Senator John Kerry has not yet been confirmed as Secretary of State, but MassINC has released a poll that has been generally reported as one between Republican former Senator Scott Brown and Democratic Congressman Ed Markey. Markey has indeed announced he is running and has received widespread endorsement and support among Democrats already. The reporting on the poll suggests two major takeaways: (1) Brown is beating Markey by 20 points and (2) voters want a primary. I will dispense with the latter first. Voters always want choices when one is not actually placed in front of them on election day. This conclusion is a fair one from the data, but it should be categorized as “So What Else is New?” The former is also a fair conclusion from the data, but the focus on it is an improper reading of what is actually important in this poll.
No election day ever occurs before candidates have a chance to campaign – even a special election. It is not surprising that a former statewide elected official would have greater name recognition than a congressman who has represented his district for 30 some years. These are some reasons why the topline numbers on the latest poll in the Massachusetts special election are less than meaningful. What is meaningful are the data from the crosstabs that tell us what people are thinking about specific questions.
Here is what I take away from that poll:
- Almost everyone polled has heard of Brown
- Most people have never heard of Markey
- Brown’s support comes mainly from white men over 30
- Young votes do not like Brown
- Young voters have never heard of Markey
So, does the topline result that Brown is “beating” Markey by 20 points mean the election is over? (And, we should remember that at this time only one of these guys is actually running for the seat and it is not Brown.) This poll, like all polls at this stage in any election cycle, gives us a lot of information about what people might do on election day. Until the campaign solidifies and the election date grows closer even good pollsters cannot tell us anything meaningful about how people are going to vote when they get the chance
At this point, a poll like this is of much more use to a campaign than it is to the public in trying to understand the dynamics of the race. The data in the crosstabs tell a campaign where its opportunities and liabilities might lie. And this poll is no exception.
What is Brown’s opportunity here? He is well recognized and well liked in general. That is never a problem for a candidate. But, as the 2012 election proved (and it was not the first election to prove this), that is not enough to get elected. For those who were not following it, Brown lost reelection to Elizabeth Warren nearly three months ago by 8 percentage points. In our political system, that’s a landslide.
But, since Brown is up 20 points on Markey, he must have few or no liabilities in the race, right? Well, that’s not what the data says to me. Brown is popular among certain demographics, but he is not well liked by women and I would say disliked by young voters. Nonwhite voters don’t seem to like him either. But, his approvals are still good enough to have an overall positive approval rating. So, he needs to do one of two things: (1) improve his standing with the voters who don’t seem to like him very much or (2) make a concerted effort to turn out the vote among white men. He could try both strategies, but it is likely that strategy number 2 will depress strategy number 1.
You might ask: why does he need to do anything? If he stays the course and these numbers hold he will easily beat Markey, right? Wrong. This is where widespread name recognition can be a liability. Brown has it and people have opinions of him. Markey does not have it, and many people do not have an opinion of him. That may be more opportunity for Markey than liability for Brown, but the dynamics of this are such that in the end both cannot be true. Markey does have a net favorability rating, but over 34% have never heard of him (these numbers are for registered voters). Compare that to the 2% who have never heard of Brown. These numbers are even more interesting when you add in the folks who have heard of them, but are undecided. This means 59% of registered voters have no opinion of Markey, while only 13% have no opinion of Brown.
But, isn’t it a problem that Markey fares worse than a generic Democrat head-to-head against Brown? No – or at least, not necessarily. This looks more like an opportunity to me than a liability. The reason is that Markey is largely unknown. If the polling found the same thing true of Brown, I would say that would be cause for concern. When voters know you and then would prefer an unknown, that can signal a problem. But when, as in this case, voters do not know you and would prefer an unknown, the best we can say about that is that it is probably more of statement that voters would like their ideal candidate. No one is really most people’s ideal candidate. And in an environment where you are asked to choose between someone you don’t want, someone you don’t know, and an unknown choice of your own personal choosing, is it surprising that most people might go with option number 3? On election day, this issue will not be a problem. People will have an opinion of Markey or they won’t vote at all – that is to say, all likely voters on election day will have an opinion of Markey. That doesn’t mean he will win, but he has the opportunity to frame the debate in a way that Brown – despite his popularity – does not.
So, if Markey has an opportunity here based on demographics and lack of name recognition, what must he do? Here is where the reporting on polls such as this typically miss the mark. These kind of polls help campaigns to strategize and plan. The press often focuses on the topline numbers and misses the reason why such polls actually can be important. At this point, we have to apply the poll findings to political issues and policy and message that back to targeted voters.
This poll tells me that Markey might want to focus his campaign on these four issues:
- Climate change
- Reproductive rights
- Gay rights
This is not a cynical exercise because Markey has a record and position(s) in all of these areas. I am sure he has a record and position(s) on foreign aid, drone strikes, and debt reduction, but these are not the issues it seems to me will resonate with his electorate in 2013. Partly this is due to the race that was run only a few months ago and partly it is due to the issues that are current today and Markey’s strength on them (or Brown’s weakness). Two other issues that might work for Markey – but I see no evidence of it one way or the other from this poll – are gun control and immigration.
Why these four issues? Young voters and women voters particularly respond to the first three issues. Since there Markey is a relative unknown quantity to these demographics (and an overwhelming one to youth voters), these are areas that Markey can build support simply by running on his record. Regardless of what positions Brown takes on them, his party has staunchly opposed just about all efforts to deal with climate change, promote gay rights, and…well, let’s just say their positions on reproductive rights might be called anything from tin-eared to just plain crazy.
Nonwhite voters, since they are disproportionately impacted by the economy, are likely to respond to the fourth issue (in addition to the some or all of the first three – and youth and women will respond to this fourth issue, too, to be sure). The important thing about the fourth issue is that it is a proven wedge issue for white male support for Brown. As senator, Brown voted against unemployment insurance extensions which caused many blue collar men (particularly in the building trades, from where Brown’s union support came) to lose any means of support for their families during a period in which the unemployment rate in some trades was up to and over 50%. Brown arguably singled-handedly caused this by fulfilling his promise to be the “41st vote” so Republicans could filibuster the Obama agenda. Reminding white working class men of this aspect of Brown’s record undermined the senator’s reelection strategy and resulted in strong building trade support for Warren, which was a reversal of what happened with Coakley in 2010.
While I did wander down the road into campaign strategy, it was to underscore the main point of this piece. Early polls are valuable for understanding where there are opportunities and liabilities for campaigns. They tell us little about who is winning or losing, particular with reference to the topline numbers on head-to-head contests. Markey’s strategy might crystalize from this poll or it might not. Campaigns conduct their own polls and their strategists have their own ideas about what will work. Sometimes they have brilliant insights, sometimes the fall back on outdated “conventional wisdom,” and sometimes they just get lucky. The campaign will be short, so we’ll see pretty soon how it shapes up. In any case, this poll says pretty much nothing to regular folks about the coming election. But, it does say a lot to the campaigns.
My friend Ted Chambers, a Boston public school teacher, blogs often on the serious challenges to a truly equitable public education system from the often disingenuous arguments of the advocates for the charter school “movement.” There are good charter schools and bad ones (in fact, my daughter attends one we are really happy with), just like there are good traditional public schools and bad ones. The teaching staff at charter schools are teachers just like in the traditional public schools, and they care about their students. However, the corporate-sponsored advocates of charter schools have, in fact, waged a 20 year campaign to accomplish, not better educational outcomes, but two political objectives: (1) ending teacher unions and (2) privatizing public education.
Ted has posted a really thoughtful piece on the hypocrisy of charter school advocates claiming the civil rights mantle when in fact they are supporting schools that drum out the most difficult-to-teach students. (Ted uses his Facebook page as a blogging platform. You can read his post here.) I won’t regurgitate his argument; you can read his words for yourself. But, I am troubled about the policy direction taken in response to the very weak claims made by the corporate-sponsored charter school advocates like Michelle Rhee and Mike Petrilli (they are essentially the charter school movement’s version of climate change deniers.) Here’s Pitrelli’s articulation of what civil rights means in the education context: “Misguided notions of ‘equity’ have turned many public school systems into leveling leviathans. We shouldn’t let the same happen to charters, the last salvation of the strivers.” So, the real civil rights issue here apparently is that only some deserve a good education and the rest should be allowed to fail… preferably in a traditional public school so he can blame that system, their teachers, and their unions. In other words, the problem in the traditional public schools is the teachers and their unions; the problem in charter schools is the students.
It is not unrelated that Petrilli is affiliated with the Hoover Institute and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, two organizations devoted to privatizating public services, including education. Both organizations craft PR campaigns dressed in the clothing of “policy research” in an ideological effort to create support for privatizing public services and funding them with taxpayer money. Education reform efforts deserve better than to be associated with plainly ideological efforts to undermine the public sector.
In the last week, there has been some more news that should focus our policy attention on climate change. Some news is promising: Texas legislators coming together to invest in anti-drought projects and the news (out of the UK, of course – why can’t the US media report on important issues?) that President Obama is considering hosting an international climate summit. But…some news is depressing, if not downright scary: post-apocalyptic style air pollution in China and a national climate report that suggests we might have already run out of time to prevent climate change.
And all four things are getting less attention than they should from American media. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that Texas legislators are taking an interest in the consequences of a severe drought in their state: lack of water. This issue is likely to become a more widespread problem around the world due not only to climate change, but to population increase.
1. Beijing pollution beyond critical
The most distressing incident of the past week has to be the absolute crisis of air pollution in Beijing and other cities in China. ”Off the charts” is how many scientists have described the level of particulate in the air. On a day when Beijing registered an air quality index of over 750, New York City’s level was 19. Anything over 50 is considered hazardous. Until now, 500 was considered about as high as things could plausibly go. But, one doesn’t need to see the data to know there is a problem. Just watch the coverage from Al Jazeera. That’s not dense fog; it’s air pollution. The entire city looks like the proverbial smoke-filled room, and it is just as dangerous to human health – only on a much larger scale. Beijing is dealing with ever-increasing traffic (from fossil fueled vehicles) and intense factory production fueled by coal.
2. National climate report circulated for public comment.
This report is, well, depressing. One interesting thing about the nonsense spouted by climate change deniers is the ironic charge that scientists are not being cautious enough. In fact, the empirical evidence is showing that scientists have been, as should be expected, very cautious in the conclusions and projections they have made about climate change. However, the change appears to be arriving quicker and more serious than even some worst case scenarios assumed. The evidence is beginning to suggest that we may have already passed a tipping point with the climate. It may be more important to start planning for adaptation rather than mitigation (although we should absolutely not give up on mitigation). Entire report available in: http://ncadac.globalchange.gov/.
Okay…well, now the good news. There are some policymakers trying to do something about the impacts of climate change, or at least the weather (it’s unclear whether many of the Texas legislators would agree that their water problems are related to climate change).
3. Texas facing water crisis due to drought
Texas has been suffering from a drought since 2010. It’s outdated water infrastructure is about to have its reckoning as “[e]ighteen public water systems were projected to run out of water in 180 days or fewer as of Tuesday, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which monitors and assists those systems.” (NY Times, 1-13-13). This issue, which not only impacts regular people but is costing business as well, is bringing together all sides of the political debate to invest in a water infrastructure bank (to the tune of $2 billion) to manage this problem. Hopefully, it is a sign of recognition that serious action has to be taken to deal with the consequences of environmental crises.
4. Guardian (UK) reports that Obama is “seriously considering” hosting climate summit.
The news is not as good as it could – or, frankly, should – be. The president is considering hosting the summit. A summit itself at this point is fair cause for cynacism, but at least it does offer the potential for action. The president did say right after being reelected that addressing climate change was one of his priorities for his second term, but the lack of attention to the issue in the first term is making environmental advocates put increasing pressure on the White House and Congress. One opportunity for political attention to be directed to climate change is the likely special election in Massachusetts for Senator John Kerry’s seat after he is confirmed as Secretary of State. Rep. Ed Markey is the Democratic front-runner (and only declared candidate as of this writing) and he could face former Republican Senator Scott Brown. Markey has a reputation of being a strong advocate of taking action to address climate change. As the race shapes up, this off-year election – which could have national implications – might help shape the public debate on climate change.
Well, that’s just one week. Considering the past few years, it seems likely we’ll have plenty to discuss each week on climate chaos and the (lack of) policy attention on it.
Whoops…I did forget one other thing! They had to add a new color to Australia‘s heat maps because of how hot it has gotten there. Apparently, purple is the new red. Fingers crossed that this week is uneventful… unless policymakers finally decide to take this issue seriously.
Pseudo-science can be good fun sometimes – as long as people treat it as science fiction or fantasy. The Mayan “Apocalypse” is one such goofy bit of nonsense. But, some teacher friends of mine are telling me this is scaring the kids, so please let’s demand that media outlets that call themselves the “history” channel or the “discovery” channel stop propping up shyster pseudo-scientists. Our good pal Phil Plait sets the record straight: http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2012/12/18/maya_apocalypse_2012_doomsday_end_of_the_world_prophecies_are_nonsense.html
Several years ago my alma mater, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, eliminated a faculty position for its Labor Center. It was done under the leadership of an anti-union chancellor in an apparent retaliation for the support faculty at the Labor Center gave to the Graduate Employees’ Organization, an affiliate of the UAW. At that time, I wrote a letter to the chancellor asking for the position to be reinstated. Now, we have word from UMass Boston that it will accomplish something Amherst’s anti-union (former) chancellor only dreamed of – eliminating its labor studies program. In protest to that decision, I have copied a large portion of my letter to the Amherst chancellor from 2005, which explains what I think is the essential importance of labor studies programs to public universities. Additionally, the attack on labor studies programs is not an isolated one. It is part of the overall attack on intellectualism and progressivism from the right wing in this country.
If you feel so inclined, please sign the petition to keep labor studies at UMass Boston: http://tinyurl.com/d3goqgy.
I am very concerned about the termination of the new faculty position for the Labor Center. I am particularly concerned that this may have been done in retaliation for the good research and advocacy the Labor Center has been engaged in with unions, particularly the Graduate Employee’s Organization. As you may be aware, there is a somewhat stealth, but pointed, attack being made upon labor studies programs around the country by right-wing interests. This is, in fact, part of a larger attack on universities and public education that is also manifested in attacks on affirmative action, ethnic studies, women’s studies, GLBT studies, and cultural studies, as well as on “hard” sciences such as biotechnology, alternative energy, genetics, and even evolution.
I have been informed that two of the stated reasons for the termination of the new faculty position are that (1) labor studies is not a scholarly field and (2) the Labor Center’s appeal is too limited. The former is, as you well know, simply not true (and I will explain in detail below). The latter, while also not true, is really [dishonest]. How broad is the appeal of any department of a university? It is a conceit of [some] academics that the work of a university holds real appeal to a broad spectrum of the public. The role of a public university is to serve the needs and address the problems of the citizens and people of the state through serious and thoughtful scholarship and service to the community. It’s role is not produce lowest-common-denominator programs with appeals to popularity and corporate sponsorship.
There are few organizations that can match the potential that universities have to impact their communities in a meaningful way. Universities have the institutional stability to engage in long-term planning, the diversity of expertise to attack problems holistically, and an enormous amount of human resources to engage in problem solving. For this reason, and others, university-community partnerships have formed as a recognition that community service is an appropriate function of the university as an institution and a responsible function of the university as a neighbor. The Labor Center is one such instance of a university-community partnership.
Benson and Harkavy contend that we are in an era of the “Democratic Cosmopolitan Civic University,” in which the university is no longer expected to be isolated from the community, but to be very much involved in integrating its research and teaching missions into community work. According to David Maurasse: “Academic missions are not static; they can shift with societal needs and historical contexts. Core academic missions of institutions of higher education have changed over time from serving an elite, to teaching the liberal arts, to producing scientific research, to teaching, to providing service. Most of today’s colleges and universities adopt comprehensive missions spanning an array of elements, but often including some combination of teaching and research, liberal arts and sciences. Service often has been a third element alongside teaching and research, but its security can be tenuous depending on the institution.”
Service is not merely a third element of the academic mission, but is tied to teaching and research where either of the latter two are expected to be relevant and meaningful. As Northeastern University’s Urban Outreach Council describes in its mission, “the classic distinction between university and community is a false dichotomy. The university is part of the community and should operate accordingly. In order for communities to be vibrant, all of its members should be connected and operating at their full capacity and potential.” Northeastern is a private university; we should expect even stronger commitment from a public university such as UMass.
Labor studies is a field that has been growing in recent years. Despite the assertions of some, it is not a field solely interested in unions. It is a field that examines the phenomena associated with the social, economic, and political situations of low-income and working-class persons, particularly through the lens of collective needs and action. New scholarly journals such as WorkingUSA demonstrate the broad impact of labor studies has today through discourse on community, environmental, political, and working issues. Labor studies is a field that connects movement and community studies to practitioners’ education, thus making it an important professional discipline in the mode of other well-established scholarly departments such as law, business, city planning, and public policy. Public universities have a special responsibility to educating and producing such practitioners.
The Labor Center is one of the most important such centers in the country. It is one of the few public institutions where both exemplary research and graduate-level teaching is occurring in the field of labor studies. The Labor Center is an institution that UMass should not only be proud of, but should be among those it holds out as an example of what public higher education should and can accomplish. Together with such campus institutions as the Political Economic Research Institute, the Centers for Public Policy Administration, Popular Economics, and Economic Development, the Commuter Service and Housing Resource Center, the Everywoman’s Center, and the Legal Services Office, the Labor Center works in an academic environment dedicated to providing research, teaching, and service to people of Massachusetts, and not simply to corporate sponsors, as is increasingly the case across the country.
 Lee Benson and Ira Harkavy, “Higher Education’s Third Revolution: The Emergence of the Democratic Cosmopolitan Civic University,” Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research (Vol. 5, No. 1, 2000).
 David Maurasse, Beyond the Campus: How Colleges and Universities Form Partnerships with their Communities, (Routledge, 2001).
Bad Policy: Some Thoughts on the Insidiousness of Pseudo-Science, Conspiracy Theory, and Pseudo-History
Okay, so I’ve become convinced that this country has really gone off the rails on the crazy train. And while it can be funny at times, the implications for our Republic are in fact quite serious and disturbing. The number of people who quote urban legends as fact while feeling justified in refusing to accept evolution is downright disturbing. Well, maybe there are not a lot of people like that…but they sure are loud and the media gives them a lot of attention. So do politicians. And politicians make policy. It’s not good when the people the politicians respond to are the ones who embrace the pseudo-science and conspiracy theories of cable television and talk radio. This stuff is not harmless.
One hears challenges to junk science from various quarters. Oftentimes, it sounds like academic bickering. But, there is an important relationship between pseudo-science, conspiracy theories, and pseudo-history that goes way beyond the challenges to specific disciplines. These broad categories of fraudulent thinking work together to pollute and corrupt the democratic process. They create what might be described (or understated) as bad policy.
What’s important to understand is that a belief in pseudo-science creates conspiracy theories which then reinforce pseudo-history, which then creates a narrative that justifies the implementation of bad public policy. It might be mistaken, but it is more likely insidious.
What pseudo-science gives us politically is a warped understanding of evidence-based policy making. In areas such as energy and education policy, pseudo-science can be directly destructive by undermining our ability to deal with climate change or by teaching our children nonsense that will inhibit their ability to become critical thinkers. For the most part, pseudo-science gives us the unhelpful belief in society that everything is just an opinion and everyone’s opinion is of equal (scientific) value. Of course, that belief is typically only raised when attacking a position that is evidence-based or simply contradicts what someone else wishes were true.
Perhaps the lynchpin in this process is the belief in conspiracy theories. Contrary to some thinking on this, people don’t just believe in conspiracy theories because they are naïve, ignorant, or ill-intended, although some do. So many things that happen in history are the result of accidents or are coincidences. But, people want answers and they think that life is purposeful. Conspiracies seem so much more rational than coincidences or accidents to many people. And the urge to not be fooled is strong – even as people engage in fooling themselves.
Thanks to my academic training and sensitivities borne from political work, I first approached this problem with a more cautious – and easily misunderstood – example about safety-net policy. But, the consequences of such warped thinking and policy-making have historically-demonstrated consequences that are, well, frightening. And it is the consequences, not the ideology, that in the end is the real problem. So, let’s consider the process in another time and location. The consequence of pseudo-science, conspiracy theory, and pseudo-history then and there was something most (but not all) people today regard as something bad.
Let’s outline it:
Pseudo-science – The argument that races are different species and some are superior to the others.
Conspiracy theory – Jews, who consider themselves the chosen people, are out to rule the world and form a conspiracy that reaches into the highest levels of government and finance.
Pseudo-history – Here are some examples of invented history: Protocols of the Elders of Zion; German economic crisis caused by Jewish bankers and merchants; Communists are Jews and Jews are Communists; A revolution is underway to destroy German state and people.
Narrative – Jews form an evil conspiracy to undermine German way of life. There is historical proof in this document (usually the Protocols). Since Jews are a naturally inferior race it is permissible for the nation to take whatever means are necessary to defend itself from these people, including genocide.
Consequence – The Holocaust.
The result was six million Jews murdered in the furtherance of a policy that rested on absolute historical and scientific nonsense, whipped up by the conspiracy theories of right-wing politicians.
Evidence and science matter.
The Boston Herald in an editorial this morning claims that taxpayers are footing the bill in public sector unemployment claims. This claim has a basis in fact, but only because cities and towns are exploiting a “loophole”* in the law that allows them to not contribute to the UI trust fund. All private, for-profit employers must pay unemployment insurance premiums (or “contributions”) for their employees, but public and non-profit employers can opt out. The cases the Herald claims are paid for by taxpayers are the result of cities and towns refusing to pay premiums on their workers. In such cases, these cities and towns are legally responsible to reimburse the state unemployment agency for 100% of the cost of those unemployment claims. It is a penny-wise, pound-foolish strategy on the part of local public sector employers. It only works in an environment in which local public sector layoffs are unusual. That has not been true for several years now, but local employers prefer to play this loophole rather than participate in the shared risk aspects of the insurance system.
* “Loophole” is often misused in UI debates – and other policy debates – to describe an aspect of the policy that one disagrees with. A loophole is “an ambiguity or omission in the text of a statute through which the intent of a statute, contract, or obligation may be evaded.” The authority for public sector employers to opt out of paying UI premiums is clearly stated in the law. It is not a loophole, and I used the reference above tongue-in-cheek because of the way the it is so commonly used in policy debates these days.