Saturday, September 27, 2014

Ads, polls and images decide elections

Political campaigns are now well underway, and television is flooded with political ads.

The outcome of this year’s elections will be a judgment on the strongly conservative politics of the Tea Party and its friends, but it looks like there will be no landslide either way, only a shift at the margins.

A few elections or a relatively few votes in many elections will determine the broader result of this year’s balloting.

For voters still considering their choices, a number of factors are at play that can influence the outcome.  And, unfortunately for some candidates, these factors may have little to do with the issues and proposals.

Recently published research suggests that many voters make up their minds based on their initial impression of the candidate’s personality.  If they like the person, they may be inclined to give no further thought to the elections and simply vote for the candidate.

For incumbents, those initial impressions are long past, but the voters tend to stick with their previous voting behavior.  Most incumbents win.

First impressions can be created by the candidate’s television spots.  Even if you do not watch the news, you will it find it almost impossible to avoid commercials pushing politicians and causes.
That allows the candidate to project the image that he or she favors.

Watching the Maine candidates for governor, I come way seeing independent Eliot Cutler seeking to show his breadth of experience and knowledge, Democrat Mike Michaud stressing his proven ability to work across the aisle, and incumbent Republican Paul LePage emphasizing his business-like approach to governing.

If any of these messages resonates with me, my mind could be easily made up.  I would not have to look at their record or even if they are telling the truth.

Of course, media spots are not limited to candidates’ positive messages.  Negative ads, attacking the opposition, are frowned upon though they are a part of American political history.  Plus, they work.

And candidates are always looking for a “gotcha” moment, when a negative revelation may be enough to change perceptions and sink their opponent.  Sometimes the truth has to be stretched to make “gotcha” work, but there are almost always a partisan ready to try.

Recently, a Maine GOP spokesman tried to tie Michaud to a posting by an independent supporter in which an off-color reference, unknown to most voters, was made.  The effort failed and could end up helping Michaud.

Raising “gotcha” issues is an attempt to create a single, election-changing event.  Underdogs hope that something will happen between now and Election Day that will change voters’ perceptions of a leading candidate. 

That can happen, and sometimes it’s a gaffe or the emergence of a hidden problem from the candidate’s past.  Such errors or revelations can cause voters to take a second look at a race on which they had already made up their minds.

Then, there’s polling.  Almost every day, there are reports of new polling results, meant not only to inform, but to create bandwagon effects or to stimulate more effort.

We tend to treat polling information as fact rather than as one indicator among many.  The recent Scottish independent vote was forecast by several polls to be a squeaker, but it wasn’t.  Union with the UK won by 10 percent.

We gloss over the so-called “margin of error.” or the fact that one time in 20, the poll will be off the mark.  In close races, the marginal difference in results can virtually make the survey valueless.  Still, thanks to the polls, we allow ourselves to be influenced by the way we believe a campaign is going.

Elections can be influenced by campaigns that either round off the facts excessively or downright lie.  If campaigns fling false information back and forth, people decide either based on perceptions and prejudices or, out of disgust, simply don’t vote.

But the situation is not hopeless.

The media must go beyond reporting what each side says in providing objective and complete coverage.  Online news, newspapers, television and radio should ferret out and reveal the truth, risking some candidates claiming bias.

Of course, such reporting has to be based on real research and the facts, not packaging unsupported opinion as if it were news.

The real solution is up to voters, who have to work at understanding candidates and issues.  Votes do matter, but only if voters take the trouble to dig into elections.

It’s dangerous to our system of government if people spend more time on fantasy football than on real elections.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Good economic news is often really bad

Are things getting better?  That’s difficult to know, because good news often turns out to be bad news.

Here’s an example.  Personal savings have increased.

Recent reports indicate that consumer spending has declined, but savings are up.  In other words, people are saving more and spending less.

What’s wrong with that?  The American economy is driven mostly by consumer spending, which accounts for about two-thirds of all activity.  When people save, they buy less of everything from food to vacations.  Fewer new jobs are created.

Saving money is also essential.  Most people have put too little away to support themselves in retirement.  They may be forced to rely on Social Security, but that program may itself come up short when many of today’s workers are ready to retire.

Savings can boost the economy by providing funds for loans to businesses and homebuyers, but they don’t produce the immediate lift to the economy that spending does.

The increased savings rate may be an important sign about changes in the American economy caused by the Great Recession.  If the economy can collapse suddenly, people may realize they need nest eggs, just in case they lose their jobs. 

Protecting oneself against such setbacks is a valuable lesson that had largely been ignored in favor of promoting spending.  But worrying about the future may undermine short-term recovery.

Second example: the Federal Reserve has been helping recovery from the recession.

While the Fed cannot increase government spending or alter taxes, it can boost the economy by reducing the cost of borrowing.

The Fed lowers interest rates to make it easier to borrow for a new home or to expand a business.  When these moves take place, they create new jobs.

Congress has refused to approve any additional government spending for job creation, because, without a tax increase, it would make the federal deficit even larger.  Cutting back on the size of government means recovery is left to the private sector and the Fed.

It has cut interest rates to historically low levels.  And its policy has been successful in stimulating borrowing.

For investors, including most pension programs, by lowering interest rates, the Fed has driven them to the stock market.  To boost their income, they turn from lending to investing in corporate stock.  When many buyers chase stocks, their prices increase.

That’s just what has happened, and the stock market has hit record highs. But then a strange switch takes place.

If there’s good economic news, which everybody wants, investors guess the Fed will allow interest rates to increase.  The conventional wisdom is that investors will start lending to business and cut back on stock purchases, leading to a decline in stock prices.

These days, just the hint of good economic news has the odd effect of causing the stock market to fall.  Without the Fed increasing interest rates, the net result of good news can be a loss of gains for pension plans and other investors. 

Good economic news, which should cause stock prices to climb, is bad news, pushing those prices down.

There have been good times when both increased interest rates and a rising stock market have been possible.  But that’s not today’s conventional wisdom.

Third example: cutting taxes.

Another switch from good to bad occurs when taxes are reduced.  Of course, just about everybody wants to pay less tax, so tax cuts should be good news.

Unless governments resort to more borrowing, which amounts simply to putting off payment and paying interest as the price of the delay, tax cuts force them to reduce spending and reject new demands on the public treasury.

Here’s one recent example.  The sudden emergence of the ISIS terrorists has posed a dangerous threat the U.S. cannot ignore. 

But taking military action against ISIS is already running up federal spending, and the effort will require billions of dollars.  Some of the same members of Congress who steadfastly oppose government spending and demand tax cuts also seek strong U.S. military action against ISIS.

Holding the line on taxes can lead either to more borrowing and government debt or to cuts in programs like Medicare and Medicaid to find the funds necessary to combat new terrorist organizations.  Either way, the good news of tax cuts can quickly turn into the bad news of more debt or more cutbacks.

The problem seems to be that we want to see only one side of major issues.  The world has become more complicated and making choices between good and bad is a lot more difficult.

U.S. Intelligence failed to warn about ISIS

The emergence of ISIS, a brutal terrorist group, has forced the U.S. to gear up for a new phase in the war on terror. 

It has led the formation of a new coalition to combat ISIS (also called ISIL or the Islamic State). The struggle against this powerful group may take years, well after President Obama leaves office.

Fatigued by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans have been reluctant to send troops to the Middle East.  Instead, the U.S. deploys aerial attacks, hoping to destroy ISIS together with action by local ground troops.

Though the U.S. has inflicted damage on ISIS, the forces on the ground have been poorly equipped and, at the outset, were unable to hold off the terrorists as they advanced to the outskirts of Baghdad.

The international coalition has been assembled in hopes of turning the tide and ultimately to wipe out a terrorist group that threatens countries far removed from the Middle East.

After struggling to come up with a plan to counter the terrorists, Obama says the U.S. will use increased force and the new coalition to eliminate ISIS.

The sudden appearance of ISIS and the protracted effort to come up with a response to it raise questions going beyond the efforts to organize an effective response.

One question is how U.S. intelligence apparently completely missed the rapid growth of a terrorist organization having sound finances, modern arms, and a large fighting force including American and British citizens.

The massive American intelligence complex was unable to warn Obama and military leaders about the new threat in the Middle East. Such a warning might have given them the time to snuff it out earlier.   

This was not a few terrorists in a cave. This was a big, new organization that was missed or ignored.

The failure to spot ISIS was not the first such mistake.  Intelligence officials, possibly influenced by Bush era political leaders, thought American troops would have flowers spread at their feet when they entered Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.

They failed to understand that Saddam and his Sunni minority had dominated the majority Shia population in Iraq.  The new American sponsored government controlled by the Shia retaliated and excluded the Sunnis, rather than creating a broad government that could promote national unity.

That left the Sunnis as ripe recruitment targets for ISIS.  Only when this fact became evident did the U.S. take steps to induce the Iraqi government to deal more fairly with Sunnis, a process not yet completed.

In short, the American intelligence miscalculation at the time of the Iraq invasion contributed to the situation allowing ISIS to gain support.

The need for a new effort to deal over a period of years with the ISIS threat comes as a surprise.  Apparently, the end of American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq was considered by some to be the end of “the war on terror.”

Even without a clear military victory, the end of a ground war fought by American troops meant that the ongoing struggle would be managed by using intelligence services to help countries in danger to protect themselves.  But war did not end, and intelligence did not produce good information.

Terrorism is likely to be a continuing threat to nations.  New terrorist groups should face an international community prepared to deal with it, not an American president forced to develop a new response and recruit a coalition of volunteers.

The United Nations was created to try to prevent countries from going to war against one another.  It was expected to deal with threats involving countries, so-called “state actors.”

Terrorists were not considered to be a major international problem.  They are “non-state actors” and have replaced, though not completely, wars between countries as the biggest threat to peace.
ISIS, the terrorist organization that is a “non-state actor,” wants to end up being a new country carved out of Iraq and Syria.

The U.N. could be updated to make it the main forum for states to spotlight terrorists, whose success presumably is not in the interest of any country.  At least, the U.N. might reveal if any countries were backing the terrorists.

By using the U.N. to identify terrorist threats, the U.S. and others could find it easier to form coalitions willing to fight terrorism.

Al Qaeda and ISIS should have taught the world to be better prepared for dealing with terrorism.  The U.S. and other countries must accept that the war on terror may never end and remain ready to defend against it.

Is the U.S. Senate Broken?

This year could bring a major change in the U.S. Senate.  Some pundits predict the Republicans will gain a majority, giving them control over both houses of Congress.

After Labor Day, campaigns have begun to heat up.  In Maine, incumbent GOP Sen. Susan Collins, considered one of the few Senate moderates, faces Democrat Shenna Bellows, a long shot but credible candidate now gaining by convincing members of her own party to support her.

As a backdrop to the elections, some conservatives and liberals want the Constitution amended to repair what they see as problems with the Senate itself.  Of course, they disagree about changes that ought to be made.
The Senate was at the center of the constitutional compromise at the outset of the U.S.

Members of the House of Representatives, elected by the people, would be distributed by state.  But if Congress were based only on population, three states would have had enough votes to overrule the other ten.  The small states insisted that each state, no matter its population, would be assigned two seats in the Senate. 

Senators would not be elected by the people.  State legislatures would choose senators in hopes of electing elite leaders who could keep a lid on popular enthusiasms.

But people grew increasingly unhappy with Senate elections by state legislatures.  Some senators gained their seats through corruption and payoffs. 

Senators were often wealthy men, who protected the interests of the privileged few.  Finally, in 1913, the Constitution was amended to provide for popular election of senators.
Now, people on both ends of the political spectrum have become unhappy and have proposed new amendments.

A leading conservative commentator advocates returning to the election of U.S. senators by state legislatures.  He believes that today most states oppose the Affordable Care Act, while an unrepresentative Senate Democratic majority supports it.

Despite the political swing toward conservatives, they have been frustrated by their inability thus far to control the Senate.

House districts are often engineered to produce GOP majorities, even though the Republicans get a minority of all state votes when all House elections are combined.  Running statewide, Democratic Senate candidates win, because they don’t have to worry about district lines.  That could explain the difference between the two houses on the ACA.

Some conservatives are wary of too much democracy, a view in line with the thinking of the people who took part in the original constitutional negotiations.  Some of the country’s founders thought the president and the Senate would serve as checks on the popularly elected House. 

Today’s advocates of state legislative elections of senators also lament the relative weakness of state governments compared with the federal government.  The change to direct elections stripped states of some Washington influence, which its repeal could restore.

What about the liberals?  While the conservatives think the Senate is too liberal, the liberals think it is too conservative.

They surely don’t want an end to direct elections.  They argue the appointed Senate assured slave states of enough voting power to block abolition no matter what the House wanted.

Since direct elections were introduced, liberals have remained concerned the Senate can still block essential legislation authorizing the federal government to deal with current problems. 

Of course, the Senate could be less of a problem for either party if the filibuster were eliminated.  By requiring 60 votes to pass a bill, instead of the simple majority dictated by the Constitution, a minority can block all legislation.  But senators cannot even agree to end the filibuster, possible by simply amending Senate rules.

Minority control is an even bigger problem.  With two votes for each state, senators representing a minority of the U.S. population can control the Senate. 

Right now, senators from 21 states with a total population less than California’s can block any legislation. 

Senators from California, with the largest population, represent 66 times as many people as those from Wyoming, the state with the smallest population.

The liberal solution would be to have Senate seats allocated by population, though each state would be assured of at least one seat.  California, which usually votes Democratic, with 12 percent of the total population, would gain from its current two percent of the Senate seats. 

To adopt the reforms that either side advocates would require amending the Constitution, and that’s not likely to happen.  It takes two-thirds of the Congress and three-quarters of the states to amend it.
Of course, the elections this year won’t lead to such changes.  We are likely to end up with more partisanship, divided government and continued stalemate.