advice from a fake consultant

out-of-the-box thinking about economics, politics, and more... 

Monday, January 28, 2008

On The Endgame, Or, Whither Goes Edwards?

As of this writing, four states have made their Democratic Presidential candidate preferences known; and for most voters the choices seem to be coming down to Obama or Clinton.

Which has not been so good for the John Edwards campaign.

While it is theoretically possible that he might yet surprise us all and garner the nomination, for the purposes of today’s discussion I’m going to assume that he won’t.

If that’s true, and the nomination is out, what might Edwards have in mind going forward?

I can’t say for certain...but that won’t keep me from guessing...which is what this discussion is all about.

The first place to start seems to be to identify what possibilities are open to Edwards, walk through each of those scenarios in turn, and see if we can’t gain some knowledge through the process.

So other than winning the whole thing, what might his options be?
I see five possibilities:

He could seek a deal to advance his personal or political interests, or to advance a particular cause.

He could remain in the contest, not with the intent of winning, but with the intent of denying victory to another.

He could seek another office. For example, he might run against Elizabeth Dole for Senator from North Carolina.

He could seek an Al Gore-like status in the political community by seeking to create a movement that outlasts this electoral cycle...essentially making him a “transelectional” political figure. (Another variant on this theme would leave Edwards as a sort of “public lobbyist” leading a “Two Americas” PAC.)

He could withdraw from the election into private sector employment, or some version of retirement.

Now let’s examine each of these scenarios in detail:

--First, the potential for dealmaking. When considering the possibilities here we have to ask two questions: who, from the Edwards point of view, has the most to offer in a potential deal; and which of the other candidates has the most to gain from an alliance with Edwards?

While the most likely choice for Edwards from a philosophical perspective would be Obama, I would suggest that ship has probably sailed (although there are rumors that suggest otherwise). South Carolina’s results suggest Obama has little to gain from Edwards except support among white males—but Obama was more successful at attracting white males than the Clintons.

If a backlash develops against the Clinton campaign tactics on February 5th, the advantage would likely continue to be Obama’s among most groups except possibly Hillary’s older white female base, with the biggest question being whether Obama can sustain his levels of younger voter turnout.

If Edwards remains in the campaign, and he were to retain the white male voter advantage as he did in South Carolina, this would suggest Obama can win without a deal with Edwards—assuming the manner of delegate distribution is somewhat similar to the vote counts. In this scenario I assume Superdelegates are primarily committed between Obama and Clinton, leaving Edwards little influence in how they are distributed.

If all of the above is true, that leads me to believe that the candidate with the most to gain from an alliance with Edwards might actually be Hillary. Consider that such a match would align older white females with white males. There is also the potential for the Clintons to access Hispanic and Asian votes (California and New York...) that are not currently aligned with Obama, potentially creating a 50% + 1 victory. The Clinton campaign could certainly combine their current message with the Edwards message in synergistic ways.

What might Edwards gain from such a deal? The most likely result would be a commitment to advance the “Two Americas” brand and program in a Clinton Administration. He could presumably negotiate a Cabinet position...especially in these days before February 5th as the Clintons do whatever they must to try to “lock out” Obama from the nomination.

Would he be willing to make such a deal? I have no idea...but I’ll bet the Clintons would.

--Would Edwards remain in the race to deny victory to another? I am not in a position to give a certain answer, but we can offer a flight of imagination to examine: if Edwards tried to make a deal with Obama, but such a deal could not be concluded, or if Edwards was unwilling to make a deal with any candidate...then the South Carolina results suggest Edwards could continue to siphon off enough voters (and delegates) to keep Hillary off the podium at the Convention.

Could Edwards, just by hanging around, deny Obama the nomination? Statistical probability suggests Obama cannot count on the support of younger voters to the extent he has up to this point. There will be smaller percentages of Black voters in future primaries than there were in South Carolina. With this in mind, such a possibility is certainly not beyond contemplation.

In order for all this to be successful, Edwards would need to retain his current level of support or improve upon it in the immediate future.

As I say, I can’t offer an opinion as to the probability of this set of explanations, but the potential for such actions is there.

--Might Edwards decide at this point to run for another office? Dennis Kucinich has left the race for the Presidency to concentrate on gaining re-election to Congress, and it is possible that Edwards might choose such a path for himself as well.

His very own North Carolina would be the perfect place for such a move—Senator Elizabeth Dole is a weak re-election candidate in this cycle with no “star” Democrat having yet emerged in opposition. If Edwards were to withdraw and place the bulk of his current resources into a Senatorial race he would be far better financed than Dole, with equal or better name recognition and a better record for this cycle...not to mention that Dole has no real weapon to use against Elizabeth Edwards, should the two of them choose to run against Dole.

--Does Edwards find his future as a transelectional figure? There is evidence to support the proposition that he could. Here’s what we know: First, there is today an organization called One Corps that is operated in parallel with the Edwards campaign; and it is dedicated to providing a place for volunteer activists to gather in an effort to alleviate some of the disparities addressed by the “Two Americas” discussion.

It is not difficult to imagine Edwards travelling around the nation addressing One Corps events and giving a “Two Americas” presentation that over time has an effect similar to Al Gore’s not-so-quixotic journey giving the “Inconvenient Truth” lectures...and it’s not so tough to picture Edwards linking up with Bill Gates, Jimmy Carter, Bono, and others, to take the whole thing international—essentially creating an worldwide “People’s PAC” that could influence policy here and abroad around the growing “Two Worlds” question.

--Might Edwards simply leave the race as other Democrats have done? As of today the Edwards camp seems determined to continue the journey, presumably seeking a role to play either in this phase of the campaign, in the runup to the convention, or at the convention itself.

If this continues to be true, it suggests that Edwards is more likely to remain than to withdraw, as long as he has access to resources...and as long as neither Clinton nor Obama do something so odious as to make Edwards feel he can no longer deny the other his support.

And with all that said, it’s probably time to sum it up:

--It is entirely possible that either Edwards or one of the other candidates might be seeking a deal.

--It is also possible that Edwards will not be making any deals, but is remaining in the contest to deny another the nomination.

--Edwards might seek another elective office, and opportunity exists today in North Carolina.

--He might choose to advance causes he finds important beyond this electoral cycle by enlarging the One Corps structure or something similar.

--He might simply withdraw into retirement or private sector employment. My own “guesstimation” is that he will be unlikely to do so when the option of One Corps already exists--and offers an excellent “fallback” position for a potential ’10 or ‘12 campaign cycle candidate with no particular contest yet identified.

All of this is contingent on Elizabeth Edwards’ health status, I suspect; and an unfortunate change in her current relatively good health could alter all of these calculations dramatically.

And I think, for the moment, that’s where we stand: at a currently unknown point in the Edwards endgame that may become far more clear after the February 5th delegates are counted...or it may become far more muddied, to the delight of every political pundit in the country.

In about eight days, we’ll find out.

Friday, January 25, 2008

On Drugs, Or, Through The Looking Glass

As so often happens, I was getting my daily coffee and doing the blah-blah with my friendly baristas, and in the course of the conversation we discussed how the choices we make about drugs are so strange.

My basic point was that crack is a crime...while coffee is a growth industry...but fundamentally, the two are not all that different.

Then the conversation got really strange: I began to speculate what the world might look like if the reality had been reversed.

The next thing I knew, I was writing this story.
Follow along and we’ll see what happens.
And a small warning: there’s satire ahead, so be careful.

For starters, long-haul trucking might not really change that much; except that truck stops would no longer sell those “energy” pills you so often see near the cash register today, and the diner would be real popular.

I’m old enough that I can remember some of the “vintage” ads—and my favorite would likely feature a wife out for dinner at the neighbor’s house...dessert is being served...and a muted voiced that represents her thoughts says: “He never has a second hit of crack at home...”. The camera then pulls away to reveal the neighbor uses Smaxwell House crack...the smoother, never bitter, more robust crack that really satisfies.

Companies like Folgers and NestlĂ© would have major operations in Columbia (sound familiar?)—and it’s reasonable to presume that mountainous, tropical countries around the world would also have coca plantations...meaning players we know today in Africa, Indonesia and Asia would likely be involved in the crack business as well.

The restaurant business would be similar but different—some would gather at the all-night diner for a late night pick-me-up (art would be affected as well...imagine what Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” might look like), breakfast would feature Flo down at the Denny’s serving “hits of Joe”; and it’s unlikely refills would be free.

Dunkin’ Doughnuts (and certain Tim Horton’s) would look a lot different...except between 1:00 and 6:00 AM, where things would hardly be any different than they are today.

Just like everything else in America, somebody would come along to “kick it up a notch”; and there’s no reason not to believe a Starbuck’s-equivalent company wouldn’t emerge. Those who are familiar with the arc of corporate history might be able to envision the result: the rise of Crackbuck’s from a single store serving dozens of “hits” a day to a giant chain spreading its unique brand of ambiance so far and wide that eventually you could, as I can today in my own home town, stand in front of a Crackbuck’s, turn around, and see another Crackbuck’s across the parking lot.

Eventually trash cans across the world would be filled with “to go” pipes emblazoned with the Crackbuck’s logo...the words “Venti”, “Grande”, and “Doppio” will likely remain in the lexicon...and it’s not that hard to imagine the migration of the Crackbuck’s brand into “lifestyle” products such as logoed non-spill “commuter pipes”, music, and maybe even movies—“Akeelah and the Buzz” being the first title in the series, and if that’s successful, maybe more.

But just like fine wines, and handcrafted beer, competition would eventually come along.

That’s where I told my baristas they would be in this scenario: the ones with extra skill hand-crafting hits for each individual customer; as opposed to the Crackbuck’s business model of automated crack machines and volume, volume, volume. They would probably be among the group of companies trying to bring more of the crack dollar to the farmer by supporting some kind of an organization like “Pipe of Excellence”.

The ones who aren’t just a “to go” operation; but instead the kind of place where customers sit by the fireplace and linger for a while.

What about offices? For those workers, the endless cubicle hours might well just fly by, and managers could actually find their employees anxious to return the next day. Some may actually look forward to Monday morning gossip, doughnuts, and the office crack dispenser.

Personalized pipes at work would replace the coffee mug; which would itself be an object of suspicion, and the sort of thing you would have to hide if you had one at home and your parents were coming over for dinner.

Mormons would spend less on dental care than other Americans; but due to the enormous volume involved heart valve replacements in this country would be no more expensive than Lasix...and everyone would have their favorite heart valve brand.

Imagine what it would be like for law enforcement: smugglers trying to get coffee into the US hidden in kilos of cocaine, coffee-sniffing dogs deployed at the airports...and along I-95 sheriffs and “Coffee Task Forces” would be constantly seizing the vehicles of those who try to move their illegal beans up the East Coast.

Presumably the jails would be so full of the bean-addicted that alternative means of detention would be studied...which would mean coffee would also be a growth industry, in a “we can charge for home detention” kind of way.

Coffee filters and little tiny baggies will be sold in special stores; and they will be “not intended for illegal purposes”, the owner will tell you, but instead intended for some industrial use—or perhaps, for tea. Melitta products would be something you have mail-ordered into the country in a plain wrapper from Amsterdam.

So what’s the point of all this musing?

How about this: everything I’ve been describing sounds ridiculous on its face...but in contrast, so does the current reality of drug enforcement in this country. Coffee is OK, those “energy” drinks are OK, the pills at the truck stop are OK...and until the beginning of the 20th Century so were the very drugs we’re locking people up for today.

But today, crack is a crime, and coffee is a growth industry.

It’s all very strange, isn’t it?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

On Things Odd, Or, What I Think About While Shoveling Snow

It’s been snowing again, which means I have to get the accursed stuff out of the driveway before it freezes into the crust of slipping and sliding that can make that first step such a doozy in the morning.

Of course that leaves me a fair bit of time to think…with all its attendant consequences…and as a result I have not one, but three topics that will be brought to the table. Each is, on it’s own, insufficient for an entire story, but together, they paint an odd pattern of what we see as a people…and what we don’t.

And with that, our first story:

It is early January, and as a result the narrow window is open for that most bizarre of movie marketing rituals: the claim that the title being advertised is “the funniest movie of the year”…which has expanded, not unlike the Academy Awards, to include new categories of recognition: “most terrifying”, “most heartwarming”, and “best family movie” being just a few examples.

And every time I’m exposed to one of these ads-particularly as they get closer to January 1st-I find myself thinking not so much about the first person who ran one of these ads (although that would have been a moment of epiphany worth witnessing), but more about the rest—the person who looked at that first ad and said: “I am so gonna steal that next year”, and of course, all the others who have felt the same way.

There have to be summer marketing lunch meetings (at only the most trendy of LA restaurants, naturally) where high-powered “managers of genius” gather to plan the ad buys for the movies that are scheduled for those release dates; and I suspect at every one there is a subset of that group who gathers--and laughs and laughs and laughs at our odd ability to be swayed by the ads they’re planning to buy.

But that’s an easy one…let’s move on:

Greenpeace is certainly a group that seeks to perform noble work, and at the moment they are on a quest to engage the Japanese whaling fleet in the waters of the Antarctic. And I applaud them for that noble work. But as you’ll see, there’s a twist to the story we’re about to tell that makes this particular noble work seem very odd indeed.

What is going on is that the Greenpeace ship has been searching the ocean for the fleet; which consists of a “processor” or “factory” vessel and numerous smaller vessels which actually catch the whale and bring it to the larger ship.

In the past few days the vessels have been located, and the strategy now is to remain in close contact with the factory vessel. The thinking is that with the Greenpeace ship in close enough range to film the activities on board the Japanese ship there will be a reluctance to process any whales; and at the moment they are correct.

But the Japanese have a plan.

The factory ship has turned away from the support fleet, and they are at the moment headed to an unknown destination with the Greenpeace crew following…but here’s the rub: the Japanese have the ability to be refueled at sea using refueling tenders, and there is no such facility available for the Greenpeacers.

Which leaves Greenpeace in an odd situation: as long as they can continue to burn fuel, which is damaging to the Earth, they can continue their work to save the Earth.

Which brings us to our final odd story of the day:

The Governor of the State of Washington, Christine Gregoire (famous for her amazingly close multi-recount victory in 2004), in an effort to save the reported 200 lives lost to drunk driving, is proposing that the State reintroduce “sobriety checkpoints” as an enforcement tool.

The checkpoints are not in use today because the Washington State Supreme Court found the idea to be constitutionally unacceptable under the State Constitution’s personal privacy protection (see Article 1, Section 7), is more specific than the United States Constitution’s.

There will be many arguments for and against: as examples, supporters might point to the savings of life (“whatever we can do to save even one innocent life is worth it…” seems to be an argument that will be adopted), some might even argue that the privilege of driving overrides any expectation of privacy, and others will presumably argue that by limiting the application of the checkpoints we can limit the damage to civil liberties.

Opponents can be expected to argue that the presence of checkpoints does not create a causal link to savings of life, that perfect correlation of checkpoints and life savings is impossible, therefore some number of lives lower than 200 might be saved, and that the burden of stopping large numbers of the innocent overrides the government’s compelling interest in trying to prevent the loss of life using this tool.

As a cynic, I would also have questions about where these checkpoints might be located. For example, I would be surprised if checkpoints were set up around the hotels where political fundraisers are conducted…or around the stadiums following any professional sporting event. I would not be surprised if minority communities eventually came to perceive them as unfairly targeting their neighborhoods…or if certain (wealthy) communities set them up more or less full time as a way of “guarding the border”. But I digress.

The odd thing about all of this is that even though I vehemently disagree with the Governor’s position, I appreciate the difficulty she faces in trying to balance the two competing -but fundamental-interests involved. The first, her sworn duty to the citizens to protect and defend the State’s Constitution—including its protection of personal privacy; balanced against the second…the duty to protect life and property interests that has led her to offer this proposal.

Which brings me to my final, most odd thought for the day—a defense of politics: despite what we might say about them, the people we might oppose are often decent of heart and well intentioned; and sometimes their perception is that they are forced to choose between more than one “right” answer, as our last example so clearly shows.

This electoral cycle, if we hope to advance causes that matter to us, let’s remember that we will need to unite with those we might not always agree with (remember the purple voters?)…which is why we should consider adopting a Tip O’Neill tactic: the ability to sit down with the other side over a nice dinner…or a game of poker…or a Saturday afternoon BBQ…and come away from the thing with a sense that, despite the disagreements, we can all respect-and even enjoy-our connections as people, and as Americans, and as people seeking to get many of the same things done.

Not only is it a great way to win elections…and a great way to actually govern…it makes for a better country—and if we take the concept offshore, it’s a great way to make a better world.

And that’s what I think about when I shovel snow.
Odd, isn’t it?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

 On Considering The Past Week, Or, It’s Time For A Difficult Conversation

There are many unknowns after the public spoke in Iowa and New Hampshire this past week; but one thing we do know is that you and I are just as good at predicting the outcome of these things as most of the experts.

To be honest, all the confusion is exactly why I’ve kept my mouth shut until now.

I still don’t think I can offer effective predictions...but that’s not my goal for today.

Instead, we need to have a talk about what may have made so many New Hampshire polls so wrong, and how that might affect the top three Democratic contenders...and maybe Richardson as well.

It’s not happy talk, and some of it takes us to very unpleasant places—but it’s a talk we need to have.

First of all: what exactly happened?

As far as we can tell, following the Iowa caucus results virtually all the official predictors were way off on the Obama/Clinton results in New Hampshire.

It is reported that even the campaigns misjudged the outcome; and as of Monday night the media had pretty much put Hillary on “circling the drain” watch, with the basic idea being that Obama would win in New Hampshire by double digits, then Nevada and South Carolina...potentially wrapping up the nomination before the February 5th primaries.

Even Bill Clinton told New Hampshire voters they had made a mistake placing their primary so close to the Iowa caucus—that they would be swayed by the emotion of it all and make a bad choice.

Voters behaved differently in New Hampshire than in the Iowa caucus process, however, and as a result Hillary garnered a higher percentage of female voters of all ages. Additionally, Obama failed to achieve the turnout of under-30 voters that he had in Iowa. Beyond that, the anticipated impact of independent voters choosing to vote in the Democratic primary did not materialize.

Edwards did not win in either state, and in fact his percentage of support declined from one locale to the other.

As of this writing it seems unlikely that Obama will have the contest wrapped up by February 4th.

Next: what caused so many in New Hampshire to misread the vote?

Many observers point to Hillary’s “softer side” coming out; but I have to ask two additional questions at this point:

--Did New Hampshire’s female voters come to perceive this as an “us against them” election—and can this perception be exploited to similar effect in other states?

--Has the increased potential of an Obama Administration created a racial backlash that was reflected in Tuesday’s vote...and can it be mitigated...and is this possibility going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to measure by polling?

As for the first question: it has been the pattern in this campaign for Hillary to develop the mythology of herself fighting against the “boy’s club” who’ve been ganging up on her for 35 years or so while also stressing the historic nature of this election—that she is the first “electable” woman on the Presidential campaign trail.

The problem with this tactic is that it can reinforce the “Hillary as victim” perception—which can create as many negative feelings about her as positive ones, divides rather than unites voters (not a good thing in a general election), and may also send purple voters toward the other candidate...particularly if Romney, McCain, or Giuliani (or Obama, in “open” primaries) can succeed in positioning themselves as “competent” and “strong” choices.

She has made an effort in recent days to present herself as the “change and experience” candidate...and this tactic may help to draw in the “historical” female voter with fewer potential negative side effects than the “victim” portrayal.

Which brings us to racism.

Not only was Obama projected to win in New Hampshire based on pre-election polling, exit polls were projecting Obama to win by 5 points or better. (For the foreign reader, exit polls essentially consist of hanging around polling stations and asking: “How did you vote?”)

Another significant fact: polling on Republican voters was reasonably accurate...suggesting that the same pollsters, in the same state, polling a similar universe of voters were perfectly capable of delivering accurate polling—if the Party in question is fielding all white male candidates.

As of this moment, there is no hard evidence to suggest that racism has played a role...and there are plenty of other potential explanations for the polling errors. Examples include a deliberate effort to deceive pollsters on the part of voters that is not racially motivated, poor methodology, misreporting by the pollsters, or a failure of analysis on the part of the experts.

However, there is no doubt that some number of voters might also have chosen to announce they voted for Obama even though they never intended to—and that for some of those voters Obama’s race did factor into that decision to some degree or another.

Can a “racism effect” be detected in polling?

To make an extremely long and scientifically arcane story short: kind of, sort of. There are techniques that can be used to create prediction models, but those models are not certain predictors—and it will be extremely difficult to differentiate between the possibility that voters chose to deceive for racial reasons and non-racial reasons; and to what extent racism plays a role in predicting any individual demographic’s future decisions. (Similar problems are faced by those seeking to predict the extent of marital infidelity, or college binge drinking, or any number of other social metrics in a population.)

What can be done to mitigate the potential effect of racism?

There are things that are within Obama’s control: he can continue to speak in the plural pronoun (“we can create change...we can move forward...”), he can continue to present a positive message, and he can continue to present the argument that “joining the movement” is as good for America as it is for Obama—that supporting his cause is in your own self-interest, and that of your family and community. (Some might also suggest efforts to drive turnout of younger voters is also a step in the right direction, but I have no evidence to suggest that those voters are more or less likely to factor race into their decision-making process.)

Of course, these arguments will also be helpful in a general election where the effort to retain purple voters and attract historically Republican-leaning voters is much more important.

He can also make efforts to increase his own perception of “inevitability”...and this is where the conversation turns tough.

John Edwards, it’s time for you to make a deal with Obama.

I say that because as things stand today you will either win the nomination...or you risk becoming the “Ralph Nader” figure that prevents Obama from doing so...and at this moment, the second seems more likely than the first.

My advice for you is to either make a deal with Obama that makes you some sort of “Two Americas” czar in an Obama Administration; or lock up the Vice Presidential job with the agreement that you are allowed to be an active member of an Executive partnership.

Time is short, and the current strategy is literally a roll of the dice that leaves you less and less power as time goes on. Consider that the Edwards strategy can now be summed up as: “win South Carolina, hope someone collapses...and it’s better for us if it’s Obama”.

On top of that, there was a dramatic decrease in support for the Edwards cause between Iowa and New Hampshire...and Obama may be very tough to beat in South Carolina. And now Nevada is slipping away...

Now, John, you have to understand that I’m coming to you here as a friend, but I think we missed the boat. The more primaries that go by that you haven’t won, the less ability you have to influence events. The effort since Iowa to moderate your attacks on Obama (‘Change won...”) is a step in the right direction; and if you throw your weight behind Obama now, you have the chance to be seen as the player who upended Hillary.

Plus your presence on the Obama platform is an implicit statement that this is an election that transcends race...and reinforces the issue of “Two Americas” by putting your voice in the harness with Obama’s.

Of course, the Obama campaign will seek to add other voices to the conversation—and Janet Napolitano’s endorsement suggests she might see herself as either an Obama cabinet member...or the “balancer” that would make a perfect VP nominee. Richardson has not, as of this moment, endorsed any candidate either—and he may be seeking his best deal between Clinton and Obama.

If your voice is joined to theirs too late, your influence will decrease proportionally—so the time is now...not after Nevada, and certainly not after a third place finish in South Carolina, should that occur (or both...).

There are those who will strongly disagree with this analysis, and I would expect them to say something along the lines of: “Edwards is the only candidate who is poised to offer real meaningful change...Obama will negotiate with players who will not allow reform, and only Edwards understands that there is no reason to even negotiate with those who will make every effort to block any real threats to the status quo.”

And I would not be inclined to argue with that analysis.

However, we now find ourselves in a situation where there is one Democratic candidate who is more inclined to represent the status quo than any other, and two who represent more progressive agendas. If the two progressive candidates are divided, the other will likely win. If the two progressive candidates join forces, they will likely win.

And in the end, it’s not the person leading the cause that’s the most important—it’s the cause.

Politics is the art of compromise, and this is the time for Edwards and Obama to make the big compromise. That may mean an Obama Administration does talk to players Edwards would rather not, but it could also mean a Vice President Edwards in charge of those talks.

To sum all this up, there is a need for the progressive voices in this race to join together, the results in New Hampshire offer some hints that racism may have been a factor, there are positive steps that could be taken by Obama-and others-to prevent that discussion from gathering steam; and it is possible for all the progressive players in the race to join together and effectively garner the nomination.

And for those of us seeking to advance a more progressive could be the best of both worlds: Obama and Edwards backed by Janet Napolitano (and potentially Richardson), presenting a progressive, experienced, nationally balanced, trans-racial image; with Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Edwards doing the same against any potential Republican “family values” opposition on a highly personal and emotional level.

What’s not to love?