Monthly Archives: January 2016

the library of Albert Shanker

IMG_0193This is part of the library of Albert Shanker (1928-77), which lines the walls of the conference room of the Albert Shanker Institute, which is inside the American Federation of Teachers’ Building in Washington. I was there earlier today. It seems fitting that such a library should rest in the heart of the AFT, exemplifying the long, rich, and living tradition of intellectual life within the labor movement (and—importantly—outside of universities).

The collection itself reflects a mid-20th century canon. There are books on Freud and idealist philosophers like Collingwood and Croce, as well as pragmatists like John Dewey, who was a founder of the AFT. There are many books about schooling and education, from a variety of perspectives. Several thousand volumes line the shelves.

Shanker was a highly controversial figure. In “Sleeper” (1977), Woody Allen’s character awakens 200 years after being cryogenically frozen and asks what happened to civilization. He’s told that a man called Al Shanker got hold of nuclear weapons. On issues of unionism, race, school choice, and foreign policy, Shanker made many enemies as well as friends, and probably deserved some of both. I don’t really know the whole story well enough to praise or bury him. I take the library more as a monument to the intellectual life of our unions, which is something to prize when they are under such threat.

Cf. Harry Boyte’s recent blog post on agrarian intellectuals during the New Deal and the powerful popular education movement they led.

the Journal of Universal Rejection

(Washington, DC) On a week when I got an article rejected almost instantly and then participated in an editorial committee for a different journal that celebrated our rising rejection rate, I just have to plug the Journal of Universal Rejection. Arguably the best journal in the entire universe, it rejects all submissions as not up to snuff.

From the instructions for authors:

The JofUR solicits any and all types of manuscript: poetry, prose, visual art, and research articles. You name it, we take it, and reject it. Your manuscript may be formatted however you wish. Frankly, we don’t care.

After submitting your work, the decision process varies. Often the Editor-in-Chief will reject your work out-of-hand, without even reading it! However, he might read it. Probably he’ll skim. At other times your manuscript may be sent to anonymous referees. Unless they are the Editor-in-Chief’s wife or graduate school buddies, it is unlikely that the referees will even understand what is going on. Rejection will follow as swiftly as a bird dropping from a great height after being struck by a stone. At other times, rejection may languish like your email buried in the Editor-in-Chief’s inbox. But it will come, swift or slow, as surely as death.

on voting by mail

Washington Monthly has a cover story by Phil Kiesling arguing that voting by mail would raise turnout substantially and also produce a more representative electorate, especially in primaries, thus reducing partisan polarization. Kiesling makes many good points, and his argument is definitely worth reading. Among other things, he is right to be frustrated by the research on voting-by-mail, although I wouldn’t characterize the problem as he does–as “the tyranny of dated, superficial, and/or irrelevant, academic research.” In fact, my colleagues and I are responsible for some of that research, and there are reasons that we analyze the data as we do. It is genuinely hard to measure the effects of a policy that has been adopted in only one or a few states. But that methodological challenge can limit our imaginations as reformers. Even though I don’t think he characterizes the research fairly, Kiesling helpfully challenges our imaginations.

Before getting into the methodological weeds, let me explain why I am not yet convinced that vote-by-mail would increase turnout. Below is Oregon’s turnout trend compared to the national trend. I show the presidential years and off-years as separate lines, because otherwise you get a confusing zigzag pattern. Oregon abolished polling places in 2000 and has run its elections entirely by mail since then. Turnout in the 2004 presidential election was strong, but not so great in 2008 and 2012. Turnout in the off-year elections since 2000 has been lower than it was in the 1980s and 1990s. I don’t see evidence of positive impact here.


Kiesling calls it a “problematic assumption” to measure turnout as I do above: as the percentage of all eligible citizens who voted. (My data come from Michael McDonald.) Kiesling would rather define turnout as the percentage of registered citizens who vote. But if votes-per-registered rises, and yet votes-per-eligible-citizens does not, then there is only one mathematical possibility: the percentage of the population that registered must have fallen. That’s not a good thing. So the only way to assess the net impact of a reform on our democracy is by measuring turnout as votes per eligible population. We always do this, not in a “selective manner … to overlook (or even disparage)” vote-by-mail.

My graph simply allows you to see whether turnout has risen or fallen in Oregon before and after the vote-by-mail reform. That is not really a satisfactory method because many other factors are obviously at work. Nor can we conduct randomized experiments with new voting laws. Thus the way almost all academics study state policy reforms is by building large datasets that include statistics from all 50 states over many years. Then we try to isolate the apparent impact of a given change, controlling for everything else that we have measured, including the baseline turnout rates for states prior to the reform.* That method has yielded a rough consensus in favor of Election Day Registration–mentioned by Kiesling and exemplified in our own research.

This method cannot, however, assess the impact of a reform that has only been implemented in one or a handful of states. The math just doesn’t allow estimates of impact when there are very few cases in the category of interest. Thus, frustratingly, we omit Oregon’s vote-by-mail system from most of our models. Kiesling is right to complain about that gap, but I know of no satisfactory solution. One potential option would be to lump universal vote-by-mail together with other reforms, to increase the number of cases, but that would hide any special advantages of universal vote-by-mail.

Kiesling says that the research “lazily tries to extrapolate absentee ballot-based data, inappropriately uses VEP-based yardsticks, and/or focuses on presidential contests only—ignoring midterm and primary elections, where the approach is best suited to show dramatic results.” Those are not fair complaints about our models.

I’d still vote for and recommend universal vote-by-mail, as an experiment. The graph shown above makes me a little pessimistic about its impact (particularly in midterm elections). And I do lament the loss of a secret ballot when elections move to mail. The secret ballot was a hard-won reform designed to prevent voters from being coerced by employers and relatives or from selling their votes. (If you promise to pay me for voting for A, but my ballot is secret, I can take your money and vote for B, which ruins the market. In an election-by-mail, however, your boss, your spouse, or a bribe-giver can check your ballot.) Kiesling says the Oregon Secretary of State is aware of “just a dozen documented cases,” and I guess we could live with that–although each case of coercion is a human rights violation.

More broadly, I resonate with Kiesling’s frustration. If a state does something bold and different, the standard methods of social science really struggle to assess its impact. When a bunch of states implement the same rather modest change, we can measure impact, but often it’s disappointing. For instance, we have found that the variation in states’ education laws does not seem to matter for students’ media literacy or electoral participation. I don’t conclude that reforming education is a waste of time, but rather that the prevailing reform strategies are too weak. A few states have done more interesting things with civic education policy, but we can’t assess their impact using multivariate models.

As citizens, we must keep our imaginations vivid and hopeful. Statistics are always about the past, and the future can be different. I welcome the Washington Monthly’s cover article as a spur to creativity. A 21st-century election system should look very different from the clunky mechanisms we have in place today. Universal vote-by-mail could be the answer. I just don’t read the existing research evidence as Kiesling does.

*Kiesling writes: “But point out that in 2014, the nation’s three UVBM [universal vote-by-mail] states’ voter turnout—based on the identical VEP denominator—was 16 percent higher than non-UVBM states, and the response is often something along the lines of, ‘Yes, but that’s irrelevant because Oregon (and presumably now Washington and Colorado) have always been high-turnout states.’ As if Minnesota, Maine, and Wisconsin are any different?” This is overlooking the power of a multivariate model, which takes into account the historical turnout rate as well as many other variables. We favor Same Day Registration not because turnout is simply higher in states that have it, but because it is higher controlling for other factors.

Krugman evolves

In today’s column, Paul Krugman defends president Obama as “an extremely consequential president, doing more to advance the progressive agenda than anyone since L.B.J.” Krugman challenges “the persistent delusion that a hidden majority of American voters either supports or can be persuaded to support radical policies, if only the right person were to make the case with sufficient fervor.” He rejects the premise that a “sufficiently high-minded leader can conjure up the better angels of America’s nature and persuade the broad public to support a radical overhaul of our institutions.” Obama’s achievements, Krugman says, “have depended at every stage on accepting half loaves as being better than none: health reform that leaves the system largely private, financial reform that seriously restricts Wall Street’s abuses without fully breaking its power, higher taxes on the rich but no full-scale assault on inequality.” And that, Krugman argues, is the only way change happens in our system.

Between 2008 and 2010, I wrote a dozen posts and a Huffington Post piece defending President Obama against Krugman’s persistent critiques from the left. Then Krugman argued that we were in serious trouble because we had been “governed by people with the wrong ideas.” Obama should have challenged Republicans’ ideas with much stronger and more effective rhetoric in order to change public opinion. Instead, the president compromised on his progressive stance, and therefore Americans did not understand their options. Communication was everything for Krugman in those days. One column alone included these phrases: “What Mr. Obama should have said… Mr. Obama could and should be hammering Republicans… There were no catchy slogans, no clear statements of principle.” The president “has the bully pulpit,” but it will be worthless unless he “can find it within himself … to actually take a stand.”

Now Krugman says that it has never worked to try to shift public opinion dramatically to achieve radical policy. “Even F.D.R., who rode the depths of the Great Depression to a huge majority, had to be politically pragmatic, working not just with special interest groups but also with Southern racists.”

I absolutely do not blame Krugman for changing his mind. I am not calling him on an inconsistency here. He is doing what any intelligent person should do: intently studying the unfolding of history and forming and revising his opinions. My views have also changed since 2008, and if they hadn’t, I would be ashamed of my pig-headedness. I call attention to Krugman’s evolved views because they provide a kind of evidence in favor of one view of American politics. A Nobel-laureate economist with a very sharp eye for politics has tried out a couple of hypotheses, and the accumulated evidence as of 2016 leads him to endorse the strategies of Barack Obama ca. 2008-10.