Friday, July 31, 2015

The Real Candidate Deserving Our Attention, on Jobs and Beyond: Bernie Sanders

Last week there seemed to be only one 2016 presidential hopeful, if you can call him that, in the news.  I’m refusing to get in on the frenzy, so will not even mention his name.  I only add that after everyone sobers up about him, he’ll give his party the DTs by threatening to run independently and thereby hand the election to Hillary Clinton.

Or will it be Hillary at all?

Bernie Sanders, the candidate now a distant second in media attention, may be the beneficiary instead.  Radical?  Perhaps.  But consider what is happening.

First, Clinton is spinning her wheels.  She has had very little to say, on jobs or almost anything else.  Even Democrats have been commenting on how her campaign events are devoid of information.  She has been unable to get positive press for anything specific, and when the subject turns to her it is still often about her email scandal.  Her party is already starting to think seriously about alternatives; as an example, Salon published an article earlier this month suggesting they draft Al Gore.  More and more swing voters may come to agree with my view, as well, that what the country needs least from 2017 to 2021 is another moderate Democrat.   

Second, the other declared candidates in her party have campaigns so moribund – Martin O’Malley seems to be getting no press at all, Jim Webb got all of his within 24 hours of his joining the race, and Lincoln Chaffee, with 300 to 1 odds against him, is behind three undeclared and unanticipated contenders – that prediction market PredictWise actually has Joe Biden in third place.  

Third, Sanders has been setting records in two areas.  Not only has he been getting the largest campaign-speech crowds, including 11,000 in Phoenix, but he has collected more money in under-$200 campaign contributions than anyone else.  The breadth of his popularity has been so unexpected even to his organization that, as of mid-month, they had run out of buttons and bumper stickers. 

Fourth, he has plenty to say, especially on American employment.  In a campaign where almost half of the contenders are silent on the issue, Sanders’ website has several pages.  He wants to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour over a period of years.  He is a strong advocate of unions, wanting card-check membership, in which workers can form unions if a majority claim they want them.  He voted to lengthen unemployment benefits from 39 to 59 weeks, a good idea when millions of workers have been officially jobless, which means they have been looking for work and applying for positions weekly, for over six months.  He has been combining with Obama to get more employees time-and-a-half for overtime, which I also support – while I do not agree with him on the minimum wage, there is no place for employers to abuse the definition of salaried and management positions by underpaying or not paying production workers for extra hours.  He recognizes on his site something that every candidate of either party should but few do, that “the real unemployment rate is much higher than the “official” figure typically reported in the newspapers.”   He not only supports a nationwide construction project, but “introduced legislation which would invest $1 trillion over 5 years to modernize our country’s physical infrastructure.”  That sort of effort, which Republicans should get behind as well, is probably the best single readily implementable thing anyone can do to help our permanent jobs crisis. 

Fifth, Sanders offers conservatives something as well, on gun control, where his words and record are more Republican than Democrat.  He comes from a rural area, where firearms not only serve constructive purposes but are rarely abused.  It is hard to find someone otherwise on the far left who voted to prohibit the use of funds by international organizations which register or tax guns owned by Americans, wants people to be able to check firearms on Amtrak trains, and says things such as “If somebody has a gun and somebody steals that gun and shoots somebody, do you really think it makes sense to blame the manufacturer of that weapon?,” and “If somebody assaults you with a baseball bat, you hit somebody over the head, you’re not going to sue the baseball bat manufacturer,” but Sanders is unique in other ways as well. 

Sixth, Clinton may crash and burn.  As I have written before, she is no Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, or even Angela Merkel.  If she gets the nomination, she will face verbal and press abuse of the worst kind.  It will not all be fair, and some will be vicious, personal, and even sexual in nature.  In the process of beating her among Democrats and winning the election, Barack Obama got hit with about everything imaginable, and stood up to it superbly.  If she cannot do the same, she will not win.  Sometime between now and March’s full-swing primary season, she will find out that, contrary to what she has been told and almost certainly believes, even the Democratic nomination is not her entitlement – and that will be hard for her, as it would be for anyone who has been the prohibitive frontrunner for years, to take. 

I say Clinton doesn’t get through it.  When she loses her composure, and her support soon follows, someone will need to take over.  It just may be Bernie Sanders.  Don’t you dare rule him out.    

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

‘Tis the Season for Logical Gaffes – II

Last week, I wrote about some ways statistics can be misinterpreted, usually with the help of partisan thinkers who would like us to do just that.  Those aren’t the only sort of flawed arguments.  What other ones are we getting in this 18-month presidential election season?

One is something both parties seem constantly guilty of, which is attacking the most extreme views of the other side.  That is not a logical gaffe as such, but becomes one if you are fooled into thinking that the opposing statements Rush Limbaugh or Paul Krugman, to name two of the worst offenders, cite is the other party’s common view.  Al Sharpton’s opinions are not shared by most liberals, and most conservatives want nothing to do with the excesses of Donald Trump.  So when someone on the other side quotes something insane or even just unusually poorly judged, it does not qualify as a strike against the left or the right; accordingly, protect yourself by considering how representative something being vilified (and, I add, being publicized; many screwballs get their best press, from their opponents, this way) actually is.

A second error is an old one – the ad hominem fallacy, or judging the person making a point instead of the point itself.  Congressional Republicans have been stinking up the joint with this one for years, acting as if, since they don’t like President Obama, everything he proposes or even says must be wrong.  He has had results endorsable by the most conservative quarter of the country – the recent free trade bill, his refusal to close or even reform the Guantanamo Bay prison, Osama bin Laden’s elimination, the ever-stronger dollar, the stock market’s almost threefold increase during his term, and the lack of new financial regulation – but his political opponents are so determined to oppose him that they often scarcely seem to be seeing what he’s actually doing or not doing.  Almost everything that columnist and Fox News spokesman Charles Krauthammer says seems to start with the idea that Obama was wrong, which is logically impossible if not highly selective.  Many Democrats did the same things when George W. Bush was in office.  “Criticize the idea, not the person” was formal direction I received at AT&T management discussion sessions a quarter century ago, and it’s still the way to go.

Third, related, might be called “inflexibility about platforms.”  The Republicans are almost all conservative these days, which the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines as “believing in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society.”  Democrats, nearly all liberal, therefore subscribe to “a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties; specifically:  such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (as those involving race, gender, or class).”  Those are reasonably cohesive attitudes, but, since some areas clearly are in need of change and government involvement and some areas obviously need to stay the same, it does not make sense to stick to one view completely.  So whether you swing to the left or the right, be aware that there absolutely must be exceptions to the general philosophy your party is advocating.

The fourth problem area is about unchecked emotions.  We use words and phrases as symbols, and often fail to look at their limitations.  To conservatives, police, soldiers, veterans, the flag, and mainstream Christianity arouse positive feelings, but most liberals like them too, and few Republicans would agree that they should have unlimited prominence in our society.  Do we want a police state with no questioning of their practices allowed, six-figure pensions for all former soldiers, or decade-long prison sentences for abusing Old Glory?  No – those would be too extreme.  Therefore, there are limitations on what it really means to say “support our troops” or “we need God back in our lives.”  Such statements, often expressed by political candidates, are only emotion triggers and not meaningful.  To avoid being swayed here, ask yourself what if anything someone actually means when they invoke one of those, or if they just want you to like them more.

The fifth logical gaffe is pack journalism, which Merriam-Webster defines as being “practiced by reporters in a group and… marked by uniformity of news coverage and lack of original thought or initiative.”  Liberals are most at fault here, as, though perceptions of media bias are often overrated, most news sources do tend to the left.  Sociologically, organizations in which membership is valued develop orthodoxies, which you can see in everything from the way NFL players go from sidelines to huddles to the way TV talk show guests speak.  These ways of approved behavior also extend to opinions.  When the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit was in force, virtually every major commentator said it was a good thing.  In the 1990s, stories did not question the war against drugs.  Until the past few months, there were no major-outlet articles suggesting the euro was a bad idea.  Many sharp observers saw problems before, but only when these things started generating bad track records did the communication prohibitions weaken.  Some of our current unquestionable ideas are:  that climate change is both bad and human-caused;  that discrimination against men in general and straight, white, Anglo men in particular is trivial or nonexistent; that mainstream black culture deserves no blame for poor economic and social results; and that women’s lower overall average wage is primarily due to discrimination.  I believe that all of these notions will be discredited over time, and when they are, these bans will disappear.  In the meantime, watch out for ideas which seem controversial but are never questioned in ordinary newspapers, radio stations, or TV networks, since they probably need to be.          

Overall, there are many different reasonable views out there, and, if you prefer, many unreasonable ones as well.  It is important to be an independent thinker and choose to what to subscribe, regardless of what either political party says.  Just don’t be fooled by deceptive appeals.  They are as old as politics, and won’t go away any sooner.  

Friday, July 17, 2015

‘Tis the Season for Logical Gaffes - I

With no fewer than 20 national-level declared presidential candidates, we are getting all kinds of information about America’s problems and opportunities.  Some, maybe most, of it is sincere and honest, but a lot would match up with a picture on Facebook showing a horse trailer marked with the message “Caution Floor Covered with Political Promises.”  It’s plenty hard enough to sort out what we think are wrong and right, but there is another concern.  Some arguments are simply logically flawed. 

Note that I’m not talking about anything debatable, any baseless accusations, or about ideas that we think reasonable people would always reject.  I’m not picking on either side, or any candidate, in particular.  In the process of getting a Ph.D., I learned a lot about what is and isn’t valid argument.  Such knowledge is not common, as I can see by how often even smart, informed sources fall into the traps I will describe.  So how can you, too, become aware of them?  Here are the first four. 

First is what I have long called “Darrell Huff” graphs.  Huff was the author of How to Lie with Statistics, a groundbreaking 1954 book which described this gaffe.  If we take a trend’s statistical progress, such as, in this example, one view of how many people our country will have in the next 5 to 45 years, and graph it in simple fashion, we might get this:

There is no distortion here.  We can see that we might expect a substantial if not massive increase, running from something like 335 million in 2020 to over 400,000,000 forty years later.

But suppose we want to show that this increase is projected to be huge?  We can do that by changing the scale of the Y-axis (the vertical one, on the left), which gets us the following:

See the difference?  This chart is more likely than the first to prod a reader into thinking that our population is going way up.  It even looks better, since the line is in more of the area.  And yet I have not changed a single data point.  The logical problem is that, in this case, 325 million is not a guaranteed minimum, which the graph implies it is.  More than 60 years after Huff’s book, charts with nonzero Y-axes are still commonplace – and fool people consistently.  To avoid being one of them, check for a zero in the lower left-hand corner before consciously reacting. 

Second, correlation is not the same as causation.  As I have written before, that means that when two things seem to go together, one need not be making the other happen.  While that rule has been well known in the scientific community for as long as there has been academic research, it still fools many otherwise smart people outside it.  When two trends seem to match up, often the second causes the first instead of vice versa, or, most likely, there is what is known as a “third variable problem” – the first and second are both caused by another factor.  As before, although studies have shown that girls playing high school sports have lower rates of pregnancy and illegal drug use than their classmates, the games may not be responsible, as lack of interest in drugs may open the door for athletic activity, and the real explanation is probably a third variable – social class, which, for girls, drives not only reduced drug and pregnancy problems but sports participation.  As a result, all articles or news stories giving correlations should arouse your skepticism.

The third gaffe is Parmenides’ Fallacy, or the assumption that without someone’s specific actions the situation would have stayed the same.  This error is especially common in election seasons, when candidates impugn incumbents about things worsening under their tenure.  If American foreign policy has weakened under Barack Obama, we can’t necessarily blame him, since it may have got even worse under Mitt Romney.  By the same token, a Republican win in 2012 may have made our unemployment even lower than the latest 5.3%, so Obama does not get automatic credit for improvement from the 8%-plus it was when he took office.  It is simply not legitimate to assume that any aspect of the human world is unchanging.  As with the correlation and causation gaffe, statements dependent on comparisons with years before should trigger your suspicion.

Fourth is incomplete information.  It is almost the same as what people call “comparing apples and oranges,” but is in a way more insidious, since something is missing from only one side.  A Washington Post article last month cited two statistics apparently, in combination, supporting gun control, that for every case of a felon being shot and killed in self-defense there were 34 accidental firearm deaths.  Those numbers, while believable, are inconsistent, as most people defending themselves or their property with guns do not end up killing their assailants.  If the article would have offered that information, we could have used it to help our personal positions on firearm freedoms, but without that key piece, missing only from the second half of the equation, we cannot sensibly go any further with it. 

These are the most statistical of the nine logical gaffes I have identified.  Going beyond how the numbers are handled, what five other argumentation techniques are less than rational?  That will be the subject of next week’s post.   

Friday, July 10, 2015

Five New Presidential Candidates, Three Views on Jobs

Over the past four weeks, we have added five new official 2016 hopefuls.  Democrat Jim Webb joined four others, and Republicans Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, and Donald Trump threw their hats into this ring already containing ten from their party.  So what do they have to say about American employment?

Last on the list is Jindal.  If he has a website at all, I couldn’t find it in ten minutes of searching.  No online presence, no posted views on issues, nothing.  In Choosing a Lasting Career, I called him “charismatic,” and said he or Rubio had the best chances in the election that was then over three years away, but he isn’t looking good at all now.  If you disagree, you can go to and get 100 to 1 odds on him winning. 

Next worst is Trump, who has done remarkably well at getting attention.  I suppose his clown act is healthy, since it’s stirring people up in these noncommittal times, and he’s not, as some observers say, damaging his party, since his views are his own.  He is, however, doing great injury to Donald Trump, and his odds against of 50 to 1 may be the worst ever for someone polling second among Republicans.  He, not exactly surprisingly, has a splendidly bombastic website, but among the scraps on his standpoints are nothing at all on jobs – even inferentially. 

In the middle is Bush.  Since he is surveying ahead of Trump, and his odds of 3.6 to 1 against are the shortest of anyone except Hillary Clinton, it’s not surprising that he has little to say.  His main idea on employment, which he seems to consider important as he intelligently mentions the 6.5 million Americans working part-time for economic reasons (wanting a full-time position but not finding one), is that it should improve quite nicely when, under him, the national economy grows the same 4% per year he achieved in Florida.  In implementing such a spectacular result, the devil is not only in the details, but in the broad outline – we have no idea how he could get us there.  At least, though, Jeb gets credit for saying something.     

Second best is Webb.  He’s been positioning himself as an unusual Democrat, and what he says about employment is no exception – he may be the only one of the five in favor of lower corporate taxes (after removing “loopholes,” but still), and he wants to “examine shifting our tax policies away from income and more toward consumption.“  He also, along with others in his party but sadly none yet from the other, advocates a large infrastructure and jobs project.  Good, workable positions, and as more and more people leave the workforce the income tax indeed becomes less and less effective, even though sales taxes are regressive.  His odds match Jindal’s 100 to 1, but he’s probably better prepared to discuss jobs than many given better chances.

The most robust set of views on American work among this set comes from Chris Christie.  On his website, he stands for eliminating payroll taxes on those under 25 and over 62, repealing the 30-hour minimum for Obamacare requirement, giving tax credits for research and development, and lowering corporate tax rates.  I don’t recall seeing the first idea before.  The others, though not large, are specific, and at least the R&D one is constructive.  We can debate about whether Christie’s measures would help the permanent jobs crisis enough, but we cannot argue over whether he has something to say.  His odds of 35 to 1 against place him fifth among Republicans, behind Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and Ben Carson. 

So how are we doing?  We have no fewer than 19 declared candidates, with two others, Republicans Walker and John Kasich, marked as Probably in the New York Times’s inventory listing.  Those with the most to say so far are Democrats Martin O’Malley, Bernie Sanders, and now Webb, and Republicans Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Ted Cruz as well as Christie.  That would make enough for a good race right there.  I hope that, as the contest wears on, our contenders more consistently implement the first paragraph on Webb’s site:  “Courageous leaders don’t follow the money.  They lead, they take risks, they propose new directions, and in time the people will follow.”  Unfortunately, I’m not holding my breath.    

Thursday, July 2, 2015

America Now Over 18.8 Million Jobs Short as AJSN Rises 354,000

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States gained 223,000 jobs last month, and official seasonally-adjusted unemployment reached a new post-Great Recession low of 5.3%.  At first glance, it was another solid performance.  But was it really?  Three numbers say it wasn’t. 

The first was the labor force participation rate, which came in at 62.6%, diving 0.3% and dropping out of its 14-month range for its lowest outcome since October 1977.  The second was the other figure showing how common it is for Americans to work, the employment-to-population ratio.  That fell 0.1%, matching what it was from January through April, and is now threatening to leave its own recent range.  The third disturbing number was average hourly earnings for private nonfarm workers.  That did not increase at all, wiping out May’s good performance and casting serious doubt on whether the labor market is actually tightening.

The American Job Shortage Number, or AJSN, rose not only from higher seasonal unemployment (more people consistently work in May than in June), but because the count of those wanting jobs but not searching for a year or more was up 172,000, and there were 90,000 more discouraged workers.  Overall, the AJSN came in as follows:

Compared with a year before, the AJSN is 1.1 million lower, completely on reduced unadjusted joblessness.  The largest offset was the 5% of those saying they did not want to work at all, who add up to about 1.7 million more than in June 2015.

Other secondary numbers generally improved, one dramatically.  The count of long-term unemployed, or those without jobs and looking for 27 weeks or longer, plunged almost 400,000 to 2.1 million, by far the lowest since the recession.  Those working part-time for economic reasons were at 6,500,000, or 100,000 lower since April.  The unadjusted unemployment rate increased, mostly seasonally, from 5.3% to 5.5%.

On balance, I call June’s jobs data reasonable.  It’s far from great, and much of its perceived improvement, once again, comes from people leaving the labor force.  When a lower share of Americans are in jobs or officially unemployed than any time since Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in a World Series game, we can’t say our country is even close to getting back to work.  When wages go nowhere at all, we can’t say that demand for workers is truly rising.  These problems are still totally unsolved.  The turtle took a step forward last month, but that’s all.