cwbeijer@gmail.com / About / Archive / Other media
Nate Silver, the Democratic primaries, and the trouble with Likert scores - 12/17/18
Yesterday, Nate Silver tweeted out a table purporting to calculate Likert scores for a list of potential contenders in the Democratic primaries:

This ranking, he added, "isn't that far from how I'd rate the candidates chances." But is this actually a plausible way of assessing a candidate's chances? And did he even calculate the Likert score correctly? Spoiler: no, and no.

Calculating the Likert score

The first problem here is that Silver begins his calculation by casually omitting a huge fraction of the data: "voters who didn't know or had no opinion about the candidate". Even if we assume that none of these voters knew who the candidate was, this immediately introduces significant uncertainty. For example, by Silver's accounting, only 17% of the voters had an opinion about Andrew Yang. Can we really make an apples-to-apples comparison between him and Hillary Clinton, who received favorable/unfavorable answers from 94% of the voters?

Worse (and this is where Silver really gets into trouble) "didn't know or had no opinion about the candidate" is not an option on the survey. The actual data he is throwing away is the answer "not sure" - and this can include voters who have neutral or ambivalent feelings about the candidate. This is a response you can include in a Likert score! And if you include it, the rankings change:

Here, I've ranked them on a 5-point Likert scale; I've also made a proportional adjustment to Silver's 4-point Likert scale, just for the sake of comparison. Admit that some candidates may just inspire neutral or ambivalent responses, and suddenly O'Rourke, Harris, Booker and Klobuchar take massive hits to their Likert score.

Of course, the most realistic scenario is that some "not sure" answers were ambivalent or neutral, and some expressed genuine ignorance about the candidate. But granting that, the appropriate conclusion is that the data we're working with here just isn't granular enough to calculate legitimate Likert scores.


What does this tell us about electability?

Silver thinks that Likert scores give us some insight into the "chances" that a candidate could win. There is, of course, a pretty simple way to test this: just look at what they predicted in previous elections. Here's one I put together based on early favorability polling of the Democratic candidates in 2016:
This is obviously wrong on multiple levels. Sanders, though he had the highest Likert score, was never favored to win. Clinton was a significantly stronger candidate than Biden, and both were certainly much stronger than Jim Webb. Likert scores could not predict the massive institutional advantages that Clinton would bring to the race, they could not predict the combination of political pressure and personal tragedy that would force Biden to drop out, and they could not predict the way that Sanders' populist message would undercut Webb's campaign and leave O'Malley as the only third option. (Admittedly, it seems to have got Chafee right.)

I don't recall Silver posting a table like this in 2016, for obvious reasons.
Third parties and the shadow primary - 12/8/18
Two talking points circulating among Democrats right now:
  1. Because they are likely to run and win significant popular support, we must promise to vote for whoever the Democrats end up nominating as the most viable opponent to Trump.
  2. Even though they are likely to run and win significant popular support, we must not criticize or judge potential Democratic candidates for the presidency until they formally announce their run.
Seems pretty clear what's going on here. As I write this, multiple candidates are rallying donors, party elites, and key personnel, and building public support with deliberate PR, setting in motion campaigns that will work to monopolize opposition to Trump over the next year. The first talking point insists that we acknowledge this - it's why we can already dismiss the possibility of a viable third-party challenge as a non-starter. But the second talking point asks us to play coy about this, and pretend that there is no power play at hand, as a way of shielding likely candidates from criticism.

Say what you will about these arguments - I find them pretty ridiculous - but it just isn't possible to make both of them at once. You can admit that Democrats are already consolidating their power in a shadow primary, which means that it's legitimate to criticize them, or you can pretend that they aren't, which means accepting the possibility that a third party candidate could lead the opposition. Try to do both, and it looks an awful lot like you are just demanding unquestioning submission to the Democratic Party, regardless of what the future has in store.

The Green New Deal is a good plan. It's not a socialist plan. - 12/6/18
You can't beat climate change without a massive transfer of wealth to the developing world. Credible estimates range from $400 billion to $2 trillion every year. But there is no political will in the US to accept this responsibility, particularly among the ruling class.

Historically, capital has had a go-to solution to this sort of problem: imperialism. Instead of redistributing the wealth, you can actually extract more wealth from the global south through loans, and by selling it necessities at a profit. Placing the developing world in debt also gives you political leverage to make all sort of demands for things like austerity and deregulation.

This is the context in which the politics of climate change in the US have to be understood. Against all odds, left demands for the US to facilitate green development in the global south may actually succeed. But if that demand maintains a place for the private sector, the politics will default towards a predictable outcome: green imperialism.


Three green new deals

One can see how this dynamic is playing out in left policy planning by looking at three "Green New Deals" that have rolled out in recent years:
  • The first, released in 2015 by the Green Party, proposes creating 16 million public sector jobs, though with no indication that any of this will involve international development. It proposes investments into green technology research, but with no indication of whether this research will take place in the public or private sector. It also explicitly proposes to "invest in green business," and notably insists on keeping "wealth created by local labor circulating in the community."
  • The second, developed by Greg Carlock at Data for Progress, proposes creating 10 million new jobs through a Green Job Guarantee, workforce development and job training programs - and private sector growth. There is no reference to international development, though it does note, in passing, that this plan "will produce immense demand for new goods and services that the private sector can provide."
  • The third, proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, aims to make "green technology, industry, expertise, products, and services a major export of the United States" through a whole arsenal of initiatives - from a green job guarantee to "massive investment" in R&D to "measures...to promote...labor market flexibility and entrepreneurism".
These proposals have typically been promoted on the left as job guarantee proposals, and they are. But they are also proposals to significantly expand the private sector. And insofar as they mention international development at all, they envision the creation of a global market centered around the profit models of US business.


A Green Marshall Plan

Even in the best case scenario - a United States that develops a massive capacity for green development, ready for export - none of these proposals mention how the global south will pay for any of this. Again: the standard solution to this problem, and the one that our ruling class will default to absent enormous popular resistance, has been to place poor countries in even greater debt, often with interest, and potentially with various neoliberal policy strings attached. The rapid expansion of the so-called "green bond" market in recent years suggests that this approach is already putting down roots.

As an alternative, some academics and politicians have called for something like a green Marshall Plan. Al Gore, for instance, argued in 2006 that in "a Global Marshall Plan...wealthy nations can no longer insist that Third World countries pay huge sums of interest". A more ambitious model might resemble something like Bernie Sanders' 2017 "Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico," which proposed $146b in grants, debt relief, and mandated all kinds of protections against typical liberalization efforts (EG, calling for "labor protections, public input, local and municipal governing power" and insisting that "efforts to privatize public institutions must be rejected").

This approach to international development does get around some of the more sinister traps of international aid, and some of the principles at work here - grants rather than loans, and protections against liberalization - have to be the foundation of any left campaign against climate change.

Nevertheless, none of these funding plans manage to finesse the exploitative dynamic created by a privatized Green New Deal. At best, they create a simple wealth transfer that begins with the federal government; circulates to the developing world as grants; and then returns back to US-based capital as payments for our green exports. This, Chomsky notes, was the basic dynamic of the original Marshall Plan:
It’s talked about as an act of “unimaginable benevolence.” But...of the $13 billion of Marshall Plan aid, about $2 billion went right to the U.S. oil companies. That was part of the effort to shift Europe from a coal-based to an oil-based economy, and parts of it would be more dependent on the United States...You look at the rest of it, very little of that money left the United States. It goes from one pocket to another.
How this would play out for the global south is unclear. Immediately, the Green New Deal / Marshall Plan approach places the these countries in a relationship of dependence - on the north for funding, and on the US for ongoing green development. Hypothetically, one can imagine them growing their way out of peonage, funding their own energy and development through supercharged green economies. But this, of course, is just the standard argument for capitalist globalization: it's an argument that opening up the world to profit-seeking US firms, subsidized perhaps with public funding, can lift the third world out of poverty and eradicate international inequality.


Still better than climate change

A "socialist" plan for tackling climate change would have to begin, necessarily, by placing the means of production in the hands of workers who control it through the arm of the state. From there, the global socialist state would simply redistribute resources and direct production as needed to curtail carbon emissions. Say what you will about plans that fall outside of this framework - but they can't be described as "socialist" in any meaningful sense. A plan that leaves control of the means of production in the hands of private owners necessarily maintains a fundamentally exploitative relationship between capitalists, workers, and the earth.

This does not, to be clear, mean that the left should abandon support for something resembling a Green New Deal / Green Marshall Plan. Given the choice between apocalyptic, runaway climate change and a stopgap investment program that leaves the private sector in place but brings down emissions, most of our planet would probably prefer the latter. Nevertheless, socialists should proceed in this fight with their eyes wide open: the problem of redistribution has not been solved, and US capital is still firmly in control.
Nobody is on Twitter, revisited - 11/19/18
A few years ago, Matt Bruenig pointed out that Nobody Is On Twitter. Since then, research (Pew in particular) has given us much better data than we had at the time, giving us a much better picture of just how tiny Twitter's audience actually is. Since I was poking through some of it today, I thought I might as well post a few of the more interesting numbers I came across. First, on how often people use Twitter:



These numbers are based on Pew's latest survey on social media use, as well as reporting on dead accounts by PC Mag. The baseline number Matt mentioned in 2015 - 23% - is pretty close to the 24% we see here, but once we break it down it becomes clear that this number is significantly inflated.
  • Most US adults with Twitter accounts (24%) aren't online every day (13%), and in fact, 44% of that first number may never use their account at all. That leaves about 13% of US adults who are Active Posters.
  • People who are online every day - call them True Posters - account for only 11% of all US adults.
  • Extremely Online Posters - the people who, intuitively, prove most of our content - only account for 6% of the US adult population.
Even these numbers, however, overstate things: not everyone, it turns out, uses Twitter to talk about the news:
  • One recent survey shows that only about 11% of the population ever gets their news from Twitter.
  • Among respondents who ever use social media to get the news there is also significant variation in consumption: for instance, 30% of that group say that they "hardly ever" get their news from social media. If these trends holds for Twitter, then it is probably a significant source of news for something closer to 3-8% of US adults.
This, I think, is a much more realistic assessment of Twitter's news reach: bring together all of the blue check journalists and unverified posters, the sinister operatives and the doe-eyed normies, the Pepe teens and the Gritty teens, the #TCOT grandpas and rose emojis - put them all together, and you are reaching a single-digit percentage of US adults, somewhere between 3-8%.
Democrats improved their performance among Republican constituencies in 2018 - 11/11/18
I've published a new piece in Jacobin, Vox Is Wrong About the Midterm Elections, discussing how Democrats performed in 2018 among various demographic constituencies that have historically voted for Republicans.

This month's election has placed liberal pundits in an awkward situation. On one hand, they remain implicitly committed to the notion that Democrats cannot win over certain socioeconomic demographics - like "rural voters" - without betraying their core values. But on the other hand, by making inroads among those voters, Democrats just won major victories all over the country, and struck a powerful blow against Donald Trump.

The consistent thing would be to insist that these victories were ill-gotten, and that Democrats should have done worse with low-educated voters or white Southerners. The temptation, however, is to pretend that they did do worse - and that's what seems to be happening in liberal pundit world. In unison, writers like Zack Beauchamp have doubled down on their demographic arguments from 2016, insisting that low-educated voters and white Southern voters are unreachable even though the evidence is clear that 2018 Democrats just reached them.

That's the evidence I lay out in Jacobin: Democrats improved their performance in this election among just about every demographic you can name. I largely rely on exit poll measures of voter preference because that's what Beauchamp uses; you can come up with more sophisticated measures if you like (accounting for turnout and whatnot), but I don't see any evidence that they overturn the underlying trend. How so many pundits have arrived at an understanding of the election flatly contradicted by a basic review of the polls should raise some serious questions that I probably don't need to spell out.
Left entryists have fought to take over the Democratic Party. 2018 is their test. - 11/5/18
Three notes about Tuesday's election:

1. This is a test for entryism.

Wherever one comes down on Democratic entryism - the only way forward, necessary but insufficient, a suboptimal political investment, a waste of time, or counterproductive - it seems clear to me that tomorrow has to be regarded as a great empirical test. Nearly three years ago, Bernie Sanders laid out his theory of political revolution, arguing that
by building a movement among average Americans, he'll be able to win elections, defeat special interests, push liberal reforms into law, and build an economy that works for everyone.
Even in defeat, the Sanders campaign became the catalyst for a massive mobilization of left activism; and ever since then, a whole field of left organizations and activists have worked to build campaign infrastructure, recruit candidates, and compete in primaries and in the general. This is by several orders of magnitude the largest entryist movement in my lifetime, and probably of the past half century.


2. The bar has to be set high.

Previous elections guaranteed that Senate Democrats would face nearly insurmountable odds in this one, defending 26 seats to the GOP's nine. On the other hand, previous elections have also dramatically overextended Republican control of both the House and governorships around the country. And the contrarian rhythm of midterm elections - inclining Americans to vote against whoever happens to be occupying the White House - ensured on November 8, 2016 that today's Democrats would have the wind at their backs.

So it really is not enough to point to a "blue wave" of Democratic victories and take this as proof that entryism worked. In fact, even if Democrats exceed the most optimistic expectations - say by taking control of the Senate or winning some dramatic upsets - leftists still shouldn't take that as vindication of entryism. Good news, perhaps, but not evidence that the entryist strategy actually worked.

For entryism to work, a significant number of seats have to be won by left-flank challengers who defeated the Republican and the liberal Democrat. What qualifies as "a significant number of seats" and who qualifies as "left-flank challengers" will of course be up for debate, but these are the terms on which the debate over entryism needs to proceed.


3. The left will face significant pressure to lower expectations.

After Trump's victory and two years of Republican rule, the liberal-left badly wants a win. US liberals will also continue to equate "unity against Trump" with "submission to the Democratic agenda," a form of ideological passive-aggression to which the left remains regrettably vulnerable. For these reasons, leftists will probably not be content to celebrate Democratic successes as successes against Republicans; they will be tempted to celebrate any win with a D on it as a win for left-flank entryism. Attempts to hold entryists to even minimal standards of progress will likely be dismissed as contrarian, pedantic, and divisive.

But this is precisely what the left has to do if we want to hold the entryists accountable. I am not entirely sure how we go about doing this, because as mentioned, the threshold for success is up for debate. But I am sure about two things: at some point there needs to be a reckoning for entryism - and the forces of co-option will do everything they can to resist it.
The voter turnout problem they don't talk about - 11/2/18
Every election year guarantees a round of takes on how the kids are ruining our elections, and 2018 has proven no exception. In just the past few days we've seen multiple articles from the same NBC News / Genforward survey:


The piece that best captured this genre of take, however, was NYMag's 12 Young People on Why They Probably Won’t Vote - a brilliant one-two punch of inflammatory quotes and no data. If you need someone to blame for the US's catastrophically low turnout rates - a genuine and humiliating anomaly by international standards - look no further than some kid who says that "mailing stuff...gives me anxiety".

Anyway, here are the Census numbers on average voter turnout over the past decade, by age:

And here are the same numbers, broken down by income:

Income's effect on voter turnout is at least comparable to age - arguably, it's even more consequential. So why don't we get articles like "12 Poor People On Why They Probably Won't Vote"? Why doesn't NBC bother to survey people with a family income of less than $30,000 a year? I have two theories:
1. Corporate media outlets, their advertisers, and their target audiences generally do not care about the poor. They have little interest in what the poor think about our politics or our candidates, and certainly not enough to assign an article, commission a poll, conduct interviews, or read about it. 
2. Turnout problems among the poor don't lend themselves as easily to "blame the voter" narratives - they cry out for more systematic explanations, and leave open the possibility that our democracy just isn't giving the poor compelling candidates. Conversely, turnout problems among millennials work quite naturally with popular narratives about how young people are irresponsible, selfish, frivolous, and so on - that is, about how the voters only have themselves to blame.
Incidentally, turnout problems among youth and turnout problems among the poor are not unrelated - but the important thing is that we avoid, at all costs, talking about class. Remember that the next time the media tries to blame the problems of American democracy on some kid with anxiety issues.