Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Immigration Reform Trap (Or how the GOP took the bait)

So Obama finally showed some backbone and did what he should have done before the election–he acted on immigration.  Had he done this before the election as he said he would (if Republicans did not act) then maybe more Hispanics would have voted for Democrats and the November results would have been different.  Now we see Republicans engaged in a faux act of anger, declaring that they will get even.  The Republicans should be grateful that Obama acted–it takes immigration off the table without Congress having to act, or not act, and therefore it removes a thorny problem for the GOP.  But foolishly and predictably the Republicans have protested, only guaranteeing that they will continue to guarantee that Latinos vote for Democrats, perhaps for the next generation.
    Republican anger belies they fact they if they do not like what Obama did they can always pass legislation on their own regarding immigration.  It’s called legislating.  Instead they plan retaliation, again a predictable and foolhardy  response that will only ensure that Democrats will be able to make the case against the GOP Congress in the 2016 elections.  Their reaction also provides justification for why they do not want to act responsibly-- they can claim that they will not compromise with the president on anything because he acted when they refused to. Kind of like taking the bat and ball and going home if you do not like how others are playing the game.  I think one calls this childish.
    But there is something more curious here–why the refusal to change immigration laws? Why the fear of illegal immigrants or undocumented aliens? In general, especially in tough economic times, the argument is that immigration and immigrants take jobs away from Americans and serve as a drain on the economy. Illegal immigrants or undocumented aliens are often singled out as competing against American citizens for jobs or that they cost taxpayers money. There is a belief that the benefits of citizenship, the free schools, and other programs found in the United States operate like a lure to attract illegal immigrants to the United States.  Allowing them to work in the United States, get a driver’s license, the availability of schooling, health care, and citizenship for children, or even lax enforcement of immigration laws, sends a signal to them that they are welcome. Thus, undocumented aliens flock to the United States and something needs to be done to stem this invasion.
    What is the reality?  Are immigrants a net drain on the economy; specifically, are they a bigger drain on taxes and public services than they are overall contributors to the economy? Second, immigrants are depicted as taking jobs away from Americans. What do we know about both of these claims?
    First, while acknowledging that immigrants may in some local settings or jurisdictions place some short-term significant burdens upon public services, overall they are net contributors to the economy. Several studies substantiate this point. The 2005 Economic Report of the President (produced under a Republican president) provided a detailed analysis of the impact of immigration upon the United States economy. The report noted that they as a group had up to a $10 billion net positive impact upon the economy. The report noted, for example, that while immigrants may be more likely than native born Americans to be on public assistance, the “net present value of immigrants’ estimated future tax payments exceeded the cost of services they were expected to us by $80,000 for the average immigrant and his or her descendants.”  However, with changes in public assistance laws, that figure had been upped to $88,000. While better educated immigrants (high school degree or better) definitely reflect this contribution, even among those not as well educated, the gains from them and their descendants’ productivity nearly, if not totally, offset the costs they impose upon public services that accrue to state and local governments. Finally, the president’s report also provided other documentation regarding the impact of immigrants upon the economy. For example, it noted that immigrants paid Social Security taxes on income of $463 billion dollars. Moreover, because illegal immigrants cannot collect Social Security, it is likely that immigrants overall pay more into this government program than they receive from it.
    In addition to the President’s 2005 report, other studies have noted the net economic benefit of immigrants to the United States. A 1997 National Academy of Sciences study found several net benefits associated with immigration, including a $10 billion net positive impact on the economy. Brad Edmondson’s “Life Without Immigrants” found that: “Illegal aliens in prison cost about $471 million per year, and they consume about $445 million more in Medicaid funds. But these costs are offset by about $1.9 billion in taxes paid by illegals and billions more in consumer spending.” Furthermore, the National Academy of Sciences, President’s Report, and the Edmondson study, all indicated that younger workers provided for important sources of productivity that also served the economy well. Overall, these and other studies clearly contested the myths that immigrants were a drain on the economy.
    In general, broader studies on immigration in the United States also confirm that there is a net benefit of immigrants to the economy. They generally pay more in taxes than they consume in public services. They have provided critical payments to Social Security to help maintain its solvency. Heidi Shierholz  in Immigration and Wages: Methodological Advancements Confirm Modest Gains for Workers found that even native US citizens have seen modest gains in terms of wages as a result of immigration. More importantly, California, Florida, New York, and Texas, the states with the highest immigration, seem to have particularly benefitted from it. Others reach similar conclusions about the impact on workers while noting that the granting of amnesty to illegal immigrants has benefitted the economy and increased tax revenues to the United States.
    The second criticism leveled against immigrants is that they take jobs away from American workers or they negatively impact wages. Again, several studies refuted that. For example, the National Academy of Sciences study found the wage impact to be negligible, while the President’s Report found little impact on wages of Americans. The report also noted and dismissed the argument that immigrants displaced American citizens in the labor market. Instead, they often filled labor gaps abandoned by others, such as farming and agriculture, and they definitely constituted a new source of productive labor particularly at a time when the size of the labor pool from other workers had disappeared.
    In addition to the above a Pew Hispanic Center  study reached similar conclusions. It compared the economic growth in selected states with high versus low immigration and found no differences in economic growth or in its impact on the labor markets. It also found that there was in fact in 12 states a positive correlation between the growth of immigrant and native-born workers. By that, there was no evidence that in states where more immigrants entered the labor market it depressed the entry of others into work. Finally, even among immigrants who were young and lacking in education, there was no indication that they directly competed against and hurt native-born workers with similar background.
    In sum, the evidence that immigrants are financial drains on the economy and that they take jobs away or hurt the wages of native-born workers is simply false.  Attacking immigrants and blaming them for society’s problems goes a long way back in American history.  Republican refusal to act on immigration may in part be based on the xenophobic  attitudes of its base, but the political calculus in taking such a position is bad politics.  Obama set a trap for Republicans  with his action and the GOP has taken the bait.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Getting It Wrong: The Myth of Massive Ticket-Splitting in the 2014 Minnesota Elections

I am not sure if it is bad math or bad journalism, but contrary to popular accounts, it is highly unlikely that 450,000 voters in Minnesota split their votes between Dayton or Franken at the top of the ticket and a Republican legislator further down the ballot.

On November 6, 2014,  in a Star Tribune article by Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Glenn Howatt where they analyzed the results of the 2014 Minnesota elections, they sought to reconcile the difference between Democrats winning statewide and Republicans winning the House.  They asserted that of the estimated 1,992,989 Minnesotans who voted, effectively 22.5% split their ballots.    Conceptually and empirically, this is just incorrect.

First, keep in mind that no one can actually look at the individual ballots cast and therefore the Star Tribune’s article is purely conjecture.  Conceptually, asserting that between a fifth and a quarter of voters split their ballots is unlikely.  The political science literature is overwhelming in finding that partisan identification is a major driver and predictor of voting behavior.  This has been true in the nearly 60 plus years of research into voting behavior.  It is even more true today as the evidence mounts that voters now are more polarized and partisan in their voting than ever before.  This is even true in Minnesota.  Every since the Wellstone plane crash and memorial service there is powerful evidence of partisan voting, as evidenced by the close races or recounts in the 2008 senate and 2010 gubernatorial races.

Yet one might argue that Minnesota is different.  With about 20 or so percent of the electorate not listing themselves as a Democrat or Republican perhaps one might say this high percentage of independents accounts for the split ticket voting.  It might account for a small percentage of this, but there are similarly high percentages of independents across the US with little evidence of split ticket voting.  Thus, Minnesota exceptionalism is not the answer.

Instead, the real answer has to do with now the geographic voting patterns in the state.  A look at the state election results indicate that Mark Dayton for example, won 34 of the state’s 87 counties, with Jeff Johnson winning the majority at 53.  Dayton (and Franken) racked up big wins in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, as well as several other traditional DFL ones, but lost elsewhere.  Now look at where Republican legislators did well and won–in the counties where Jeff Johnson won.  Such a geographic pattern can easily explain the apparent anomaly of Democrats winning statewide and Republicans winning at the legislative level. 

Put simply, Democrat votes are concentrated in a few geographic areas of the state and there are more of them and they overwhelming voted for DFL statewide and legislative candidates whereas Republican voters are dispersed across the state and the voted straight party line for Jeff Johnson and Republican legislators.

The Star Tribune article thus conceptually and empirically got it wrong.  Moreover, it also committed a variation of the classic ecological fallacy–falsely inferring characteristics about individuals based on aggregate or group behavior.  Here they assumed individual behavior about voting based on overall statewide voting.  Yet they did so without understanding the way the votes actually were distributed across the state and for the candidates.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

What if we gave an election and nobody came?

Well, literally not nobody came, instead, as Woody Allen once said, 90% of life is just showing up and that is what the Republicans did on Tuesday when they routed to a major sweep across the country.
    First, consider nationally, only 33.3% of the voters showed up.  This compares to 41% in 2010, and it is by far the lowest turnout going back to the early 1980s.  Two-thirds of Americans stayed home, including young voters and people of color.  These are core Democrat voters critical to Obama’s coalition yet they had better things to do than vote.  Even in Minnesota, a state priding itself on the highest voter turnout in the nation, only 50.2% of the voters showed up, down from 55% in 2010, and 60% in 2006.  Despite all the money and resources spent by the national Democrats and the DFL on GOTV, their base did not turnout.  One might speculate what would have happened if they did.  Perhaps the national GOP blowout would not have occurred and many of the close races would have tipped the other way.  Perhaps the Minnesota House of Representatives would not have flipped with the loss of 11 DFL seats.  Who knows, the results might have been different.
    It would be too easy to blame the low turnout on restrictive voting laws.  Maybe in some states that was an issue, but it does not explain places like Minnesota.  Moreover, there were some states such as Wisconsin which actually had higher turnout than four years ago.  No, the laws were not the sources of voter discontent.  What was?
    The first was that there was no constructive defining narrative in 2014.  Republicans ran against Obama and Democrats away from him.  Republicans told us what they would not do Democrats failed to explain what they did and why they deserve two more years.  This was a repeated on the dueling non-narratives of 2010.  Republicans had enough of a message to get their base out, Democrats did not.  Democrats had a failure of nerve, a failure to articulate why they had made the lives of many people better.  They can point to many successes, but too they failed.  Obama really has failed on many scores. 
    Yes Republicans did scuttle many of his efforts, but the President never pushed far and bold enough.  Too small a stimulus, too meek health care reform, waiting too late to tackle the environment, money in politics, or serious education reform.  He gives a good speech but the reforms he pushed were never grand enough to make the types of differences that needed to be made.  We all hoped Obama would be a transformative president, he turned out barely to be a transactional one.  Thus, in part the reason why Democrats stayed home was a combination of disillusionment, disappointment, and simply a failure of the president move the country in a direction far enough for people to see a major difference in their life now or in the future.
    Going forward, what does all this mean? The election results did little to change national politics.  For the last two if not four years power has been gridlocked in Washington, and that is certainly not going to change with the new Congress.  Obama was already a lame duck before the election and he was  destined to lose influence no matter what the results.  Tuesday’s returns simply accelerate the shrinkage of his presidency.  The last four years have been marked by repeated but failed efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, inaction on immigration and global warming, short term stopgap budget issues, and stalemates on minimum wage and a host of other issues.  Don’t expect to see that change in the next two years.  New congressional majorities do not necessarily mean that the House and Senate will act more responsibly and that its leadership and Obama will reach agreement by necessity.  What needs to be understood is that there is a basic philosophical difference over the role of government here, with little electoral incentive to compromise.  This is the core to understanding  the 2014 elections.
    The Pew Research Center has argued correctly that what has emerged in American politics is a two tract election cycle.  We have a presidential election cycle marked by turnouts in the mid 50s where women, the young, and people of color turn out, or at least vote in percentages greater than in midterm elections.  These are presidential election years that favor Democrats, in theory.  But the midterm elections produce significantly lower turnouts, with older, whiter, and more male electorates.  In each of these election cycles a different mixture of congressional, state, and local seats are up for election too.  The result is that different electorates create contrasting majorities and results.  Effectively we have dual majorities rule in the United States, each checking one another. With right now the midterm majorities driving American politics.
    Democrats are now looking to 2016 as their salvation when anticipated turnout is up to save them.  Don’t count on pure demographics to bail them out.  One still needs a good narrative and message, an argument to give people a reason to vote.  Obama’s lasting legacy may be one I saw in a New Yorker cartoon from a few years ago when one person turned to another and said “I think Obama has the potential to get a whole new generation disillusioned.”  It is this disillusionment that is the reason why we gave an election this past Tuesday and no one came.