Search This Blog


Sunday, October 31, 2010

Fraud in the Voting Booth?

My county, like so many Democratic counties, has a long history of voting irregularities. It is hard to guess what impact this has on elections since the Democrats massively outnumber the Republicans anyway. This is my first year experiencing this first hand, and I am not sure how to interpret what I see.

Last weekend was the end of canvassing walks. This weekend I decided to substitute phone banking for walking. I am not overly fond of the phone and would rather contribute in most any other way to retiring the Democrats this election, but clearly phoning voters and urging them to the polls was the way to contribute yesterday. I settled in at GOP HQ with a bounded but seemingly infinite list of phone numbers to call. Shortly after I began calling to urge voters to the polls, a distraught woman dashed into headquarters. She was a designated GOP poll observer at the nearby polling site (early voting). She had arrived a quarter of an hour before the legal opening of the polls to find voters already filling the voting booths marking their ballots. When she identified herself and asked what was going on, the Democratic election officials barred her from the polling place. Happy for a reason to leave my phone, I trotted up the hill to the polling site and asked the GOP electioneers whether things were proceeding appropriately. They were (appropriately) barred from the actual polling site, but were able to confirm that the polls had opened early. I returned to HQ and phoned the county GOP chair to have him file a complaint.

Was anything wrong actually taking place? I don't know. Election officials may have decided to open early to accommodate the long lines of voters waiting to cast their votes. On the other hand, they may have opened early in order to open before the GOP observers and judges were in place. Perhaps ballots sans voters were fed into the machine before the GOP witnesses arrived. Perhaps not, but years of Democrats cheating at the ballot box makes a man paranoid. I have not yet heard the outcome of our chairman's complaint.

I returned to my phone and my finite but large list of GOP voters. I have learned on my walks not to identify myself as a GOP volunteer after hearing one time too many, ''Which ones are they, the Republicans or Democrats?" I now identify myself as an X County Republican volunteer. A few score calls later, the X County GOP secretary arrived at HQ. I had a bone to pick with her. Earlier that week I committed a cardinal error of life in our modern world; I sent her an email with my analysis of the vote numbers we had seen so far and their implications for our candidate (better than other people believed). Included in the email was a sarcastic comment about one of our underperforming candidates. The secretary liked the analysis and emailed it to the entire X County GOP, all the candidates, and our district officers too. Perhaps she emailed it to the WSJ too, but I haven't checked.
I was too amused to be really annoyed, but I did have to ask what the underperforming candidate said. Apparently he was not pleased, but he has a good sense of humor, and I am sure he will find it funny (but perhaps not for several weeks). I asked the secretary, tongue in cheek, if she was trying to get me kicked out of another GOP organization.

If you are a Republican (and a U.S. citizen and registered voter) and haven't voted yet, get out and vote Tuesday. If you are a Democrat, spend Tuesday curled up with a good economics text. If you are a visitor from Europe, Asia, Australia, or Africa, I am not sure why you read my blog entries on local politics, but hello, glad to have you here.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Milton Friedman's Twist on Hayek

Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom has succeeded Boaz as my political bedtime reading. In my political readings thus far, I have been impressed and educated by Hayek's careful analysis of socialism, aggravated by Von Mises' sloppy analysis of liberalism, and much provoked to thought by Boaz's modern presentation of libertarian principles and their applications. Friedman, however, has been less exciting. Reading Friedman reminds me of reading Shakespeare and remarking on all the 'cliches'. Perhaps Friedman's impact on our current economic thinking has been so strong that his analysis now seems commonplace. I was, however, struck by an observation in Chapter II: The Role of Government in a Free Society. Friedman notes that government action, unlike market action, imposes conformity. The greater the scope of government action, the more areas in which people are forced to conform. Extending the range of the imposed conformity too far works to undermine social cohesion and generate conflict. This is reminiscent of Hayek's assertion that the massive legislation required to implement socialist economic policy is incompatible with democracy: the vast scope of the legislation makes it exceedingly unlikely that a majority can agree on any economic plan, leading socialist proponents to circumvent the democratic process in order to impose their program. (Of course, our current congressional leadership has obviated this obstacle by the simple expedient of convincing the Democratic majority to vote for enormous bills without actually reading them.) Friedman transfers Hayek's assertion from the House and Senate to the electorate: the greater the number and impact of government intrusions into citizens' lives, the more likely any given individual will be strongly opposed to some aspect of government action, with possible consequent disruption of society.

While I find Friedman's extension of Hayek's assertions intriguing, I have not seen much evidence of consequent social disruption. The Tea Party movement suggests that large numbers of Americans have decided that government intrusion into their lives has indeed exceeded their tolerance. Observe, however, that the response is political rather than social. I am not sure what form social disruption is supposed to take, although visions of rioting and striking French workers come to mind. Of course Europeans accept with little protest dramatically greater government control over their lives than Americans endure. Their history, however, differs from ours; in particular, they have never experienced the degree of individual liberty that Americans have long enjoyed and taken for granted. A great conservative fear at the time of the passage of Obamacare was that Americans could be lured into the same servile attitude towards the government.

When wondering how much government intervention American voters will tolerate, one is led to ask to what extent voters accept government impositions simply because they are advocated by their 'team' (i.e. political party)? In the same vein, as most of us ask as soon as we become politically aware, why are attitudes toward homosexuality, immigration, carbonophobia, class warfare, etc. linked? Presumably people choose their positions on issues based on their party affiliation at least as often as they choose their party affiliation based on their stands on issues. Perhaps the rise of the unaffiliated voter is important to consider in this context. As government reach expands, political parties must take stands on an ever wider variety of issues. Perhaps it is becoming ever harder for many Americans to affiliate with either major party; there are simply too many axes of potential disagreement. Unfortunately, opting out is a poor choice. The unaffiliated have little impact at the primary level; so, they share responsibility - through inaction - for the poor choices we often face in general elections. Once again I am led to appreciate the increased voter participation represented by the rise of the Tea Party movement. If the Tea Partiers are successful in rolling back government overreach (admittedly a long term project), then an amusing consequence could be a rise in voter identification with both parties. When the Republicans and Democrats no longer need to take stands on whether it is better to allow a hip replacement at age 70 instead of state of the art cancer drugs at age 75, it will be easier for voters to find a party with which he has no deal breaking disagreements.

Monday, October 11, 2010

"Let all things be done decently and in order."

Both Democrats and Republicans exhibit peculiarities in their candidate selection. Democrats have strong servile tendencies. They like to elect aristocrats, and they refer to their elected representatives as 'rulers'. With the name Kennedy, any charlatan is eligible for Democratic nomination to high office. The Bush dynasty shows the GOP shares this tendency to a lesser degree. The Democrats swoon for their candidates; their candidates "make their knees weak." Before the Tea Party, on the other hand, the GOP often seemed to regard nominations as a reward for services rendered; there almost seemed to be a queue, with candidates 'entitled' to the nomination, simply because they were, by some measure, next in line. How else can you explain nominating candidates like Bob Dole or John McCain, who seemed embarrassed by political principles?

Perhaps the 'reward for services rendered' interpretation was naive. As I became more active in the local GOP this year, I learned to appreciate the great power of name recognition in seeking support from an often uninterested electorate. Perhaps the 'next in line' were simply the best known.

The rise of the Tea Party promised an overthrow of the queue. In primary after primary, the 'entitled' GOP candidates were rejected. Unfortunately, in my county GOP, I have witnessed precisely the entitlement mentality that I had naively speculated was the source of Bob Dolian candidates. An important function of our county organization is to endorse candidates in nonpartisan races. In one nonpartisan race we considered recently, we had two Republicans competing. Our evaluation committee reported that one candidate had previously held the position, but was removed from office after committing a criminal offense. The other candidate was new to politics but boasted the sort of business and professional background which usually appeals to GOP voters. I was the only vote opposing the candidate with the criminal background. His appeal? He had more experience.
It was uncharitable to hold his prior offenses against him. I was unaware that the county GOP was a charity. I was appalled. After the meeting was over, I realized that not only were we rejecting a promising new candidate, but that our endorsement of the criminal could potentially cast doubt on all our endorsements of strong candidates. What happens to our credibility when a careful voter sees that we recommend criminals?

I felt culpable afterwards for failing to successfully convince my fellow Republicans. I have learned that the manner of argument suitable for faculty debate is not very successful in political forums. Oh well, maybe next time.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Crypto vouchers and For-Profit Colleges

This weekend I had so many deadlines piling up on me that I decided it was the optimal time to research the for-profit colleges, which have been crowding the educational policy sector of the blogosphere of late. Many conservatives and libertarians, while deploring the distortions caused by government funding of (for-profit and traditional) college education, express an interest in the for-profit education sector - an interest which I suspect is nurtured by their distaste for the liberal academics dominating traditional universities.

I had no prior knowledge of for-profit colleges other than the emails they occasionally send me asking me to recommend potential math faculty to them. My biases are what you might expect - I assumed that these were just diploma mills providing little or no education. My research topic was : what does a math major look like at a for-profit? My research tools went no further than Google. I only looked at a few of the larger for-profits, such as Phoenix and DeVry.

My first discovery was that the larger for-profits I examined are amazingly opaque. You cannot find the lists of courses readily available on traditional universities' web sites. Faculty lists at Phoenix are arranged by college rather than by department, meaning you have to sift through a data dump, if you want to determine who teaches math. Even finding what math courses they offer is difficult. Every query on their website seems to offer different answers. I felt like an accountant hired to assess Enron. The only consistent answer to my queries was : every math course I found was no higher than the level of courses offered by a large public high school; the descriptions sounded lower level than what you would find at a good public high school. Conclusion: within my area of expertise and my narrow investigation, these schools are essentially high schools.

This discovery puts the discussion of government funding of for-profit education in a rather different light. We should really view it as a vast federal government experiment in educational vouchers for private high schools. I have long advocated state funding for voucher programs; federal funding is perhaps constitutional overreach. I think this program, if continued, would be greatly improved if it was extended to all private high schools, and not restricted to those labelling themselves as universities. This would allow students to use the tuition money to obtain an excellent education before college.
(My apologies to all those for-profit colleges of higher quality than the handful I probed.)