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Eric Ferguson

After reading Star Tribune columnist D.J. Tice’s column on the collapse of the 35W bridge it’s apparent he gets the concept of motivated reasoning, but not to the point of recognizing when he’s engaging in it. He takes one fact, that the gusset plates were built too thin, and weaves a whole narrative of an unavoidable accident that absolves the Pawlenty administration, were it true. His convenient cherrypicking of facts ignores the inconvenient fact that bridge inspectors had warned of potential failure of fracture critical components, and recommended structural work to include the gussets.
From the MPR link:

The recommendation made in the November 2006 report was rejected, but one expert in the sound-based monitoring technology said even the suggestion that so-called “fracture critical” sections of the bridge were susceptible for cracking should have sent up a warning flare.
“For somebody to be looking for cracks to initiate in a fracture critical member begs the question, why?” said John Duke, a professor of engineering science and mechanics at Virginia Tech who’s researched acoustic emission monitoring.

“When a fracture critical member is discovered to have a crack, that bridge should have been shut down yesterday,” he said.

It may not have been certain that such work would have found and fixed the gusset issue, but it was at least likely, and doing the work definitely would have made it impossible to blame the collapse on lack of maintenance. However, the decision was to go cheap and just resurface. After all, proper repairs would have cost more money, and nothing was more important than avoiding the tax increase that would be unavoidable if we were to really fix our infrastructure.
Even after Minnesotans looked at our roads and bridges and realized deferred maintenance had resulted in a deteriorated condition, Tim Pawlenty was so determined to please the taxophobic poobahs of the Republican Party that he vetoed a small and insufficient gas tax increase. It was passed over his veto by legislative supermajorities that included some brave Republican legislators who paid a high price for defying the anti-tax crowd that thinks infrastructure is free.
I wonder if Tice is warming up to argue that a thin gusset on the 35W bridge proves we don’t really need to raise the gas tax to fix our roads and bridges. Would we rather pay a little more for gas, or always wonder if the “fracture critical” parts were found and fixed? Or maybe it’s just normal that a Republican wants to help politicians of his party who are still dodging responsibility for the bridge. I’m willing to grant that 100% avoidance of all screw-ups is impossible, or at least so close to impossible as to be unreasonable. The real question then is the willingness to figure out how you screwed up, and Republicans, apparently, are nowhere near such willingness. Maybe that’s why they want to repeat the mistake, deferring infrastructure repairs to avoid a tax increase. Call it the fingers-crossed approach to maintaining old infrastructure.
Sure, we don’t have to raise taxes, because we have another option. We can just let our roads and bridges keep rotting; not a great option, but yes, an option.


Celebrating budget shortfalls

by Eric Ferguson on May 21, 2015 · 1 comment

UPDATE: Four governors with presidential ambitions and self-inflicted budget shortfalls
There’s some schadenfreude to be sure in the self-inflicted problems some Republican state governments are having with budget shortfalls, but there’s also a need to think and fact-check before speaking it aloud. Why start an “we told you so” sort of post with a “maybe not” sort of warning? Because as true as it is that Republicans caused some shortfalls with ill-advised but ideologically correct tax cuts, this is partly fallout from the precipitous decline in oil prices.
Plus it’s not fun to think about the problem getting even worse and Republicans taking the opportunity to inflict even more dysfunction on government than they have already. From an AP review of state budgets:

Alaska relies heavily on oil revenue and projects a $3.2 billion budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year. A special legislative session has been called after lawmakers failed to agree on a way to fund the budget, even though the state has plenty of money in reserves to cover the gap.
That’s not the case in Illinois, where lawmakers are trying to figure out how to close a $6 billion projected shortfall for the next fiscal year, due largely to the expiration of a temporary tax increase.
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who campaigned against the tax plan, has suggested cuts to health care, local governments and other areas. But lawmakers in the Democratic-led General Assembly say spending cuts alone will not close the gap.
In Kansas, the Republican governor and GOP-dominated Legislature now confront budget deficits after aggressive tax cutting that prompted them to reduce school funding this spring.
Districts across the state have cut staff and programs such as summer school, and at least eight are ending the current school year early to save money.


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clowncarIs this a ten-year-old acting tough on the playground, or an actual US senator seeking a major party nomination for president? The latter, sad to say. Marco Rubio thinks quoting movie lines is the way to scare terrorists. h/t Salon:

Not that this necessarily hurts his chances of winning the Republican nomination. As the Salon writer put it:

This is precisely the sort of dick-swinging swagger that conservatives loved (and still love) about George W. Bush. (When W. landed on the aircraft carrier to declare “Mission Accomplished,” G. Gordon Liddy was awestruck over how he could see Bush’s penis through his parachute harness.) The fact said swagger resulted in a decade-long foreign policy disaster that we’ll be struggling to clean up for many long years to come is secondary to the fact that the world knew that Bush was tough and would hit people really hard if they looked at America cross-wise. “Bring ‘em on,” Bush famously declared, channeling his inner action hero and taunting the enemies of America to just try and test our resolve.



Artist's conception. Not actually  a Republican primary voter

Artist’s conception. Not actually a Republican primary voter

So this is a bit scary. From a poll of likely Republican primary voters, and consider these are the people picking a major party candidate:


q23 Do you think that the Government is trying to
take over Texas or not?
The Government is trying to take over Texas 32%
The Government is not trying to take over Texas 40%
Not sure 28%

How nice that a plurality could recognize stupidity. However, add the believers and the undecided, and 60% of Republicans believe it’s somewhere between plausible and true that Jade Helm 15 is a cover for martial law or locking up the “patriots” in empty Walmarts. The only patriots locked up in Walmart are the workers locked in when their shifts are over but their managers want some free labor.

The PPP poll asked about presidential candidates and the results will affect #ThisGuyWantsToBePresident, but first, a slight tangent related to Jade Helm 15. A different poll had an unexpected result:

The Rasmussen survey found that particular concern was partisan: 50 percent of conservatives believed military training exercises would lead to greater federal control of some states. By contrast, 67 percent of liberals and 58 percent of those who identified as moderates said they weren’t concerned, according to the survey.

That’s right, you’re not seeing things. Liberals trust the armed forces more than conservatives do. This is foolish when there were troops in the streets of Minneapolis just today. I saw them! Are they seizing my guns? Are they planning to lock us up? Are they … having lunch in the same restaurant I am … oh. Right, Fort Snelling is close by. Never mind.
OK, enough laughing at the loonies and back to how the PPP poll affects #ThisGuyWantsToBePresident. The beginning idea is that by the time we know who the Republican candidate will be, the foibles of early 2015 will have gone down the memory hole no matter how relevant. So the hashtag can be searched on Twitter (and maybe Facebook to some degree) and the hashtag or the title can be searched here. Since the candidate could be anyone being talked about in national media, the idea was to just track them all. That seemed more plausible when there were fewer of them, but Rachel Maddow the other night counted 20 that are either officially running, unofficially running, or making “look at me!” noises and are too plausible as candidates to be blown off. I won’t speak for anyone else, but I give in. I can’t follow that many. Time to cull the sprouts, much earlier than planned, but I still don’t want to rely on my own sense that “no way this guy is going to win”. I want some data, and that linked PPP poll is rich in it.


CD1 Hagedorn in Cornish out

by Eric Ferguson on May 14, 2015 · 1 comment

h/t Daily Kos Elections
First district Rep. Tim Walz may be getting lucky, as his hapless opponent from 2014, Jim Hagedorn, is running again. Well, maybe not completely hapless, since he did beat a party endorsee in the primary, Aaron Miller. The endorsee worked at a biotech company but denied evolution is real, and they thought this was the stronger candidate. Primary voters preferred to go with the guy saying stupid misogynist stuff in his blog.
State Rep. Tony Cornish, R-NRA, announced he plans to seek reelection to his state house seat rather than challenging Walz. Given that he didn’t even have a DFL opponent in 2014, hard to blame him going for the sure seat. Come on DFLers of HD23B, make him at least campaign a bit in 2016.
Comment below fold.

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clowncarGuess I was wrong. I figured when Jeb Bush said, “What you need to know is that who I listen to when I need advice on the Middle East is George W. Bush,” that was as disqualifying a statement as any candidate for public office ever uttered. Forget president: were Bush a candidate for county board, or city council, or soil district commissioner said something like that, you’d assume his judgment was far too suspect to allow him to be further considered. But nope. Turns out Bush could come up with something even worse to say.
Oddly enough, Fox News gave him his, um, opportunity. Bush said, “I would have,” which is harmful given the question he was answering. “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?” Naturally, we on the Democratic side will be bringing that up more than once. Republicans will have to choose between acknowledging the reality of arguably the single biggest blunder in US foreign policy history, or playing to a base that insists in telling itself that the war went just fine until Obama screwed it up by pulling out (in compliance with the status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government, mostly negotiated under Bush’s brother, but never mind the little point that the Iraqi government wanted us out).
If Bush does go for the “I thought the question was given what we knew then” spin, that’s not necessarily better given how we learned too late just how much knowledge the Bush administration withheld from Congress and the press. That begs the question, just who is the “we” in “what we knew”? What the Bush administration really knew, or the parts it told us about?
UPDATE: Apparently, Bush is going to go for claiming he misunderstood the question. Though lest he be accused of admitting a mistake, “Yeah, I don’t know what that decision would’ve been”. And wasn’t the surge great? Chris Christie gave a sense of where BUsh’s intraparty opponents might go. Having the sense to say he wouldn’t invade knowing what we know now, Christie felt the need to bow to stupidity:

Christie said that he believed former President George W. Bush did make “the best decision he could at the time” given the information coming from the U.S. intelligence community and the situation on the ground in Iraq.

Sure, if you’re willing to forget Bush ignored all the information that didn’t fit the pre-determined conclusion, which unfortunately was most of the intelligence. But let’s blame the intelligence agencies for that I guess. And let’s pretend Democrats would have done the same thing: “And so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody. And so would almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.” Hillary owned up to the mistake, albeit not until well into the 2008 campaign and it cost her the presidency IMHO, and does anyone take seriously the notion she would have invaded Iraq had she been president after 911? Or any Democrat? “Almost everybody” doesn’t include most congressional Democrats, who figured it out even with the limited and often wrong information Bush provided. So no, Bush and Bush and bushies and other Republicans, you own the invasion and occupation of Iraq with all the consequences.
SECOND UPDATE: Bush came up with a bit of spin I hadn’t guessed at:

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) on Wednesday said that he has refused to answer whether he would order the Iraq War knowing what he knows now, because it would disrespect the troops, according to CNN.

I’m starting to think I actually want the Republicans to pick this guy.

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clowncarRepublican presidential candidates should have known they would be asked about Jade Helm 15, the military exercise in several southwestern states that has the nutty wing of the Republican Party, affectionately known these days as “the Republican Party”, thinking the federal government is sneakily establishing martial law, complete with locking up all the “patriots” and taking away everyone’s guns. The tin foil hatters were validated in their fear by new Texas Gov. Greg Abbott who showed that former Gov. Rick Perry was the smart one (please don’t tell me if Perry weighed in equally stupidly)(actually, yes, that would be fun, do tell me).
So given a chance to be the Texas Republican who retains a connection to reality, Sen. Ted Cruz chose instead to remember the base he’s playing to:

Cruz was more plugged in. “I have a great deal of faith and confidence in Governor Abbott,” said the senator. “He is a long-time friend and mentor of mine. You know, I understand a lot of the concerns raised by a lot of citizens about Jade Helm. It’s a question I’m getting a lot. And I think part of the reason is we have seen, for six years, a federal government disrespecting the liberty of the citizens. That produces fear, when you see a government that is attacking our free speech rights, or Second Amendment rights, or religious liberty rights. That produces distrust.”

You know what else produces distrust? Demagogic politicians telling reality-detached people their paranoid fantasies are true. Worth a read, Paul Krugman wonders what Democratic politician would give credence to something so crazy, and notices intelligent conservatives indulging paranoia in other areas: Paranoia Strikes Derp.
UPDATE: Well, turns out Perry went off in his own direction. He disagreed with his successor, but not because his successor is giving credence to paranoid delusion. No, Perry just thinks it’s wrong to question the military. “It’s OK to question your government. I do it on a regular basis. But the military is something else. Our military is quite trustworthy. The civilian leadership, you can always question that, but not the men and women in uniform.”
Does Perry not get that the military is part of the government, and supposedly as open to questioning as any other part of the government? Can’t there be a happy medium between believing the armed forces are out to impose martial law under guise of training, and saying you can’t question them at all?


Artist's conception. Not actually Ben Carson

Artist’s conception. Not actually Ben Carson

I’m not aware freshly officially declared candidate Ben Carson has jumped on that crazy train, but he has his own crazy railroad. Carson is running for president on the basis of being popular on the conservative speaking circuit, which popularity he gained by going on a wingnutty rant at a National Prayer Breakfast with President Obama in attendance. Speaking of which, why do presidents go to this thing when they aren’t themselves on the theocratically ossified right? Carson fit right in; Obama, not so much. Salon writer Jim Newell accumulated a bunch of examples of Carson being himself, from saying Obamacare is the worst thing since slavery and worse than 911, to saying the solution to peace between Israel and Palestine is to move Palestine to Egypt, and prisons produce homosexuals.
If you want your sleep disturbed tonight, just ponder on the fact Carson used to be allowed to work on brains.


Thugs and messaging fail

by Eric Ferguson on May 4, 2015 · 1 comment

The DFL of the my senate district recently started a book club with the intention of focusing on messaging and explaining Democratic values (no, you need not live in the district to attend). The first meeting discussed one of the preeminent books on the subject, Don’t Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff. Always a worthwhile subject, made more timely by the riots in Baltimore and a huge messaging fail that’s a prime example of the biggest way Democrats screw this up. Well, we said at the end of the book club we should think of some examples to add to what Lakoff provided. Might have been nice if subsequent events hadn’t made it so easy.
Let me put it his way: President Obama spoke for about 15 minutes on the Baltimore riots and the context in which they occurred, but he used the word “thug”, and nobody heard a single other word he said. Seriously, without digging up the video, name anything else he said. The president violated one of the rules of messaging, and the mayor of Baltimore committed the exact same violation. Never use your opponent’s words. If you do want to dig up the video, I dug it up for you.
It’s OK if you don’t get “framing” and “messaging” to such an extent that you could explain them to someone else. It’s enough for most of us to learn some dos and don’ts, so you can at least recognize it when you hear it and avoid some mistakes. One of those don’ts is don’t use your opponent’s words because your opponent has likely chosen those words to build or activate the audiences’ frames in a way that favor your opponent. You play into that by using the opponent’s words. You don’t have to get just what frame is being activated to be aware that when we hear the same word or phrase being used by Fox News, conservative talk radio, Republican politicians, and our conservative friends, it’s on purpose. In this case, the word used over and over again is “thug”. Even if you didn’t get that “thug” was being used as a racial code word to make you think “black” when you hear “thug”, the fact that it was repeated frequently should have told you it’s a word to avoid. So what harm did the president and the mayor of Baltimore do?

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baseball and cash in baseball gloveDemocrats rely on a ground game more than Republicans. Or maybe we do more on the ground because we’re better at it. I suspect ground game tactics are appealing because their cost is lower than advertising and we usually don’t have as much money to throw around as our opponents. Maybe we knock on doors more because our urban and suburban base live in houses closer together and walkable. My doorknocking where houses were spread out certainly made me think about that. Whatever the case, this much I’m sure about: our reliance on a ground game makes it important that we do it efficiently. Since we know that the most effective tactic for increasing turnout is the face to face conversation at the door, and that dropping campaign literature without talking to anyone gets us almost nothing, we should be valuing the proportion of doors where we get conversations, and we should be unimpressed by the raw number of contacts.
Yet that’s not what we’re doing.
This is a follow-up to Applying Moneyball to political campaigns, which I posted roughly a week and a half ago. I explained the concept of moneyball in politics at length there, so if you happened to read that, feel free to skip these next couple paragraphs. For everyone else, here’s the concept.
Moneyball is a book by Michael Lewis that could be about politics — though it’s actually about baseball. Broadly though, it’s about a contest where money is important, and the contestants have greatly varying amounts of it. That means the party with less money either loses, or finds the inefficiencies everyone else is missing. In baseball, that’s what the Oakland Athletics did while Lewis followed them during the 2002 season. They were willing to ask if they were measuring and valuing the right things. They challenged their experience and conventional wisdom with data. They used what statistics said were the best strategies. In the running argument between baseball insiders on one side, and outsiders who happened to be huge fans of both baseball and statistics of which baseball has many, Oakland was the first team to let the statisticians win the debates, and they found good players who were undervalued enough to be affordable. To see Democrats’ problem, replace “baseball” with “politics”, “Oakland A’s” with “Democrats”, and “New York Yankees” with “Republicans”. Basically, Republicans have a collection of crank billionaires who can engage in unlimited spending, and we don’t. They can throw money at problems and we can’t. So we need to find the inefficiencies.
So Democrats need to ask the same questions. Are we measuring and valuing the right things? Are we putting data ahead of experience and conventional wisdom? Are we acting on assumptions rather than knowledge and thereby pursing suboptimal strategies? To answer those questions, I asked what we value, and what we could value instead. The answers were coming on two levels, a macro level like taking back Congress, and a micro level, meaning the ground game where I spend much of my volunteer time. The first post was plenty long explaining the concepts without diving into the weeds of details, so I’m making separate macro and micro posts for detailed weediness. This is the micro post.
Though I said in the first paragraph that our campaigns our valuing the wrong thing by touting the total number of contacts, it’s not a useless number. It’s just that it’s useful only in terms of working out the proportion of doors we knocked on that turned into conversations. Since we have the research to tell us that conversations at the door are easily the most effective tactic at increasing turnout, we should be trying to figure out how to doorknock in such a way as to maximize the conversations and minimize the unanswered doors. Instead, by valuing the sheer number of doors, we’re actually pushing canvassers to do a poor job. That especially matters if we’re paying canvassers. If they’re evaluated on their performance by the number of doors they knocked on or the blocks they covered, then we’re actually providing an incentive to avoid conversations. Even volunteers will pick up on this notion that they’re doing a good job by walking more sheer blocks. Really though, if we don’t talk to anyone at the door, but leave some campaign literature and move on, then we’re getting no more impact than a lit drop, which is campaign jargon for leaving some literature at a door and moving on without trying to contact anyone inside, which is a tactic with a negligible increase in turnout.


daudtThe state House Republicans have something new they want to try, and it sounds exciting. To solve the problem of what to do with the projected $1.9 billion surplus, they propose a $2 billion tax cut, mostly for people with lots of money already. I understand no one has tried this before. Apparently fiscal conservatives have always been too concerned about deficits from the loss of revenue to give it a try. The theory is that if we give more money to people who already have lots of money, they invest it in ways that help everybody, and the growing economy means the government actually gets back more than the taxes were cut.
I can’t conceive of what could be wrong with the theory or how it could go wrong!
CORRECTION: After further research, I want to address an error in the first paragraph. Specifically, it turns out there’s a slight problem in that everything is wrong. This isn’t a new idea after all, but actually the policy Republicans always advocate when there’s a budget surplus. Or a budget deficit. Or when the economy is strong. Or when the economy is weak. Or when the wind changes. Moreover it has been tried, repeatedly, with consistent results, namely the government runs short of revenue and the wealthy recipients tend to just pocket the cash instead of investing it. Turns out they have so much money already that if there were good investment available, they’d already be investing. I asked how that squared with the “Reagan recovery” of the 1980’s, and turns out he raised taxes. A bunch. Because the deficit blew up. He just didn’t raise them on the same people who got the tax cuts. Oops. Also turns out there are these places called “red states” suffering slow economies and chronic budget shortfalls. Wow. I wonder if these states are as red as my face is right now!