Monthly Archives: December 2010

What does “America” mean to you?

I’m visiting family in Utah over the holidays. At my in-laws’ place, I came across a copy of a recent Reader’s Digest with the following teaser phrase on the cover: “What does ‘America’ mean to you?” I paused a few moments to think how I would answer that question. The idea of “America” certainly means a lot of different things to me, but if I were to sum it up in one sentence, it would be: “America means a relatively stable and safe environment where I can raise a family and, for the most part, be free to choose what I want to do with my life.”

It also occurred to me that “America” also very literally provides me with a livelihood: I make a living by learning and teaching about American politics and government!

The cost of the tax cut deal

According to CNN, the total cost of the tax cut deal between President Obama and the Congressional Republicans will be approximately 860 billion dollars. According to the article, this is more than:

· The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars from 2001-2008 ($752 Billion according to CBO)
· The stimulus bill ($787 Billion over ten years, from CBO)
· The entire domestic output of South Korea last year ($832 Billion says the World Bank)

The report goes on to explain that 64% of the cost (%545 billion) would be to extend the Bush tax cuts for two years, the majority of which goes to the richest 2% in the country. The remaining 36% goes toward the other concessions that President Obama negotiated: the 2% reduction on Social Security payroll taxes for one year, the extension of unemployment benefits, etc.

Reasonable people can and do disagree as to the merits of this tax cut deal. What frustrates me is that it will add nearly another trillion dollars to the national debt, which currently stands at about $14 trillion dollars. We, as a nation, are not really serious about doing anything to address our long-term fiscal stability as a nation. Even the Tea Party movement, which began over outrage at Congress spending $790 billion for a fiscal stimulus package a few years ago, is now strangely silent on a proposal that will spend an additional $860 billion.

However, I do understand and partially (and reluctantly) approve of the goal to provide short-term economic stimulus and to do something to help to the lower and middle classes in hard economic times. But at some point we will have to come to terms with the simple fact that the budget will not magically fix itself if we continue to cut taxes and increase spending. Each generation seems to deal with the problem by kicking the can down the road for the next generation (i.e. our children) to deal with. I’m sure they will write us a thank-you card for it when it gets to be their turn.

Obama’s “trouble” with his liberal base

In my GOV 330 class this semester, we learned that political campaigns aren’t very good at persuading undecided voters, but rather they’re much better at mobilizing votes among a candidate’s base.

In analyzing President Obama’s apparent “trouble” with his liberal base, Nate Silver writes:

According to the exit poll of voting for Congress, 90 percent of self-described liberal voters selected the Democratic candidate for the U.S. House, in contrast to 8 percent who voted for the Republican. This percentage was actually up slightly from two years earlier, when 87 percent of liberal voters backed the Democratic candidate for the House.

Instead, Democrats’ troubles were almost entirely caused by conservatives turning out at higher rates in place of moderates. The share of conservatives of the electorate increased to 42 percent in 2010 from 34 percent in 2008, according to the exit poll. And just 13 percent of these conservatives voted for Democrats, as compared to 23 percent in 2008.

Still, just because liberals are disappointed with Mr. Obama does not necessarily mean they will fail to turn out and vote for him when the only other choice is a Republican. In some ways, it probably helps Mr. Obama that the country has become so polarized and that liberals view Republicans as such an unacceptable alternative, and vice versa. The prospect of a President Palin or a President Gingrich would surely motivate most liberals to vote — and even comparatively moderate Republican candidates like Mitt Romney will be under pressure to show their conservative stripes during the Republican primaries and are likely to campaign on policies, like a repeal of the health care bill, that liberals overwhelmingly object to.

Obama’s “conciliatory” personality

A quick follow-up to my previous post from earlier this week. Congressional Democrats are outraged about the tax cut deal that President Obama brokered with Congressional Republicans. Obama’s liberal base also feels betrayed. According to the chatter on the liberal blogosphere, they feel that they voted for someone who would fight for them, not someone who would cave to Republican “hostage-taking”. They’re also perplexed that Obama seems so willing and eager to cut a deal instead of taking an ideological stand on principle, even if that means that there is some “collateral damage”.

Psychologist Aubrey Immelman at St. John’s University studies the personalities of political leaders and published this in October 2008, one month before Obama was even elected:

Obama is the only high-level leader I’ve studied — foreign or domestic — who can truly be called a conciliator. That’s nice, but we live in a dangerous world and accommodating leaders have a tendency to be conflict-averse. For voters, the key question should not so much be whether Obama has the right stuff to move the nation in the right direction, but whether he has what it takes to prevail in the dog-eat-dog world of … politics. Accommodating personalities like Obama have a strong need to reconcile differences and are able to concede when necessary. … On the other side of the coin, cordiality and compromise characterize accommodating leaders; they are respectful and gracious, even with adversaries and people that they don’t like very much.

The field of political psychology has much to offer to the world of practical politics, especially in predicting how a person will act once elected to office. It seems that President Obama’s actions are fairly predictable given his personality. Thus, his liberal base should not be overly surprised when he puts a priority on negotiation and compromise.

Obama’s press conference on tax cuts

For those who haven’t been following this week’s political drama: the 2001/2003 Bush tax cuts are set to expire at the end of this month (i.e. everyone’s taxes will increase because existing tax cuts will expire). The President and Congressional Democrats have proposed making the Bush tax cuts on the poor and middle class permanent, but letting the tax cuts on the richest 2% expire (i.e. only taxes on the rich go up – and by about 3%). Congressional Republicans, however, have said that if the richest 2% don’t get their tax cuts extended, no one gets their tax cuts extended. Thus, President Obama worked out a deal this week with Congressional Republicans where the tax cuts for everyone – including the richest 2% – would be extended for two years in exchange for a number of extensions on other tax cuts and government benefits that would primarily benefit the middle class and poor: extending unemployment insurance, 2% Social Security payroll cut for one year, etc.

Congressional Republicans see it as a reasonable compromise because they get what they want: the extension of tax cuts for the richest 2%. Congressional Democrats are outraged because they feel that the Republicans have held middle-class tax cut extensions “hostage” in exchange for the extensions on tax cuts for the wealthy. And they’re outraged that the President has given in to Republican hostage-taking demands.

President Obama held a press conference yesterday in which he defended his compromise and called out his critics for their unreasonable expectations about what can be done. The video and transcript of the conference is available here:


“I’ve said before that I felt that the middle-class tax cuts were being held hostage to the high-end tax cuts. I think it’s tempting not to negotiate with hostage-takers, unless the hostage gets harmed. Then people will question the wisdom of that strategy. In this case, the hostage was the American people and I was not willing to see them get harmed.”

I will admit, I was fairly persuaded by Obama’s arguments. While I may not agree with every aspects of the deal that he brokered, I cannot fault his motives. It reminds me of the scene in Air Force One when the President Marshall (Harrison Ford) tells the hostage-taker that he’ll never agree to his demands to persuade the Russian government to free the genocidal Kazakhstani dictator (General Radek). The terrorist (Korshunov) points a gun at the President’s daughter… and the President immediately caves to his demands as his lips quiver: “I’ll do it.” No one could fault the fictional president for giving in to the demands of the hostage-takers, and for the same reason I can’t really fault President Obama for giving in on the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2%.

Is this is a “good deal”? Definitely not. At least, I don’t think so. It’s going to add another $900 billion to our national deficit (that’s more than the TARP stimulus package of 2008-2009!), none of which is offset by any spending cuts. This just goes to show how no one, Democrats or Republicans, are really serious about cutting the deficit. If they were, Republicans would reconsider their staunch opposition to a relatively mild 3% tax hike on the richest 2% of Americans that will cost half a trillion dollars over the next two years, and Democrats would reconsider their staunch support of excessive government spending for the sake of “economic stimulus”. Where is the outrage from the Tea Party…?

Then again, if this compromise is able to stimulate the economy to any degree over the next two years, that will only be good for the President, as personal income growth is a fairly good predictor of incumbent party election performance. If the economy starts doing better in the next two years, Obama will have a cake-walk to reelection in 2012.

At any rate, my favorite part of the press conference was the final five minutes. I strongly encourage anyone to watch, as it demonstrated to me a rare example of political maturity. The transcript is below. President Obama:

Now, if that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it, we will never get anything done.  People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people.  And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are, and in the meantime, the American people are still seeing themselves not able to get health insurance because of preexisting conditions or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out.
That can’t be the measure of how we think about our public service.  That can’t be the measure of what it means to be a Democrat.  This is a big, diverse country.  Not everybody agrees with us.  I know that shocks people.  The New York Times editorial page does not permeate across all of America.  Neither does The Wall Street Journal editorial page.  Most Americans, they’re just trying to figure out how to go about their lives and how can we make sure that our elected officials are looking out for us.  And that means because it’s a big, diverse country and people have a lot of complicated positions, it means that in order to get stuff done, we’re going to compromise.  This is why FDR, when he started Social Security, it only affected widows and orphans.  You did not qualify.  And yet now it is something that really helps a lot of people.  When Medicare was started, it was a small program.  It grew.  
Under the criteria that you just set out, each of those were betrayals of some abstract ideal.  This country was founded on compromise.  I couldn’t go through the front door at this country’s founding.  And if we were really thinking about ideal positions, we wouldn’t have a union.
So my job is to make sure that we have a North Star out there.  What is helping the American people live out their lives?  What is giving them more opportunity?  What is growing the economy?  What is making us more competitive?  And at any given juncture, there are going to be times where my preferred option, what I am absolutely positive is right, I can’t get done.
And so then my question is, does it make sense for me to tack a little bit this way or tack a little bit that way, because I’m keeping my eye on the long term and the long fight — not my day-to-day news cycle, but where am I going over the long term?
And I don’t think there’s a single Democrat out there, who if they looked at where we started when I came into office and look at where we are now, would say that somehow we have not moved in the direction that I promised.
Take a tally.  Look at what I promised during the campaign.  There’s not a single thing that I’ve said that I would do that I have not either done or tried to do.  And if I haven’t gotten it done yet, I’m still trying to do it.
And so the — to my Democratic friends, what I’d suggest is, let’s make sure that we understand this is a long game.  This is not a short game.  And to my Republican friends, I would suggest — I think this is a good agreement, because I know that they’re swallowing some things that they don’t like as well, and I’m looking forward to seeing them on the field of competition over the next two years.

Marriage and educational attainment

There was a report on NPR this morning about how marriage in the U.S. is more common among those with a college education and that levels of marriage are decreasing amongst those with only a high school education. In fact, only 6% of college-graduate couples have children out of wedlock, but this number jumps to 44% amongst couples with high school degrees but no college experience. One interviewee explains that this has a lot to do with the financial costs associated with married life:

“For me,” says Andrew, “it feels unsafe heading into a marriage, where two people rely on each other, to go into it unprepared. In my family, my mother never worked, and my dad’s income was always very sufficient to support our family. I’d like to model that in my life.” The trouble is, that’s become a lot harder to do without a college degree. Time was, a man could go from high school to a well-paying, secure factory job. No more.

The report also cites another reason that low-educated, low-income couples are delaying marriage is because of the expense of the wedding ceremony and associated festivities:

But, Cherlin says — and polls confirm — young adults do want to marry. “I want to have that beautiful gown, and all the family, and toasts with champagne,” says Melissa Ethridge of Austin, Texas. …  As for the couple in Maryland, Andrew and Mellissa, they’ve decided a college degree is a must to have the family life they desire. They’ll have to squeeze in classes around work. Andrew hopes to get a promotion with tuition reimbursement. Perhaps then, they say, with degrees in hand, it will be the right time to marry.

To me, this suggests that one way (but not the only way) to encourage marriage in American society is to increase access and affordability to secondary education for those with financial needs (e.g. Pell grants, scholarships, subsidized loans, etc.) as well as increasing access and availability of job-training programs.

It also suggests to me that the current cultural expectation of expensive and elaborate weddings that cost anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 (or more) is doing more harm than good in encouraging marriage in American society.

The full article is available here:

Pet Ownership and Presidential Voting

Diana Mutz authored a humorous article in the October issue of PS that examines the effect of pet ownership on voting patterns in the 2008 election. The article is meant to be quasi-satirical, but the findings are empirically valid.

Controlling for a range of demographic, economic, and political variables, Professor Mutz found that dog owners were 16% more likely to vote for McCain in the 2008 election. This effect applied only to dog owners. Owning cats, horses, reptiles, birds, fish, or any other pet had no statistically significant effect on a person’s vote choice.

Why might this be the case? President Obama publicly promised his girls a puppy after the election was over, which highlighted the fact that they didn’t own a dog, thus losing support from the dog-owning constituency. Professor Mutz also opines:

Dog owners, on the other hand, might have been drawn more to the emotionally effusive McCain. … Although he seldom drooled on camera, McCain’s reputation as a reckless maverick who spoke his mind all too quickly could have been seen as a boon by dog lovers, who tend to value emotional transparency and straightforward displays of uncensored emotion. If one of the candidates were to jump on you at the door and lick your ear, it would surely be McCain. A smoother, more sophisticated entrance would be expected of Obama.

The full article is available here: