Can We Overcome Ourselves?

​The main textbook I assign in my Intro American Politics course is titled Keeping the Republic. Perhaps you’ll recognize the title’s significance, but over the years, no student ever has. It’s a reference to Ben Franklin’s famous response to a question at the Founding about what kind of government the framers had created, a monarchy or a republic? His answer: “A republic, if you can keep it.” In the wake of the nastiest campaign in decades, one that underscored the deep chasm between Americans on many issues, it’s worth asking Franklin’s implied question: “Can we keep it?”

 The framers’ fundamental distrust of democracy was undergirded by a long philosophical tradition warning of democracy’s inherent dangers like majority tyranny, and the fact that democratic governments are prone to instability and failure. As John Adams baldly put it, “There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” Taking these learned insights and warnings to heart, our constitution writers created a system in which consent of the people is needed to form a government, but in which popular control of governing and policymaking is largely removed and insulated from the people’s frequently over-heated passions.    

 ​In various ways, though, America has continued to lurch toward a much more democratic political system than the framers imagined. Direct election of U.S. Senators, massive expansion of voting rights, and adoptions at the state and local level of direct democracy mechanisms like the initiative and referendum, have combined to not only bring the people closer to governing decisions, but have also raised expectations about what government can and should do. Standing in the way of these enhanced expectations, however, remain the structural barriers to full-throated democracy that are set forth in the Constitution, e.g., separation of powers, the Electoral College, and a bicameral legislature. Add to these design factors the emergence, and oft-deleterious influence, of political parties and interest groups (“factions” in the words of Madison), and we are left with a government that is much more paralyzed than even the framers probably would have preferred.  

 For some time now the people have latched their democratic aspirations to the Presidency. “Hope and/or change” have been consistent themes in modern presidential elections. But, while executive power has expanded tremendously over time, our President is not a monarch and “hope and change” frequently are dashed on the rocks of our republic’s inertial design of checks and balances.

 ​The framers were mostly pessimistic about our ability to overcome ourselves; if humans were angels there would be no need for government, they believed. Historical evidence on this, however, is actually better. Despite the above-noted challenges, our political history has been a steady “three steps forward, two steps backward” march toward a more inclusive and just society, with government policies adopted to meet our seemingly intractable challenges along the way. Keeping the republic requires that we continue putting our shoulders to the never-ending task of creating a more perfect union.

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Election 2016: Key Explanations and Assessing Allegations of Erroneous Polls

The 2016 presidential election was highly unusual, the outcome stunned many Americans (including experts), and the results will reverberate for quite some time.    Two observations here:  A. the outcome boils down to 5 key factors, and B. the swing-state polls were technically correct.

 

A. Five keys to Trump’s “surprising” victory (there are other factors, for sure).

  1. Soft Polling on Trump. Due to the social stigma and embarrassment that came with admitting support for Trump, it is highly likely that pollsters did not capture the full extent of his support.  Additionally, polls can’t easily measure “intensity” of support either (and usually don’t try).   Trump supporters were more intensely supportive of him than Hillary’s supporters were of her.
  2. Enthusiasm Gap. The Obama Coalition just did not come out for Hillary.  Trump brought millions of previously-inactivated voters into the process who were highly enthusiastic.  Evidence for this can be seen in the throngs of people who attended his rallies.
  3. Exit Poll Data Concerning Voters Who Highly Disliked Both Candidates: For the most part, I will leave the digging through exit poll data to others. However, one fact that sticks out here is that 1 in 5 voters highly disliked both candidates, and they broke 2 to 1 for Trump which undoubtedly helped him at the margins in close counties/states.
  4. Trump’s Over performance Among Rural, White Voters v. Hillary’s Under Performance in Urban Areas. Trump had huge margins (often greater than 30%) across a massive swath of rural America while Hillary could not match those margins in most urban areas.
  5. James Comey’s Letter to  Congress 10 Days Prior to the Election:  This unprecedented action clearly slowed Hillary’s momentum while Trump simultaneously became a much more disciplined candidate.

B. In spite of the oft-repeated question of “How could the polls have gotten this so wrong?” the fact is that the all-important swing-state polls were actually (technically) correct. Let’s look at some data.  The table below shows the 16 swing states, the final pre-election projection average for the “expected” winner, and the outcome.   As can be seen, in every case except Wisconsin, the outcome was either within the margin of error (3-4%), or was not different from the projection even though the final margin was larger than predicted.   The outlier—Wisconsin—is probably due to a state-wide campaign blitz by Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, and Mike Pence in the final weekend, and the massive margins in rural areas produced by Trump supporters.   In the three states that were outside the margin of error, but in which the outcome was not flipped–Iowa, Missouri, and Ohio–the electorate’s demographic is much more closely aligned with the primary Trump coalition–older, white, rural and blue-collar.   Given Trump’s over-performance among this cohort, it is not surprising that these states beat the pre-election projections on totals, but not outcome.

Table 1.  2016 Swing-State Polling Data

Swing State

Final Pre-Election Poll

Outcome

Arizona

Trump +4.0 Trump +4.3
Colorado Clinton +2.9 Clinton +2.1
Florida Trump +0.02 Trump +1.3
Georgia Trump +4.8 Trump +5.7
Iowa@@ Trump +3.0 Trump +9.6
Maine Clinton +4.5 Clinton +2.7
Michigan** Clinton +3.4 Trump +.03
Minnesota Clinton +1.0 Clinton +1.4
Missouri@@ Trump 11.0 Trump +19.1
Nevada** Trump +0.08 Clinton +2.4
New Hampshire Clinton +0.06 Clinton +0.03
North Carolina Trump +1.0 Trump +3.8
Ohio@@ Trump +3.5 Trump +8.6
Pennsylvania** Clinton +1.9 Trump +1.2
Virginia Clinton +5.0 Clinton +4.9
Wisconsin** Clinton +6.5 Trump +1.0

**Outcome flipped.   @@indicates the outcome was outside the margin of error, but not flipped.   Data Source:  http://www.realclearpolitics.com

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The Fundamental Basis of American Democracy

This past August, a conservative federal appeals court ruled that Texas’ voter ID law violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) by undermining minority access to the ballot box. This decision is a significant marker in the debate over whether everyone truly has a voice in the political process. Reasonable steps are needed to advance and protect the universal promise of democracy, and making it easier to vote is one of them. Since 2002, however, several states have moved in the opposite direction by passing new voter ID laws making voting more difficult for many of our fellow citizens.  

The justification usually offered for stricter voter ID laws is to prevent fraud. Yet in its 2014 sweeping report to Congress, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found very little evidence of fraud in the numerous studies reviewed. Indeed, the most extensive effort to identify in-person voter fraud ever conducted (by Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School, Los Angeles) found just 31 instances of fraud in over a billion votes cast! It’s no surprise then that many have called the claims of alleged fraud “fraudulent,” yet conservative state legislatures keep ratcheting up the voting restrictions. Now, Texas has been slapped hard on the wrist for doing so. The ruling may seem confusing since it was only two years ago that the Supreme Court effectively gutted much of the VRA by striking down Section 4. That section contained the formula for determining which jurisdictions needed to have changes to their election procedures pre-approved by the feds before being implemented.  

 ​Since its passage in 1965, Section 2 has applied to all U.S. jurisdictions, not just the egregiously discriminatory ones which were singled out under Section 4. It specifically prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in one of the VRA’s listed minorities. In 1980, though, the Supreme Court ruled that to win a Section 2 challenge, plaintiffs had to prove an intent to discriminate was behind any change to voting procedures—a high burden of proof.    

 Believing this ruling undermined Section 2’s original purpose, in 1982 Congress legislated that all a plaintiff needed to demonstrate was that a jurisdiction’s voting procedures resulted, regardless of intent, in denying equal opportunities to political participation. The recent Texas law made voting extremely difficult for many citizens who had been regular voters for countless elections by requiring them to show a new state-issued-only photo ID which they’d been unable to obtain. Thus, the appeals court declared the law illegal because it resulted in these voters’ disenfranchisement in the 2014 elections.    

 ​This most recent decision, especially by a conservative court, underscores the continuing relevance of the VRA. It suggests that what Congress previously did for Section 2 it should now do for Section 4. Legislation titled the “Voting Rights Advancement Act” modernizing Section 4’s formula has been introduced in Congress to protect our right to vote—the fundamental basis of democracy. It should be passed with deliberate speed.

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The Benefits of Government Regulations Are Why We Must Pay Their Costs

​During a recent teaching assignment in Shanghai, China, the view from my apartment was obscured by smog. Lots of smog. That noxious haze had me pondering a recent report published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) complaining that government regulations are “America’s hidden tax.” By their questionable estimate, complying with federal regulations last year amounted to a $1.88 trillion cost in higher prices and lower paychecks. They also protest, without explanation, that of the thousands of new rules issued in 2014 less than 1 percent was subjected to government-mandated cost-benefit calculations. They call for fewer regulations and a law requiring Congressional approval of “major rules” before they’re binding. The effect, they argue, would be a shot of adrenaline to the economy. The soupy-brown horizon outside my window, however, is an ugly testament to the enormous health, safety, and welfare costs of inadequate, or nonexistent, regulations, and the tremendous benefits that accrue from prudent government rulemaking.   

​CEI’s report further recommends an expiration period of five years for new rules, and a commission to comb through the Code of Federal Regulations to eliminate harmful, or outdated, provisions. Everyone agrees that reducing obsolete and injurious rules are worthy goals, but aside from cutting regulations, the report’s other three suggestions appear to be new ideas for reform. A closer examination reveals two of them are not new and have already been implemented. The other one is probably unwise.    

 ​First, semantics matter. The term “major rule” means any rule with an estimated economic impact of $100 million or more. Only major rules must undergo cost-benefit analysis. This is the omitted explanation for the report’s lament about the low percentage of 2014 rules undergoing this analysis. CEI’s report says absolutely nothing about benefits for the remaining 99 percent of rules, only alleged costs. Second, Congress’ ability to overturn egregious rules already exists. It was used, famously, to overturn proposed rules on ergonomics in the workplace several years ago. Third, the idea of scrutinizing existing regulations for outdated and harmful ones was implemented by President Obama in 2011. Future Presidents can, and should, continue to require agencies to perform this important function. Finally, the new proposal for a 5-year expiration requirement would not only sweep away bad rules, but good ones too. Such a dragnet authority would undermine effective governance and business’s own oft-stated need for consistency in the federal code.  

 ​The Office of Management and Budget oversees agency rulemaking and most independent observers believe it does a credible job. Its 2014 report showed total estimated benefits of major rules between $217 and $863 billion and total estimated costs between $57 and $84 billion for the period 2003-2013. These less-biased estimates demonstrate that the net benefits are immense. Health problems from second-hand smoke, scandalous wall-street bank shenanigans, and the polluted view outside my Shanghai window exemplify the true costs of too few regulations. Rather than a one-sided rant against “costly rules,” a more balanced assessment that considers both costs and benefits better serves the public’s interest.  

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The Chinese Dream(ers)

So, this was my third time to Shanghai. The first visit was nearly 13 years ago now–a whirlwind 4.5 day trip to present an invited talk at the 5th Annual Yangtze Development Forum in 2002. The second was a decade ago as part of a Freeman Foundation-funded trip with my colleagues in the Political Science Department at Wittenberg University. Each time I have been struck profoundly by the contrasts apparent on a daily basis between traditional and modern China. But, with a decade elapsing since my last visit, the degree of evident change is staggering, and was immediately apparent to me within the first few days of my arrival. As Evan Osnos relates in his excellent book Age of Ambition, China’s last 15 years have seen an enormous unleashing of individual capitalist fervor, and the concomitant emergence of what has come to be called the Chinese Dream. This can best be described as a kind of frenetic version of the American Dream characterized by a sense of desperate striving on the part of the younger generation of Chinese who hope to achieve a significant measure of economic success all the while fearful that their freedom to strive is merely quixotic and could vanish as quickly as it emerged.

In a remarkably frank conversation with one of my students, I suggested that her peers in the United States, the millennial generation, were concerned about a work-life balance that tipped the scale of priority toward life rather than work. Choosing less remunerative jobs and professions in order to achieve a higher quality of life and leisure was a common value among American millennials today. After considering the implications of that suggestion, she frowned deeply, shook her head, and said quite emphatically, but clearly sadly, that all her peers cared about was achieving a high level of financial success, intimating in the way she chose her words that this was not necessarily something she liked, but to which she had become resigned.

In another revealing conversation, a well-traveled, highly-educated young woman in her ‘30s, referred to her generation (born in the 1980s) as “The Lucky Generation” and to her parents’ generation (born in the 1950s) as “The Unlucky Generation.” For her, her husband, and many of their peers, there has never been anything but opportunity and a seeming boundless ability to explore the world unrestrained. This sense of mobility was instilled in her at an early age when she was one of very few Chinese children to receive a visa to participate in a middle school educational exchange program in the United States in the 1990s. Very shortly after that, the Chinese government opened up the visa program for those trying to study abroad so much that close to a 98% approval rate was experienced in the early 2000s. As she sees it, there has been nothing that she has not been able to do, while her parents, who got caught up in the Cultural Revolution have memories of going hungry and jobless for months at time.

As the Chinese government abandons its 1-child policy, and its economy slows down, I can’t help but wonder how these Chinese Dreamers will fare in the months and years to come.    As for my students, I wish them well.

Shanghai 032

Students in my American Urban Governance class at Fudan University–Summer 2015

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What’s for Lunch (and dinner, and breakfast)?

​My gustatory experiences in Shanghai were definitely adventures all by themselves. This is usually true, of course, when one is traveling, and tasting new and interesting foods is often a highlight of any trip abroad. I won’t dispute that basic tenet, but I certainly stretched my taste buds to the max the four weeks I was in China, and frankly I really looked forward to biting into a good ol’ American bison burger upon my return to the states.

 ​Let me discuss lunch first. I was excited to eat what and where the locals ate, and I was grateful to find out that the University had loaded 200 yuan (roughly $32) on my ID card for use in the school’s cafeteria. This meant I was able to eat most lunches there. My initial experience was after the first day of class when I met Professor Ren Xiao, whom our department invited to Witt for a colloquium talk this September, for lunch. He showed me the procedure for going through the café line. Everything in the line was in a single-serving dish, so you selected what you wanted  making sure to take some chopsticks at the end of the line, and a soup spoon if you’d chosen some soup. Then a dour woman promptly rang up your total and you swiped your ID card across a card reader which then told you how much was left on the card for future purchases. Easy enough, of course, and most folks chose about 4 dishes plus some rice which came to around 10 yuan ($1.62)—yeah, really cheap.    

 ​At the front of the line were the protein dishes, then the vegetables, then the bowls of rice and soup. The problem with this system was right at the front of the line; it was damn near impossible to figure out what was in the protein dishes (except for the small bowls obviously containing fish heads)! On my first trip through with Professor Ren, I chose what looked like pieces of pork mixed with onions, then slipped a small bowl of cooked cauliflower onto my tray along with a dish of green beans, a bowl of rice, and a banana. I was very hungry since I had not really had time to eat breakfast in my effort to figure out how to get to class that first day. So, as we sat down and dug in, I eagerly picked up a piece of the pork with my chopsticks (which I’m pretty good with, now, by the way), and chomped down hard on a . . . bone! Luckily, I did not break a tooth, but I did have to clumsily take the thing out of my mouth and ponder my next attack. This was my big moment of realization that the Chinese often do not take bones out of their meat, whether it is pork, chicken, duck, or beef. You simply have to let your fingers be your guide and pick the small morsels of protein apart for safe consumption. Unfortunately, since a large percentage of each piece is bone, there is not much satisfaction in finishing a small bowl of the offering. I went away still hungry from that first lunch, but all the wiser just the same. 

  

A typical Chinese lunch.


 

As the days passed, and I continued to eat lunch in the cafeteria three times a week, I began to eagerly hope for a protein dish that became a favorite one—small pieces of bacon with onions and bok choy. Whenever that wasn’t available, I was reduced to just eating vegetables and soup (usually egg drop soup), and a banana (thank god it’s hard to mess up a banana!). I never looked at the fish heads and thought “mmmm, don’t those look especially tasty today!” I did try a tofu and fungus dish once, but it was too bland, almost tasteless really, although the fungus had an interesting texture.  

 ​The vegetables were mostly quite good, and I ate a lot of them. I didn’t know what some of them were, but an especially delicious dish was sliced celery with hominy. Eventually, my taste buds grew tired of this lunch-time challenge, and by late in the third week I found myself having a hard time even finishing my rice. But, I ate because I was hungry as I watched my Chinese colleagues eagerly devouring their meals, including the fish heads they picked apart with impressive proficiency.  

On my frequent travels, my TA Chouyen (Celia) was eager for me to try special delights, and during our trip to Nanjing, she and her high school friend Fang, who is an engineering major at Nanjing University and was our tour guide for that day, insisted that I try two delicacies:  cold, fried chicken feet and duck blood soup!  I must say there is not much meat on chicken feet, so you just suck and chew a little before you’re done.   In duck blood soup, the actual blood is congealed and about the texture and size of a small piece of bologna.  There are several pieces of this in the soup, while the rest of the protein consists of duck organ meat (quite a bit, actually, and more than I could stand), and bits of tofu.  The broth was clear and finished off with celantro and celery.   Except for the overload on the organ meat, the soup was pretty tasty!  Finally, Chouyen and Fang were eager to try some soy and rice cake desserts while in Nanjing, so she treated us to an option that “looked” delicious.   Uh, not so much!

 

Fried, cold chicken feet.


 

Duck blood soup.

  

 

Soy and rice cake. Pretty, but bland and sticky.


 

Many evenings I took my dinner at a small family restaurant called the Ding Wang Tea Restaurant which was a block from my apartment.  I could usually get a full meal, including a large Tsingtau beer for around 25 yuan ($3.92)!   One of my favorite dishes was “Russian style soup” which had a tomato broth with cabbage, carrots, and potatoes (5 yuan–80 cents)!    On a couple of occasions I ordered roasted duck and rice and watched as the cook took one of the cooked ducks off a warming hook and sliced it for me before laying it on a bed of rice accompanied by a delicious side of sautéed bok choy . . . Hmmmmmm!   

An interesting feature of this restaurant, which tended to help attract the college students was that they showed Chinese soap operas on a screen on the back wall every evening, and on weekends, there would be a movie shown from what appeared to be the Chinese version of Netflix.  The pic below shows the movie that was shown one evening while I was there (probably not with full royalties).  🙂

 

Cook prep area at Ding Wang Tea Restaurant with roasted ducks , piglets. and chickens hanging in front.


 

After quite some time surfing the options, the proprietor settled on this movie for the evening show!

  

When I got a bit tired of Chinese food thank god for the little Italian place (Ciao Cafe) that served wonderful subs, pizza, salads, and pasta.   For breakfast, a great treat was a place called Pancake Day!  

 

My favorite option for subs and pasta diversions.


 

Pancake Day! A popular place with Fudan students

  

A treat for breakfast once in a while!

Many more food adventures were mine in addition to these I’ve discussed. I remember them fondly (well, mostly)!

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Top Ten List of Small, but Interesting, Differences Between China and U.S.

Here are some things that are noticeably different in China compared to the U.S., trivial variations, perhaps, but interesting nonetheless.

​10. Bicycles and scooters do not have to stop at stoplights, only autos. So, when crossing the street, pedestrians must continually look both ways to avoid being run down while they’re in the crosswalk. And oh, by the way, the scooter drivers honk like hell at you as they drive by. So pay attention!

​9. The Chinese usually don’t have clothes dryers in their homes, although they do have washing machines.  They simply hang the clothes up to dry, usually outside their apartment windows. On most days, you can see rows and rows of clothes hanging 1-5 feet out from the windows over the street on all floors.

Clothes drying from apartments in Xintiandi neighborhood.

Clothes drying from apartment in Xintiandi neighborhood.

The washing machine in my apartment.

The washing machine in my apartment.

​8. Many meals are served in what I’ll refer to as “Chinese family-style” with the dishes sitting on a lazy Susan in the middle of the table. Each person spins the food around taking small bites at a time, with their chopsticks that they have been using to put food in their mouths!

My TA Chouyen Chen, Celia, enjoying lunch

My TA Chouyen Chen, Celia, enjoying lunch “family style” on our trip to Xitang Ancient Water Town.

​7. Honking is a national pastime! It’s unclear as to whether the Chinese want you out of their way, or it’s simply a Chinese version of Descartes’ philosophy, i.e., “I honk therefore I am!”

​6. Toilets are often holes in the ground. There is usually a very nice porcelain fixture over the hole, but it’s unclear whether it’s for sitting on, or just for decorative purposes. I never tried it to find out. And by the way, in many public building bathrooms there is only one dispenser of toilet paper and so you must grab what you think will be a sufficient amount before you head into a stall to do your business.

Typical toilet stall in my academic building.

Typical toilet stall in my academic building.

​5. If you think Americans are addicted to their smart phones and other mobile devices, you haven’t seen anything. The Chinese are, almost universally, constantly looking at their mobile devices, even while riding their bikes and scooters. I saw several instances when walkers collided with each other as a result of this and even then some still did not look up from the screen.

​4. Umbrellas are not just for the rain. They are used daily, often as constantly moving shade trees.

​3. Speaking of rain, the Chinese are quite adaptive. Many scooters and some bikes have plastic or nylon covers that pop up during a shower. It’s quite delightful to see actually.

​2. In many Chinese food dishes, the small pieces of meat are not boneless. It’s hard to tell sometimes, but once burned, twice shy, is a good summary of my experience. All you can do is use your fingers as a guide. Otherwise, you’ll risk breaking a tooth or getting a bone stuck in your throat.

​1. Buying a whole chicken in China means buying a whole chicken. I don’t mean a live one; I mean a plucked-clean dead one for cooking. There are heads (and beaks) and feet (with claws) on chickens, you know!

Whole chickens for sale at Walmart (yes, Walmart)!

Whole chickens for sale at Walmart (yes, Walmart)!

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