The Strange Politics of Weed

Back in November, Massachusetts voted to legalize recreational marijuana through Ballot Question 4. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the state which still outlaws happy hours dragged its feet on passing a recreational weed law for long enough to force voters to take it to the ballot.

Question 4 passed with 53.7% of the statewide vote. The legislature immediately took to revising the legislation, but then talks stalled for some time. My understanding is that the House wanted to significantly raise taxes on marijuana, and give a lot more flexibility to towns to ban marijuana dispensaries – two measures which supporters of Question 4 claimed would undermine the will of the state’s voters. It seems the Senate agreed with that sentiment, and fought hard against these measures from the House.

I found the aspect of local control over dispensaries especially interesting, since Question 4 as passed by the voters required that communities have a direct election to ban marijuana dispensaries, as opposed to allowing the city council or the planning board exercise that authority. To my knowledge, this would be the only land use which requires a community referendum to ban.

Ultimately, the House and Senate agreed on a middle path. The compromise bill that came out of the legislature stated that, “if a community voted against the ballot question last November and local officials want to implement the expressed will of their community by imposing a ban on marijuana establishments, they can do so between now and 2019 without going to the voters a second time.” (I cribbed this from my former State Senator Will Brownsberger, who gave an excellent overview of the legislation).

So I took a look at the communities that voted for and against Question 4. Here’s the map:


The pattern to my eye, if there is one, is that a lot of suburban cities and towns did not vote to legalize. In the Pioneer Valley, almost all of the communities surrounding Springfield voted against legalization. But, then, to be fair, a lot of suburban communities did vote to legalize. So I ran a few correlations.

Source: 2015 American Community Survey

As you can see, the strongest correlation to Question 4 vote was the Trump vote, but even that wasn’t a very strong relationship (generally 0.7 or higher indicates a strong relationship). This was really unexpected. I was assuming that communities with older, whiter voters would certainly be the ones the vote against Question 4; these correlations suggest otherwise.

Sure, I only checked a few variables, and it’s important to note that correlation is not causation. However, I was really surprised that the Question 4 vote doesn’t appear to line up much with political leanings, age, ethnicity, or educational level. Who knows, maybe recreational marijuana can be a great political unifyer in these tumultuous times? At the very least, it appears that weed has strange politics indeed.


Maps: Pro-Trump in the Pioneer Valley

Since the election results, there has been much discussion about a particular demographic: white males without a college degree. Specifically, the narrative has gone something like:

White men without a college degree have been left behind by the US government and its economy, and their decisive support of Donald Trump was their retribution for this injustice. 

I won’t get into all of the things I think are wrong about this analysis, though I will quote one of my favorite scholars at the Brookings Institute, Richard Reeves, who wrote:

In the long run, the only cure is for whites, and especially white men, to change their expectation that high status, along with a decent-paying job, will be delivered to them merely by virtue of their race and gender.

Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that when you look at a variety of outcomes broken down by race/ethnicity, whites are doing pretty well. If any group of Americans is being left behind, it is (still) African-Americans and Latinos. As John Hudak, another scholar at the Brookings Institute, points out:

The conversation around the “economically marginalized” has focused almost exclusively on white working class voters, and that is a travesty. There are many other Americans who are not traditionally grouped under the heading “white working class voters” who remain economically marginalized—and most of them voted for someone other than Donald Trump.

He goes on to use a variety of charts pointing out that, certainly, some white working class Americans have had a hard time in the 21st century economy – and that this is a bitter pill to swallow when the generation before had no problem making a good living as a lumberjack or welder. But Black and Latino Americans have a much harder time succeeding in today’s economy.

As a racial/ethnic group, Whites earn far more than Blacks or Latinos.

Regardless of whether it is justified, there have been subsequent analyses released showing the strong correlation between the share of non-college educated whites and the share of votes for Donald Trump in a given state. This made me kind of curious about how that played out here in the Pioneer Valley.

Divides in the Valley

Even though a lot of people think of the region as “The Happy Valley,” full of hippy-dippy liberals with degrees in Women’s Studies, there are definitely conservative areas. 


I was curious, though – does the prevailing narrative about disaffected white non-college educated men also hold true in our part of the state? So, of course, I went to the American Community Survey to answer that question.

(Warning: Here is where I go into some technical stuff about the analysis I did.) Unfortunately, there was no data at the town level showing proportions of white non-college educated men (at the town level, I could have gotten “white men” or “non-college educated men” but not combining all three). To filter at that level, I had to use an artificial geography that’s called a Public Use Microsample Area, or “PUMA.” This meant that unfortunately I couldn’t get results town-by-town, and the maps I produced might look funny. I swear it’s not my fault!

First, here are how the PUMAs in the Pioneer Valley voted:

“Sources” got cut off, but it was supposed to also list WBUR.

Interestingly, if PUMAs existed as real political units, Trump wouldn’t have won any of them in the Pioneer Valley. However, he still did petty well in the close-in suburbs to the east and west of Springfield. The region gets less pro-Trump the further north you get.

Now for the proportion of the PUMAs that are Non-College Educated White Men (NCEWM):


Looking at the map, the two PUMAS most strongly pro-Trump also had the highest NCEWM population. Springfield, right in the middle, had the lowest NCEWM population and also voted most decisively for Clinton.

In fact, running a simple correlation I find an R value of 0.74, which is pretty strong (though there aren’t enough observations to feel comfortable running a statistical test).

R = 0.74

So what does this mean?

First off, it means that just like in the rest of the country, the Pioneer Valley has its own political divisions, and that there is geographic clumping of differing political views. It also suggests that the same economic forces getting so much attention in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin are also at play here – our own Rust Belt in Hampden County.

This means that even in uber-liberal Massachusetts, there is still work to be done. Sharing the prosperity inside of 128 is essential to that effort. Otherwise we may find a rude awakening the morning after some election in the future, much as Ohio or Wisconsin did on November 9th.

Six Things You Can Do Now


Tuesday was crushing, and I think I’ll be crushed by it for a long time to come. It increasingly looks like most of the things I care about – social justice, healthy communities, climate change – are going to be taking a back seat to defense spending, tax cuts, trade wars, gutting the ACA, and fossil fuel extraction, for at least the next two years, and possibly much longer.

In the wake of this colossal psychological trauma, a lot of my friends on social media have been saying, “Now what?” It’s hard to stare into the abyss of everything that could go horribly wrong and not feel lost. But I go back to an earlier post of mine to help light a single candle in these dark times.  

We live in a federal system, and the authority of the federal government is derived from the states. Some of that authority is granted to the federal government as outlined in the constitution. But a whole lot of that authority still remains with the states, and the communities within them. That’s where we should look. We should go local. 

Conservatives have dominated state legislatures and governorships for years, meaning that they have been able to draw electoral maps which secure their districts (AKA gerrymandering – see this is a great article outlining their strategy and success.) This was most evident in 2014, when the GOP maintained a 33 seat majority in the House of Representatives despite getting 1.4 million fewer votes than Democrats nationally.

Furthermore, Governing Magazine reported conservative domination of state governments is at its highest point ever. Creating and sustaining that dominance in thousands of state representative and senate districts is hard work, but crucial to the continued conservative majority in Congress. It’s the Republican Party’s greatest strength.

Map of Party Control of State Legislatures.

I don’t want to make this a post about one political party versus the other, but rather one about values. The question I am concerned with is, “How do we instill humane, compassionate, evidence-based values into the American political system?” The rhetoric espoused by our now-president elect has appalled me, and demonstrated that the Republican party is unequivocally not the party that represents my values (I’m struggling really hard not to go on a long, rambling rant, so instead I’ll casually leave this link to right here).

To set the national course straight again, I believe now more than ever that reversing the damage must start locally.

So if the election results have you frightened, anxious, at a loss for what to do, here is a list of suggestions:

  1. Find a community group or nonprofit doing things that you care about. Attend a meeting or volunteer to help them out.
  2. If you don’t know who your main local elected representatives are, find out. This includes:
    1. Mayor or Selectmen
    2. City Councilor(s)
    3. State Representative
    4. State Senator
  3. Get to know at least one main local elected official listed above. This sounds daunting, but it isn’t. Local electeds are extremely approachable and, generally, love meeting constituents. Invite them out for a coffee or a beer, or meet them at their office. Often they have office hours around the community. Even better if you have issues to discuss. Email or call them often on the issues that concern you.
  4. Find a committee or commission that deals with things you care about, and attend at least one meeting. Some common examples:
    1. Planning Commission
    2. School Committee
    3. Historic Commission
    4. Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee
    5. Cultural Council 
    6. Fair Housing Commission
    7. A whole, whole lot more.
  5. If you like the committee, try to join it. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes this is hard – but find out how to get on it, and work toward that goal.
  6. If you don’t like a local elected official, get actively involved in a campaign (or run yourself) to oust him or her.

Finally, and this is most important, find others and work together. This might be getting involved in your town’s Democratic Committee. Or maybe that local nonprofit. Or it could be starting up a weekly “Progressives Happy Hour” at a local pub on Whatever it is, turning your civic involvement from a chore to a social event makes it so much easier to stay engaged.

Again, I don’t mean for this to be a hyper-partisan post, because I really do think that issues of environmental quality, climate change, social justice, recreation and greenspace, and public safety impact everyone, regardless of political affiliation. But Tuesday demonstrated to me that fear, bigotry, and a rejection of facts are dominating America’s politics from top to bottom. Creating a civic sphere of diversity, acceptance, and intellectual discourse is a generational project. We’ve got to start now, and I believe it starts at home.

Let’s get to work.


If you want to get more involved and would like some suggestions, you can contact me on Twitter at @pricearmstrong.


If the Presidential Election Has You Down, Go Down Ballot

I’ve been hearing from a lot of people about how depressed they are at having to choose between one presidential candidate who scares them and another presidential candidate whom they loathe. The worst thing about it is the feeling of impotence in the face of titanic, intractable problems. But I have found my zen while staring into the abyss of electoral politics:

  1. I don’t live in a swing state, so my presidential vote very likely doesn’t matter;
  2. There are a bunch of down ballot races that are also really important and I can actually impact!

Here is a breakdown of my electoral zen, may it help you in your time of darkness (likely strike the night of the first presidential debate).

Why My Focus Is Down Ballot

It’s a tragic reality of the electoral college system – if you don’t live in a  swing state, your presidential vote is largely irrelevant. No one likes to hear that. I don’t even like saying it, because I do believe that having leadership accountable to constituents is preferable to aristocracy, monarchy, and dictatorship.

Here is a handy flow chart indicating whether you should fret about the presidential election. Source: Zachary Stark-Macmillan

However, Massachusetts is solidly Democratic, and my vote won’t change that. Since 1960, Massachusetts electoral votes have only gone for the Republican presidential candidate twice (both times for Ronald Reagan)*. Barring Hillary Clinton being exposed as an Illuminati Lizard Alien, the Bay State is certain to go for her in November.

Undeniable proof that Clinton is a Reptilian. Source:

Sure, this November I’m going to vote in the presidential election. But my focus, and what I get really excited about, are the down-ballot races: Mayor, City Council, State Legislature, even County Sheriff. Those are the races where only a few thousand people vote in total, and partisanship and ideological divides matter much less.

The voters actually know the candidates, often personally, and party affiliation alone isn’t enough to win support. Knocking on doors, making phone calls, and going to pie eating contests and county fairs are the kinds of things that make or break an election. I’ve volunteered for local campaigns, and it’s really cool to go door knocking alongside the candidate and chat with them about the issues that matter to you. That’ll just never happen at the presidential level.

The Power of the Local Government

The federal government gets a lot of media attention, and for good reason. Around 20% of GDP goes toward federal taxes. But state and local spending are estimated to be around 9% and 10% of GDP, respectively – that’s a lot of money and decision-making being wielded by state and local officials!

Federal (red), state (green), and local (grey) spending as a percent of GDP. Source:

In fact, back when I worked in the district office of a congressman, about half the time someone would call in with an issue which we would have to refer to state or local officials. Here are some examples of things your state legislators or city councilors deal with, and that you might care about:

  1. Healthcare (ie MassHealth)
  2. Welfare
  3. Affordable Housing
  4. Sustainability
  5. Zoning
  6. Parks and open space
  7. Public Safety
  8. Prison Reform
  9. Traffic Safety
  10. K-12 Education
  11. Post-graduate education
  12. The cost of a building permit

OK, the list could go on for a long time – the point is, states and towns decide a lot of the stuff that a lot of people care about. It’s worth paying attention to who’s making those decisions.

Mildly Wonky Poli-Sci Section

Diving a little bit deeper, state and local government wield a lot of authority by design. That’s because of the 10th amendment to the constitution, which states:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

That’s right – any authority not specifically delegated to the federal government in the constitution is reserved to the states. Put another way, the authority of the federal government is derived by the consent of the 50 states, which otherwise would have total authority over themselves.

Furthermore, Massachusetts is what’s called a “Home Rule” state. The state has decided that anything not already regulated by the state or federal government is subject to the authority of the municipality. This gives cities and towns a lot of latitude to pass ordinances and bylaws on things that the state hasn’t gotten around to yet, or just doesn’t want to deal with. One example is whether it’s legal to park in bike lanes – in Cambridge and Boston it’s a ticketable offense, but most other towns have no specific rule about it.

The point is, interesting stuff is happening at the local level (like this 22 year old who just won the Amherst seat in the State House of Representatives). So instead of worrying about an election that I have virtually no influence on, I’m going down ballot! John Oliver agrees, and if he says it, it must be true.


*As an aside, the idea that an individual’s actions are largely irrelevant is one of the foundations of social science – that really it’s larger social systems and trends which shape things like national politics.


We Need More Women in Politics

As the Democratic primary winds down, I’ve been noticing a crop of dismaying Hillary Clinton memes popping up on my Facebook feed that are focusing on her choice of clothing at some event:

hillary jacket


clinton moomoo
“Even worse is that it looks like a burlap housecoat. It doesn’t even look more tailored than a moomoo from Big Lots.” 


Sure, there are plenty of things to question or critique Hillary Clinton on: her foreign policy record, her and her husband’s handling of welfare reform, her acceptance of big checks from big donors, etc.

But her jacket? Come on.

I am surprised to find that even people on the left are taking these misogynistic pot-shots at Hillary Clinton. Anyone who considers themselves a feminist (which I do, and strive to uphold feminist values) must recognize that Hillary Clinton’s nomination is a milestone in the feminist movement, making this kind of immature critique of her wardrobe all the more offensive and embarrassing. published an excellent piece about how you don’t need to like Hillary Clinton, but you should still celebrate her candidacy. Their article, Don’t call it a win for women: Hillary’s victory is a triumph for the women’s movement, and there’s a difference goes through the reasons why Clinton is a bad candidate, and the policies she has supported in the past probably weren’t good for American women in general (welfare reform in particular). But no matter how much you dislike her policies, she is no less of a victory in the women’s movement (just like, it might pain some to say, Sarah Palin’s nomination to Vice Presidency and Margaret Thatcher’s ascension to Prime Minister).

And so it should be little surprise to anyone, but most of all those on the left, that feminists are sensitive to criticisms of Clinton’s choice of clothing. A response I’ve heard defending such ad hominem attacks goes like, “Bernie Sanders gets criticized for his disheveled appearance all the time, so what’s the big deal?”

The big deal is that Bernie Sanders isn’t a milestone in the feminist movement, and that matters.

We Need More Female Politicians

Furthermore, this demeaning of female politicians’ appearances just reinforces the reluctance many women feel about pursuing public office. Making women feel unwelcome in these positions of power is problematic for a lot of reasons, but fundamentally I think it undermines the premise of our electoral system.

A representative republic, which we live in, demands having elected leaders who represent – and are representative of – those who elected them. A classic way in which this notion is undermined is through gerrymandering, or combining districts so as to reduce the impact of a particular group of people.

Women comprise roughly half of the population no matter where you are, but tend to represent nowhere near that number of elected officials. Looking just at the Pioneer Valley, I came up with the following maps (green is male, red is female; click to scroll through the maps):

The number of female electeds in the Pioneer Valley is anemic, particularly outside of Hampshire County. One city, Chicopee, didn’t even have a single female city councilor! Given that women are about half of the electorate, our representatives don’t seem very representative.

We can argue about whether women make better leaders, or whether they are able to work more cooperatively, or whether they are less partisan. For me, though, what it really comes down to is whether our politicians should actually represent the people. I don’t think we need to adhere strictly to identity politics where demographics decide everything. We should of course be primarily concerned with electing responsible, effective leaders. But when such a large segment of the Pioneer Valley (and country) is so drastically underrepresented in our elected leadership, that strikes me as a problem.

And that’s why mocking pictures about Hillary Clinton’s jacket are so offensive. They imply that the candidate doesn’t need to be taken seriously, that the candidate has failed as a woman (since fashion sense is such an essential feminine quality), and that we need not consider her any further.

Criticize Clinton, and any other politician, as much as you want on the issues. But leave her style choices out of it. We’re better than that.


The Pioneer Valley’s “New Irish”

We’ve all put on our green shirt and socks, clasped the shamrock pin to our lapels, and downed our green beer. Today is the day that, as the saying goes, “We’re all Irish.” Now that I’m in the Pioneer Valley, and Holyoke specifically, St. Patrick’s Day holds special significance. Holyoke has one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day parades in New England, inflating the population ten-fold this coming Saturday. But even without the parade, St. Patrick’s Day should hold special meaning in the Paper City.

The Great Hunger

To be Irish must include understanding the potato famine of 1845-49. We all know about the blight that destroyed the potato crops on which the Irish depended, but what may be more surprising is the magnitude of death and suffering the Irish endured. Out of a population of around 8.5 million, 1 million people starved to death and another 2 million immigrated. Birth rates plummeted. By Irish independence 70 years later, the population of Ireland was only half of what it was in the 1840s.

Continue reading “The Pioneer Valley’s “New Irish””

Two Facts About PV’s State House Representation

It’s the beginning of the primary season, and also Black History Month, so I thought I would take a look at who is representing the Pioneer Valley in the state legislature. I was interested in whether state legislators are representative of the racial/ethnic makeup in the Pioneer Valley, especially the majority-minority cities of Springfield and Holyoke.

As I dug through who our legislators are, I learned two interesting facts:

  1. Our State Representatives (not so much State Senators) are pretty representative of the racial/ethnic composition of the places they represent.
  2. We only have one (!) female legislator in the entire Valley.

First the race/ethnicity of our legislators:

map comparison

Continue reading “Two Facts About PV’s State House Representation”