2012 - %3, October

For Politicians, an Ounce of Disaster Preparation Is Worth Nothing

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 10:45 AM PDT
New York's flooded Lower East Side in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

Political science research shows that natural disasters can be a boon or an albatross to incumbent politicians. It all depends on how they react. Strangely enough, however, there's evidence that politicians don't get credit for spending money preparing adequately for a potential disaster—just for spending to alleviate disasters' effects. 

That dynamic sets up some "perverse incentives," according to Stanford professor Neil Malhotra, who co-authored a 2009 study with Loyola Marymount professor Andrew Healy on the politics of natural disasters. "The government might under-invest in preparedness measures and infrastructure development in exchange for paying for disaster relief, since there are no electoral rewards for prevention," says Malhotra. "Since 1988, the amount of money the U.S. spends on disaster relief has increased 13 times while the amount spending on disaster preparedness has been flat."

The worst part is that preventative spending, Malhotra says, reinforces the old Ben Franklin saying that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." It really is more effective to spend money on getting ready for a natural disaster than trying to mitigate its effects after the fact. "We estimated that $1 in preparedness spending is worth $15 in relief payments in preventing future disasters," Malhotra says. 

That's something to keep in mind as Mitt Romney hastily rebrands his campaign events as "hurricane relief" rallies and Barack Obama sends out photographs of himself coordinating the federal government's hurricane response: Politicians get much more credit for their reaction to disasters like Sandy than they do for trying to ensure disasters don't cause so much damage in the first place. 

 

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Video: Romney Locks Up 1980s Lying Car Salesman Vote

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 10:36 AM PDT

It's an October surprise—October 1988, maybe: Reagan-era TV pitchman "Joe Isuzu" has endorsed Mitt Romney!

In a series of iconic commercials, Joe Isuzu was the Japanese car company's ballyhooed on-air spokesman through the late '80s, as well-known and zeitgeisty as later ad stars like "the most interesting man in the world" and the "Can you hear me now?" guy. Played by longtime character actor David Leisure (you know, the Hare Krishna in Airplane), Joe was an amusingly upbeat liar, making ever-more mendacious claims about Isuzu vehicles and capping them off with the tagline "You have my word on it." (Relive shaky YouTube clips of his greatest hits at the bottom of this post.)

Apparently, Joe Isuzu finds a lot to like in Mitt Romney's fast-and-loose approach to political truthiness. Thanks to Leisure and comedy producer Martin Lewis, the car salesman is back to endorse the GOP presidential candidate with some more Joe-like promises:

Of course, this isn't the first time Joe Isuzu has penetrated the American political consciousness. The pop-culture character inspired this line of attack against Vice President George H.W. Bush's pie-in-the-sky fiscal plan by Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in a 1988 presidential debate:

Given how that race turned out for Dukakis, Joe Isuzu's political influence was as effective as an underpowered compact pickup truck.

For some blasts from the past, check out these vintage Joe Isuzu ads:

Anti-Obama Texts From Last Night

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 10:26 AM PDT

On Tuesday night, many people in the DC area received anti-Obama text messages from a cryptic email address. Here's what came to my phone, from sms@voteett.com: "If Obama is re-elected, taxes on the middle class will be raised significantly."

Other people took to Twitter to report the messages they received, which included: "Re-electing Obama puts Medicare at risk," "Obama denies protection to babies who survive abortions," and "Obama endorses the legality of same-sex marriage. Say No to Obama at the polls on Nov 6!" The Atlantic has a good run down of messages. Clearly, the group or groups behind the spam isn't targeting very well; a bunch of reporters in the DC metro area don't seem like the best audience for poorly sourced and outrageous claims.

IT World reported Wednesday morning on the company that owns the domain names tied to the spam texts:

According to GoDaddy, these domains belong to a Centreville, Virginia, company called ccAdvertising. According to its Web site, "ccAdvertising uses unique interactive technology to conduct personalized telephone surveys and messages with great results and service."

Our own Daniel Schulman reported on ccAdvertising—which also operates under at least eight of other names—in February 2007. Its president, Gabriel Joseph III, is one of the "kings of the political robo-call," and he has done work on behalf of a number of Republican candidates and causes. The Hill reported Wednesday morning that GoDaddy has suspended the domains tied to the texts.

The Los Angeles Times had a good piece last month explaining why this type of text spam is technically legal, since the companies behind it are using a loophole:

Although the Federal Communications Commission has clearly stated that unsolicited automated text messages are against the law, some political advertising firms have found a way around the ban.
Instead of sending text messages the traditional way -- from one phone number to another -- these firms send emails to people's cellphones, which produce messages that appear much like text messages.

Plus, you still have to pay for them like any other text message.

If you received a similar anti-Obama text, you can submit the info here, where reporter Philip Bump is attempting to track them.

Hope no one paid the company too much money to send the spam texts, considering their targeting doesn't seem to have been very, er, targeted.

America's Recovery Looks Pretty Good If You Compare It to Everyone Else's Recovery

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 9:49 AM PDT

If you want to evaluate Barack Obama from a progressive point of view, you have to ask, "compared to what?" Or, as Matt Yglesias puts it today, "compared to whom?" He concludes that if you compare Obama to actual Democratic presidents of the past half century, he comes out looking pretty good.

I agree, but more interestingly, he also makes a similar argument for how well Obama did steering the United States out of the Great Recession:

A better comparison class might be to ask "how's Obama doing compared to other leaders steering their country through the Great Crash of 2007-2008"?

Here I think he looks pretty good but not great. The United States is doing better than Japan or the eurozone or the United Kingdom. On the other hand, we've done worse than Israel or Sweden or Australia or Canada. You can say maybe that small countries just have it easier, and maybe that's right but I think it's hard to test. Certainly Japan and the UK don't seem to have it much easier than the US in virtue of being smaller. The comparative approach leads you, I think, to what's more or less the intuitive conclusion that under Obama the American economy has done okay considering the circumstances but not nearly as well as it might have done. And so since swing voters mostly vote retrospectively based on macroeconomic performance, you wind up with a close election.

No big argument here, though I'd actually be a little more charitable towards America on this score. Japan and the UK are pretty big countries, so if anything, I think their difficulties suggest that things really do get harder as you get bigger. In some ways a global behemoth like the United States has maneuvering room that, say, Switzerland doesn't, but in other ways it's hemmed in in ways that Switzerland isn't.

Given that, the truth is that the United States looks pretty good despite all the half measures from Obama and the endless obstructionism from Republicans. Russia has done better than us thanks to its booming resource sector, but aside from them I'd say we've probably done better than nearly all the other big economic zones in the world, including China, Europe, Japan, the UK, and India. There are lots of reasons for this that aren't related to fiscal and monetary policy, but you still have the raw fact that, when you ask "compared to what?" America's economic recovery looks surprisingly good.

The Inside Story of MoveOn's Secret "Silver Bullet" to Deliver Victory for Obama

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 9:41 AM PDT

The Orange County Register/ZUMApress.comThe Orange County Register/ZUMApress.com

Danny Oran knows a bolt of inspiration when it strikes. As a Microsoft designer in the early 1990s, he thought up the Windows "Start" menu after seeing a test subject—a rocket scientist from Boeing, no less—struggle with an early version of Microsoft's ubiquitous operating system. Oran also created the handy taskbar at the bottom of every Windows screen, stopping users from opening ten versions of the same program and crashing their PCs. After decades in tech and entrepreneurial circles, Oran moved to MoveOn.org, the massive progressive organizing network. This summer, he set his mind to tackling a glaring problem he'd observed in American elections: registered voters who don't vote. In 2008, for instance, 38 percent of registered voters didn't cast a ballot in the presidential election.

So Oran cast around for ideas. One day in August, he found his solution—in an unlikely place.

Are Obama's Good Polling Numbers Hurting Him?

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 9:05 AM PDT

A couple of days ago, after I posted a bunch of poll models showing Obama with a fairly sizeable electoral college lead, a friend wrote to me:

Rs vote no matter what, rain, shine, or submerged subways. And the aggregators are putting the fear of God into them, firing them up even more. In contrast, lots of lefties see the odds and plan to do something else on election day.

As much as I'm not surprised to see the recent attacks on Silver, et al., I welcome them. There needs to be a lot less confidence in those numbers, regardless of how strong they are.

Dems look for reasons not to vote and Silver and others — or "reality" — serves that up. Some superstitious fear now would be a good thing. I think Palin scared the bejeezus out of the left in '08, but they lack that oddball character on the right these days.

This is a fairly common sentiment. And it makes sense. It's entirely reasonable to think that projecting an air of confidence might make your supporters overconfident and decrease turnout on Election Day. Better to keep them running scared.

But there's an odd thing about this: professional politicians apparently don't believe it. At all. Oh sure, they'll keep sending out the scary emails all the way through November 6. "Folks, there are a bunch of races that are simply too close to call," screams the latest plea in my inbox from Dick Durbin. "Contribute $7 now, before time runs out." (Really? $7?) Publicly, though, presidential campaigns pretty much never do this. In fact, they usually go to absurd lengths to demonstrate that their campaign is a juggernaut that will sail to victory. They apparently believe—and so do I—that people are energized by being associated with a winner. Confidence in victory boosts turnout, it doesn't suppress it.

Question: is this true, or is it just old-school conventional wisdom with no real basis in reality? I wonder if there's any actual research that's on point here?

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Niall Ferguson's Slow Road to Oblivion

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 8:41 AM PDT

Dan Drezner tips me off today to an essay by the soon-to-be irrelevant Niall Ferguson in the soon-to-be defunct Newsweek. In it, Ferguson decides to go public with his fever dreams of what an Obama White House might do to swing the election over the next couple of days:

If the White House could announce a historic deal with Iran—lifting increasingly painful economic sanctions in return for an Iranian pledge to stop enriching uranium—Mitt Romney would vanish as if by magic from the front pages and TV news shows. The oxygen of publicity—those coveted minutes of airtime that campaigns don’t have to pay for—would be sucked out of his lungs.

....[There is] an alternative surprise—the one I have long expected the president to pull if he finds himself slipping behind in the polls. With a single phone call to Jerusalem, he can end all talk of his being Jimmy Carter to Mitt Romney’s Reagan: by supporting an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

"Could this be the worst international affairs column of 2012?" Dan asks. I'd put it a little differently: I suspect that future generations will use Ferguson as the archetypal example of a perfectly decent scholar inexplicably deciding to pursue a career as an egregious hack. Personally, I'd rather be a decent scholar, but I don't really have that option any longer, so here I am. Ferguson's case is more mysterious. Why would anyone knowingly trade what he used to be for what he's so rapidly morphing himself into?

Public Service Announcement re: Election Day

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 7:49 AM PDT

We don't know who will win Tuesday's election. That is all. 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 31, 2012

Wed Oct. 31, 2012 7:25 AM PDT

Lance Corporals Jon Wiseman and Sean Nearing, with Company L, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, 2nd Marine Division, provide security from a rooftop during Military Operations in Urban Terrain training, at Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Ariz. Oct. 22, 2012. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Steve Cushman.

Can Farms Bounce Back from Superstorms Like Sandy?

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 3:03 AM PDT

Farmers have always lived with what the novelist Henry James called the "imagination of disaster"—the keen sense that there's always something, anything, that can go wrong. In that long interval between sowing tiny seeds and reaping valuable crops, droughts, floods, plagues of pests, tumbling trees, ravaging beasts—all threaten your livelihood and haunt your dreams. But the last seven years have been ridiculous.

In 2005, the sixth-most powerful hurricane ever recorded blitzed into the Mississippi River Delta region, flattening $900 million worth of crops. Just two years after Katrina, a "500-year flood" visited the Midwestern corn belt—which, as the US Geological Survey pointed out at the time, marked the second "500-year flood" in 15 years. In 2011, Texas suffered the most severe 12-month drought in its recorded history, resulting in a stunning $5.2 billion in crop and livestock losses, eclipsing the state's previous record high in crop losses set just five years earlier. Then came last August's Hurricane Irene, which deluged farmlands and destroyed crops from Puerto Rico to Canada, taking a particular toll on farmers in Vermont and New York State. This summer, farmers in the Midwest suffered the worst drought in a generation—which cut into crop yields and sparked yet another global hunger crisis. And now comes unprecedented "superstorm" Sandy.