Geography Lesson

The pin in the map above is stuck in the Russian city of Krasnodar, a major city with roughly the population of Seattle. It’s a day’s drive from Ukraine and about 800 miles from Damascus which is about the same as the distance between Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon.

This morning I heard George Stephanpoulos ask the newly-appointed British foreign minister, Boris Johnson, about Russia’s interventions “all over the world”, pointing to Syria and Ukraine. Syria and Ukraine aren’t “all over the world” for Russia. They’re the Russians’ near abroad. We’re intervening all over the world. The Russians are worried about their own neighborhood.

It’s reasonable to disapprove or even oppose what the Russians are doing. But know what the heck you’re talking about.


Managing Globalization

I found a lot to agree with in Jared Bernstein and Lori Wallach’s article at American Prospect on globalization. Particularly this:

Today’s FTAs, of which the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is Exhibit A, are not mainly about cutting tariffs to expand trade nor are they about jobs, growth, and incomes here in the United States. Rather, they’re about setting expansive “rules of the road” that determine who wins and who loses.

One of the things that’s frequently missed is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Pigouvian taxes could be levied on winners and the proceeds used to aid the losers. That doesn’t happen which makes one wonder if picking the winner were not the objective of the agreement in the first place.

Measures that the authors advocate for changing the “rules of the road” on globalization include:

  • Enforceable currency disciplines
  • Enforceable and substantive labor and environmental rights and standards
  • Rewarding those who play by the rules
  • Selecting appropriate trade partners

With respect to the last the authors remark:

Bad actors that violate worker and/or human rights or have long records of currency cheating will not become good actors if we simply invite them to trade more with us. Sadly, there is considerable empirical evidence from past U.S. trade initiatives with China, Vietnam, Russia, and other nations that supports this view.

I think the problem is actually somewhat worse than that. In the case of intellectual property China has laws that protect the intellectual property of foreigners. They just aren’t enforced and China does not have a robust system of civil law so there’s no practical way to secure redress when your intellectual property is not enforced. Consequently, the laws are meaningless.



Searching for patterns is part of the “hard-wiring” of human beings, part of the original factory equipment so to speak. It’s among our earliest instincts. Even newborns look for patterns. Searching for patterns underpins learning language or learning to walk as well as more mature activities including dancing a waltz, discovering that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around, painting the Mona Lisa, worshipping a god, or playing a sonata on the piano. Absent the search for patterns life would be extremely difficult and probably terrifying.

If someone tells you they believe that everything is random, they’re either lying, exaggerating, insane, confused, or just plain wrong. Other than at the quantum level, real randomness is quite rare; it’s hard to produce. True randomness would mean that when I stepped out of my house here in Chicago it would be just as likely that I would be mauled by a bear, attacked by a shark, or explode into pure energy as it would that I would reach the sidewalk.

Because seeking patterns is so natural to us, we sometimes see them where they don’t exist. I think that the widely-reported phenomenon of seeing ghosts is caused by just such pattern-seeking.

There are whole branches of learning focused on distinguishing between patterns that don’t exist and those that do. Understanding logical fallacies is one way of doing that.

Depending on their abilities and experiences different people will see different patterns in the same things. As one friend of mine put it many years ago, you and I can do the same things but have different experiences.

In a country of 320 million people all sorts of things that would appear to be highly unlikely are practically certain to happen. Distinguishing between the things that actually constitute a pattern and those that don’t can be difficult. The pattern may be in what’s being reported and how it’s being reported rather than in what’s happening.

This all may sound like a lot of irrelevant rambling but it’s highly relevant since I strongly suspect that the evidence supports the hypothesis that both black men being shot and killed by police officers and the rioting that has followed black men being shot and killed by police officers are responses to seeing patterns. Are the patterns real or not?

Here are several true statements (some from this source):

  • In the city of Chicago an ordinary Chicagoan is more likely to be shot and killed than a Chicago police officer.
  • Twice as many whites are shot and killed by police officers every year as blacks.
  • As a proportion of homicides, more whites and Hispanics are killed by police than blacks.
  • Black and Hispanic police officers are more likely to discharge their guns at black men than white police officers.
  • Politics deals with perceptions not realities.
  • Politically-motivated policies are not likely to alter the underlying facts and may not alter the perceptions.

I think it’s a reasonable inference that what moves police officers to shoot and kill black men is fear. Is that fear based on reason?


My Question

I have a question. Why would the president use a pseudonym when communicating with his Secretary of State?

Also among the newly disclosed details, according to the FBI: The name of the sender on an e-mail to Clinton in 2012 was “believed to be a pseudonym” for President Barack Obama. When the FBI told that to a top Clinton aide, Huma Abedin, during its investigation, she responded, “How is this not classified?” The documents don’t say whether the message went to Clinton’s private e-mail.

According to the FBI summary of its interview with Abedin, who is now vice chairwoman of Clinton’s presidential campaign, Obama’s e-mail system allowed him to receive messages only from approved senders. The White House had to be notified when Clinton changed her private e-mail address so that her messages could get through, Abedin told the FBI.

The message that the FBI said may have come from Obama under a pseudonym had the simple subject line: “Re: Congratulations.”

Other than as a joke I can’t think of any good reasons.


The Third Most Powerful Drive

I disagree with this claim in John Tamny’s most recent post at RealClearMarkets on the gender pay gap:

In the real world, no truly talented person would seek coerced higher pay; instead, the skilled would reveal in the marketplace just why their pay isn’t high enough through performance proving just that. In short, if women really feel they’re underpaid relative to their male peers, they should express this truth in the free market.

Barring some deployment of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, that’s simply and demonstrably untrue. Here’s one of tens of thousands of examples. Is Bill Gates “truly talented”? I think that most people would say so. And yet he has repeatedly resorted to the courts and to the legislature, two of the arms of the coercive state, to secure more revenue for Microsoft. Most large businesses do the same. Small businesses don’t but only because they don’t have the leverage.

It’s called “rent-seeking” and I would argue that the drive to leverage social or political systems to obtain more than you could get on the basis of your own unaided efforts is one of the most powerful ones in the world. Probably right after survival and reproduction.

I don’t blame activists for promoting exaggerations, myths, or flat-out lies to get the government on their side. I blame politicians for knuckling under and people who know better for not opposing them.

1 comment

Handicapping the First Presidential Debate

The first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump of the 2016 presidential election cycle will take place on Monday. In anticipation of the debate I’d like to place a couple of questions on the floor:

  1. Will the debate take place? Will all of the debates take place?
  2. What will the outcome of the debate be?
    1. Hillary Clinton will wipe the floor with Donald Trump.
    2. Donald Trump will wipe the floor with Hillary Clinton.
    3. It doesn’t matter; nobody will watch the debate and everybody’s voters have already made up their minds.
    4. Hillary Clinton will look tired, old, and dyspeptic and will further reduce her credibility.
    5. Donald Trump will look crazy, poorly informed, and erratic and will further reduce his credibility.
    6. Some combination of the above.
    7. Lester Holt will lose decisively.
    8. What debate?

I think that the odds are about 50-50 whether this debate or any of them will actually come off. Hillary Clinton has much more to lose than Donald Trump has either to win or to lose and she has a plausible reason to beg off, at least from this debate—health. That will add fuel to the fires of speculation but that won’t make any difference to her core voters.

Assuming the election comes off, I think that Hillary Clinton will win on the substance, Donald Trump won’t be as much of an idiot as the NeverTrumpers would like, and Lester Holt will be blamed regardless of what happens. Basically, a combination of A, C, D, and G. I also think that, if either candidate does really badly and her or his poll numbers drop sharply after the debate, it will be the only presidential debate.


On Not Winning By 50 Points

I like the conclusion of Tom Bevan’s post at RealClearPolitics in response to Hillary Clinton’s complaint that she isn’t winning by 50 points:

Her task would be difficult for a great politician, let alone someone with Clinton’s baggage. To paraphrase then-Sen. Obama’s backhanded compliment of her during a debate in 2008: She’s likable enough. But just barely – and only because her opponent is even less likable in the eyes of so many voters. But she doesn’t need to win by 50 points, she only needs to win by one, and that X-factor — Donald Trump’s own baggage — is why she’s ahead at all.

Over at FiveThirtyEight Nate Silver makes a similar point with numbers:

Right now, Clinton is over the line by exactly one state. As of this writing, that state — what we also call the tipping-point state — is New Hampshire. But a group of states are closely lumped together, and Pennsylvania, Colorado and Wisconsin have all taken their turn as the tipping-point state in recent weeks.

If she wins all those states and everything toward the blue end of the snake, Clinton would finish with 272 electoral votes, even assuming she loses the 2nd Congressional District of Maine. (Maine and Nebraska split their electoral votes by congressional district.) That’s two more than she needs to win the election.

But in different ways, that both understates and overstates how precarious Clinton’s position is. It understates it because Clinton has no margin to spare. Clinton’s polling has been somewhere between middling and awful in most of the other swing states lately, and they all at least lean toward Trump at the moment, narrowly in some cases (such as Florida) and more clearly in others (such as Iowa). If Clinton loses any of the states on the blue side of the snake without picking anything up on the red side, she’ll be stuck on 269 electoral votes or fewer.

As I’ve said before the only poll that makes any difference is the one that takes place on the first Tuesday of November. Anybody who thinks this election is anything but too close to call is looking at something other than the emerging facts.

How in the heck did we get into this idiotic situation?

1 comment

What Should I Think?

This isn’t a news blog. It’s an analysis blog. I try to wait to post until the facts are in and reasonable conclusions may be drawn. What should I think about the recent killings of black men by police officers in Oklahoma and North Carolina?

I know what I think about the rioting. It may cause attention to be focused on the rioters’ notional cause but that is not likely to be the sort of attention that they’d like.


Funny About That

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Facebook has been significantly over-estimating the amount of time its users spend watching videos on the site:

Big ad buyers and marketers are upset with Facebook Inc. after learning the tech giant vastly overestimated average viewing time for video ads on its platform for two years, according to people familiar with the situation.

Several weeks ago, Facebook disclosed in a post on its “Advertiser Help Center” that its metric for the average time users spent watching videos was artificially inflated because it was only factoring in video views of more than three seconds. The company said it was introducing a new metric to fix the problem.

I found the company’s statement beautifully coy:

“We recently discovered an error in the way we calculate one of our video metrics,” Facebook said in a statement. “This error has been fixed, it did not impact billing, and we have notified our partners both through our product dashboards and via sales and publisher outreach. We also renamed the metric to make it clearer what we measure. This metric is one of many our partners use to assess their video campaigns.”

The error may not have “impacted” billing but it did have an effect on the value of the service. The WSJ noticed that, too:

Due to the miscalculated data, marketers may have misjudged the performance of video advertising they have purchased from Facebook over the past two years. It also may have impacted their decisions about how much to spend on Facebook video versus other video ad sellers such as Google’s YouTube, Twitter, and even TV networks.

Media companies and publishers are affected, too, since they’ve been given inaccurate data about the consumption of their video content across the social network. Many use that information to help determine the types of content they post.

I doubt there was anything particularly nefarious about it. I just think the numbers they produced using their algorithm fit their expectations and/or business model so they didn’t examine them closely enough. If the numbers the algorithm had produced were 60% below expectations, they’d’ve been on it like a hawk.

I noticed that the WSJ mentioned ad buyers and marketers, media companies and publishers but not investors. In post-close trading Facebook’s stock was down sharply and that seems to be continuing. Any bets on how much money Mark Zuckerberg will lose today?

1 comment

Living to a Ripe Old Age

We just finished watching Seven Brides for Seven Brothers for the umpteenth time. I remember seeing it when it first came out and that was 62 years ago. Time flies. In my opinion it’s the finest movie musical ever made. Although Singing in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and West Side Story are all good candidates, too.

I noticed something interesting. Of the male principal cast three are still alive (Russ Tamblyn, Tommy Rall, and Jacques d’Amboise) and of the female principle cast five are still alive (Jane Powell, Julie Newmar, Nancy Kilgas, Ruta Lee, and Norma Doggett). Those of the principal dancing cast who are deceased lived to quite advanced ages. Marc Platt was in his mid 40s when the picture was made for goodness’ sake.

The moral of the story is that two keys to living to a ripe old age are dancing and discipline.