Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The House of Representatives is not Working Well!

Only around 17 out of 435 U.S, House of Representatives seats—less than 4%—will be competitive in November’s mid-terms. Even if one includes members who are retiring, resigning or have lost primaries, only 67 of 435 seats are in flux.

The Democrats won more votes than Republicans in the 2012 House elections but ended up with 33 fewer seats.
The graph shown on the right above is from an article in The Economist. It shows that there are now very few districts in the United States that elect someone from one party to the House of Representatives and also vote for a candidate from the other party for president -- many fewer than  in the 1990s. The graph on the left shows that the number of swing districts (that might reasonably be expected to elect either a Democrat or a Republican) has been reduced in this century.

The article provides several partial explanations. There are more gerrymandered districts, planned with the aid of new computer technology to be safe for one or the other party. People are tending to live in politically more homogeneous clusters -- Democrats choosing more often to live where other Democrats choose to live; Republicans choosing to live where other Republicans choose to live.
Unfortunately the moderates are more likely to stay at home on election day than partisans on either side. In the 2010 mid-terms only 41% of eligible voters found their way to a polling booth, making the country look more divided than it is.
The Congress has been gridlocked. I believe that the gridlock -- caused by party block voting and unwillingness to compromise to get legislation that will pass House, Senate and White House-- is caused by these structural issues in how the members of the House of Representatives are elected.

The solutions:

  • Reduce gerrymandering: "California and Florida passed constitutional amendments to curb partisan gerrymandering in 2010. On July 10th a judge in Florida ruled that the GOP’s creative cartography there had broken the law."
  • Those who have not been voting but are mad at the way the Congress is failing to work should get out and vote. The non-voting registered Democrats and registered Republicans are unlikely to be a rigid in their political views as those who have been voting; the independent voters should vote for the more centrist and moderate candidates.

Thoughts on beginning The Sleepwalkers

I am enjoying reading The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark, a book highly recommended by a couple of friends. The book focuses on how an assassination in 1914 resulted in the first world war. I am about half way through the book -- the portion in which Clark describes how governments came to operate by 1914.


It occurs to me that the background to this book, which the author probably assumes the reader will already know, is that the first wave of globalization had been going on for some three-quarters of a century.

That globalization had been made possible by advances in technology, including railroads, steamships and the telegraph. So too, the industrial revolution had resulted in a great increase in the capacity to produce some goods (tied to the development of larger markets by the development of transportation infrastructure), and an increased demand of raw materials for the production of those goods (that could not be brought to the manufacturing hub by that transportation infrastructure).

This globalization was accompanied by the the growth of empires, especially colonial empires. Thus a number of countries tried to create international trading systems via conquest of less developed areas, turning those conquered areas into colonies. The imperial country did so utilizing its advantage in guns and steel (see Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond). The industrial revolution allowed production of large amounts of cloth and clothing and other manufactured goods in the home country which could be exported to its colonies, which in turn provided food and raw material to the home country.

Colonialism in 1914. This map shows the world's major empires on the eve of World War I. The focus of European colonialism has shifted to the Eastern Hemisphere, and neo-European United States has become a colonial power in its own right, seizing some of declining Spain's possessions. After the war, much of the Ottoman Empire's territory was divided up among Britain and France, while Germany lost its overseas possessions to the victorious nations. China's power was severely weakened by the ongoing fall of the Qing Dynasty. based on a map by Wikimedia/Andrei nacu
This Led to Complexity

The book suggests the complexity of foreign policy. Japan and Russia were competing in the east, seeking to acquire territory from China. Russia and Britain were competing in central Asia. Russia sought to acquire rights to control passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean from the Ottomans. France was willing to allow Italy to acquire Libya from the Ottomans in return for Italian support for France's acquisition of Morocco, and was willing to give Germany assurances of protection of its businesses in Morocco and land in sub-Saharan Africa for the same purpose. Russian concerns in east and central Asia limited its ability to oppose Germany. The duality between Austria and Hungary was complicated in itself, and the Austro-Hungarian empire faced the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, and Russia in the east. Britain was competing not only with Russia as described above, but with Germany and France in Africa. I could go on, but you see that these expansionist empires were rubbing up against each other all over the globe. An action in support of one country in one region  of the world could have ramifications in other regions, and eventually with other countries.

Clearly if all the other empires ganged up against any one of them, that empire would be in trouble. Consequently, empires tended to form alliances. Only an alliance of empires might resist another alliance of different countries. The alliances varied over time, but the major ones in the early 20th century were the Triple Alliance (among Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy) and a network of alliances among Britain, France and Russia. France and Britain would be successful in removing Italy from its alliances with Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I.

Political Institutions

The political institutions were different in different empires. However, many were monarchies in which the monarchs shared power with an aristocratic elite. A revolution in China replaced its monarchy with a republican government in 1912. The Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman and Russian monarchies fell during or as a result of World War I. (It is tempting to believe that they were the most fragile.)

  • Monarchs sometimes acted as if they actually believed that they enjoyed divine right to rule. 
  • Cabinets often were divided into feuding factions. Usually they were insulated from public opinion and pressure.
  • Diplomats were often in opposition to their foreign ministers and prime ministers, and sometimes ambassadors would make foreign policy themselves.
  • The military and the foreign policy establishments were often competing for influence and resources.
  • Governments sometimes paid for press support, both within their own countries and other countries.
Policies shifted due to changes in staff, and ministers could change often, but also due to changes in the power and influence among different factions in government. When monarchs were interested in foreign policy and especially when they had  strong support in the cabinet or bureaucracy, they could strongly influence policy; if the monarch then had changeable opinions or easily diverted attention, policies could change rapidly.

In these conditions it became very hard for governments to understand and predict the responses of other governments. Not only were governments opaque and their policies subject to change, but diplomatic reports could be biased. Deception was used by governments to disguise their purposes from other governments. Sometimes the foreign press was used as a divining rod to guess at the positions of foreign governments.

Author Clark's narrative leads one to be grateful that heads of government are now elected; monarchs could by totally incompetent and dangerous, but to be elected a politician has to have some competence and should be less likely to be dangerous. So too, Clark's narrative makes one glad that government policy is more open to meritocratic selection rather than restricted to aristocrats, and that bureaucracies are more professional.

Still, my experience in government suggests that many of Clark's insights about government before World War I remain remarkably relevant to current governments.

Deeper Processes

I wonder whether the 20th century was experiencing an institutional change in response to a technological change. The new technologies of the 19th and 20th century made global commerce more and more possible. If institutions could be built to support that commerce, the magic of comparative advantage would increase the benefits available to producers and consumers.

Colonialism came to be replaced by global markets. (Communism, with its central planning, was an option that many believed appropriate, but which failed in practice.) The European and other common markets have come to the fore, allowing free exchanges over large geographic areas.

Similarly, monarchies came to be replaced by more democratic political institutions -- which were more able to provide good governance. Colonial empires have disappeared, while large nation-states (China, India, the USA, Indonesia, Brazil) have survived -- perhaps due to their geographic compactness and/or their efforts to bring a national consciousness to their multi-ethnic populations. Some institutions such as the United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank (and at least 1000 other intergovernmental organizations) have been created to provide governance functions beyond those of the nation state. 

Perhaps the specific events that historians so like to recount are less influential than the "economic imperative" that makes it profitable to improve economic institutions to better utilize technological advances, and that require improved political institutions to govern the economic institutions, finance the public investments needed to utilize the new technologies, and better distribute the gains. Of course, the fact that the 20th century saw a huge increase in schooling made possible by the more efficient production and distribution of goods and services also played its role in cultural development, providing support for the new technologies and political and economic institutions.

Research Results vs. Popular Opinion -- GMOs

I quote from a recent article on GMO foods:
The facts about GMOs and the science of biotechnology are indisputable. In an effort to catalog the science on GMOs, a team of Italian scientists summarized nearly 2,000 studies about the safety and environmental impact of GMO foods. These scientists could not find a single instance where GMO food posed any harm to humans or animals. GMOs are safe and healthy. 
Studies over the past 30 years -- by such groups as the World Health Organization, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Academies of Science -- have produced no evidence of health or safety harms. On the contrary, all of them have concluded that GMOs are as safe as, or safer than, conventional or organic foods. Recently, Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project explained on the John Stossel program that "we've eaten about 7 trillion meals in the 18 years since GMOs first came on the market. There's not one documented instance of someone getting so much as a sniffle."

Screw Up Tree Analysis

I tend to believe screw ups happen more often than conspiracies. This if the inexplicable happens, look for an explanation in multiple screw ups. The screw up tree can help to create a satisfying explanation.

Let me give you an example. Lets assume the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 that crashed in Ukraine was shot down by a guided missile fired by an insurgent. Then there were two proximate screw ups that resulted in the disaster:

  • that insurgent must have screwed up, firing by mistake at a civilian airliner, AND
  • the pilot must has screwed up, flying his commercial flight over a war zone.
However, there would have been more distal screw ups. Why did the insurgent screw up?
  • the person who trained him how to use the missile launcher screwed up, letting him loose when the insurgent still did not know how to avoid using the launchers to shoot down commercial airline flights, AND
  • someone screwed up and approved the delivery of the missiles and launcher to insurgent forces that were not use them well.
Similarly, the pilot (who presumably had the ultimate responsibility for selecting the flight path) screwed up, either because
  • he screwed up and decided on his own to take his flight over a war zone
  • someone in the airline management screwed up and decided that the cost of a longer flight path was not justified to avoid the risk of flying over the Ukrainian war zone, OR
  • someone in the airline screwed up and didn't tell the pilot he was supposed to take a southern path avoiding the Syrian and Ukrainian war zones.
Of course, each of these screw ups would have still more distant screw ups that contributed to the ultimate disaster.

Think how you will amaze your friends providing detailed screw up trees for future disasters.

This is what I got when I used Google image
to search for "screw up tree".
p.s. You will note that contrary to the speaking heads on TV, I will not guess as to what happened in sky over  Ukraine. The intelligence community is suitably cautious in coming to conclusions, and the administration spokespersons are suitably cautious in relaying that intelligence estimate.

I have heard that both the Ukrainians and Russians have missiles and launchers that could have been used to bring down the MH17. Assuming that one or the other was used, then how would the screw up analysis work?

  • If Russians provided the Ukrainian insurgents with the rockets and launcher then someone in Russia screwed up deciding to make the transfer, AND probably someone in the Ukraine screwed up putting the system in the hands of someone who screwed up using it.
  • If the rockets and launcher were obtained from a Ukrainian base, someone screwed up failing to guard them from possible capture by the insurgents, AND probably the guys who captured the rockets and launcher screwed up by putting them in the hands of someone who screwed up using it.

Forecasting can be useful, but only if done well

An article in The Economist is partially based on a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by David Mandel and Alan Barnes. Those researchers
analysed more than 1,500 intelligence forecasts produced by a nameless (but presumably Canadian) agency, covering the period from March 2005 to December 2011. 
Their results suggest that the old joke about “military intelligence” being an oxymoron is unfair. When they compared what the analysts had said with what actually came to pass, they found that the predictions were right about three-quarters of the time. Cynics might wonder if the analysts merely restricted themselves to easy cases, but Dr Mandel and Dr Barnes also found they were good at calibrating their judgments. Events they deemed unlikely did not happen often, whereas those they thought likely occurred frequently. Indeed, if anything they were underselling themselves, tending to err more than necessary on the side of uncertainty. And there was evidence that their skills could be learnt—for more-experienced analysts tended to do better than their junior counterparts........
Unlike pundits, who can pontificate from the safety of their armchairs, analysts know that their advice is likely to have consequences in the real world. Drs Mandel and Barnes found that analysts’ inherent underconfidence became even more pronounced when confronting particularly important or difficult questions.
Analysts must also defend their claims to managers, who are trained to be sceptical, and to their political masters. Other studies have shown such accountability encourages careful thinking and reduces self-serving cognitive biases.
The Economist article contrasts this research with
a famous earlier finding. In 2005 Philip Tetlock, a management theorist at the University of Pennsylvania, announced the results of a 20-year study in which 284 experts—professors, journalists, civil servants and so forth—were invited to make more than 28,000 predictions. Their performance was abysmal: barely better than chance, and inferior even to simple computer algorithms......... Dr Tetlock found that the more famous his pundits were, the worse they did.
These data are worth keeping in mind. The talking heads one sees on television and the prognostications one reads in the media (or worse in blogs) are often wrong. Intelligence agencies often do a lot better! President Obama is probably working from much better forecasts than those that might be available to you. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

RSA Animate - Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us

The video makes the point, which seems reasonable to me, that the best way to motivate behavior depends on the behavior you want to motivate.

  • If you want more production in work that requires only mechanical skills and does not require creativity and innovation but simply effort, pay more for more work.
  • If you want more and better production in work that requires cognitive skills, pay enough that the worker doesn't need to worry about pay and then motivate by providing autonomy, the chance to achieve mastery, and a significant purpose for the work.
My experience suggests that the way good performance is developed in science and technology is to provide workers with jobs with a middle class standard of living (including the status that comes with entry into the middle class), and then giving them autonomy to develop their ideas, the chance to get better and better at their work, and problems to work on that they find important, challenging and interesting.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The OECD predicts the changing pattern of world trade

This figure is from an interesting OECD site -- filled with interactive graphics -- titled "Policy challenges for the next 50 years".

Thursday, July 17, 2014


Can analysis make crowds more accurate?

There is an interesting article in the MIT Technology Review on an experiment done at the Cajal Institute in Madrid, Spain. The article deals with a phenomenon termed "the wisdom of  the crowd". If you ask a lot of people drawn at random to estimate a quantitative value such as the weight of a specific person or the distance between two geographic places, the average of the guesses is likely to be closer to the actual value than almost all of the individual guesses.

Researchers Madirolas and De Polavieja considered a situation in which people would be asked to judge such a value. They would then be shown the estimate made by another group, and asked again for their judgment of the true value. Some people, more confident in their own  original judgment would make small adjustments in the value; others, less confident, would make greater adjustments. The researchers found in an experiment, as they had hypothesized, that the more confident group would on average make a better estimate than the less confident group. They provided a mathematical adjustment to readjust the estimates of the less confident -- as shown in the figure above.

I think race track betting is an example of this phenomenon of the wisdom of the crowd. Parimutual odds have been shown to provide rather good estimates of the probabilities of each horse winning the race. Thus horses that run at one to five odds tend to win about one race in six; those that run at one to nine odds tend to win about one race in ten. There will be some very good handicappers in the crowd who will be confident in their own judgment, but there will also be a lot of novices who bet on the colors of the silks of the riders or on horses whose names they like. Showing the odds as calculated by the parimutual machines at a track will perhaps move the novice betters toward the more accurate odds estimates of the good handicappers. (The good handicappers are likely still to do better on the day than the novices.)