Saturday, December 31, 2016

Fear Itself

In March 1933, Franklin Roosevelt spoke to his country at a time of great crisis:
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.
In many respects, we seem in a moment of some crisis today.  Extended economic stagnation, proliferating debacles abroad, and cratering trust in public institutions are some of the signs of this crisis.  Roosevelt reminded his countrymen that the crisis of his time was as much one of sentiment as it was of exterior forces.

A similar point applies to our own time: Many of the challenges we face are internal--not external.  And even many of the external challenges (in foreign affairs, for instance, or international terrorism) will depend upon our internal constitution.  A fractious and divided nation will unable to confront many of the real exterior threats facing the United States.

So in the year ahead, we need to be vigorous in addressing those internal challenges honestly, fairly, and imaginatively.  Decadence can take many forms.  We face a governing caste that all too often confuses self-righteousness with virtue and cant with learning.  A vulgarized political and cultural discourse inhibits our ability to draw measured distinctions.  The withering of civil society threatens the maintenance of the norms upon which republican governance depends.  In part due to our elites' emphasis on no-choice politics, our public debates remain frozen in tired antagonisms.  The recourse of the powerful to shame politics risks empowering shamelessness, which itself can be troubling; courtesy and empathy--the quest to mediate difference--often prove crucial for defending the architecture of a free society.  As can be seen in the wake of November's election results, tantrum politics might amuse political partisans, but it usually only worsens our broader civic fever.  Indulgence in a paranoia fed by cryptic inference can be hardly afforded now, when we need a rejuvenation of civic faith.

These challenges are vast.  They cannot be traced to one man or women.  They cannot be settled by a single election.  They cannot be solved by one political actor.

Dealing with them will require virtue and judgment in our daily lives.  Thankfully, virtue can take many forms, too.  It can be witnessed at a volunteer at a charity soup kitchen, in a person seeing the best in another, in a parent teaching a child, in the good works and good words of countless religious organizations, and in a person sitting down and grappling with with the intricacies of Plato or Aquinas.  We can advance the restoration we so desperately need by rebuking partisan blindness, by cultivating a sober love of liberty, and by recognizing our own fallenness and what our nobler hopes depend upon.

The American people have inherited a great thing in the Republic.  The challenges that we face can be addressed.  We are not fated to decline and disunion--not yet, at least.  In 2017 and beyond, we need to put away the childish things of despair and vanity and instead take on our duties to our fellow man and to our own higher callings.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Apples and Oranges

A common bit of punditry over the past month has been to compare Donald Trump's margin of victory to that of congressional Republicans.  This type of analysis, however, might be a kind of apples-to-oranges comparison, as the dynamics of congressional races, especially House ones, differ substantially from the dynamic of the presidential race.

One of the key differences between those two kinds of races is the power of incumbency.  Outside of wave elections or significant personal misconduct, congressional incumbents are notoriously difficult to dislodge.  In 2016, about 97 percent of House incumbents on the general-election ballot won reelection.  In the wave year of 2010, the House reelection rate slipped down--to a mere 85 percent.  House incumbents can often blow out their challengers with higher name recognition, overflowing campaign coffers, and a seasoned political team.  This leads to a situation where, in a presidential election year, House incumbents often do better than their presidential counterparts in a district.  When a political party has a majority in the House, that advantage is compounded, leading to a situation where the majority party in the House gets more votes than its presidential standard-bearer.

It's hard to compare House and presidential electoral performance over an extended period of time because, in recent decades, House elections have become much more tied to presidential politics.  Ticket-splitting still lives, but it is much diminished from the middle of the 20th century.  That caveat aside, over the last twenty years, the majority party in the House usually performs better than its presidential nominee.

In the chart below, I give the raw popular-vote percentage followed by the margin in parentheses:
House Republicans: 48.2 (0)
Bob Dole: 40.7 (-8.5)
Difference between margin of majority party and that of nominee: +8.5
House Republicans: 47.6 (+0.5)
George W. Bush: 47.9 (-0.5)
Difference between margin of majority party and that of nominee: +1
House Republicans: 49.4 (+2.6)
George W. Bush: 50.7 (+2.4)
Difference between margin of majority party and that of nominee: +0.2
House Democrats: 53.2 (+10.6)
Barack Obama: 52.9 (+7.2)
Difference between margin of majority party and that of nominee: +3.4
House Republicans: 47.6 (-1.2)
Mitt Romney: 47.2 (-3.9)
Difference between margin of majority party and that of nominee: +2.7
House Republicans: 49.1 (+1.1)
Donald Trump: 46 (-2.1)
Difference between margin of majority party and that of nominee: +3.2
Now, if one wanted to be truly rigorous about this whole comparison, one would have to take some further numbers into account: the size of the House majority heading into the general election (the bigger the majority, the bigger the compounding advantage of incumbency), the number of vacant and non-contested House seats, and the rate of House-race nationalization.

Nevertheless, the back-of-the-envelope chart above suggests that, relative to House Republicans, Donald Trump performed better than Barack Obama did relative to House Democrats in 2008.  Democrats had a smaller majority heading into 2008 than Republicans did heading into 2016, which suggests that House Republicans in 2016 had a greater incumbency advantage than House Democrats did in 2008.  If you're looking for evidence that Trump was radically weaker than a generic Republican candidate, the overall House vote might not provide it.

As with Senate elections, House elections have a baked-in power of incumbency, which is one of the reasons why trying to compare the performance of incumbent members of Congress to presidential candidates is a tricky enterprise.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Restoring Public Debates

At NRO today, I argue that the attempt to impose arbitrarily narrow bounds on public debates has helped cause some of the current political crisis.  On immigration, flag-desecration, entitlements, and other issues, there's often a significant gap between public opinion what pundits view as acceptable bounds of debate. Rather than trying to cast mainstream views as belonging to a fringe, we would be better off engaging in good-faith efforts of persuasion.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Just Say What?

Monitoring the Future, a project that tracks teen drug use, released some new data for 2015.  Fortunately, there has been a decline in many areas of teen use of illicit drugs over the past year.  The numbers swing a bit from year to year, but the overall trends can be revealing.

It's an assumption in many contemporary political discussions that the "Just Say No" campaign and, more broadly, Nancy Reagan's campaign against teen drug use were failures.  However, the broader trends of Monitoring the Future show a substantial and long-term decline in teen drug use during the 1980s.  Media headlines to the contrary, teens today are less likely to use illegal drugs than they were in the early 1980s (this is not to discount the recent explosion of opioid-related deaths, a serious concern but one distinct from teen drug use).  During the sustained anti-drug campaigns of the 1980s and early 1990s, teen drug use plummeted.

In 1979, over 54 percent of high school seniors (see Tables 5-1 to 5-4) had used an illicit drug within the past 12 months; by 1992, that had been cut in half, to 27 percent.  In 1979, a majority of seniors had used marijuana in the past year, but only 22 percent had in 1992.  Similar declines can be seen in the number of high-school seniors who had used illegal drugs in the past month, and, in certain categories, huge declines were seen in the daily use of drugs.  For instance, in 1979, almost 10 percent of seniors reported being daily pot users, a number that collapsed to 2 percent by 1991.  In many areas, the use of drugs has increased from the nadirs of the early-to-mid-90s (alcohol is an exception to this; it has fallen since the mid-90s).  For example, the use of illicit drugs over the past year hovered between the low 30s and high 20s in the early 90s but reached over 40 percent in 2015; the use of illicit drugs other than marijuana has not shown the same increase.  By and large, similar trends play out for college students.  (An interesting side note is the collapse in cigarette smoking among college students.  While the percentage of college students who are daily cigarette smokers did dip in the late 80s and early 90s, it rebounded in the late 90s only to fall through the floor in recent years.  Whereas about 18 percent of college students were smokers in 2000, only about 4 percent were in 2015.)

Correlation is, of course, not causation, and there are no doubt a variety of factors that contributed to declining drug use among America's youth.  But it seems possible that the sustained White House-led anti-drug campaign played a role in a broader public turn against drug use.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Rethinking Fusionism

A couple links on the enterprise of mediating between conservatives and populists:

Robert VerBruggen argues that Trump's Cabinet picks represent a blend of populist and conservative tendencies.

On Twitter, Henry Olsen says that the Carrier deal underlines the need for conservatives to reinvigorate their thinking about economic policy.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Carrying Shibboleths

At the moment, I'm not going to get into a deeper discussion of the mechanics of the Carrier deal (though I will say in passing that announcing a deal to save 1000 jobs is better optics than standing around chanting "You did build that").  But it might be worth looking at a few of the attacks against this measure--and see how these attacks may fundamentally misunderstand some of the dynamics and history of manufacturing in the U.S.

Some critics note that the Carrier deal is just a drop in the bucket of the manufacturing jobs lost since 2000.  That's quite true, but small, incremental changes can be both a foundation for further change and a narrative rallying point.  Political messaging is in part about making the small example a sign of something bigger, so it's not clear why the smallness of this deal should invalidate any worth it might have.

But an even bigger argument made against the Carrier deal is that it's fruitless--any jobs saved will soon be eaten up by automation.  It's certainly true that automation is changing employment patterns and that some jobs have been lost--and will continue to be lost--to automation.  However, we should not turn automation into a shibboleth that freezes all thinking or that offers a comprehensive catch-all for explanations of the economy.

First of all, the huge U.S. trade deficit is not caused by automation.  For years now, the United States has supported a regime that incentivizes (often artificially) cheap imports from foreign nations.  Maybe this incentivization is in the broader interests of the American economy; maybe it isn't.  But, whatever its ultimate utility, this trade regime has caused some products that might be produced domestically to be produced abroad.  A reformed trade policy might cause some of these goods to be produced in the United States, which would in turn increase manufacturing employment.

Second, it's not clear how quickly--if at all--automation will ultimately devour all manufacturing jobs.  A chart in this Brookings Institution report is revealing: it shows that manufacturing employment (in terms of raw numbers of workers) was basically stable from 1980 to 2000.  The United States only shed millions of manufacturing jobs after 2000.  Interestingly, manufacturing gained far more in productivity in the twenty years between 1980 and 2000 (about doubling over that period) than it has in the years since 2000 (only increasing by about 25 percent).  Thus, the period between 1980 and 2000 saw huge gains in technology and productivity while not losing that many manufacturing jobs; the years since have seen a sluggish growth in productivity while also hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs.  This suggests that automation may not be a sufficient explanation for the loss of American jobs in manufacturing.

Third, even if automation will destroy many manufacturing jobs, there is no reason why policy-makers shouldn't take what responsible steps they can to ensure the survival of the manufacturing jobs that remain.  If more responsible trade, tax, and regulatory policies can help some manufacturing jobs stay even temporarily, that could be a not negligible win.  Human beings are not just economic inputs or outputs, so, if major economic disruption could be put off for even a decade, that could give older workers a chance to finish their careers before retiring while also providing space for younger workers to retrain.

The past eighteen months have shredded many Beltway political truisms.  There are some policy truisms that could also use reexamination.