Thursday, December 20, 2012

2012 - Electoral Results and Density

From Omniorthogonal. He observes that the handful of low-density counties that went Democratic are almost all minority-dominated; very often those are Native American - those are the blue ones west of the Mississippi in New Mexico, Arizona and South Dakota. You can also see the Black Belt and the lower Mississippi agricultural area pretty clearly too.

Previous analysis by density here, for 2008 - I speculated then that what we're looking at is not density per se but "encounters with minorities", or forced ethnic mixing. Consequently infamously diverse California (using intermarriage and likelihood of whites having non-white neighbors as an index) is a mess on the scatterplot of non-whiteness vs electoral vote at the county level, but in Mississippi, demography does depressingly equal destiny.

That said, in 2008 the combined % Evangelical+Mormon was more predictive at the state level than even density.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Regulation That Favors Big Business

A central concern of progressives is that of large private organizations profiting in ways that harm the public at large, or that harm smaller "mom-and-pop" operations. Often this occurs with the collusion of the agencies that are supposed to be regulating them. Indeed, others would point out that in many cases, the opportunity to be corrupt would not exist without legislation regulating or banning the business activity.

This points to a need, not for anarcho-libertarianism, but at the very least to more efficient regulation that does not make worse the problem it's supposed to combat. One of the chief forces damaging regulation is that there are two kinds of interests involved in regulation: those who genuinely want to protect the public, and those who feel their organization will benefit materially from the regulation. That such a critical problem for democracy has gone so long without a name is incredible. Bruce Yandle calls them Bootleggers and Baptists:
"Baptists" point to the moral high ground and give vital and vocal endorsement of laudable public benefits promised by a desired regulation. Baptists flourish when their moral message forms a visible foundation for political action. "Bootleggers" are much less visible but no less vital. Bootleggers, who expect to profit from the very regulatory restrictions desired by Baptists, grease the political machinery with some of their expected proceeds. They are simply in it for the money.
This, from a post at Madmen, Intellectuals and Academic Scribblers subtitled "Politics Makes Strange Bedfellows". Do read it.

For example: a few years ago in Berkeley, California there was a well-meaning but incredibly poorly thought-out initiative on the ballot to require that all coffee sold in Berkeley be certified fair-trade, shade-grown, organic. It was noted by many local coffee houses that a certain gigantic coffee chain would have lawyers and deep pockets to do this very easily, and ironically, many small businesses would be badly damaged and a large corporation would benefit from this progressive law. The potential for big-company "bootleggers" to profit from the activity of baptists" is clear. (The article I link to gives another example with environmentalists unwittingly benefitting Big Coal.  Environmentalism is great, but there's probably a way to do it that doesn't favor big business.)

The bottom line: free-market supporters become frustrated when progressives support initiatives that end up favoring big companies. If this seems confusing, then keep in mind that "capitalist" is not the same as "favors big established companies against small ones". In fact, it's more like the opposite.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Physicians and Status: "A Certain Mystique About Their Judgment"

From Philip Tetlock, emphases mine.

One of the reactions to my work on expert political judgment was that it was politically naïve; I was assuming that political analysts were in the business of making accurate predictions, whereas they're really in a different line of business altogether. They're in the business of flattering the prejudices of their base audience and they're in the business of entertaining their base audience and accuracy is a side constraint. They don't want to be caught in making an overt mistake so they generally are pretty skillful in avoiding being caught by using vague verbiage to disguise their predictions.

...Things that bring transparency to judgment are dangerous to your status.  You can make a case for this happening in medicine, for example. In so far as evidence based medicine protocols become increasingly influential, doctors are going to rely more and more on the algorithms–otherwise they're not going to get their bills paid. If they're not following the algorithms, it's not going to be reimbursable. When the healthcare system started to approach 20 to 25 percent of the GDP, very powerful economic actors started pushing back and demanding accountability for medical judgment.  The long and the short of the story is that it's very hard for professionals and executives to maintain their status if they can't maintain a certain mystique about their judgment. If they lose that mystique about their judgment, that's profoundly threatening.

Of course there's the counterargument from most medical professionals, which in so many words is, "We're special and economics doesn't apply to us.  It just doesn't."  We're finding out.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Legislator Performance Scores

In a previous post I discussed methods to measure legislator effectiveness and challenges in doing so.  Imagine people sitting in bars discussing the averages of legislators like we do with pitchers and quarterbacks now.  But as of right now, we can't.  One measure that jumps to mind is sponsorship of passed bills comes to mind, but the seniority of the legislator has an impact there, and the bills might be ineffective or damaging!  Since we don't measure bills and legislator performance, diffusion of credit, and post hoc propter hoc behavior on the part of the electorate (when they're not just identity-voting) makes free ridership an especially bad problem.  It's amazing good bills ever get passed at all.

One thing we can measure is partisanship, although it bears immediate emphasis that this is not a measure of effectiveness.  I'm only using it to illustrate the point that politics is clearer when we measure performance numerically, which of course is exactly what politicians don't want.  To illustrate why partisanship is different from effectiveness:  imagine if an employee is told by his boss that he isn't meeting certain important performance metrics that were important for the company, and he would soon be let go if he didn't shape up.  Imagine further that the indignant employee's response is "yes, but I consistently support efforts that align with the goals of the VP of marketing's internal coalition!  Isn't that enough?"  That would be stupid, but this is exactly what voters are doing when they equate partisanship with effectiveness.

So scoring legislators is a way to make sure we have knowledge about something more than just tribal instinct.  For example, recently these measures have been in the press largely to put a value on political polarization over time that's based on more than just feelings in our little hearts. It's the political scientists who blog at (my new favorite blog) who make these nifty partisan plots.  There are multiple "dimensions" along which partisanship can be measured, as you can see below, but the one I pulled out for this analysis is the left-right axis here, which is basically the traditional American, de facto 2-party system conception of the conservative-liberal spectrum.

We can look at these measurements against the party makeup of state representatives and executives.  First, I looked at the D vs R composition of Senators and Governors as well as presidential electoral votes in 2012.   There are 26 states (a quarter) whose senatorial contingent, governor, and vote for president were entirely one or the other:  13 of each.  (All R: ID, WY, UT, AZ, NE, KS, OK, TX, TN, MS, AL, GA, SC.  All D:  HI, WA, OR, CA, CO, MN, DE, MD, NY, MA, RI, CT, VT.  The independents in the all-D column caucus with the Dems so they were included with them.)

First, do yourself a favor and watch the migration and clustering of partisanship for all Congresses through the 111th in this Quicktime movie.  (Note:  I've used only Senators here but a more thorough analysis would involve all of Congress.)

Then, I used their measurements for the 111th and ranked states by the average of their senators' voting, liberal to conservative (more negative liberal, more positive conservative).  The trend is clear in the table:  more liberal senators mean more likely Democratic Senators, governors, and presidential vote. What doesn't jump out right away is that states with senators more liberal than "neutral" will vote Republican for president, but not so much the other way around. The tendency is even stronger for governors.  I imagine it hasn't escaped notice at GOP HQ that Chris Christie is the Republican governor in the state with the most liberal senatorial voting record, who could benefit most from this effect in a national contest.  Whether he's pure enough to make it through a GOP primary remains to be seen.

State Sens Gov Pres Part Score
VT DD D D -0.5625
IL RD D D -0.5455
RI DD D D -0.5295
MA DD D D -0.51
NJ DD R D -0.498
NY DD D D -0.482
MD DD D D -0.457
DE DD D D -0.456
MI DD R D -0.451
CA DD D D -0.4465
HI DD D D -0.4405
OR DD D D -0.425
NM DD R D -0.413
MN DD D D -0.397
WA DD D D -0.3725
CT DD D D -0.371
WI RD R D -0.367
ND RD R R -0.32
CO DD D D -0.278
WV DD D R -0.2755
VA DD R D -0.249
MT DD D R -0.244
AR RD D R -0.214
OH RD R D -0.206
PA RD R D -0.133
IA RD R D -0.0595
AK RD R R -0.026
NH RD D D 0.0395
MO RD D R 0.045
ME RD R D 0.0495
IN RD R R 0.0615
SD RD R R 0.1
NV RD R D 0.112
NC RD R R 0.1575
LA RD R R 0.1935
NE RR R R 0.2195
UT RR R R 0.352
FL RD R R 0.361
TN RR R R 0.372
MS RR R R 0.396
KS RR R R 0.4295
TX RR R R 0.4765
AL RR R R 0.511
GA RR R R 0.511
AZ RR R R 0.5295
ID RR R R 0.53
KY RR D R 0.594
WY RR R R 0.6295
SC RR R R 0.652
OK RR R R 0.826

Legislative partisanship scores over time give us a number with more spatial and temporal resolution to assign to states.  A continuously measured integer that gets down to Congressional districts sure beats R or D at the state level once every four years.

That it's effective to think of politics this way is strange and troubling.  If people are really voting rationally, they'll look at how the actions of legislators and executives have impacted them materially, rather than just punishing them for not using certain in-group codewords or being in office during an economic downturn that they had nothing to do with and possibly even made better.  But Democrat or Republican are brand names that the party organizers use to paper over the cracks in coalitions, so that people can use them as a proxy for identification as their own tribe. Culturally, Native Americans, West Coast moderates, and Northeast union members have very little in common other than voting Democrat; and big city financiers and evangelicals don't cross paths an awful lot either, except maybe at the polls, voting Republican.  We've become so used to the absurdity of being a country of 315 million viewpoints that we assume can be represented by two parties that we don't think about this very much.

To re-emphasize, the whole reason we should be interested in scoring legislators is to measure their performance - that is, their productivity, not their partisanship.  So far we don't do that, although it's true that there are "report cards" issued by public interest groups scoring legislators (example here.)  But even there, the report cards only measure what the legislators and their bills were trying to accomplish, not what they actually accomplished; what we really need to fix the broken loop and help democracies is a way to measure what they actually did, relative to expectations, so that governments are accountable.  I imagine that lobbying organizations (or their smarter industry clients) have individual tools for this, but they're not available to individual voters.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Peter Thiel on Automating Law

An excellent article by Thiel that converges on some of the same ideas here, regarding automating legislation and constitutions in a legal programming language that has to compile before it's considered in effect.  It seems this is the ideal if we're serious about government being of laws and not of men.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Measuring Congress

A benefit of easy access to computation and publication tools is that public figures can be more easily made accountable to their performance, whatever their domain of endeavor, and then have their status affected appropriately.  Of course not just primates but many social animals track past behavior and reciprocation albeit sloppily, and we humans started doing this more rigorously by applying integers to one measure of exchangeable liquid utility in the Middle East fifty centuries or so ago (money).  But there were often ways to opacify performance and game the system.  I am optimistic that technology means this is changing for the better.  Impressively, after this U.S. election cycle, even Dick Morris had to explain himself on FOX. 

So why don't we measure and track legislators, in terms of the effectiveness of the laws they write?

It would be nice to hear people in bars talking about averages for legislators or entire Congresses instead of yards rushing. "Remember that 114th Congress? They had a term average of point eight nine. Those were the glory days. Not like these bums now, they haven't been above point seven oh any single week."

The first thing that's terrifying to contemplate about the legislative process is that the feedback loop (between writing good bills and re-election of the writer) is not just broken, it basically never existed.  Imagine if a company were run like this!  Think about it:  one or a few legislators (out of 435 in the House) write a bill, in committee, invariably with lobbyists "advising" them.  The bill goes to the floor for a vote, which in the U.S. at least will usually be along party lines regardless of the bill's content.  And voters do not reward or punish the legislators who wrote the bill - because voters ignore bills (whether they were good or bad) and decide who to vote for based on what tribal loyalty noises the politician makes during the election, and whether jobs were gained or lost during the last term, which usually has nothing to do with anything the legislator did.  Occasionally a bill will become known for its extreme unpopularity, and for this reason there's every reason to avoid association with laws passed, and few reasons to be associated with them in the minds of voters.  In very rare cases, a bill later becomes very popular, in which case at election time it was their idea all along, and we see five hundred thirty-some gruesome examples of the free rider problem. 

It is truly amazing any law ever gets passed.

(On the complexity of modern government in general and how this breaks the feedback loop, see Steven Teles on "kludgeocracy":  "[it is] hard for Americans to attribute responsibility when things go wrong, thus leading blame to be spread over government in general, rather than affixed precisely, where such blame could do some good. The consequence of complexity, then, is diffuse cynicism, which is the opposite of the habit needed for good democratic citizenship...The complexity that makes so much of American public policy vexing and wasteful for ordinary citizens and governments, however, is also what makes it so easy for organized interests to profit off the state's largesse." Additional emphasis by Salam here.)

This is a problem in medicine, where it's hard to think of a way to put one number on a physician that measures their performance.  Consequently, we use the burdernsome approach of looking individually at every condition they see and procedure they do, and compare them to national averages.  In legislation the problem is worse, because laws are (in theory) solutions to problems that are not just unique but only recently appeared, which is why they now require laws.

A related question to problem #2 is that legislator effectiveness should not be measured just by number of laws produced.  The number of laws sponsored or co-sponsored is in large point dependent on the legislators' committee seats and seniority; and beyond that, just because someone is producing lots of laws,  doesn't mean those are good laws.  In fact part of the measure of legislator effectiveness could be how many laws (and regulations!) they retire, or subsume within new laws.  (A constitution and legal system written in a consistent programming language, requiring the full set of laws to be compiled every time the session ended, would be one way to decrease redundancy and legislative sclerosis.)  It may be appropriate that in a more complex time, we have more laws than we did a hundred years ago, but resignation to this type of legal sediment accumulation is unlikely to produce an optimal government.

One solution to the difficulty of how to measure individual laws would be not allowing a bill unless legislators made a concrete prediction about its effect - and then tracking whether they were right.  The legislators' effectiveness would be some combination of their accuracy, and their effect on a concrete metric - money, jobs, happiness in their district, etc.  No one cares that you were 10 for 10 on declarations that the sun would keep rising in the east, but if you miss a few while increasing quality of life years in your district, maybe you're a keeper.  This of course is a version of futarchy, applied to legislators.  It might actually be easier to install it in a legislature first, before it's installed among the general electorate, since many people are likely to recoil at the suggestion that voting be counted differently for different people for any reason.  But sticking it to Congress, well now you have something!

How to Sell Legalization: As Improved Protection and Enforcement

The way our drug policy will get more rational is for sub-Federal entities to make their own laws and dare the Feds to come enforce them. This is exactly what people mean when they talk about the states being laboratories of democracy. And this is a great test to see if all the "states' rights" small-government people are blowing hot air, or mean what they say.

That said, there are completely legitimate questions to ask as we're starting to see exactly this happening, and one of them is: to what degree does legalization affect driving safety? It must be said that this article addressing the problem in California gets an F for statistics because it equates "1 in 7 drivers at checkpoints tested positive for drugs" to "1 in 7 drivers is under the influence" - obviously those are two different things, plus the population that gets stopped at checkpoints (about 50% of the total) is enriched for alcohol and drug use.

But that said, a great way to say legalization to hesitant voters is sell it as improved enforcement on drug use in dangerous circumstances, of which driving is #1. Tax it (as everyone except the politicians seem to be suggesting) and use some of that revenue for improved enforcement, which isn't being done systematically right now like it is for alcohol. This isn't just a gimmick either. I don't mind having this protection for alcohol and I'd like to have for all other mind-altering substances as well.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Post Election Priorities

It's been said that there is no liberal or conservative way to pave a road.  Political differences are usually differences of priority or method, rather than absolute ones.  The following are priorities for the U.S. and for California that it seems difficult to argue against.


- We need a sustainable budget, independent of the current fiscal cliff situation, independent of how we get to that sustainable budget.  This is the single greatest threat to continued American prominence and liberal democracy on Earth.  It's a bridge too far to ask us to reform our tax system to incentivize wealth-building rather than wealth-hiding, and to reward tax-code-jockey attorneys, but we should start thinking about it.  Specifically, people regard taxes as penalties, period.  Start penalizing things you want people to do less of - polluting, crimes, unhealthy behaviors, etc.  (Singapore has used this model successfully for quite a while now, and we seem to think such "social engineering" is okay when it comes to owning homes and marriage.)  In other words, we should stop penalizign earning money and investing.

- Continue the economic and diplomatic pivot to Asia, and focus on containing the remaining threats to liberal democracy and the international order.  The countries which pose the greatest threat on that count, in this order, are Pakistan (which is largely run by extremist Muslims, and has nuclear weapons - how does this escape the notice of hawks?), Iran, and North Korea.  A nuclear weapon built in Pakistan and used by militants will be too late a reminder that the U.S. should not design its foreign policy around oil companies.

- Restructure immigration as recruiting.  Stop letting people in just because their husband is here; make it much easier to get people who have STEM degrees from top universities around the world, otherwise they will continue going to the UK and (increasingly) Asia.  At the same time, we can recognize that there's a legitimate security and economic consideration about the porousness of our border with Mexico that has nothing to do with racism, which unfortunately seems to be what has motivated the most passionate opinions on this issue.  After the election, the GOP has suddenly realized that not every American is a WASP and a reform of their immigration position is necessary.  Let's take advantage of this moment.

- The legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington is a more radical opportunity for local politics than many realize, because it will force a confrontation on state vs Federal rights on this and many other issues.  "Small government" conservatives will either have to get on board with CO and WA's right to do so (and to resist Eric Holder's goons) or stop claiming to be small government conservatives.  Furthermore we might finally understand what on Earth Holder has been doing, alienating some of the Dems' base in these states.  How to make sure it remains legal?  Invite states and localities to tax it, as has been done in Oakland.  They can't chill out every single small business.

- If the Dems are serious about staying partners with business (at least high-tech growth industries) then make a serious, concerted effort at smart regulation.  Yes, this will mean repealing and streamlining many regulations and maybe some departments.  The Obama administration has started to do this quietly but it needs to be much higher-profile to give confidence that it will be meaningful and that it will persist.  Staffing it with subject-matter experts who haven't spent their whole lives inside the Beltway will show seriousness in this regard; this can be done without letting foxes guard henhouses.  The FDA is a perfect place to start; implement some form of Andrew von Eschenbach's suggestion to make drug regulation about taking unsafe drugs off the market, rather than approving them before they can be sold.  (On the other side, the GOP is starting to look more like the party of big-business+government cronyism, and less like the party of capitalism.  Time to fix that before the Democrats take that away too.)


- We need a balanced, sustainable budget, and that has to mean pension reform, in some form.  Now that the Democrats have a supermajority, we will know if this can be accomplished.  If either party has a supermajority, and can't pass a balanced budget, then California cannot ever pass a balanced budget.  I do not have high hopes for this and think the state government will see tough times before any real reform ever occurs.  We will hear reasons for why it couldn't occur, but the point remains that even with a state-congressional supermajority, they will likely not pass a sustainable budget.  I hope I'm wrong about this.

- Other considerations are secondary.  It would be nice to see gay marriage having official recognition but in a state that's degrading its parks and universities because it doesn't know how to balance a checkbook, such otherwise important questions become ancillary considerations.


- Is public transportation really that difficult?  Yes, it's damn near impossible to put a real light rail system in (and San Diego doesn't have one) once an area develops, but is a real bus system really that expensive to develop?  My hope is that the local transit systems like UCSD's are putting enough people in place who see the value of one, and will vote accordingly in the future.

- For a California city, San Diego has a curiously unaccountable police department, with questions about officer-involved accidents and shootings often going un-answered.  Curiously in this mayoral election, we had a gay Republican facing a Democrat favored by police.  Filner's administration may not change this.

- If the Chargers want to build a new football stadium, that's fine, but to ask for taxpayer dollars to do it is absolutely unacceptable.  Filner is on record saying he opposes this - let's keep his feet to the fire in case he has some magical change of heart - and in any event, there is no evidence that stadiums help their local areas economically (in actuality they hurt).

Saturday, November 24, 2012

*I*: The Ignore Index

There are sometimes battles or otherwise newsworthy events which are largely ignored in some other parts of the world, despite their seeming importance. This could result from many things: few reporters on the ground near the area, reporters' or news organizations' biases, lack of relevance of news from that part of the world to another part of the world (fair enough), intentional suppression, or just apathy on the part of the news consumer.

However, it seems that even internet news sites have such blind spots, and irrelevance based on geography has no meaning on the internet. Understandably a local Indiana newspaper might not carry stories about a war on another continent. Not so for the internet as a whole.

Two examples: news from Mexico is consistently under-reported, especially considering its long border with internet-monster U.S., and the proximity of the U.S.'s second biggest population centers. But for the occasional drug violence story (reported as if each occurs in isolation from the rest) there is very little to be found online (reporters are specifically targeted by the cartels, so this is maybe not so surprising, but that can't be it. Even when there was clearly a wildfire burning in the mountains just south of the border a few miles from I-8 in San Diego County - I saw it with my own eyes - there was nothing, in the Mexican or U.S. press). And occasionally a flare-up of an international event draws attention to the phenomenon as well: last week a rebel group in Congo captured Goma, even with U.N. troops directly engaging them with missile fire. The civil war there has been going on since 1998, and casualties including famine and disease are estimated at about a half million per year. The military capture of a city of one million, in the context of a long and deadly war, would seem to merit reporting - and it has been reported, but in the American press, it's certainly not carried universally by news outlets and even then it's not nearly a front page item.

An index of internet news (the I Index in the title) could reveal these blindspots. Not to be morbid, but because violent deaths are easier to quantify than, say, political scandals, let's use that as the basis. First, establish a curve for news stories per death, over the entire globe. (The relationship will not be linear.) Then for stories - two American soldiers killed in Afghanistan, a shoot-out leaving five dead in Chihuahua, another action in Congo killing 200 - you could see whether the number of stories falls above or below the curve. Creating an average for each country would quickly show which parts of the world journalism neglects or over-reports, and then there could be further analysis about why this is in each case.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Dunbar's Number and Startup Adolescence

Dunbar's Number Part 2 can be found here.

Kevin Simler has written about a connection that I've also noticed, that between Dunbar's Number of 150 and startup organizations. He goes further and analyzes startups in terms of anthropology, which is excellent. Looking at it one way, all business analysis really is just a branch of anthropology that uses a scoring system, because the larger civilization these mini-tribes exist in have an agreement about the scores the mini-tribes have to achieve to continue getting the chief's approval to exist as such. (This is called accounting.)

I was often brought into biotech companies when they had stalled out at this number because of external constraints (failure of product in clinical trials) to try to accelerate the process or jump the track to a new indication for the drug. There are growing pains at and beyond this number that often significantly damage the company's prospects in its transition to being a larger organization.  What I noticed is that by the Dunbar Point:

1) Corporate culture, for better or worse, is set in stone. I suspect this actually occurs much earlier in growth than Dunbar's Number, resulting from the personalities of remaining founders and challenges the company encountered - likely in that order.

2) This seems to be an inflection point at which the free rider problem becomes much worse; non-productive people who want a stable income are hired, and, recognizing rationally that at this size firm or larger their own performance won't impact the future prospects of the institution, they often don't work too hard. They also recognize that in the presence of remaining founders, they're not going to climb the ladder far anyway. And finally, karma is no longer real at this stage. There are too many people for us each to keep score on the rest of the people in the organization. Bad deeds go unpunished and good deeds go down a black hole. Karma is only real when there are people who can remember the deeds that you're in frequent contact with and who will and act on them in the future.

3) Possibly because of #2 above, rules that don't make sense or don't seem to connect to the organization's purpose and means of self-perpetuation multiply and become entrenched. This occurs because the people enforcing them now justify their existence in the organization, and because as an organization grows there are more people between any individual and the customer and investors, i.e. the entities in the outside world that the organization needs to perpetuate itself. Consequently it's more important for an individual concerned about their future prospects to please other people inside the organization, regardless of how irrational the rules are with respect to the future prospects of the organization. You're more likely to be fired (and lose money) if you defy a rule to do what you think is best for the company but it makes your boss look bad, than you are likely to lose your job due to downsizing or company bankruptcy if you follow the irrational rule, thus harming the company over the long-term. In the abstract, what is rational in the near-term for an individual departs from what is good for the company. This also seems to hit an inflection point at about 150. There's a great Dilbert (which of course I couldn't find) where Dilbert asks the boss, who's obsessed with screwing over another department as well as the customer, when they're going to think about beating the competition.

It seems to many observers that something happens as previously successful start-ups grow to make them go off the rails, largely because of internal cultural changes that cause them to self-sabotage. My observations of what happens during the startup transition contains that implicit assumption, although we have to admit it might be false: it might just be that we're seeing statistics, and regression to the mean implies that you should expect to see a bunch of companies doing well for a few years (during which time they will grow) and then their luck runs out. But the following suggestions assume that there really is a true negative effect on corporate culture and success in future profits of growth beyond Dunbar's Number.

To #1 and 3 above: these are intractable and I can offer no remedies. Removing founders often doesn't work; and status is important to humans. See this primate behavior experiment to understand why.

To #2: - Set performance metrics and relate them simply, visually, and frequently to the performance of the organization as a whole and against anonymized members of their teams. Automate it to the extent possible, so they can get frequent feedback (not just once a year or quarter) without consuming too much time generating the report. Make it clear that these are the same metrics their bosses are using. Suddenly you see that fake sick day you took, and how it affected a deadline that cut into profits (or some other metric elsewhere in the organization.) Of course, sometimes, the reality is that people's jobs really won't have a huge impact on the company's fortunes. But if you can't think at all of how to measure someone's performance and connect it to how the company is doing, then you either need to think harder, or get rid of the position. And if you're not willing to think of eliminating the position because Suzy in marketing is a nice lady and she knows Jim the Senior Director of XYZ, then you're already way beyond the startup transition.

- Focus on loyalty to small teams of up to 10-12 people. This is the military's strategy of enforcing emotional loyalty within a unit; it's not possible to be emotionally loyal to a large abstract organization unless you were raised in it as a child (like a state or religion.) Not only will this create more feedback for people - easier to to feel rewarded for doing something for a co-worker you respect than the organization, and know there will be real karma as a result (and these bonds of respect are created by the company). This also helps break down other kinds of alliances that form within the company (but not in the company's interests).

- When the founders aren't going anywhere, the new blood you get knows it's not going to the top any time soon, and you can't groom everyone to replace them. That's okay, as long as you're networked with the rest of your industry/space, and the hard work and reputation that they build while they're with you will count elsewhere in the network. Companies that don't expect young blood to leave are stupid, and some have actual functions in HR to address this. People in high-turnover, high-human-capital industries are saying "duh" to this one, but this should be something that's addressed explicitly right from the beginning of their association with the company.

Dunbar's Number Part 2 can be found here.

Intrade Manipulation and the Epistemic Rationality of the Pundits

Karl Rove on FOX, Election Night 2012. 
Delusional, or crazy like a...

Intrade was still only in the high 60s for Obama until polls actually started closing on the American East Coast. Then it only went into the 70s. This, despite other prediction markets having much higher odds for him for many days before that, and of course the various statistics witches like Nate Silver, who was in the 80s two days before. Math whizzes can look at numbers if people decide this question is important enough to merit a more rigorous look, but for now I'll have to go on these facts for my argument:

a) Intrade users think it was manipulated.

b) For a campaign that wants to appear as if it will win, Intrade is a good candidate to manipulate because it's better represented in American media than other predictions markets.

c) There was a single buyer making many of the Romney purchases.

d) It was in the Romney campaign's interest to try to appear as if it had a chance going into the election, because no one gives money to a doomed loser.

The question does remain as to whether it was deliberate manipulation, or purchases by people (or one person) who genuinely believed Romney would win. There are lots of people who believed Romney would win, and if reports are to be believed, Romney himself was one of them. And of course prediction markets do fail when enough people with bad/non-updateable beliefs are investing in them. "Fail" in the sense of not converging on the actual outcome significantly prior to the event, of course. If you had money to put into this contract and you bet on Obama though, I bet you didn't think it failed you. If it was the result of deliberate manipulation, you should be thanking Romney campaign donors who redistributed their wealth into your pocket continually for several weeks so you could bet on Obama. The twenty-first century is an interesting place.

In all the post-election laughing/anger at delusional or propagandist pundits, it is interesting that even moderately well-informed news junkies saw it coming.  But not everyone:  the pre-election denial pieces were fascinating and sounded like a combination of hippies, religious fanatics and alternative medicine nutbars: Peggy Noonan's "All the vibrations are right" is my personal favorite.

But it's also worth pointing out that from one standpoint, Karl Rove's famous meltdown was rational - for next time around. And game theorists know that games are very different when there are more (or indefinite) rounds. Other GOP higher-ups will remember that this was the guy that just would not give up. He's invested. I bet those higher-ups don't care if Jon Stewart makes fun of Rove. So neither does Rove.  Neither do any of the other pundits.  Really, what would have been the benefits to a Dick Morris of calling it like it really was, even if he actually knew how it really was? (That said, Pundit Tracker is the best site ever.)

Of course, Rove may really have believed Romney was going to win, which makes him epistemically irrational. But this false belief may lead to future GOP campaign consulting gigs as described above, which makes him every bit as epistemically rational, regardless of whether the FOX meltdown was theater or not.

Brands Signal Identity: What About Profession?

Robin Hanson posits, based on the peculiar ineffectiveness of advertising, that in fact brands signal identity. It's been observed that we're seeing wealthy countries move from an identity model where identity is determined by what we produce to one where we choose how to signal it based on what we consume. Concretely:  relative to 30 years ago, today you're less likely to hear someone characterize herself as an accountant (or she will do so to less of a degree) than as a wine connoisseuse, Lady Gaga fan, etc.

There is a general argument, most famously made by Tyler Cowen, that economic growth in wealthy countries will remain indefinitely sluggish relative to previous decades because there is a great stagnation, possibly because we're now wealthy enough to turn non-productively inward. A consumption-based identity accords well with that idea.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Effectiveness of States over Time, Measured by Language Death

On his Facebook page for Fooled by Randomness, Nicholas Nassim Taleb advances a theory that the rapid expansion of Islam (and Arabic-speakers) in North Africa in the seventh century was aided by a remnant population of Punic (Phoenician) speakers, whose language and culture would be more similar to Arabs than to their other neighbors. This, despite the fact that Carthage had been erased by the Romans in the second century BC, 800 years before; literally delenda, in the words of Scipio Aemilianus. Taleb says:

Many Greek Cypriots still speak the language called "Cypriot Maronite Arabic", that is, 12 centuries after their settlement and integration in the Greek side of the Island. Languages are stickier than we think (People tend to associate languages with states, when the correlation was low before 1917: around the Mediterranean, particularly in Asia Minor, languages had no link to the rule (Armenians spent thousands of years in the area between Cilicia to Aleppo, way past the lifetime of some "Armenian State";etc.).

There's more at the link, where I left a comment that I've expanded into this post. His argument is certainly an interesting parallel to the theory that Hellenistic Alexander unknowingly paved the way in the Near East for early Christianty. But what's really interesting about this is his observation that before the 20th century, state vs language correlation was very low. Something changed to allow states to become more effective at assimilating minorities, linguistic or otherwise, forcibly or otherwise. What was it?

For one thing, authoritarian states prior to the modern era didn't favor the development of patriotism. Why did it matter to autocrats if peasants liked being French or Chinese?   The autocrats and peasants were in different worlds, and the illiterate peasants would spend their entire lives within ten miles of where they were born all their lives, knowing the same hundred people.  In the same way, isolation of rulers from ruled as well as the fact that states didn't really transform the ruled's lives economically or socially, meant that languages and culture persist, despite swapping out rulers that look or talk differently.   Sure, today Spanish has a hard jota and some al- prefices, but that's not much to show for 750 years of Moorish occupation. And how many Mongol words are there in modern Russian? Hardly any, despite 250 years of rule.

Carthage. Ironically, the tourists walking around the ruins
are actually walking around the re-built Disneyland-Carthage
replacing the one leveled by the Romans - then
re-built by the Romans, ironically in part for Roman tourists.

That is not how it works today.  To put it bluntly, Yiddish has largely disappeared from Europe, for obvious reasons.  Why were the Nazis so much faster than than the Moors and the Mongols?  What changed is that in the 20th century, states starting putting in place the tools of the industrial age; not just weapons, but systematic organization and instruction. In the U.S., Native American children were shipped to Catholic schools that methodically removed their native languages from them (this idea in broad outline dates to Jefferson, who like Luther ministering to the Jews, found his disappointment in Indian disinterest in cultural conversion turn to full-on anger). Mass exterminations began, sometimes actually triggered by a spasmodic lurch toward modernity by a centralized authority, as in Turkey and Cambodia, although the latter didn't "disappear" an ethnic minority, but rather a socioeconomic class. Today the Chinese government is quite deliberately overrunning Tibetans and Uighurs with Han families. The power of the state has become much more transformative.  If you're American, ask how many conversations in native languages you've ever heard.  Just over four centuries ago those are the only languages you would have heard.

Whether Taleb's thesis about Punic-speakers' facilitation of Islam is correct, his observation about the relative persistence of culture in the ancient and modern worlds is well-taken. The effectiveness of states - that is, the amplification of ruling classes' ambitions that the technology of modern statehood allows - is not all positive. The Romans may have erased Cartharge but they didn't have the technology or ideas that allowed them to erase their culture. But the social engineers reporting today to Beijing that Lhasa delenda est don't need to signify their subtle conquest with a plow over the city's fallen walls, because success is clear in the measurable dilution of Tibetan culture with modern tools.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Kids Discount the Future More In Unreliable Environments

Previously I speculated that there is a vicious circle in cultures that systematically discount the future (as some do). Some parts of the world are better or worse at waiting for Mischel's marshmallow and delaying gratification. In parts of the world where life is very unpredictable, discounting the future may actually be a more rational strategy. It's plainly not as smart to wait another month for a 5% greater reward in, say, Congo as it is in South Korea. Unfortunately, in the aggregate, this kind of decision-making is likely to feed on itself and slow development.

As it turns out that, Kidd et al show in Cognition that at least on an individual basis, children do indeed more strongly discount the future more when that future is less predictable in the traditional Mischelian paradigm.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Is There Evidence That Prizes Influence Outcomes?

Some time ago I proposed that there be development prizes (halfway between the Nobel and the X-Prize) for development and democracy milestones.

But now the question is, do we have evidence that they actually influence their respective fields of endeavor? A brief search makes no mention of this, but then again, many of the bigger, older prizes don't have clear measurable goals.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Peter Turchin's 2020 Prediction

Peter Turchin (the would-be real-life Hari Seldon) has predicted, based on his theories of 50-year historical cyces, that 2020 will be an unstable and turbulent year for the U.S. (Review of his work War and Peace and War here.)

It will be very interesting to see if any anarchists or fundamentalists or other agitators 8 years from now cite Turchin as the reason they chose to make their move now. After all, one of Hari Sedon's rules for making psychohistorical predictions was that the population under observation could not know the predictions, lest they alter their behavior!

If you think this is unlikely, you may want to consider that there have already been people (you may recognize this guy and this guy too, and maybe even this one) influenced by Hari Seldon's theories, when they were still fiction.

Japan 8 Times More Likely to Have Nukes in 2014 Than 2013

At least, that's what the people at Intrade think at the moment. Acquisition by New Years Eve '12-13, 1.5%, and by NYE '13-'14 11.9%.

Intrade has no market for nuclear terrorism events in the U.S., no doubt in part because a prediction market doesn't function when the outcomes in question make the contract unenforceable. That said, most terrorism experts put it at beow 1% over the next decade, athough there is a broad range, and one places it as high as 29%. (Bunn, Matthew. 2006. A Mathematical Model of the Risk of Nuclear Terrorism. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science September: 103-20, and a good summary of multiple opinions here.)

Of the existential risks of liberal democracy, weapons of mass destruction present a less likely but more consequential risk than states' failure to budget sustainably. Whether this reality percolates down from the political heavens to voters that insist on making it a central issue in their political process seems to be, unfortunately, an entirely separate question.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Drone Technology: Institutions vs. Individuals

In this wired piece by Chris Anderson on the drone boom, he mentions that hobbyists are currently ahead of militaries. This is good, but not a permanent state of affairs. The clearest threat from drones is not the singularity (yet) but rather a world of ubiquitous surveillance if the drones are only in the hands of states.  Consequently we shouldn't be surprised when the legislatures of the world start making this technology illegal, except of course for state-controlled institutions. Frank Fukuyama, himself a drone enthusiast, has already expressed this concern.  Drone hobbyists would be well-advised to set online news alerts for "legislation" "drone", and organize pre-emptively in anticipation of the inevitable paranoia that politicians will promulgate through the media.

Maybe this is why Anderson's company 3D robotics has its headquarters in San Diego and a new manufacturing center in Tijuana, just across the international border.

Richard Posner Calls for Marijuana Legalization

Not a surprise that more and more respected legal and political minds are making this argument.  Here's the story.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Innovation and Education: A Reason for Slowing Growth?

A while back I argued that the increasing time to educate professionals able to create technical innovations (and therefore growth) could ultimate result in slowing economic growth. The Free Exchange blog at the Economist addresses this same argument. Curiously the piece also points out expensive San Francisco real estate and evidence for a face-to-face requirement for knowledge transfer (using patent metrics) - but these measures don't predict the future.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Some Problems in Turchin's War and Peace and War

Peter Turchin aims to be the real-life Hari Seldon, so it's admirable he gets the inevitable comparison out of the way early in the work. (If you're not familiar with Turchin and/or Seldon, go here and here respectively.) And the goal is an admirable one: model history mathematically. His arguments center on the consequences of interactions at culture frontiers between empires and their neighbors, on the mechanisms which cause state-decay from within, and on the crucial effect of metaethnic solidarity, which his macrohistorical predecessor Ibn Khaldun called asabiya.

Indeed one of the strongest values of the book for me was the synthesis of the two most famous works of macrohistory, namely Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Ibn Khaldun's Prolegomenon.  Turchin summarizes Khaldun as follows:  empires decline, former barbarians on the borders who were forced to organize are more vigorous, and either supplant the empire through conquest or infiltration, or surround and surpass them. Turchin's work can be seen as largely an expansion of Ibn Khaldun's.  Of course viewing the book's main value as an executive summary of a classic isn't necessarily a compliment, and even in Turchin's goals themselves there are issues. First, the fixation with the history of empires (which, granted, is interesting) is different than a focus on human flourishing, which is much more important. To be fair Turchin never implies that this is what he's doing but if you're going to model history, it seems a more worthy goal is a direct focus on happiness than grand sweeping armies.

Second, and I think far more damaging to the value of the book, the point of a model is to predict. Yes, it's interesting if a model that you built based on the Romans and Byzantines fits the Arabs, but the proof of the pudding (and its true value) is in forecasting the future. To this end he makes only two predictions: one, that if the Islamist Chechen incursion into the Russian Caucasus expands, this means the withering of the Russian state and the growth of a new imperial state will grow from the nucleus of the Chechen insurgency; and second, that China and the United States will be competitors in the twenty-first century. I don't think you need to be a macrohistorian to arrive at the second one. As to the first, while I don't take issue with a growing Chechen insurgency damaging the Russian state's legitimacy, I do find it dubious that an Islamic successor state in the Caucasus would be an "empire" or even a functioning state by any means. I refer to Fukuyama's argument that the Islamist movements of the world are desperate rear-guard measures that will have no lasting impact. To be a real state today you need a real economy, with a real, complex, technological industry. That is to say, the Taliban were never in any danger of building an empire in Afghanistan.

This brings up a point which Turchin half-makes, which is that Things Have Changed. He dedicates a chapter to the effect of cell phones, but I think international economic organizations, a world full of clearly defined borders and terrain, widely available media, and wealthy democratic countries dependent on value-adding labor and human capital might behave differently than the island-civilizations he's writing about. Today, there's just no equivalent to Rome and the Germans on the frontier, or Russians and the Mongols. The world is neatly divided up, everybody knows what everyone else is doing, and plunder does not equate to wealth. The Mongols were the last hurrah of the nomads, the last wave of horsemen emerging from central Eurasia, but since the fourteenth century the balance of strength has favored the sedentary since improving technology enables them to accumulate capital (and defenses) more than adequate to repel would-be marauders. (I'm suggesting here in contradiction to Turchin that it wasn't just the Russian frontierspeople's asabiya that helped them drive out the Mongols, it was improved farming and metalworking.) And yes, today there are certainly cultural fault lines revealed by the end of the Cold War, as Turchin alludes to by referencing Huntingdon, but there are no frontiers. This isn't Turchin's fault but the reader can't help but wonder if his theory still applies. If not, then I can continue predicting a dim future for his hypothetical Chechen Caliphate. 

The frontierless world we now occupy does raise the question of what mechanisms of competition, if any, apply to governments. Nation states are effectively a cartel, enabled by force and their monopoly on a finitely divisible resource (land) - this is a staple observation by many libertarian theorists who point out that such arrangements are much less voluntary than most of us would like. That I know of, this problem has not been discussed in the context of a recently frontierless world where there is no "correction" mechanism for weak, badly run states. Before, complacent despots at least feared finding themselves facing an invading horde that overran their badly-guarded borders. I don't favor a return to the system of state-level survival of the fittest - and in any event an enduring state is not necessary a pleasant one to live in - but one can't help but worry that a fickle and irrational electorate is enough to keep a large and complex modern state running well, when said modern state has, literally, nothing to worry about in terms of its continuing survival.  No barbarians are coming, and it can keep muddling along.

One of Turchin's objections to other theories of history and economics is the failure of rationally self-interested models to explain the mass behavior of humans with respect to their meta-ethnic groupings.  His claim is that asabiya would not exist in a rationally optimizing animal. This is flawed on several levels.

The first flaw is that pre-committed solidarity is actually a very powerful and therefore rational strategy - just not over "single-round games" for a single individual. In fact we see it in organisms besides humans (e.g. ants). These strategies rely on a) a pre-committed signal that one is a member of a group and b) behaving differently toward members of said group. (Richard Dawkins referred to this in hypothetical genetic terms as the green beard gene.) The emphasis on pre-commitment in humans is that our behavior is much more plastic. An ant is pre-programmed to attack those with a different scent; humans have more degrees of freedom. Consequently we rely on early life experiences (family and ethnic identification) that we can't choose to opt out of, because there's an emotional response built into us that remains with us for life, like it or not. Individually and in single round games, this behavior seems irrational, but in the aggregate and over indefinite rounds (in the massively multiplayer game of real-life) it's very powerful. Indeed a lot of human behavior that seems irrational in isolation is actually pre-programmed game-theoretic heuristics that make sense over multiple rounds; e.g. that we are willing to punish wrongdoers even when such punishment costs us and doesn't reverse the crime. (The point? Stop future wrongdoers!) The more generalized solution for human behavior is that we maximize utility, which is partly calculated with money, and partly with feeling different degrees of good or bad about helping or hurting human beings that we have varying connections to.

The second flaw is that it's difficult to imagine the motivations of the peasants that Turchin describes as "patriotic" in any sense that we would recognize.  Patriotism is a relatively recent development. A Chinese emperor didn't much care if peasants were patriotic Chinese - and why would an absolute monarch, as most rulers were throughout history, give a damn? What would the peasants do about it?  There are also considerable direct costs to not risking one's life to go to war - censure from neighbors (or outright violence), plus throughout history people were making these decisions based on poor information, plus in the desperate poverty that existed throughout most of history, the chance at plunder or a few dollars from a royal coffer may have been a better bet than staying at home barely subsisting on the feudal lord's land.  All this is to say that the medieval Russian farmers that he focuses on never had a choice to say, "I could peacefully trade with other Russian farmers, or Mongol merchants. I shall choose the Russian farmers out of ethnic solidarity." It was economic reality that drove them. Since Turchin is more realistic about the economic forces that drove change in thirteenth-fourteenth century Europe (climate shfit and plague), you would think he would be less prone to romanticizing. That said, culture does matter - it profoundly affects institutions and delay of gratification, and therefore wealth and happiness. The two options on this question, both unpalatable to the politically correct, are that either culture is pointless noise and mere window-dressing, or it has an impact on material well-being. Russian peasants chose to accumulate agricultural wealth and defend their land while Mongols continued raiding. The farmers' successor state today is much bigger and more successful than the Mongols'. An accumulation of coincidences, or a real trend?

A final shortcoming is that Turchin makes a common mistake by correlating two high-level characteristics of societies by cherry-picking; in this case, that the more central a government a region or state had over time, the less overlapping levels of status and trust there will be and therefore the worse the institutions and economic situation will be. (There are other lines of thought converging on the conclusion that multiple overlapping status hierarchies are good.) Talk about cherry-picking; Turchin refers to a specific book about Italy for this argument. True, people have applied similar arguments to the success of Japan and England (multiple feudal states kept decentralized and weak by a remote-from-the-people monarch intentionally keeping the mid-level nobility weak), and to China vs. Europe - yet is England really that much better off than France as a result? As a "dissident" libertarian, I frequently point out that for markets to work you need some commons, and for that you need some centralized functioning government. Otherwise, Nepal and Somalia would be veritable Galt's Gulch-paradises of innovation and venture capital, and guess what? They're not. What about far eastern Siberia for that matter? People who make the kind of argument Turchin is making (about anything, not just economics) usually respond by saying that you need "just the right amount" of centralization. Which is to say, the amount that England and Japan and Northern Italy have is the right amount because they're all successful, except a) that turns it into a completely atheoretic, circular, empirical argument and b) their centralization is in fact all different.

A final observation: despite taking issue elsewhere, I was very happy to see a historian observing that we should be circumspect in our weighting of Machiavelli's the Prince as either an accurate historical document or an effective political manual, since Machiavelli was after all writing it in exile. Why should we listen to this guy? He was a screw-up!

Friday, August 3, 2012

How to Game Status Hierarchies

At Meteuphoric, Katja Grace recently wrote about the fragmentation of status hierarchies.  Briefly:  because humans want to protect and expand their status, they do strange things, i.e., every shooting by a disgruntled employee in the process of being let go.  Status is a positional good - every move you make up the ladder is a move down for everyone else - so one strategy to game the system is to split off into a new hierarchy.

Ever notice that most people don't spend extra time in the company of their work colleagues?   (Unless, oddly enough, they're at or near the top.)  And ever wonder why CEOs and department chairs are less frequently involved in "extracurricular" hobby-type groups?  Well, why would they?  They already have all the status they need!  They LIKE being at work for that very reason.  Once they retire of course, that's a different story.

One interesting thing about living in a modern wealthy society is that status is for sale - we can now buy our way into status hierarchies.  Hence Harley Davidson-types, and brand-crazy shop-aholic women, and beer enthusiasts, and young people who define themselves by what genre of music they listen to. The down-side is that in this wealthy society, we can define ourselves by what we consume rather than what we produce. Whatever happened to people saying, "I'm a plumber" or "I'm the assistant manager" and taking that seriously and proudly?   What happened is we now define ourselves by what we consume, rather than what we produce, because that's the best way for us to maintain status.  This makes it less mystifying that people signal these kinds of things with bumper stickers, T-shirts, etc. Thanks for telling me you run marathons with your clever 26.2 sticker, I would've died if I didn't know that!

Two asides:  the single thing about the country of Japan that impresses me most is people continuing to take their responsibilities seriously and defining themselves by their production activities, regardless of their positions in status hierarchies.  Second, as a nontraditional medical student, I'm often struck by certain strangenesses of medical culture.  For isntance, it's striking how completely most physicians and medical students are socially absorbed into the world of medicine, with no friends outside that hierarchy - mention your significant other,  and the next question is always, "Is s/he a doctor/medical student too?"  (Does this happen with librarians?  Mechanics?  Publicists?)  In fact, maybe I'm paranoid, but I often feel I'm regarded as arrogant and/or clueless for having the majority of my social life outside of medicine, since for my sanity I choose to remain as active as I can in all the realms of my pre-med school life.  Maybe that's another way of saying that I'm older and my ego is fully formed so I'm not as worried about what the faculty and other students think of me, which is maybe another way of saying I don't want the status demotion entailed in going from a successful professional in another field to the bottom of the totem pole - so I spend all that time with all those people outside my profession to preserve my status.  (While I'm on my rotations, I intentionally spend time thinking about who I'm going to see and what I'm going to do when I get away from the hospital.  When I forget to do this I seem to get irritable and depressed.)

People have offensive and defensive strategies to protect and improve their status.  Offensive ones are actively cultivating social circles where our comparative advantages are valued and give us status as mentioned above, although it doesn't have to be consumerist as I've described here.  There's also the defensive approach of being part of multiple status hierarchies, in order to spread social risk across them.  Have a falling out with your poker buddies?  Fine, spend more time with work or your bird-watching friends!  This is what Jaron Lanier and Stephen Pinker were discussing when they suggested that the decrease in global violence could be the result of multiple overlapping status hierarchies.

Finally, there's probably also an element of trying to keep social circles manageable based on our hunter-gatherer hardware.  I personally find it more gratifying to work at companies that are at or under the Dunbar Number, than I do at the Toyotas and Googles of the world.

One final speculation:  in general, it's a good idea to stay out of zero-sum games.  In my experience, it seems that the smarter people are, the less interested they are in playing status games, almost in an instinctive way.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

More on the Coast-Interior Divide

From here.  Many of these currently unemployed were "masked" by the housing boom in the late 90s and aughts.  And do we think the economy will be more or less based on human capital (and education) ten years from now?  An interesting metric is education-years per square mile, which has been shown to correlate better with per capita patents than just average education.  Seattle has higher average education than San Francisco but SF is denser, and produces more patents.

A low-education, low-density area shows little promise for economic growth, and produces voting patterns that aren't promising in terms of rescuing things.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Real, New Polarization in the U.S.: Coast vs. Interior

Until 1980 or so, the political coalition that formed the Democratic Party was a strange one.  Liberals aligned with blue collar industrial labor and conservative Southerners who were still sore over the Civil War.  Nixon's Southern Strategy changed that.  By the 1990s the Republican Party had absorbed the culture conservatives in the South, and it's now been argued, we're back to our national pre-1865 condition:  a country whose politics is polarized along clear regional lines.  This does not bode well for functioning government in a two-party system where there is never a reason to compromise.

But is it really a North-South divide?  One could forgive a naive but observant foreigner for looking at this population-weighted map of the 2008 election and thinking it's really the coasts vs. the interior, with an island in the north just west of the Great Lakes (the Madison-Minneapolis axis):

Now that not just financial but human capital is highly mobile, the increasing division is between the educated social liberals on the coast and the trade workers in the interior. The exchange has slowed down over the past five years; we've gotten to where we're going. Note also that if you live on the coast and you just can't believe the dismal economic prospects you keep hearing plumbers and factory workers talking about in the's because you live on the coast. The structural unemployment of semi-skilled and unskilled labor that was masked for a decade by the housing boom is now back in full force, and it's not going anywhere.

The final irony is that the liberals on the coasts (who, by this categorization, I am one of) have created policies which make housing scarce, attract high-earning professionals who further drive up prices, and accelerate this polarization. Everywhere near saltwater is becoming San Francisco and New York in terms of their housing markets. California is a perfect example, and is no longer the most non-Malthusian territory on the planet; the easy living in Beach Boys songs doesn't resemble the state that I see today. Just ask a middle class family that's moved out of California and headed for the interior. Emigration was greater than immigration from 2000-2009, and for the first time since the Gold Rush, there are more native-born Californians here than immigrants like myself. I am a high-earning professional* from the other coast. Coincidence? That pattern you see from the 2008 election is going to repeat itself for several decades at least. *I was, and will be again once I finish this damn MD.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Sacred Texts Are Never Really Sacred

On similar ground it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. - Thomas Jefferson

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Map of U.S. Postal Codes Connected Sequentially

ZipScribbles by Robert Kosara.

When I was young I wondered if all the ZIP codes connected in order, and wanted to walk them in that order.  Even if they did I wouldn't want to now.  Woe adulthood!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Uruguay May Legalize Marijuana

WSJ story here.  Vacation time!  Remember to set your watches ahead by 4:20.  (ZING!)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

British Columbia Court Upholds Physician-Assisted Suicide

If you don't own yourself, what else matters?  In most of the developed world we aren't allowed to ask a medical professional to help us decide when we no longer want to exist - the state thinks it's wiser in this regard.  One more sub-national entity is on the side of reason, for now.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Baseball Debated Longer in Senate than Iraq War

A Reddit post highlights the childishness of American legislative bodies with regards to professional sports.  These trials get the kind of attention from legislative bodies that should be reserved for government scandals.  Even John McCain fell prey to this in the last decade when he proposed a Federal commission on boxing.  Why not a Federal NASCAR Commission then?  A Federal Video Game Commission?

Professional sports are not government agencies.  We don't need the Feds or anyone else wasting our money and attention on regulating them.

The Transparency-of-Agriculture Theory of State Emergence

A commonly held theory of the emergence of states is that agricultural surplus encouraged the development of complex political structures.  Previously I outlined a theory that agricultural production which requires organization is the trigger for state formation.  Most of the time this happens with agriculture in marginal environments (deserts or desert-adjacent areas) which require irrigation and coordination with annual weather events, and explains why states don't emerge in rich environments (like volcanic temperate rainforests>) which would otherwise be more intuitive.  In China, this occurred because the crop that was adopted and fit the local environment was labor-intensive.  That is:  in all these examples, food production and organization emerged together and created a positive feedback loop.
A new theory holds that agricultural production makes food (and neolithic wealth) transparent, and enables the kleptocratic aspect of states.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Almost All Wines Taste the Same, Even to Experts

Report and data here, commentary here.  New Jersey has scored a coup in the wine world just like Napa did in the 1970s.

It may be that there's nothing special about fermented grape juice as a beverage, relative to other alcoholic drinks.  In its current context, tasting wine signals class and erudition and time invested in culture; so for developing a taste in wine to be rational, the status signaling effects must outweigh the costs of (otherwise foolishly) making your marginal unit of pleasure more difficult to obtain.  Of course that latter consideration might not matter at all if it all tastes the same.

Monday, April 30, 2012

FDA Comparisons Continue

Dan Ariely continues the thought experiment - first, FDA for the software industry, and now FDA for the financial industry.

Friday, April 27, 2012

FDA Now Regulating (and Slowing) Phone App Development

For those of you suspicious of efforts to make the FDA's mission more rational and helpful to future patients (here and here), here's a story about how the agency is dramatically slowing (and making more expensive!) health-related smartphone app development. This is what we should expect more of, in more industries, as technology advances and allows more integration between different sectors. Do we really want more of this? When even the former head of an agency thinks that agency should be re-tooled, you can bet there's a real case to be made.

Monday, April 23, 2012

University of Florida: Looking Ahead to the Future

The University of Florida is eliminating its computer science department to save $1.7 million. The same university's athletic program increased $2 million from last year to this year. Clearly, this is an administration that is looking ahead to the economy of tomorrow.

James Fallows rightly points out the larger context of this decision, pointing out that the university is getting less and less funding from the state, and they're desperate. My own school (UCSD) is in the same boat as the other UC's, and as U of FL - fortunately for me, UCSD has no sports program to draw off the state's diminishing support. What's ironic is that there is literally no surer investment in a growing state economy than a good university, and yet somehow these are exactly the institutions that are getting cut.

There needs to be a clear, strong-message study or PR campaign showing how good universities = good economy. These kinds of stupid decisions are going to continue as long as the electorate values bowl wins over strong academic and professional programs.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Richard Lee of Oaksterdam University

It being 4/20 and all, this afternoon I decided to take a break and walk from my office over to Coffeeshop Blue Sky in Oakland - the outlet for Oaksterdam University. You may recall that Oaksterdam University, although completely in compliance with state law and in fact a revenue source for the city, was raided by armed Federal agents recently. (Why fight a legal battle when you can intimidate and drive out of business, right?) And when I was buying my espresso, Richard Lee, the founder and hero of the institution, happened to appear. He was kind enough to pose for a picture with yours truly:

When I asked him what private citizens could do, he named several organizations to support, among them LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) and the California Medical Association, both of which are pro-legalization. The latter of course is of special interesting to me as a medical student. It's really strange that the public continues to tolerate lawyers ignoring the recommendations of medical professionals in ways that infringe their personal freedoms.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Is Gold the Best Currency?

Economists go through the periodic table to explain why gold ended up used as currency. Here is a similar approach, but the conclusion is not as inexorable as the economists state. The properties of the element are important, but don't entirely answer the question; a large amount of it is historical inertia, and our quirks as primates.

A Great Sentence: Identity and Consumption

"...Americans increasingly defined themselves by what they bought rather than what they did, and this shift of emphasis proved deeply damaging over time." From Walter Russell Mead.

This is probably at least partly driven by the rise of youth consumer culture, allowed by increased disposable income. Kids and young adults are much more likely to measure and identify themselves by bands, clothing, and recreational equipment than by their grades, college major or productive pursuits. This continues in adulthood, more clothing, luxury cars and food, and sports teams. It's not new that we want something for nothing - in this case, high status without effort or merit - but what is new is that we can think we're getting it, at least in the short-term. This also might offer an explanation for why young people seem driven to more and more obscure bands and tastes - the more isolated your taste, the more secure your position in your self-defined status hierarchy.

This is certainly not a tirade against the possibility of mass production and the commercialization of experience - this process has without a doubt improved our lives and continued to improve our lives. The side effect is that consumerism has made us need instant gratification everywhere - even in our status hierarchy - and consumption can provide for this need.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Great Get Together

Last Saturday night I had the pleasure of meeting Katja Grace and Robin Hanson in person, as well as the gracious host and several others who came to the meetup. The price of the evening was having my ass handed to me in the game Condotierre. Given my lack of facility in board games, I can console myself by saying that there is no honor to be gained by defeating the likes of me.

As I said during the evening, clearly I am trying to signal status in the blogosphere through afiliation.