Tag Archives: obama

Rolling the dice on Iran

David Sanger in today’s NYT on the Iran deal:

Mr. Obama will be long out of office before any reasonable assessment can be made as to whether that roll of the dice paid off.

Which is true!  But something else that’s true: not having a deal would also be a roll of the dice.  We’re naturally biased to think of the status quo as the safest course.  But why?  There’s no course of political action that leads to a certain outcome.  We’re rolling the dice no matter what; all we get to do is choose which dice.

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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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18% of Americans think Barack Obama is Jewish

Per page 13 of this AP poll, the proportion of people who believe Barack Obama is a Muslim went from 17% down to 10% between January 2010 and September 2012.

However, 18% now think he is Jewish.

I would dearly love to hear an explanation of this result because I can’t think of one.

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Walker and Obama

Back in June, before the recall election, I argued against the view that a Walker victory spelled trouble for Obama’s re-election campaign in Wisconsin:

“if Walker actually wins by 7, it means there’s no massive shift to the GOP going on in this state, and you’re a broadly popular incumbent President whose hometown is within a half-day’s drive of most of Wisconsin’s population, your prospects here are pretty good…..

In 2010, Walker won as a non-incumbent in a regular election. If he gets the same margin against the same opponent, as a sitting governor, in a recall that not all Democrats think should have happened, I take that as a signal that the state of the electorate has shifted back to something like normal,, from the abnormally Democratic year of 2008 and the abnormally Republican year of 2010.”

In fact, Walker did win by 7.  And I think my assessment of what that meant for the November electorate is looking pretty good!





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Obama 5, Romney 3 in the 7th

Lots of people are following Nate Silver’s election tracking over at 538, especially his top-line estimate of the probability that Barack Obama will be re-elected in November.  Silver has that number at 79.7% today.  Sounds like good news for Obama.  But it’s hard to get a gut feeling for what that number means.  Yeah, it means Obama has a 4 in 5 chance of winning — but since the election isn’t going to happen 5 times, that proportion doesn’t quite engage the intuition.

Here’s one trick I thought of, which ought to work for baseball fans.  The Win Probability Inquirer over at Hardball Times will estimate the probability of a baseball team winning a game under any specified set of conditions.  Visiting team down by 4 in the 2nd, but has runners on 2nd and 3rd with nobody out?  They’ve got a 26% chance of winning.  Next batter strikes out?  Their chances go down to 22%.

So when do you have a 79.7% of winning?  If we consider the Obama-Romney race to have started in April or May, when Romney wrapped up the nomination, we’re about 2/3 of the way through — so let’s the 7th inning.  If the visiting team is ahead by 2 runs going into the 7th, they’ve got an 82% chance of winning.  That’s pretty close.  If you feel the need to tweak the knobs, say the first two batters of the inning fail to reach; with two outs in the top of the 7th, bases empty and a 2-run lead, the visitors win 79.26% of the time, just a half-percent off from Silver’s estimate.

So:  Obama 5, Romney 3, top of the 7th.  How certain do you feel that Obama wins?

Update:  (request from the comments)  Silver currently has Obama with an 85.% chance of winning.  That’s like:  home team up 5-3, visitors batting in the top of the 8th, runner on first with one out.


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Polarized electorates and McDonald’s salad

Tyler Cowen takes issue with Cass Sunstein’s new book, Going to Extremes, which postulates that American politics is stuck in a polarized posture, with the two antagonistic parties having little incentive or inclination to reach compromise. Cowen lists some reasons to think politics in the U.S. are not getting more polarized, including

6. Obama goes out of his way to adopt a non-polarizing style (no matter what you think of his policies) and it brings him considerable popularity.  That suggests a demand for non-polarization, or at least the perception thereof.  In many countries politicians have an incentive to straddle the median and bring outlying groups closer to the center, for purposes of governance and re-election.

Now let me pretend to be a behavioral economist: the phrase  “or at least the perception thereof” is doing a lot of work here!  What we know is that there’s a demand for the ability to believe about oneself that one is a post-partisan and unpolarized type.  But that’s not to say there’s a demand for actual unpolarized politics.  People tell McDonald’s market researchers they’d like to see more salad on the menu; they’re more likely to go to McDonald’s when there’s salad on the menu; but they don’t eat the salad.  In fact, the presence of the salad option appears to make customers more likely to order a less nutritious meal.  Apparently they feel they’ve done enough for their health by being in the same room with the salad.

If Obama is the salad and nutty partisan views are the fries, Cowen’s argument might actually work in Sunstein’s favor:  we are all in the room with the salad, and thus might feel freer to indulge our cherished political idiosyncracies.

In a different direction, one might set aside the question of what market and structural forces might in theory push politics to be more or less polarized, and ask instead whether one can quantify what’s actually happening.  Cowen says that public opinion polls about polarization point in both directions.  I like the work of McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal on this question;  they have a nice way of modeling the U.S. Congress as a subset of R^2, in which setting you can see the two parties getting further apart and more ideologically disciplined over time.   Here’s what I wrote about their techniques in Slate in 2001.    On their view, at least, it’s not in question that political polarization has been increasing since the 1960s.

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After Virgil

is the title of Steve’s new poem, which is dedicated (blush) to me, but really should be dedicated to my parents, my son, or my next President. It starts like this:

At last, today, we can talk about something else–
about rock and roll again, for example, or
about the relative merits of green and black tea,
about anything that we know will have nothing to do
with the national perils and chances that kept us fixed,
like greyhounds in harness, despite ourselves, on the tracks
of the polls, of the ground game, of cellphones and robocalls,
of the neck and neck, the face to face, the fears
we harbored all year for the winner in that great race
where two hundred million people could join, or jeer.

Read the whole poem at InDigest.

(It shouldn’t be double-spaced, by the way; WordPress cognoscenti are welcome to explain how to fix this.)
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Obama’s embarrassing friends, enormity, nauseous

I hope Tom’s new blog category, “Embarrassing things white people say about Obama,” is going to be a recurring feature. You won’t regret checking out the first two entries, courtesy of Leon Wieseltier and Judith Warner. Regarding the latter: I, too, was going to bellyache about BO’s use of “enormity” in his victory speech, but decided it would make me look like the kind of guy who notices grammar glitches while I’m supposed to be watching history go by. Thank God for Tom, who just doesn’t care if he looks like that kind of guy, which is to say the kind of guy that he, like me, is.

That reminds me of this reminiscence of David Foster Wallace and his advocacy for rigid adherence to the usage rules of his childhood — a stance only a great writer could make charming.

At the end of the hour, he told us that if we were going to remember one thing, just one thing, from his workshop, it would be that we (as a society of grammatically impaired citizens) always used the word “nauseous” wrong. When we said “nauseous” we really meant “nauseated.” And that was it.

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The Milwaukee Brewers: change we can believe in

As my beloved Orioles close out 2008 with a 4-19 undead September, my newly adopted NL team, the Brewers, are in the playoffs for the first time since they broke O’s fans’ hearts on the last day of the 1982 season to win the AL East title. And as in 1982, the Brewers seemed to have a playoff berth well in hand with a few weeks to go, then came this close to blowing it, then recovered just in time. Barack Obama must be watching, and hoping his story comes out the same. But he can’t be rooting for the Brewers too fervently; he’s a White Sox fan, and if Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes are at issue, a Chicago-Milwaukee World Series is close to his worst-case scenario. (If the polls stay as they are now, the damage in the Philadelphia suburbs from a White Sox – Phillies matchup is probably worse.)

But the World Series this election really deserves is Brewers – Red Sox. In the Brewers you have the young, exciting team from the side of the aisle that’s won only two of the last six series. And the Red Sox are the team with some experience in the big game, the team that it used to be cool and transgressive to like, before they turned into a carbon copy of their hyper-rich former rival now fallen on hard times.

Mark Attanasio, the Brewers’ owner, was at a multi-million dollar fundraiser for Obama in LA two weeks ago. John Henry, who owns the Red Sox, gave tens of thousands to the DNC in 2004 but according to Fundrace has stayed out of the 2008 campaign. Draw whatever conclusions you will.

I do think Obama’s going to win Wisconsin. And not just because he’s ahead in the polls, or because he reminds me of the Brewers. It’s because he rides a Trek.

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The chilling effect of Google on gag-based feature writing

I woke up the other morning thinking to myself, you know what would be funny? To go from Toni Morrison’s depiction of Bill Clinton as the first black president to the observation that Barack Obama, having missed his chance to be the first black president, could still be the first Jewish president: child of immigrants, excels in school, good at basketball, bad at bowling, subject to whispers that his religious commitments might bind him to America’s enemies, etc. etc.

But nowadays you’ve got to Google a gag before you deploy it. And you quickly find that Harold Pollack got there first at Huffington Post, back in January — which didn’t stop Howard Fineman from using the gag in March in Newsweek, or Josh Gerstein from bringing it back in the New York Sun this week.

You have to figure that Google has a certain chilling effect on gag-based feature writing. Of course ten people are going to come up with the same joke. And if that produces ten different columns, then maybe the funniest one has a chance to get popular. Is it really better if the first person to post the gag online salts the field for everybody else?

In this case, it’s for the best — Pollack’s piece is better than its successors, and better than what I would have written. But can we shed a single tear for the gag-based features that, thanks to Google, never tasted life?

Reader challenge: come up with a “Barack Obama is Jewish” gag that doesn’t appear in Google. “Obamulke” and “Baruch Obama” have both been done, but I think I can claim priority on “Barak Mitzvah.” For what that’s worth.

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