Monthly Archives: March 2016

I am not impressed by Barney Frank

Former Congressman from Massachusetts, Barney Frank, had an interview in Slate out yesterday.

Barney Frank Is Not Impressed by Bernie Sanders: “Bernie Sanders has been in Congress for 25 years with little to show for it.”

I’m going to address a few specific claims or critical questions posed in that interview.

On voter turnout and lack of support for Democrats

Frank said:

I’m particularly unimpressed with people who sat out the Congressional elections of 2010 and 2014 and then are angry at Democrats because we haven’t been able to produce public policies they like.

This is basically victim-blaming. We the people who have only the influence of our vote are disaffected by a political system we see as representing the interests of the elite and wealthy. Are we naive? Not at all. A study by Princeton political scientists analyzed over 1,700 policy issues and found:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination

That’s pretty conclusive empirical evidence. But Frank is also ignoring a mathematical fact: our voting system is flawed in ways that encourage low voter turnout. Winner takes all plurality voting and the Electoral College are both horribly flawed voting methods with many absurd downsides (and were adopted historically in order to support slavery). Far better alternatives exist, but the people in power aren’t interested in changing the rules of the game they’re already winning.

Frank has failed to address why voters in general are disaffected, despite there being an abundance of clear evidence that it doesn’t have anything to do with laziness. To drive home the fact that this is pure victim blaming, consider the relationship between voter turnout rates and income:

VoterTurnoutByIncome

The people who don’t vote are poor people. Why don’t they vote? Probably because they’re poor and it’s not always easy to vote. In addition to the problems I already mentioned, it can be hard to vote if you have to work two jobs, or are a single parent, or don’t have your own car to drive to the polls and live in a place with shitty public transportation. Nearly 5% of Americans work multiple jobs. Aside from the poor, other groups with low turnout include minorities and the less-educated. These are the people Frank is disparaging from his high horse.

As for Democratic voters in particular, the 2010 midterm disaster wasn’t even a surprise. Democrats knew in advance it was going to happen, and they simply didn’t do enough to get their supporters out to vote. Consider what Obama was saying right before the election:

When I hear Democrats griping and groaning and saying ‘the healthcare plan didn’t have a public option’ … or, ‘yes, you ended the war in Iraq, but you haven’t completely finished the Afghan war yet’, I say, ‘folks, wake up’.

And I say: if you want my vote, earn it. Don’t blow healthcare reform by constantly compromising with a tiny minority of Republicans, ending up with a version of Romneycare written by pharma, insurance, and hospital industry lobbyists and then tell me I have no right to be disappointed. You can’t say you’re going to have the most transparent and open administration in history, but then turn around and wage a war on whistleblowers, and act all self-righteous when I say you lost my vote. When Obama and a large majority of Democrats came into office in 2008, Wall Street had just been bailed out and Main Street was in desperate need of radical change. What we got was weak tea. If that’s what Democrats are serving, they have no right whatsoever to feel entitled to the votes of people who either suffer from or care about poverty and inequality.

Even the New York Times Editorial Board places the blame for low turnout on politicians:

Over all, the national turnout was 36.3 percent; only the 1942 federal election had a lower participation rate at 33.9 percent. […] Democrats were too afraid of the backlash to put forward plans to revive the economy or to point out significant achievements of the last six years. Neither party gave voters an affirmative reason to show up at the polls. […] There was one useful lesson: When voting is made easier, more people vote. Colorado switched to a mail ballot system this year, and it had the fourth-highest turnout in the nation, substantially larger than in 2010. […] to encourage participation, politicians need to stop suppressing the vote, make the process of voting as easy as possible, and run campaigns that stand for something.

Given all this, I am not just particularly unimpressed with Frank’s argument, I’m downright pissed at him for this disgusting victim-blaming.

On the supposed lack of corruption in Wall Street and D.C.

Here’s Frank on Wall Street:

The financial system is people lending money to other people so they can do things. I do think that he overstates it when he says, “they’re all corrupt.” It’s simply not true.

To assess whether Frank’s rosy view of Wall Street is realistic, consider this 2015 study reported in the business section of the New York Times (not exactly a radical venue). The study surveyed finance professionals and found that “one in 10 said they had directly felt pressure to compromise ethical standards or violate the law” and “about a third of the people who said they made more than $500,000 annually contend that they have witnessed or have firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace.” Most troubling?

And nearly half of the high-income earners say law enforcement and regulatory authorities in their country are ineffective “in detecting, investigating and prosecuting securities violations.”

The Dodd-Frank reform became active in 2010. Have things been getting better?

23% of respondents believe it is likely that fellow employees have engaged in illegal or unethical activity in order to gain an edge, nearly double the 12% that reported as such in 2012.

Oops! The people actually working on Wall Street think it’s getting worse. Frank’s quote above about the financial system actually begins “Well if that’s the case it’s even dumber than I thought.” Who, exactly, is being dumb here Mr. Frank?

Frank on Clinton’s millions in speaking fees:

What Sanders basically says is, “They’re trying to bribe you.” Well what do they get for money? He shows nothing.

Money in politics is not a simple quid pro quo issue. We can call that naive view the Clinton-Frank-Trump theory of money in politics. The most accurate answer to “what do they get for money?” is access. Access is actually far more insidious than money itself. Consider this quote from Richard Skinner of the Sunlight Foundation (a nonprofit money-in-politics watchdog organization)

Most people concerned about campaign finance are concerned that there’s plenty of evidence that the views of very wealthy people are reflected in the views of public policy. The fact that you have people spending so much of their time with very wealthy people affects not only the policies they adopt but also their worldview.

That right there is the real problem. There are actually no shortage of examples of public policy being directly affected by money–consider the Princeton study earlier that concluded the most accurate description of our government is “Economic-Elite Domination.” But the problem is even worse because it makes lawmakers unable to actually represent ordinary people because they don’t know us, they don’t understand our concerns, they have no idea what our lives are like.

It’s actually about the kind of person you are. If you are extremely wealthy, like Hillary Clinton, and your children are extremely wealthy (Chelsea was paid a $600,000 salary by NBC to be a rookie news correspondent, is married to a hedge fund manager, and lives in a $10.5 million condo in Manhattan), and you constantly interact with an enormous wealthy donor network, that has an indelible effect on your worldview. This is why she often makes embarrassing slip ups or mistakes that leave her supporters wondering what she was thinking. For example, she claimed that she and Bill were “not only dead broke, but in debt” when they left the White House in 2000, despite the fact that they owned a $1.7 million house in New York and another $2.8 million house in D.C. Or her flippant response when she was asked on CNN why she accepted $675,000 from the infamous Goldman Sachs:

Clinton: Look, I made speeches to lots of groups. I told them what I thought. I answered questions.

Cooper: But did you have to be paid $675,000?

Clinton: Well I don’t know, um, that’s what they offered.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

So are Bernie’s supporters naive for thinking that a person like her isn’t the best choice for representing the vast majority of Americans who aren’t ultra wealthy?

On Bernie’s record of getting things done

Two quotes from Frank:

Bernie Sanders has been in Congress for 25 years with little to show for it in terms of his accomplishments and that’s because of the role he stakes out.

Other than Glass-Steagall, what did he propose in 2009 and 2010 when he was a senator when we were dealing with this? The answer is nothing.

So two issues, first what did he propose? Frank apparently wasn’t paying attention and didn’t do his homework because the answer is not “nothing.” In congress, Bernie has sponsored 64 bills addressing the financial sector, nine of them in the period of 2008-2009. These include the Stop the Greed on Wall Street Act, a bill to limit compensation at financial firms that were bailed out, the Federal Reserve Transparency Act, a bill to require the Fed to publish information about its assistance to banks (the “shadow bailout”), and the Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Exist Act, which is self-explanatory. This  is just the financial sector. Bernie has been prolific throughout his career, a tireless worker obsessed with trying to make things better for ordinary people.

What happened to the bills I just listed? They all failed. Frank supported none of them because he is a corporate tool like most politicians. He received more campaign donations from Wall Street than any other industry. Doesn’t that just inspire so much confidence in the Dodd-Frank Act being able to prevent the next crisis?

An important follow up question, if those bills of Bernie did not pass, what has he accomplished? In the House, Bernie passed more amendments than any other congressperson and was referred to as the “Amendment King.” Seriously, just click on that link and look over the list of his accomplishments. One example:

Sanders was able to get the first-ever audit of funds given out by the Federal Reserve, which made transparent over $2 trillion of funds handed out by the secretive organization. This was a cause that Republican congressman Ron Paul (TX) had been pursuing for decades, but Sanders was able to get the votes to do it by forging a compromise.

An unauthorized biographer of Sanders described him this way:

He’s like a stealth politician because people think he’s just this guy who has super-liberal, i.e., socialist tendencies, but at the same time he is a brutally successful political knife-fighter.

The title of this post is a little mean–Frank is certainly one of the better legislators in congress in recent history. I was just mirroring the title of the Slate article. But I am definitely not impressed with Barney Frank’s inaccurate and/or dishonest assessment of Bernie Sanders.

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[Update] Democratic primary predictions

A week ago I predicted the second half of the Democratic primaries. Six states have voted since then. How did my predictions fare?

State Predicted Actual
Arizona 44.8 40.9
Idaho 61 78
Utah 62.8 79.3
Alaska 66 81.5
Hawaii 79 69.8
Washington 65.5 72.7

Well, not too great. Arizona was the only one that came close. Idaho was way off. I overestimated in Arizona and Hawaii and underestimated the rest. On the other hand, I did call the meaningless “win/lose” status correctly for all six. But those calls were pretty easy, with the possible exception of Arizona. I’m still not sure how much to believe the “actual” outcome in Arizona, given the widespread complaints of voter suppression (possible systematic election fraud?)

Including the six new data points into my analysis and re-running it (with a few other small changes) caused some changes in the variable-importance plot. Let’s see the plot and then break down a few of the changes.

variables3

  • Date: Momentum? Probably not so much. A string of big wins following a much rougher early half are pretty much guaranteed to produce a positive time trend. I don’t really believe this effect will persist for the rest of the primary season. For that reason, for all predictions of future states I am treating them like the date they vote is today.
  • IndustryFinance: Still the largest negative effect. Still the most neglected explanation of this election season?
  • RaceBlack now appears relatively stronger, and RaceAsian less so. These estimates are probably closer to their true effects now, given what we know from exit polls. RaceHispanic now appears negative, likely because of Nevada and Arizona going differently from the other western states. How Hispanic people will vote in California, for example, is a very big and important unanswered question.
  • Poverty and wealth both seem to favor Clinton, while education beyond the high school level favors Sanders.
  • Internet predictors: [high speed] InternetAccess, the share of Facebook likes FBshare, and Google relative search volume in the month before the election now appear stronger than before. One reason, for Google specifically, is that before I used relative search volume during one period of time for all states, whereas now I have limited it to the 30 days before the election. For states that have not voted yet, the time window is from 30 days ago to today. It’s important to note that this predictor might change before each election as candidates run ads in that state and some undecided voters go online to look up their choices (does anyone actually do that? Honest question).

Given the time sensitive nature of the model–now that Google search volume was restricted to specific time periods and the estimated Date trend is large–I’m limiting my predictions to votes occurring in the following one month.

State Prediction
Wisconsin 61
Wyoming 79.9
New York 41.5
Connecticut 40.7
Delaware 18.7
Maryland 32.4
Pennsylvania 47.6
Rhode Island 55.2

How believable are these? I’m pretty sure Sanders will win Wisconsin and Wyoming, though perhaps not by so large a margin in Wisconsin. After that, I think some things are being influenced too heavily by the IndustryFinance variable. Look at Delaware, that’s just not believable. New York is more than 20 days away. The Sanders campaign just opened offices there. It’s possible the grassroots machine with Eye-of-Sauron level focus on New York for 10 days before its election will change things. That might be reflected in a change in relative Google search volume compared to the current time window.

Sanders supporters should not become complacent. If my predictions for all the remaining states are accurate, Sanders will still lose among pledged delegates by a wide enough margin that even if some superdelegates switch it wouldn’t be enough. Whatever effect the movement had in influencing Michigan, it will need to work even harder for a large win in Wisconsin, and twice as hard again probably just to break even in New York.

(Note: interested parties can find my data and code here on GitHub).

Predicting the second half of the Democratic primary

I’m a statistician and I support Bernie Sanders.

So this is how I spent part of my Saturday.

I gathered data from sources including the US census, Wikipedia, WolframAlpha, and some others (the Facebook map data from FiveThirtyEight, Google trends data using the gtrendsR package). Using this data–and not any polls–I built a predictive model in a standard fashion using ridge regression with cross-validation to choose the level of regularization. Since I only had data for 26 states that have voted so far, there is reason to believe (7-fold) cross-validation will not be very stable, so I also averaged the predictions from 100 models randomly generated by using different splits for cross-validation. The plot below shows that the resulting predictions come pretty close to Senator Sanders’s actual share of the vote. (Important note: that is what I’m predicting, vote share, not probability of winning).

already

The individual results for each state are listed below. My apologies for the absurdly large table… WordPress won’t let me change it (clearly they are part of the political establishment).

State Actual Predicted Error
Iowa 49.6 50.8 1.2
New Hampshire 60.4 60.8 0.4
Nevada 47.3 46.7 -0.6
South Carolina 26 25.4 -0.6
Alabama 19.2 22.6 3.4
Arkansas 29.7 31.2 1.5
Colorado 59 60.6 1.6
Georgia 28.2 26 -2.2
Massachusetts 48.7 51.1 2.4
Minnesota 61.7 61.9 0.2
Oklahoma 51.9 46.9 -5
Tennessee 32.4 32.7 0.3
Texas 33.2 33.2 0
Vermont 86.1 82.9 -3.2
Virginia 35.2 36.2 1
Kansas 67.7 62.4 -5.3
Louisiana 23.2 24.5 1.3
Nebraska 57.2 61.5 4.3
Maine 64.2 62.8 -1.4
Michigan 49.8 48.8 -1
Mississippi 16.5 20.2 3.7
Florida 33.3 36 2.7
Illinois 48.7 47.1 -1.6
Missouri 49.4 45.1 -4.3
North Carolina 40.8 38.3 -2.5
Ohio 42.7 46.3 3.6

Before we get to the predictions, let’s also look at how the models weighted each predictor variable. Below I show a boxplot for each predictor showing the weights given to that predictor by each of the 100 models (remember I’m averaging the predictions of these models).

variables2

Several things are worth noting here.

  • The census data I used had variables for portions of workers in all kinds of different industries and I threw most of these away. But I had a suspicion that IndustryFinance and IndustryManufacturing might be important. Apparently I was right about finance: states relying on that industry do not like Bernie. Surprise! Actually, the effect may not be as large as it appears in these models. Among states that have voted so far, the ones with the largest portion of finance industry are Florida and Massachusetts (tied) and the one with the lowest is Vermont. We’ll know more when New York votes on April 19.
  • Age effects: Age18to34 is actually a smaller effect than Age45to55, and this is a little surprising. It might reflect the lower turnout rates among younger voters. And even though Bernie wins millennials by a larger margin, he actually wins people under 55 as well, all other things being equal. To answer TNR’s question “Who is the Hillary voter?” — they are mostly fairly old.
  • None of the available exit poll data has information about Asians, so it is pretty surprising that RaceAsian is an important variable. It’s certainly not the narrative about race that we’ve been hearing.
  • Other things working in Sanders’s favor: education above the high school level, high speed internet access, and surpluses of likes on Facebook.
  • Things working in Clinton’s favor: poverty, high unemployment, lack of higher education, and proportions of population with high income or who are black or old.

And now for the predictions!

State Predicted
Arizona 44.8
Idaho 61
Utah 62.8
Alaska 66
Hawaii 79
Washington 65.5
Wisconsin 65.9
Wyoming 67.2
New York 46
Connecticut 44.6
Delaware 27.1
Maryland 38
Pennsylvania 48.7
Rhode Island 57.7
Indiana 58.7
West Virginia 45.5
Kentucky 49.8
Oregon 75.1
Puerto Rico 44
California 60.6
Montana 73
New Jersey 44.9
New Mexico 61.6
North Dakota 80.2
South Dakota 71.4
D.C. 26.6

These predictions are not great news for Sanders. They would translate to roughly 1923 delegates, not enough to win. Bernie will need to beat these expectations by about 5% across the board in order to win. This is nothing new: FiveThirtyEight has been singing this song since the day after the first Super Tuesday. However, I think there’s reason to still hope. Three reasons.

First, I think the IndustryFinance and RaceAsian effects are probably not as large as they appear based on the previous elections. This means the predictions for California and Hawaii might be a little too high, and the predictions for Delaware, Connecticut, New Jersey, Arizona, and New York might be too low.

Second, in a word: momentum. If Bernie can hold his own in Arizona and win big in Utah and Idaho, which is certainly within reach, he’ll be set up for a long stretch of big wins before New York votes on April 19th. This could yield the all-important media coverage he has been denied since early March (with the one exception of the Michigan upset). Bernie is probably too old for the nickname “comeback kid,” so media people reading this have an action item: think of a better nickname before April 5-9 (Wisconsin and Wyoming, both predicted over 60%).

The last reason is also the only reason I have any hope left for democracy in this country. Billionaire donors and high-rolling campaign bundlers are one thing, an army of volunteers is another. The grassroots supporting Sanders have been growing and improving in organization. We’ve made over 30 million phone calls to voters, and the rate is increasing. When this effort was focused on Michigan it was part of the reason the outcome swung by 20% from the polls. Spread out over 5 states on the last Super Tuesday it wasn’t enough. It’s currently focusing on 3 states 2 of which are already favorable, then another group of 3 which are all favorable, and then one at a time leading up to New York. It will then remain to be seen if our organization has improved enough to handle 5 states at once on April 26th, and 6 on June 7th (including the crux: California).

Taken together, these three things give me hope despite the numbers. And I’m a numbers guy. So Sanders supporters: keep up the great work! It’s gonna take a lot more of it to beat these expectations by large enough margins to win.

Now I will predict my own actions

I predict that I will post again with an update after the votes are tallied next week, and get back to phonebanking and facebanking in the meanwhile.

Speculation: once more western states have voted, the West variable will become less negative and yield higher predictions in California. Also, once New York votes the IndustryFinance variable will probably be less negative.

Something I probably won’t do: aggregate data at the county or congressional district level. I’m pretty sure that would yield much more accurate predictions, but it’s too much work for me. I don’t know the API necessary to scrape Facebook so I entered the state numbers by hand. If someone hired me to do it I would (psst, hey Jeff Weaver…).

Note: A previous version of this post had different results because I had not standardized the predictor variables properly.