05 Feb

A Strange Blip in History

 

Make Death Proud to Take Us

Make Death Proud to Take Us

The future history of “The Fourth Fleet” (available in the anthologies Make Death Proud to Take Us and There Will Be War: Volume X) makes several assumptions about the course of historical development over the next century or so. However, they were intentionally left out of the story. They weren’t immediately relevant, and including them would have bogged the story down.

A big part of the setting of “The Fourth Fleet” is the course of history of the United States between now and the time of the story. The United States of America, at the time of the story (the specific year is intentionally left off in order to give me maximum story flexibility, but assume that it’s roughly 150 years from now) is no longer the nation that we think of today. It’s borders have changed but also – and more importantly – its government has changed. It is no longer a democratically representative republic. Unlike the government of today, which more often than not acts as an empire, the government of my future world is an empire. However, much like the Roman Empire of old, it strives hard to maintain all appearances of still being a constitutionally limited republic.

Some examples: President Covington is currently serving his fifth four year term in office. Before that, he finished out the term of his predecessor. It’s an open secret that he had his predecessor assassinated, but nobody very much minds because the man was a Nero-like lunatic. He was “elected” by the people in sham contests that garnered him vast majorities of the votes. He will never lose an election in the system as it exists in the books.

Simultaneously, the geopolitical landscape around the USA has changed. In the early twenty-first century, the powder keg we call the Middle East exploded (hmm…). After a time of constant warfare, much of the region was finally forcibly united under a single ruling warlord calling himself the Caliph, and the new Caliphate was born. World War between the US, Japan and Europe on the one hand and the Caliphate on the other left Europe mostly a smoldering husk, including a few literally nuked cities. It is no longer a hub of civilization.

China rose – but not as fast as many feared. Despite the calamity facing the rest of the world, China had its own issues – including economic issues that are unfurling now in the real world and massive wars for Asian dominance against India, Russia, and Japan.

Thus in the story you have a sort of triumvirate of global (and extra-global, as it is a space story) powers: the US, China and India. The severely weakened but not destroyed Caliphate tries to play in this power game as well, but is most often lagging behind.

I would’ve liked to have worked more of this directly into the story. But the reality is that it would’ve bogged it down quite a bit. Even here in this form it took 460 words to very briefly summarize. The entire tale of “The Fourth Fleet” is a mere 8,017 words. Expanding the story by literally 6% (probably more after working it into the story cleanly) just to add this backstory would have ended up being cumbersome, and the reader would have bogged down in details that were only loosely relevant.

Instead, the story provides quite a bit of clues to give the reader just enough of a framework to figure out the major balance of power. It then leaves the rest to the reader’s imagination.

There’s another part of the backstory that I don’t particularly mind didn’t make it into the tale, because it really was irrelevant to this particular story. I am also strongly of the opinion that the Protestant Reformation is an aberration (albeit it one triggered with good justification) and that eventually (perhaps much sooner than many would think) the majority of Protestants will find themselves rejoining the fold in the mother Church. The Church will eventually come to regard this as “that weird little heresy that lasted for a short blip there.” The church thinks on different timescales than you and I. To a two thousand year old church, five hundred years just isn’t the same thing as it is to us mortals.

There Will Be War: Volume X

There Will Be War: Volume X

I also believe that the Church will find itself mending the Great Schism and reconciling with the Orthodox churches, although that will likely be more complicated. The Great Schism wasn’t primarily over issues of doctrine; it’s proximate cause was political conflict with Rome. Egos will have to be soothed and face maintained. But I believe that will eventually happen.

Within the context of the world of “The Fourth Fleet,” the churches largely reunite when a future pope calls for a new Crusade to respond to the potentially world-ending threat of a nuclear armed new Caliphate.

Interesting as it may be, all of this is just the speculation of a sci-fi author, right? Maybe.

Then again, maybe not.

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02 Feb

Trump Should Buy the Farm

Well that was certainly interesting.

Results are in from last night’s Iowa caucuses, and the media is in full spin mode. The general analysis looks ludicrous to me, so here’s my own take.

Democratic Primary

We’ll start with the Democratic Party because it’s simpler over there.

Hillary Clinton: She eked out the narrowest of wins last night, but this result is terrible for her. It’s nearly as bad as an actual loss, and maybe even worse. Somebody on Twitter last night posited that the good news for Hillary was that the news from the Republican side dominated the airwaves. That’s only last night. On the Democratic side, all anyone will be talking about is that Bernie very nearly pulled it off. It’s the big talk on the airwaves for the next week, and it doesn’t help Hillary. It’s claimed that she let out a sigh of relief last night. She shouldn’t have. Last night is just the start. This is going to be a long primary season for her.

Bernie Sanders: The only thing better for Bernie than last night would’ve been a huge victory. This is just as good for him as a narrow win would’ve been. Bernie is a serious candidate, and he just proved it. He’s guaranteed that it will be a long fight for the nomination, and he very well might be snatching it from Hillary’s harpy hands. He battled the machine down to an effective draw in the first battle, and will likely crush it in the rematch in New Hampshire. That’s a powerful narrative.

Republican Primary

Ted Cruz: As the winner, this is clearly good for him. But how good is it? I’m not one to dwell on how many times Iowa has “gotten it wrong.” It doesn’t matter – every race is different, and that’s a correlation-doesn’t-equal-causation effect. But up until the last week or so, he was the odds on favorite to win Iowa. It’s is ideal terrain for the fight, and yet he still only squeezed out the win by 3%. The RCP average still has him down by 22 points in New Hampshire and 17 in South Carolina. That’s a lot of ground for an Iowa bump to cover.  Final verdict? A good night for Cruz, but don’t get cocky.

Donald TrumpMake no mistake, a win would’ve been better – a lot better. But this is still a good result for Donald Trump. For the last month the talking heads have spun the theory that Trump’s support in the polls somehow “isn’t real.” Last night he finished within the margin of error of the polls, which proves that it’s definitely real. It also proves that if winning Iowa had been his main goal, he should’ve invested in a better ground game. He didn’t, and we all know it. If he had? There’s a good chance he could’ve won this. We now know that his 22 point lead in New Hampshire is big enough that he’ll still win in a landslide even if his voters are at the low end of the polling error margins again. But this time around that’s less likely. The New Hampshire primary is not a Caucus. The ground game still matters, but much less so. Forget the spin: last night was good but not great for The Donald.

Final verdict? He should buy the farm in Iowa. It’s all anybody would talk about for a week or more if he did it, guaranteeing him the airwaves again. And he could almost certainly sell it at a profit after the election merely by marketing it as “the farm that Trump bought.”

Marco Rubio: The best night that he could’ve hoped for. There’s no way he was going to win this, but his very strong third place finish is a huge help for him, no doubt. Is it enough? Like many, I predicted months ago that by the end of February this would be a three man race between Trump, Cruz and Rubio. That winnowing is already happening. Will Rubio emerge victorious from that battle? The problem is, you can only ride third place for so long. Eventually you have to break out. And Rubio’s not even polling third in New Hampshire – he’s currently fifth there. South Carolina has him at third again. Eventually you have to start racking up actual wins. Unless he gets a bigger bump from Iowa than is typical, I see Rubio continuing to sit in third place as the front runners rack up more and more support. The truth is, everyone loves a winner. And as candidates exit the field, voters will flock to the front-runner. All signs right now say it won’t be Rubio.

Ben Carson: He does better than expected and his campaign gets one last major gasp of breath. But it’s unlikely that he’ll even place in New Hampshire (the RCP average currently has him in eighth place there with a mere 3.2%), and things aren’t looking much better in South Caroline where he’s in 5th place. This campaign is in “done but won’t admit it yet” status, but it could stay there for a good while.

Rand Paul: Better than expected, but nowhere near good enough. Instead of uniting his father’s coalition with the mainstream, he’s only managed to alienate his father’s supporters. Go home and defend your senate seat, Rand, before it’s too late.

Jeb Bush: Another better than expected showing. Unfortunately for Jeb, the story out of Iowa last night is that Rubio is the establishment candidate. Another “done but won’t admit it yet” candidate who will take a long time to admit it. But at this point I’m not crying because it’s actually kind of fun to watch him get kicked around. So stick around a bit, Jeb. There’s plenty of time to go crying to mommy later.

Carly Fiorina: An “also-ran” who’s not polling any better anywhere else. Expect her to be out of the race very soon.

John Kasich: An “also-ran” who’s going to stick in for a few more races because somehow he’s polling well in New Hampshire. He’ll either live up to his polls and claw out a second or third place showing in New Hampshire before dying over the next few contests or his supporters jump to the Rubio “strong horse” and his hopes and dreams are crushed. Either way, he’s out by the end of the month.

Mike Huckabee: His entire candidacy centered around repeating his 2008 performance in Iowa. That clearly didn’t happen, and he dropped out last night. If he’d dropped out last week and endorsed Trump, he might have started 2017 as the new Vice President. Consolation prize: his stock as a talking head keeps its value and he cries all the way to the bank.

Chris Christie: Poor showing in Iowa and only polling sixth in New Hampshire – and he hasn’t even hit the southern states yet. People here loved him for his attitude five years ago. Now they hate him even more for hugging Obama. If he can’t win the northeast he’s got no prayer. He should be dropping out, but his ego probably won’t let him.

Rick Santorum: Another candidate who was banking on repeating an Iowa performance. It was a fluke in 2012, Rick, and literally anybody could’ve told you that you wouldn’t repeat it this year. I don’t even know why you tried. At least you had the sense to get out after your poor showing last night.

Takeaway

Sanders is going to give Clinton a long, hard fight. I still think he’s going to prevail in the end, but he is fighting a formidable political machine.

By the end of this month we’re looking at a three man race on the GOP side – Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. My expectation is still that they’ll finish up the primary in about that order. The others are dead men walking. And Trump should buy the farm.

Get your popcorn, kids. The show is just starting.

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26 Jan

Preference Cascade

As I mentioned at the end of yesterday’s post, I believe Bernie Sanders will win the Democratic party’s presidential nomination. I also believe that Donald Trump will win the Republican nomination. That second prediction isn’t much of one given the polls of the last few weeks. So let me add another one: I believe he’s going to have a much larger victory margin than current polls show. I believe each race will feature a massive preference cascade.

What is a preference cascade? The classic example involves totalitarian states – say, the Soviet Union or Iraq circa 2002. Residents in the totalitarian state really, really dislike their government. But the secret police abound, and anybody who doesn’t like the current regime suffers terrible consequences: imprisonment, torture, execution of themselves or their families. Saying you don’t like the current regime carries terrible consequences. If you have half a brain you lie about it, and tell everyone that you love it.

The thing is, your family, friends, and neighbors all hate it, too. But they’re also afraid to tell everyone about it, and for all the same, good reasons that you are. So everyone tells each other that the current regime is wonderful and amazing. Meanwhile, they secretly all hate it. But if you took a poll in the society, it would look like you have 97-99% approval ratings of the current regime (some people are too stupid to live, apparently).

But then a funny thing happens. The regime gets some cracks in it. The government starts collapsing losing its power as the Soviets did in the late 1980s; or the US invades and promises to kill your dictator, as in Iraq in 2003. It’s not quite so dangerous to voice how much you hate the regime anymore. So a few people get a little braver and speak out. Then their family, friends, and neighbors notice that those people didn’t get sent to Siberia, and they get a little braver, too. Then it grows, and grows some more, and eventually nobody’s afraid anymore and everybody’s telling each other how much they hated that evil regime the whole time.

That’s a preference cascade.

I think we will see two of them in this primary season. First, Donald Trump. I keep hearing people say that they don’t understand how he’s doing so well in the polls because they don’t know any Trump supporters. I see it in the news, from the typical left media types who don’t actually know any conservatives. But I also see it in my Facebook feed.

The thing is… I know a lot of Trump supporters, both personally and online. And I also know that a great many of them are afraid to admit it. I’m pretty confident that once it becomes clear how many others are also Trump supporters, they’re going to start speaking out more. I also think these people are afraid to tell even pollsters about it. They’re not afraid they’ll go to Siberia – they’re just afraid they won’t have any friends anymore. Scott Adams claims that Trump will persuade huge majorities by the end. I think he already has, at least of Republican voters. They’re just afraid to admit it still.

I think Hillary Clinton is in the opposite situation. The Democratic party consists of voters who are strongly feminist. They want to support a female candidate. But even more strongly they want to be seen supporting a female candidate. Hillary’s the only one they’ve got. And this time around, they can’t deflect criticism by supporting a minority candidate, either. It’s her or the old white dude.

Yet Clinton is a lying liar and they know it. She’s one of the most untrustworthy people ever to enter politics. Her politics are cold and calculating, shifting with the wind. Perhaps worst of all, the set of people who actually like her, even among strongly Democratic voters, basically consists of my sister and… my sister.

But Democratic voters are afraid to admit that they aren’t supporting the feminist cause, so they’re telling everyone they’re for her. All the while, her poll numbers keep slipping… and slipping… and slipping. Check out the chart below from the Washington Post. Hillary’s poll numbers are falling faster – and earlier – in 2016 than they did in 2008.

Hillary's preference cascade, visualized.

Hillary’s preference cascade, visualized.

Looking at current poll numbers, Hillary might still pull out the win in Iowa. If she manages it, expect a repeat of 2008: a long, hard fight for the nomination that carries on almost to the end before it becomes mathematically impossible for her to win.

I’m skeptical, though. I think Sanders just might pull it off in Iowa. He’s within spitting distance, and his polls are moving in the right direction (hers aren’t). Centrist democratic voters are afraid of the S-word (socialism). A caucus environment is the perfect one for them to lose that fear, as their friends start standing for Bernie – and their more conservative friends are across town at the Republican caucus, and won’t see them.

If Bernie wins Iowa and New Hampshire, then look for the preference cascade to hit fast. Expect him to get  a huge boost heading into the Nevada caucuses – enough to enter that state in a position very similar to where he now finds himself in Iowa. If he pulls that one out, too, then expect Hillary’s support to break, and to break hard.
Trump, meanwhile, will be riding his own preference cascade straight into the Republican nomination.

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25 Jan

Trump Wants to Change the Game

There is a principle that I teach my martial arts students: don’t play by your opponent’s rules. Your opponent will try to set the terms of an encounter such that they favor him. Don’t let him. Change the gamechangethegame

Inside our dojo there’s a very easy example. We practice a full range martial art that combines the grappling and throws of jujitsu with the kicks, punches and other strikes of kickboxing and karate. With the explosive growth and popularity of MMA, this is a lot more common than it used to be. Even so, the majority of martial artists still heavily emphasize one portion of this curriculum, ground work, takedowns or upright striking, over the rest.

It is usually quite easy to determine at the start of a fight which of these ranges your opponent wants to be in. If he’s a ground fighter, he will try to get you to the ground very quickly. If he’s an upright fighter, he will try to keep at an optimal range for his preferred strikes (kicks or punches). If he’s focused on takedowns, he will position accordingly.

The key is to deny him his preferred zone. If he’s a ground fighter, force him to stay upright. If he’s an upright fighter, take him to the ground. If he’s focused on takedowns, keep him at bay with your strikes or take him to the ground with you. In any case, don’t play by his rules. Change the game.

The example here is easy and clear. Most of life isn’t. Yet you see this happen outside the martial arts all the time. It happens in sports, when a team develops a new kind of offense or defense. It happens in war, when one side develops groundbreaking new technology and/or tactics. It happens in business, when one company develops an entirely new business model.

GPS changed the game for American soldiers in the early 1990s. Saddam Hussein believed his army safe because no army had ever crossed the open Iraqi desert – ever. Navigation is tricky when you’re surrounded by nothing but sand. Yet GPS allowed the US Army to cross it with ease, catching him completely off guard.

Amazon changed the game for global retail. The ability to buy nearly anything from the convenience of your own home, coupled with timely delivery and affordable shipping revolutionized commerce. To be fair, if they hadn’t gotten there first, someone else would have done it. Yet they were the ones there, making it happen. Later they changed the game again, revolutionizing the book industry with e-books.

I’m not generally a sports guy, so don’t look to me for the sports analogy here. But it exists, I promise.

Often, people try to change the game and fizzle out. A great many web companies died in the crash of 2000 because they were unable to change the game the way they wished to. Sometimes the change comes slower than desired. A great many companies tried software subscription models a decade ago. The world wasn’t ready for it. Yet today, Adobe, Microsoft, and others are having great success with it.

Donald Trump is trying to change the game in politics. Scott Adams likes to say that he brought a flame thrower to a knife fight. At the moment, every sign indicates that he’s been successful. But the real proof comes next week in Iowa. We will find out if Mr. Adams is correct, or if Mr. Trump brought a knife to a gunfight.

If Trump succeeds, the game will change forever. Politicians from here forward will study his campaign and try to emulate it – just as every Presidential candidate now tries to emulate Jimmy Carter’s Iowa-then-New-Hampshire-momentum victory strategy. The next candidate to follow his lead will be less successful precisely because of Trump’s success; his opponents will also be following Trump’s lead.

Iowa will be the most interesting test. Everybody assumes you need a killer “ground game” to get out the vote in Iowa and win. Trump thinks he can win it a different way, with a different campaign. He is either right or he is wrong. Looking at the recent poll numbers, however, I think he might well be correct.

Given the commanding lead he carries in New Hampshire – a state with a primary rather than a caucus, and hence less dependent upon a get-out-the-vote operation – if he wins Iowa, it’s hard to see how he doesn’t go on to absolutely dominate New Hampshire. And given the way voters tend to latch on to the winner, it’s hard to see how he doesn’t run the table and win every single state in the primary.

As of today’s polls – and more importantly, the direction that they’re changing in – I strongly believe that Trump will win Iowa. And I think he will continue on to run the table. I also think that come November he will beat Bernie Sanders like a drum, carrying 40+ states in the biggest landslide since Reagan v. Dukakis in 1984.

Tomorrow: why I think Hillary will lose the Democratic nomination.

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22 Jan

Why Nate Silver Will Fail Big

Nate_Silver_2009Nate Silver first made a name for himself by using statistics to make sports predictions. But like most, I became aware of him after he accurately called 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 Presidential election. His fame rose when he called the 2012 election accurately as well, despite many on the right not quite having faith in his numbers.

The core of his technique is nothing magical, although neither will I shortchange him by calling it “obvious” as so many people are wont to do after somebody clever does something new. It’s obvious in hindsight; it wasn’t so obvious before he did it. He’s published a general outline of his methodology after every Presidential election, and you don’t have to be an actual statistician to follow what he’s doing. You do, however, need to have a basic understanding of the underlying statistical methodology. Any undergraduate stats course should let you follow along – conceptually, at least, if not in the details.

Before I dive into my main point, let me emphasize that Mr. Silver’s methodology will work brilliantly the vast majority of the time. His methodology is just about as truly data driven as it’s possible to be. He uses the best data that’s out there. And given his reputation, he can now get access to that data easily. He also uses standard and sound statistical methods.

However, the day will eventually come when Nate Silver will fail – and when it does, he will fail big.

To understand why, we first need to have a basic understanding of his methods. A decade or two ago, somebody had the keen insight that although any individual poll taken during an election season had to be taken with a huge grain of salt, if you average all the polls together you end up with numbers that are pretty reliable. I’m not sure who had the eureka moment first, but Real Clear Politics popularized the concept with their RCP poll average in the early 2000s and it’s been a staple of politics ever since.

Mr. Silver took the concept even further and improved upon it in several ways.

First, he realized that in Presidential politics it was the state polls that mattered – not the national polls. So he computed polling averages for each individual state.

Second, he did historical analysis of each polling company and concluded that some were more reliable than others. He quantified this using standard statistical techniques, and then adjusted his averages by weighting each poll according to its historical reliability. This alone is a big improvement to the RCP model, and its validity shouldn’t be discounted.

Third, he added other factors into his model: the general state of the economy and how it favors the incumbent; endorsements; experience of the candidate; and several other factors. The predictive value of these factors is less, so they’re weighted less in his model – but their value counted.

Fourth, he improved the whole thing by running Monte Carlo simulations. This is also a giant improvement over the RCP average. Basically, it works like this: you write a simple computer program that takes the poll numbers given and, using the model you’ve devised (in this case, points 1 through 3 above) you simulate a given election. With the polls, endorsements, etc as given, you also account for some randomness in the actual results. To do this, you account for the historical error of the polls – if a candidate is polling at, say, 45% then history might suggest that his actual vote could be anywhere from 40% to 50%, and you can compute a probability curve that matches that range.

Then you run this simulation – a lot. Thousands of times or tens of thousands of times. Let’s say you run it ten thousand times, and out of those ten thousand times, Candidate A wins the election five thousand times: exactly half. You then say that candidate has a 50% chance of winning the election.

The methodology is pretty sound. But it has some serious flaws, and because of these, eventually Nate Silver will fail. Here are the problems.

First, the model requires that the input polling data be good. If the polls aren’t good, then Silver’s model isn’t any good either. Note that it doesn’t require any individual poll to be perfect. But it does require a few things. Each poll should be generally within or close to it’s historical margin of error. The polls should be canceling out each others’ errors. In other words, if one poll gets Candidate A’s share of the vote too high, the competitor’s poll should get it too low. If both polls are wrong in the same direction then averaging them doesn’t help.

There is strong evidence – even documented by Silver himself – that the polls are getting worse. Indeed, the polling companies are having so much trouble that Gallup has stopped polling the Presidential races altogether. There’s also evidence that the polls have started to weight their data so that they match more closely to other polls. That skews their value and makes them less reliable. So the polls themselves are a problem – and a growing one.

Second, polling long before an election is hugely inaccurate. Accuracy increases greatly the closer a poll is taken to the actual election. This is why Mr. Silver’s 2008 and 2012 predictions weren’t magic: the “predictions” relied on polls taken within days of the election. With respect to Mr. Silver, this accomplishment isn’t as big as many made it out to be. At that point, the polls are generally pretty accurate. His achievement was simply to look at the right polls.

To be fair to Mr. Silver, he’s quite aware of this problem and has discussed it at some length. He refrains from even making predictions before certain points in the campaign, and he’s the first to tell you that they’re of little value even when he begins them. However, having his predictions become accurate only days or a very few weeks before the actual election robs them of much of the value of a prediction. It doesn’t make them worthless, mind you, just of small utility for most of us.

But the real problem isn’t even those issues, as bad as they might be. The real problem is that the map is not the territory. Mr. Silver has constructed a wonderful model of elections. But it’s just that: a model. It is not the reality.

The biggest area where this will eventually bite him is in the non-polling factors that he includes. For instance, months ago Mr. Silver was claiming that Donald Trump’s low favorability ratings put a cap on the support he’d manage to get at the polls. He made the claim in several places, but this piece from July 2015 is the one I managed to find with a few seconds of Googling. In it he claims that candidates with Trump’s net favorability ratings rarely grow beyond 20 or 30% of the vote. As of this writing, the RCP average has Trump at 29% in Iowa (about to break that ceiling), 32.2% in New Hampshire (broke the ceiling) and 34.8% nationally (shattered it). A poll released today shows that he’s nearing 50% in Florida.

What happened? Trump’s favorability changed – a lot. Gallup last week showed him at +27% among Republicans, up 23 points from where Silver had him in the July piece listed above. That’s yuge.

Again, as I noted above – the map is not the territory. Silver’s model, as good as it is, doesn’t account for this kind of thing to happen. Now, it’s easy to say, “let’s update the model to allow for the off chance of someone increasing his favorability.” Fine. But the underlying problem is that favorability doesn’t directly predict anything. It’s a proxy.

Think of it this way: there’s no ironclad law of physics that says that a candidate with low favorability ratings can’t win. Mr. Silver has merely observed that so far, in the election’s we’ve seen, this hasn’t happened. It seems to have a strong correlation with the winner. But correlation does not equal causation. In this particular case, the variables are probably weakly linked. That is, how favorably the electorate views a candidate probably does have some impact on how they eventually vote. But it’s not a perfect match.

Mr. Silver will readily admit this, and that’s why the value is weighted relatively small compared to other data. But the problem is that all of Mr. Silver’s data is intrinsically a proxy, including the actual polling data. How people say they’ll vote is not the same thing as how they’ll actually vote. The correlation is high, but it’s not a causation.

Someday we’ll hit a point in the territory where the map doesn’t agree with it. For that case, we’ll have no choice but to conclude that the map is wrong. As they say in sports, there’s a reason they play the games.

There’s good reason to suspect that this election cycle may be it. Mr. Silver has been giving Mr. Trump roughly 5% odds of winning the nomination, based mostly on his model. Personally, I think his model is wrong in this specific case. “This time is different” is called a lot and is rarely true. But… sometimes it’s true, this time really is different. By all outside appearances, this election certainly seems to be one of those cases. I believe that Mr. Silver has too much invested in his model for him to be able to step back and honestly admit that it may not cover this case. Again, to be fair to Mr. Silver, I don’t believe this is a conscious choice. But I think it’s real.

But this may not be the time, either. It may well be that this time Mr. Silver is right again and I am wrong. I fully accept that, and I’ll admit it here if it’s the case. But even if this time isn’t the one, sooner or later Nate Silver will fail – and it will be yuge.

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21 Jan

The Consistency of Donald Trump

Donald Trump is often accused of being inconsistent in his political views, and of only “discovering” certain issues now that he’s running for President. However, if you check the actual history of what he’s actually said, you quickly find that this narrative falls apart.

The following video is an interview that Mr. Trump did with Oprah Winfrey all the way back in 1988 – nearly thirty years ago. Let’s take a look.

The protectionism that he advocates now? Check, it’s right there on his sleeve. And in both the modern case and the 1988 case, he’s correct. The nations he’s named are dumping cheap goods on the American market while simultaneously making it very difficult for American companies to sell in their markets. In the 1980s, it was heavily protectionist Japan that made it nearly impossible to sell American products there. Today, Japan has somewhat liberalized its trade – but China is pulling the same trick.

He is 100% correct to note that if it’s not reciprocal, it’s not free trade.

Note also his response when asked if he was running for President: “no, but if things get bad enough I might.” The premise of his modern campaign? Things got bad enough.

The man is far more consistent than he’s given credit for. It’s just that his views don’t completely align with Republican views. But then, I’m Roman Catholic – my views don’t align with Republican or Democratic views, either. But Mr. Trump and I are both nationalist, in an age when the other candidates mostly aren’t.

I’ll take that.

(H/T Mike Cernovich for the video)

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20 Jan

Indict Hillary Now

The time has long passed to indict Hillary Clinton. From that bastion of conservative media fondly known as CNN:

Two government agencies flagged emails on Clinton’s server as containing classified information, the inspector general said, including some on “special access programs,” which are above “top secret” in classification level.

Quite a few people out there have no idea what “special access program” actually means – as evidence by the fact that even CNN gets it wrong in the quote above. There is no level of classification that is above Top Secret. However, within Top Secret, there are extra levels of security that are sometimes applied. Special Access Programs are one of those.

Anything classified Top Secret is handled with a lot of care to begin with. First, just because you’ve passed the grueling background check to earn a Top Secret level clearance doesn’t mean you can get access to anything you want that’s labeled Top Secret. You still have to demonstrate that you have what they call “need to know.” For anything classified as “Secret” this is relatively easy to do (assuming you have a Secret level clearance). For anything classified “Top Secret” it’s actually kind of hard. You have to show not just that you have “need to know” for the program in general, but that you “need to know” that specific piece of information. And you have to truly demonstrate it. Top Secret is already locked down pretty well.

Special Access Programs (SAPs) are even a level beyond that. First, you have to have that Top Secret Clearance. Then you have to be one of the people on the very short list that has been approved for the program (hence the name – special access). It’s not uncommon for that list to be only a couple of dozen people in the country, and on occasion that list might number in the low single digits. Records kept on the topic are sometimes sparse, detailing only what actually has to be recorded for the program. Very often, people who aren’t on the approved list won’t even know that the program exists.

To protect intelligence sources, often even the President isn’t briefed on the fine details of these programs – and sometimes isn’t even told of them.

The penalty for revealing classified information is up to ten years in jail – and revealing SAP information would be enough to qualify for the maximum sentence if any of us mere mortals did it. Just based on what we currently know to be true, any normal civilian with a security clearance would already be in prison, and they’d have thrown away the key. Secretary Clinton is not a target because she’s a politician – that’s the only reason she’s been protected so far.

The failure to indict Hillary is proof that law and order in the US no longer apply. If you’re a big enough fish, you can break the law at will. I say that this is unacceptable. Law and order must apply to all.

hillary_classified

Indict Hillary now.

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19 Jan

Artificially Overpriced Oil

oilwellOil has been artificially overpriced for quite some time. The recent plunge in oil prices represent a correction of highly distortive market forces. Unfortunately, the correction is unlikely to last – in no small part due to the effects caused by lower oil prices themselves.

Oil has been artificially overpriced for quite some time.

Eighteen months ago, oil was trading for over $100 a barrel. At that point, it had been above $80 a barrel for nearly five years. For the five years prior to that it had mostly stayed over $60 a barrel. All of these price points are far higher than a simple business analysis tells us they should be in an ideal market.

A little bit of napkin math makes this clear.

The US Energy Information Administration figures for oil consumption are out of date, but only by a little bit. They list 93 million barrels a day of global consumption. Let’s round that up to 100 billion barrels a day, both for easier math (we’re doing estimates here, we don’t have to be perfect) and to account for the numbers being a few years out of date. The US Energy Information Administration estimates total annual consumption for 2011 (chosen to match most closely with the Wikipedia consumption stats) at 88.5 million barrels a day. [Note: Wikipedia doesn’t provide a good measure of this or I’d use their numbers for consistency.]

Let’s grant that both of these are estimates and likely not quite perfect, but they’re probably close. What we see is that global production doesn’t quite meet global demand. But… it could.

Let’s look at the breakdowns of oil production. The US leads the pack with nearly 14 million barrels per day, followed by Saudi Arabia at 11.6 million barrels per day. We’re going to skip a bit down the list, but not too far, and note a few others. Iran and Iraq, both sitting right around 3.4 million barrels per day, occupy places 6 and 7 on the list. Venezuela, at roughly 2.7 million barrels per day, is number 12.

Every country that I’ve named has producing oil at rates far below their capacity for years (probably several other nations as well, but let’s stick with what I can speak on reliably).

Iraq’s oil production has been hampered for two and a half decades by geopolitical realities: sanctions, then the first Gulf War, then another decade of sanctions, then the 2003 invasion, then years of internal civil war. Iraqi oil production has finally surpassed their peak production prior to the 2003 invasion. But does anybody think their production couldn’t be 10-20% higher – or more – if they hadn’t had their infrastructure ravaged by decades of sanctions and war?

Iran is in a similar boat, only it might be more drastic. [Iraqi production might be as drastically low a Iran’s, but we can’t prove it the way we can with Iran.] Iranian oil production is nearly half what it was at its peak – in the late 70s! That’s right – Iran’s production tanked after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But that’s not because they don’t want to produce it or because they lack the means. It’s because international sanctions prevent them from selling it. [Sidebar: this is why the “war for cheap oil” argument never made sense; if we wanted cheap oil, all we had to do was lift sanctions on Iran.]

It’s unclear exactly what sanctions are being lifted on Iran as part of the deal that went into full effect this weak, but it’s at least allowing them to sell more oil than they have been. But we know from historical data that they could feasibly double production if they chose to.

Venezuela’s production is off its peak because socialist dictator Hugo Chavez, spectacularly mismanaged their oil industry. They’re down nearly 30% from their peak.

Saudi Arabia has the opposite issue. It’s been underproducing oil for years – by conscious choice, in order to keep prices high. Note that in the last few years they’ve substantially raised their oil production – specifically to manipulate the price of oil and to try to claim market share from competitors. Note however that Saudi Arabia hasn’t made major new investments in oil production in decades. They haven’t wanted prices to go down. Until now they do for some reason [more on that tomorrow].

Then we get to the US – the world’s largest producer of oil. We use a lot of oil, but we produce a hell of a lot of it, too. But we could be producing more – much more. We have oil reserves all over the country that aren’t being tapped. But it’s not for international reasons or price manipulation. Here, it’s all about environmental regulation. [Note that for the purposes of this post, I’m not arguing for or against this; merely stating that it is reality.]

Now, let’s look at that. Iran alone could be putting out another 3 million barrels per day in an ideal world. Iraq could probably be putting out half a million to a million more. Venezuela could be putting out a million more. The US… let’s guesstimate that they could be putting out a million more (I’d be willing to bet that we could go much higher than that).

That’s a grand total of around 6 million barrels per day – or nearly six percent of total oil production – that is simply missing.

Now, we know from modern economics that the effects of changes in supply or demand on a market’s price are non-linear. A small change in supply or demand causes a small change in price, but a big change in supply or demand results in a huge change in price. In a commodity market like oil, six percent is a huge change in supply.

In an efficiently operating commodities market, the average price should be price just a bit higher than the marginal price. In other words, it should be right around (but probably a tad higher than) the highest cost to produce. Right now that’s fracking oil in the US, which costs around $40 per barrel to produce. So in a fully undistorted market, we should be seeing oil prices hovering below $45 per barrel.

However, that’s not the whole story. Because in a market with 6% higher supply, fracking might not make sense anymore. Saudi oil costs around $20 per barrel to extract, and much of the middle east is the same. So the undistorted market price might be somewhere closer to $25 a barrel. It’s hard to say exactly where it should be without… letting the markets figure it out.

What we’re seeing in the market today represents a price much closer to where oil actually should be (although the current prices might be a tad low, and in need of upward adjustment now; it’s hard to say). This is a direct result of Saudi Arabia ramping up their production.

Unfortunately, today’s low prices will probably not last. Oil is likely to become once again artificially overpriced. But that’s a topic for a later post.

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18 Jan

Falling Into Empire

List-Why-Rome-Fell-ENate has signed and sealed the death certificate of the United States.

Seems a bit early to be writing this… but the fact is the history is already written.  The nails are in the coffin.   Its already happened.  The US is down 34 to 10  and there are only 2 minutes to go.  There is no time for a come back.

If you saw the post last night or heard the show you know our friend Rycamor brought a great essay on the life cycle of nations.  This essay is called The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival.  It is written by Sir John Glubb.

I first read the essay Nate refers to several years ago, based on a thread at Vox Popoli. It may well have been Nate who posted the link, or it might have come from Vox himself. It’s been long enough that I honestly don’t recall. It’s a powerful essay, and it’s well worth the read. It’s also quite simple and easy to follow. On the whole, the essay makes a very strong case. But I do have a few issues with it, and I think they’re important.

First, the Sir John’s decision to split the Roman period is a glaring data point. Indeed, the author notes this himself:

(3) The division of Rome into two periods
may be thought unwarranted. The first, or
republican, period dates from the time when
Rome became the mistress of Italy, and ends
with the accession of Augustus. The imperial
period extends from the accession of
Augustus to the death of Marcus Aurelius. It
is true that the empire survived nominally
for more than a century after this date, but it
did so in constant confusion, rebellions, civil
wars and barbarian invasions.
However, this only partially deals with the issue. To be clear, I don’t object to his breaking of Rome into distinct periods. I do, however, object to him leaving out the third distinct period of the Roman empire – the time that we commonly refer to as the Byzantine Empire. It’s important to note that my objection comes not because I think this makes his case weaker, but rather because I think it makes his case generally stronger.
First, the divisions that he does include – the period of the Republic and the period of the Empire – represent a valid and distinct division. We must note that Sir John did not make this distinction arbitrarily – historians have made this distinction for centuries, and for good reason. The Empire was a very different beast from the Republic, and it’s correct to recognize them as so. Indeed, it is also correct to represent the Byzantine Empire as a separate period of its own. All three represent distinctly separate beasts, and although we might quibble about the exact dates of when one became another became the third, we can easily agree that they are, in fact, no longer the same beast.
And yet at one and the same time they clearly are one logical entity. The transition from Republic to Empire to Byzantine Empire honestly is a direct continuum. Roman citizens didn’t just go to sleep one considering their government a Republic and wake up the next morning singing the praises (or curses) of their new Empire. The early Roman emperors, especially Augustus, went to great trouble to maintain all of the outward appearance of the Republican government that they’d replaced. This continued, to one degree or another, all the way through the Byzantine Empire. Until the fourteenth century the citizens continued to call themselves Romans and the Senate – though completely powerless – continued to exist.
The division between the Republican and Imperial periods of Rome makes a nice split that aids Sir John’s theory. At first glance, the existence of the Byzantine Empire – and its thousand year reign – seems to cause the theory some problems.
I submit, however, that it doesn’t. People are fond of saying that every theory has its exceptions, by which they usually mean a glaring counterfactual that doesn’t conform to the theory at all. In reality, however, most real-world exceptions look a lot more like the case of Rome – they kind of fit the theory, but differ in important ways. And that’s why I think the case of Byzantium actually bolsters the theory.
Rome is the exception that proves the rule.
Because make no mistake about it, Rome is an exception – at every level. The very fact that it makes Sir John’s list twice, and with no gap between the periods, demonstrates that. But it’s not just on this list that Rome is the exception. Rome’s exceptional status has been well known for centuries. Indeed, until the current wave of globalism swept our educational system, Rome took center stage in history classes precisely because it was so exceptional.
What made it so exceptional? Lots of things, but here are a few.
  1. Rome built a level of infrastructure that had never before been seen. Their roads and aqueducts ran the length of the empire.
  2. They built to last. A non-trivial amount of that infrastructure still stands today, including some roads and aqueducts but especially a large number of buildings. Some are still even in use.
  3. At their peaks, they weren’t just a power, or even one of a few great powers – they were the great power.
  4. The empires around them had immolated each other (or in some cases self-immolated) so thoroughly that even as Rome’s power waned, there was nobody else to seriously challenge it.

I am hardly the first person to note the parallels between the modern United States and ancient Rome. The comparisons are so obvious that my college history professors had to push people away from making the too-easy notes and force them to look deeper. Yet they are there, and they are real. In looking deeper, we must not forget that they exist. But more than anything, I’d like to call attention to point #4 on my list above.

As the US declines, nobody else is ready to take up the mantle.

The fact remains: on the open battlefield – be it land, sea, or air – no other military on earth can touch ours. Every other military is at least one full generation of technology and doctrine behind. That includes our western European allies. During the initial invasion of Afghanistan, our allies offered their aid. In most cases we either turned it down or imposed limits on it because their generation-old tech made it too difficult to integrate them effectively.

No other nation can even come close to the logistical capability that the US provides. It is often pointed out that we spend many multiples of the Europeans on our defense budget. It is equally often forgotten that they can spend so little because our European allies completely rely on the US for logistical capabilities. Indeed, this was official NATO doctrine for decades.

Economically, we remain in a similar boat. Our economy dwarfs everyone. The US still provides 14% of world GDP as of 2014, despite having only 5% of the world’s population. That’s well down from our peak, but not because our GDP has declined – it’s because China and other developing nations have actually been playing some catch up. Yet even though they passed our GDP as a percentage of world GDP in 2014, China did so representing 20% of the world’s population – five times ours.

Yes, 4th generation warfare is a real thing and the US sucks at it. This causes real problems to our military dominance.

Yes, our logistical capability is much more fragile than is often realized, and has also been in decline.

And yes, our economy is built on a foundation of debt that will likely soon prove to be catastrophic.

But the reality is that every other nation on Earth fares worse on at least two of these same scores, most on all three. China’s economy has been growing like mad for the last 15 years, but there are increasing signs that the house of cards is about to come down. Russia and the Middle East have built economies that rely on oil staying at quite high prices – prices that look increasingly like they’re not long-term viable. And Europe is too dependent upon the US. If our economy collapses, theirs goes down even further.

[Side note: I’ve believed for quite a long time that the price of oil was artificially high; recent events back up that opinion. But that’s another post for another day.]

In the comments, Nate’s post already start down the road to this when commenter Susan asks what other countries are ready to step into the void. Nate responds – not incorrectly – that there doesn’t need to be anybody to step into the void. But prior to that, his response that ISIS refugees are the ones conquering territory leaves a lot to be desired. It’s a long way from “conquering territory” to “launching a new empire.”

Where am I heading with this? The short version is this. I agree with both Nate and Sir John – the time of the American Republic is just about up. But I disagree with Nate about what comes next. My personal prediction is that the true American Empire arises from the ashes. Yes, I’m well aware of how much we already resemble an Empire. And yet there are certain lines that our nation has not yet crossed.

This is more fodder for another post on another day, but for now, suffice it to say… we will cross it. The historically literate will recognize its passing when a figure very reminiscent of Augustus Caeser comes to power in the American scene. He will probably retain the outward forms of the American presidency, and most notably the title (Augustus’s official title was neither “king (rex)” nor “emperor” nor “caeser” – it was “consul,” just as the countless Republican leaders before him had been called). The most obvious distinction? When we have a President who serves for life, you will know that the line has been crossed.

The time is not yet ripe for Americans to choose to elect that man (remember: Augustus was elected to his first term as consul). But it is coming. The right man has not yet presented himself for the post. But he will.

The US is declining, but not into nothing. We are falling into empire.

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