Sunday, December 30, 2007

Why Not Edwards?

The blogosphere back-and-forth on Edwards vs. Obama has spurred me to whittle down to the core reason I think Edwards would be a poor choice.

For me, the critical issue is that Edwards made the wrong call on the most important vote of his life, and he continued to get it wrong for much longer.

It was clear to me that the case for war was complete bullshit. So clear, in fact, that it drove me a bit crazy that the country went along it with it anyway. I argued about the war with far-flung friends, blogged endlessly, marched at countless rallies, was arrested twice protesting the war--the first time early on the morning of March 18, 2003--and put my career on hold to work for Howard Dean, the one major candidate opposed to the war.

Meanwhile, in the run-up to the war, Edwards was sponsoring the Iraq war resolution. He continued to be a strident supporter of the war for another year and a half, through the 2004 primaries and his vice-presidential candidacy. During the primaries, he attacked Dean viciously for his stance against the war.

Edwards now says that he was wrong to be a primary booster of the Iraq war in 2002 and wrong to continue to avidly support the war during his presidential and vice-presidential campaigns 2003-2004. I am happy he finally saw the light. For me the key question remains the one Tim Russert asked him in an interview last February:

MR. RUSSERT: But why shouldn’t voters in Democratic primaries say, ‘On the big issue of the war, Obama was right, Edwards was wrong’?
Here was his response:
SEN. EDWARDS: I was wrong. They should say that. And the question becomes, ‘Who’s best suited to be president of the United States? Who has the depth,the maturity, the judgment to be president of the United States?’ And what I would say to anybody is I take full responsibility for what I did, I should be held accountable for that, but I do think it matters when you’re willing to be open and honest with voters about what you’ve done. I think it’s really important that the next president of the United States—and I’m not criticizing anybody, certainly not Senator Obama. But I think it’s really important that the next president of the United Sates be a good, decent, honorable human being who’s open and honest with the country because that is the only way we’re going to re-establish trust between the American people and the president. And I also think it’s going to be really important to re-establishing trust between America and the world, because the president is, in effect, the personification of America. And when the president, what I believe—one of the things I do believe the president needs to do is, in the first 100 days, travel the world, not just meet with leaders, but speak to the people of the world the way great American presidents have in the past. The famous John Kennedy “ I am a Berliner” speech is an example. And for that to work and for us to spread a message that America doesn’t tolerate diversity, we embrace diversity, different cultures, different faith beliefs—it’s the heart of who we are—that spokesperson is going to have to be somebody that the rest of the world looks up to and respects.
For me, that doesn't cut it. I think there is no way Edwards could have answered this question to my satisfaction. If he made such a spectacular mistake in supporting the war--for more than two years!--why should I trust now that he would have better judgment as president?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The WP's Michael Dobbs Misses the Point of the Obama-Clinton Foreign Policy Advisers Debate

The Washington Post's Michael Dobbs has a post about the supposed controversy over the following remark by Obama:

You could argue that there are more foreign policy experts from the Clinton administration supporting me than Senator Clinton. That should raise some pretty interesting questions.
The post has a list of advisers for each candidate, with a number of advisers excluded by Dobbs' arbitrary and unclear criteria. Since this such a non-issue, I won't try to put together my own count. Dobbs neglects to provide any context to explain what the exchange was about. In his follow-up remarks, Obama said
Well, look, this was based on, what I said is "one could make" the argument, that was based on an argument that had been made by James Traub in an article in the New York Times. We, I have not done a systematic headcount.
Here's are a key few paragraphs from that (highly recommended) article:
The great project of the foreign-policy world in the last few years has been to think through a “post-post-9/11 strategy,” in the words of the Princeton Project on National Security, a study that brought together many of the foreign-policy thinkers of both parties. Such a strategy, the experts concluded, must, like “a Swiss Army knife,” offer different tools for different situations, rather than only the sharp edge of a blade; must pay close attention to “how others may perceive us differently than we perceive ourselves, no matter how good our intentions”; must recognize that other nations may legitimately care more about their neighbors or their access to resources than about terrorism; and must be “grounded in hope, not fear.” A post-post-9/11 strategy must harness the forces of globalization while honestly addressing the growing “perception of unfairness” around the world; must actively promote, not just democracy, but “a world of liberty under law”; and must renew multilateral instruments like the United Nations.

In mainstream foreign-policy circles, Barack Obama is seen as the true bearer of this vision. “There are maybe 200 people on the Democratic side who think about foreign policy for a living,” as one such figure, himself unaffiliated with a campaign, estimates. “The vast majority have thrown in their lot with Obama.” Hillary Clinton’s inner circle consists of the senior-most figures from her husband’s second term in office — the former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, the former national security adviser Sandy Berger and the former United Nations ambassador Richard Holbrooke. But drill down into one of Washington’s foreign-policy hives, whether the Carnegie Endowment or the Brookings Institution or Georgetown University, and you’re bound to hit Obama supporters. Most of them served in the Clinton administration, too, and thus might be expected to support Hillary Clinton. But many of these younger and generally more liberal figures have decamped to Obama. And they are ardent. As Ivo Daalder, a former National Security Council official under President Clinton who now heads up a team advising Obama on nonproliferation issues, puts it, “There’s a feeling that this is a guy who’s going to help us transform the way America deals with the world.”

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Will Joe Trippi Bring Down Edwards?

Despite the recent dust-up over the "inclusive" vs. the "populist" strategy, the differences between Edwards and Obama in terms of policy are tiny. And looking at the whole package, my guess is their general election campaign and governing styles wouldn't be all that different. Given his past record, I doubt Edwards would run the full-throttle populist campaign Krugman is hoping for, and likewise Obama isn't the centrist pushover some have made him out to be.

On one major point, though, the Obama and Edwards campaigns differ markedly. Obama has run a highly professional campaign, with tight coordination and agreement between the campaign's three principals: David Plouffe, David Axelrod, and Obama himself.

Edwards, in contrast, has allowed his operation to be hijacked by Joe Trippi. The fact that Edwards would hire Trippi at all casts serious doubt on his judgment and I think it may well spell doom for his campaign. Sure enough, according to accounts I've heard, Trippi has repeated for Edwards exactly what he did for Dean, waging vicious power battles that have left the campaign organization in tatters.

Few in the media and the blogosphere have explained how Trippi wreaked havoc in the Dean campaign. I think this is because Trippi himself has been successful in spinning the Dean story and placing the blame for Dean's loss elsewhere, and also because those who would tell an alternative story kept quiet. Dean himself, as is his style, mostly declined to blame anyone but himself. And the other staffers who were close enough to see what happened mostly continued to work in politics and were not eager to attract Trippi's ire.

The one press piece that did a good job of explaining the dynamics of the Dean campaign was this long July 2004 U.S. News and World Report article, which seems to have completely escaped notice in the blogosphere.

Working in the Dean campaign headquarters in Burlington, I saw close-up just how much damage Trippi did. While his job was campaign manager, he made no effort whatsoever to actually manage the campaign. It's not only that there were differences of opinion in the campaign (as is normal), but there were not even any efforts to forge a working consensus. He was in a permanent state of war with, among others, both Dean's longtime aide Kate O'Connor and policy director Jeremy Ben-Ami.

As the U.S. News article accurately describes, senior staff had to find ways to work around Trippi, to get decisions made and executed despite his presence. Like an abusive husband, he alternately bullied and engaged in bouts of self-pity.

Apart from his absolute incompetence when it came to management, he also was more interested in making a stir than in winning. I recall a meeting I had with Trippi and Bill Greider, the author, Nation writer, and one-time Washington Post editor. Greider then said that he wouldn't suggest that a man who hoped to be president voice many of his own populist ideas (particularly the anti-business, anti-globalization views he pushed in his book One World, Ready or Not). Trippi replied that he would much rather that the campaign "make a statement" and LOSE than that it win expressing more conventional views. I sat there with my mouth agape, for I was there to win.

To be sure, Trippi was visionary in recognizing the organizing and fund-raising power of the Internet. Had it not been for the Internet operation that he initially put in place, Dean would never have had the spectacular early fundraising that made him a viable candidate. However, his value was entirely in the early stages, and in every other respect, he was destructive to the campaign. If Dean had cut Trippi loose and brought in a serious campaign MANAGER in August or September of 2003, everything would have been different.

Now Trippi has charmed his way to power in the Edwards campaign. My guess is that his presence will be so destructive that the Edwards campaign may all but collapse, if not in Iowa, then in the later stages. I hope that if Edwards does manage to triumph in the primaries and end up as the nominee that he sees the light and ejects Trippi from the campaign. As Atrios has said, we need a nominee who plans on winning.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Trouble with Populism as Campaign Strategy

Krugman recently argued that populism is the right campaign strategy for the Democratic candidate:

There’s a strong populist tide running in America right now. For example, a recent Democracy Corps survey of voter discontent found that the most commonly chosen phrase explaining what’s wrong with the country was “Big businesses get whatever they want in Washington."

And there’s every reason to believe that the Democrats can win big next year if they run with that populist tide.
The "every reason" that Krugman cites amounts to two focus groups that declared Edwards the winner of a single debate.

While with the Dean campaign in 2003-04, I became convinced that "populism" as Krugman uses the term here, meaning blaming big business for the country's woes, was a loser campaign strategy. The reason is due to phenomena of identity, a concept that has recently gained currency in economics. People identify very strongly with their employers, and many people work for big businesses. Consequently, many perceive attacks on business as attacks on themselves.

I don't have any hard evidence for the second part of the argument, but evidence for the fact that people identify strongly with their employers can be found in a 2005 Journal of Economic Perspectives paper, "Identity and the Economics of Organizations," by George Akerlof (a Nobel laureate) and Rachel Kranton. Here's a working paper version.

The paper describes the following findings from an analysis of the General Social Survey:
Employees were asked their degree of agreement or disagreement with the following statements: “I feel very little loyalty to this organization”; “my values and the organization’s values are very similar”; and “I am proud to be working for this organization.”

In the Survey, 82 percent of employees disagree, weakly or strongly, with having little loyalty toward their work organization; 78 percent agree that their values and those of their organization are similar; 90 percent say they are proud to be working for their organization; and 86 percent are very satisfied or moderately satisfied with their jobs.

These fractions differ only marginally across such divisions as gender, race, and blue collar vs. white collar occupation.
These results are from GSS in 1991. It's of course possible that things have changed, but my guess is that it people identify even more strongly with their employers now than they did before.

Interview with Obama Foreign Policy Advisor, Greg Craig

Here's a great C-SPAN interview with Greg Craig on Obama's foreign policy approach.

This brings to my attention for the first time that Craig, who is the ultimate Friend of Bill is on Obama's team. I think this can only be explained by the fact that as a former director of policy planning for the State Department, he sees that a new foreign policy approach is needed, and he believes in Obama's vision. He discusses this in the interview.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Campaign Finance, Krugman, and the 527 Dispute

Our campaign finance system is a vile, oozing swamp of legalized corruption which needs to be drained and scrubbed clean. Nearly everything that is wrong about the U.S. government ultimately grows out of the manure from this swamp. The system persists because people in position to potentially push for reform are precisely those who have so mastered its dark arts that they can't imagine changing it (think Bill Clinton). Expecting a politician to spend 15+ years in DC and then attack the campaign finance beast is like hoping the Pope will renounce Catholicism. For longtime DC pols, raising gobs of corporate money is what they do.

Obama, too, has brought in substantial money from wealthy donors. But for two reasons, he is clearly the candidate most likely to push for serious campaign finance reform. First, continuing in the footsteps of Howard Dean, he has raised a record number of donations from small donors, and the campaign is on track to have raised donations from half a million Americans by the end of the year, an extraordinary achievement, demonstrating that a campaign can be powered principally by everyday people, rather than the super-rich who can afford to lay down $2300 checks.

Secondly, he has a proven record of achieving campaign finance reform, a mantle he inherited from his mentor, Sen. Paul Simon. As the Washington Post described:

The campaign finance effort came at the initiative of former U.S. senator Paul Simon (D-Ill.). A Republican and a Democrat in each legislative body were tapped to tighten a system that, among other things, allowed politicians to use campaign accounts for personal expenses.

Obama was given the job of representing Senate Democrats ...

"He was very aggressive when he first came to the Senate," said Jones, now president of the state Senate. "We were in the minority, but he said, 'I'd like to work hard. Any tough assignments or things you'd like me to be involved in, don't hesitate to give it to me.' "

Obama favored more ambitious changes in campaign law, including limits on contributions, but nipped and tucked in search of consensus.

"What impressed me about him was his ability in working with people of the opposite party," said Mike Lawrence, director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. "He had definite ideas about what ought to be contained in a campaign finance reform measure, but he also was willing to recognize that he was probably not going to get everything he wanted."

The result, according to good-government groups, was the most ambitious campaign reform in nearly 25 years, making Illinois one of the best in the nation on campaign finance disclosure.

Months ago, I saw an interview with Obama in which he was asked about the campaign finance system. He expressed palpable disgust with the status quo and said, in essence, that he had no choice but to accept large dollar donations for the time being, but that he insisted on absolute transparency and would refuse all donations from lobbyists.

Completely in keeping with these views, he recently criticized the outside groups known as 527s that are running ads promoting Edwards, in clear violation of the spirit of the law. The financing of 527s is often murky, and they essentially allow money to be spent supporting a candidate far above the legal limits. The case raised by Obama involves a shady organization called Alliance for a New America. The only public information about it is what can be found at its sparse website. A quick check reveals that the domain name was registered "by proxy," which is only done to keep the public in the dark as to the identity of the true owner. Ironically, while the website says the group "believes that Washington is broken," it shows its address as a PO Box in Alexandria, Virginia--well within the DC Beltway--which suggests that the organization is being run by a DC political operative.

Today, inexplicably, Krugman attacks Obama for objecting to this. He asks
is Mr. Obama saying that if nominated, he’d be willing to run without support from labor 527s, which might be crucial to the Democrats? If not, how does he avoid having his own current words used against him by the Republican nominee?
As to the first question, I imagine Obama would be very eager to have 527s brought under the umbrella of campaign finance laws and fully subject to their disclosure laws. This is exactly what John McCain, Russ Feingold, and other advocates of campaign finance reform have fought for.

Will his words criticizing 527s be used against him if some 527s end up supporting him in the main election ? Perhaps, but I think Obama is ready to take on that argument. More importantly, why doesn't Krugman ask the same question of Edwards, who has been just as critical of the role of 527s?

According to the LA Times:
On Friday, at a campaign stop in Johnston, Edwards slammed these groups. He has often said they ought to be banned from influencing elections.
And Edwards said,
“I do not support 527 groups. They are part of the law, but let me be clear: I am asking this group and others not to run the ads. I would encourage all the 527s to stay out of the political process.”
Campaign finance reform is a vital issue, and progressives should be doing everything possible to strengthen the candidates' commitment to serious change. Instead, in what looks very much like a hit job for the Edwards campaign. Krugman has done just the opposite, questioning Obama's criticism of the current system, Oh, Paul, where have ye gone?

David Broder Reports on the Obama Stump Speech

David Broder's column does a nice job with an account of Obama on the stump. I
saw the same speech a few weeks back and can attest that Broder accurately captures the high points and the crowd reaction. I haven't seen a Hillary or Edwards speech recently and would be curious to see similar reporting on them.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

How Would a Fact Checker Check Facts if a Fact Checker Could Check Facts?

There's been a proliferation of journalist-oriented political "fact checker" websites as of late, which we generally see as a positive development, given that checking facts should be, well, part of the job of being a journalist.

Here are a few suggested guidelines for fact checker pieces, particularly those focused on questions based on economic data:

  1. Seek to inform, not just proclaim right or wrong.
  2. Clearly indicate exactly the source of the data for the fact check, with links if possible, and provide instructions on how to reproduce the analysis. (For many economic fact questions, the raw information is available at the websites of the Census or the Bureau of Economic Analysis.)
  3. When possible, refer to studies by the two key nonpartisan government analytical agencies, CBO and GAO.
  4. Be highly skeptical of causal claims. Descriptive statements like "Murder rates declined by 50%" are clearly verifiable, while "Mayor Bob's policies reduced murder rates by 50%" are far more subject to dispute.
  5. Do not try to "fact check" claims that are obviously speculative or not possible to verify, e.g. "I will be the best president ever."
  6. Don't editorialize when not necessary, and don't write in the first person. We're reading your fact check not for your wit or your insights on a candidate's inner self.

How do the three main fact check sites stack up?

  • Politifact, from the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly. The best of the trio, with a refreshing "just the facts" tone and clear links to all data sources.
  • The Washington Post's Fact Checker by Michael Dobbs. Clearly the worst of the three, more like a parody of what a fact checker should be. The post on economic growth rates (critiqued here by Dean Baker) is among the worst pieces of economic journalism I've ever seen. Dobbs has obnoxious tendencies to say things like "I'm going to give the candidate a pass this week" and to throw in irrelevant snarkiness with statements like "the Clintons can no doubt be blamed for a lot of things that happened in Arkansas." He's been threatening to rate all the candidates on their "overall truthfulness"--an impossibly subjective task which a serious fact checker would reject.
  •, put together by a team led by veteran journalist Brooks Jackson, funded by the Annenberg Foundation. During the 2004 election, the site was routinely derided as "Factchuck", but it appears to have added a larger research staff, which might help improve its work this time around. In the past, the site has sometimes displayed gratuitous editorializing and failed to being skeptical of claims of causal links. The approach of the site occasionally is too much that of "gotcha" journalism, finding contradictions where there are none. For example, the site once criticized a debate moderator for pointing out that there are "more than 40 million" Americans lack health care, because the actual figure is 47 million.
Needless to say, we will be able keeping a close eye on the fact checkers in the coming months.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Obama's Theory of Change

Mark Schmitt offers his thoughts on Krugman's attack on Obama's inclusive approach, placing the issue within the broader question of who has the right "theory of change." At the crux of it, he argues that while Krugman's diagnosis is correct, Obama's prescription for change is what the ailing nation needs:

Paul Krugman weighed in Monday, mostly on the side of Edwards against Obama's "naive" expectation that by bringing all parties around a table, one could solve problems.

As an observer of politics, and commenter on it, I almost entirely share Krugman's and Edwards' diagnoses. I appreciate the conflictual nature of politics. I don't think there's some cross-partisan truth; I understand that the Republican conservatives are intractable. I know those advantaged by the current structure of power are determined to preserve it, and the well-funded campaign to destroy any possibility of progressive governance will be as intantaneous and intense as anything in 1993.


But let's take a slightly different angle on the charge that Obama is "naïve" about power and partisanship. Suppose you were as non-naïve about it as I am -- but your job wasn't writing about politics, it was running for president? What should you do? In that case, your responsibility is not merely to describe the situation exactly, but to find a way to subvert it. In other words, perhaps we are being too literal in believing that "hope" and bipartisanship are things that Obama naively believes are present and possible, when in fact they are a tactic, a method of subverting and breaking the unified conservative power structure. Claiming the mantle of bipartisanship and national unity, and defining the problem to be solved (e.g. universal health care) puts one in a position of strength, and Republicans would defect from that position at their own risk. The public, and younger voters in particular, seem to want an end to partisanship and conflictual politics, and an administration that came in with that premise (an option not available to Senator Clinton), would have a tremendous advantage, at least for a moment.
It's important to note that this doesn't imply any lack of sincerity on Obama's part. It's probably the case that Obama recognizes that the Republicans in power are vicious, and that he himself is philosophically and temperamentally best suited to an inclusive let's-all-come-together campaign, which he also believes is tactically the best approach.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The War Is Not the Issue?

Krugman continues his gripes about Obama's style in a short interview with TPM.

He doesn't say much new, but this bit struck me:

I guess I've been going on the view that no Democrat is not going to end this war, and no Democrat is going to start another war. I have not felt that foreign policy is the defining issue in the race to the nomination.
I think this is entirely wrong. All of the major Democratic candidates, Obama included, have sought to give themselves rhetorical wiggle room to keep at least some troops in Iraq. It will be extremely difficult for any president to end the war, as the Republicans will be screaming betrayal and insisting we would have achieved "victory" if the soldiers hadn't been stabbed in the back by the Democrats. Obama is the one most likely to actually manage to get the U.S. out of Iraq, because unlike Hillary and Co., Obama and his advisors opposed the war from the beginning.

Readers Respond to Krugman's Attack on the Big Table Approach

The NY Times today has seven letters responding to Krugman's criticism of Obama's inclusive approach, particularly when it comes to health care. Six of the letters support Obama's position, raising some similar points to those I mentioned in a previous post. Here are some highlights from the letters:

Many progressives would agree that the wealthy and corporate interests have undue influence over public policy, and that bold action is necessary to minimize that influence and change public policy for the better. But there is no consensus that we should move to a national one-payer health care system, or that we must eschew the benefits of technology and drug innovation to improve health care availability. So it is not clear that the politics of exclusion will produce a solution that works or is desirable.
Lincoln, Kennedy and Johnson all practiced the politics of inclusion to overcome the ills arising from the factionalism and the special and corporate interests of their time.
The “big table” is at the heart of our American politic, serving as a place where the arguments of the contenders can be discovered and, in some cases, exposed.
I think Senator Barack Obama is right: Invite the insurance and drug companies to the table. If and when they try to sabotage reform, doctors, nurses, patient advocates, unions, corporate benefit managers and every other interested party will be there to point the finger at the problem.
Paul Krugman calls Barack Obama “naïve” for emphasizing the need for reconciliation. But there may be an alternative explanation for the senator’s rhetoric. Perhaps Mr. Obama is simply shrewd enough to know the kind of message he must send to get elected. And that says to me that Mr. Obama, like Roosevelt, knows plenty about politics.
Historically populism has failed as a unifying national platform in part because Americans tend to dislike “class warfare.” Also, policy change is most likely, and most likely to succeed, when it is incremental.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Village Endorses Obama

Our man has received a ton of good press lately from opinion-makers. I count near endorsements from David Brooks, Frank Rich, Andrew Sullivan, Harold Myerson, David Broder, Roger Cohen, and even my favorite young cynic, Matt Taibbi.

This kind of thing doesn't happen by accident. This press wave was undoubtedly orchestrated by Obama surrogates who worked the phones and the DC dinner parties, using all the tools at their disposal: flattery, calling in old favors, and the promise of access to the Candidate, to generate a positive buzz for their man. You see some hint of this in Cohen's column, which mentions that Obama took a half-hour away from his campaign schedule to sit down with the columnist. This "time-dropping" is Cohen's way of reminding the world that he's important enough to merit one-on-one time with a possible future president.

In my view, this speaks to the savvy of Obama's campaign. While he's running as the outsider and the change candidate, his people have charmed the DC insiders.

I'm not sure who is organizing the Obama columnist charm offensive, but a good bet is that Karen Kornbluh--Obama's policy director and a longtime DC Villager--plays a substantial role. Karen's background in the Clinton White House and with the slightly-funky-but-still-establishment New America Foundation is just right for this role.

I should note that Obama's efforts with the press is in marked contrast to Howard Dean, who made little effort to win applause from the columnist crowd, in part because he rightly saw them as part of the problem. Apart from intense but scattered efforts by senior adviser David Halperin and policy director Jeremy Ben-Ami, Dean made no effort to work the pundits.

The Internet may be leading us towards a post-pundit world, and if nothing else we now live in a universe where the ranks of the opinion-makers are not so closed, and people like Glenn Greenwald, Brad Delong, and even the occasional anonymous blogger can get a word in now and then. But for the time being, at least, what the Villagers have to say does matter, and it's good to see that Obama understands this.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Krugman on Obama

I'm second to no one in my respect for Paul Krugman. He's been a guiding torch in the darkness of the Bush years, and I think he's largely correct in his quibbling with Obama's rhetoric on Social Security and health care. But his latest column is puzzling.

He raises the not unreasonable concern that Obama's "let's all come together" unity instincts will serve him poorly in office, particularly for expanding health care, where the fight can be expected to be bitter, and where he'll have to face down the insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies. That's a debatable point. When it comes to governing, it's clear he's not going to end the war in Iraq and expand health care by sitting around the Oval Office singing "Kumbaya." It's unlikely that Obama is this naive.

Krugman melds this concern with the entirely separate claim that a candidate with a populist firebrand message would get more votes:

There’s a strong populist tide running in America right now. For example, a recent Democracy Corps survey of voter discontent found that the most commonly chosen phrase explaining what’s wrong with the country was “Big businesses get whatever they want in Washington.”

And there’s every reason to believe that the Democrats can win big next year if they run with that populist tide. The latest evidence came from focus groups run by both Fox News and CNN during last week’s Democratic debate: both declared Mr. Edwards the clear winner.

That's it? Focus groups from one debate and a Democratic poll which show people are anti-business? I'm surprised that Krugman would load such an important conclusion on such weak ground.

Back during the Dean campaign, I was convinced by George Lakoff and others that an anti-business message is an electoral loser. They argued that people identify strongly with their employers (polls show this--I'll look this up for a later post) and so that when a candidate attacks businesses, they feel attacked themselves. Instead of "business is the bad guy," a much better message is that "we need to ensure that businesses play by the rules."

For Obama, there's another set of considerations. While the unity theme may simply be his nature, I think that a long time ago he realized that a black man in America is never going to get elected to the presidency (or the Senate) as a rebel rouser. Dean's experience shows that it's hard enough for a white guy to get elected with an appeal to outrage; if Obama was saying the things Edwards is saying these days, many people would be hearing Louis Farrakhan. Sadly, even in today's multiracial society, many whites don't know enough African Americans to have a wide spectrum of personality types in their heads. So someone who sounds at all like a fighting black man will evoke Farrakhan or Malcolm X. I think this explains both his non-populism and his deliberate coolness in debates.

Would a generic outraged populist get more votes than a candidate sounding unity themes? Maybe, but I doubt it. I'm sure, though, that being that populist was never an option for Obama.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Factchecking the WP's "Factchecker"

Those who make the rounds of the econ-blogs might know that the Washington Post's "Factchecker" Michael Dobbs has some issues in understanding statistics. His post on Mexico's growth rates ("checking" grossly wrong figures from a Post editorial) was the kind of thing that makes economists wince. It's too much to go into here, but here's Dean Baker's overly polite critique.

It was with this background that when I saw Dobbs' writeup of "Obama's Most Revealing Fib" I decided I should check his figures.

Here's the quote which Dobbs claims is a lie:

"I don't want to wake up four years from now and discover that we still have more young black men in prison than in college."

Dobbs seems to agree that this 2002 Justice Policy Institute study does show that there are more black men (of all ages) in prison than in college. But he says that the "data in that study have been challenged," linking to a website that has a dead link to a Tech Central Station column.

Next Dobbs cites a bunch of figures which suggest that the number of young black men in college is around three times the number in prison. So what it comes down to is basically Dobbs' assertion that Sen. Obama was wrong to include the word "young" in his statement. This seems like thin gruel for an accusation lying, but let's take a look at this.

Clearly, the counts will depend on how you define "young men." I know from my past work that there is no universal definition of "young adult" or "young men," and that the range of ages included goes from 15 up to 44. In the crime and public health literature (see for example many studies by the World Health Organization), you will commonly see "young adult" defined as 15-34.

If we take this as our definition of young men, there were 710,000 young black men in college, according to this spreadsheet tabulation from the 2005 Current Population Survey (710K is the sum of cells B20, B30, and B40). Dobbs cites the same figure, so no dispute there. Dobbs implies that this figure is for the age bracket 18-34, but it's actually 15-34. If you add in people over 35, you find that a total of 864,000 black men were in college.

How many are in prison? Dobbs cites a 2005 report with federal and state prisoner populations and then throws in a separate figure for local jails from 2006, which I couldn't track down. In any case, it's much easier to take this 2006 report from the U.S. Department of Justice which gives you the combined federal, state, and local populations by race and age group. This report only includes prisoners 18 and older, however. For the population of those in juvenile facilities, you have to go the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement. The racial breakdown for juveniles with the most recent data (2003) is here.

Combining these two data sources, you get the following:

Age Black male prisoners
15-18 30,311 (juveniles)
18-19 33,000
20-24 160,000
25-29 156,200
30-34 132,400
35-39 120,500
40-44 103,000
45-54 101,000
55+ 79,000
___ ______
Total 867,000 (rounded to nearest thousand)

This confirms that there are, just barely, more black men of all ages incarcerated (867,000) than black men in college (864,000). Dobbs suggest this is not a valid comparison, because the age profiles of the two groups are different. However, the two age profiles are not so different (the bulk of prisoners are in their 20s, and there are many older black men in college), and it's a shocking statement any way any slice it.

If you add the figures up for the preferred 15-34 age group, you see that there are 512,000 incarcerated young black men in as compared to 710,000 in college. So it is the case that the number in college does nudge out the number in prison. But the figures are of the same order of magnitude, rather than differing by a factor of three, as Dobbs' writeup suggests.

All in all, given that the numbers are pretty close, it seems extreme to label this a "hoary myth" or a "fib." No one would argue that Obama is fundamentally misrepresenting what is happening.

Two other points: I think it's probably the case that in the late 80s and early 90s, when Obama was working as a community organizer and law professor in Chicago, the number of young black men in prison was higher than the number in college. (This was after the huge Reagan-era increase in incarceration rates and before the Democrats had enacted measures to expand college access.) This may be a stylized fact Obama picked up back then and has been repeating ever since. Additionally, the statement is undoubtedly true among particular African American populations, e.g. those living in inner-city neighborhoods.

If this is, as Dobbs says, "Obama's Most Revealing Fib," what does it reveal? I'd say it shows that he is dedicated to bringing about change to avoid the tragic circumstances that put a half million young black men in prison, and that his understanding of the challenges is rooted in his own experience trying to effect change in Chicago.