Friday, October 28, 2011

Coming to a city near you, Occupy Anytown, USA

It's been a couple of weeks since the last post here, primarily due to a very busy couple of weeks in the office and classroom.  Grading exams and papers, preparing lectures, and writing a paper for presentation in Philadelphia in November has left me with little time for blogging.  But enough about that.  Something seems to be afoot and the Obama Administration is paying attention.  In the past week the president has announced executive initiatives to make it easier for those with 'underwater' mortgages to refinance their homes and for individuals with low incomes to reduce their student loan payments and have their unpaid balances forgiven after 20 years instead of the current 25 years.  Both are steps in the right direction.  The Occupy Wall Street movement deserves, at least in my humble opinion, a little bit of credit for that.  Yesterday, I spent a half an hour talking with a reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger about the movement and its message.

Occupy Wall Street, hereafter OWS, began nearly two months ago as a protest in New York City aimed largely at the 'fat cats' on Wall Street who have done exceptionally well over the previous three decades while much of the rest of America has ostensibly been left behind.  The top 1% has prospered while the bottom 99% has floundered, or so the argument goes.  The OWS movement has a lot of solid ground upon which to base their argument, such as a report by the Congressional Budget Office showing that the top 1% of earners enjoyed real, after-tax income growth of 275% between 1979 and 2007.  The next 19% saw their incomes grow by 65% over that period, while those in the 21st to 79th percentile saw income grow by an average of 40%.  The bottom 20% saw average income grow only 18% over the 28 year period.  The full CBO report can be found here.  To many in the OWS movement this is indicative of greed on the part of Wall Street and other wealthy interests.  I think they are partially correct because greed drives markets in general, but I also think they may be barking up the wrong tree.  The question, what has enabled the tremendous growth of income for the top 1%, is a good one.  The answer, I think, is far more complex than OWS protesters recognize or want to admit.

The real answer lies in the capture of government by corporate special interests.  Over the past 50 years Washington D.C. has been inundated by special interest groups taking up residence on K Street and clamoring for policy makers to protect their constituents (or provide them subsidies).  They've argued against regulations and worked to roll back tax rates on the wealthy, some of which reached 90% during the Eisenhower Administration.  The devil has been in the details, as the old adage goes.  Recently, political scientists Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker tackled the question of why the distribution of wealth and income in America has been much less equal since the 1980's than it was between 1946 and 1979, when incomes grew at a good pace for nearly everybody.  In their book, "Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer--and Turned its Back on the Middle Class" they take on some of the classic arguments about technology, globalization, and just plain working harder.  Each is found to be lacking when it comes to explaining the increase in inequality over the past three decades.  While not pointing a finger at either party in Congress, Pierson and Hacker argue that the culprit is public policies that have been designed by elites for elites.  As a result, the top 1% of Americans have gone from controlling about 9% of the wealth in 1980 to 24% in 2007.  This is not the result of simply working harder or smarter.  If it were, I'd be perfectly fine with it since I support the idea the of reaping the fruits of one's labor.  It is the result of deliberate choices made by our elected representatives.

I think OWS has a significant message to get out to the American people but I fear they are targeting the wrong people.  Most Americans are not aware of the income distribution inequality in the country and are often shocked when they realize just how skewed it is.  In large part, I think, it is because we have segregated ourselves into like-minded groups sharing the same socio-economic status.  Millionaires are not hanging out with people earning $10 an hour who find it difficult to fill their gas tanks with gasoline at $3.50 a gallon.  The people who shop at Wal-Mart are not the same people who frequent Neiman-Marcus or Sak's Fifth Avenue.  There is a divide in America today between not only the rich and the poor but between the lower middle class and the upper middle class.  OWS has at the very least made more Americans aware of this.  Sadly, some have taken to lawbreaking to get the message out, which only serves to reduce its effectiveness.  Fortunately, this appears to be a very tiny percentage of the protesters who are engaged in unlawful activity.  Instead of occupying Wall Street, perhaps they ought to be occupying K Street in Washington, D.C.?

Friday, October 14, 2011

It Cain't be, Cain it?

I've spent a lot of time in this space talking about polls lately and today I'm going to continue that theme.  In the past week we've had yet another sparsely watched GOP debate, a slew of new polls, a few high ranking endorsements, and much more news about the Boston Red Sox than we ever need to know!  For you Sox fans, you know what I mean. 

The Republican Debate Tuesday at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire was interesting if only for the format itself.  The 'perceived' eight genuine candidates were seated around a conference table facing three moderators asking questions.  The group was led by Charlie Rose, who did a good job overall.  The questions centered on the economy and economic policy, which really played to Mitt Romney's strength.  It also led to lots of opportunities for Herman Cain to say 'nine-nine-nine.'  So many, in fact, that he is now leading the GOP field in several national polls.  Huh?  Whazzat, you say?  Exactly. 

Who is Herman Cain?  Where did he come from?  Are his polling numbers for real?  Slow down, Betsy, we'll get there.  For now I'll just say 'Who knows, Who cares, and Nope.'  The question everyone ought to be asking is not who is he or where did he come from but why is he doing so well in the polls? The answer to that one, dear reader, is actually pretty easy.  I'll get there soon enough as well. 

First off, who is Herman Cain?  Nearly everybody knows he is the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza (a truly awful pizza, in my humble opinion).  Less well known is that he served in various capacities on the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City in the early 1990's.  He's also a Baptist minister and has run for the GOP nomination for senator from Georgia (lost in the primaries).  By all accounts he has been remarkably successful in both the private and public sectors. 

Where did he come from?  Proverbially speaking, out of the blue!  He's been a candidate longer than anyone in the field except Mitt Romney, who's been running since 2007 pretty much non-stop.  Cain announced his exploratory committee in January 2011...beating now President Barack Obama's 2007 announcement by more than a month.  He officially entered the race in May and struggled to make headway until the Florida GOP debates, after which time he took off in the polls. 

So, are his numbers for real?  I don't think so.  That's not to say he can't win a few states and give some members of the GOP establishment heartburn (and present southern conservatives with an interesting choice between an African-American conservative and a Mormon pseudo-conservative).  Just as Mike Huckabee did in 2008 when he won the Iowa Caucuses, so, too, could Cain.  But that would likely be the end of his amazing rise.  One thing is for sure though, win or lose, Cain will come out of this race better off than he went in. 

On to the main question...why has Cain suddenly taken off in the polls?  The quick and dirty answer is that 'he ain't Mitt Romney.'  The conservative base, led by the demagoguery of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, despises Mitt Romney, largely because he represents a wing of the Republican Party they've been trying to kill off for more than a decade.  Romney is a centrist, pragmatic, northeastern moderate with a center-right philosophy of governing.  He is, in other words, a part of the GOP establishment.  He's not a fanatical 'true believer' in rolling back the New Deal, shrinking government so it 'can be drowned in the bathtub', as Grover Norquist has intoned.  Mitt Romney understands that doing those things would bring America to her knees and make all of us worse off, not better.  And that's why Cain has risen so rapidly.  The previous GOP savior and true believer, Texas Governor Rick Perry, turned out to be all too human.  Gasp!  He...compromised?  He cared about the children of illegal immigrants and whether they would become productive members of the Texas economy?  Heaven forbid!  He tried to do something that might save thousands of women from dying of cancer needlessly?  Off with his head, they cried!

Before the rise of Herman Cain it was Michelle Bachmann, winner of the Iowa Straw Poll.  Darling of the right wing media and the Tea Party.  An empty suit with an empty head who confused where Lexington and Concord are (MA, not NH) and where the Revolutionary War began, failed to distinguish between the birthplace of notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy and American screen legend John Wayne.  A woman who claimed to have adopted 23 children...until someone discovered that she actually was a foster care provider (a good thing, IMHO) and that some of the children were only in her care for a month.  Her fall from grace was as precipitous as Governor Perry's and may be unrivaled by anything in history other than Lucifer's fall from heaven.

The others in the field have never really been able to gain any traction but I wouldn't be surprised if between now and the Iowa Caucuses on January 3rd to see another of the candidates rise spectacularly to the top.  If I had to bet on one of them, it would be Newt Gingrich.  But it would be a bet I would not be too confident about.  I also think Ron Paul could make a daring move to the top before imploding.  Make no mistake, the rise of Herman Cain has everything to do with anti-Romney sentiment and nothing to do with Herman Cain.  Just as it did with Perry and Bachmann before him, the tide will turn, and Cain, too, will not be able to knock Mitt Romney off his perch.  And that is just as it ought to be. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Invisible Primary & Why Early Polls Matter

The period of campaigning that takes place in the year prior to a presidential election is what political scientists sometimes refer to as the 'invisible primary.'  It is the time when the hopefuls are spending vast amounts of time building their organizations and wooing voters in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.  It is a time of 'retail politics' where candidates and voters get plenty of face to face exposure to one another, a chance to ask (and have answered) the hard questions, and above all, the opportunity to prove oneself a viable candidate for the party nomination.  We call it an 'invisible' primary because much of what happens apart from the speeches, town hall meetings, and political ads occurs beneath the surface and in back room negotiations.  We call it a 'primary' because even though the public may not be voting, the party elite and the big money donors are aligning with the candidate they will support and raise funds for throughout the campaign.  In short, 'silly season' or the 'invisible primary' is largely about separating the serious contenders from those who don't have anything better to do with their time.  The ones who prove the most viable will harness the 'bundlers', wealthy, powerful individuals who can raise a lot of money from their equally powerful friends.  That's what the invisible primary is all about.  That's also why the early polls matter.  They may not tell us who will win but they almost certainly tell us who is viable.  And they send that signal to the fundraisers each candidate hopes to entice onto his or her side.

Since we're knee deep in the invisible primary I thought it might be nice to take a look at just what the top candidates are saying about their opponents right now.  The following are ads from the Mitt Romney website, the Rick Perry website, and Herman Cain's website.

The video below discusses the ramifications for Florida of turning Social Security over to the states as Rick Perry suggests:

The following video by the Perry camp tries to tie Mitt Romney to President Obama's health care reform package

The final video is from the Cain campaign emphasizing his business acumen and the fact that he admits to not having an answer for every question.

Monday, October 3, 2011

GOP Nomination Polls

**Updated October 5th**

I was curious about how much fluidity has been present in the preference polls regarding the candidates seeking the 2012 GOP presidential nomination so I decided to plot the candidates percentages for the last 12 polls.  That takes the data back to August 17th, immediately after Texas Governor Rick Perry announced his candidacy.  The final poll is dated October 5th.  This is what the chart looks like:
GOP Candidates Poll Numbers August 17-October 5 (Click to enlarge)

A few things are evident in the chart:  The bottom group (Huntsman, Santorum, Bachmann) are going nowhere.  Bachmann's support has virtually fallen off a cliff since winning the Iowa straw poll in August.  Huntsman and Santorum haven't been able to gain any traction whatsoever.  The second tier (Gingrich and Paul) have more or less been treading water for two months.  Their poll numbers have bounced between 7 and 10% most of the time, though each man topped 11% on a few occasions.  A friend recently suggested that perhaps Gingrich was running for VP instead of president.  Maybe. 

The top tier has changed since August as Michele Bachmann has fallen out and Herman Cain has risen.  They have virtually flipped positions in the polls as Cain has now polled above 15% in four consecutive national polls.  Whether it is a bump from winning the FL straw poll or not, his numbers will likely help him sell more books on his current book tour.  Of course, abandoning the campaign trail in Iowa and NH for a month to peddle books will probably cost him any real chance of winning either state next January, severely diminishing any prospect he has of securing the GOP nomination. 

The most startling data in the chart is that of Texas Governor Rick Perry whose chart line looks more like the trajectory of an aging NASA satellite crashing back to earth than a serious contender for the nomination.  He has fallen from a high of 37% near the end of August to just 12% in today's CBS poll.  Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has run a slow and steady campaign, hovering in the high teens and low 20"s for much of the period.  Conservatives may not like him or trust him but he has been the most presidential of the candidates seeking the nomination.  Perhaps the most telling feature of the new CBS poll is that undecided polls higher than any of the named candidates and only 19% of Republican voters say they have settled on their choice.  There is room for the field to improve their numbers but time is running short.  It ought to be an interesting couple months.