Category Archives: news

Rebecca Dallet and the gerrymandered Assembly map

The fate of the current Wisconsin Assembly district map, precision-engineered to maintain a Republican majority in the face of anything short of a major Democratic wave election, is in the hands of the Supreme Court, which could announce a decision in Gill v. Whitford any day.

One theory of gerrymandering is that the practice isn’t much of a problem, because the power of a gerrymandered map “decays” with time — a map that suits a party in 2010 may, due to shifting demographics, be reasonably fair a few years later.

How’s the Wisconsin gerrymander doing in 2018?  We just had a statewide election in which Rebecca Dallet, the more liberal candidate, beat her conservative rival by 12 points, an unusually large margin for a Wisconsin statewide race.

The invaluable J. Miles Coleman broke the race down by Assembly district:

Dallet won in 58% of seats while getting 56% of the vote.  That sounds fair, but in fact a candidate who wins by 12 points is typically going to win in more seats than that.  (That’s why the courts are right to say proportional representation isn’t a reasonable expectation!)

Here’s the breakdown by Assembly district, shown a little bigger:

Dallet won by 2 points or less in 8 of the Assembly districts.  So, as a rough estimate, if she’d gotten 2% of the vote less, and won 54-46 instead of 56-44, you might guess she’d have won 49 out of 99 seats.  That’s consistent with the analysis of Herschlag, Ravier, and Mattingly conducted last year, which estimates that under current maps Democrats would need an 8-12 point statewide lead in order to win half the Assembly seats. (Figure 5 in the linked paper.)

I don’t think the gerrymander is decaying very much.  I think it’s robust enough to make GOP legislative control very likely through 2020, at which point it can be updated to last another ten years, and so on and so on.  This isn’t the same kind of softcore gerrymandering the Supreme Court allowed to stand in 1986, and I hope the 2018 Supreme Court decides to do something about it.

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What is the median length of homeownership?

Well, it’s longer than it used to be, per Conor Dougherty in the New York Times:

The median length of time people have owned their homes rose to 8.7 years in 2016, more than double what it had been 10 years earlier.

The accompanying chart shows that “median length of homeownership” used to hover at  just under 4 years.  That startled me!  Doesn’t 4 years seem like a pretty short length of time to own a house?

When I thought about this a little more, I realized I had no idea what this meant.  What is the “median length of homeownership” in 2017?  Does it mean you go around asking each owner-occupant how long they’ve lived in their house, and take the median of those numbers?  Probably not:  when people were asked that in 2008, the median answer was 10 years, and whatever the Times was measuring was about 3.7 years in 2008.

Does it mean you look at all house sales in 2017, subtract the time since last sale, and take the median of those numbers?

Suppose half of all houses changed hands every year, and the other half changed hands every thirty years.  Are the lengths of ownership we’re medianning half “one year” and half “30 years”, or “30/31 1 year” and 1/31 “30 years”?

There are about 75 million owner-occupied housing units in the US and 4-6 million homes sold per year, so the mean number of sales per unit per year is certainly way less than 1/4; of course, there’s no reason this mean should be close to the median of, well, whatever we’re taking the median of.

Basically I have no idea what’s being measured.  The Times doesn’t link to the Moody’s Analytics study it’s citing, and Dougherty says that study’s not public.  I did some Googling for “median length of homeownership” and as far as I can tell this isn’t a standard term of art with a consensus definition.

As papers run more data-heavy pieces I’d love to see a norm develop that there should be some way for the interested reader to figure out exactly what the numbers in the piece refer to.  Doesn’t even have to be in the main text.  Could be a linked sidebar.  I know not everybody cares about this stuff.  But I do!

 

 

 

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Ordinary business expense

From today’s NYT:

But even if Hyundai is eventually forced to pay the full amount of the damages, the punishment could be substantially reduced through a tax loophole that permits the company to save millions of dollars by deducting any court-ordered punitive damages as an ordinary business expense. The result, critics say, is that taxpayers are in effect subsidizing corporate misconduct.

What’s terrible about this isn’t that companies are allowed to claim the fines they pay for malfeasance are an ordinary business expense.  What’s terrible is that it’s true.

Update:  I misspoke, as a commenter points out.  A “fine” — that is, a penalty you pay to the government — is not deductible.  What may be deductible are punitive damages, paid to people you injured or whose river you despoiled.  Prepare your return accordingly!

Death to the 529 / long live the 529

Obama flip-flops faster than I can blog!  Prezzo has already walked back his proposal to change the 529 college-saving tax break, but I have a post about it queued up, and by gum I’m gonna publish it.

Here’s the plan that just got shelved.  From now on, capital gains on contributions you stow in a 529 plan won’t be tax free anymore — they’ll just be tax-deferred, as with a retirement plan.  In essence, it takes away a tax break whose benefit flows predominantly to high-income families (some 529 money is held by middle-income parents, but under Obama’s plan the $500 or so they’d lose on their 529 was more than offset by an AOTC expansion.)

OK, this Congress is as likely to roll back a tax break for high earners as they are to rename Reagan National Airport after Pete Seeger, so this isn’t actually happening, but I’m just saying, that’s the plan.

People are mad, and feel like they’ve been bait-and-switched. My FB feed, populated by dutiful savers like me, is full of ire. Mark Kantrowitz, in the New York Times:

He went as far as saying that the proposal could be characterized as a broken promise. “People saved money in 529 plans because of the expectation that the favorable tax treatment would continue,” he said.

But why does the New York Times let Mark Kantrowitz say this when it’s plainly not true? I saved money in a 529 plan. And the favorable tax treatment for that money will continue. When I take it out, I won’t pay a dime on any capital gains.

For money I put in later, it’s another story. But so what? If something’s on sale today, nobody’s breaking a promise to me when it’s not on sale tomorrow. I guess it’s strictly true that the proposal “could be characterized as a broken promise.” But it would be better to say it “could be characterized as a broken promise by people who don’t mind characterizing things as different things.”

A broken promise would look more like a state government defaulting on money it owes the thousands of middle-class taxpayers whose pensions it mismanaged.

 

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Wisconsin is not a blue state

Another Wisconsin election day!  By the polls — and I trust the polls, absent any reason not to — incumbent governor Scott Walker is likely to squeeze by with a narrow win.  If you don’t live in Wisconsin, how much should you care about this?  A lot, says Slate’s Betsy Woodruff, who calls this race “The Most Important Race in America.”

Winning statewide as a conservative Republican in Wisconsin isn’t easy. Even though five of its eight congressmen are Republicans and the GOP controls its statehouse, Wisconsin is a very blue state. It’s historically been a union stronghold, and it hasn’t gone Republican in a presidential race since 1984. For progressives, the Republicans’ fragile hold on state government is an insult, an affront that should be corrected.

Wisconsin is not a very blue state.  In those 30 years since 1984, a Republican has been governor for 19 of them.  In both 2000 and 2004, the Democratic candidate won Wisconsin’s electoral vote by less than half a percentage point.  In 2012, Obama won Wisconsin by 7 points, in a year he won nationally by 4 points.  So Wisconsin, in Obama’s home turf of the Upper Midwest, was slightly bluer than the country that year.

But it’s not California or Maryland.  It’s not even New Jersey.  It’s a state that’s half Republican and half Democratic.  (See also:  “It’s a recall, not an omen.”)  That’s why elections here are close.  Despite what Woodruff writes, neither liberals nor conservatives think they have a right to own the state.  Walker has the advantage of incumbency and he’s probably going to win.  That’s important for his dreams of a Presidential run; but I don’t think it has much to say about national politics.

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Why I’m voting no on the Wisconsin transportation referendum

All attention is focused on Mary Burke and Scott Walker, so I didn’t even realize there’s a state ballot proposition in next week’s election.  And it’s not a trivial one, either.

Question 1: “Creation of a Transportation Fund. Shall section 9 (2) of article IV and section 11 of article VIII of the constitution be created to require that revenues generated by use of the state transportation system be deposited into a transportation fund administered by a department of transportation for the exclusive purpose of funding Wisconsin’s transportation systems and to prohibit any transfers or lapses from this fund?”

Mary Burke supports this.  So does Governor Walker.  The bill to put the referendum on the ballot was passed by large majorities of both houses.  “Yes on 1” has an organized campaign and a snappy website; as far as I can tell, there is no such thing as “No on 1.”

But I’m voting no.  I don’t expect every dime of people’s property taxes to support upkeep of residential infrastructure.  I don’t think the sales tax should be restricted to promoting Wisconsin retail.  I think money is money and it’s the job of the legislature, not the constitution, to decide how money can best be raised and where in the state it’s most needed.

The amendment prevents gas taxes and vehicle registration fees from being used to fund schools and hospitals and police, but it doesn’t prevent other revenue sources from being raided to fund our highways and bridges.  And that’s what’s actually happening right now; the current administration takes $133 million from the general fund to fund transportation in the current budget.  I’m not sure why transportation, out of all state projects, ought to enjoy a special status:  allowed to draw money from the general fund, but constitutionally prohibited from releasing any back.

The Yes on 1 FAQ points out that many states around the country have constitutional language enforcing segregation of the the transportation fund.  I looked at a few of these, and it’s true!  But those provisions are of a rather different nature.  California’s constitutional provision requires that 25% of the money go to public transportation.  In Minnesota, it’s 40%.  Our referendum has no such restriction, requiring only that the money go to things funded by the DoT.  The Yes on 1 FAQ points out, correctly, that “Wisconsin’s segregated transportation fund is the sole source of state funding for the entire transportation system – highways, air, rail, transit, harbors, bicycle and pedestrian facilities.”  Pretty weak sauce — the fund will not be prohibited from funding other forms of transportation.  Unless an enterprising governor splits off transit into a separate department, that is.  (Ohio’s Constitution, by the way, already forbids gas taxes and license fees from aiding mass transit.)

The amendment establishes one class of spending and taxing as privileged above all the rest.  It shouldn’t be part of our state constitution.

Links:

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How do you share your New York Times?

My op/ed about math teaching and Little League coaching is the most emailed article in the New York Times today.  Very cool!

But here’s something interesting; it’s only the 14th most viewed article, the 6th most tweeted, and the 6th most shared on Facebook.  On the other hand, this article about child refugees from Honduras is

#14 most emailed

#1 most viewed

#1 most shared on Facebook

#1 most tweeted

while Paul Krugman’s column about California is

#4 most emailed

#3 most viewed

#4 most shared on Facebook

#7 most tweeted.

Why are some articles, like mine, much more emailed than tweeted, while others, like the one about refugees, much more tweeted than emailed, and others still, like Krugman’s, come out about even?  Is it always the case that views track tweets, not emails?  Not necessarily; an article about the commercial success and legal woes of conservative poo-stirrer Dinesh D’Souza is #3 most viewed, but only #13 in tweets (and #9 in emails.)  Today’s Gaza story has lots of tweets and views but not so many emails, like the Honduras piece, so maybe this is a pattern for international news?  Presumably people inside newspapers actually study stuff like this; is any of that research public?  Now I’m curious.

 

 

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Olive oil and nuts beat a low-fat diet that’s not low-fat

Great-looking results from a big randomized diet study reported today in the New York Times:

About 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease can be prevented in people at high risk if they switch to a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, nuts, beans, fish, fruits and vegetables, and even drink wine with meals, a large and rigorous new study has found….

Scientists randomly assigned 7,447 people in Spain who were overweight, were smokers, or had diabetes or other risk factors for heart disease to follow the Mediterranean diet or a low-fat one.

Low-fat diets have not been shown in any rigorous way to be helpful, and they are also very hard for patients to maintain — a reality borne out in the new study, said Dr. Steven E. Nissen, chairman of the department of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.

Now, I am not a low-fat dude.  Long ago I dated somebody who was into Dean Ornish and every time she “sauteed” onions in water a little piece of me died.  I pour a lot of olive oil on things, because I like it (especially Frantoia, which the guys at the Italian grocery in the Trenton Farmer’s Market turned me on to when I lived in Princeton) and because mainstream nutritional wisdom has been promoting monounsaturated fats for a long time now.  But I do think low-fat gets kind of a bad rap from the NYT piece.  Even more so in some of the other coverage, like the LA Times, which headlines their story “Mediterranean diet, with olive oil and nuts, beats low-fat diet.”  The Times, at least, points out far down in the piece that the “low-fat” group, while counseled to reduce fat, didn’t actually do so.  To get numbers, you have to go to the supplemental material of the original paper.  There, you find that the Mediterranean eaters were getting 41% of their calories from fat, while the “low-fat” arm got 37%.  A low-fat diet is 22%.  Random googling suggests that most vegans are getting 20%-30% of their calories from fat.

In other words, the study doesn’t really show that the Mediterranean diet is better for you than eating low-fat; it shows that hardly anybody is capable of eating low-fat, which is a different thing entirely.

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Wisconsin puts the MOO in MOOC

UW-LaCrosse started it, launching an online math course, “College Readiness.” with the help of a grant from the Gates Foundation.  A lot of the energy around MOOCs has centered on advanced courses:  machine learning, business analytics, and so on.  The kind of thing that gets funders and nerds excited.  But funders and nerds are already educated!  If MOOCs are to provide the educational equity they promise, they’ve got to do it at the low end — giving kids access to a better math course than their understaffed, underresourced high school can provide.  Is there a demand for basic, unflashy math instruction online?  Seems like it:  a thousand people have signed up, twice as many as UWLC expected, including an 83-year-old and an 11-year-old.  Those are much smaller numbers than Coursera gets for its sexy machine learning course, but I’ll bet the gap in number of finishers will be much narrower; this course is an “I need to,” not an “It would be cool to.”

And now UW-Madison has gotten into the act, announcing yesterday that UW would be offering four courses with Coursera, two to start this fall.

Readers:  would it be a good idea, a bad idea, or some combination of both, for me to propose to teach a number theory MOOC?

 

 

 

 

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The Wall Street Journal‘s headline today:

TEPID JOB GROWTH FUELS WORRY:  Unemployment Rate Hits 7.8% as Economy Stays Sluggish

Doesn’t the word “hits” there kind of make you think the rate rose to 7.8%?  But no, it was 7.8% last month too, and is down from 8.5% at the end of last year.

Meanwhile, the New York Times goes with

JOB CREATION IS STILL STEADY DESPITE WORRY:  Gain of 155,000 Keeps Jobless Rate at 7.8%

which gets the constancy of the unemployment right — but “steady” alone conveys a misleadingly sunny impression.

Cheers to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which rolls it pretty straight down the lane:

JOBLESS RATE STAYS PUT:  U.S. economy adds just 155,000 jobs in its 34th month of subpar growth

It’s steady and tepid!

Framing the jobs report

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