So New Hampshire was interesting!

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Here are my immediate reactions to both the Democratic and Republican side. I’m writing this on my phone so apologises for any problems with spelling and grammar.

REGARDING THE DEMOCRATS:
Sanders’ position regarding the results of the New Hampshire primary was a lot like mine waiting for my A-level results.* I knew I wanted to apply to Oxford, so I needed 3 As. This was before the A* was introduced. So there was no way for me to overachieve. I could either get what I needed or I could fall short.

With a 20% win Bernie got what he needed from New Hampshire. He needs to be wracking up big wins in the handful of states full of the white liberals that make up his base. Not doing so would have been a disaster, so he can be grateful to have avoided that. But is it really a positive indication for his chances of becoming nominee? Not really. For example, in 2008 Clinton leveraged her support amongst white blue collar democrats to crush Obama by more than 2 to 1 in West Virginia. He still won because his lead with demographics underrepresented in West Virginia allowed him to surpass her nationally.

To demonstrate he is not playing Clinton to Clinton’s Obama, he will need to perform credibly in Nevada and South Carolina.

REGARDING THE REPUBLICANS:
You would not expect Norwegian or Farsi to have all that much in common. However, both use the word ‘Texas’ to mean crazy. As in ‘it was when the gatecrashers turned up that the party went all Texas’. Norwegians and Iranians observing the Republican race are, therefore, likely to be commenting that it’s ‘completely Texas’.

After Trump underperformed his poll ratings in Iowa, it seemed that a chunk of his support existed only in polls. Indeed many had long assumed this was the case. His decisive win in New Hampshire confirms that in fact, at least in primary states his voters will turn up. In short, this Trump thing is really happening.

Trump is of course a force for chaos all by  himself. But the candidates supposed to represent order within the GOP are themselves in a mess. New Hampshire had looked like being the point where Rubio emerged as the sole standard bearer for the ‘establishment’. Instead he seems to be languishing not only behind Trump, Kasich and Cruz but also the guy begging his audiences to clap.

Despite this I still feel that Rubio is the only candidate who is acceptable to Republican primary voters, party elites and the broader American public. So in my judgement he remains the candidate best placed to become the establishment standard bearer. The question is if that happens fast enough to prevent the race coalescing into a fight between Trump and Cruz from which other participants are squeezed out.

In any event this isn’t going to be boring for a while.

For the benefit of non-Brits: A-levels are the exam you sit in your final year of Uni and on the basis of which you apply to universities.

Can the Green Party survive Corbyn?

This is an unusual post for me. I’m not writing it to convince you of my position but to invite readers to convince me of theirs.

What is a party that has for years campaigned as the socialist alternative to Labour to do when the Labour Party itself has reverted to being unapologetically socialist?

For the time being they probably want to keep going as a separate party. They can function as an insurance policy against the eventuality of Labour moderates retaking control of the party.

But if the shift within Labour proves durable then they have a real dilemma. Is there space for a far left ecologist party to exist independently of a much larger far left socialist party? The Greek and Spanish Greens have been absorbed by Podemos and Syriza, which suggests there isn’t.

A counter-example might be the German Greens who seem to do fine not withstanding the existence of the Left Party. But they have the advantage of operating within a proportional electoral system and appear to be a more centrist outfit. They are, for example, often spoken of as a potential coalition partner for Merkel’s CDU. Surely the average British Green would rather die – or at least let their party die – before contemplating a coalition with the Tories?

My instinct is that at the moment the best vehicle for Greens to pursue their objectives probably is a Corbyn lead Labour Party and that there’s likely to be some sort of pact between the two parties.

Should the Green Party decide to prioritise its independence then it probably needs to move in a less traditionally leftist direction. Perhaps focusing on rural areas rather than university towns. And replacing socialism with a souped up version of the belligerent parochialism that characterises a lot of Lib Dem branches in the countryside.

But that’s what I suspect. What do you think/know?

Cardinal sins

Spotlight would deserve to be seen for its message alone. But it’s also a fantastic piece of slowburn cinema.

Spotlight is probably the most depressing film of the year. Which given that this is the year Room came out is saying something. It recounts the investigation by journalists at the Boston Globe which uncovered the prevalence of clerical sexual abuse in the city. The message that this is a ‘super depressing film about abuse’ may not leave you desperate to see it. Nonetheless, you should.

That’s partly because it’s an important film.

Despite what one might assume from the plot, the main villains are not paedophile priests. True, the audience is left in no doubt about the damage they do. Nonetheless, this is the story of an investigation into abuse rather than the abuse itself. We hear about attacks secondhand and the details are not lingered on.

What is explored in depth is why these crimes were tolerated for so long. And by whom. The journalists depicted in Spotlight were not the first to expose abuse by members of the clergy. What they did do was show the lengths that Boston’s Catholic hierarchy went to prevent these abusers being prosecuted or otherwise exposed. Indeed, they generally just sent them to new parishes to harm new victims.

Spotlight strongly suggests that it was common knowledge in Boston that a large number of priests were a danger to children. But in a city where Catholicism was an important social glue, many establishment figures felt it was better to leave this truth unspoken. The film repeatedly shows the subtle but nonetheless substantial pressure placed on anyone contemplating bringing these private traumas into the public eye. That presents the viewer with an awkward question: in a similar situation would I choose to speak or to be silent?

However, I don’t want to suggest you should see Spotlight out of a sense of duty. Despite its grim subject matter, it’s a compelling procedural. A combination of excellent directing, cinematography and acting make it a compelling watch.

Ruffalo and McAdams deserve their Oscar nominations, and Keaton is hard done by not to have received one. But Liev Schreiber as their editor is the real standout.

The filmakers do especially well to maintain an even pace and tone. The horror of the situation is almost inexpressably vast yet it not something like says 9/11 that forms in a nightmarish moment. It was decades in the making and was revealed slowly and carefully by people whose occupation requires them to eschew melodrama. To make that as riveting as it is the ultimate in slowburn cinema.

Verdict: 9/10 – Not only the year’s most depressing film but also one of its most important and engaging.

Murder cities

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This chart on which cities around the world have the highest murder rates comes courtesy of the Economist.

Two things seem to worth noting to me:

  1. How dominated this list is by the Americas.
  2. That the only cities from developed countries to feature are from the US. But remember folks ‘the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun’.

5 initial thoughts on the Iowa results

I’m writing this on a train using my phone. So apologises for spelling and grammar errors. But:

1. All credit to Bernie – who once seemed like a fringe candidate – for pushing Clinton into a near as dammit draw. Nonetheless, I stand by my view yesterday that anything less than a crushing victory in Iowa shows he doesn’t have the depth of support to win the nomination. It’s a near perfect demographics for him. A draw here means a defeat nationally.

2. The New Hampshire primary now looks far more interesting on the Republican than the Democrat side. It should be an easy win for Sanders as it has even better demographics for him than Iowa and is adjacent to Vermont.

3. This isn’t necessarily a disaster for Trump. His support seems fairly evenly spread so Iowa has no particular significance for him beyond being the first state to vote. But it has shown that his poll numbers are soft, as well as demonstrating the limitations to a campaign based on doing obnoxious things in order to get free media. If he wants to be the nominee he needs to start building a conventional political machine that matches it’s rivals for field offices and ads.

4. Rubio is now the presumptive ‘establishment’ candidate. His rivals for that position will probably hang in till New Hampshire but after this result it seems unlikely any of them can outpoll him there.

5. My instinct is that both Rubio and the Dems will be happy if Cruz’s win in Iowa makes him and not Trump the guy they have to beat. Trump is wiley and unpredictable. By contrast, Cruz is an inflexible hardliner with little room to manoeuvre policywise. He combines that with being the guy who shut down the Federal government and an air of smugness marinated in creepiness.

My Iowa caucus predictions

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I have two.

Firstly, the press will overreact to the result on the Democratic side. The indications are that Clinton will either be run close by Sanders or even be defeated by him. If that happens expect journalists and pundits to start talking as if that indicates she is in real danger of not winning the nomination.

In reality, anything less than a crushing victory for Sanders is a strong indicator that he won’t be triumphant. As the chart below – which I’ve stolen from FiveThirtyEight – shows that Iowa is prime Sanders territory. There are only two states that have more of the white liberals that constitute his base: his home state of Vermont and the next event in the primary calendar New Hampshire.

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After Iowa and New Hampshire, he will then have to compete in the much less favourable territory. If he does well in Nevada or South Carolina then that would be significant. Sanders doing well in a state tailor made for him to do well in would not be.

On the Republican side, my prediction is that whatever the outcome in Iowa the race will remain turbulent.

If Rubio were to win or come close in a state where ‘anti-establishment’ candidates like Trump, Cruz and Carson have dominated the polls, that would set him up with a clear path to the nomination. But that possibility seems remote.

If either Trump or Cruz can win decisively then they may be able to put an effective halt to the other’s bid. But the ‘establishment’ candidates already expect to do badly in Iowa and won’t be in any hurry to begin rallying behind a candidate they think will take the party to electoral disaster. I would therefore expect at least one of them to go on fighting even if they appear to be losing badly.

I therefore predict that come Tuesday the Democrat contest will look more exciting than it really is, while both the perception and the actuality of the Republican race will be of a brutal fight with plenty of time still on the clock.

 

Bernie Sanders: he’s not the messiah, he’s a very muddled guy

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Bernie Sanders has the aspect of an old testament prophet. Most politicians make great play of showing that they have a life outside politics. But Sanders’s furious insistence that the nation has become corrupt and must amend its ways is largely unleavened by such frivolities.  The messenger is the message and he apparently intends that it be taken most earnestly, for if he is not heeded pestilence awaits.

The response from the Clinton campaign is essentially that Sanders is a false prophet. They’ve taken his dramatic sounding proposals and begun to unpick them. Suggesting, for example, that his plan to break up the big banks neglects issues like shadow banking.

Their scepticism is lent support by a report from Kenneth Thorpe, an economist at Emory University. As Dylan Matthews reports for Vox, Thorpe advocates the US introducing a single payer healthcare system. That would mean Americans paying for their healthcare through taxes rather than insurance premiums. His preference for such a system is in part due to the fact he believes it would be much cheaper than the current mixed system.

Bernie Sanders also supports a single payer system and argues it would save America a substantial amount. Yet Thorpe appears sceptical about this proposal. He has released a paper suggesting that Sanders has overstated the savings he can find by $1.1 trillion.

That’s politically significant because while a single payer system might be expected to reduce total healthcare spending, it nonetheless requires an increase in government spending. That spending has to be paid for through extra taxes. So if someone says Sanders is overestimating the savings of a single payer system by $1.1 trillion, then by extension they are also saying he is underestimating the tax rises he’d need to introduce $1.1 trillion.

The efforts to introduce such a system in Sanders’ home state of Vermont floundered on the political infeasibility of raising taxes enough to make it work. Thorpe’s report indicates that Sanders has yet to find a way to avoid the recurrence of this problem.

Now at this point you might be wondering who to believe Sanders or Thorpe? Let me answer that question with a quote from Matthews’ reporting:

Sanders assumes $324 billion more per year in prescription drug savings than Thorpe does. Thorpe argues that this is wildly implausible. “In 2014 private health plans paid a TOTAL of $132 billion on prescription drugs and nationally we spent $305 billion,” he writes in an email. “With their savings drug spending nationally would be negative.” (Emphasis mine.) The Sanders camp revised the number down to $241 billion when I pointed this out.

That reflects terribly on Sanders’ team and their policy making. It’s hard to decide what is worse:

a) that they included an assumption that’s arithmetically impossible. It’s like an individual budgeting to save $324 a year by cancelling a gym membership that only cost $241.

or

b) that by their own implicit admission they  were wrong by an amount that was – at least – the equivalent of the GDP of Belarus.

or

c) that the budgeting for a central policy proposal was so flimsy that they are making corrections amounting to tens of billions of dollars because of a single email from a journalist.

Now there’s nothing wrong per se with amending policies. For example, Barack Obama opposed an individual mandate during the 2008 primary but then included one in Obamacare. Apparently the negative response to his plans from experts convinced him to change stance. But what Sanders is doing is rather different. Most obviously, it’s amateurish. More important, however, is that it’s not so easily rectified. Obama’s path was clear: include an individual mandate in the law after all. Sanders by contrast would a large amount of additional tax revenue in addition to plans that are already .

I submit that this is a telling error, which points to a broader problem with Sanders’ candidacy.

He is asking Democrats to believe that American voters who generally punish parties for choosing a candidate far from the mainstream, will this time reward them with such enthusiasm that it will trigger a “political revolution”. And that he will then achieve radical change within a system of government specifically designed to prevent it. This is not implausible in the way the US having negative spending on medicine is. Nonetheless, it is an extraordinary claim demanding extraordinary evidence.

An appropriately compelling case has not been forthcoming. His strategy seems to be predicated on winning back low income white voters, the Democrats haven’t actually lostIt also seems to wish away the high probability that Republicans will retain control of the House and therefore be able to sink his legislative as they have Obama’s. Nor does his single minded focus on income inequality seem well suited to an election where voters appear less concerned about economic security than the regular kind of security.

Perhaps he would be better off running for Governor of Vermont rather than President. In the laboratory of America’s most liberal he might be able to concrete results that other states and the Federal government could replicate. But the prophet Bernie wants to be America’s saviour rather its John the Baptist. He would need to perform miracles to fulfil his chosen role and he’s not shown that he can. Therefore, the appropriate response is doubt rather than faith.