Thursday, April 28, 2016

Veepstakes 2016 Episode 1: Why Carly?

It is really never too early in the presidential cycle to talk Veep. Hence I've been pushing my preferred GOP VP, Ohio Senator Rob Portman. In Hillaryland, what I've heard a Senator from VA fits the bill. There is much more to say, and Veep season has started in earnest, but I've been distracted by he who shall not be named. And now, Ted Cruz - who is obviously a huge fan of HBO's VEEP - has pre-empted my plans to write an article laying out the VP basics by choosing Carly Fiorina has his running mate.

Why Carly?
Because he wants to win the election, or rather, prevent Trump from getting the nomination outright, and position himself in a contested convention.

Look, love or hate Cruz, he's a really good politician and smart guy (Princeton & Harvard - as Texas Solicitor General he argued multiple cases before the Supreme Court.) He's won a big election (Senator from Texas) and has run a pretty credible presidential campaign. So in choosing Carly Fiorina as his running mate he's calculated the odds. I'm not inclined to second-guess him on the politics.

A few factors probably include that she's a woman and a good campaigner. She might send a signal to the "establishment" (if such a thing exists) that Cruz is a sober figure who can at least talk to the party moderates. Most importantly, she creates buzz when Cruz is in big trouble. Trump's sweep last night makes it increasingly likely that he'll get the nomination outright. Anointing her is the emergency parachute cord.

Will it work? Who knows, maybe? Probably not. Even if Cruz somehow derails the Trump train (and I for one sincerely want this), the political scientist in me doubts we can really prove there was a Fiorina effect.

Anyway, the last time a GOP presidential candidate selected a woman as his running mate, it did not go well (and this odd video harks back to that unfortunate decision.)

Fiorina as Governing Partner
I don't claim to be much of a pundit and there are plenty of people making a lot more money that analyze elections. I studied what VPs do in office. Here I don't see that Fiorina brings much to the table.

Fiorina was a CEO of a big company. Her record as CEO was, um, controversial. But let's grade on a curve here and say anyone who even gets that far is pretty smart and capable. (Debatable of course, but bear with me.) So she knows something. But I have become extremely skeptical of business talent correlating with political talent. They are fundamentally different capabilities. Businesspeople make money, in politics the outputs are more complicated and the constraints are more extensive. The record of businessperson politicians is not inspiring (Herbert Hoover, Andrew Johnson, Jimmy Carter). Harry Truman, on the other hand, was a failed businessman.

Cruz is not a vastly experienced politician. He has a little time in the Senate and he presumably knows something about the law. But a fundamental paradigm of my research is that outsider presidents who are not deeply familiar with how Washington works are well served in choosing an insider VP who can help them. Cruz is an outsider, he will need help working with Congress. understanding the federal bureaucracy, and communicating with the Washington press corp. Carly Fiorina has nothing in her background that suggests she has any particular assets in this arena.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Trump v Cruz: That Delegate Thing - Part 2

As I wrote in my previous post, a half-hearted non-endorsement of Cruz over Trump, process matters.

We are hearing a lot about the nominations process in both parties, as Sanders and Trump both complain about a process rigged against them by arcane rules (despite the fact that there is a good case the rules are actually helping them). To this complaint, as with so many, I want to scream: READ THE FEDERALIST PAPERS!

Look, remember this commercial for Nextel about how great things would be if firefighters ran things. Bunch of people with common sense would be able to work things out. It's a pretty image, but utterly, profoundly, false. In the commercial everyone agrees we need good roads and clean water. That's awesome. In the real world there are quite limited resources and competing priorities. So how should limited resources be distributed?

Vote on it?

It is never that simple. Can 51% vote to take stuff from 49% without recourse on every issue? And that's assuming an up or down vote. What if it is more general so that there are multiple options? Could the group with the most votes get power even if they were in a minority overall? What if in a multi-party free-for all 25% elected themselves as a dictatorship even though 75% agreed they hated this 25% but couldn't unite on anything else?

That's silly, it would be yes or no on a bill. Fine, but then who writes the bills and who sets the agenda?

Democracies have procedures, rules, about how business is conducted. They have to! That's what the Constitution does, it sets out the basic procedures and operations of the U.S. government. The founding fathers (does that always have to be capitalized?) knew history and that the democracies of antiquity destroyed themselves, collapsing into mob rule. In establishing a Republic they sought to give the people a voice, but not create a government that quickly responded to every popular whim. They created a vast mechanism that filters public sentiment, giving voice to a range of interests and constituencies. And yes, this can make our system ineffective, that is by design. They felt that a more effective government would be a more dangerous government.

The decision-making structures shape the process (focusing on this is known as institutionalism in poli-sci world). Poor structural design can really hurt decision-making (exhibit 1 - Israel - see here and here).

The point here isn't that the Democratic and Republican parties have just terrific decision-making structures. I'm kind of agnostic. Rather, understanding how to operate within these structures and maximize your effectiveness.

Sort of like in baseball. Getting lots of people on base is essential to winning - it is probably the single most important component to scoring runs. But you still have to drive those runs in. If you keep leaving men on base, you will lose.

Being President means dealing with institutions with arcane rules and decision-making procedures (Congress, the bureaucracy) so if you can't master this on the campaign trail - you probably shouldn't be president.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Cruz v Trump: For the love of process - Part 1

So at this point I am a RINO. I remain registered because I live in a deep blue state and believe firmly in the two party system. The occasional GOP governor (as we enjoy now) keeps the system honest. 

My preferred GOP candidate is Kasich. His experience is is much deeper than the other candidates (this was frankly true even when there was a much wider field of candidates.) He espouses conservative values without being dogmatic and offensive - although he is not conservative enough for many in the party. The essence of politics in a republic is compromise and taking the best deal you can get. Maximalist positions will marginalized you. The GOP seems to have forgotten this which takes them on a path to defeat. Kasich could also plausibly beat Hillary - it is difficult to imagine Trump or Cruz doing so (barring some sort of Hillary scandal meltdown - which given the Clintons is not impossible.) That being said, Kasich has been painfully awkward on the campaign trail and one can see why he is not generating much enthusiasm. (And yes, his recent missteps are making it worse and worse.)

So the likelihood gives us Cruz or Trump. A fine conundrum for the party of Lincoln in the world's greatest democracy. I despise Donald Trump - I've said it before many times, no need to go into it. Cruz is hardly a compelling alternative. He is not moderate and there is something fundamentally dislikable about him and his actions do little I've wondered about this interplay between surface appearance and people's hearts before. As for his actual positions... two words: gold standard.

Cruz is a smart guy, Princeton and Harvard. One expects politicians to say all kinds of BS. (They all promise that they will get better deals from other countries or make congress get things done. Most have some ludicrous stand on some policy issue or other. Fine, that's the business they've chosen.) But the gold standard is absolute lunacy. It would up-end the international financial system in all sorts of really bad, bad ways with no upside. If Cruz really believes it, then he's pretty nutty. If he doesn't and is just saying it because it makes some constituency happy, well - is that kind of worse?

But if it has to be Trump or Cruz, well, I guess Cruz.

A democratic republic relies on rules of the road. There are actions that players within our system do not take. Presidents always push for authority against Congress (and other institutions). But usually only so far. The epitome perhaps was President Andrew Jackson responding to a Supreme Court ruling by says, "John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it."

What happens in a president simply refuses to do what Congress or the Supreme Court orders. There is a lot of push and pull in this, but it is rare to blatantly disregard Constitutional authorities. Presidents that start doing this will provoke crises - that will not be fun.

My fear with Trump is that if frustrated with Congress, he will summon a mob. I don't think he can upend our system, but I don't want to watch this process. It will be ugly. Assuming Trump plays the game more carefully, what he is likely to do is make lots of noise about key issues.

Now this is part of politics. Voltaire wrote that medicine is the art of humoring the patient while nature takes its course. So is politics, that's fine. But Trump will inject more bad feeling and anger into our system.

Do I believe that Cruz is a secret insider who will turn establishment where Trump will not? Hardly, rather I think he will suck at trying to upend the system. His appeals for action will be less effective. 

But yes, he will probably show a greater tendency to play within the rules. We are less likely to have mobs formed or impeachment hearing. I think politics over the next decade is going to be plenty nasty without any of that - so I'd rather skip it.

Let me be clear - this is not a full-throated endorsement - or any kind of endorsement. I think I'd vote for Sanders before either of these guys. Seriously (even though I have huge problems with him as well.)

Update: Dana Milbank in The Washington Post makes the exact same argument I make - better of course - but still the same.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Heart Bern: Evaluating Sanders

Let me begin by saying how much I like Bernie Sanders. Having someone who looks and sounds like one of my cantankerous uncles going on about some idee fixe running credibly for president rather than making us nuts at the Seder table is pretty fun and cool.

However, I am not a socialist.

I also reject the apocalyptic arguments around Sanders. In a choice between Trump and Sanders I would choose Sanders without any second thoughts whatsoever. First, Sanders is a democratic socialist. He is working within the system to achieve his ends. In fact by some measures he has been pretty effective as a legislator. This is legitimate activity within our system. He is not talking about storming the barricades our seizing the means of production. He might turn the U.S. into something a bit more Scandinavian (Euro-style mixed economies aren't all they're cracked up to be, but they have their virtues). These are still societies with vibrant private sectors, it is something we could vote for. Also, it won't happen. Our system makes it very, very hard to move things much. This has benefits and costs, but in our system it is a feature not a bug. The founders had studied history and knew the ancient democracies and republics had destroyed themselves.

(I fear Trump might damage our democratic processes - not fatally, but it won't be much fun to watch.)

Finally, I understand and sympathize with the broader forces driving Sanders' candidacy. A lot of people have been really screwed economically. Most young people who graduated since the 2008 crash see few prospects for moving forward. Further, there has been a broad decline in wages for certain kinds of labor. I have been personally fortunate, but I sincerely want to see policies that help address some of these problems.

However, I am not a socialist.

What I mean is that I sympathize with Sanders' goals, but I fear his means will actually make things worse. 

Let's put aside that (based on his recent interview) Sanders himself might not have thought through his proposals. He was incredibly vague about his signature issue of breaking up the big banks, nor did he make a terribly clear case that breaking them up would actually help anything. I want to insure everyone is benefitting economically. I have no love the big banks, but if it isn't going to move the ball forward, don't waste energy on it.

Peace, Land, Tuition!
Let's take a major Sanders idea and break it down. He wants state universities to be free.

What is the purpose of this proposal? It seems to me that there are two. The first is provide a better educated population overall and the second would be to improve people's employment prospects by making college more accessible.

I don't think the first purpose is what we are really discussing. As a small c conservative, I am skeptical of the ability of education to magically make people wiser and smarter. College is simply not for everyone. Many people do not wish to go to college. In terms of receiving a broad liberal arts background and broadening their perspective on the world, I am not sure people clamber for this. If we want a better educated public, let's figure out how to make our high schools work better.

Caveat: I'm not saying we should keep anyone out of college, I am just skeptical if it actually achieves the kinds of positive social ends desired.

As far as I can tell, we are talking about college like a trade school, it helps employment prospects. The problem is that it is a hideously expensive trade school and, for the most part, it does not actually teach a trade. College is a signal to an employer that you have some basic aptitudes, rather than specific skills.

This lecture will be standing room only in Bernie's America
So if we want to improve people's employment prospects is sending more people to college the way to do it? Since it is a vague signal, rather than a hard credential, it may not be the right way. That is, there is an employment market for people with college degrees. If a lot more people have college degrees, does that magically mean that there are a lot more jobs for people with college degrees - or - will it lower the value of these degrees and make employers choosier. Will a Masters be the new Bachelors? In that case, you've started an education arms race that the well-to-do are destined to win.

But, my small c conservatism aside, I do want more people to go to college and I don't doubt that there are many people who would benefit from college who cannot hope to attend now. My fear is that Bernie's plan would not help them - it would hurt them.

If state colleges and universities are free they will receive a huge number of additional applications. They will have two choices about dealing with this - they can either raise their standards and pick and choose who they accept or they can accept a lot more people.

If they choose to do the former, it will be much harder to get in and this could benefit the well-to-do at the expense of the less fortunate. The very rich will remain rich and send their kids to whatever private colleges they wish. The well-to-do however, will have had their taxes raised substantially under Bernie. This will make private colleges harder for them to manage, so if a free state university is an option it will become extremely attractive. These are parents who can insure that their kids receive the violin lessons, tutoring, and private coaching needed to get into the now more competitive state schools. Again, you've created an educational arms race that the well to do will win.

Alternatively, if the state schools don't raise their standards and accept anyone that can afford it that raises different challenges. Student bodies would expand very quickly and school would struggle to manage them. Here the concern is broader. Right now the U.S. higher education system is the best in the world. It is a tremendous engine of growth and innovation. Further it is an export (when a kid from another country comes here to study, he is putting money into the U.S.) I would rather not take risks with something that is working pretty well. If we break it, it may not be easy to fix.

But I do want to make college more accessible. I'd rather see it means tested. For the well-to-do state colleges and universities are bargain. You can raise the prices some and it would still be a bargain, while using that to subsidize the less fortunate.

Further, I'd like to see more creative approaches taken to preparing the workforce such as more apprenticeships and trade schools that were far cheaper and provided a better return on the public's investment.

But Bernie, as compelling as he is, offers simples cures that may prove worse than the disease.

We have entered an age of magical realism politics - and it isn't just the GOP.