Thursday, May 12, 2022

What is your vote really worth?

 From time to time, as elections approach, I think about the value of a vote. The right to vote and have your vote actually count, as opposed to authoritarian elections where the dictator gets 99 percent, is priceless, but your individual vote is not worth as much as you think it is.

Votes are essentially a commodity and are subject to the laws of supply and demand. One of the economic laws that most of us are familiar with states that prices, or value in this case, decrease as supply increases. So in an election with many other voters, your vote is worth less than in an election in which there are few voters.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Local elections have few voters, especially in off years. For instance, my county had about 20,000 voters in 2020 and about 371,000 people voted in my congressional district. My vote would obviously carry a lot more weight in a county-wide (1/20,0000) election (or smaller) than in the congressional contest (1/371,000).

If we expand the view to statewide elections, my vote matters even less. In Georgia, where I live and vote, there were about 4.9 million voters in 2020. My vote was a drop in the bucket.

In presidential elections, the individual vote makes the least difference. Aside from the fact that you are one among all the other voters in your state, you have 49 other states and the Electoral College to contend with.

The Electoral College uses a winner-take-all system in every state except Maine and Nebraska, which distribute their electoral votes by congressional district. So if you reside in one of the approximately 40 states that is not a battleground state (a list that varies somewhat from year to year), your state’s electoral votes are fated to go to one party or the other and there’s not a dang thing you can do about it. Votes for president by Democrats in Texas or Republicans in California are essentially worthless.

This isn’t to say that I oppose the Electoral College or think that minority party members shouldn’t vote if they live in a state dominated by the other party. The Electoral College is designed to prevent populous states from overwhelming the smaller states in presidential elections and it does that well.

If there was no Electoral College, small states like Arizona, Ohio and Wisconsin would never see presidential candidates. Contenders would spend all their time in big, metropolitan states where the donors and big media markets are. As the system currently stands, candidates need the small states.

The Electoral College also helps to provide circuit breakers to guard against fraud. Without the Electoral College, Republicans could have “found” extra votes in a state like Texas to offset the few votes needed by the Trump campaign.

I’m not just picking on Republicans though. Democrats probably would have tried the same thing in a close election like that of the year 2000. I don’t trust either party when it comes to counting votes.

Even if you know without a doubt that your state is going to go for the opposing party’s presidential candidate, it’s still important to vote. Why? Because of all those local races where your vote really does matter. The presidential and statewide races may be the main event, but there are other fights on the card where you can have an impact.

And those races probably affect your life much more than who is sitting in the White House. With Congress all but paralyzed by both parties’ inability to compromise, the filibuster, and legal challenges to any legislation that somehow does run the gauntlet, it’s rare to see any big changes coming through Washington, D.C. Not so for state and federal governments.

In quite a few states and cities, the elections are decided in the partisan primaries because you can’t get elected dog catcher as a member of the minority party if you are outside a few pockets of opposition. Primary elections reward extremism since the party base comprises the pool of primary voters. As a result, we get de facto one-party rule and a lot of broadly unpopular legislation that comes with it. This is why deeply partisan states like Texas, New York, Florida, and California are home to so many radical (and radically stupid) laws.

To counter this, we need more moderates voting in primaries and we need more minority party voters pulling the lever in general elections. That’s particularly true in smaller elections where a small number of voters could change the outcome.

And these are the elections that matter. If you don’t like the way your school system is run, vote in the school board election instead of federal politicians who want to dictate a national education policy. Concerned about crime in your town? Vote for mayors and councilmen who will clean up the city rather than national-level demagogues.

The irony is that these small elections that matter the most and have the most direct effect on our lives are the hardest to become educated about.

Right now, early voting is underway in Georgia’s primary elections. My deep-red county is one of those in which the November election is a mere formality so I’m trying to do my due diligence and research the candidates, especially those vying to replace our old county commissioner, who is retiring. There are two options and both campaigns are run primarily through Facebook pages, which mostly consist of pictures of grandkids and professions of love for the county, and yard signs. It’s all about name recognition.

I took the unusual step of tracking down email addresses for both candidates and sent them a few questions are relevant issues. So far, neither has responded.

And don’t get me started on judicial elections. Georgia is one of the states where judges are directly elected in nonpartisan elections, but just try to find information about these candidates. (For years, one of the most popular articles that I wrote was a voter guide for judicial candidates. I was the only one that did one.) It’s largely a moot point anyway because only two of the seven judicial races on my ballot have more than one candidate.

I’m definitely thankful for the right to vote. I’m also thankful that we have elections that matter.

But exercising the right to vote is an act that people should give more thought to than just looking for the (R) or (D) after a candidate’s name. Find out what the candidates stand for (and whether they are crazy or not, a big problem lately), don’t just vote for the guy with the most signs or the one your party recommends.

It isn’t easy, but research those local races and vote in them, don’t skip them. That’s where your vote matters most.

From the Racket

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

A ban too far

 The Supreme Court has not overturned Roe v. Wade, but you’d never know it from listening to both sides on the abortion debate. The draft opinion that was released last week has yet to become law and, depending on what happens behind the scenes at the Court, may never become law. This hasn’t stopped the pro-choice movement from engaging in end-of-the-world histrionics as Steve noted yesterday. It also hasn’t stopped the right from spiking the football and trying to kick extra points even though the ball has not yet crossed the goal line.

It was only six years ago that Donald Trump was roundly criticized by pro-life activists for suggesting that women should be punished for obtaining abortions. For the most part, the pro-life movement has traditionally looked to protect both women and babies by focusing any criminal charges on those who provide abortions.

Now, however, at least one state is proposing such a law. The Washington Post reports that Louisiana Republicans are considering a bill that would allow women who get abortions to be charged with homicide. The text of the bill, which protects life “from the moment of fertilization,” expands the state definition of homicide to include unborn babies and would be enforced “without regard to the opinions and judgments of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

To be fair, not all pro-lifers support the bill, which is blatantly unconstitutional in its call to ignore federal courts. In fact, Louisiana Right to Life, the state’s preeminent pro-life group opposes the measure.

“The abortion industry, for decades, has exploited women and unborn children for profit. Women are a victim in today’s society because of the way the abortion industry sells abortion to our society. Our long-standing position has been to hold those accountable who are performing the abortions not necessarily the mother who’s having the abortion,” Ben Clapper of Louisiana Right to Life told Baton Rouge’s WAFB-TV.

The Louisiana bill comes on the heels of criminal charges against a Texas woman in connection with a self-induced abortion. Even though Texas law exempts women from being prosecuted for abortions, Lizelle Herrerra was charged with murder back in April, reports NBC News. Although the charges were quickly dropped, per Reuters, there are other cases of women being convicted for taking action that results in miscarriage.

In most cases, criminal codes target abortion providers rather than women. An example is a new Tennessee law that makes it a criminal offense to distribute abortion medication unless the doctor is physically present is an example.

So far, Louisiana appears to be the only state seeking to prosecute mothers who obtain abortions, but there seems to be somewhat wider support for other measures. In a move that seems calculated to summon up “Handmaid’s Tale” cosplayers, some Republicans have suggested overturning the legal precedent that prohibits bans on contraception.

At least two Republicans have criticized, the Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, which struck down the ability of states to ban contraception. One of these Republicans is Blake Masters who has vowed to only vote to affirm justices that would overturn Roe, Griswold, and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, another landmark abortion ruling. Masters is currently a senatorial candidate in the Arizona Republican primary.

The second, however, is Marsha Blackburn, the sitting Republican senator from Tennessee, who commented during the Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmation hearings that Griswold was "constitutionally unsound." Blackburn does not seem to have called for the decision to be overturned since Alito’s draft opinion was released, however.

In Idaho, House State Affairs Committee Chairman Brent Crane, quoted by the Idaho Statesman, said that he would hold hearings to consider bans on emergency contraception and abortion pills, citing safety concerns. Crane clarified that he did not oppose contraception in general.

There does not seem to be a real move afoot by Republicans to ban contraception, but some, like Mississippi Governor Tate Reed, don’t rule it out. In an interview with Jake Tapper, Reed gave CNN its headline by only saying that banning contraception was "not what we are focused on at this time."

Meanwhile, a new Tennessee law that was widely reported to ban contraception, does not. The Tennessean reports that the state’s new law only bans abortion-inducing drugs that end pregnancies and not contraceptives or “morning after” pills that prevent conception.

A third new category of restriction is comprised of laws that restrict traveling out of state for abortions. A proposed law in Missouri would ban interstate travel for abortion by the state’s residents. This seems likely to violate the Interstate Commerce Clause, but legal scholars say that there is no clear precedent addressing the issue of states restricting their citizens while outside the state boundaries since the Fugitive Slave Act cases that date back before the Civil War.

“There’s no clear precedent saying that states can’t try to regulate out-of-state conduct if it has some effect in-state or if it [involves] one of their citizens,” David Cohen, a professor of law at Drexel University’s Kline School of Law said in Politico. “What these laws are doing is saying, ‘We have a different understanding of how America works, and that understanding is that if you live in this state, we control you everywhere you are.’”

Other states are considering legislation similar to the Missouri travel ban, which is modeled on the Texas law that moves enforcement of anti-abortion law to private citizens in civil cases. Both the Texas law and the Missouri bill are examples of atypical legislation that could be used to expand the power of the state far beyond abortion if courts allow them to stand.

Finally, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that Republicans would consider federal legislation to ban abortion at the national level if the Supreme Court strikes down Roe. This is an empty threat, however, since McConnell has also said that he would not support scrapping the filibuster to pass the ban. With the filibuster in place (and possibly even without it thanks to moderates like Collins and Murkowski), there is no chance of a federal ban clearing the Senate, much less President Biden’s desk.

I don’t think for a moment that it is a mainstream idea among Republicans to prosecute moms who get abortions or ban contraceptives or regulate interstate travel to get abortions, but I do think that such talk will be construed as mainstream by a lot of voters. I wrote last month that one of the biggest threats to the looming red wave this November was stupid things that will be said by Republicans. The draft opinion provided the spark for many such stupid comments. Stupid comments that are frightening to a lot of voters.

Keep in mind that while the conservative pro-life movement is happy about the prospect of overturning Roe, about 70 percent of Americans are not happy with the looming decision. An overwhelming number of polls show that a large majority want abortion to remain legal (although most want some restrictions on the practice).

Even those of us who support restrictions on abortion feel that many of these measures go too far. The point where unborn babies become alive is an uncertain one and the vast majority of voters support exceptions for rape, incest, to protect the life of the mother, and in cases of serious health problems for the baby. Effective, low-cost, available contraception is one of the best answers to reducing the need for abortions.

Republicans would do well to move on from the abortion issue if and when the Supreme Court hands down its decision overturning Roe. Pushing for more and more restrictive policies and denouncing birth control is only going to help the Democrats fire up their own base and push moderates away from the GOP.

From the Racket

Monday, May 9, 2022

Wall Street's wild ride

 I have a friend on Facebook who, almost every time the stock market has a bad day, posts the numbers with a message along the lines of “Thanks, Joe Biden” Interestingly, he doesn’t post congratulatory messages to President Biden on days when the market climbs, but admittedly, the past few weeks have brought a lot of down days in the market.

The obvious question is how much control does the president have over the stock market? The answer is that he really doesn’t have a lot.

Image by Mediamodifier from Pixabay

Even the most ardent partisans would probably admit that there is no button in the Oval Office to make stocks go and down on a given day. Presidential policies do matter, but they might matter less than you think.

It seems much more likely that presidents and parties are buffeted along on economic seas by larger forces that are often beyond their control. For instance, the pandemic was going to affect the economy no matter how the government reacted to it. So was the war in Ukraine. For that matter, so does the business cycle.

In fact, the business cycle, the natural rise and fall of the economy in which booms alternate with recessions, is one of the strongest predictors of elections. If the economy is strong and inflation is low, the incumbent party generally does well. If the economy is weak, the opposition has an advantage.

Of course, this leads to viewing the economy through a partisan lens. The opposition has a vested interest in convincing voters that this is the worst economy since the Great Depression while incumbents have a good reason to tout every piece of evidence of economic strength that they can find.

A good example of this was the transition between the Obama and Trump Administrations. During the 2016 campaign season, Republicans painted the economy as weak, but as soon as Donald Trump took office, the same economy magically became strong to Republicans. This remained true even as the economy started to weaken after the onset of Trump’s trade wars. In reality, it was the same economy and part of the same expansion until Trump’s tariff policies brought on a manufacturing recession in 2019 and a more general recession in February 2020, a month prior to the onset of community spread in the US.

That brings us to one of my axioms: It’s a lot easier for presidents to screw up the economy than to boost it.

So, that leads to the question of whether Biden has enacted policies that would screw up the economy. To be honest, the answer is at least partially yes.

Biden’s first two years have been characterized by almost no major successes, save two. Early in his administration, he passed a $1.7 trillion COVID relief bill, the American Rescue Plan, that included $1,400 payments to Americans and child tax credits. Biden also won passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill, valued at one trillion dollars.

Both of these laws are funded heavily with debt and dump money into the economy, but that is little different from what Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump did. Did Biden’s spending bills cause our current bout of inflation? The answer seems to be at least partially yes.

I think it’s true that many Americans and businesses did need help to weather the pandemic. I think it’s also true that we could have been smarter about how to do it. Rather than shotgunning checks out to every American, it might have been wiser to identify those who needed assistance and focus aid on them.

Dr. Joshua Robinson, a professor of economics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, acknowledged to CNN Newsource that pandemic relief was necessary to prevent a deeper economic crisis, but added, “The trade-off is we have placed ourselves at risk for this inflation that we are now seeing. Now, the Fed has to pull the reins back a little bit. But they have to do so very slowly because if they do this too quickly, they could actually cause a recession.”

So, yes, the economic stimulus advanced by both Biden and Trump (who went so far as to put his name on stimulus checks) has helped to fuel inflation, but that isn’t the only cause. There is also pent-up demand from the pandemic which is paired with continuing supply chain problems. In other words, consumers are flush with cash and in the mood to spend after two pandemic years, but retailers are still having problems getting goods to market. These factors have combined to drive up prices.

Further, the war in Ukraine has also served to drive up prices further. In particular, oil prices spiked when Putin invaded Ukraine and have not yet returned to normal levels.

But that’s not all. Those of us who were in school a few decades ago might remember that Ukraine was once called “the breadbasket of the Soviet Union” for its food production. With many crops going unplanted or unharvested this year (or stolen by Russians), food prices have also increased and there is the potential that the crisis will lead to famines in poor countries of the world.

We started with the stock market and to help bring this back full circle, the Fed is shifting to an inflation-fighting posture. We know that the way to fight inflation is to raise interest rates. That worked for Reagan and Paul Volcker in the 1980s and the Fed is trying it again now, having begun a series of rate increases.

Raising interest rates is a double-edged sword, however. Much of the stock market volatility that we have seen over the past few months is a reaction to the Fed’s rate increases. If the Fed raises rates too far or too quickly, there is also the possibility of a recession, which is also a concern of investors.

On the other hand, interest rates are good for many parts of the economy. Banks and lenders can profit from higher interest rates, and higher rates also encourage saving. For the past decade or so, interest rates have been at near-zero, pushing those who want to grow their nest eggs toward the stock market.

The good news that that things still seem likely to even out. Barron’s recently opined that household disposable income is now below pre-COVID levels. Consumers will have to rein in spending, which should in turn help to rein in prices and inflation.

I’ll add that pessimists should be careful to assume that current market conditions will prevail throughout the Biden presidency. Donald Trump also presided over a volatile market, but ultimately the strength of the economy and markets won out. That may well prove true for Biden since the underlying economy is strong despite inflation and topsy-turvy financial markets.

So the short answer to today’s topic is the stock market is volatile because the Fed is raising interest rates to fight inflation. We have an inflation problem for several reasons, but one factor is that both Biden and Trump put forth a lot of fiscal stimuli, money that subsequently fueled demand and helped to drive up prices. A part of the stock market’s performance can be traced to Biden but also to Trump, Putin, and COVID.

Of course, only one of those is the current president, and, fair or not, presidents tend to be lightning rods. They are visible and they get the blame for what happens while they are in office, whether they are responsible for it or not.

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Tweet of the Day: The Ukrainian Air Force is still flying. This drone video shows a strike by two Ukrainian Su-27 fighter-bombers on Snake Island. The fighters deploy flares to ward off heat-seeking missiles in the infrared video, but they seem to have taken the Russian defenders by surprise. The planes either dropped delayed munitions or damage on the island spread quickly because there are secondary explosions long after the planes have departed.

From the Racket