Choose your own 538 adventure

Like lots of others, I’m anxiously watching forecasts of the US election outcome. But it’s hard to figure out what’s going on, with Biden way ahead in the polls, behind in the betting markets and rated a 70 per cent chance by the model at 538.com. Inspired by this post from Andrew Gelman, who is working on the Economist model (Biden currently a bit over 80 per cent), and an informative tweet from Nate Silver, I’ve managed to improve my own understanding a bit. At least I think so.

Silver’s tweet confirms that the Electoral College system gives Trump a significant advantage relative to an election by popular vote. He syas
Chance of a Biden Electoral college win if he wins the popular vote by X points:

0-1 points: just 6%!
1-2 points: 22%
2-3 points: 46%
3-4 points: 74%
4-5 points: 89%
5-6 points: 98%
6-7 points: 99%

With that information, it’s easy enough to fit a normal distribution to the margin, and get an estimate probability of winning. By fiddling with the numbers, it’s easy to replicate the 538 probability estimate and also to get a probability distribution looking fairly similar to those displayed on te site. My best estimate is N(5,4), that is, the mean value for the margin is 5 points and the standard deviation is 4. The mean value is consistent with the description of the state level estimates on the 538 site, which (very roughly speaking) take the existing polls (which currently have Biden ahead by 7.4 nationally) and then give Trump 1 point for an incumbency advantage (reducing the margin by 2 points).

Looking at the Economist model (which doesn’t necessarily agree with 538 on the exact distribution of the Electoral College advantage) it fits pretty well with N(6,3)

The standard deviation is a big deal here. N(5,4) implies a 95 cent range of, roughly, -3 to 13. I can’t say I find this plausible, at least assuming the election proceeds without armed intervention. Short of personally inventing a vaccine and hand-delivering it to the entire US population, I can’t imagine anything that would give Trump a 2.5 per cent chance of winning the popular vote. And it’s equally hard to see what would push him much lower than he is now.

If you would like a more optimistic story, you can get one by focusing exclusively on the polls where Biden’s lead has been consistently between 7 and 9 points, consistent with a distribution like N(8, 0.5), which puts Biden at 99 per cent.

I should alert readers that I don’t always get this kind of calculation correct, so feel free to check it out and correct it if necessary.

The Republican phase transition

I’ve been reading the latest (excellent as usual) book from Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality . The opening paras read

This is not a book about Donald Trump. Instead it is about an immense shift that preceded Trump’s rise, has profoundly shaped his political party and its priorities, and poses a threat to our democracy that is certain to outlast his presidency. That shift is the rise of plutocracy – government of, by, and for the rich

This passage reflects the conflict between two propositions that I (and lots of others, I think) have been grappling with
(1) The rise of Donald Trump represents a radical transformation of the Republican party and American conservatism
(2) Everything Trump has done is a continuation of long-established Republican policy and practices.

Here at CT, Corey Robin has argued for a long time that (2) is correct, and that conservatives or, more properly, reactionaries have always been about preserving hierarchy and power. I find Corey’s argument convincing, but not enough to persuade me that (1) is wrong. Hacker and Pierson also broadly endorse (2). But much of their book is a comparison of the trajectory of the Republican Party with that of the German nationalists in the dying days of the Weimar Republic. The fact that such a comparison, until recently regarded as an automatic disqualification from serious argument (Godwin’s law) now seems entirely plausible, suggests that something really has changed.

In trying to find a way to understand this, I was struck by the idea that the concept of a phase transition (such as from liquid to gas, or dissolved solid to crystal) in physics and chemistry might be a useful metaphor. I didn’t get past high-school in science, so I may well use the metaphor inaccurately – I’m sure commenters will feel free to set me straight.

To develop the metaphor, think of the Eisenhower-era Republican party as a complicated mixture of many dissolved ingredients, in which the dominant element was the business establishment, and the Trump era party, as described by Hacker and Pierson as a crystallised mass of plutocratic economics, racism and all-round craziness. The development over the 60 years between the two has consisted of keeping the mixture simmering, while adding more and more appeals to racial animus and magical thinking (supply-side economics, climate denial, the Iraq war and so on). In this process various elements of the original mix have boiled off or precipitated out and discarded as dregs. Stretching the metaphor a bit, I’m thinking of boiling off as the process by which various groups (Blacks and Northeastern liberal Republicans in C20, liberaltarians more recently) have left the Republican coalition in response to its racism and know-nothingism. The dregs that have precipitated out are ideas that were supposed to be important to Republicans (free trade, scientific truth, classical liberalism, moral character and so on) that turned out not to matter at all.

Trump’s arrival is the catalyst that produces the phase change. The final product of the reaction emerges in its crystallised form, and the remaining elements of the mixture are discarded.

Trumpism after Trump

Predicting election outcomes is always risky (for example, the People’s Action Party could lose the current election in Singapore), but life involves taking some risks. So I’m going to predict that Trump is going to lose in November, and lose badly*. He is far behind in the polls, substantially further than in 2016. More relevantly perhaps, the resurgence of the pandemic in Arizona, Florida and Texas has ended any chance that the economy will be successfully reopened and the pandemic clearly under control by November, not to mention giving the citizens of those states very personal reasons to vote against him.

What will happen to Trumpism after Trump’s defeat, in the US and globally? Here are some very disorganised thoughts.

A big part of Trump’s appeal is that he is a winner, and a big part of Trumpist mythology comes from wins against the odds, as with Brexit and Johnson and, more periphally, with the re-election of the Morrison government in Australia (which had the good sense to dump most of its ideology for the duration of the crisis, but is now returning to its roots). With that gone, Trump’s support will be much weakened So, the stage will be set for a fight in which the hard neoliberals who controlled the party before Trump attempt to reassert themselves, breaking with Trump’s explicit racism while still trying to keep the Repubs white voting base behind them.

On the other hand, Trump has lots of supporters who will refuse to accept the reality of a defeat (not enough, I think, and particularly not enough in positions of power, for him to stop the election or overturn its result). And there are more competent Trumpists, in the mould of Viktor Orban, keen to push an ethnonationlist, racist and authoritarian policy program without Trump’s clownish demagoguery.

Internationally, a defeat for Trump probably won’t make much difference to the ethnonationalist voting base of the Trumpist right. That base has always been there, ready to turn out whenever some other group can be identified as the enemy. But it will, I think, have a significant effect on the right wing of the political class. Some of them will find themselves outside the bounds of legitimate discussion (this is already happening in a small way in Australia), while others will engage in some quick reinvention.

The big question is whether hard neoliberalism can recover. On the one hand, the financial sector still has huge economic power, which usually translates into political power. And the common-sense economics of the Swabian housewife still retains its grip on many. On the other hand, just about everything that is identified with hard neoliberalism (globalisation of trade and financial flows, the hypertrophic growth of the financial sector, trickle-down economics and more) is massively unpopular. That’s particularly true of those under 40, who never experienced the illusory prosperity of the 1990s, or the crises of the 1970s (minor by comparison with the last decade, but a massive shock to expectations conditioned by the postwar boom).

The best hope for the US right is that Biden and the Democrats are unable to fix the catastrophic mess they will inherit. More on this soon, perhaps.

  • I meant to have a footnote about the possibility of Trump rejecting the election outcome, but covered it with a parenthetical statement.

Mr Dooley, right again (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

The decision of the US Supreme Court, that the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was entirely predictable, based on the century old observation of the fictional Irish-American bartender Mr Dooley observed “The Soopreme Court follows the illiction returns.” As I said in 2018

At most, the court constitutes a veto point, able to block legislation that can be represented as violating constitutional protections. But most of the progressive agenda is clearly within the power of the legislature and executive. If the Democrats win the next few elections, the Roberts Court will be as much of a disappointment to its creators as the Warren Court in the 1960s

A decision restricting the interpretation of the Civil Rights Act would have had huge political costs for the Republican majority, without achieving any long term results. In the quite likely event that the Democrats gained control of both the Presidency and Congress sometime in the next few years, the decision would probably have prompted a new and even broader Civil Rights Act, as well as a potential trigger for expanding the court to create a Democratic majority. Even if this didn’t happen, the remaining state-level restrictions would have been chipped away in a series of losing campaigns for the right. From Roberts’ viewpoint the key goal has to be to keep bringing down decisions like Citizens United, which entrench Republican advantages. As for Gorsuch, the advantages are even clearer. His appointment is widely regarded as illegitimate, and a decision showing that “textualism” means “rightwing interpretations of the text” would have entrenched that. As it is, he can present himself as someone who, while conservative, is not a partisan hack.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out on the right. Roughly speaking, I’d expect the hard neoliberals to welcome the fact that this unwinnable fight is over. By contrast, the culture warriors who back Trump will be furious. Apparently, many are expecting a sweeping win in November, in which case they could amend the law.

Suppress, trace, test, repeat

When the Covid-19 pandemic started, it was generally assumed that the only serious policy option was to “flatten the curve”: that is, keep the spread slow enough that the hospital system was not overwhelmed, until either a vaccine was developed and generally available or most of the population had caught the disease giving rise to herd immunity. Both approaches looked likely to take at least a couple of years to work.

In retrospect, this assumption was surprising. China suppressed the initial outbreak in Wuhan, as well as the spread to other provinces, and held case numbers close to zero thereafter. But for a variety of reasons, good and bad, people either distrusted Chinese numbers or thought that the lockdown measures used there couldn’t be applied elsewhere.

It’s now clear, however, that these assumptions were false. Most* developed* countries have applied measures sufficient to reduce Covid-19 from an epidemic to a set of localised clusters. At this point, a full lockdown is no longer needed. Social distancing can keep R below 1 for the general population, so that local clusters don’t grow exponentially. And, as long as the numbers are small enough, contact tracing, testing and localised lockdowns can keep the disease under control.

That’s been the experience in East Asia, Australia and New Zealand and now, it appears in most of Europe. Progress hasn’t been uniform, but no country that’s managed suppression has gone back to uncontrolled spread.

The next step, evidently is reopening borders between jurisdictions where the virus has been suppressed. The most limited form, but still a significant step would be allowing entry subject to 14 day quarantine. That could be relaxed, conditional on returning a negative test. Finally, there’s the ‘bubble’, reopening borders without quarantine or specific testing.

There’s nothing particularly novel in what I’ve written above, but I don’t think the implications have fully sunk in. Indeed, I haven’t thought them through in detail myself. To give just one example, what if the US remains isolated from the rest of the world while travel to and from China is reopened?

  • Sweden didn’t attempt this, the US started but couldn’t persist long enough, and is now completely distracted by the collapse of the Trump Administration.
  • It’s still unclear what’s happening in middle-income and poor countries, where lockdown doesn’t seem feasible. There’s some hope that the disease will be less severe in the tropics where most of these countries are found. Younger populations means less vulnerability. And sadly, there is already such a large toll from endemic diseases and poverty that Covid looks less exceptional.

Xi: the least incompetent of the autocrats

The National Interest has a story headlined “The Coronavirus Crisis and the Chimera of Authoritarian Competence“. I expected to read about failure of Putin, Bolsonaro, Trump and other autocrats to contain the pandemic. But it was all about China.

China is the only autocracy that has had a serious pandemic and controlled it. Xi has told lies and suppressed info, just like all the other autocrats, but at least he hasn’t denied the severity of the problem and actively undermined measures to control it.

Lots of democracies have achieved the same outcome at lower cost, but the article mentions only Taiwan by name.

What makes it truly bizarre is that one of the authors is a Republican member of Congress. He has had more than three years to observe the chimera of authoritarian competence failing at first hand.

A Twitter thread posted using Spooler

Zoom

I just gave my first UQ departmental seminar using Zoom. As in most places, our usual practice is to have visiting speakers present their work and meet colleagues in the same field. When large numbers of Chinese students were prevented from returning to Australia in the first round of the coronavirus epidemic, the cost to the university’s budget was such that nearly all travel, including paying for visitors’ travel was cancelled. As it’s turned out, a good thing to. This left big gaps in the seminar program, so I volunteered to present a paper in one of the vacant slots.

By the time the seminar was scheduled to happen, budget cuts were the least of our worries. Lectures were stopped for a week while we switch to all-online teaching, and (nearly all) meetings were cancelled. So, I decided to present the talk from home using Zoom. It went quite well, even though my home Internet is a bit flaky (the much-delayed National Broadband Network is supposed to arrive here next month, and may improve things). In the subsequent discussion, it was pointed out that we could invite people from outside the department to take part. For example, one of our PhD students had a paper accepted for a conference that’s been cancelled, and could ask some of the key people who would have been there to hear the presentation.

It also struck me that we could have gone back to the originally scheduled speaker, and had them do a Zoom presentation. That leads immediately to the question: why carry on with the tradition of flying colleagues in to have them talk to us, when they could just as well do it from home (or at least, from their home campus)? The difficulties are much less than those with online-only teaching.

Of course, I would say that. I’ve been pushing the merits of videoconferencing and related technologies for decades, and regularly respond to travel invitations by offering a video presentation rather than attendance in person. But now that lots of people are experiencing the process and finding it works reasonably well (and in fact has substantial advantages), returning to the old ways once the crisis is over may be too difficult to justify, especially since our budget is going to be stringently rationed for a long time to come.

Intersectionality vs dominant identity politics*

Shorter JQ: Although the idea of intersectionality emerged on the left as a solution to problems involving class and identity politics, it turns out to the be the natural response to the rise of dominant identity politics on the right.

As I see it, intersectionality combines a recognition that people are oppressed both through the economic structures of capitalism and as members of various subordinate groups with a rejection of both:

  • “essentialist” identity politics, based on the claim that some particular aspect of identity (gender, race, sexuality, disability etc) should trump all others; and
  • “working class” politics, presented as a politics of universal liberation, but reduced by the failure of revolutionary Marxism to another kind of identity politics (I took this formulation from Don Arthur on Twitter. I had something to say about class and Marxism a while back)

The point about intersectionality is that there many kinds of oppression and injustice, and they interact in complex, more than additive, ways. The resulting political strategy for the left is not so much that of a “rainbow coalition” of distinct identity groups but a kaleidoscope in which different facets come to the fore at different times and places.

Now think about dominant/default identity politics (I’ll use the US/Australian version, but other versions can be obtained just by changing the dominant identity). The key idea, is that well-off, white, Christian men are being oppressed by virtue of challenges to their natural position of dominance, and rejection of their natural expectation of deference.

The central claim is also addressed to white Christian women, particularly married women, who are assumed to identify their interests with those of their families.

Looked at this way, the claims of dominant/default identity politics are the exact opposite of those underlying intersectionality. The more someone deviates from the “typical” American/Australian, the more they are seen as benefiting unfairly from social welfare systems, anti-discrimination policy and so on.

The right (along with much of the centrist commentariat,least until recently) at mostly fails to understand its relationship with intersectionality, in two ways.

First, they mostly don’t recognise their own politics as identity politics, though this is changing. This recognition is welcome for overt white supremacists, but more problematic for those who want to retain the illusion that their movement is based on broad ideological principles.

Second, they miss the point of intersectionality completely, seeing it as just old-style identity politics on steroids. That’s unsurprising, since they never paid much attention to disputes within the left over class and identity politics, and have used “identity politics” as a rhetorical cudgel.

How will all this develop? As white Christians become a minority, the implied political strategy is a combination of political mobilization for rightwing whites and voter suppression for everyone else. If this succeeds, we’ll be well on the path to dictatorship. If it fails, the right will need to expand the notion of acceptable identity, a path proposed, and then abandoned, after their 2012 election defeat.

  • As usual from me, amateur analysis, probably unoriginal and possibly wrong. Feel free to point this out in comments.

Tolerance, acceptance, deference, dominance

Warning: Amateur sociological/political analysis ahead

I’ve been thinking about the various versions of and critiques of identity politics that are around at the moment. In its most general form, identity politics involves (i) a claim that a particular group is not being treated fairly and (ii) a claim that members of that group should place political priority on the demand for fairer treatment. But “fairer” can mean lots of different things. I’m trying to think about this using contrasts between the set of terms in the post title. A lot of this is unoriginal, but I’m hoping I can say something new.

Starting from the left (in more senses than one), tolerance involves the removal of legal barriers to being recognised as a participating member of the community, with legal freedom from persecution, voting rights, property rights and so on. Women, gays, religious minorities and people of colour have all had to struggle to obtain this recognition. But, as has been pointed out many times, mere legal tolerance is demeaning and discriminatory. Identity politics involves a demand not merely for tolerance but for acceptance.

Jumping to the right, the idea of tolerance implies the existence of a dominant group that does the tolerating, either as a result of moral suasion or as a response to political pressure. Moving from tolerance to acceptance implies an erosion of that dominance. It becomes unacceptable for members of the formerly dominant group to express or act on the view that the other group is inferior: such views, once expressed openly without fear of adverse consequences, are now criticised as racist, misogynistic, homophobic.

The most difficult term in the series is deference. In sociology/anthropology, it’s typically used in counterpoint with “dominance”, as the attitude displayed by one submitting to dominance. But in the context of identity politics, I think there’s something more subtle going on.

Members of the formerly dominant group may be willing to extend acceptance to others, but they still expect a kind of deference in return. Most obviously, they expect to be treated as the default identity for the community as a whole, as “typical”, “real”, “true”, Americans, Australians, Finns or whatever.

When that expectation of deference is not fulfilled, the choices are to accept the new situation, or to support what might be called default identity politics. More or less inevitably, that implies an alliance with those who want to reassert or restore the group’s dominant position: racists, theocrats, and so on, depending on which aspect of the dominant identity is being challenged.

That makes default identity politics a “double or nothing” bet. If it’s political successful, it’s dragged further and further towards entrenched minority rule by members of the dominant racial or religous group, and typically towards some form of personal dictatorship. If it’s unsuccessful, the divisions it creates risks a reversal of the previous order. Instead of being accepted as one element of a diverse community, the formerly dominant group becomes the object of hostility and derision. The signs of that are certainly evident, particularly in relation to the culture wars around religion.

Fudge

As I’ve said previously, explaining election losses after the fact is too easy, since changing any factor that caused a loss of significant numbers of votes would (other things equal) turn the loss to a win.

Still, one thing that’s struck me about several recent elections lost by the left is that they combined a generally coherent platform with a fudge on a central issue. Examples are Corbyn on Brexit, Shorten on Adani and Clinton on the TPPA.

I don’t want to make too much of this. The decision to fudge in each case reflected the reality that going either way would cost at least some votes, and might not get enough new ones to make up.

Still, Shorten didn’t gain anything by hedging on Adani, and lost quite a bit. If he had announced the end of new thermal coal, he wouldn’t have lost any more seats[1], and might have gained some

I think also that Corbyn would have done better with a promise of an immediate referendum on Johnson’s deal and a commitment to campaign for Remain. And once Clinton decided against TPP she should have gone the whole hog, rather than appointing another globalist like Tim Kaine as running mate.

fn1. This policy would actually help miners working in existing mines, in the Hunter Valley for example. Whether Labor’s abysmal campaign crew could get such a message across is another question.