The Birth of the United States Parliament: Update

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Update:

October 7, 2013

When I first published this post back in August, I honestly thought that neither a government shutdown nor a Debt Ceiling default was within the realm of possibility in a world of rational people.  After all, I thought, in the end cooler heads would prevail.

I’ll never make that mistake again!

Now with the House of Representatives being held as political prisoners, because the GOP’s super-conservative faction (is cult too strong a term–maybe not! Look up the definition of a cult) has decided that the idea of majority rule as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution no longer applies to them, and therefore, they can stage an ideological and, therefore, legislative coup, violating both the Constitution and their pledge to defend it.  Of course, in their twisted logic, they believe they are defending the Constitution from the rest of us who are…well, just the rest of us.  The notion of majority rule can just go to hell.  They threaten to take the nation over the socioeconomic edge into a pit of unknown calamities, though, the economy crashing down around our heads is likely to be one major consequence.

After the election in fall 2012, I was thinking, ‘Okay, now we can get back to Congress doing some real business.  The next election is a long way off and I’m burned out with the 24-hour election cycle we were subjected to by the media, and anybody else with an axe to grind and a Twitter account.’  Now, I can’t wait for Fall 2014 to get here soon enough, presuming we have some semblance of an electoral process still intact, so through some miracle, this group of constitutional insurgents can get voted out of office.  Way out.  Maybe to be the new boots on the ground in Afghanistan as we pull our troops out.  I’m sure they and the Taliban would have most interesting debates over ideological sledge hammering.  The Taliban are against compromise, too.  Oops, did I just compare the tea party insurgents to the insurgents in Afghanistan?  Well, of course not.  I obviously just used the illustration to highlight the fact the tea party politicians are pathologically opposed to compromise.

Oh, and by the way, for those of you who have been Extreme Thinkover readers since the beginning, The Sniffer and I are very pleased with the Affordable Care Act rollout.  Minute by minute, Americans’ demand for access to health insurance is building as a wave against those who would still deny them that.  And as the Exchanges get the opening kinks worked out, the Whiff’ and I both have this strong feeling the initial registration and enrollment period will exceed the everybody’s predictions, perhaps by the many millions.

And all the Republicans have to present to the nation as their alternative national health care plan remains that one blank piece of paper that Boehner, Cantor, and McConnell were so smug about in January 2010 when they met with the President.  Oh yeah, and then a month and a half later President Obama signed the bill into law on March 23, 2010.  Majority rules.

Now we are closer to devolving into a parliamentary morasse than when I posted this essay:

The Birth of the the United States Parliament

Sometimes you get an insight by reading what is going on someplace else in the world. I’ll admit that’s not a ground-shaking revelation, but the insight can be a point of sudden snap-focus into what is happening right here under your nose.

In my case, this “ah-hah!” moment came from reading a New York Times Op-Ed article by Shmuel Rosner, a Tel Aviv journalist and senior political editor for The Jewish Journal. His piece, titled, “The Tyranny of the Minority” (2 August 2013) discusses changes that are taking place in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, regarding adjustments to the election laws that determine the threshold percentage needed to win a seat in body.  The specifics are not important to my point (you can read the article if you are interested), but the impact of the changes on how the minority parties will have to negotiate to have a voice caught my attention.

I contend we have in the United States House of Representatives not just the birth, but the rapid evolutionary growth of a parliamentary structure; a structure that, according to my reading of the United States Constitution, should never exist.

For some context, here’s what’s happening in the Knesset.  As the percentage threshold for winning a seat in the assembly is raised, the smaller parties that might have had just one or two seats under the old rule are now unable to win even a single seat.  Since these small parties represent minorities to begin with, such as different Arab groups, and more extreme Jewish conservative and liberal parties, they are faced with a huge dilemma.  How does a single party negotiate with one (or more) of the others to piece together a coalition that might mean compromising with a group they find politically distasteful?  And even worse, from their perspective, what if their only solution was to compromise and attach themselves to one of the mainline “Jewish” parties?

Rosner writes,

Raising the threshold was proposed on the theory that it could help stabilize Israel’s political scene by strengthening the two leading parties.  It may not: Some say it would only create more midsize parties. But at least it would fix the currents system’s main pitfall, which is to discourage compromise among all parties by encouraging the proliferation of small ones.

Huh? An image began to form in my mind sketching out what is happening in the House of Representatives as we observe the growing influence of smaller and smaller groups of politically narrowly-aligned representatives declaring that they are fighting perceived tyranny in the size and function of the Federal Government, but ironically, growing closer to manifesting and exercising a true “tyranny of the minority” over the House.

Rosner’s closing point was my snap-focus realization:

For a country as varied and complicated as Israel, the representation of minorities is crucial.  But for a country as varied and complicated as Israel, learning to compromise is even more important.

Bang! Substitute the words “United States” for “Israel” and what emerges is a powerful statement of what I see is the affliction that is now crippling the House of Representatives, and placing the balance of power of the Legislative Branch outlined in the Constitution in jeopardy.

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Hospital Food for the Mind

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I had to be in a meeting at lunch yesterday, so I didn’t get to write this post in my normal manner: thumb-typing on my smart-phone between bites of food.  I hope that doesn’t affect the quality of this piece.  I have a question:

Is the Presidency of the United States obsolete?

Up front, I’ll admit that perhaps if I was more impressed with President Obama’s performance in the job, and thought that even one individual in the Republican pack of hounds bounding and baying after his job was truly qualified, I might not even ask the question.  That not being the case, however, I am asking the question: Is the presidency, as one of the three constitutional pillars of our Union, now an obsolete political paradigm best abandoned and replaced by something else?  Or anything else?  Okay, that second question is just for the sake of rhetorical sarcasm.

Here’s my beef with the current situation.  I was always taught that the three branches of government in the United States were specifically designed to provide a balance of power, and that principle was to be inviolable to the degree that no one branch could supersede another.  This idea is based on that handy little political doctrine called the Separation of Powers.

Looking back over my lifetime, I generally place the beginning of this nightmare on the near-destruction of the Constitution by Richard Nixon. Ever since it seems we have been sliding toward a full-blown night-terror (the infamous pavor nocturnus) complete with an Incubus sitting on our national chest.

I would suggest that as the country has become more politically partisan, like a fault-line sending up waves telegraphing a coming earthquake, the election process has absorbed those toxic seismic waves. Apparently closest to the fault-line, the Judicial Branch has become all too often no more than a political equivalent of the Roman Coliseum, fought over by the conservatives and liberals in Congress–the Legislative Branch–the floor of each chamber devolving into an arena for ideological gladiating.  Only, there’s no emperor to give thumbs up or thumbs down, and so they just go on bashing each other, oblivious to their complete abdication of their Constitutionally sworn oath to govern.

Gone, in my humble opinion, is my confidence that the Justices of the Supreme Court (and the lower courts they oversee), selected once as the best of the best, view their appointment as a sacred duty to ensure their decisions rise above the everyday fray of American politics.  Yes, I know in reality it was never quite that noble, but in prior generations there was at least a generally accepted principle that the people who wore the robes and sat at that bench comprehended the high calling to which it is enshrined in the Constitution.

As for Congress, any sense of statesmanship is long gone, of dignity–even though they put on a show of being polite most of the time through gritted teeth–and an utter evaporation of “the loyal opposition.”  Factionism has permeated both the House and the Senate because factionism has permeated our political culture.  We have created this incubal demon through the ballot box and I fear it is only the beginning of a great price we will pay as a country for this gathering divisiveness.

So what of the presidency?  With the continuing deterioration of two of the three branches of government, can we expect the Executive Branch to weather the temblors and quakes unscathed?  I just do not think so.  The Legislative Branch’s warfare shows no sign of abating, even as we teeter on the verge of a double-dip recession. The Judicial Branch has become a hammer used by well-funded special interest groups to sledge their will into law, regardless of the damage they do to the rest of us.

Can one man or woman effectively push back the crumbling pillars to maintain the Constitutional integrity of the office of the President of the United States, like a reverse-Samson holding up the walls and roof, sparing the Philistines from certain death rather than bringing down the edifice upon them?  I don’t know the answer to this question.  Would the parliamentary model of governing be better?  Looking at all the problems our best international friends have (e.g., Great Britain) in managing that approach to government, I would not be eager to jump to that solution.  Nor would I ever endorse the fractured model currently used by the Russians in which two people apparently share power, but not really, but the one who is supposed to be the subordinate has figured out a way to actually control the other one and…  God protect us from a mess like that.

We are rushing headlong into another general election season (not that you can tell any difference, because the 2012 election has been in full-gear since the moment Barack Obama was declared winner in November 2008).  If I could work my will upon the country, the presidential election season would start six months before the actual date.  No one would be allowed to campaign.  No one, individual or business, would be allowed to contribute money to a candidate.  Political Parties would have to hold their nominating conventions 90 days before the election.  No political ads could air for any candidate or for any party until the parties had nominated their candidates.  I’ve got more to say on that, but it will have to wait for a later date.

Is the presidency obsolete?  Again, I don’t know the answer to that, but I know that it is every bit as battered as the other two branches of our government, and because of that, the future of the Republic is at stake.

I do hold one hope.  I continue to believe that we the people, by voting and exercising our right to petition our government, can reverse this earthquake of factionalism.  We are not beyond saving the Union.  But the day is upon us in which we must begin to do just that. To end this national night terror we must push the Incubus of Factionalism off of our chest, and, most importantly, wake up!

UPDATED: The Political Poll Bungee Cord: What a Difference Three Weeks Make

As American as apple pie, pie chart, that is.  

 

U.S. Political Party Affiliation. Image: Public Doman

On September 14, I published this poll chart below on the so-called national ballot for the House of Representatives from Pollster.com.  It appears obvious to any observer that the Democrats (indicated by the blue trend line) were losing ground as fast the Republicans were gaining it.  But looking inside the data, plus getting out the ol’ Excel spread sheet and doing some analysis of my own, I realized that the national poll was missing some key factors.

For one thing, the national poll aggregate is made up of individual state race polls and then computed using specific criteria applied by Pollster.com (the old adage that all races are local races is true).  I also knew that the aggregate contained data compiled from a wide range of methodologies, as well as polls that were directly tied to political parties, who, even with the best intentions, will often introduce biases into their questions that favor positive responses for their candidates.

Here is the national aggregate House poll chart from September 14:

 

2010 National Congressional Ballot. Image: Pollster.com

 

For the purposes of our discussion, ignore the earlier results.  Just look at the roller-coaster for both parties since January 2010 through the present.  May appears to be the moment of truth for the Republicans and they continued to increase in a nearly linear fashion from then on while the Democrats declined on a similar downward slope.

Not so Fast!

In my previous post on this topic, titled, Where the Wild Thing Are I made this comment:

If this chart was the only one you looked at you would conclude that the Republicans have made huge gains beginning about May 2010 and now hold a 47.1% to 40.6% lead over the Democrats. And you would be wrong. Something is missing. First of all what about the undecided voters? Where are they? How many of them are there? What is their trend? For that answer, click here.

In that post, I then led the reader through the process of using the Pollster.com User Tools to come up with a much different looking trend line because it eliminated all the polls that either were of questionable reliability or directly tied to a political party.

On September 26, I spent an evening working on generating some of my own statistics using the polling results from the Pollster.com website.  Here is my Excel chart of the aggregate data, all polling groups included, my results came out at 47% Republican and 44% for the Democrats:

 

National Congressional Poll Aug-Sep 2010. Data Courtesy Pollster.com

 

By carefully watching the movement of the poll results and tracking the changes in the gaps, I became more convinced that the trends were changing, that it was possible the Democratic candidates were gaining, although I could not estimate how much.  One factor likely appeared to be the ending of the primaries, and the results from those races, if one ignored the pundits and the party-motivated spokespeople, I wanted to see what the trend was emerging.  It was time to fire up the Excel and do a bunch of number crunching and running through the Chart Wizard.  Except the new Excel doesn’t really have a chart wizard, so I fortunately know how to build the charts, having done it several thousand times having used one form or another of Excel since 1992.

At this point if you want to read the wonkish discussion and statistical analysis you can go to that page by clicking here.

The trend in the chart above confirmed my gut.  There had been an upturn for the Democrats but also for the Republicans.  One limitation of every chart is to decide what it means.  A trend line, in this case a “moving average,” does give one a picture of change, but does not communicate what is pushing the change.  The meaning, in one sense, is secondary.  I was interested in the trend, because the dynamics pushing the trend begins with individuals.   And as I pointed out in my post, The Black Poll Wars, Part II, the concept of one person, one vote no longer accurately describes the inner process of the American voter.  Rather, a theory I dubbed “isovoting” is based on the assumption that,

The transformation of the vote into a compilation of isovotes [that is, the subpersonal meaning the person assigns to different issues that must be reasoned into a single vote on the ballot]  is the key to understanding the American Electorate…The Uncertainty Principle [as defined by Heisenberg] shows that the isovotes cannot fit the Classical Statistical models for voter behavior. Like quarks in atoms, isovotes behave in dynamic ways that cannot be predicted with certainty either before or after they are observed, and that the very behavior of the survey taker will have a direct affect on the nature of the isovotes, especially with regard to the person assigning meaning to them, creating a new future for that person’s set of isovotes that did not exist prior to being polled on his or her preferences.

In short the uncertainty naturally built into the isovote process each person goes through when voting is too complex to discern, and components within the isovotes can change, sometimes affecting the others and sometimes not.  Therefore, following the trending becomes the only reliable methodology to ascertain the what will possibly take place on November 2nd.

That trend is beginning to emerge, but with caveats discussed below:

 

House General Ballot Chart 3 October, 2010. Image: Pollster.com

 

This scatter plot with the trend line, covers the same length of time as the first chart in the post, so neither of them are as sensitive in representing the  change over the past two months as the second chart I built using Excel.  Unfortunately, the flash function of the Pollster.com chart cannot be copied onto this post.  However, you can look at the same time frame, with all polling organizations represented by clicking here.  The gap between the two parties has shrunk to 44.2% for the Republicans and 42.8% for the Democrats.

The results get even more interesting, though, when you eliminate the less statistically reliable polls (which I include as the internet polls and the robocall polls; the first being difficult to ensure true randomization, and the second on the basis it is easier to lie to a computer voice asking the questions than it is to a real interviewer).

Bungee Jumping With the Polls

The trend using this second set of criteria can be viewed by clicking here.  The trend lines now have crossed with the Democrats taking the lead by a 45.8% to 44.5%. But whether this set of percentages is really good news for the Democrats depends on three factors.   First, how many people are registered as democrats and will vote as a faithful member of the party.  Second how many of those individuals will vote in the election.  And third, the most difficult questions to answer is how many people who are not Democrats, who either identify themselves as Independents or are Republicans who plan to cross party lines with their vote, will vote Democratic.  These caveats are not difficult to ascertain, but reading the subtleties of the trending, since it is always in flux is much harder to determine.  Therefore, it is possible that despite a percentage majority showing in the polls, the party with the upper hand in terms of percentage may still end up losing more races than it wins.

 

Voting--The American Way. Photo Courtesy: http://www.etches-johnson.com

 

Concluding Remarks

Using the considerable resources of Pollster.com and the Gallup Polling organization, we can come up with some interesting speculation about the coming election.  For example, we know roughly how many people are going to vote, 46.8 million Democrats and 46.4 million Republicans, a total of  93.2 million voters.  The percentage difference is 50.2% (D) to 49.7% (R).  That’s a tiny difference of only 466,000 voters compared to the national scale.  But that analysis is actually not correct, because these numbers represent the categories of voters, D, R, and I that will vote either Republican or Democratic.  Tucked inside the party’s totals are  14.7 million Independents who will vote Democratic and 18.9 million who will likely vote Republican in this election.  That is much larger gap of 4.2 points in the favor of the GOP. Another factor we can look at is registered voters, who are more likely to vote, and numerous polls distinguish between registered and likely voters.    I analyzed the polls that interviewed registered voters and came up with 31 surveys.  Plotting out those surveys, I came up with the following chart:

 

Data Courtesy of Pollster.com

 

Note: for an explanation of the R² number, please click here

UPDATE: Since I wrote the post I came across this very illuminating article on the issue of choosing “likely voters” in contrast to “registered voters” as the survey sample on the Huffpost Pollster (The Huffington Post has just acquired Pollster.com and integrated its sites into Huffington’s), by Mark Blumenthal (who originally founded Pollster.com).  I recommend you read through his article.  He gives a nicely framed explanation of how pollsters choose who to survey and it is written for the general reader: “Likely Voters: How Pollsters Define and Choose Them.”

After reading Blumenthal’s article, I recalibrated the filters on the National Congressional Ballot on the Pollster site to only include those who surveyed registered voters.  To see the result, click here.  The results contradict the unfiltered chart that shows the Republicans up by over 7 points.  Instead by looking at the registered voters (which I hold are still in the highest percentage of all voters) the Republicans hold the thinnest of margin at 45.3% over the Democrat’s 45.0%  Statistically speaking this is a virtual tie.

Is the trend line good news for the Democrats?  Yes and no.  Any time one party gains ground and passes the other in the number of people who say they will vote for them, that is cause for at least cautious optimism.  But looking at the visual slope of the lines in the chart above does not indicate the Republicans have begun to dramatically slump.  A week from now, they could just as easily stopped the small downward slope and recovered  to  move above the Democrats again.  The positive factor for the Democrats is the R² of their trend is significantly stronger than the Republicans.  In other words, it may be evidence of more “oomph” behind the upward change in direction.

We are down to three weeks and counting.  The fun continues unabated.

Where the Wild Things Are–Reading the Polls

Tuesday night, September 14, 2010: The final day of the big primaries prior to the general election in November.  I’m sitting watching the results come in.  My network of choice tonight is MSNBC.  It’s just so much fun watching Rachel Maddow narrate the primary like it was a Super Bowl.

Statistics during the election season are thrown around like cheap bead necklaces at a Mardi Gras parade.  Polls are quoted like they mean something and are perfect predictors of the future.

Well, I’m going to tell you something the politicians and pollsters and pundits would prefer you don’t know:

Polls Results Can Be Stretched Like Bungee-Jumping.

Yep, its true.  And I can give some simple examples.

You can follow along.  But open a new window in your browser so you can click back and forth more easily.

First click here on Pollster.com.  This should take you to the 2010 National Congressional Ballot. This is for the House of Representatives only.  What we’re interested in is the polling chart.  It should look like this:

2010 National Congressional Ballot. Image: Pollster.com

So, how do you read this mess of dots and lines?  The dots are called a scatter plot and each one represents a poll taken on a certain day or period of days (usually 2-3).  The date of the poll is on the horizontal line and the percentage Republican (red) and Democratic (blue) is on the vertical line.  The squiggly lines in the middle are called a trend line and represents the mid-point of the dots for that day.  For those of you who may have taken statistics some time in the past, this is also called a linear regression. The colors represent the same political parties as the dots.  Correction: Dr. John Bogen, an Extreme Thinkover contributor, corrected my error in labeling the trend line as a “linear regression.”  Although the trend lines are based on regression formulas, I should have labeled it as Pollster.com calls it, a “trend estimate.”  For more info on Pollster’s statistical methods for trend estimates, click here.

Now take a moment to go to the Pollster.com site and look at their “live” chart.  Each dot will open a fly-by box telling you the pollster, date and the results.  Pretty nifty, huh.  There is also an expand box in the upper right hand corner if you want to open the chart to fill your screen.  The features still all work.

What, then, does this chart, as presented, convey?  Notice the date begins in November 2008, at the time of the Presidential election and covers the time since then.  Here the trend line is easier to read because you can see the ups and downs of the popularity of each of the two major parties over the past two years.

If this chart was the only one you looked at you would conclude that the Republicans have made huge gains beginning about May 2010 and now hold a 47.1% to 40.6% lead over the Democrats.  And you would be wrong.  Something is missing.  First of all what about the undecided voters?  Where are they?  How many of them are there? What is their trend?  For that answer, click here.

A new set of black dots with a trendline appears on the chart representing those voters who answered “undecided” on who they plan to vote for.  You can also see that as this year has progressed, the line has trended just slightly upward, and only since August have more of the people made up their minds.  As of today though, the undecideds are still 10.4% of the total, which is larger than the gap between the Republicans and the Democrats.  This is where it gets interesting.

I submit that in this gap is where the wild things are, to reframe the title of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book.

Reading the gaps is where the information about the most dynamic trends in the electorate are.  Follow me on this.  Go back to the original chart.  You should already have the Red, Blue and Black trends open.  On the footer is a button titled “Tools.” Click on it and it will open another footer just above with six different choices on it.  Click on “Filter.”  This will open a small window with three check boxes: Live phone interviews, automated phone (i.e. robocall) interviews, and internet.  Place your cursor on each one and you will get a list of “filter options.”  Notice on the first option, Live phone interviews, there is an arrow in the top right hand corner.  This option has three pages and we’ll use them.

We want to narrow our polling data to the most relevant and the highest chance for honest answers.  To do that, based on my criteria (you are free to choose your own), I say let’s eliminate the internet surveys, first.  They are very hard to get a true random sample and very easy to lie on.  Next, let’s eliminate the robocalls, too.  Even though the calls go out to a random sample (supposedly) it is very easy to lie to a machine.  That leaves us with the live interviews.  These surveyors, you will notice are familiar big name pollsters, who have a reputation to uphold, and nearly all of them publish their survey questions and results online for free access for anyone interested in reading them (which would include geeks like me).   We want to cull some of these, still.  They are the pollsters for both political parties because there is a greater chance they will ask weighted questions that favor their side.

So, uncheck the internet, robocalls, and on the live call pages every pollster ID’d with either a R or a D.  Now we have a select set of pollsters who are as neutral as possible and use real people to talk to voters to decrease the chance for lying or misrepresentation.

One more thing.  We really only want to look at the results for the current primary season.  So again, click on tools and then on “Date Range.”  On the left date, click on the month and set it to “01”, the day, “01” and the year, “10” and then click on the blue “Set Range” button.

Look at your results on the chart now.  The polling results have changed.  The Republicans sit at 47.7%, the Democrats at 41.1% and the undecided at a whopping 17.1%!  This, I would suggest is a much clearer picture of the state of the electorate regarding the races in the House of Representatives.  By eliminating those polls that introduce bias into the big picture, either by the way they are administered, or by the way they are designed to benefit their candidates, we can see that the November election is far less certain than most pundits and politicians are leading us to believe.

The fact that apparently over 17% of the electorate is still vacillating about who they will vote for in the general election means the predicted gains by the Republicans has to be called into question, the predicted losses by the Democrats has to be called into question, and the outcomes across the country will very possibly be different than is now being predicted.  It may also mean that the gains or losses may be greater than predicted and one party or the other end up with a significant lop-sided outcome.

But one principle in polling must not be forgotten.  Each poll is a snap-shot in time and by itself can be either an accurate or inaccurate reflection of the voters’ will. It is also important to remember the truism that all politics is local and as Dr. Bogen also points out, the undecided percentage is likely to be smaller on the local scene.  He also rightly suggests this local phenomenon, all things being equal, favors the challenger.   This same principle applies to groups of polls as well because they are aggregates of local polls.  Political trending, although becoming more sophisticated all the time still cannot reliably predict the outcome on election day every time.  We have far to go to reach the algorithmic precision of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation “psychohistory.”  In the mean time we  have to search for the data where the wild things are.