Archives for October 2008

Andrew Gelman on Why the Sarah Palins Get Picked as VP Nominees and the Ed Rendells Don’t

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There’s been a lot of discussion recently about Sarah Palin’s broad-based job approval as governor of Alaska as an indicator of her political skills and a rationale for her selection as vice presidential nominee.  Yes, Sarah Palin is very popular, but it’s not so exceptional for the governor of a small state to be popular.  The most popular governors in America are from small states.

Indeed, at the time of her selection Palin was the fifth most popular governor in America, behind the governors of Nebraska, Utah, Arkansas, and North Dakota–all states with small populations.  It appears that it’s easier to be a popular governor when your state has fewer people.  The governors of South Dakota and Montana are also remarkably popular, while on the other side, the leaders of fourteen of the fifteen largest states have job approval ratings less than 50%.

Graphs based on state-by-state polls tell the story, plotting governors’ approval ratings in 2006 and 2008 along with state population.  Alaska is on the left side of both graphs, with scandal-plagued Frank Murkowski with the sub-25% approval in 2006 (edged out only by Ohio’s Bob Taft) and Sarah Palin with the high rating in 2008.  In both years, though, the overall pattern is that the most popular governors came from less populated states.


In larger states, the most popular governors are David Patterson of New York and Charlie Crist of Florida, near the 50% point.  Governors Ted Strickland of Ohio, Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, and Rick Perry of Texas are near 40%, in the middle of the pack of large-state governors, far above Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, Rod Blagojevich in Illinois, and Jon Corzine in New Jersey.

Why are the most popular governors in small states?  Residents of a small state might be more likely to have positive feelings toward someone who represents that state to outsiders.  In contrast, Ed Rendell has to be governor of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, their suburbs, and lots of other cities and towns around the state–and it isn’t easy to satisfy the residents of all these places at once.

Beyond this, in a large state, there will be more ambitious politicians on the other side, eager to knock off the incumbent governor; small states often have part-time legislatures and thus the governor is involved in less political conflict; and small states (such as Alaska) tend to get more funds per capita from the federal government, and it’s easier to be popular when the money runs more freely.

When matched against some of the astronomical popularities of governors of small states, Ted Strickland, Ed Rendell, and other governors of large states don’t look so good.

The irony is that running a large state is arguably a good preparation for being the nation’s chief executive, but such a job requires tough choices that make universal popularity an impossibility.


Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University and author of the recently released book, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State:  Why Americans Vote the Way They Do. He also pens the popular blog Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science.

He created the graphs used in this article earlier this year and posted about them here. He sat down with Princeton University Press earlier this month for an interview.

Russ Roberts chats with Reason TV

Economist Russ Roberts was interviewed for Reason TV about his new book The Price of Everything.  Check out the video.

PUP launches a new Albert Einstein Web site

We often joke that our seasonal book catalogs are not complete unless they contain at least one book about Princeton’s most famous resident, Albert Einstein. Well, apparently this holds true for our blog, as well. We’re thrilled to announce the launch of a new Albert Einstein Web site that gathers the myriad publishing efforts of Princeton University Press and its partners in one place.

Toni Morrison Lectures – Newark Mayor Cory Booker

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WNYC has posted The Toni Morrison Lectures with Newark Mayor Cory Booker on their site.

Princeton University Press and the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University co-sponsored the lectures, titled “The Unfinished Journey of America’s Spirit The Past“. Conducted over three consecutive nights, the lectures include: “The Past: A Testimony to the Impossible,” on Oct. 1; “The Present: Through Cynicism, Negativity and Self-doubt,” on Oct. 2; and “The Future: Humble Hopes and Insane Idealism,” on Oct. 3.

Booker has been mayor of New Jersey’s largest city since July 2006 and is the third person to lead Newark since 1970. Booker’s stated mission as mayor is to oversee an urban transformation of the city by marshaling its resources to achieve security and economic prosperity.

Sponsored jointly by the Center for African American Studies and Princeton University Press, the Toni Morrison Lectures spotlight the new and exciting work of scholars and writers who have risen to positions of prominence both in academe and in the broader world of letters.

Princeton University Press will publish the lectures in book form.

Does Genius Come When You’re Young or Old? Malcolm Gladwell on author David Galenson

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a terrific piece regarding the life cycle of genius in a recent issue of The New Yorker .  Our book and author David Galenson is at the forefront of this research and his written about it in his Fall 2005 book OLD MASTERS AND YOUNG GENIUSES: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, which looks at when creativity happens in the life periods of artists.  This brings up a very interesting question:  are you more creative when you’re younger or older?

Optimism in the Age of Global Warming Panic

David Archer, a leading climatologist and contributor to the blog RealClimate, offers solutions for reducing our impact on the Earth’s climate. In his book,The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate, he tackles the growing problem of the buildup of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere and what we can do about it.

According to Archer, there are many possible strategies for making significant cuts in CO2 emission, each of which are based on technology and methods that already exist. Each of the following examples could cut CO2 emission by a billion metric tons per year, and a portfolio of several of these changes could significantly slow the growth of atmospheric CO2.

  • Increase fuel efficiency for automobiles, from a business-as-usual 30 miles per gallon to a more efficient 60.
  • Alter building practices by using improved insulation and passive lighting to decrease energy use and CO2 emissions while saving money.
  • Capture, purify, and store CO2 in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Coal gasification (a thermo-chemical process) breaks down coal into its basic chemical elements and extracts energy more efficiently than traditional coal-fired plants. Gasification produces CO2 in a more pure form which is more suitable for capture and sequestration.
  • Increase wind power generation by fifty times today’s capacity. This requires investment in the infrastructure of the electrical grid to bring the power to market.
  • Practice no-till agriculture which causes carbon to build up in soils, thus removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Changes in irrigation techniques can also decrease emissions of methane to the atmosphere while saving fresh water.
  • By the end of the century, we’ll need new sources of carbon-free energy. One new source would be to build solar cells on the moon. Here, they would be unobstructed by clouds and blowing dust. Though it would take decades, technological developments, and hundreds of astronaut tours of duty to construct this power source, once construction got started, it could continue until it reached the required amount of energy.
  • Another carbon-free energy source is the creation of high-altitude windmills, flying like kites in the jet stream. Electrical power can be transmitted through wires in the tether. The power density is much higher at 30,000 feet elevation than it is down at the ground. High-altitude windmill power could also potentially scale up to generate the power we’re looking for.

Interview with Bee Wilson on the history food fraud

While on book tour this October, British food columnist Bee Wilson took time out to speak with Princeton University Press about the history of food fraud. In this segment, Bee discusses the recent news out of China about milk tainted with melamine and the earlier swill milk fraud of New York City–a scandal she recently wrote about in the NY Times.

Click through to the extended version of the interview to see some great demonstrations of common food frauds–historical (faked arrowroot cream) and contemporary (fake saffron)–as well as some suggestions of simple steps we can take to protect ourselves from being the victims of food fraud. Short of growing all our own food, Bee encourages us all to enjoy food and to reacquaint ourselves with how good food is really supposed to look, smell, and taste.

Bob Shiller talks SUBPRIME with Bloggingheads

Our subprime guru Bob Shiller was interviewed by Robert Wright on his very popular video blog.  Check it out.

“Democrats have presided over much less unemployment and much more robust income growth” says Larry Bartels

Why the economy fares much better under Democrats

On job and income growth, the record couldn’t be clearer.

John McCain is a maverick and Barack Obama is a postpartisan problem-solver. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at their economic plans. Both candidates’ proposals faithfully reflect the traditional economic priorities of their respective parties. That makes the track records of past Democratic and Republican administrations a very useful benchmark for assessing how the economy might perform under a President McCain or a President Obama. The bottom line: During the past 60 years, Democrats have presided over much less unemployment and much more robust income growth.

The $52.5 billion plan Senator McCain announced last week includes $36 billion in tax breaks for senior citizens withdrawing funds from retirement accounts and $10 billion for a reduction in the capital gains tax. Those are perks for investors, most of whom are relatively affluent. (McCain is also proposing a two-year suspension of taxes on unemployment benefits, but that’s a fraction of the plan’s cost.) He also favors broader tax cuts for businesses and wants to extend President Bush’s massive tax cuts indefinitely, even for people earning more than $250,000 per year.

McCain’s proposals reflect the traditional Republican emphasis on cutting taxes for businesses and wealthy people in hopes of stimulating investment – “trickle down” economics, as it came to be called during Ronald Reagan’s administration. But will proposals of this sort really “stop and reverse the rise of unemployment” and “create millions of new jobs” as McCain has claimed? The historical record suggests not.

President Bush’s multitrillion-dollar tax cuts, which were strongly tilted toward the rich, could not prevent (and may even have contributed to) significant job losses. On the other hand, when Bill Clinton raised taxes on affluent people to balance the federal budget (while significantly expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit for working poor people), unemployment declined substantially. Under Clinton’s watch, 22 million jobs were created.

Prefer a broader historical comparison? In the past three decades, since the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries oil price shocks of the mid-1970s and the Republican turn toward “supply side” economics, the average unemployment rate under Republican presidents has been 6.7 percent – substantially higher than the 5.5 percent average under Democratic presidents. (The official unemployment rate takes no account of people who have given up looking for work or taken substantial pay cuts to stay in the labor force.) Over an even broader time period, since the late 1940s, unemployment has averaged 4.8 percent under Democratic presidents but 6.3 percent – almost one-third higher – under Republican presidents.

Lower unemployment under Democratic presidents has contributed substantially to the real incomes of middle-class and working poor families. Job losses hurt everyone – not just those without work. In fact, every percentage point of unemployment has the effect of reducing middle-class income growth by about $300 per family per year. And the effects are long term, unlike the temporary boost in income from a stimulus check. Compounded over an eight-year period, a persistent one-point difference in unemployment is worth about $10,000 to a middle-class family. The dollar values are smaller for working poor families, but in relative terms their incomes are even more sensitive to unemployment. In contrast, income growth for affluent people is much more sensitive to inflation, which has been a perennial target of Republican economic policies.

Although McCain portrays Senator Obama as a “job killing” tax-and-spend liberal, the new $60 billion plan Obama unveiled last week also has a tax break as its centerpiece – a tax break specifically tailored to create jobs by offering employers a $3,000 tax credit for each new hire over the next two years. Obama’s proposal would also extend unemployment benefits by 13 weeks for those who remain jobless, as well as match McCain’s in suspending taxes on unemployment benefits.

Obama’s new proposal complements $115 billion in economic stimulus measures he had already announced, including $65 billion in direct rebates to taxpayers and $50 billion to help states jump-start spending on infrastructure projects. All of this is squarely in the tradition of Democratic presidents since John F. Kennedy, who have relied on public spending and tax breaks for working people to stimulate consumption and employment during economic downturns.

These and other policies have produced not only lower unemployment under Democratic presidents but also more economic output and income growth. In fact, over the past 60 years, the real incomes of middle-income families have grown about twice as fast under Democratic presidents as they have under Republican presidents. The partisan difference is even greater for working poor families, whose real incomes have grown six times as fast under Democratic presidents as they have under Republican presidents.

Of course, past performance is no guarantee of what will happen when the next president takes office. However, given the striking fidelity of both presidential candidates to their parties’ traditional economic priorities, the profound impact of partisan politics on the economic fortunes of American families over more than half a century ought to weigh heavily in the minds of voters.

Larry M. Bartels directs the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics in Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is the author of “Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age.”

It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and I Feel Fine…

Seth Ditchik, Economics Editor, puts the current financial crisis in perspective with 4 quick lessons gleaned from Princeton University Press’s impressive, and remarkably prescient, roster of economics titles.

Hey Kids! Enjoying the rollercoaster yet? It’s been a rocky road so far, and if history is any guide, there’s still a few stomach-turning churns left in the ride. As I tell anyone who asks, I’m not an economist, but I play one at the office; having spent a good chunk of my adult life talking to (some might say stalking) economists, though, I’ve picked up a few pointers as to how they think, and why it matters.

One thing I’ve learned is to take the long view; trying to predict for the short term is often a fool’s errand. (Of course, it was an economist who made the point that “in the long run, we’re all dead.”) Not surprisingly (says the editor), there are a few books that my esteemed employer has published which have some lessons to impart on our current economic crisis; allow me to drop some knowledge on you, Princeton-style.

Lesson #1: We’ve Been Here Before

Cover of Essays on the Great DepressionCover of The Great ContractionCover of When Washington Shut Down Wall Street

Before becoming The Most Powerful Man in the Known Universe, the Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was a well-respected Princeton economist, where he was noted for his work on the Great Depression, a subject on which he published a book of essays with Princeton UP. If there’s one person in the government today that has a firm grasp on what makes economies tank, it’s Bernanke, and most mainstream economists will tell you that he’s the best person for the job at this crucial juncture in history. Though the origins of the Great Depression are still debated among economists, Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz placed the blame squarely at the Federal Reserve’s feet, arguing that it did too little, too late. Bernanke, in comments reprinted in our recent edition of Friedman and Schwartz’s landmark book The Great Contraction, spoke of the enduring influence of this point of view on the current Fed: “Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.”

The good news is that Bernanke knows how to avoid the last Great Depression. The question is whether he can avoid the next one.

Of course, aggressive action by the government to intervene in American markets is by no means a new phenomenon; in 1914, then Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo shut down Wall Street for more than four months to deal with a monetary crisis at the outbreak of World War I. The tale is told in William Silber’s book When Washington Shut Down Wall Street; McAdoo’s actions averted a broader meltdown, nursed the Federal Reserve into existence, and launched America as a world monetary power for the 20th century. Not bad for a few month’s work! His recipe for stopping a crisis while minimizing collateral damage makes me hope that our current Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson has read it.

Lesson #2: Don’t Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater

Cover of Subprime SolutionNew Financial Order cover imageCover of Saving Capitalism from Capitalists

You’re going to hear a lot about derivatives in the coming months. These very complicated financial instruments—which Warren Buffet termed “weapons of mass financial destruction”—will be blamed for much of the mess we find ourselves in; they also kicked your sister and stole your car keys along the way, to judge from the tone of rhetoric on the subject. But blaming derivatives for our troubles is a little like blaming the gun for a stick-up (idea for bumper sticker: “Derivatives don’t kill economies, people kill economies.” Too dorky?). Derivatives are neutral parties, equally capable of financing innovation and improving lives as they are at sowing the seeds for financial ruin.

Robert Shiller’s The Subprime Solution is getting a lot of interest these days, for obvious reasons; but my favorite book of his is The New Financial Order. In this visionary book, Shiller set out a number of ways in which derivatives could be harnessed to help ordinary people manage the everyday risks in their financial lives. He describes insurance policies, structured around derivatives, that would help cushion the impact of housing-price declines or periods of unemployment. One wonders whether our economy would be in its present state of free-fall were these sorts of policies widely available.

Many mainstream economists will argue that our current financial woes were brought about, in part, by too little financial regulation; but in the rush to re-regulate, we may risk stifling the very engines of innovation that have been the drivers of economic growth. Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales’ prescient book Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists provides a compelling case for the middle ground: “…creative destruction, sustained by free markets, is the elixir that has let the free enterprise system flourish for so many years. Yet the disruptions that creative destruction spawns sometimes prove too big for a free society to survive without a safety net. Markets need to be preserved against their biggest enemy: Themselves.” The take-home message: let the bulls run on Wall Street, and catch those who are thrown off so they’re not too scarred to ride again.

Lesson #3: Beware of “Expert” Opinions

Cover of Plight of the Fortune TellersCover of Expert Political Judgment

Part of what landed us in our current mess is that we came to rely too heavily on increasingly quantitative models; what was meant for prediction became to be accepted as the gospel truth. Our models suggest that the market can’t fall by 40%; therefore, it won’t. Overconfidence in the power of numbers came to replace genuine decision-making. Riccardo Rebonato makes this point in Plight of the Fortune Tellers, which draws from his own experience in the financial industry. When we depend on models to manage risk, we miss that which can’t be computed—how human beings actually react to chance.

As the center of financial power shifts from Wall Street to Washington, we also need to be on the lookout for expert political judgment which is more “political” than “expert”. Philip Tetlock examines what makes for successful forecasting in the political sphere in Expert Political Judgment, using Isaiah Berlin’s fox and hedgehog as prototypes. Tetlock shows how the fox—an eclectic thinker who draws from a wide array of traditions, and is better equipped to improvise in response to changing events—is generally more successful than the hedgehog, who believes one thing, and lowers his head and barrels in that general direction no matter what the issue. Unfortunately, the media generally selects for the hedgehog, who plays better in head-to-head combat on television and in print by applying one solution to all problems (Budget surplus? Time for a tax cut! Budget deficit? You need a tax cut!).

Lesson #4: Depressed? Read Something Else

Cover of Deadly IndifferenceCover of Murder at the MarginCover of the Price of Everything

All of this reading about financial ruin can’t possibly be good for you. Can I interest you in a nice murder-mystery? Marshall Jevons (actually the pseudonym for two economics professors, Kenneth Elzinga and William Breit) wrote two charming novels (actually three, but we don’t publish the third) about a Harvard professor and amateur sleuth who uses—you guessed it—economic reasoning to solve the murders he invariably happens upon. In the end, wisdom always prevails, and the truth is uncovered (I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling professors!), usually in exotic locales.

Russell Roberts described his new book The Price of Everything to me as Tuesdays with Morrie meets The Wealth of Nations, which is a pretty good summary of the book. Ramon, an idealistic Stanford undergraduate, gets involved with a campus protest against a big box store (and large university donor) after it temporarily doubles prices on the night an earthquake hits town. Ramon—also a superstar tennis prodigy (think John McEnroe) and a speaker at his upcoming commencement—gets involved in an ongoing conversation with the Provost (and former economics professor) Ruth, who has taken a curious interest in him. Along the way, he come to learn about the hidden order of economics that surrounds and sustains us. Is she trying to co-opt him, to avoid embarrassing the university in the eyes of an important donor? Or does she have something more profound in mind? It’s an uplifting story, and I’d like to think a beacon of hope in our troubled financial waters.

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Barack Obama’s calls for Unity and Hope echo great speakers of the past: Lincoln, Kennedy and Walt Whitman

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I Sing the Candidate Electric

By Michael Robertson

Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples

By now, the comparisons of Barack Obama to John F. Kennedy have become routine: the youth, the charisma, the idealism, the eloquence. But there is another great American small-d democrat with whom Obama shares even more resemblances: Walt Whitman.

The Walt Whitman most Americans are familiar with may not seem to have much in common with a youthful African-American politician. In the popular imagination Whitman is the Good Gray Poet, a benign figure with one of those big only-in-the-19th-century beards, author of the tamely patriotic verses “I Hear America Singing” and “O Captain! My Captain!”

But the real Walt Whitman was a deeply political poet with a radical agenda: to unite all Americans in loving comradeship, regardless of wealth or gender or race or sexuality. When Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, the United States was on the verge of fracturing apart. In his poetic masterpiece “Song of Myself,” Whitman cast himself as a larger-than-life Great Unifier with the power to reconcile opposites. “I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise, / Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,” he wrote. At a time when the states were bitterly divided, he boasted that he was “one of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same, / A Southerner soon as a Northerner.”

Whitman had unlimited faith in the poet’s role in a democracy, believing that great poems could serve to bind the American nation. At the same time, he recognized the power of oratory. “O the orator’s joys!” he wrote in one poem:

To inflate the chest, to roll the thunder of the voice out from the ribs and throat,

To make people rage, weep, hate, desire, with yourself,

To lead America—to quell America with a great tongue.

Whitman himself had a weak, high-pitched voice, but he admired the great orators of his era—none more than Abraham Lincoln. He thrilled to Lincoln’s closing words in the First Inaugural Address, when the new President, as if echoing the poet, placed loving comradeship at the heart of American democracy. “We are not enemies, but friends,” Lincoln stressed to the Southerners in his audience. “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” Whitman was inspired by the President’s belief, so close to his own, that the American people had within them untapped potential for forgiveness and transformation, that in a moment of crisis they could summon what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

Were he alive now, Whitman would be equally inspired by Barack Obama’s calls for unity and hope. After eight years of the politics of fear, of preemptive war and of a shallow conservatism based on aversion to change, Obama has dared to appeal to the better angels of our nature. In the same way that Whitman regarded every reader as a “camerado” who could travel with him the open road to a better future, that Lincoln believed the country could transcend divisions of North and South, and that Kennedy appealed to our desire for selfless service, Obama believes that Americans have the capacity to unite and change. He trusts that we can work together to overcome our differences and address our most urgent challenges: the United States’ dismal reputation abroad, which contributes to the spread of terrorism; environmental degradation that will require all of us to make radical changes in our everyday lives; economic injustices and racial divisions that undermine democracy.

It was only after his death that Lincoln was widely acknowledged as our greatest President, and it took decades for Whitman’s poetic pre-eminence to be established. But Barack Obama is already widely regarded as the most exciting presidential candidate since 1960. Come November, he may have the chance to carry on the legacy of Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy, to implement their common belief that the American people have within them a noble idealism and immense possibilities for transformative change.

Michael Robertson is professor of English at The College of New Jersey and author of Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples.