whatever its virtues and deficiencies the Gallup poll has existed for a long time.

One important bellwether for mid-term elections is the generic preference poll: what fraction of likely voters prefer an unnamed Democratic or Republican candidate. The horizontal axis below is the Gallup-measured Democratic advantage in the generic poll, for the mid-term elections since 1950. If this value is 2, it means the Democrats are preferred over Republicans by a 2% margin. The vertical axis is the margin, either positive or negative, that the Democrats earned in the actual House vote. For example, the value of 1 means that the Democratic margin in the actual vote for the House of Representatives is 1%.

A linear fit to these points is y = 0.8901 x – 0.0354, where x is the Democratic advantage in the generic poll and y is Democratic advantage in the House vote. The 0.8901 slope indicates that, in general, Democrats slightly under perform their poll numbers. Also note that the correlation coefficient sqaured, R2, equals 0.88, meaning that 88% of the observed election-to-election variations can be accounted for with the linear fit.

Election Prediction

As of this writing, Gallup is uncertain as to its likely voter model. If there is a low turn out, this usually means proportionately more Republicans turn out, the generic poll value is -17% (the negative sign means the Democrats poll less well than Republicans). With a high turn out election, Gallup’s likely voter model produces a smaller -11% value.

Given the high energy level on the part of Tea Party members (likely to vote for Republicans), it is not clear that a high voter turnout is to the advantage of Democrats this year. Nonetheless, if we use the -11% value, the simple linear model suggests that Republicans could expect to gain 64 seats for a total of 242. Republicans need 218 to take the House. The 95% confidence limits suggested by the model predict a range of gains from 57 to 70 seats. If we used the -17% value for the likely voter generic preference for Democrats, the gain for Republicans would be an enormous 73 seats, for a total of 251, with 95% confidence for a gain of between 64 and 78 seats.

At present, the average gives Republicans a certain 220 seats with with 37 toss ups. Apportioning the toss ups evenly would give Republicans 239 seats for net gain 61 seats. Nate Silver predicts a Republican 51-seat gain. The proposed linear model clearly is more favorable to Republicans than more sophisticated ones. Since the Republicans have never before had a generic poll in their favor by more than 7%, we are predicting outside the range that this simple linear model has experienced.

There is still one week before the election. We will update the predictions using the latest possible generic poll and see how well this first-order model performs.

There is much that is opaque to the casual outside viewer of polls. In baseball, a spectator is not always able to tell that whether a well hit ball to the outfield has enough power to make it out of the park. However, astute students of the game will watch the outfielders who have a better perspective and likely a keener eye. By watching how they respond to the ball, one can get a indication of where the ball will go. If the outfielder starts to run toward a particular point, one can be assured that the ball will remain in the park. If the outfield doesn’t move much, he likely sees that the ball will fly over the fences. Whatever the public and private polls are indicating, Democrats are rapidly pulling funding out of key districts, indicating they are retreating to protect their core in close raises where additional spending could have an effect. This is certainly indicative of what they believe is happening.

Freedom of Association and Privacy

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was once considered far out of the political mainstream, especially in the South of the first half of the Twentieth Century. In that era, the non-profit organization employed political means to seek elimination of segregation in the South and political rights for black Americans. Some state governments attempted to put legal obstacles in the way of the NAACP.

There were laws with regard to the registration of out-of-state entities operating within some states. In 1956, the state of Alabama claimed that the NAACP was violating state law and demanded its membership list. The organization was reluctant to provide such a list. Some members might suffer repercussions because of their membership.

Despite some lower court losses for the NAACP, the case was ultimately heard by the Supreme Court. In a seminal decision the Court found in favor of the NAACP, concluding that forcing the organization to reveal its membership would violate the right of association by members of the NAACP. Specifically, the Justices found that “…immunity from state scrutiny of petitioner’s membership lists is here so related to the right of petitioner’s members to pursue their lawful private interests privately and to associate freely with others in doing so as to come within the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment.’’ In other worss, via the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause, the NAACP could assert is First Amendment rights against the state of Alabama.

This history makes the Obama Administration’s recent attacks against the US Chamber of Commerce ironic. The US Chamber of Commerce like other non-profits such as the Sierra Club keeps its membership lists private, invoking the rights secured in the NAACP v. Alabama case. The Democratic Party has put out an ad asserting that the US Chamber of Commerce is using foreign money to influence campaigns. President Barack Obama has echoed the charges in his stump speech. According to CBS News, the Chamber has $200M budget, with only about $100,000 from foreign dues. This money is sequestered and the sequestration is monitored with audits. When questioned about whether the Administration had any evidence that there was foreign money diverted to elections, Presidential Advisor David Axelrod countered by asking if there was any proof that they did not. In addition, he demanded that the Chamber release its membership list.

Hence, in the short breath of a paragraph, Axelrod managed the Herculean tasks of ignoring the the presumption of innocence and violating the spirit of protection offered by the NAACP v. Alabama decision. No wonder he is such an valued political operative. This newly found concern about the hygiene of political contributions is made even more poignant by the fact that in 2008 the Washington Post ran a story headlined “Obama Accepting Untraceable Donations.’’ They reported:

“Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign is allowing donors to use largely untraceable prepaid credit cards that could potentially be used to evade limits on how much an individual is legally allowed to give or to mask a contributor’s identity, campaign officials confirmed.’’

It is clear that the accusations of foreign influence charged in a Democratic Party campaign ad and by Axelrod’s statements represent a desperate political smear in the late stages of the mid-term election political campaign that does not appear to be going too well. However, the demand for the release of the membership lists of private organizations smacks of the same type mean-spirited political bullying in the South against Civil Rights Movement. When running for president, then Senator Barack Obama boasted, “I was a constitutional law professor, which means unlike the current president I actually respect the Constitution.’’ It is time that he demonstrate more the rhetorical support for Constitutional sensitivities.

Protecting Domain Name Servers

Sunday, October 10th, 2010

“As a believer in the pursuit of self-interest in a competitive capitalist system, I can’t blame a businessman who goes to Washington and tries to get special privileges for his company. He has been hired by the stockholders to make as much money for them as he can within the rules of the game. And if the rules of the game are that you go to Washington to get a special privilege, I can’t blame him for doing that. Blame the rest of us for being so foolish as to let him get away with it’’ — Nobel Prize Winning Economist Milton Friedman.

As Friedman observed the goal of business people is to make money. There are a couple of ways they can do this. One is to create products and services that meet the needs of consumers at least as well or better than others. The second is to use government to limit consumer choices to maintain a business model after it is no longer competitive.

A clear case of this is recent actions by the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy who sponsored the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA). Groups such as the Recording Industry Association of America, Walt Disney, and Time Warner have pushing for greater enforcement of anti-copyright infringement laws. It is no coincidence that such groups are the top political contributors to Leahy (an other co-sponsors of the bill).

Now the enforcement of copyrights is noble work, but in this case this noble purpose is subordinating the free and open structure of the Internet and an indirectly threatening free speech. The are legal remedies for dealing with web sites that illegally publish copyrighted material, However, organizations like the RIAA want swifter and less procedurally encumbered mechanisms to bring down such sites. However, one person’s encumbrance is another person’s due process.

The COICA is sweeping in the power in grants the Department of Justice. Domain Name Services are the phone book of the Internet. They provide the means for converting the name of the web site (i.e., to the associated IP address. Without domain names services, navigating the Internet becomes far more cumbersome. Under the provisions of the COICA, if the the Department of Justice decides that copyright infringement is the central purpose of a site, then the site’s listing in the DNS servers of US-based Internet service providers can be removed or blacklisted. Effectively, without the intervention of a court, the Department of Justice has plenary power to silence any Internet site.

While is probably true that under most administrations such power would not be stretched to silence critics, it is not the sort of power a free society invests in a single authority without application of due process. The purpose of copyright protection ought not be allowed endanger the broad powers of public speech enabled by the Internet.

Fortunately, consideration of the bill will delayed until after the midterm elections. We should be on guard during the lame-duck session that passage might sneak through. There are Democratic and Republican co-sponsors for the bill. Unfortunately, neither party is particularly astute at sensing the real threats posed by the bill. We can thank the
Electronic Freedom Foundation
for vigilance in this regard.

It is in the long term interests of content providers to find the means for efficient compensation of copyright holders via micropayments, subscription services, or some other means, rather than lobbying that the government be given summary power to act of the behalf of the RIAA and others. One suspects that the problem is not so much that content creators are being threatened, but rather than publishers and distributors worry that their current business models will not survive the Internet.