Dirty politics

Obama’s victories in the last two elections were widely attributed to his campaign organization. Getting more of your people to vote than the other guy’s seems to work. Yet, the Democratic Party consistently dropped the ball over the last few decades as the G.O.P. decided some time ago to chart a course to electoral victory that took years to achieve and a focus on the prize.

Gerrymandering has a long history in the United States, pursued enthusiastically by both Democrats and Republicans. But the GOP’s success at it this decade has been historic: In 2012, Republicans maintained a 33-seat majority in the House, even though GOP candidates as a group got 1.4 million fewer votes than their Democratic opponents.

It was only the second time since World War II that the party receiving the most votes failed to win a majority of House seats, according to statistics compiled by the House Clerk. Democrats gained eight seats but were still a minority.

“The fact that Republicans controlled redistricting (after 2010) meant that they were able to build up a wall, stopping a lot of the tide from running out,” said Justin Levitt, a law professor and redistricting expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “They were able to shore up a lot of the districts that had been won by, in many cases, tea party freshmen or other Republican freshmen.”

As we approach November, Republicans stand a better-than-even chance to retake the Senate while cementing a strong majority in the House. This may have little to do with people’s preferences and much to do with the ability to draw maps.

Oh, and I would add one more thing. Our political system sucks. Forget about one person, one vote. It’s always been about dirt, in more ways than one.

Paying for mediocrity

Jordan Weissmann:

As you may recall, Netflix announced its own deal with Comcast last month to improve delivery of its streaming video—after which Netflix CEO Reed Hastings published a screed about the need for stronger net neutrality protections. But every time you see one of these agreements, keep in mind that the fundamental issue isn’t so much net neutrality—the idea that Internet service providers should treat all data equally, no matter where it originates—as it is the crippling lack of broadband competition in this country. Americans pay some of the highest prices for Internet access in the developed world; in return, they get some of the most mediocre service. That’s largely because consumers only have two or three providers in their geographic area, which doesn’t give Comcast or its peers a great deal of incentive to beef up their networks (or to lower prices).

If the Netflix and potential Apple deals are any sign, it may now be especially profitable for ISPs to let their services stagnate. It’s perverse but true: The more bogged down the rest of the Web becomes, the more major content providers such as Netflix or Apple or Amazon will be paying for their own private fast lanes.

The economists call this stuff ‘monopoly rents.’

Quality of life

The Everett Herald‘s editors opined on the county’s quality of life, or, more accurately, the lack thereof. The paper cited economists at a recent event sponsored by the Economic Alliance of Snohomish County. They were asked how Everett and the area might reduce the risks of another recession. “Be a place where people want to live,” reported the editors.

Downtown Everett, which should be such a place, appears to be struggling with its identity. Historically supported by maritime interests along the port, including a series of pulp and paper mills, their demise presents new and potentially interesting challenges for the powers that be. What to do?

There are always those who believe that “the market” will and should dictate the appropriate answer. But laissez-affaire probably got us into the Great Recession and inhibits economic recovery. The so-called “job creators” have only enlarged their bank accounts while leaving the Rest of Us to struggle with uncertainty, low wages, and diminished expectations. Why should a hands-off attitude work here?

A proper vision may be necessary but hardly sufficient to build a place where people want to live. No matter, there are absolutely no visible signs that public officials and business leaders care a whit about attracting people to downtown and keeping them here. Yes, there are new apartment buildings and more to come, but they are neither attractive nor part of any integrated pattern of development that promises economic vitality.

My daughter and her husband live on Capitol Hill. They are just a few blocks from everything they need, including grocery stores and upscale restaurants. Public transportation can be had at the closest corner. Their combined incomes afford them a not-so-cheap home and walkable access to amenities that have so far eluded denizens of Everett.

Okay, you may not wish to buy in Seattle. After all, prices are much higher than here. How about renting?

As it happens, my wife and I looked briefly at that possibility. Would you believe $2,700 for a two-bedroom unit? Yikes.

Rents, like house prices, are subject to market forces. Property owners can extract such sums because demand is sufficiently high. And why is demand higher in Seattle than Everett? Because more people want to live there.

Seattle escaped the Great Recession relatively unscathed. Its unemployment rate is lower than the state’s and much lower than the that of the nation as a whole.

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Seattle itself experienced 4.8 percent unemployment as of January 2014. More likely than not, those who live in Seattle work in Seattle. Also, their incomes tend to be higher than Everett’s households. The combination of work, play, and home encourages dollars to exchange hands with greater frequency than in less affluent areas like Everett.

The Herald‘s editors:

In an era when the best paying jobs are going to scientists and computer whizzes, a community needs to invest in the things that attract not only those kinds of businesses, but also those kinds of workers. Recreation and entertainment “infrastructure” can be as important as transportation or communications infrastructure. Excellent schools and libraries can be as great an economic boon as a streamlined regulatory or tax system.

County leaders should take the lesson to heart. Quality of life is not a mere byproduct of prosperity ­­— it can be an important catalyst for it.

Still, what to do, and who goes first?

I believe that government officials, including mayors and city council members, should pay attention to the built environment. How things look and fit with each other attracts would-be residents.

Yet, design standards seem nonexistent in Everett’s code. A search of “setbacks” for example in the city’s online document entitled “Design and Construction Standards and Specifications” came up empty. Setbacks, as any urban designer will tell you, are important for pedestrians and commerce. Now let’s take a look at a new apartment building constructed along Pacific Avenue, one of the city’s major arterials.

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While the sidewalk is wide and the building entrances recessed from the front, there is no buffer between the heavily travelled street and sidewalk. The same property owner is erecting a massive set of buildings a couple of blocks away. They, too, will lack buffers.

Pacific Avenue consists of two travel lanes and a left-turn lane in each direction. It was not designed with pedestrians in mind, though in 2006 the city adopted a plan (pdf) to one day convert the arterial into a “boulevard.” The document is eight years old, and there is no evidence of progress toward its realization.

To be sure, the “Downtown Plan” is littered with pleasant words. Take, for instance, the document’s “goals and objectives”:

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To be fair, I absolutely love the plan. It’s clear that those who fashioned it know that Everett needs a lot of work and that they have good ideas on how to proceed.  Yet, I fear that the document sits somewhere on a shelf. Remember that the plan is almost a decade old. The final section is about implementation. Here is “Step 2. Plant a Seed”:

Initiate a High-Visibility, Transformational Project

(Begin planning within one year; complete within 3-4 years) [my emphasis]

The purpose of this action is to show significant City commitment to downtown with a project that will foster substantial development and/or add a new dimension to downtown activities. Two recommended projects meet these criteria: a major streetscape improvement of Rucker Avenue (Action S-2) and the development of a multipurpose focal park or plaza (Action O-3). Since the Rucker Avenue improvements are directed toward fostering a new in-city residential neighborhood, this project might be timed to coincide with substantial mixed-use residential development along that street. The City might begin planning and design of the street and commit construction funds when the private investment occurs. Creating a unifying central park or plaza is directed at adding a whole new set of activities, recreational attractions, and business opportunities in downtown. The construction of the new park should be complemented by joint City and private efforts to program events for optimizing its use and to address security and maintenance needs. The success of downtown parks is as dependent on good management as it is on good design.

Here’s a photograph of Rucker, that I recently took.

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The city is way behind.

Enthusiastic ignorance

As I write I’m listening to Herbert van Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. It’s a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, Pathétique. This piece has everything to do with the title of my post.

A few years ago I read an essay by Alex Ross, who writes for The New Yorker. His topic was audience applause. I’ll quote:

Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, applause between movements and even during movements was the sign of a knowledgeable, appreciative audience, not of an ignorant one. The biographies of major composers are full of happy reports of what would now be seen as wildly inappropriate applause.

Before our grandson was born (he just turned one), my wife and I would treat our family to a Christmas-time evening, first at the Wild Ginger restaurant then at Benaroya Hall across the street. At one of the performances we heard pianist Olli Mustonen perform Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. We were seated on the left just a few rows back from the stage. I was somewhat familiar with the piece, but my wife had never heard it. The first movement is a doozy, building then retreating again and again until the music reaches a climax, really. Exciting stuff. Well, my wife clapped. Unfortunately, she was the only one in the hall to do so, and her reaction brought a stern glare from conductor Gerard Schwarz.

Yesterday my wife and I attended the symphony, this time to hear Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. It’s been a while since I played the piece, but the theme in the opening movement is instantly recognizable. Well, I lost track of the progression. The third movement, like the Prokofiev first, ends with what seems to be a dramatic finale. A considerable number of attendees burst into applause and hurrahs. So did I. Whoops.

Maestro Ludovic Morlot was not finished. Nor was the orchestra. They proceeded into the fourth and final movement above the enthusiastic ignorance, of which I was a part.

“Now we’re even,” said my wife.

Falling flat at the start

Those of us who followed the last presidential election know that Nate Silver developed very accurate predictions that were based on careful analyses of multiple polling data sets. For being right, that Obama would win in a landslide, he incurred the wrath of the usual suspects, who chose to inhabit their bubble of good news rather than consider the evidence, as Silver had done.

Many of us became big fans of Silver, and some got their first taste of his statistical prowess when he previously opined on the subject of baseball, a treasure trove of numbers and stats begging for interpretation. Riding fame’s horse, Silver recently left the New York Times to launch his own website under his long-held Internet handle—FiveThirtyEight.com. According to several accounts, he fell flat on his face.

Paul Krugman, for one, registered major disappointment with Silver’s initial foray, expecting more but seeing much less.

You use data to inform your analysis, you let it tell you that your pet hypothesis is wrong, but data are never a substitute for hard thinking. If you think the data are speaking for themselves, what you’re really doing is implicit theorizing, which is a really bad idea (because you can’t test your assumptions if you don’t even know what you’re assuming.)

Now comes the noted climate scientist Michael Mann with his reaction to Silver’s recent book The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t. It seems that Silver got so much terribly wrong, even after sitting down with Mann to research the book. Mann explained but Silver didn’t bother to listen. Or, if he did, largely ignored what Mann had to say.

Most disappointing to me of all was the false equivalence that Nate draws between the scientific community’s efforts to fight back against intentional distortions and attacks by an industry-funded attack machine, and the efforts of that attack machine itself. He characterizes this simply as a battle between “consensus” scientists and “skeptical” individuals, as if we’re talking about two worthy adversaries in a battle. This framing is flawed on multiple levels, not the least of which is that those he calls “skeptics” are in fact typically no such thing. There is a difference between honest skepticism — something that is not only valuable but necessary for the progress of science — and pseudo-skepticism, i.e. denialism posing as “skepticism” for the sake of obscuring, rather than clarifying, what is known.

We who occupy the non-Republican realm place considerable stock in truth. Unlike Ronald Reagan, we encourage facts to get in the way of a story, whether good or bad. Silver became the accidental whipping boy of the right for teasing out the truth, however inconvenient for many. His embrace of numbers and statistical analysis gives him credibility. At least it used to.

Silver’s reprehensible blunders on climate change and economics have not deterred Mann from remaining a Fan of Nate (FON)—yet. Both he and Krugman hope that Silver sticks to what he knows; and if he doesn’t know something, listen and learn before writing about it.

Things go worse with Koch

A reader of the Everett Herald wrote the paper to protest an article’s reporting on the Koch brothers influence in political campaigns. Citing OpenSecrets.org, the writer asserted that unions, especially, had outpaced the oil brothers in contributions. He concluded:

Harry Reid rails about Koch Industries but their “campaign to rig the American political system” pales compared to Harry’s minions.

Well, Thomas Edsall, writing for the New York Times, also cites OpenSecrets.org, along with the Washington Post, in reporting on the labyrinthine network of largely secret donor organizations established by the Koch brothers.

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Edsall:

The [joint] project [of the Post and OpenSecrets.org] documented “the Koch brothers’ labyrinthine network of political groups — none of which reveal the names of their donors” that “raised more than $400 million during the 2012 election.”

The Herald reader seems to have taken only a superficial glance at the numbers, when he wrote that the Koch brothers had contributed far fewer dollars:

I found it interesting that…the author did not mention that the Koch brothers are 59th (OpenSecrets.org) in political donations in the years 1989 to 2014. Koch Industries donated $18.1 million with Rs getting 91 percent and Ds getting 8 percent.

The Washington Post tells us that the Koch brothers deployed an elaborate scheme of interlocking organizations to shield their contributions from public knowledge and scrutiny. The paper’s headline says it all:

Koch-backed political coalition, designed to shield donors, raised $400 million in 2012

To be sure, not all of that money came from the Koch brothers. But the network is theirs.

More telling is the OpenSecrets.org chart breaking down political spending in the last election cycle.

19esdall-chart2-superJumboSo much for Reid’s “minions.”