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The Gerrymandering Jackpot!

It’s 2017 and guess what? Virginia is STILL trying to finalize its redistricting plans…based on the 2010 census.  What is going on?

The constitution entrusts the process of drawing state legislative and congressional district lines to the state legislatures.  With few exceptions, this means that the process of drawing those district lines lies in the hands of the party that controls the state legislature.  The result has been and continues to be a rancorous, expensive ritual that was supposed to be decennial but, at least in Virginia, has become a constant preoccupation of our elected officials.  Instead of occurring once every ten years, it seems to take ten years to try to do it correctly.

This is a heinous conflict of interest: our elected officials condition the process by which they are returned to office.  This is akin to a baseball pitcher altering the strike zone every time he faces a batter or a golfer moving the pin to suit her putting.  These are venal, silly examples of situations in which anyone would cry “foul”.  So why do we sit back and ignore cries of foul about the redistricting process?

In fact, “redistricting” is a misnomer.  Our voting districts are “gerrymandered.” Every line, every twist and turn is designed to create districts that, first and foremost, suit the partisan interests of the legislative majority and legislative incumbents.  The process is constrained by the one person, one vote requirement and the Voting Rights Act’s restrictions on discriminating against minority voters.  But, state legislators can and do work around these constraints to draw contorted voting districts that have served only to ensure that incumbents are essentially unbeatable, challengers don’t have a chance and, in the end, voters really have little choice on Election Day.

This applies to any district, regardless of the race, party or gender of the incumbents.  At the congressional level, Republican Bob Goodlatte has been as unbeatable as Democrat Bobby Scott.  Unless they are surprised in a primary (as Eric Cantor was in 2014), our congressional incumbents leave office only through retirement or natural causes.  As a result, there is almost no reason to vote in a Virginia congressional election.  The typical margin of incumbent victory is so large that voting for the incumbent is as much a waste of time (she is going to win anyway) as voting against one (he is going to win anyway).

One of the terrible ironies of all this is that the Voting Rights Act has been undermined by gerrymandering.  Sure, districts are drawn to embrace majorities of Hispanic, black or other minority voters where possible.  But, in the end, those minority incumbents are as unbeatable as their Anglo colleagues.  The result is that the VRA has become simply an instrument to return racial minority incumbents to office as easily as white incumbents.  Meanwhile, minority voters are given as poor a choice on Election Day as their white counterparts.

Some would say this is progress in the march towards racial equality and fairness:  elections are equally uncompetitive and voters have equally poor choices regardless of their race, creed, gender and so forth.

But, the Voting Rights Act and elections are about the rights of voters—not the interests of elected officials.  Elections should provide voters with real choices among candidates.  Elections should entail meaningful campaigns and appeals to voters every year.  Instead, the product of some 50+ years of redistricting, gerrymandering, litigation and Supreme Court decisions is poor turnout, meaningless Election Day choices, gerrymandered districts and essentially unbeatable incumbents.

What is most appalling and disturbing is that the process in Virginia could be improved so easily. Twenty one states use nonpartisan redistricting commissions.  This removes the conflict of interest from the districting process.  Doing this decreases the likelihood of going to court because neutral districting principles (maintaining equal populations, tending to minority populations, respecting municipal boundaries) take precedence.

Instead, the conflicts of interest that inhere in the process render it appallingly expensive.  As an example: since the legislature did a poor job drawing the congressional district lines last time around, a special master was called in at the cost of more than $80,000.  You read that correctly: the taxpayers forked out $80,000 for someone to draw 11 districts—and there is no guaranty that they will pass constitutional muster.

To put this in perspective: $80,000 would hire one or two teachers for a year in most of our Commonwealth’s public school systems.

That fee does not include litigation costs, court fees, and the opportunity cost of dedicating legislators’ time to tweaking district lines that could be otherwise spent on the budget, health care, road, jobs, etc.  Virginia has 40 Senate districts and 100 house districts.  One can only imagine how much the taxpayers will bleed to pay consultants (instead of a commission) to draw district lines.

In defense of this system, legislators or apologists will argue that redistricting should be in the hands of elected officials because they know best what is in the interests of their constituents.   But, if we end up turning the process over to private consultants and litigants, that connection is clearly broken.  Virginia’s redistricting history over the past several decades indicates that this connection is seldom preserved.

So, redistricting serves the interests of incumbents, political consultants and litigants—all at the fiscal and democratic expense of the voters whose interests the process should be serving.  It’s time to join the other 21 states that use redistricting commissions.  End the gerrymandering of Virginia voters.

 

From Tom Brady to the Red Sox: Baseball column #1 of 2017

Hi friends.  I post here a link to my first piece for Major League Fantasy Sports for 2017.  This is not my day job.  But, it’s a great thing when one can join a good bunch of folks and write about something like baseball.  Serendipitously, I ran the analysis and wrote the piece just before the Super Bowl and before I left with a group of Washington and Lee alumni to  visit and discuss Cuba.  More to come.  Comments welcome.

The Mad Professor’s Re-Entry.  Ranking the Top 100 Starting Pitchers for 2017, Part Uno.

A Thanksgiving Wish/Prayer/Hope

 

This was published in the Roanoke Times on Thanksgiving, 24 November 2016. It is available at this link: http://www.roanoke.com/opinion/commentary/rush-a-thanksgiving-prayer/article_e8cd4298-e6ef-5ba0-9eb0-e21711b8c600.html

I served as dean of a college in the Middle East for three years.  It was impressive to see and hear the United States discussed so frequently in critical terms by denizens of a part of the world in which anti-western sentiment is common.

Questions about the USA frequently focused on our politics.  Over there, it didn’t matter if the president were a Democrat or a Republican.  American military presence in the region had endured under both parties and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bore the imprimatur of Democrats and Republicans.  From this perspective, it was never difficult for an observer to identify the contradictions in our political rhetoric, to find reason to cast aspersions on the performance of our political system or, simply, to be angry with the United States.

This same sort of visceral anger has rendered this election year perhaps the most regrettable, divisive, dangerous, ominous… (the list of adjectives goes on) in our history.  The tenor of presidential debates was debased as the candidates spent as much time trading insults as they did addressing the pressing economic problems and growing economic inequality that generate fear and anger among voters of all races and walks of life.

In retrospect, it is horrifying to see that our political system is now as adept at generating anti-Americanism at home as it has been abroad.

It was, at first, a great challenge to try to explain the beauty of the USA to people whose views of our politics and culture are shaped by the same media that has taken sides in this election.  As long as an observer focused on our contemporary politics, it was difficult to convince him or her to look further or more deeply.

As an antidote to this outlook (or perhaps, as a distraction), I would encourage angry observers to look to another American tradition that transcends and predates our politics:  Thanksgiving.  No, not Christmas or the 4th of July…no presents, fireworks, flag waving or gifts that had to be returned.  Instead, I encouraged folks to look at the holiday on which Americans put aside politics, join hands in thanks and share a meal that symbolizes the celebration of the harvest.

This is, I would argue, American culture at its best.  It was not an exaggeration, I would tell them, that even mortal enemies’ hearts would soften if they knew that someone was spending Thanksgiving alone.  Better to share a meal and fall asleep watching football than to expend energy on divisive politics.  Life is better if enemies pause occasionally to find common ground (and acknowledge that it exists).  It was amazing and heartwarming to see that even the most visceral critics of our politics would soften at the thought of our Thanksgiving tradition.

It is serendipitous that Thanksgiving comes just a couple of weeks after Election Day.  This year, more than ever, the country needs to rediscover its common ground in the wake of an election that has exposed and rubbed salt in virtually every political wound imaginable.  Despite occasional acknowledgments of accord (Kaine and Pence agreed that our communities and police need to heal wounds and work together) and respect (by God, Donald Trump is a good father and Hillary Clinton is a tenacious fighter) our presidential candidates have done little to suggest that the country can move forward together to solve the economic problems that divide it.

Despite the damage done to the electorate by the septic rhetoric of the presidential campaign and the fallout of the election, Thanksgiving looms once again as a chance to demonstrate to ourselves that there is more that unites the nation than divides it.  In ancient Greece, city-states would pause wars and put down their weapons to celebrate the Olympics. Maybe the country can put this election behind us in a spirit of Thanksgiving…Amen.

 

 

 

 

Lincoln. FDR. Reagan…Trump??? The 2016 election in historical perspective.

In this column in the Richmond Times, I note that 2016 marks the point at which scholars would have predicted a major shift in the American Electoral Landscape.  Trump and Clinton are merely symptoms of a predictable shift in US politics.

749 Words on the 2016 Election

A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked several colleagues the following question: “What does it tell us about the state of political discourse, or, indeed, of the state of the country itself, when the largest issue of the week between the two officially nominated major candidates for the presidency of the United States is whether or not former Miss Universe gained too much weight?

It seemed the presidential campaign had hit rock bottom.  Then, just when we all thought we had seen Trump do it all, he outdid himself and the videorecording was uncovered.  Are there any apologists left for US politics?

Trump is a symptom. Walt Kelly, the creator of Pogo, was right:  “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  Political scientist Morris Fiorina’s observation about congressional elections applies as well to presidential elections: Candidates will avoid discussing real issues at any cost and will happily discuss red herrings instead because this avoids accountability and controversy. As H.L. Mencken said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Mencken could have left out the adjective “common.”  The fact is, in the early 1970s, the American people called for so-called “reforms” to the electoral process in response to numerous events:  18 year olds could not vote, yet the country sent them off to Vietnam; In 1968 and 1972, neither party addressed the Vietnam war with any seriousness despite the protests of our young people; minority voting rights were still imperiled; Richard Nixon had been elected and had relied upon a small number of powerful, wealthy campaign supporters; Congress was controlled by an oligarchy of ageing, powerful committee chairs (most of whom happened to be conservative southern Democrats) that obstructed social and racial justice legislation.  The list goes on.

So, what did we do?  We “democratized” the political process by decentralizing its process of control.   We passed campaign finance legislation that emasculated the party organizations.  We replaced the traditional convention system of nomination with the direct primary. Congress replaced a small number of committee chairs with dozens of subcommittee fiefdoms.

The result?  We suffer endless, increasingly costly primary and general election cycles; a proliferation of the number of candidates vying for the presidential nominations;  an inability of the party organizations to control who represents them (so, characters such as David Duke and Donald Trump are able to hijack the nomination process); unbeatable congressional incumbents who are gerrymandered into office essentially for life; abysmal voter turnout; an, presidential election processes that become mired in discussions about how much weight Miss Venezuela put on…or worse.

Perhaps the best summary of this process and the mess it got us into is by Jonathan Rauch in the July/August Atlantic Monthly.  In an outstanding piece called “How American Politics Went Insane,” Rauch documents the small-d democratization of our political system that led us to our current situation.  In short, we destroyed the political middle-managers such as political party chairs who are necessary for good politics

Millennial critics might poo-poo this in favor of the mass, democratic models of politics embodied in the Occupy movements, the Arab Spring or, more recently, protests on college campuses.  But, how effective were they?  Such movements have proven to be better at dismantling political systems than building or repairing them.

There is no doubting the sense of justice and/or frustration that informed small-d democratic impulses running from the American reforms of the 1970s to the Arab Spring, contemporary campus protests and, perhaps, the Brexit revolt in the UK. But, absent strong, wise leaders, populist impulses can lead to disastrous, if not unintended consequences.  Thus, the Brexiteers awoke to discover that they had won the referendum, but had no plan or strategy to implement the exit.  Americans now suffer costly, unending election cycles that produce candidates with terrible approval ratings and governments that are unresponsive.

One shortcoming to Rauch’s analysis is that he offers little in the way of concrete suggestions for repairing American politics.  In part, this is extraordinarily difficult because it is hard to advocate reforms that would be based on a call for less democracy. But, in reality, less democracy is what the U.S. political system is all about.  This is a constitutional democracy.  The people’s power—however final–was supposed to be attenuated.

Alas, the 9/11 attacks did not inspire us to improve our politics; nor did Hurricane Katrina.  One wonders what sort of political disaster it will take.  Is the 2016 election close enough to  work?

 

Moonlighting: Reflections on 2016 Baseball Analysis

I offer here  a list of links to my 2016 Baseball articles.  Some were pretty solid.  Others, not as solid as I’d like (apologies to Baltimore and Toronto, whom I underestimated).

The columns received differing levels of play in several different venues.  The Studs and Duds columns did quite well.  My early season analysis of player rankings and dollar values also score a lot of hits.

This really is a great deal of fun and gives me the opportunity to dedicate some time to the analysis of a sport I love.  Many thanks to my colleagues at Major League Fantasy Sports for the chance to trade notes  and work with them.  Check out the site.  It’s a great source of commentary, snarkiness, humor and fine analysis of all sports.   Some of the writers are superior analysts of really granular data and trends.  My stuff moves back and forth between macro level analysis  of players and the league as a whole (see the historical trend pieces) and more granular analysis  of pitching. Heck, they even let me put on my professor’s hat and edit.  Nothing worse that good sports analysis marred by a split infinitive, gerund without a possessive or dangling modifier…

Anyway, it’s awesome to be able to do this.  Baseball is a fantastic sport that appeals to  the romantic  as well as the geek.  If you want to understand Americans, strip away politics and other stuff and talk sports. Even folks who can’t stand one  another will be upset if they know that even a sworn enemy is eating turkey and watching football  alone on Thanksgiving…  Sports get us through long winters and hot  summers.  Noah Syndergaard said it poignantly in an epic tweet after the Mets lost to the Giants:

Baseball has a way of ripping your ❤️ out, stabbing it, putting it back in your chest, then healing itself just in time for Spring Training.

Now then…

“September Studs and Duds”–a reflection on who paid dividends and who killed our rosters

“Strategic Stat Categories and Late Season Moves“–An historical analysis of trends in key counting stats–Saves, Quality Starts, etc.

“Go Big or Go Home: A Rumination of Midsummer Baseball Trends”–a little ancient Greek navigation, some stellar metaphors, and  baseball…

Fourth of July, All-Star Break Analysis

Early Season Studs and Duds Analysis, Part II

Early Season Studs and Duds Analysis, Part I

The 25% Solution–Analysis of the first quarter of the Season

Mid-May Musings on Pitching Prowess and Proficiency–An alliterative analysis of Pitching stats.  More than any other aspect of the game,  pitching stats tell  you an incredible amount about pitchers.  Other stats are harder to  parse.

Lucky Charms and (un?)Lucky Pitchers–oh…just a little anger-inspired analysis of a pitcher who was  killing me.   I included several other  early season duds to provide cover and credibility.  I hope Chris Archer was not upset…

Statistical Analysis of Pitching–rant early and rant often.  Seriously.  Why wait till July to complain about fantasy baseball.   Early-season rants will enable you to refine your venomous words so  that the  pro players get REALLY upset  at you later…

Ailing Aces“–A pretty insightful analysis of what was going on with three stud pitchers who were underperforming.

Week 3 Analysis of the American League East–Wow.  Someone must have misread my c.v.  They handed  this analysis over to a Red Sox fan.

Week 1 Statistically Unsound Assessment of the AL and NL East–OK.  You want analysis with virtually no useful data?  I can do  that…

2016 AL and NL East Predictions–Spring Training is over, the season is not under way.   So, predict… Actually, not half bad. Apologies to  Toronto and Baltimore.  Well, not really…

Preseason Analysis of the San Diego Padres.  Waiting for Todd Gurley…

Preseason Analysis of the Philadelphia Phillies.  Not so sunny in Philadelphia.  Waiting for a year  or two.   Lots of good baby pitchers here.

Preseason Analysis of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  When Fantasy is better than Reality…

Preseason Analysis of the Baltimore Orioles.  Wow.  They did better than I anticipated. Where did that pitching come from?

Preseason Analysis of the Boston Red Sox.  OK.  I may have been a homer…but I was right  on this one–David Price’s underwhelming performance notwithstanding.  Ojala que las estrellas nos  bendiguen..

Preseason Analysis of Starting Pitchers–Part n.  OK.  SO, they wanted me to come up with a tag line.  Jettisoned (along with the platinum blonde soul patch) later…

Preseason Starting Pitching Analysis–some pretty decent  wisdom and preseason here.

Celebrating the Super Bowl and the Last Days  of the Hot Stove League.  Column #1

Midseason MLB analysis: Major League Fantasy Sports

My latest analysis is here at majorleaguefantasysports.

Pretty amazing data in the MLB this year.  Batting and pitching are both strong.  The nuances of data are part of the beauty of baseball.