The Palin choice-6: McCain and women

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The reason that is bandied about the most for the Palin choice is that it was aimed at attracting women voters to the Republican cause, especially those Democrats who are allegedly so furious that Hillary Clinton did not get their party’s nomination that they were looking for reasons to vote for McCain.

The good thing about McCain’s choice of a woman as a running mate is that it reveals that he does not harbor any absurd beliefs that women are not capable of running the country. Thanks to his choice, whichever ticket wins in November will result in either a black president or a female vice-president and this, other things being equal, is a good thing.

On the other hand, the fact that Palin was a hometown beauty queen (Ms. Wasilla, pop: 7,000) and Miss Alaska runner-up (1984) does raise some disturbing questions, though about McCain and not her. There is nothing wrong in being physically attractive and looks and governing abilities are not mutually exclusive.
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The Palin choice-5: To close the age and health gap?

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Another possibility for the Palin choice is that perhaps she was selected to close the age and health gap between the McCain and Obama tickets.

There is no question that the Obama campaign just oozes energy (despite Joe Biden), while John McCain does not. McCain was born even before Obama’s mother was, and it shows. Whenever Obama and McCain are shown together, McCain comes out looking the worse.

Obama projects the kind of youthful vigor that Americans like to see in public figures ever since TV started playing a big role in the 1960 election and kept their presidents constantly in the public eye. John Kennedy is the model for this (he carefully hid his serious health problems from the public) and it is no accident that George W. Bush spends a lot of time being seen hacking away at brush and riding bikes. These are deliberate image creating events, to show people that their leaders are fit and energetic.
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The Palin choice-4: Shameless double standards

(Although it may look on the surface as if this blog has become obsessed with Sarah Palin, it really is a chance for me to express some thoughts about politics in general, using her story as a hook. So I hope those who are sick of hearing about Palin will bear with me. For previous posts in this series, see here.)

By now, there cannot be a single person in the country who is not aware of the intimate details of the Palin family. We now know about Palin’s unwed daughter’s pregnancy, that this news was released by the McCain campaign to counter the rumor that this same daughter is the real mother of Palin’s youngest child who was born in April with Down’s syndrome, her husband’s DUI conviction a long time ago, the messiness of her sister’s divorce and their involvement with it, and other problems with the law. It has become a tabloid-style soap opera, putting things that should be private into the full glare of the national media spotlight, with promises of more lurid details to come.
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The Palin choice-3: The danger of picking an unknown

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

One factor that the McCain camp may have used in selecting Palin may have been the sense that she was a fresh face that would generate interest in a way that a more familiar figure would not. The announcement of Palin certainly did that. It immediately shifted the discussion on Friday away from the hugely successful Democratic convention and Obama’s excellent speech on Thursday to the topic of Palin. If that was a tactical goal of the McCain campaign, it succeeded.
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The Palin choice-2: The experience question

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While the choice of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate is a poor one, I don’t think the problem is Palin the person or her knowledge and experience. For all I know about her, Palin may well make an excellent vice-president (and president, if necessary).

I have never understood why people and the media are so obsessed with the experience argument. If there is any job for which relevant experience is unobtainable, it is the presidency of a country simply because the job is unique. What you are called upon to do in that job is unlike any other job you will ever have. The only kind of experience that is directly relevant, but which you can never get, is first being the president of some other country.
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The Palin choice-1: Why?

Like almost everyone, I was stunned by John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. And like them, I am wondering which of the two extreme views of her nomination is true: that she is a bold choice that will give McCain victory in November or that she is terrible pick that will end up being a millstone around his neck and send him spiraling down to a defeat of historic proportions.

There has, of course, been enormous attention to this story. While I don’t usually pay too much attention to the personalities of politics, preferring to focus on a few issues that are important to me, the exceptional nature of the choice has sucked me into the discussion along with everyone else, mainly to try and figure out what this pick reveals about McCain.
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Understanding polls

Before he moved over to his new home at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum revisited a topic at his old Washington Monthly blog that I too have raised before, to criticize reporters who say that there is “statistical dead heat” whenever the polls show the difference between voters preferences for two candidates fall within the margin of error.

In other words, if the polls show 46% for Obama and 43% for McCain with a 3% margin of error, then the race is reported as a “statistical tie” or some such thing, giving the impression that it is a toss-up as to who is ahead. This is simply not true.

Drum has consulted with two professors pf mathematics and statistics at California State University, Chico and they have provided the formulas that enabled him to prepare a handy little chart to tell you the actual chance that some one is ahead, even though the preferences fall within the margin of error.

Percentage Lead
Margin of Error 1% 2% 3% 4% 5% 6%
2% 69% 84% 93% 98% 99% 100%
3% 63% 74% 84% 90% 95% 98%
4% 60% 69% 77% 84% 89% 93%
5% 58% 65% 72% 78% 84% 88%

So if a candidate has a 3% lead with a 3% margin of error, far from being a dead heat, it is highly likely (84% chance) that the candidate is actually ahead. Even if the candidate has only a slim 1% lead and the margin of error is a whopping 5%, it is still not a ‘dead heat’. The candidate still has a 58% chance of winning.

Like Drum, I do not have much hope that reporters will ever change their misleading reporting because they have a vested interest in continuing to talk this way. Races that are close generate more interest and thus more viewers and readers, so reporters will always try to make them seem closer than they are.

Talking of polls, there seems to have been an explosion in the number of polling organizations out there, and their results differ. This can cause some confusion in the public mind. When one polls gives one result one day and the next day the media report another poll with quite different results, this might give people the impression that the race is highly volatile or that some polling organizations are biased in favor of one or another candidate.

But that need not be true. There is something called the ‘house effect’ that can skew the results in particular ways without any intention of misleading. Charles Franklin over at Pollster.com explains what is going on:

Who does the poll affects the results. Some. These are called “house effects” because they are systematic effects due to survey “house” or polling organization. It is perhaps easy to think of these effects as “bias” but that is misleading. The differences are due to a variety of factors that represent reasonable differences in practice from one organization to another.

For example, how you phrase a question can affect the results, and an organization usually asks the question the same way in all their surveys. This creates a house effect. Another source is how the organization treats “don’t know” or “undecided” responses. Some push hard for a position even if the respondent is reluctant to give one. Other pollsters take “undecided” at face value and don’t push. The latter get higher rates of undecided, but more important they get lower levels of support for both candidates as a result of not pushing for how respondents lean. And organizations differ in whether they typically interview adults, registered voters or likely voters. The differences across those three groups produce differences in results. Which is right? It depends on what you are trying to estimate – opinion of the population, of people who can easily vote if the choose to do so or of the probable electorate. Not to mention the vagaries of identifying who is really likely to vote. Finally, survey mode may matter. Is the survey conducted by random digit dialing (RDD) with live interviewers, by RDD with recorded interviews (“interactive voice response” or IVR), or by internet using panels of volunteers who are statistically adjusted in some way to make inferences about the population.

Given all these and many other possible sources of house effects, it is perhaps surprising the net effects are as small as they are. They are often statistically significant, but rarely are they notably large.

One way to avoid mistaking inter-poll variability for voter volatility is to track the results of just one poll. In other words, only compare the results of one poll with the earlier results of the same poll conducted using the same methods and questions.

Another way is to do what the outfit Real Clear Politics does. It tries to take some of the inter-poll variability out by giving the averages of the major polls as a function of time.

To paraphrase Jon Stewart, elections are god’s way of teaching Americans statistics.

POST SCRIPT: Mike Huckabee on Colbert Report

It was refreshing to listen to Mike Huckabee being interviewed on the Colbert Report about his reaction (after just the first two days) to the Democratic Convention. Huckabee was one of the most interesting primary candidates on the Republican side but the attacks on him from the Republican Party establishment were quite vicious.

Although I disagree with many of his views, there was something engaging and honest about him that I found likeable. He also has a sense of humor. All these positive characteristics are reflected in the interview. His closing comments on Obama and the role of race in America seemed genuine and heartfelt.

Taking advantage of people’s poverty

(Due to today being a Labor Day holiday and being ontravel, I am reposting an old item, edited slightly because I can never stop tinkering with what I have written. New posts will begin again tomorrow.)

I read in the paper recently of an incident where the wealthy son of industrialist and his friends were about to enter a Los Angeles restaurant. Outside the restaurant was a homeless person and the youth offered the homeless person $100 to pour a can of soda over himself. The homeless man did so and the crowd of rich people laughed uproariously at this, paid him, and went on their way.

This story infuriated me, as I am sure it will to most people who hear it. It seemed that these people were humiliating the man, taking advantage of his poverty for their warped sense of what is amusing.
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Hope and cynicism and Barack Obama

As readers of this blog know, I tend to follow politics fairly closely. I have done so for as long as I can remember. In Sri Lanka, politics was our national pastime and you could always strike up a good political discussion almost anywhere, and it was easy to become a political junkie.

As I have got older, my feelings about politics have become more ambivalent, a mixture of hope and cynicism. My hope has arisen from my increased awareness that most people seek justice and fairness at a very fundamental level and so I have always been in favor of efforts to increase participation. The more that ordinary people get involved in politics, the broader the participation, the more likely we are to have good results in the long run.
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The politics of food-6: Corn and obesity

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

The abundance of corn has made the economics of food shift towards unhealthier foods. If you have a limited budget, you can buy more calories based on corn-based fast-food products that you can from healthier foods. $1 buys 1,200 calories from potato chips and cookies vs. 250 calories from whole foods like carrots; 875 calories from soda vs. 170 calories from fruit juice from concentrate. (p. 108) Is it any wonder that poorer people, in order to feel satiated, are more likely to eat potato chips and follow it up with a soda than they are to eat carrots and follow it up with juice, since the cost of a calorie is five times as much for the latter meal?

In fact, an article published in the January 2004 edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Dr. Adam Drewnowski (director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition in the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine) and Dr. S.E. Specter (research nutrition scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center in Davis, Calif.) reports that the correlation of obesity with income levels is striking. Unlike in the developing world where obesity is often the result of wealthy people eating a lot of rich and fancy food, in the US, obesity afflicts a lot of poor people trying to save money on food.

The study says that:

Energy-dense foods not only provide more calories per unit weight, but can provide more empty calories per unit cost. These foods include French fries, soft drinks, candy, cookies, deep-fried meats and other fatty, sugary and salty items. The review shows that attempting to reduce food spending tends to drive families toward more refined grains, added sugars and added fats. Previous studies have shown that energy-dense foods may fail to trigger physiological satiety mechanisms – the internal signals that enough food has been consumed. These failed signals lead to overeating and overweight. Paradoxically, trying to save money on food may be a factor in the current obesity epidemic.

What are ’empty calories’? This Wikipedia article explains:

Empty calories, in casual dietary terminology, are calories present in high-energy foods with poor nutritional profiles, typically from processed carbohydrates or fats. An “empty calorie” has the same energy content of any other calorie but lacks accompanying micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, or amino acids as well as fiber as found in whole grains but less so in white flour. Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, coined the term in 1972.

Generally, unnecessary calories are converted in the body to fat. However, if calorie intake is limited for the sake of reducing weight, insufficient vitamin and mineral intake may lead to malnutrition. Dieticians recommend in every case that nutrient-dense food such as fruit and vegetables be substituted for empty-calorie food.

Drewnowski adds that the drive for lower costs is replacing nutrition-rich calories with empty calories:

It’s a question of money. . . The reason healthier diets are beyond the reach of many people is that such diets cost more. On a per calorie basis, diets composed of whole grains, fish, and fresh vegetables and fruit are far more expensive than refined grains, added sugars and added fats. It’s not a question of being sensible or silly when it comes to food choices, it’s about being limited to those foods that you can afford.

As result of policies designed to produce more and more corn, corn has been on a silent and unseen rampage though our diet, resulting in a whole host of undesirable effects. The massive output of corn has led to the “rise of factory farms and the industrialization of our food, to the epidemic of obesity and prevalence of food poisoning in America.” (p. 62) Since the explosive growth of corn production and cheap food containing mostly empty calories in the 1970s, obesity has risen since 1977 and the average American’s food intake has risen by 10%. (p. 102)

Since what we eat ends up being the source material that goes into creating the tissues in our own bodies, it is now possible to analyze human hair to see how much of us originates in corn. It turns out that the US diet contains so much of corn in various hidden forms that our bodies are becoming increasingly made up of tissues that originated in corn. As Professor Todd Dawson (Director of the Center for Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley) who has analyzed the corn component in food and in our bodies, says, “we North Americans look like corn chips with legs”. We have a greater component of corn in our bodies than societies like Mexico that ostensibly seem eat more corn. (p. 23)

POST SCRIPT: Nuns beauty pageant cancelled

Two days ago, I reported on an Italian priest who had organized a beauty contest for nuns to show off their looks, and asked prospective contestants to send in photos.

He now says he has had to cancel his plans because of objections from his superiors in the church. I can’t imagine why.