Monday, December 12, 2016

Yet another reason to be worried about Trump's presidency

Of course, there are really plenty of reasons.  I don't expect that Trump's potential abandonment of the One China Policy to have more than a 1 in 10 chance of leading to war with China but, well, he isn't even in office yet and this is a thing.

Still, as potentially painful and maybe even disastrous as the next four years are going to be I'm worried that a Trump presidency will be even worse (assuming no nuclear annihilation) in the long run.

I've already plugged The Myth of the Rational Voter as my main model of thinking about elections and that makes me really worried about the lessons that people will draw from Trump's victory.  To summarize, politicians running for office have to compromise between promising things that sound nice to people who aren't really paying attention to policy and promising things that will actually make voters happy and thus vote for them again in the next election.

I think that most politician, at some level, don't really want to believe in people voting for Trump.  We all like to believe that we're normal.  That other people think like we do.  That's often a comforting illusion since people are all so very different but it's natural to believe otherwise.  So politicians, who frequently took their jobs because they care about public policy, will often want to assume that voters care just as much about policy as they do.  But of course voters have a great number of important things in their lives which they prioritize above learning about public policy and contentious political issues.  So Trump lying or making absurd promises works much better than politicians want to believe is possible.

So I'm worried that the establishments of both parties will look at Trump and internalize the message that if they want to get one of their own elected to the presidency then they can't let themselves worry about whether they'll be able to fulfill the promises they're making.  There's no way to get a second term if you can't get a first term, after all.

And I'm worried that this is coming after a previous revelation that's hit congresspeople in the gut.  That most voters know who the president is but don't really know who's calling the shots in Congress.  So if Congress causes problems then the president will get blamed for them.  Maybe I'm imagining that one since Obama has such high approval ratings?  I can only hope I'm imagining that and it's just the US primary system that's been causing problems recently in Congress.

Or maybe it's like a comment on Marginal Revolution said and the dynamic is that TV or movie stars will just win due to star power but most of them aren't interested in running.  That's not ideal but it doesn't seem so toxic in the long run so I guess I'll hope that that's what's at play.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The median voter theorem, or why major parties are relatively similar

When people are looking at our two major parties they're often dissatisfied.  If you're a socialist or a libertarian or a Nazi then in most elections neither of the major candidates will represent your views.  Well, this election we have someone who at least appeals to Nazis and we nearly had a candidate who called himself a socialist even if that wasn't totally accurate.  But this election is a bit weird and usually the people who complain about the major candidates being close to each other have a point.

Thankfully political science has an explanation for this: the median voter theorem.   At this point I was going to give my own in depth explanation of it but I don't think I could possibly do a better job than Chris Hallquist does here.  Please read that link because otherwise the rest of this post might not make too much sense to you.  Or maybe you're already familiar with the theorem, in which case cool.

The one thing I'd like to add to that analysis is that probably the gap between the parties is partially based on the desires of the people within the parties.  Ego and wanting to be in high office is probably a significant motivation for politicians but I'd assume that many have real preferences for certain policies too.  Polling isn't perfect so nobody knows exactly where the median voter really is on an issue.  If your opponent has set their policies exactly at where the median voter is expected to be then if you care about outcomes more than ego than it makes sense to pull in your public policies a little towards what you really want.  If your opponent wins then the same policies win out but there's still a chance that you might win and get a better outcome than that.  Still, polling is pretty good so the gap caused by that factor shouldn't be large.  And I guess that process would tend to favor less honest politicians, as if we needed another explanation for that observation.

Still, I'd assume that most of the divergence between the two parties is due to having to win primaries and needing motivated party members to go around and drum up turnout.

One objection people might raise to this whole 'median voter' business is the role of money in politics.  Well, I already wrote one post on how I think money is the least important part of lobbying.  Also really we're talking about official positions here and I'd expect donations to effect what a candidate does later, not what they say before they get elected.  Also, money doesn't do as much as you might think.

There is a large correlation between which candidate wins an election and which candidate raises the most money but the problem there is that you'd expect a candidate who is more popular to be able to raise more money.  So to isolate the effects of money on a candidates ability to win a race you can look at non-raised money.  That is, mostly, money spent by rich candidates on their own races above what they could raise from donors.  The result I remember, sorry that I can't find the paper, is that for every factor of 2 one candidate outspends the other then the vote count shifts by 1%.

Well I used to look at that and think that 1% isn't very much.  These days and especially this election I'm less sure.  We'd all like to think that every voter considers the issue carefully but of course many are busy or lazy people and haven't paid attention this election so they just pull the lever for D or R based on their sense of what positions a candidate of that party tends to have.  And many just engage in retrospective voting, usually a good thing.  But between those maybe the number of voters up for grabs isn't actually a large amount, and maybe 1% actually is a pretty significant chunk of votes.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Recent Reading

Sorry for not posting much recently, I'll try to do more.  To ease myself back in here are some quick reviews of a few books I've read recently that don't deserve their own posts, plus some insights I got from them.

Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by Starr, S. Frederick was just what the title leads you to expect.  It's about the flowering of philosophy and science in central Asia between 750 AD and 1000 AD.  The number of merchants involved in the silk road trade had always given the region a large educated class and after the Arab conquest in 750 AD better connected the area to the Mediteranian there was a large intellectual flowering involving greats like Ibn-Sina and Biruni.  But as time went on anti-intellectual movements such as Sufism and books like Al-Ghazali's The Incoherence of the Philosophers made science and philosophy less reputable and more dangerous.  When the Mongol's rolled through in the early 1200s the intellectual era had mostly ended.  And the depopulation of what had been some of the greatest cities in the world by the Mongols plus the resulting shift in trade from the Silk Road to the Indian Ocean meant that the region would never return to what it had been.  I suppose my biggest takeaway is to see some historical developments as more contingent.  Maybe if Al-Ghazali had been born in France and Thomas Aquinas had been born in Samarkand history would have turned out differently?  You could even look at the French Cathars as being analogous to the Sufis in ideas though of course their fates were very different.

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow was also just what it says on the cover.  I'd known many of the elements of his political life but I was interested in the personal and I also needed to brush up a bit on the timeline of the Revolution.  The perpetually indebted side of Washington is certainly something I hadn't considered and the constant suspicion of the Virginia landowners that they were being cheated by their factors in London helps explain some of their enthusiasm for independence.  I was struck by how complicated Washington's feelings about slavery were.  he opposed the system in theory but for most of his life felt too indebted to free his slaves, especially since many were actually the property of his adopted children and he would need to buy their freedom from the estate he was managing but didn't own.  In light of what I knew about attitudes towards slavery before the Civil War I found his public disparagement of it odd but I later read elsewhere that it wasn't until the Turner Rebellion that pro-slavery forces in the South became so ideological.

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein covered a lot of things I'd heard of but didn't have a good context for.  The trajectory of race relations in the North and South over the timeframe, events like Kent State and the Checkers speech, and of course how Nixon ended up thinking that Watergate could possibly be a good idea.   Reading about George McGovern's campaign made me want to become a politician even less.  The people who answered a question in a debate with "I don't know" or "yes, that would be a disadvantage to my proposal" always ended up losing and the people who were willing to confidently make up facts never seemed to suffer for it.  Which of course seems very relevant to our current campaign.   Mostly on the Trump side but you also have bits of disinformation like Trump asking the Russians to hack Hillary's email that get propagated on the democratic side as well.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Bad and Good about the Brexit

Britain recently voted to leave the EU.  That's probably going to have a lot of long term consequences and I'm mostly writing this to try to work through what I think they might be, good as well as bad.

In the short term there's probably going to be a fair amount of bad.  Germany and France are Britain's #1 and #3 trading partners and there's likely to be some disruption there.  Now that Britain has said it wants to leave it can negotiate a divorce from the EU there's some question about exactly what Britain's terms of trade are going to end up looking like.  The leave campaign promised that Britain would be able to trade with Europe the same way it always had but now without cumbersome EU rules.  I don't think it'll work that way.  The first reason for that is that managing trade is a big part of the complex EU rules Britain had to deal with.  If I sell you a ton of "Grade A Beef" it's important that we both have the same understanding of what Grade A Beef is.  I mean, I could always just inspect every purchase I make ahead of time but that's cumbersome and so people generally make regulations about what "Grade A Beef" means, exactly.  The modern world of trade is a whole elaborate edifice of commodity futures contracts and such that make that sort of inspection even more impractical.  So Norway, in order to trade with the EU inside the EEA, has to abide by a lot of EU rules it had no hand in making.  So some people in the Leave camp are going to be upset at how little will change regarding EU rules but given that many Leavers are fans of staying in the EEA and given how many people wanted to stay then I assume it's sellable.

The other short term problem is going to be EU stability.  If Britain leaves then suddenly it gets a lot more thinkable for, say, Greece to leave.  That probably means that the EU doesn't want to be nice to the UK in the exit negotiations, they want to make leaving seem scary to any member states that might be wavering.  But in thinking about the consequences of the Brexit for Britain we shouldn't ignore the consequences for the rest of Europe either.  As Scott Sumner points out the stock markets in continental Europe and especially southern Europe are down a lot more than in Britain.  In some ways Britain leaving the EU now looks like Britain leaving the gold standard in 1931, and we all know how that ended.  Partially that might be because the Bank of England has been handling the recent crisis so much better than the European Central Bank.

Finally, I'm a big fan of the free movement of people between countries and Britain leaving the EU is going to be a big blow to that.  I don't think there's much to elaborate on here.  Discomfort with immigration was a big factor in Leave winning and getting out of the EU will put a big hamper on, e.g., Poles moving to the UK.

As for the good, well, I think critics of the EU as an opaque institution have a point.  The EU is the product of ad hoc growth with a lack of clear lines of responsibility.  Hamilton wrote very movingly about the importance of checks and balances separation of powers but since the 18th century countries with more streamlined parliamentary systems have provided much more stable democracies than presidential systems like ours.  Making responsibility transparent to voters is the most crucial thing to get right in a democratic system of government and it's hard to see how the EU accomplishes that.  There was a proposal for a European constitution at one point but it was also quite baroque and also rejected by voters.

In a related point, countries work better when their citizens feel like they're all the same group.  This is entirely subjective and in the future maybe the EU will succeed in creating a sense of a pan European culture.  But in the meantime Germans balk at giving money to Greeks in a way that New Yorkers don't at seeing their money spent on West Virginians.  The book Wars, Guns, and Votes goes into this in some detail and maybe I ought to reread it then write it up.  But in the meantime, this is a fairly big problem for trying to have a union on a European scale.

Also, while I'm all on board with free trade in goods and free movement of people I'm not sure that homogenizing laws across different countries is a good idea.  Lawmaking is not a science and unintended consequences are frequent.  You can take this as an argument against making too many laws but equally it's an argument for trial and error.  More countries with differences in their legal system tend to help us figure out what works and what doesn't - even if we fail to look at other country's experiences too often.

So Britain leaving the EU has large downsides but it has upsides too.  I don't see many people in my social media circles discussing them, though.  But just compare the EU with the TPP and TPIP.  Both are international agreements negotiated between governments to facilitate trade but also impose restrictions on what the member countries can do.

A lot of the motivation for the leave vote was driven by xenophobia and a lot of the motivation for the stay vote was driven by cosmopolitanism.  I am strongly in favor of being cosmopolitan but I don't think people's motivations for doing something have the power to make that thing good or bad all on their own.  So I think that it's pretty clear that from the perspective of five years from now the leave vote will look like a bad idea.  But from the perspective of 50 years I really have no idea.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Trump and Publicity

There's an old idea that all publicity is good publicity.  I seem to have have written something about this a few years ago but I should repeat the important bits.  If you're trying to sell something and you don't care about getting a majority of people to like you then your biggest foe is anonymity and the old chestnut is perfectly valid.  But if you're doing something that requires you to persuade a majority of people that you're correct then no, not all publicity is good publicity.

I think this principle is very much applicable to the potential election of Donald Trump.  If you're looking at a 17 way contest and you only need a plurality, and besides only 13 of the 29 million people in the Republican primary voted for Trump compared to the 126 million who voted in the 2012 presidential election.  So it's very much true that for Trump in the primary all publicity is good publicity.  But that won't hold for the general election. 

I suppose that's why the betting markets are only giving him an 18% shot at winning.  That's still a lot and many things could happen between now and the vote but Trump's strengths in the primary ("bad" publicity) aren't a strength in the general election.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Book Review: The Human Advantage

Last Tuesday I faced a horrible dilemma as two books I'd been eagerly awaiting, Too Like the Lightning and The Age of the Em, both came out the same day.  Luckily I was nearly done with the book I'd been reading, The Human Advantage by Suzana Herculano-Houzel, so I could quickly finish that before moving on and I wasn't tortured by a third option of whether to just put it aside.

In some ways this book was a good complement to The Secret of Our Success since it's another book about humanity's place in the world.  But this one is much more about where we fit in with other species in terms of our brains and less about the story of how we got there.  The real meat of the book is how the author figured out a good way to measure the number of neurons in a brain and was able to do the first real comparisons across species as to the number of neurons in their heads.

The method was surprisingly simple as brilliant ideas sometimes are.  You can't just count the number of neurons in a small part of the brain and multiply because neuron density can vary quite a bit depending on where in someone's head you look.  The simple solution is just to stick a brain in a blender first.  Then you can sample and multiply to get a good count.  There's really more to it than that but that's the basic idea.

The interesting thing the author discovered is the way that the number of neurons in a brain varies with brain volume works very differently in primates than it does in pretty much all the other animals she looked at.  In most neurons are bigger in bigger brains and the number of neurons goes up as the 3/4 power.  But with primates neurons stay the same size and the brain volume and number of neurons are directly proportional.  The difference between 1 and 3/4 might not sound like much but different animals can vary in size but a factor of 10,000 easily which would give you a brain 10 times larger for one animal than another.

Another interesting discovery she was able to make was that the energy consumed by a brain is almost exactly proportional to the number of neurons in the brain, even though some brains have neurons that are much bigger than those in other brains.  She does on to describe the things about humans that let us get enough calories to support our huge brains in a chapter I would have found fascinating if I hadn't read The Secret of Our Success recently.

I did find a few annoyances.  The author made a big deal about the fact that the conventional wisdom was that human brains had 100 billion neurons but that she had discovered that humans really only had 86 billion.  Except that all her samples were from men between the ages of 50 and 70 and we know that humans lose neurons as they age to some extent.  And the largest of her 4 samples weighed in at 91 billion.  So we can't really be totally sure from her observations that the average number of human neurons isn't exactly 100 billion even before you consider reasonable amounts of rounding for a variable number.

The book was maybe longer than it needed to be and trying too hard to impress in places but I enjoyed it overall and I'm glad I read it.  There are a bunch of interesting facts about brains I haven't included here and another bunch of interesting anecdotes about how she got her hands on the different brains she examined.  So I'd recommend reading it but don't be afraid to skim.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Eukaryotes and the Drake Equation

I bet a lot of the people reading this blog have heard of the Drake Equation but, as a recap, the idea is that given some assumptions you should be able to calculate how many alien civilizations there ought to be in the Milky Way.  There are a few problem with the way the equation is put together but in general it's hard make make assumptions strict enough that the galaxy shouldn't have lots of other civilizations.  And now that it's looking like most stars have planets that leads to the scary conclusion that maybe civilizations just don't last very long.

But thankfully I read a book recently that makes me a bit more hopeful.  A while ago I read Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life by Nick Lane which I really ought to have reviewed here because it was an excellent book.  It discusses how mitochondria allowed eukaryotic cells to become much larger than their forebears, the roll they plan in apoptosis or cell suicide, and how they effect how long various animals live.  But the important park in this blog post is how they were first created with one cell swallowing another and the two forming a symbiosis.

Without going into details (they're in the book!) it was sort of crazy that something like that could happen and result in a creature that was fit enough to survive.  I was recently looking at the timeline of life on Earth on Wikipedia and you can see that there.  The first simple cells appeared 4.1 billion years ago, just 400 million years after Earth got it's seas.  But it wasn't until 1.9 billion years ago, 2.2 billion years after life first appeared that we got eukaryotic cells.  So it looks like it took over 5 times as long for for complex cells to arise as it did for cells to in the first place.

If it had taken twice as long for simple cells to get going and the whole timeline of life on Earth was pushed back a half billion years then that wouldn't have been a big deal.  But if eukaryotes had taken twice as long to get going then the extra 2 billion years would push the arrival of complex life like us out to 6.5 billion years after the Earth formed by which point the sun will be hotter and there won't be liquid water on the surface any more.

So judging just by Earth's timeline we might go out into the wider universe to find that there are lots of bacteria out there but nothing big and complex enough to need a nucleus.  But of course all of this is still the thinnest speculation until we explore much more of the universe.