Watching the electoral winds in Maine

In 2010, at just about this time I was conducting a poll of Maine’s gubernatorial race at Thomas College with the help of about 40 political science students. We all learned a lot. What many of the students learned was that they never wanted to have a career that involved cold-calling people at home. What I learned, meanwhile, was a little bit more exciting and immediately consequential.

I learned that Eliot Cutler had pulled even with Paul LePage.

We were among the last of the polls in the field that year and maybe it was my students’ persuasiveness, or maybe it was just luck of the draw, but our results ended up spotting the Cutler surge more effectively than any other poll.

gov race

Though my media skills were yet insufficiently developed to get this out into the local news, I immediately called my Democratic friends and family and told them to vote for Cutler. If they wanted to support an alternative to Paul LePage, I told them that the mass of non-LePage supporting voters had turned away from Mitchell and that they should switch their vote as well.

I was serving as an informal coordinating mechanism. And in this case, I was right. Cutler achieved an unprecedented 10 point increase between late October and November 2.

Why did I do that?

I felt the need to help like-minded voters coordinate. We desperately need coordinating mechanisms in a state like Maine, where races frequently see more than two strong candidates. Without an election method like ranked choice voting which lets voters choose their true preference without a negative consequence, our current system punishes sincere voters who vote for the third-ranked candidate by effectively removing their votes from the top-two candidate they would otherwise support. In other words, voting your top choice may help get your last choice elected.

Because of this unpleasant reality, voters mostly understand that they need to vote strategically. But how do you vote strategically if you don’t know which two candidates have the most support? Without that information, voters are unable to tell whether their true preference is in the top two, or if they should instead vote for the least-bad alternative.

After Cutler’s unprecedented surge at the end of the 2010 race, we have an especially strong need for this information since we know that the answer isn’t always obvious.

The question Maine’s Democrats and left-leaning voters need answered this week is: are we seeing a surge for Cutler similar to what we saw in 2010?

Without ranked choice voting, we must come up with imperfect ways to compare the candidates’ likely support before election day. This is why polling Maine’s gubernatorial race is so vitally important.   Since I am not in Waterville this week to conduct this personal civic duty, I tried to come up with an alternative mechanism.

We can take a look at how people are voting with their wallets.

The huge increase in the amount and significance of campaign donations in Maine’s elections since 2010 is generally very depressing, but in this case it might come in handy as an indication of how much committed support the candidates have across the state. While the profile of Maine campaign donors is not a great match for Maine voters more generally, it’s a reasonable way to think about the range and depth of commitment across at least a meaningful and politically active segment of Maine’s electorate.

In particular, it is useful as a gauge when we look not at how much money the candidates are raising, but how many Mainers are contributing. For this kind of use of campaign data it doesn’t really matter how much an individual can give, because it’s just a proxy for committed candidate preference. People might be able to give more or fewer dollars, but they can only vote once.

Finally, while we can use the Maine Ethics Commission data to look just at Maine donors, we can only know about those who gave more than $50, since the totals for those giving less than $50 don’t come with address information.  These small donors probably include a large number of Mainers, but without address information we can’t be sure. (The totals of donations under $50 made to the candidates in 2014 were: LePage $12,060; Cutler $20,369, and Michaud $76,971.)

So how many Mainers gave more than $50 in the last few months to the gubernatorial candidates?

number maine donations

The numbers vary substantially, but for the last four months Michaud has generally received twice the number of donations made by the other two candidates.

This is not immediately obvious from looking at campaign donation totals. The average Michaud donation is substantially smaller than the average Cutler donation or average LePage donation.

ave maine donation amount

This may lead to campaign contribution amount totals being a misleading measure of local support, since it suggests a lower number of contributors.

I also looked just at where donors were coming from in September and mapped the number of September donors in each zip code using Google Fusion Tables. This gives a sense of where support for each candidate is strongest, here close to the end of the race. (You can click on the maps to enlarge them.)

Cutler September 2014 donors

Number of Cutler donors, September 2014

Michaud September 2014 donors

Number of Michaud donors, September 2014

LePage September 2014 donors

Number of LePage donors, September 2014

New donations will be filed with the Ethics Commission on 10/24, and I’m looking forward to taking one last look later this week at how support changed during October.

So what do campaign contributions tell us about how the wind’s blowing in Maine this year?

They tell us that Michaud has witnessed the highest number of Maine donors in the last four months. They tell us that both Michaud and LePage have a stronger base of support across the state than Cutler, and that Michaud has the highest density of southern Maine support across the three candidates. This is a telling difference from 2010, when Cumberland and Sagadahoc Counties provided Cutler with a critical base of support. All up the coast, in fact, where Mitchell did more poorly than average in 2010, Michaud appears to have support.

So what’s causing this difference?

2010 and 2014 began in very different ways. The 2010 gubernatorial primaries on both sides were fiercely contested, with astonishing levels of rancor and spending. The fact that three independent candidates joined the partisan candidates in vigorous campaigns throughout the race revealed the breadth of disagreement over the state’s political future.

This time, meanwhile, the field settled quickly, with two partisan candidates who already enjoyed strong statewide support. The Republican party quickly confirmed Governor Paul LePage as the 2014 nominee, despite some early chatter about primaries. (Even with the governor’s challenges, as national odds are strongly in his favor: since 1980, almost 80% of incumbent governors win re-election.) Maine Democrats, meanwhile, made up for their party’s divisive 2010 primary by selecting Congressman Mike Michaud, a nominee whose six successive elections to represent Maine’s second Congressional district demonstrated his electoral strength in the part of the state traditionally less friendly to Democrats.

Because of the strength and broad name-recognition of this slate of candidates, recent polls are showing that only between 3 and 5% of voters are currently undecided, and that suggests — contrary to 2010 — that if a large shift happens at the end of the race it will require a large number of people to vote away from their current preference.

It’s not a poll, but I don’t see a large shift in the direction of candidate support happening this year.

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Shopping for Diversity

Come with me as I daydream about real estate.

Real estate is excellent fodder for daydreaming. Entire professional fields are built on developing the glamour of homeownership, working off of the aspirational escapism of all of us poor hamsters stuck on the human wire wheel of status attainment. For recreational hausfrauen like yours truly, real estate websites offer the same seratonin hit that flipping through a J.Crew catalogue used to produce twenty years ago.

Me being me, my very favorite way to engage in this pastime is by exploring all of the websites and web gadgets that real estate companies have built up in the past few years using local data. Zillow and Trulia are the most developed examples of this I’ve seen, and what makes them so addictive is the illusion offer that you can specify exactly what kind of life you’d like to be able to lead in your new house.

My slice of demographic loooooves schools. Zillow’s property finding tool excels at allowing you to specify schools that you’d prefer — on one very specific dimension. Through an integration with the Great Schools rating website, Zillow surfaces the ranking of local schools on standardized tests. Although I know only too well that these rankings are essentially simply reports on the local economic environment of these schools, my lizard brain nonetheless enjoys looking for 9s and 10s and exploring the local housing stock.

But perhaps you are not interested solely in schools. Would you like to specify the number of reported crimes you’d be willing to tolerate in your neighborhood? How about your commute distance, by car, public transport or bike? Trulia lets you filter for properties meeting a standard you choose for both of those variables. It definitely tries to maximize the number of qualities you could choose for, offering to find you zones of lower earthquake and fire risk, proximity to (or distance from) restaurants and nightclubs, and median neighborhood property price. (It also has a school filter, but it doesn’t work as well as Zillow’s for some reason.)

But for all of these choices, none of the real estate tools I’ve seen let me search for a feature that I really want in a neighborhood: racial diversity.

This is a huge potential selling point for housing in the DC area, and yet the real estate websites have yet to make this search option available.

Taken all together, the DC metro area is incredibly racially diverse – substantially more racially diverse than the US as a whole, in fact. Unfortunately, like many metropolitan areas, that aggregate diversity hides an on-the-ground reality of neighborhoods which are largely segregated by race. As events in Ferguson, Mo. tragically underscore, the interplay of race, mutual social isolation, and power is still a core American issue, and continued de facto racial housing segregation helps to contribute this dynamic.  While no longer an explicit policy, decades of racially discriminatory housing law are effectively continued through the racialization of class and the dramatic difference in income for different kinds of city-based work.

You can see this de facto segregation in visualizations of DC’s racial demographics, such as CUNY’s Center for Urban Research maps using 2000 and 2010 data from the U.S. Census. A line runs roughly through the center of Washington DC, with most whites living on one side and most blacks living on the other.

That said, the DC metro area is getting better, at least as concerns black-white residential segregation. While the average white or black DC metro resident in 1980 lived in a neighborhood that was 70%  made up of members identifying with their race, in 2010 that figure was down below 60%. (Meanwhile, though the DC area’s Hispanic/Latino population increased over the last 10 years, people identifying in this category became more likely to live in more racially isolated neighborhoods.)

So what does this mean for casual real estate window-shoppers like myself? Well, some of us would like to be able to choose to filter not just for good schools and low crime, but also for diversity: for the neighborhoods and suburbs where our neighbors would reflect the true full range of people — and cultures, historical backgrounds, and experiences — that make up this place.

Trulia looks like it might have been exploring this option a bit a couple of years ago. In 2012, the company partnered with Forbes to look at “America’s Most Diverse Neighborhoods and Metros,” where the list of top-ranking neighborhoods linked to Trulia real estate listings. The next step will be linking that data with the rest of their data, so that potential customers can find the combination of factors that allows them to best maximize across preferences, including distance to work, transport options and school availability.

Once a “shopping for diversity” option exists, it will also need to include a consideration of whether a neighborhood’s diversity is supported through policy or local tradition and therefore seems likely to persist, or whether its just a temporary artifact of a neighborhood moving quickly from ownership dominated by one race to another (like through gentrification created by rapid new property development.)  This isn’t to say that there’s only one way to arrive at a diverse neighborhood, but if you’re looking to support the existence of racially diverse communities then the duration of diversity in a place over a period of time might signal that it’s a pretty stable quality of the location.

Anyway, even WITHOUT a dedicated tool (ahem!) I am able to use the excellent mapping tools that do exist elsewhere in order to casually explore the area. Using, I can look around and notice Germantown:

Or the environs of Silver Spring:

urbanresearch silverspring

Lots of possibilities!

Anyway, I am using this opportunity to speak directly to the real estate brokerage community out there. I know you’re keeping an eye on me, since several of you out there seem to have purchased my email address. (And seriously, Asif Qadir, do I look like someone who’s a good target for million dollar listings? Your automailer needs a few tweaks.) We should have a way to build a preference for diversity into our everyday choices, including housing.

Even if we’re just window-shopping.

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While we wait for ranked choice voting


It’s like deja vu all over again. 

Just like in 2010, three main contenders vie for Maine’s governor’s seat. Just like in 2010, it is looking unlikely at present that the majority of Maine voters will support our next governor. The cost of this outcome will again be a certain degree of delegitimation of our electoral outcome.

The League of Women Voters has been trying hard to get Maine to adopt ranked choice voting – also known as instant runoff voting – following Portland’s successful use of this system for their 2012 mayoral election. In ranked choice voting, people rank the candidates for individual seats in the order in which they prefer them. If you had a most-preferred candidate, but in addition there were one (or more) candidates whom you would be fine with electing, ranked choice voting allows you to communicate that.

The largest benefit is that your vote continues to count even if your top choice lacks sufficient support to win. In fields of more than two candidates, this means that the winning candidate will have gotten support from a majority of the total electorate, at least at some level on the voters’ rankings. Unfortunately it’s a very different approach to ballot-marking–  and ballot-counting — so I think there’s going to be a period of education and effort before they see success.

So while I agree with the Press Herald that ranked choice is better, the 2014 elections are upon us so it’s important to see what we have in the tool box already.

We’ve seen a couple of ways that people use procedures with broad current availability to vote strategically. Just as ranked voting allows people to throw support behind their second-favorite candidate rather than lose their opportunity to affect the outcome, other methods of strategic voting allow people to weight the probability of their preferred candidate’s success in casting their vote.

The two existing methods that people use to vote strategically are open primaries and frequent opinion polling.

Open primaries are in widespread use across the US, with 11 states using them for all elections and an additional 24 states having open rules for some primaries. Open primaries have also been the recent beneficiary of some good press. In its recent report, the Bipartisan Policy Center proposed the use of open primaries as a tool for reducing gridlock in federal politics. The Republican primary for Mississippi’s  2014 US Senate election, meanwhile, made for a pretty supportive backdrop to this report’s opening day. In elections where the district or jurisdiction is overwhelmingly captured by a single party, members of the minority party are all but guaranteed to be unable to affect the outcome of the election. This lack of support for the inevitable victor means that representatives are less likely to see those voters as people they need to represent accurately, leading to long-standing problems in democratic representation.

In Mississippi, the fact that the Republican primary run-off used the open primary rules meant that all voters, not just registered Republicans, were allowed to vote. As a result, Senator Cochran was able to reach beyond the small hardcore set of partisan primary voters in his run-off campaign and appeal to a much broader range of voters who would have an interest in supporting the more centrist candidate.

The effect of the open primary in this case was to effectively re-enfranchise all of the voters who would not have otherwise had a meaningful impact on the electoral outcome. Cochran’s perception of his constituency will almost certainly be affected by the results of his run-off election and his gratitude to those who supported him will probably now affect his lawmaking. Race is a particularly important part of this story since, well, Mississippi, and also because of the intensity of racial partisan polarization across the South. The open primary managed to bridge this substantial gap. As a result, people who would not have had a champion in Congress are now more likely to have one.

So how did Democratic voters know that it was important for them to come out for this election, which meant doing something unusual and voting in an opposing party’s primary? Polls revealed that the outcome in this election would be extremely close. The primary election itself even more convincingly showed how close the margin was for Cochran, providing the critical information necessary for strategic voting.

In general, while we don’t get two elections like this in a row, we now do have a similar ability to understand probable outcomes through frequent public opinion polling. Polling aggregators like HuffPost Pollster show how many polls are being taken in a multitude of races across the country, providing voters a pretty good idea of how things are trending for their preferred candidate.

Polling was very important to the story of Maine’s  2010 gubernatorial race. Real Clear Politics aggregated 16 polls taken in Maine between June 2010 and the November election. The final set of these polls can be seen in the image below:


There was no massive scandal, or glorious new program introduced in the final weeks of October. Instead, a number of Democrats realized that Mitchell was not going to be able to win over additional voters, and support for Cutler surged 25 percentage points: from a low of around 11% throughout early October to a final vote share of 36% of the electorate.

That kind of enormous change in the revealed preferences of the electorate demonstrates the substantial power of polling to allow an electorate to collectively estimate probabilities for their preferred candidates. While it’s not ranked choice voting, it is the same essence of strategic choice at work.

With increased access to polling data and analysis of polling data, voters are able to learn more about the preferences of the other members of their district. If a candidate is close to winning, they know that it’s worth backing that candidate. If a candidate trails persistently, that is also informative. In the case of Maine’s 2010 gubernatorial election, voters who preferred a candidate other than Paul LePage were able to make a collective last minute determination that Libby Mitchell could not gain sufficiently on LePage to win.

While we are seeing a version of this story playing itself out again in Maine, the trendlines are different from where they were at this point 2010. Nonetheless, the real difference is our improved ability to learn what the electorate prefers, through even more frequent polling, and through the established recognition that complicated elections require thoughtful strategic voting.

An imperfect solution next to ranked choice voting for sure, but something that we have the power to use right now.

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Improving Democratic Side-Payments

With apologies to the 7% of you out there who are still satisfied with how our Congress is working, I have to say that I have no expectations that our country’s most consequential legislative body is going to produce anything of value anytime soon. I count myself as part of the majority of Americans whose highest expectation for Congress is that it manage to avoid passing bad laws. Luckily, they seem to be following that advice on their own. Unluckily, the consequence of this is a failure to deal with a number of issues that matter a great deal to the country at large.

To address this – even if it comes at the cost of having more Congressional law made – I would like to take this opportunity to consider the excellent observation made by several political scientists and journalists that some of the blame for this inaction is due to the ban on earmarks. The decline of the use in earmarks, resulting from a series of agreements created in 2007 and 2011, corresponds to a decline in the number of laws passed, and maybe indirectly to the further decline in Congressional popularity.

Earmarks — or pork, if you are especially opposed to the practice, and want to create a good visual — served as the grease that allowed for legislators to achieve non-ideological compromises. This lack of ability to compromise is something that some drown-it-in-the-bathtub-types favor, because they would prefer that the federal government avoid doing much at all. By reducing the ways to get to agreement, the earmark ban helps achieve that purpose. It doesn’t actually reduce spending. It does increase executive power to make decisions formerly made by Congress. It does reduce transparency by taking these conversations out of the bill text and putting them into inaccessible bureaucratic records. But if one’s primary goal is to hobble Congressional agreement, well then mission achieved, I guess.

By trading their vote on a bill, legislators achieving earmarks brought material benefits to their districts. In itself, is this really such a bad thing? These are people who were elected by the specific people of a specific district. Maybe some of those people care a little less strongly about certain large ideological battles than they do about having jobs, or a nice bridge or something. Does anyone ever ask them that? They really should.

Outside of the “pork” context, this type of arrangement is sometimes viewed favorably. In game theory, the concept that someone might be open to additional material trades in exchange for cooperation is known as a “side payment.” Side payments can indeed be associated with illegal transactions like under-the-table payoffs and bribery. However, side payments can also be seen as a legitimate part of the negotiator’s toolbox, such as in cases like the negotiation of international conflict. While the side payment necessarily does not directly relate to the main issue being negotiated, it recognizes that people might have different degrees of commitment to that issue – or might have a different need that’s not currently being met, but which could be resolved in the context of the existing negotiation.

Thinking about our concern about earmarks issue in greater depth, the biggest ethical issue they raise does not lie in specifically targeting benefits to a particular district. Specific districts get targeted benefits all the time, for a variety of reasons. If a member represents a constituency that doesn’t care strongly about a particular issue up for vote, but does care strongly about getting funding a local project, seeking an earmark in exchange for a vote might actually be the more accurate representation of that constituency’s preferences.

The big ethical issue comes when earmarks are used to provide private benefits to the member of Congress.  Because earmarks are negotiated by individual members, they create a risk of corruption. Earmarks could be used to benefit representatives’ friends, family or campaign donors. Earmarks are also used as a way to secure votes for re-election, since they represent a material benefit that incumbents can claim as a direct outcome of their work. Congress passed transparency measures that clearly associate individual members with their earmark requests, and this helps to address the first issue, but it doesn’t do much for the second.

An additional issue that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere concerns the issue of whether the sought earmark does represent a good political bargain from the perspective of the representative’s constituency. Would a majority of the representative’s constituency prefer the new local bridge or to contribute to the new piece of legislation? The way that earmark requests developed doesn’t allow a representative to discover this information.

Both of these problems — unfair electoral benefits to incumbents and how to determine whether a constituency would prefer money or ideological victory — could be dealt with through a frank effort to integrate side-payments into political life. If we accepted that political outcomes are sometimes national, ideological victories and sometimes just a pile of money for a bridge, then we’d have a clearer set of conversations to have in our districts.

If we wanted to improve and democratize side-payments, as well as make them less of a personal benefit to sitting representatives, we’d develop a regular practice of polling constituencies with questions about their preferences.

90% of Americans have cell phones. Survey research is by this point a regular and highly routinized practice. More surely than at any time during the past, you can call people and just ask them to press 1 if they’d prefer to vote against healthcare reform, but press 2 if they’d rather obtain $800,000 in federal research funds.

Meanwhile, the idea that representatives should not collect opinions, and should instead substitute their own judgment, is a concept of democratic governance that becomes less supportable the cheaper and easier it becomes to collect public opinion.

Indeed, you may ask, why stop with the question of side-payments? Why not poll each district’s constituency for every vote?

I personally think that’s a very exciting possibility. Even if representatives refused to do this themselves, they couldn’t easily ignore well-designed and frequent surveys of their district. Democratic accountability through the hammer of frequent, granular constituent feedback.

Better living through survey research!

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Dismantling public higher education, Maine style

The mass layoffs currently coming to pass at the University of Southern Maine are the final moment of metal collision in the slow-motion train wreck we’ve been watching over the last couple of years. The USM faculty have been nauseously swaying out in the wind over the last handful of years. After finally gaining a contract, it appears that any security offered by this contract is fairly illusory.

Some of the professors USM plans to terminate are tenured. Tenure represents the golden ring of academia: the promised state of professional security which leads all younger academics to put in effort and hours far beyond what would otherwise be rational for their pay levels. As the American Association of University Professors put it,

Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability.

Unfortunately for tenured USM faculty on the chopping block, the guarantee of tenure technically protects only individuals from being removed from existing positions; it does not protect people in positions which are altogether eliminated. 

Nonetheless, we absolutely see a violation of the principles that tenure is intended to protect in the execution of the faculty-layoff plan. The layoffs disproportionately impact women: nine of the eleven faculty laid off are women, in an institution where women make up less than 50% of the faculty.  The disproportionate disregard of women’s tenure makes it pretty questionable whether women considering working at this institution could truly consider themselves free to teach or research in the way they’d see most fit.

Similarly, this action makes it difficult for potential professors to view USM as a reliable academic employer in the future. To the extent that a capable individual with a substantial training investment already loses money when she chooses a job in academia over industry, it’s important for academic institutions to do what they can to demonstrate “a sufficient degree of economic security” in order to make that difference worth it. USM is presently cutting two economists, who generally do quite well in the open market. What rational economist would come to work for USM in the future?

The whole situation is just awful. The state into which USM has been permitted to fall is a terrible tragedy. The university and state should be making much better use of the campus they have situated in the most populous, vibrant, and livable city in Maine. Why are they looking to further weaken this institution?

The state of Maine has certainly led the way to this outcome, reducing 20% of its funding to the university system between 2002 and 2010 and further reducing since then. As a result of having less and less to work with, the cutting of positions was more or less inevitable.

However, here we are. The present cry of protesters, seeking to save the professors, has been to ask the university to “chop from the top.” What does that mean, exactly? How much would that save, relative to other measures?

As a publicly funded institution the University of Maine is required to publish all of their salaries, so you can, in fact, evaluate this yourself. Public institutions are unique in this country in being required to provide their salary information – even where the state only pays for about 30% of the bottom line, as is the case for UMaine. (Even where non-profit and for-profit organizations receive tax breaks or enormous public contracts, those organizations don’t face this sort of transparency requirement, although they are also partially paying their people with public money. It is honestly quite unfair.)

After converting the pdf to Excel to work with the numbers, I looked at groups of workers by “bargaining unit” in order to think of people meaningfully by groups. Here’s the list of bargaining units identified in the document, which includes non-represented groups:

  • AFUM – Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine
  • UMPSA – Universities of Maine Professional Staff Association
  • COLT – Assoc. Clerical, Office, Laboratory and Technical Staff of the Universities of ME
  • Service and Maintenance – Teamsters Union Local #340, Service and Maintenance
  • Police – Teamsters Union Local #340, Police Unit
  • PATFA – The Maine Part Time Faculty Association
  • Non-Represented Salaried
  • Non-Represented Faculty
  • Law Faculty – Non-Represented
  • Non-Represented Hourly

How does the entire University of Maine workforce break down along these categories? Here are two pie charts to explore that: the first describes the proportion of the 4,794 listed employees in each of the official bargaining-or-non-represented groups; the second provides categories that simplify several of the bargaining groups.

total employees

You will probably be unsurprised to learn that although more than half of the employees employed by the University of Maine are union-represented staff, that group is not the best remunerated. Here are the average salaries by bargaining group:

salaries by bargaining unit

These salary averages, put together with the total number of employees in each category, gives us a sense of the relative weight of each group of employee on the balance sheet.  The top four categories are three faculty categories – law faculty, non-represented faculty, and union faculty – plus “non-represented salaried,” a category made up primarily of administrators and management.  The remaining seven categories, although collectively constituting the largest number of employees, have substantially lower average salaries.

The pie charts below describe the relative proportion of each group of employees in making up the university’s total salary expenditure. Again, the first pie chart uses the given bargaining or non-represented groups and the second contains my simplification of these groups into more conventional categories.


As a final cut at this, I looked at the proportion of each of these categories in the list of 270 University of Maine employees making $100,000 or more.


Although “non-represented salaried” workers make up about 10% of the total employees, they make up 16% of the university’s total salary cost and about one-third of the 270 University of Maine employees making $100,000 or more.

What should USM do? I think the state is the one that should be paying more, since it is clearly their reduction in funding that has made the biggest change in university revenues.

However, I’d also be looking to administrators who seem not to be able to do their jobs in securing that funding to be offering funding up from their own departments, rather than hollowing out the value of their very product. Instead, this move they’ve taken has destroyed the attractiveness of being employed by – or enrolled at- USM for the foreseeable future.

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Ukraine is in chaos, and the United States is paying attention.

NYT on 3-2-14

Ukraine has become increasingly interesting to Western audiences as initial protests against the president’s abandonment of a trade pact grew into mass violence.

You know what else happened today? You won’t find it on the front page, but if you click on “World” and scroll down…

and further down…

and further down…

on the fourth screen down, after nine additional stories about Ukraine, you will see this story:

4 screens down

and maybe you will think, Nigeria? Weren’t there some things happening there?

There has been a lot happening in Nigeria, and there has been for some time. The New York Times – and I’m using the New York Times as a proxy here for politically-savvy and engaged US audiences – knows that there are a welter of issues going on in Nigeria. However, it’s not so much a question of “what is the US going to do about it?” and “how will we stop this thing from happening?” as a “well, what a tragedy.” After the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the New York Times ran a story entitled, “In Nigeria, Oil Spills Are A Longtime Scourge.”  It revealed the scalding news that the Niger delta has experienced the equivalent of an Exxon Valdeez-sized oil spill every year for the last 50 years – and then framed it as “a cautionary tale” for the US.

In the last few years, Nigeria turned to even greater tragedy, in terms of the sheer volume of violence and displacement. Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sinful,” has committed some of the most horrifying attacks of the new century with a special focus on killing people in places of worship and in schools.  Their efforts have been targeted at killing people who support democracy and want to learn English.

Why is violence in Ukraine dominating the news, and Nigeria not? It’s not the level of violence. I looked at the number of stories written in the New York Times about Ukraine and Nigeria over the past year, and I plotted them against the number of political deaths per month that I found listed in various timelines of the crises.

NYT: Ukraine and Nigeria

The purple line is stories about Nigeria. It does not vary at all with the number of deaths over the past year there. (In September, Nigeria experienced nine serious casualty-causing events leading to 491 deaths; there were two NYT stories about them.) My death toll for Nigeria here comes from a few minutes of looking around on the internet. I found direct description of 966 deaths; the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that 1,224 people have been killed in Boko Haram-related attacks since last May.

The green line is stories about Ukraine. It varies strongly with the protest events, begun at the end of 2013, and even more strongly with the violence in February. Deaths were primarily reported in February 2014. The Ukrainian Health Ministry has the highest confirmed number with 94 deaths since the beginning of the protests.

Stories about Ukraine also became increasingly likely to merit page A.1 placement beginning with the protests. Up until November 2013 both stories mentioning Ukraine and stories mentioning Nigeria were about equally likely to make the front page, with an average of about one every twenty stories doing so. In March so far, a quarter of the stories mentioning Ukraine are on the front page of the published version of the New York Times. As you can see, they are even more highlighted on the electronic version.

This degree of attention to Ukraine suggests our urgency. We don’t think of Ukraine as a subject for sober observation, to be used as an object lesson before writing better domestic legislation. Our attention expresses identification and concern, and worry about how they’ll get out of this situation.

Nigeria’s pain is certainly multifaceted, combining environmental disaster, resource plundering, the nefariousness of international corporations and the problem of a legacy of executive corruption with, now, a terrifyingly capable terror organization that targets sleeping schoolchildren. However, it would seem to the casual observer that it would be a lot more applicable to think about how to deal with Boko Haram than Vladimir Putin. Russia is a familiar adversary, but one from the past – not the future. Boko Haram, meanwhile, appears to be working with other brutally effective terrorist organizations, with which it seems only to be getting better coordinated and more effective.

Beyond the logic of realpolitik and concern over tomorrow’s security threats, we need to recognize that we spread our attention across the world unequally.

Which crises urgently demand our attention? Which ones don’t?

And why is that? 

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WhatsApp indeed.

Mark Zuckerberg recently had Facebook purchase a mobile computing software program called “WhatsApp” for $19 BILLION dollars. I feel a lot like Dr. Evil when I write that.

As all of the news coverage will tell you, this is for a free service – it makes no money directly.

This is two conundra in one. How can something be worth $19 billion dollars? And how can something that is worth so much money be available to individuals for free?

I’m going to take the second question first, because it’s simpler. There are two reasons that this mobile computer program is available for free. First, this product was never an economic good in the way that nearly 100% of the people in this country think of the goods that they produce and consume. It was not something that was grown, like a carrot, or built, like a car, and brought by its producer to a marketplace to be exchanged for money with someone who wanted the object. Here, the good that was produced was produced as an investment good. It, like many other tech products, was funded by speculators. (We generally call them venture capitalists, to be polite.) In the case of WhatsApp, the company was given $8 million by some wealthy people in 2011 and then they didn’t have to worry about money again for the next few years. In other words, the good was free to people because the actual good itself was not directly the holder of exchange-value.

Second, while $8 million is certainly quite a bit of money to have to spend over three years, it also reveals how fundamentally cheap it is to produce this good (the one that is worth $19 BILLION dollars. Sorry, mind still blown.) How do you make software? You have programmers make it. Good, capable programmers who type diligently into their laptops for many months, trying to make their code as good as possible so that the software always works regardless of what phone it’s being used on. You have a few designers make it look as cool and appealing as possible. You have a couple of project managers who make sure all of the bugs are being worked out in the most efficient possible way. You have someone who answers the phones and responds to angry emails and tweets encouraging things at potential users.

These people are doing fine work. However, what they’re doing is creating an idea – a complicated idea, but also just an idea, in the sense that a newspaper article is an idea. It is possible for intellectual property like this to be distributed for free because the cost of distributing any one unit of it doesn’t add meaningful additional costs to the production process. For goods made out of actual physical materials – something which actually costs a producer something for each unit made – you can’t make it free because you would sink deeper into the red with each unit you gave away. It’s clearly a lot simpler to produce a free OpenOffice than a free OpenMilk.

The physical intangibility of intellectual property begins to get at the first question as well, the problem of how this particular good could be worth $19 billion. To begin to answer the first question, if you had to make something out of actual physical materials, you could never produce $19 billion of value out of $8 million of expenditure. While it’s possible that good-quality labor and savvy entrepreneurship could double or quadruple value  – heck, maybe multiply the value of those physical inputs tenfold – they simply cannot multiply it 2375 times.

The only things that can do that are things which have become entirely unmoored from their original relationship to the value of someone’s work as added to physical materials. Something can increase in value that dramatically only if it’s not really connected to the value of the work itself, but to its value as a chip in an extremely high-priced poker match.

For most of us, money is real in the sense that we produce a certain amount of it with an hour of our work. The value of that hour of work becomes fought over, ferociously and in public, when we struggle over raising the minimum wage or arguing that unions are forcing employers to pay too much for their employees.

Money is also real when we spend down the savings we’ve created from our earnings. The hue and cry about the inability to cover sick people who can’t afford health insurance draws on this imagery that our fingernails are scraping the bottom of our pocket. The money that we put in was simply the source of our collective hourly labor, the only money there is, they argue – and now it’s nearly gone.

To check the business pages, this evidently isn’t a concern for certain kinds of transactions. This money is closer in form to chips changing hands in a poker game. A very, very high-stakes poker game, played in mysterious fancy buildings all over the world. It’s so unreal, it’s hard to connect it to our real money in our real economy. But when you become inured to the scale of these events occurring in these mysterious, fantastical places in our broader economy, you forget to connect the dots.


$19 billion = the value of one free mobile phone app.

$3.4 billion = the annual cost of running all of the state-level public programs in Maine. All of the schools, all of the social services, all of the roads, prisons, courtrooms, elections; regulating all of the private activity in a way that makes sure we have clean air and clean water, for 1,329,000 people.

Heck, for good measure:


$19 billion = the value of one free mobile phone app.

$13.95 billion = the annual cost of running all of the state-level public programs to support all 3,276,000 people in northern New England.

What is the solution to this? Should we allow states to become venture capitalists, so we too can make ridiculous piles of money out of somebody else’s poker game?

Or can we, at bare minimum, recognize that there are connections between the money we work for and the money that other people are able to use for speculating on free mobile apps?

It’s really the same money. For people who don’t make their money through producing a good or a service, this money has been sheltered both legally and quasi-legally through favorable tax law. For people who make their money through a salary or hourly wage, well, you just haven’t been playing with high-enough stakes to win those concessions. Run that equation through a few hundred million times and you get the current wealth distribution.

WhatsApp with that? Seriously.

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