Romney’s secret African American supporters

After getting soundly booed during his NAACP speech for vowing to repeal “Obamacare”, Mitt Romney told Fox News that black leaders support him, but are afraid to voice their support in public. Ah, I wonder why that is? Probably because any “black leader” that supports Romney is not representative of the community he or she purportedly “leads”? Romney is polling single digits among African Americans, and for good reason. African Americans have always voted solidly Democratic, and when there’s an incumbent black president, they’re not likely to switch allegiances to the whitest man on the planet. But African Americans are not just blindly voting along party lines or for a man that shares their skin color. As disappointed as I’ve been with Barack Obama, it’s pretty hard to argue that African Americans would not do better with him in office than his opponent. The fact that Republicans can’t deceive blacks into voting for their candidate against their own economic interests, as the Bible-thumping white underclass does, must really gall them. Hence they complain, obliquely, about African American bloc-voting and imply that free-thinking blacks can’t come out in favor of an elitist corporate tool because the black-Democrat cabal will excommunicate them (or something).

But Republicans consciously made the choice to sacrifice the black vote when they adopted the Southern Strategy. They decided, in their infinite wisdom, that picking up southern Dixiecrat voters was more valuable than conceding the African American vote almost entirely. They surely didn’t realize that this overtly racial strategy would be difficult to reverse when Latin Americans became electorally significant. And now that political correctness requires the Republican candidate for president to actually speak in front of black folks, Republicans have to deal with the awkward reality of their institutionalized racism. If only blacks could forget about decades of hostility from Republicans and think about school vouchers!

Romney claims that blacks are unlikely to tell pollsters that they are willing to vote for him. This would be the reverse of the Bradley effect. The Bradley effect is named after LA mayor Tom Bradley, an African American who lost a race for governor despite being ahead in the polls. Political scientists attributed this discrepancy to social desirability bias – in other words, people told public opinion pollsters what they thought would sound politically correct, not necessarily what they thought. In Romney’s universe, African Americans are telling pollsters that they’ll vote for Obama because they think that’s what they’re supposed to say. I think it’s a lot more likely that blacks are saying they’ll vote for Obama because they’ll vote for Obama.

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Heat wave, pt. 2

I wrote earlier that even a heat wave as pronounced as the one most of North America is now experiencing should not be taken on its own as evidence of global warming. I meant that this record breaking heat “proves” global warming no more than snow in Washington D.C. “refutes” global warming. Basically, I was making the “weather is not climate” argument, stressing the importance of the reams of weather data that climate scientists are using to predict global warming. But in an excellent column, Jocelyn Fong at Media Matters explains why this “weather is not climate” argument can’t be used interchangeably by climate advocates and deniers. I recommend you read the whole thing.

When climate advocates say “weather is not climate” during the winter, they are trying to communicate that weather variability doesn’t stop just because the planet is heating up on average. It’s crucial to note that they are saying this in response to those who claim a snowstorm or a cold snap refutes global warming. When you’re trying to overturn a theory that is based on long-term data, a single storm or weather event just won’t do. The burden of proof is higher. A cold snap doesn’t tell us much about climate, but a whole bunch of them would over time. The trends just aren’t going in that direction.

The record-breaking average temperatures of the past six months have followed a decade of historic average temperatures, so this current phenomenon is not a freak occurrence. But climate scientists have been extremely reluctant to tell the public that particular cases of extreme weather are evidence of the megatrend that is occurring. Instead, they try to communicate to decision makers through the very conservative reports produced by the IPCC, which rely on reams of data gathered since the 19th century and beyond.

But statistical analysis of millions of bits of data doesn’t really grip the human imagination the way a scorching hot summer can. Some research on this topic popped up in my twitter feed a few days ago.

From the paper (emphasis mine):

Studies that have examined opinion about the existence of global warming suggest that people’s values and political predispositions have a bigger impact than factual information on judgments about the nature and extent of the problem. Age, liberal ideology, pro-environment attitudes, and being nonreligious are associated with existence beliefs, while the effect of scientific knowledge about the causes and consequences of climate change is weak and inconsistent (Bord, O’Connor and Fisher 2000; Kellstedt, Zahran and Vedlitz 2008; but see Curry, Ansolabehere and Herzog 2007). People’s perceptions of the threat posed by global warming appear to be guided more by the polarized discourse of
political elites than by the scientific consensus affirming that climate change is taking place.

We hypothesize that an additional factor—the personal experience of local temperature variation—has an independent effect on attitudes about the existence of global warming.

For each 3.1° Fahrenheit that local temperatures in the past week have risen above normal, Americans become one percentage point more likely to agree that there is “solid evidence” that the earth is getting warmer… The size of the effect is substantial, comparable to the ceteris paribus differences in global warming beliefs by race, age, or education, and the effect increases in magnitude after longer periods of abnormal temperatures. The impact is short-lived, however, and therefore does not induce long-term attitude change.

So while the heat will affect attitudes about global warming in the short term, we shouldn’t bank on it to change the political environment. What we desperately need is a change in the public discourse, so that people can appreciate the changes they are seeing in their local weather within a broader context. Neither personal experience of extreme weather nor passive acknowledgement of scientific consensus is enough to get people to adjust their living patterns or expectations for the future. The talking heads on television can help the general population connect the dots between personal experience and abstract climate science. They can help us realize that as the climate changes, extremely hot summers like this one will become more likely and more common. When the media fails to point out that this hot weather is what the abstract concept of global warming actually feels like, people don’t change their attitudes or think about how prepared they are for a hotter, angrier planet.

Fung at Media Matters compares how the media contextualizes particular economic events within the broader frame of the national economy, but fails to do so when reporting on weather.

In December 2008 the Washington Post reported that AT&T and DuPont planned to lay off a combined 14,500 employees. The lead of the story said: “Need more proof that the recession is real? An onslaught of grim unemployment and layoff reports yesterday should dispel any lingering doubts.”

Was the recession the only force behind these job cuts? No. Other variables would be needed to explain why the layoffs were hitting these specific companies, at this time, and at this scale.  But the recession was the obvious background condition, the broader context that could not go unmentioned in a proper news report on the layoffs, and there was no hand-wringing about drawing the connection. The article didn’t caution that “No single bankruptcy or job cut can be definitively blamed on the recession.”

Back to the recession analogy. Imagine if, in 2009, President Obama spotlighted a company that was thriving to argue that the recession was over. Such a statement would not be taken seriously anywhere. Why? Because of the broader context — because of what we knew about the trends in employment, GDP, investment spending. By the same token, we know that by warming the climate, we’re making heat extremes more probable, and when we bring up climate change during a heat wave, it’s not to say that a specific heat wave is evidence of climate change — we have plenty of evidence in the long-term trends — it’s to say “this is what global warming looks like.” The alternative, refusing to recognize the symptoms of a disease we know we have, isn’t a smart approach, and it’s not good journalism.

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Heat wave

As Vancouver finally gets its first taste of summer, we can look to central Canada and the United States and feel fortunate that we’re not suffering from temperatures in excess of 40 degrees Celsius. Are the record-breaking temperatures evidence of global warming? I don’t think that’s really the question we should be asking. We can’t look at a single heat wave (even when it is as intense and as wide-ranging as what we’re seeing right now) and declare it proof of a global trend. No more than climate science deniers can claim that snow in Washington, D.C. disproves global warming. As convincing as this oppressive, sustained heat might seem, we can only find evidence of anthropogenic climate change in very large data sets — and by “we” I mean huge teams of climate scientists using number-crunching computers. I expect to see exactly this kind of finding in the next IPCC report.

The question we should be asking is, “If so many people have died this week from heat exhaustion and other heat-related causes, how ready for climate change are we?” The answer is “not at all”. We don’t have any reason to believe that North America’s electricity grid will be any more robust in the future. Hugely disruptive power outages are more likely in the coming decades, given that nobody seems willing to spend the money necessary to maintain existing energy infrastructure. And energy prices will rise, making it that much more difficult for the underclass to afford air conditioning, refrigerated food, fresh water, and literally every other modern amenity that keeps them alive.

Unfortunately, thinking about global warming in terms of dangerously hot days is far too narrow. It’s tragic that the old, the poor, and the infirm will die by the thousands in their poorly-insulated homes with no access to affordable medical care. But they’ll die in the middle of the winter, too, because of the general and catastrophic damage to the economy that climate change will inflict. Climate change (along with the energy crunch) will wreak havoc on world trade and food security. Mitigating the damage of sea level rise and extreme weather will suck away manpower and capital that could otherwise build sustainable housing, transportation, and medical facilities. The geographical range of tropical diseases will expand… the list of negative effects goes on. The fact is, runaway global warming is going to disrupt the economy so thoroughly that we can’t possibly anticipate all the indirect effects. But we can bank on who will suffer the most.

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Property values

In Life, Inc, Douglas Rushkoff tells us that he once had the misfortune of being mugged on Christmas Eve. As any conscientious and web-savvy person would do, he warned the members of his neighbourhood’s online message board to watch out for the suspect. Instead of feeling concerned for his safety, or even grateful for the advice, his neighbours berated him for publicly announcing the crime. Why? By making the mugging incident public knowledge, Rushkoff had  purportedly hurt the property values in his neighbourhood. Even though Rushkoff had undoubtedly contributed to the  community’s well-being, the beneficiaries of his good deed did not view their neighborhood as a “community” at all. Their houses were investments, not homes. Rushkoff ascribes this attitude to the creeping corpratization of our culture, and I find it hard to disagree.

I was reminded of this story by a post that just made the front page of reddit. Someone has been sending threatening letters to the poster, demanding that his family leave the neighborhood because the presence of his father’s taxi in the driveway is driving down property values in the neighbourhood.

“We asked you before to get your taxi out of your driveway and off the street, but we see that you’re back to your old ways. We’ve even noticed a beat up yellow cab parked across from your house. Are you too big of an asshole to realize how much these eyesores drive down your neighbors property values? You were warned. We know how to deal with assholes like you.”

Unsurprisingly, the community does allow small commercial vehicles such as taxis to be parked in driveways. But its shocking that someone could be considered an “asshole” just for being a taxi driver. Some people take any visible evidence of poverty (or in this case, an un-glamorous lifestyle) in their proximity as a personal affront. Just as the lord of the manor has the servants live in separate quarters, the besieged middle class prefer that the homeless, the janitors, the immigrants live somewhere else. Perhaps in the latter case, the presence of taxi drivers reminds white-collar neighbours of their own economic vulnerability. But really, a taxi cab in the driveway across the street not very influential on property values in a depressed economy. Maybe it’s time that people got out of the corporate mindset and started thinking like neighbors again. That would not only improve our quality of life but do much to improve the economic capacity of our cities (and property values along with it).

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