Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Jennifer Granholm and a Kantian antinomy of the 2012 election

I went to this presentation at UC-Berkeley, Four More Years: Obama's Re-Election and the Prospects for a Second Term: Annual Review of the Presidency 04/15/2013, mainly because former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm was on the panel. My wife came with me, so Jennifer Granholm got to meet her biggest Austrian fan!

Among other things, Granholm seemed to be very confident that Hillary would run in 2016 and that she had good prospects. The panel discussed the Grand Bargain in process terms and I noticed she was careful not to talk about Obama's proposed SocSec/Medicare cuts as though they were in any way a good idea. I asked her afterwards, "How much of a screw-up do you think it was for Obama to propose benefit cuts to Social Security and Medicare?" She gave a modified version of the Obama loyalist answer, saying that she thinks it will probably work out okay because the Republicans won't agree to increased revenue and that it was a ploy to make the Reps look unreasonable. She said during the main presentation that if Obama agreed to a deal with just SocSec/Medicare cuts it would simply be doing what the Republicans want. Since that's the road Obama's gone down, I hope she's right as far as it goes. But there are way too many ways it could go wrong.

The hardcore Obama loyalist position was illustrated well by the brilliant Tom Tomorrow in this 04/15/2013 Moment of Truth cartoon, with Obama Middle Man explaining to the Obama Apologist why he's proposing cuts in benefits to Social Security and Medicare:

On other current issues, she thinks any gun regulation will die in the House. With the Senate's collapse on the issue today, her idea about the House may not get tested any time soon! But she was expected an even more watered-down version to get through the Senate. But she made the biggest emphasis of the panel on what that means in terms of the disconnect of Congress from the people of the country. She pointed out that more people in the US support background checks than believe in God and more than those who like kittens!

She also thinks Obama will make a serious push for immigration reform.

The other panelists included Mark Barabak of the Los Angeles Times, Tammy Frisby of the Hoover Institution, and Lynn Vavreck, a political science professor at UCLA.

The "Kantian antinomy" title occurred to me in connection with a discussion that took place especially between Vavreck and Granholm. Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781 with subsequent revised editions) gives four sets of antinomies, each of which is two opposing arguments about what in philosophy is known as "special metaphysics," questions about the God, the ultimate origin of the world/universe and the soul. Each pair of arguments is framed so that one completely excludes the other and neither can be reconciled based on the viewpoint they assume. This was a method of argument used by ancient Skeptic philosophers to argue against metaphysics as a valid source of knowledge.

Granholm and Vavreck didn't talk about Kant. Vavreck insisted on talking about statistical studies of what influences voter outcomes, and fixed in particular on her argument that an improving economy virtually guarantees the re-election of the incumbent President. Granholm and Frisby both mentioned how impressive the Obama get-out-the-vote (GOTV) operation was, and Vavreck made the argument that those didn't show up as statistically significant in the results. She insisted that Party affiliation and the state of the economy, and most specifically whether it was growing and by how much, were the only accurate predictors of the outcome of Presidential elections. She did allow that since the economy would work against Mitt Romney, he would have been well-advised to try shift the emphasis of the campaign away from the economy.

The Governor pushed back pretty hard on that line of argument. Of course, the "ground game" and the campaign style makes a difference in the outcome. Vavreck conceded that those factors only make small differences at the margins, and enough of those could theoretically add up to be significant.

The reason it made the think of the irreconcilable argument of Kant's antinomies is that in an important sense, there's no reconciling those two viewpoints stated with the assumptions at work. Also, I remembered having the same argument in the 1980s with an economics professor teaching a forecasting class. If you're using a mathematical model, economic data which are described in fairly consistent quantitative over extended periods of time will inevitable show up as strong indicators compared to more quantitative factors like the candidate's projection of a sympathetic personality or similar subjective factors. It's also a different question to ask, "what kind of data could I use to predict election outcomes ahead of time?" than it is to ask, "What were the decisive factors in the election outcome?"

There are also basic assumptions in looking at American Presidential election that are at work. You effectively have to assume there will be two main candidates with some reasonably similar party organization behind them and at least enough funding for both to mount a national campaign. If the incumbent President's party had badly split or the organizational infrastructure and fundraising ability had somehow collapsed over issues not closely correlating to economic growth and the opposition party was strong on both those factors, then it's very likely that neither the state of the economy nor elements of electioneering strategy nor the "ground game" on turnout would not be nearly such large factors.

I also wonder how well the 1980 Presidential campaign would stand up to that particular scrutiny. What that professors years ago argued that what was decisive was not that the economy was growing, which it was in the second half of 1980, but what the stage of economic growth was doing to the unemployment rate.

Granholm also mentioned several major accomplishments of the Obama Administration: the stimulus bill of 2009; the auto industry rescue; Obamacare; green energy investments, though she noted that this has been rolled way back since 2010; the "race to the top" educational initiative; and, ending two wars. (That part starts on the video at around 1:22:30.)

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