Berkeley-born policy simulator rebrands, expands

Politify, a Berkeley startup that created a public-policy simulator to tell people which presidential candidate’s tax and budget plan would be better for their households’ and neighborhoods’ financial bottom line, is back with a new name, a new round of funding and a contract with the state of Massachusetts.

What used to be Politify is now Outline. “Think of it as SimCity but for real life,” cofounder and CEO Nikita Bier said in a news release.

Outline’s budget simulator lets anyone to perform what-if analyses, such as manipulating tax rates or health care spending, and then see the projected impact to themselves and their communities. To construct the model, a team of data scientists and economists from MIT, Berkeley, and the University of Illinois spent the last year merging millions of anonymized federal tax returns and public Census records.

When an Outline user “endorses” a policy, that endorsement can be viewed by public officials who can then shape policy proposals according to citizen interest. Bier describes this as part of a broader vision called aided representation, where the software determines users’ interests and helps them advocate for those interests. “We wanted representation to be simple enough so that it’s part of your daily internet experience.”

They’ve just landed an $850,000 round of financing with participation from the Knight Foundation Enterprise Fund, Esther Dyson, and the Dorm Room Fund. And it appears to have been the successful bidder for a contract with Massachusetts to license the budget simulator.

More than 4 million people used Politify in 90 days last year to help them gauge President Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s fiscal platforms.

“Politify was a litmus test that showed us Americans wanted to look at government empirically,” Bier said. “The difference is that Politify was about showing what government does — Outline is about showing what government can do.”


‘Mood meter’ says Obama won debate on Twitter

President Barack Obama kept Twitter users happier than Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney through most of last night’s debate, according to a Silicon Valley company’s analysis.

NetBase, a Mountain View-based firm that “delivers the enterprise social intelligence platform that global enterprises use to monitor, understand, and engage with customers in real time,” has created a Mood Meter: a dial updated every 10 minutes that captures and measures sentiment expressed by Twitter users about the presidential and vice presidential candidates. Here’s a screen-grab from a short while ago:

NetBase Mood Meter screen grab

NetBase’s natural language processing engine analyzes each tweet about the candidates using its technology that understands how humans speak, including profanity and slang, according to the company’s news release. So the dials represent a moment in time, a cumulative group of tweet sentiment over the past 10 minutes – a real-time look into Tweeters’ opinions.

Here’s how it stacked up during last night’s debate:

NetBase mood meter

Keep in mind that this only surveys those who are actively Tweeting – a younger-skewed demographic – and not the entire debate audience.


Delving into race issues for Election 2012

A Berkeley-based public policy advocacy group working for communities of color is urging the presidential candidates to “play the race card” and answer tough questions at tomorrow’s debate, even as a major documentary on race in U.S. politics is set to air at tomorrow as well.

“People of color are well on the way to becoming America’s new majority, but neither the major-party candidates nor the media have done much to address the real needs of our communities,” Greenlining Institute Executive Director Orson Aguilar said in a news release. “We hope debate moderator Candy Crowley and town hall participants will borrow some of our questions and press both candidates for real answers about poverty, the racial wealth gap and growing divisions in our country.”

A column by Aguilar titled “Obama, Romney: Please play the race card” appeared in select newspapers across the nation this past weekend. Now he and the institute want the candidates to answer questions like these:

    Racial Divisions: During this campaign, we have seen what many believe to be racially coded appeals and campaign advertising. Meanwhile, surveys have found that whites, blacks and Latinos have starkly different beliefs about the level of racial discrimination and racial inequality in our nation. As president, what will you do to heal these divisions?
    Unemployment: Over the past forty years, black and Latino unemployment rates have consistently been higher than that of whites. What long-term strategies do you propose to reduce the racial disparity in unemployment rates?
    Homeownership: While foreclosures are down since 2010, 1,887,777 foreclosure filings, auctions and bank repossessions occurred in 2011. The foreclosure crisis has hit communities of color hard. While blacks and Latinos represented 7.8 percent and 11.2 percent of people who received a home loan from 2007-2009, they represented 11.6 percent and 16.2 percent, respectively, of all foreclosures. What will you do to reduce foreclosures, both overall and specifically within communities of color?

Meanwhile, the Public Broadcasting System is teasing its “Race 2012” documentary, set to air at 8 p.m. Tuesday – right after the second presidential debate – and again at 9 p.m. this Friday, Oct. 19. Directed and produced by Phillip Rodriguez, it aims to document the changing face of America and how that face may affect the nation’s political future, according to a news release.

PBS today offered “a sneak peek of five surprising facts” from the documentary, presented here verbatim:

    1.) As recently as 1980, 80 percent of the United States was white. The 2010 census showed that the country’s overall population is now slightly less than 64 percent white.
    2.) In contrast to the 19th and 20th century move to change the names and cultural identities of U.S. immigrants to appear more “Americanized” or “white,” white Americans and African Americans increasingly are adopting Latino names and cultural touchstones to fit the diversifying communities in which they live. A growing number of African Americans in San Francisco’s Bay Area hold quinceañeras for their children, and have piñatas at their parties. And El Paso politician Robert O’Rourke, who is white and speaks fluent Spanish, goes by the traditional Latino nickname “Beto” and unseated a Latino incumbent in the Congressional primary.
    3.) Conservatives tend to assume Asian-Americans vote conservatively because as a group they’re considered hard-working, industrious and entrepreneurial – characteristics stereotypically associated with white Americans. Yet the Asian-American community consistently votes 2 to 1 for liberal candidates.
    4.) For the first time in 70 years, the majority of white parents believe their children will not be financially better off than themselves, while African Americans and Hispanics are now considerably more optimistic about the next generation.
    5.) Although conservative policies are perceived as harder on immigration, in the past few years the U.S. has had a record deportation level. In each year of the Obama administration, deportations outnumbered any year of the Bush administration.

The film already is making waves. John Ziegler, a documentary filmmaker who was interviewed for “Race 2012,” issued a statement today saying it’s “fundamentally biased against both whites and conservatives, and also makes unsubstantiated charges of racism against the Romney campaign.”

Ziegler, a conservative former radio talk show host who created www.HowObamaGotElected.com and the documentary “Media Malpractice… How Obama Got Elected,” has written a scathing critique of “Race 2012” for the Media Research Center, a conservative organization dedicated to “exposing and combating liberal media bias.” In that piece, he calls it “nothing more than a PBS-sponsored liberal hatchet job on conservatives which doesn’t even pretend to be fair.”


Pete Stark gets down and dirty on Social Security

Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, is hitting back against his Democratic challenger by accusing him of “opening the door to massive changes” in Social Security, threatening “millions of seniors and their beneficiaries.”

But it seems he’s playing it a bit fast and loose with what his opponent, Dublin councilman and Alameda County prosecutor Eric Swalwell, actually said.

This dustup began in August Swalwell’s call for “closing a loophole” in Social Security that lets children collect benefits even if their parents are age-eligible but still working and collecting salaries in excess of the earning cap – like Stark’s kids do.

The San Francisco Chronicle in August reported that Stark’s minor children – he has a 16-year-old and 11-year-old twins – collect benefits. Stark, 81, collects a $174,000 annual salary as a congressman, but his kids remain able to get the payments.

“Every person should receive the benefits to which he or she paid into and is entitled,” Swalwell had said at the time. “But, just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it right. The purpose of granting Social Security benefits to children of retirees is to stabilize the family’s income – the only income of the family – and ensure the minor children are receiving the necessities they need. Clearly, the situation in the Stark household is not the intended purpose of this benefit and he’s diverting government money to his kids.”

“Minor children should only be allowed to collect Social Security benefits if their parent is collecting benefits earned because they are retired, not working and not earning other income above the earnings cap,” Swalwell had said.

The Stark campaign responded that Stark’s children were benefiting from a system into which Stark had paid all his life, just like anyone else’s kids could, and that to change the system would amount to means testing to determine who does and doesn’t get benefits.

Now Stark’s campaign has posted this video, the second entry in his “Pete Stark Answers the Tough Questions” series:

But at no point has Swalwell said he “would support the Romney-Ryan plan to undo Social Security and Medicare,” as Stark claims.

Stark’s campaign also this week sent out a mailer with a kindly-looking elderly couple on the cover and the caption “Putting Seniors At Risk.” Inside, the mailer trumpets “Congressional candidate Eric Swalwell: Ending Social Security as we know it.”

“The Romney-Ryan plan puts seniors’ financial security at risk,” the mailer says. “Instead of standing up to the Romney-Ryan plan, Eric Swalwell has joined them in attacking Social Security. Swalwell proposed a plan for Social Security that would cut guaranteed benefits, opening the door the massive changes that would threaten millions of seniors and their beneficiaries who rely on Social Security as a source of income. Swalwell’s plan would break the promise that is at the heart of Social Security: all Americans pay into it and all Americans benefit from it.”

The mailer also details Stark’s opposition to efforts to change or cut Social Security and Medicare, which is accurate. But nowhere does the mailer describe the specific loophole Swalwell chose to cut.

It quotes a subsequent Chronicle story as reporting that “Social Security experts, liberal and conservative, agreed that Swalwell’s proposal would require some form of means testing.” But the mailer doesn’t quote that same story’s next line: “They also said families in Stark’s position – a wealthy senior with minor children – are rare.”

The Romney campaign’s website describes the GOP ticket’s Social Security platform thus:

First, for future generations of seniors, Mitt believes that the retirement age should be slowly increased to account for increases in longevity.
Second, for future generations of seniors, Mitt believes that benefits should continue to grow but that the growth rate should be lower for those with higher incomes.

Romney also has discussed means testing for ALL seniors, not just for those with kids receiving benefits, as well as adding individual retirement accounts as an option.

At a meeting with the Bay Area News Group editorial board in May, Swalwell called stabilizing Social Security “a big problem, it’s a big concern” best addressed by raising the payroll tax cap from its current level of $110,000. He also called for building into the system an index that would automatically raise retirement ages in proportion to life expectancies.

Stark also called for raising the tax cap and said he would be willing to scale up the retirement age; he said that to guarantee current benefit levels indefinitely, the payroll tax would need to be increased by 3 percent – 1.5 percent for the worker, 1.5 percent for the employer. “It’s a strong social program that I think has been the backbone of protecting the less fortunate in this country, and I think we can make it work.”

See photos of the Stark mailer, after the jump…
Continue Reading


Romney rakes in the dough tonight in Burlingame

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is in the Bay Area tonight for a fundraiser.

Tickets to the dinner at the Marriott hotel in Burlingame cost $1,000 per person or $2,500 for preferred seating. Those raising $10,000 for the dinner got access to a photo reception as well, and those raising $15,000 to $25,000 were invited to a private roundtable with the former Massachusetts governor.

Among the event’s many co-chairs are 2010 Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman, now president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and her husband, Griff; Peter Magowan, former president and managing general partner of the San Francisco Giants, and his wife, Deborah; Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy and his wife, Susan; and Howard Leach, the former U.S. Ambassador to France, and his wife, Gretchen.

The candidate comes to the Bay Area even as four recent national polls show he’s no longer the frontrunner, but rather is trailing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Romney earlier Wednesday addressed the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington, D.C.

And Romney also Wednesday announced a new television ad he’s rolling out this week in Iowa and New Hampshire:



Whitman to raise money tonight in Bay Area

It’ll be a GOP all-star bash tonight as Republican gubernatorial primary candidate Meg Whitman’s campaign holds a fundraiser at the Sofitel Hotel in Redwood City. On the headliners list: former Massachusetts governor and 2008 Republican presidential primary candidate Mitt Romney; 2008 Republican presidential nominee U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; and former Secretary of State George Shultz.

What an interesting bunch of people with whom to talk, n’est pas? Mais non! “Tonight’s event will be open to the press but there will be no availability for interviews,” sayeth the campaign.