Feral Plus Three

The usual apologies—or something like that—for the absence of entries of late but, well, I’ve been working, a lot, and since the Mission Statement of Parus Analytics—man, I can’t begin to tell you how many three-hour meetings, corporate retreat weekends with trust falls and consultants with really expensive business attire and hair stylists it took to settle on this! [1]—is

We’ve got a radical approach to software development: writing code that works, more or less on time, and for the price quoted.

work takes priority.

Still, this month marks the completed third year I’ve been “feral” and if that transition had been a serious mistake, I’d presumably know by now. Since this hasn’t happened, a “Feral Plus Three” seemed in order. And meanwhile I’m going to be participating in a panel at the Society for Political Methodology meetings on non-academic careers, so I’ll use this occasion to write down the [largely stunningly obvious] advice I’d give to someone who is contemplating following this path.

But first, the takeaway, a caveat, and the context.

The takeaway is that when I published Feral (27,000 views and still counting), I got several nice notes from people saying they had done the same thing and never regretted it. Which has been precisely my experience, along with an increasing sense that if I hadn’t done this, I would have missed out on some of the most interesting times of my life. Moreover, while for very real family reasons I could not done this earlier, probably the optimal time would have been somewhere in the 50 to 55 age bracket.[2] Carpe diem!

The caveat is that I’ve done this as a “data scientist.” Whatever the heck that is, but it seems to involve the same combination of social science expertise [3], computer programming, statistical analysis and machine learning [4] which previously defined me as an academic “political methodologist.” And at this point in history, the demand for data scientists appears to far exceed the supply, and provided you’ve got the requisite skills [5], one can set up shop as a data scientist with little more than a laptop and an internet connection. [6]

Finally, let’s be very clear that I’m discussing the prospects of establishing an on-going small consulting business intended to be sustained indefinitely, not a flash-and-burn start-up with aspirations to become a unicorn and for the principals to own—or at least lease—a Gulfstream G650 before the age of 30. The latter is for someone else’s essay, probably on LinkedIn.

No, I’m content to be one of the little mice down here in the weeds, not Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Sergey Brin or Mark Zuckerberg or Peter Theil, but just part of one of the tens of thousands of largely invisible small shops that are driving the current technological revolution. [7]

So, seven suggestions on what should you consider and do to instantiate this.

1. Assess your resources and risk tolerance

Assuming you are leaving an existing secure career, before anything else, assess your financial situation [8] because compared to a tenured position in academia, you are moving into a much riskier situation.[9]

I’d planned the “feral” move for about two years, and was certain I had in place funds to make it to full retirement age even if those plans went really badly.[10] They didn’t—in fact I never touched a penny of those reserves, and have actually added to them—but the safety net was there. And like all safety nets, that allows you to take more risks, or at least turn down projects that don’t seem to make sense, and go through the inevitable period of experimentation that will be required before you really find the match between your skills, interests and the market.[11]

Yes, risk: that’s what you are moving towards. In the absence of unethical behavior [12] the downside income risk of an academic career is almost negligible. However, the upside risk is also very limited—less so if you can skitter around getting outside offers, though at some point that accumulates issues, to say nothing of bad karma—and more generally, even if you are fabulously successful in generating external funding in academia, most of those marginal benefits will go, for example, to topping up the salaries of your so-called colleagues whose core competence (and life’s ambition) is making your existence miserable. And someone has to pay for all those deans, associate deans, assistant deans, deanlings and deanlets.[13] For political methodologists, escaping this also means your summer salary will no longer depend on whether Senator Jeff Flake decides to pick up the red or blue light saber—and he is adept with both—when he gets up in the morning.

But if you currently have a secure job, be realistic about the risks: those positions aren’t called golden handcuffs for nothing. They really are handcuffs. And they really are golden.

2. Get thee to a tech hub

Contrary to what you are doubtlessly thinking, “tech hub” does not mean you are destined to life in a $4000/month one-bedroom efficiency somewhere within shaking distance of the San Andreas fault: In fact if you are planning to work for yourself or in a small group, that is probably the absolutely worst place you can establish yourself due to the cost of living.[14] Those same issues limit the attractiveness of other major metropolitan tech areas such as Boston, New York City and the greater Tysons Corner metroplex.

Instead, you need to find some place which has a thriving tech ecosystem, the sort of place where, say, on a summer evening you might find 50 people showing up for a talk on the Python natural language processing toolkits spaCy and gensim. Said talk held in a cavernous room in a re-purposed Coca Cola bottling plant which now houses a huge German-themed beer garden with a bocce ball court and [of course] a high-end bicycle shop. Which is to say, Charlottesville, Virginia.

Which is almost certainly not on the popular radar screen for tech hubs, but it is one. [14a] And there are certainly dozens, probably scores, of other places just like this, probably most in or near towns with major universities.

So, how do you find these. <joke>Here’s the really bad news:</joke> you look for places where people, particularly young people with substantial amounts of discretionary income, which is to say programmers, really want to live. Paul Graham has described this better than I, but that typically means a lot of nice restaurants, a thriving music scene, and access to outdoor recreation. And brewpubs. And of course ethnically diverse and LGBT-friendly. Yes, this is really tough set of lifestyle constraints, but such is the contemporary world of data science.

Now, some of my younger data science compatriots—and yes, they are mostly younger—go one step further and say that a place isn’t really a tech hub unless it provides a situation where you can quit your job in the morning and have another by the afternoon. And if you are the sort of person who is likely to be needing to do that on a regular basis, you’ll probably want some place larger, for both the opportunities and, most certainly, the anonymity.[15] But for the more occupationally adjusted, the lower costs and higher quality of life [16] in a smaller urban area probably outweigh the opportunities of a large one.

While you are looking, keep in mind that “business climate”—particularly for small business—is going to affect you, as I discussed earlier here.  Pennsylvania’s small business climate, of course, is uniformly horrible, unless you are fracking. In contrast, as long as you can avoid their massive license raj [17], Virginia is quite small business friendly, and the differences in the costs of compliance are measured in hundreds of dollars (your money) and hours of time and frustration. Charlottesville’s 50% discount on the business taxes for high-tech businesses, software development included, didn’t hurt either.

In all honesty, however, we made the decision to move to Charlottesville—we had checked out a number of cities in driving distance of the greater Tysons Corner metroplex—not on the basis of the number of small software companies or the Virginia small business website, but rather when we walked into a coffee shop the morning after we’d been to a concert by the Hackensaw Boys at the Jefferson Theater and saw they had “cortado” on the list of coffee drinks, this when few places in the U.S. had even heard of that drink. A more pleasant experience than picking a few institutions in various Rust Belt hellholes and isolated 19th century agricultural rail hubs that have posted positions on the APSA jobs site and hoping one will deign to interview you.

3. It’s a business, but…no big deal.

Assuming you’ve already been doing independent consulting (and hence are accustomed to keeping accounts, filing Schedule C and the like), the shift to being a small business full time is modest, and after some initial efforts (incorporating an LLC, getting a bank account, getting Affordable Care Act and business insurance, a logo, coffee mugs) it largely takes care of itself. You’ll hear a thousand arguments from people who have never worked outside a large bureaucracy why this is really, really scary but in fact, people do it all the time: I’ve explored this in boring detail here.

You will, however, also quickly learn that while United States popular culture glorifies small business, the United States business establishment—in particular banks—absolutely hate it, and by inference, hate you.[18] Fortunately you need very little capital to work as a data scientist.

And yes, Trump and Sanders are correct: the system is thoroughly rigged to favor large established institutions: for example it is estimated that it takes as long as ten years to become a prime contractor for the U.S. Dept of Defense. Never forget you are just a little mouse…but my, those dinosaur eggs are tasty.

For guidance on the nature of the contemporary tech business, start by reading everything Paul Graham has written.[19] Classics of computer programming management such as The Mythical Man-Month and The Psychology of Computer Programming will assure you that all of the weirdness you are encountering in projects is the norm. Avoid start-up porn, portrayals of small business from Hollywood, management books displayed in airports, the “networking-is-everything” losers who write for LinkedIn, and, in spades, people who give TedX talks.

4. Get an office: physical space matters

Well, it does to me: I inadvertently ended up working from home for a month or so when I started, and found there were far too many distractions—grab something from the kitchen, weed the garden, don’t take a shower until noon—and I actively want the home/work distinction. This indulgence has quite consistently cost me about $400 a month (seems to be the magic number for both State College and Charlottesville) but it is worth every penny.

None of these spaces have been in conventional office buildings: As you quickly will learn, lots of residential structures in urban centers have been converted to office space, and your co-occupants are likely to be lawyers, accountants, financial planners, and—particularly—therapists of many varieties.[20] These places are not necessarily advertised: use your social networks and walk around neighborhoods you’d like to be working in looking for “For Rent” signs in windows. In my experience, landlords like programmers: we’re quiet, don’t require parking for clients, and generally pay the rent on time.

Co-working has gotten a lot of press, but as a programmer-introvert, I found co-working space to be the spawn of Satan. I actually tried such an arrangement but realized after six months a lot of other people had looked at the option and no one else had taken it—if you can’t identify the biggest sucker in the room, it’s you—and meanwhile the guy managing the space had the affect of the doll in the Chucky movies, had fired everyone who was there when I’d first looked at the place and my desk was on the other side of some thin wallboard from a lawyer who would periodically go ballistic. I bailed—on the positive side, I was renting by the month—and now have a lovely space with big sunny windows a couple blocks away, the only slight issue being that I periodically find the microwave filled with peppermint-scented rocks.[21]

5. Your team. Or not.

Paul Graham [22] makes the case that the most efficient programming operation—and this would certainly apply to a data science operation—is about a dozen people [23] with a diverse set of skills who completely trust the quality of each other’s work and generally self-manage. He further argues that only in these organizations is your income likely to be pretty close to your true marginal contribution to the enterprise: anything larger and some of that income is lost to management infrastructure, and other parts are lost to equalization policies.[24]

That’s the ideal, rather than the route I’ve gone, which is nominally to work alone, though in reality I’m in almost daily email contact with one or more people in a geographically dispersed group of, well, about a dozen people with a diverse set of skills whose work I completely trust.

Were a suitable opportunity to present itself, I’ve no question that this cluster could work more efficiently were it focused on a single project and quite possibly (but not necessarily) in close physical proximity, but there is a core constraint one has to confront here: $100,000, which is roughly the amount of revenue you need to support every programmer.[25] That is a high hurdle, and while I’m risk acceptant to some degree, I haven’t gotten to that level yet.

6. Keep three or four projects going or in the works

Almost all programming projects are transient—the entire point of the enterprise is to get something running that the client can take over—so you need to keep new ones coming in. It’s too early to say whether “data science” projects will be different but I’m guessing at the levels where this has been out-sourced, that may also be the case, though it may not be. [26]

A skill you will need to develop if you haven’t already is being ruthlessly realistic about estimating the time and effort required to complete a project: this is not just with respect to the total amount of time required but also the point at which you need to start wrapping things up—data science projects tend to be very open-ended—so that you can finish things cleanly with good reports and documentation, and the latter tends to take a lot longer than you think. Most academics have a heck of a lot of unused time on their hands: you won’t, and rosy scenarios are not your friend.[27] And once again, remember that despite everything you read in the start-up porn, “fail early, fail often” only applies to white males from a tiny number of elite schools.

7. Learn php and javascript

Even if you are primarily working in R and Python, which you presumably will be. You may not need these other languages to build your own tools (though you may) but it will give you wizardly credibility: people—for example, your mother—may not know what data science is but they know what a web page is.

Beyond that, look forward to a constant effort of keeping your skill set up to date and trying to make those critical decisions as to which of the new technologies is worthy of your investment and which in a couple of years will have been relegated to the [unbelievably huge] scrapheap of technological history. You will live not in moldering library stacks and stifling seminar rooms [28], but by GitHub and Stack-Overflow, Slack and Google Hangout, Dropbox and Amazon Web Services. Open source and open access, always [29].

And then enjoy the wonder of a world where you can operate at the cutting edge of your profession using nothing but your wits and an investment in a professional-quality laptop.

To conclude:

Five out of my last seven political methodology students at Penn State have chosen to go into non-academic data science positions. Presumably that means their training at Penn State is either really bad, or really good. The fact that two of those placements were at Google and Apple, which have thousands of applicants for every position, I’m inclined to the latter interpretation.

Granting that I am an egotistical sonofabitch embedded in twenty-first century United States culture, the single biggest benefit of going feral is knowing that I’ve now gone for three years supporting myself in the same professional lifestyle I had when supported by a large institution but I’ve done it on my own: no one is hiring me because I’m affiliated with X. Priceless.

May the bridges you burn light your way

Beyond the Snark

Paul Graham’s blog: http://www.paulgraham.com/.

Paul Graham’s Hackers and Painters :http://www.paulgraham.com/hackpaint.html (hey, give the poor starving author a break: Quora says his net worth is only somewhere between $260M and $1.4B.)

Another recent take on non-academic tracks for political methodologists: Andrew Therriault Finding a Place in Political Data Science (PS, July 2016) http://journals.cambridge.org/download.php?file=%2FPSC%2FPSC49_03%2FS1049096516000925a.pdf&code=6b6b49ff6c2cd9af6798fcc5c0bfb3b2.

Joel Spolsky on why programmers need offices with walls: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000043.html

Science (20 May 2016: Vol. 352, Issue 6288, pp. 899-901): Preprints for the life sciences http://science.sciencemag.org/content/352/6288/899.full

The Mythical Man-Month: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mythical_Man-Month

The Psychology of Computer Programming: http://www.geraldmweinberg.com/Site/Programming_Psychology.html

Why it’s better to let cougars kill pets and joggers than to allow deer to kill motorists (and eat hosta): http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/19/science/too-many-deer-on-the-road-let-cougars-return-study-says.html (Bambis, we hates them forever)

Various previous mouse entries relevant to this topic:

Boring mechanics of setting up a business: The Mouse Goes Into Business [2]https://asecondmouse.wordpress.com/2014/12/28/the-mouse-goes-into-business-2/

Business climate: The Mouse Goes Into Business [1]: https://asecondmouse.wordpress.com/2014/10/11/the-mouse-goes-into-business-1/

Oligopolies: Seven reflections on Trump, Sanders and the crisis of bozo capitalismhttps://asecondmouse.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/seven-reflections-trump-sanders-and-the-crisis-of-bozo-capitalism/

Banks hate independent contractors: Mr. Bernanke’s mortgage: https://asecondmouse.wordpress.com/2014/10/04/mr-bernankes-mortgage/

“Going Feral”:Going Feral! Or “So long, and thanks for all the fish…”https://asecondmouse.wordpress.com/2013/08/01/going-feral-or-so-long-and-thanks-for-all-the-fish/


Following up on “Feral”https://asecondmouse.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/following-up-on-feral/

42-page rant on what’s wrong with the contemporary academic system and why it isn’t going to last: http://7ds.parusanalytics.com/7DS.University.chpt.pdf


1. : Okay, so I can: none… Like you hadn’t guessed.

2. Even with those constraints, that’s about the point where I shifted from a conventional teaching track to a research-oriented track: I’m pretty sure the last time I taught a full course load was in my late 40s.

3. You will never realize just how much you know about human psychology and organizational behavior—any humans, any organizations—until you start working with computer scientists. To say nothing of research design.

4. The fourth common component is visualization, though I don’t really have skills in that area and thus far they haven’t been required. Though there is also something to be said for the definition cited by Therriault: a data scientist is someone who can’t write software as well as a software developer or do statistics as well as a statistician, but nonetheless can do both.

5. Or, let us be realistic, with the current demand for people who call themselves “data scientists”, even if you don’t…

6. If your core academic competency is writing jargon-laden critiques of why quantitative models cannot possibly work, you will probably need to continue grading blue books indefinitely, and you might want to just stop reading at this point lest you become very, very sad. No, wait, such people don’t get sad, just outraged. Which, of course, is the same thing.

7. So stay away from the start-up porn, or at least don’t take it seriously: Beyond the fact that the vast majority of startups fail, even in the ones that succeed most of the employees of startups don’t get the benefits, and can be left with burdensome tax obligations after those highly valued unicorny—or is it unicornish?—stock options decline in price. But again, that’s someone else’s essay. Just be cautious, okay?: there’s a critical difference between getting out of the box and going out of your mind.

8. And discuss it with your partner, if such an entity is in the picture. Avoid those “Honey, I’ve decided to go into business for myself!” “Oh, so you’ve been fired?” situations. Though my wife was amused to watch the reaction of people when they said “Your husband retired” and she corrected “No, he quit.” Invariably, people—granted, this was in a company town—responded with variations on “But no one quits a tenured job!” Yes, they do.

9. As for non-tenure-track positions in academia: hmmm, are those in the fifth or sixth circles of Hell? <TRIGGER WARNING!!!> To paraphrase Denis Diderot—hey, man, wasn’t he a midfielder on Cameroon’s World Cup team in 1990?—academia will be free when the last associate dean is strangled with the entrails of the last journal publisher, dumped in the ruins of the last student aquatic center and buried by a press-gang of the last post-modernists </TRIGGER WARNING!!!> I digress.

10. If you are a 20-something reading this, you probably don’t need to plan quite that far ahead.

11. As well as dealing with payment delays that can run into months. Though as we’ve entered the era of zero to negative interest rates, I’m finding my invoices are being filled noticeably more quickly. Funny, that.

12. Though, after tenure, without much required in the way of a work ethic.

13. …subsidizing loss-making athletic programs; paying for the insurance, liability claims and golden parachute payouts of disgraced administrators of profit-making athletic programs…I digress…

14. A speaker I recently heard who heads a Charlottesville-based engineering startup quite possibly heading for unicorn territory put the issue succinctly: “Silicon Valley has the best tech ecosystem in the entire world. But unless you are in the top 1% of income, it is a shitty place to live.”

14a. I didn’t actually appreciate Charlottesville’s software situation until I attended one of my first data science meet-ups and casually mentioned to some stranger that Parus Analytics might be hiring a Python programmer at some point. The gentleman, exercising those social skills for which programmers are so famous, gave me a look of disgust and said “Well, good luck with that: no one around here can hire Python programmers because there’s too much demand for them.” Well…I suppose that’s an issue if you are trying to hire a Python programmer, but quite a different situation if you are already a Python programmer.

15. If this is your planned career strategy, taking a few pointers from the Federal witness protection program probably wouldn’t hurt either.

16. We recently returned for an extended vacation in the Bay Area, where my wife had worked for about 15 years in the 1980s and 1990s. Our conclusion: the restaurants in Charlottesville are better. And saving $2000 a month in housing costs buys a lot of restaurant meals.

17. For example the regulation of ginseng dealers. Because as political theorists from Montesquieu through Weber to Skocpol have emphasized, one of the core functions of the modern state is to protect the citizenry from the threat of substandard ginseng.

18. Years ago I saw an advertisement in some airport with a picture of the stereotypical evil besuited banker, cigar in hand, saying “You don’t need a small business loan, you need a job!” Yep, that’s the attitude. I’ve discussed this issue in more detail here: Apply for a mortgage as a sole proprietor and, whatever your assets, you will be politely but firmly told to go to hell. Though this will be blamed on Obama, Clinton, Warren and the Illuminati. Nonetheless, I own a house. With deer.

19. To whom I owe at least half of the ideas in this essay.

20. The building where my office is now located also houses a web developer, at least three psychological therapists, one Rolfer, one hot-stone massage therapist, a small trade journal, and a couple lawyers. Adjacent properties—all converted residences—have a remarkable number of hedge fund managers, a Sotheby’s office catering to those hedge fund managers, still more lawyers (we’re near the county courthouse), and a hospice.

21. Based on having now rented four spaces, two of which I was very happy with and two which didn’t work out, here are the criteria I use:

  1. About 200 square feet with walls and a door: I like to sprawl.
  2. Not too many people around, but not too few
  3. Kitchen (but I don’t use conference rooms nor teleconferencing facilties)
  4. High-speed internet
  5. Windows!
  6. Walking distance from home and walking distance to a coffee shop (or in the case of the Charlottesville pedestrian mall, six coffee shops)
  7. Weekend parking 
  8. When furnishing your new digs, Habitat for Humanity ReStore outlets and Goodwill are your friends: you can get amazing stuff there. It’s all zero-sum on your money now. Put Lowe’s in the mix as well.

22. Did I mention that you should read Paul Graham?

23. Roughly the size of a modern infantry squad. And a Roman infantry squad. And a Mongol cavalry squad. And a baboon foraging party: we’re hard-wired for this number.

24. I’m guessing small groups also do a lot of income equalization but they are able to much more effectively monitor and sanction slackers.

25. The median salary of a programmer in Charlottesville is reportedly $76K—presumably not including benefits—so adding those benefits and even minimal administrative overhead, $125K to $150K annual revenue is probably more realistic. So at the self-managing baboon troop level a project would probably need a minimum of around $1.5M in annual revenue. An organization at the baboon level should also be able to get by with an overhead rate of 10% to 15%, substantially less than that of larger organizations, and this will sometimes, though not always, provide a competitive advantage.

26. This actually gets to what I regard as one of the two most important economic  (or political-economy) questions of our time (the other being, of course, the rise in income inequality): what sort of long-term balance will be achieved between the incredible efficiency of baboon-troop-sized small enterprises and the oligopolies of contemporary “bozo capitalism.”  The disintermediation made possible by new technologies is reversing the classical Coase transaction cost justification for the corporation, but at the same time corporate power is being concentrated at levels not seen in more than a century. Where does it all end?

27. You will also find that you shift from placing a premium on the multi-tasking required in academia—and pretty much any large organization—where you rarely have large blocks of focused time, to highly focused uni-tasking where your objective is to be at the production-possibility frontier of quality vs time. Observed from the perspective of a small group where your income is entirely dependent on what you can produce, the amount of time wasted in the endless pointless meetings characteristic of large organizations is jaw-dropping.

28. Or, god forbid, reading proprietary social science journals: Trying to do research reading the published social science literature is like trying to drive by looking through the rear window using a telescope. For example, an article I had coauthored was recently linked from an interview in the Washington Post. Which was really cool, except that the original idea had been drafted—I remember this very clearly since it was during PolMeth XXIII at UC-Davis—a full ten years earlier.

29. There is nice recent discussion in Science on the huge advantage computer scientists have gained by emphasizing open-access pre-prints (and arXiv specifically) over proprietary journals. Science has the sense to leave this open-access rather than pay-walled. At least at the moment. Thus depriving us of an opportunity for deeply ironic snark.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

7 reasons political science “math camp” is a complete waste of your time

This little rant is going to piss off a lot of people in my professional circles but, well, I’m known for doing that sort of thing.

So, today, I announce my support for Donald Trump for president.

KIDDING!!! Though what follows will probably be just about as popular.

I just started tweeting at the beginning of this year, and I’m still trying to figure out—along with, I’m guessing, no small part of those in the twittersphere who both blog and tweet but don’t make a living from either [1]—when to blog and when to tweet. Though I sense that there is some threshold, probably around three or four, where multiple tweets probably mean I should be blogging instead.

And such was the situation this morning where I went on a tweet-rant against the political science “math camp” concept, albeit in response to an innocent posting on the utility of computer programming from John Beieler and in no small part from being stuck at a garage for an extended period of time while it was ascertained whether the tires on my Vespa would pass state inspection. [2]  But in fact, I’d actually had a note to write an essay on this topic back in August—now that would have really been cruel, eh?—so it’s not like this hadn’t occurred to me before.

So I’ll write it now, when it will presumably be forgotten by August, though not before some subset of you, dear readers, decide among competing graduate school offers. Cue maniacal laughter, “Fools, I will destroy them all!…”

I digress.

But first, two clarifications. By “math camp” I mean the hazing exercises conducted on the part of an increasing number of political science graduate programs which, in one or two weeks, purport to impart to students, many of whom have probably had little classroom instruction taught in mathematics departments since their first year in college or even AP courses in high school, a crash course in “mathematics” which, if the material I’ve seen on syllabi and texts is any indication, goes through about the level of the first year of a graduate degree in mathematics. Having completed both an undergraduate and master’s degree in mathematics I am, to put it mildly, skeptical.

Not to be totally, negative, I’ll actually just give three reasons why “math camp” is a terrible idea, and then four reasons why the time would be better spent on basic computer programming, the gist of the inspirational tweet of @johnb30. Who bears no responsibility for the rant to follow and for all I know, loved “math camp.” Though somehow I doubt this.

1. The basic “math camp” concept is ludicrous

My mathematics education—effectively in applied mathematics and mathematical statistics—involved a total of about 50 semester credit hours, half at the undergraduate level and half graduate.  That’s roughly 750 classroom hours, and once beyond the introductory level, probably at least two hours of homework (often more) for every hour in the classroom, so let’s round the total to 2000 hours, and say fully half of it wouldn’t be considered part of a “math camp” curriculum—very conservative estimate, based on what I’ve seen— so we’re left with material that experienced instructors using a curriculum that has been refined over the past three centuries believe requires at least 1,000 hours to master.

Political science programs claim to be able to teach this same material in 40 to 80 hours. Yeah, right.

2. Even if you know the basics, you can’t learn the rest of mathematics on your own because it is a complex culture

No, I’m not going post-modern on you here, since that culture is subject to a highly constrained set of rules, not “Wow, that feels good, hand me another of those candies you brought back from Denver, and wow, isn’t Derrida sooooo like cool!!!” But mathematics is an intricately linked set of rules, idioms and norms which one slowly learns through a progressive sequence of purely mental exercises that has been refined over, literally, centuries. Mathematics can certainly be taught badly—alas in the secondary education system in the US, that’s virtually the only thing one encounters [3]—but teaching it properly is a very gradual process requiring constant feedback, attention, inculturation into professional norms and hundred of hours of intensive practice involving oftentimes intense concentration which must also be learned. After the basic level, this is done almost entirely through the mastery of mathematical proofs, which while dependent on algebra, are largely extended exercises in formal logic, the sorts of things where—yes, this actually happens, regularly—you spend hours staring at something and running around in mental circles until, finally, the step forward is completely obvious.

3. Most of what passes for “mathematics” in political science is just very bad algebraic notation.

The first couple of years as a naive assistant professor, I actually tried to write articles in a mathematical style for political science journals. Thanks to a very accommodating committee, I’d gotten away with that in my dissertation [4] but it went nowhere in the journals. The grounds for rejection was real subtle: one review from a four-letter journal literally just said “Too much math, no one will understand it.”  So I switched first to statistical analysis (plus some field work) and eventually to mostly doing software and data development, and did okay.

Though, I suppose “no one will understand it” was an accurate appraisal, and perhaps the reviewer was doing the four-letter journal, and maybe even me, a favor. The apparent exception to this rule were the algebraic “proofs” of the “rational choice” school, which I never really warmed to because it looked like really bad social science masquerading as even worse algebra—sort of the formal equivalent of post modernism, which is really bad social science masquerading as even worse exposition—and in subsequent years rational choice has been thoroughly dispatched back to the netherworld by the likes of Kahneman, Tversky, Thalin and now a generation or two of skilled behavioral economists. The four-letter journals would publish long proofs that were nothing more than convoluted algebraic identities, tied together with the cookbook invocation—sort of an extended shamanistic ritual, minus (I presume) the animal sacrifices, though one occasionally wondered—of a couple complex theorems the author almost certainly could not even begin to prove on their own, and I suppose one can still get away with some of that. [5]

[Political science involvement in statistics, on the other hand, has taken a very different route in the decades after political methodologists, initially led by Chris Achen and John Jackson, set up their own organization and established journals that could enforce a high level of standards without penalizing authors for complexity. Full development of this took a couple of decades but it has now reached a point where some of the methodological developments which either originated in or saw extensive practical development by political scientists are at the cutting edge of applied statistical work. A possible downside of this has been that individuals trained to state-of-the-art political science methods can oftentimes find for more attractive employment outside of political science, either in more methodologically-friendly academic departments or in industry. Meanwhile in mainstream political science, “Too much math, no one will understand it” lives on.]

So, from the perspective of actually learning any mathematics, you are completely wasting your time in “math camp.” That said, you will presumably get up to speed with some remedial algebra and learn a bit of new notation [11], though I cannot understand where anyone got the idea that these are more effectively conveyed in isolation than in the context where they are actually used. And, of course, as is the nature of hazing exercises, you will share the first of many, many WTF moments with a group of strangers who over the next decade will almost certainly become some of the most important people in your life, and perhaps this is all that “math camp” is really supposed to accomplish.

However, if you are in a quantitatively-oriented political science program [6] what you should be doing, per @johnb30, is learning more computer programming. For at least four reasons:

4. Contemporary quantitative political science is data science

And data science is now recognized (alas, I forget who first came out with this formulation) as pretty much equal amounts of statistics, machine learning, data wrangling via some toolkit of general purpose programming languages, and data visualization. You need all four, though probably not quite equally: I’d go lighter on the visualization and make sure your statistics training is both frequentist and Bayesian (and to the extent you can get away with it, your statistical practice is mostly Bayesian).

5. The journal referees won’t penalize you for the complexity of computational methods

Or at least there are now a set of journals with the high impact ratings that will get you jobs, tenure, promotions, grants and happy deans and deanlets that will not penalize you. Nowadays complex material can not only be put on the web, but due to replication standards, it will probably be required to be on the web. But as long as your code does what you say it does, so you are unlikely to be penalized for the fact that your work is complicated. Or involves math. The emergence of R and Python as open source data processing lingua franca also has helped a lot.

6. Once you’ve got the basics, you can—and will—learn more programming on your own.

This is a fundamental difference between mathematics and computer programming: mathematics is a highly formal and complex means of communication between mathematicians, whereas programming languages are a highly formal and complex means of communication between humans and machines. But it is a two-way communication: mess up a program syntactically and the machine will let you know, or (well, when the data fairy is being uncharacteristically kind) this will be evident in the results. Furthermore, unless the pace of development slows dramatically, in ten years, or certainly twenty years, you will be doing most of your formal work in a completely different system than you are using today, and you will have learned those new skills outside of any formal educational context. [7] You will be able to do this easily because of the vast and ever-evolving array of open resources available on the Web: work regularly with the Web as, effectively, your assistant and technical go-fer sufficiently long and you almost start to believe in this “singularity” stuff at least in some sense.  

Programming is learned by writing programs, reading code, and, critically, re-writing (“re-factoring”) your own code as you become more skillful. This is a life-long process. Or should be. 

7. It is worth going beyond the basics

Anyone who has programmed an Excel spreadsheet has done, well, programming at a basic level. I’ve seen political science graduate students with little or no formal programming coursework developing scripts in R or Stata at very high levels of complexity, albeit needlessly high because they could have done the tasks a lot more easily in perl or Python. Web programming used to be sort of a trailer-trash backwater, suitable for the likes of UFO-worshipping suicide cults, but after a couple of decades has evolved to high levels of sophistication that require knowledge of some underlying theoretical concepts to use effectively.

The problem with just focusing on self-taught (and peer-taught) programming is it is easy to by-pass (or only partially learn) some important concepts that go well beyond little rules of thumb like making sure every line ends with a semi-colon and absolutely never write something where white space is syntactically important.[8] First and foremost, data structures beyond arrays, and object-oriented programming concepts.  These do need to be learned, IMHO, because you can program without them—for the first couple of decades of computer programming, the entire community did—but you can be far more efficient if you know how to use them.[9] At the secondary level, learn correct idiomatic programming in your languages of choice, both because script-based systems like R and Python are implemented with common idioms in mind (that is, idiomatic code will be better optimized), and you need to know idioms to read code, and as almost everything you will use will be open source, you will read a lot of code.

So Phil, this sounds great—can’t you make it just a little less snarky [10] and put it in the form of a departmental memo to the graduate curriculum committee…oh, too late for that…well, why didn’t you put it in the form of a memo and try to get it implemented at one of those graduate programs that tolerated your lack of faith and notoriously bad attitude for decades?

Been there, did that: tried to get something like this adopted for a good quarter century to no avail, and finally just slunk out into the sunset. Or something.

Leaving you poor bastards to face, alas, “math camp.”


1. If you do make a living from blogging, like Dan Drezner, Ross Douthat or Ezra Klein, the synergy with Twitter is obvious and effective.

2. They didn’t: of the myriad ways one could discover that scooter tires need replacing, an annual inspection is probably the least painful and expensive. Despite being another one of those horrible ways that damn gov-mit intrudes on our private lives! Horrible, horrible. Running over a pedestrian or pancaking into a semi would have accomplished the same thing without all that useless bureaucracy. Damn gov-mit… I digress…

3. I got very lucky to have a junior high school math teacher who pushed beyond this, though I think he only lasted in the system a few years before departing to work in the financial sector, which I somehow suspect paid better than teaching in southern Indiana. The mathematics department at Indiana University, where I did both my undergraduate and graduate work, took pedagogy very seriously, and I also had several very skilled teachers, including Daniel Maki and Maynard Thompson, pioneers in teaching about mathematical models of social processes, Pesi R. Mansani, a student of Norbert Weiner who taught a decidedly rigorous year-long probability theory course, and during a one-year visiting gig after he retired from Berkeley, the inimitable statistician Henry Scheffé who, like George E.P. Box, emphasized that in statistical analysis, it is foolish to be concerned about mice when there are tigers about.

4. And kiddos, what was worse than running programs from punched cards?: typing publication-quality equations before LaTeX. Damn whippersnappers don’t know how good they’ve got it…get off my lawn…

5. This is probably an urban legend but one of the mathematicians at Northwestern who helped develop NU’s Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences program—which when I was involved took around nine quarter-length courses to cover what a typical “math camp” tries to do in two weeks, and this for a highly selective cohort of students—was said to have been sitting watching some rational choice dude, probably a hapless job candidate, going through a “proof” that filled three blackboards (in the era when actual blackboards still existed and would cover three or four walls of mathematics classrooms).  When the “proof” was finished, he got up, erased all but the first two and last two lines, wrote two more lines in the middle, and said “That’s all you need for this proof.” Though a in later era, of course, he would have said “That’s not a proof, this is a proof.”

6. If you aren’t going for quantitative training, just spend lots and lots of time in the field, whatever “the field” corresponds to in your subject domain. Get yourself somewhere people really wish you weren’t—I think that advice can apply to pretty much everything worth studying qualitatively in political science—though please don’t get yourself killed, which could happen in places like Egypt and sooner or later probably Trump rallies. But also minimize your time in seminar rooms: they are toxic.

7. In the roughly fifty years I’ve been programming, I’ve transitioned through five primary languages: FORTRAN, Pascal, C/C++, perl and now Python. Plus a cluster of secondary languages like assembler, Algol, SNOBOL, Java and now javascript. The transitions in statistical packages were a bit slower: SPSS to Stata to R to a still evolving suite of Python tools. By contrast, your high school geometry textbook was basically written by “Euclid” around 2300 years ago; the first-year college calculus curriculum has changed little in 200 years.

8. Python joke[s]…we’re just bundles of laughs, programmers…

9. An instructive example: the TABARI automated coder, written largely in C, was exceedingly fast for its time (ca. 2000) because it worked quite close to the machine level, largely doing its own memory management and working almost entirely with nested pointers. When I wrote the initial version of the PETRARCH coder as the successor to TABARI in Python, which is at a higher level of abstraction, the program was quite slow. Then last summer Clayton Norris, a computer science and linguistics student working as a summer intern at Caerus Associates, re-wrote the core of PETRARCH using contemporary data structures appropriate to both Python and the Treebank parsed input it uses, and increased the speed of the program by about a factor of ten.   

10. Moi?…dream on…

11. But as I tweeted, notation alone doesn’t get you very far: knowing the common notation from mathematical statistics is like saying you’ve learned Arabic because you know the alphabet, can recognize a few common words on shop signs and restaurant menus, and will toss in a few instances of “insh’allah” (“p-value”) and “yani” (“significant”) into your conversation.

Posted in Higher Education, Methodology | 4 Comments

Seven reflections on Trump, Sanders and the crisis of bozo capitalism

pdf_iconFreedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.
Ronald Reagan

Blogs are funny things. “Seven Deadly Sinsstarted as discussant notes on a perfect storm of a bad ISA paper, and the hapless presenter actually enjoyed the rant because a senior scholar was giving the work such close attention. “Going Feral began as a two-page cri de coeur in my obligatory annual report at Penn State. The two people who should have paid attention to it didn’t, so it gets 27,000 views instead. Go figure.

And this essay started as a 3600-word rant against the inanities of United Airlines discovered during my efforts to get home from Europe following Storm Jonas.[1] But in the process of thrashing about trying to focus that essay, I realized I was onto something much bigger: the problem with United is not merely that they are a greedy incompetent oligopolist, but that greedy incompetent oligopolists dominate the Old Economy generally, and in 2016 this is having profound political effects. Our problem is not capitalism, but bozo capitalism.

So off we go… [2]

Bozo capitalism—you heard it here first!—results from the convergence of six late 20th century phenomenon which have combined to produce a system where the management of large sectors of the economy is under the control of clueless dolts even while other parts of the economy are thriving. The causal chain occurred as follows:

  1. As Adam Smith argued extensively in the 18th century and Mancur Olson argued in the 20th, one of the inherent instabilities of market economies are the outsized rewards which come from using political power to restrict competition. Free market systems are not innately stable but need to be maintained…
  1. An idea lost on the followers of Rand and Reagan by the late 20th century, who happily let the system run amok in the naive belief, owing far more to Jean-Jacques Rousseau than to Smith or Burke (or Hayek), that any political interference with markets led to sub-optimal outcomes. Beliefs that were probably actively encouraged by…
  1. The increasing resources and dominance of finance capital, fueled by the [inter-related] combination of increasing concentration of wealth and the proliferation of computer technology allowing for the development of mind-booglingly complex financial instruments whose [supposed] critical characteristic was removing virtually all links between the returns on the instrument and the performance (and ownership) of the underlying assets. While this had a number of effects—notably financial meltdowns such as the various Third World debt crises of the 1980s, the savings-and-loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, some elements of the internet bubble of the late 1990s, and eventually the Great Recession—it encouraged a series of highly lucrative mergers and acquisitions which accelerated the conversion of many sectors of the economy from at least vaguely competitive market systems to thoroughly entrenched oligopolies. While at the same time, generally on the opposite coast of the USA from those financial centers…
  1. The twin technological revolutions of the personal computer and the internet fueled the rise of an entirely new economic ecosystem driven by entrepreneurship which, probably starting about 1990, attracted far and away the best and the brightest of at least two generations to the prospect of creating exciting new companies outside the dull but increasingly politically privileged oligopolies of the old order. A few of these companies succeeded and became huge in their own right—in the 21st century, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google—and many more succeeded to the point where they could be purchased (either for their inventions, or—you guessed it—to simply eliminate competition) by the apex predators. But, let us be realistic, most of these start-ups failed, but the individuals who had been involved in them…
  1. Did not go to work for the oligopolies—once one has experienced the freedom of a start-up, becoming a corporate drone has all the attraction of dining on a steaming plate of dog poop mixed with broken glass—but instead embarked on the various routes—again, enabled by the diffusion of computing power and instant communications—to a very comfortable and satisfying life outside of the corporate oligopolies and financial sector (and, for that matter, other large institutions such as, ahem, academia…). Which meant that those institutions were left with…
  1. The losers and psychopaths who were sufficiently privileged from birth and elite (typically legacy) education to function in very large established organizations so long as those were politically protected from the market, but not clever enough to make it in a market-driven new technology start-up. The contemporary poster child would, of course, be Martin Shkreli, but we see this in Jeffery Skilling of Enron, John Sculley at Apple, James Cayne of Bear Sterns [3] and thousands of others. You know the general type: the guys in Ted Cruz’s fraternity who were in charge of waterboarding pledges and procuring cocaine and date-rape drugs and were tolerated mostly because their Daddy’s millions helped pay for the rent and the legal fees. And the cocaine.

In a nutshell, we’ve got way too many Old Economy executives who think they are John Galt or Steve Jobs when in fact they are Charles Montgomery Burns.  


This, of course, has been the New Economy view of the Old Economy from the beginning, though their ire has far too frequently been diverted into a naive libertarianism which blames all ills on the government. A viewpoint encouraged by vast amounts of funding invested in “Look, a squirrel!” efforts by new right-of-center “think tanks.” [4] Granted, government can certainly be a problem [17] but government discretionary spending is less than 8% of the economy and has generally been declining during the period that the New Economy has developed.[19] So government screw-ups, while doubtlessly irritating, necessarily pale in comparison to the influence of the bozos on the commanding heights of the Old Economy, and while many of those in the New Economy have the luxury of indulging themselves in the fantasy world of Rousseauian libertarianism, there is a very significant segment of the population which instead…

  1. Has to cope with a largely dysfunctional system which is not only beyond their control economically, due to stagnating incomes and exponentially increasing inequality, but also politically, thanks to the likes of Tom “Pay-to-play” DeLay and the institutionalization of K-Street corruption culminating, of course, in Citizens United. But as important, the supposedly liberal champions of the masses, the heirs to the Roosevelt/Johnson coalition, think nothing of accepting five-times the median family income to give a single speech to Goldman Sachs. Yes, earning more in a couple hours than the average family would earn in five years. And thinking absolutely nothing of it.

For these people,and there are a very large number of them—damn! democracy! damn, damn, damn, damn! —the system is not merely inaccessible, but incompetent on a day-to-day basis because those in charge simply don’t have the wherewithal behind their foreheads to make it otherwise. [5]

So we experience the entirely predictable sub-prime mortgage collapse—wow, maybe someone should make a movie about that! And then there is your local cable company: You just love your cable company, right, and every month you get a bill that includes fees for the Snake Channel and the Hitler Channel when frankly, you’ve seen enough of both snakes and Hitler, but you thank your lucky stars that you live in America where the local cable franchise is a protected monopoly, and are even more thankful that your service has a fraction of the speed, and multiple of the cost, of what you’d have in Europe or South Korea because, well, if it was faster you’d just have to see more videos of snakes and Hitler.

And United Airlines. But that’s deserves an entire entry itself.

Thus explaining contemporary landscape of American politics in a single sentence “The system is rigged.”  [6] Not just rigged, but rigged to favor and entrench the incompetent. That, ye of the pundit class, who do finally seem to be “getting it”, is what is driving voters to support Trump and Sanders instead of the establishment.

Quod erat demonstrandum

Where do we go from here?

Let me start by noting that not everything in the Old Economy is done incompetently. True bozo capitalism actually requires considerable economic, political and social effort: you must achieve an oligopolistic position, secure it through the purchase of political favors, and then develop a corporate culture that will drive out anyone who might know what they are doing. All that takes a lot of time, and many firms have chosen not to follow this path: Truly, not every company and corporate executive has what it takes to be a bozo.  And there’s the inconvenient fact that if a firm is truly competent in the market, it has little or no incentive to purchase political protection.

But enterprises who do embark on the Path of the Bozo are nearly impossible to avoid unless you have a lot of money. Like the sort of money the political establishments in both parties have: business class or corporate jets, life in gated communities, accountants, and concierge services. For everyone else, it is day after day of small unavoidable insults—the airline that won’t let you change a ticket because of illness or when a relative has died, the insurance company that loses your payment even as it has already been charged to your credit card [7], the endless sessions with some call center in Bangladesh that end with you on hold for fifteen minutes, then with no warning, “Click…” That’s life for most people outside of the upper political and economic strata.

I outlined in a previous essay a strategy on how the Democrats, by taking the reasonable complaints of the Trump voters seriously—and there are many such complaints (and voters)—could lock up both the presidency and the Senate with ease. They could even drive the final nail into the coffin of the Republican Party except that the Republicans have been so busy at this task that it would be hard to find room for another nail.

But that isn’t happening, and I’d postulate it won’t happen because the Democratic establishment is every bit as beholden to the bozo capitalist class as the GOP. And that won’t change: the wealth of the Democratic donor class is particularly dependent on exploiting the lower middle class. Oh, and have you noticed the folks down at the Elks Club aren’t offering $225,000 for a speech?

So where we are at the moment? Going right to left on the political spectrum:

If he can keep his campaign staff out of jail, Mr. Popularity will pick up the not-insignificant social conservative block and those parts of the Tea Party economic conservatives who cannot support Trump’s positions on the welfare state.

All of these offer the third term of George W. Bush, meaning ballooning deficits due to tax cuts for the wealthy, ill-conceived and unfunded wars concocted by wealthy establishment chickenhawks but with the lower middle class doing the fighting and dying, and in the end yet another bubble collapsing with more bailouts going to the bozo capitalists. To the utter horror and surprise of the GOP consultant class, this prospect just isn’t catching on.

The Donald [8] has the advantage that he can go straight to the core issues of his now clearly defined constituency without the constraints of an ideology: his statement in support of Planned Parenthood was brilliant.[9] Insisting on defining the Pope’s job: well, probably less so.[10] Trump continues to triangulate by the day but will almost certainly converge to a welfare state populism which is simply a U.S. variant of contemporary wide-spread and increasingly successful European right-wing populism.

Clinton appropriately promises an Obama-3 administration with tantalizing prospects of the peace and prosperity of the Bill Clinton-3 administration, which is certainly more attractive than Bush-3. Granted, it leaves the financial class and bozo capitalists firmly in control, but since the Clinton and Obama terms saw steady, if gradual, improvements for minorities—look at the data in Case and Deaton—particularly those outside the cohort (apparently now extending down to the age of 12) subject to random extrajudicial executions by police and white vigilantes, there are plenty of votes to be found from that position. But this prospect offers very little to younger voters, and is literally a death sentence for some in the cohort of lower middle class whites identified by Case and Deaton.

He looks, walks and quacks like a democratic socialist, so I’m granting that he is a democratic socialist. And consequently very attractive to the young, who basically have nothing to gain under the current system, who are totally repelled by the racism and misogyny of Trump [11], and who are sufficiently cosmopolitan—either individually or through their social networks—to know that life in the lower quintiles of a European socialist democracy can be pretty darn good. Sander’s problem is that he is trying to be Roosevelt—both of them—in the 21st century and has yet to formulate an economic plan that is even remotely coherent: “cookies, kittens and bunnies, for everyone!” doesn’t cut it.

Add to this mix the likelihood we will be looking at a three—or conceivably even four—person race, with Bloomberg entering if Trump is the GOP candidate (and certainly if Trump is combined with Sanders on the Democratic side), and Trump (and possibly Bloomberg) as an independent candidate if he is not nominated, unless something goes humiliatingly bad for him in the “SEC primaries” of 1 March and he is legitimately eliminated from the GOP race.

And here at mouseCorp? Well, I’d be really happy if some adult supervision, starting with economics and foreign policy, came to Team Sanders. Certainly not too late for that.[12]

But here’s what I really want…

Klobuchar-Castro 2016!

Yeah, 2016, not 2020 or 2024. Because if Trump is elected, there may not be an election in 2020.[13]

We could well be looking at brokered conventions in both parties, so anything is possible.

At least think about it, eh?

Beyond the Snark

Mancur Olson: http://www.amazon.com/The-Rise-Decline-Nations-Stagflation/dp/0300030797

Adam Smith, J-J Rousseau, etc.: if you need these references, none of the rest of this essay will be making any sense. Though please note that when I’m associating a position with Rousseau, that’s not meant as a compliment.

In capitalist economies, political institutions still matter:
Baumol, Litan and Schramm: http://www.amazon.com/Good-Capitalism-Economics-Growth-Prosperity/dp/0300158327
Acemoglu and Robinson: http://www.amazon.com/Why-Nations-Fail-Origins-Prosperity/dp/0307719227
and…duh…Smith: http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN.html

The system is rigged: https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2016/02/10/donald-trump-explains-american-politics-in-a-single-sentence.

Earlier rant on how the system is rigged from the perspective of a [really] small business: https://asecondmouse.wordpress.com/2014/10/11/the-mouse-goes-into-business-1/

Worth looking at: http://theweek.com/articles/605312/conservatives-have-failed-donald-trumps-supporters. Or just read pretty much any of Ross Douthat’s recent columns.

Yet another op-ed—this time from that cesspool of the far left, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business—on the anti-market proclivities of the GOP:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/23/opinion/campaign-stops/donald-trump-crony-capitalist.html

Sanders’s economic policy needs some work: https://lettertosanders.wordpress.com/2016/02/17/open-letter-to-senator-sanders-and-professor-gerald-friedman-from-past-cea-chairs/

Sanders’s foreign policy needs some work: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/02/04/does-it-matter-that-bernie-sanders-thinks-foreign-policy-doesnt-matter-too-much/

Millennials have no interest in joining Old Economy corporations: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/bigcos-newcos-nine-trends-remaking-business-john-battelle

And some examples of what they are doing instead (along with an extended paean to general aviation): http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/03/how-america-is-putting-itself-back-together/426882/

Another article on life in the hellhole of Nordic democratic socialism (by one of my former Fulbright colleagues!): http://www.thenation.com/article/after-i-lived-in-norway-america-felt-backward-heres-why/

Anne Case and Angus Deaton:http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/03/health/death-rates-rising-for-middle-aged-white-americans-study-finds.html. For the original:http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/10/29/1518393112.abstract

United Airlines, we hates them forever!: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/travel/uniteds-effort-to-regain-air-travelers-trust-gets-off-the-ground–slowly/2016/01/21/a3ce3478-bb07-11e5-829c-26ffb874a18d_story.html

The Koch think tank network: http://www.amazon.com/Dark-Money-History-Billionaires-Radical/dp/0385535597

What happens to people who expose the Koch think tank network: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/01/koch-brothers-jane-mayer-dark-money


1. Further provoked by the unsurprising revelation in the Washington Post that making life miserable for its customers has actually been a core business strategy for United.

Granted, having once been stuck in Khartoum not knowing when I’d get out, being stuck in a major European city not knowing when I’d get out wasn’t a terrible hardship. But in a variety of ways, United—the corporation, not the line employees, who apparently fully realize they are working for a bunch of incompetent losers, and periodically engage in job actions at varying levels of subtlety to emphasize this point—did not handle this particularly well. And how come every time I encounter a United employee doing something nice, or even sensible, they are muttering “I’ll probably get in trouble for this…” These experiences, by the way, after paying an amount equivalent to the cost of a really, really nice Apple laptop for the ticket.

Though United: you’re not off the hook yet. Put me on a long flight following an unsatisfactory corporate experience and…blogs happen. Apple was the previous target.

2. Still waiting for the second half of the advice to DARPA program managers?: haven’t forgotten, just busy. Read Kahneman and Superforecasters, throw out anyone in the room who can’t explain the concepts of endogeneity, selection on the dependent variable and standard error, and you’ll be okay.

3. Cayne is now a mere footnote in the sordid history of the 2008 financial collapse, but he’s the guy who focused on international bridge competitions (the card game, not the physical structures: infrastructure is for, oh, yuck, those people) while the corporate house of cards [sic] he’d built—or rather supervised, sort of, while others built it for him—collapsed.

4. tl;dr alert! There’s another essay in waiting that was originally titled “Seven Things Liberals Can Learn from Classical Conservative Thought” but in light of events in the past few weeks, is being retitled  “Seven Things Conservatives Can Learn from Classical Conservative Thought,” as reasoned conservatism has all but disappeared from political discourse, replaced by a combination of bombast, paranoia and, well, liberalism.

Much of the blame for this lies with Fox News and talk radio, which never met a political fantasy so implausible or loathsome as to not attract an elderly white audience. But I think the conservative think tanks have failed miserably as well, particularly given the number of problems which have emerged which had been thoroughly anticipated by the likes of Smith, Mill, Schumpeter and Hayek. Instead, all we get now is some sort of vaguely Randian libertarianism devoid of social conscience, contract or history.

I’m beginning to wonder if, ironically, this lapse was an indulgence—which is finally instantiating the predictions of Karl Marx for godsakes!—made possible by the decline of the existential threat of Communism by the early 1980s [14], which allowed the conservatives in the liberal democracies to let down their guard on the End of History assumption that what remained was stable and unchallengeable. Yeah, End of History: how’s that working out for you?

But whatever the cause, the skepticism of classical conservatism has given way to a giddy combination of “what, me worry?/I got mine, Jack” libertarianism [15], largely on the West Coast and a few other New Economy enclaves, and a nearly clinical paranoid millenarianism pretty much everywhere else. Leaving this observer to wonder if many of these “think tanks” exist mostly to fill the role similar to that of the President of the Galaxy in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “The role of the office was not to exercise power, for it had none, but rather to distract attention away from where power was actually being exercised.” [16]

Well, more to follow. But meanwhile perhaps one should pay a little more attention to Epictetus, Machiavelli [18], Burke, Smith, Madison, Hayek and Buckley and a bit less to Limbaugh, Beck, Coulter, Norquist and Gingrich. Not holding my breath.

5. Oh, United Airlines [humming] “can’t get you off of my mind…” so I’m sitting over there in snow-imposed if not unduly unpleasant exile trying—quite unsuccessfully—to get anything coherent out of United’s 1980’s era computer system, and I’m thinking “Why is it the case that Google and Amazon can track my every whim—and those of a billion or so people throughout the industrialized world—even when I don’t want them to, and United can’t do so for a few tens of thousands of stranded customers even though we desperately want to be tracked!” Bozos.

In the midst of this, following a Skype conversation while wearing some distinctive glasses, my wife started getting ads for similar glasses on Google sites. Coincidence?—that’s what they want you to think.

Another case in point:The astonishingly successful Amazon Web Services was developed pretty much at the same time and using pretty much the same technology as the original disastrous public/private partnership known as healthcare.gov. Bozos.

6. Following Greg Sargent’s original exposition, “The system is rigged” is the focus of a jaw-dropping op-ed by no less than Charles Koch. Though for Koch, whose efforts have sucked the oxygen out of legitimately conservative political thought for the past quarter century, to complain about the current state of affairs shows the audacity of a man on trial for murdering his parents appealing to the court for mercy because he is an orphan.

To their credit—a phrase you probably did not expect to see in the same sentence as “Koch”—at least the Kochs use their own money, not that of shareholders. Perhaps a backhanded compliment to the culture of Kansas, the state they’ve done so much to destroy.

7. Welcome to our household’s recent experience…

8. Who has at least succeeded at some things and not always by manipulating the political system, and consequently is not a pure bozo capitalist. Furthermore a great deal of his appeal comes from his widely asserted contention—as with all things Trump, it’s hard to say whether the word “fact” would be appropriate here—that he buys politicians rather than being a politician subservient to the likes of himself.

By the way, Steve Inskeep’s recent NYT op-ed identifying Trump with Andrew Jackson is totally on the mark! Much better than the comparisons with Huey Long or George Wallace, who were also populists but had far more political experience. Though Trump only claims he could get away with killing people: Jackson actually did so.

9. Do you think Chelsea Clinton or Jenna Bush ever crossed the threshold of a Planned Parenthood clinic for an appointment? But a great number of Trump’s supporters certainly have.

10. What?!?: those damn popes need to learn their place! And it’s not just Francis: look at these losers:

Pius XI on “social order”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quadragesimo_anno

Leo VIII on conditions of the working class:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rerum_novarum

Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, my ass…

11. This went completely under the radar in subsequent commentary on SuperBowl ads, but the intensely multi-ethnic appeal by PayPal—not exactly a lefty loony company and most certainly a quintessential player in the New Economy—should strike fear given the nearly universal nativism of the GOP frontrunners.

12. Biden?—well, if Biden were a movie, would he be “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”, “Transformers: Rise of the Fallen”, “Hangover III” or Star Wars: Episode I”? Your pick, but in all cases he’s a really bad sequel. Stop even thinking about it.

13. Joke, since you couldn’t pull that off without support of the military, and if you’ve been on a military base any time in the past 35 years—that is, since the stabilization of the All Volunteer Force—and of course if you are like most Americans, you haven’t—you will instantly see why Trump is not going to be popular with the military. This ain’t the Weimar Republic and on that dimension in particular, Trump could not be further from Hitler.

And by the way, no soldier is going to drag the mother of some guy he shared a foxhole with in Afghanistan off to some godforsaken detention center in the Arizona desert. Not sure Trump and his supporters have quite assimilated that: keep in mind only 5% of the population has even a family connection with the military. And if orders for doing that go out…well, now maybe the 2020 election might be in question. And not for the reasons Trump had in mind.

14. Communism (as distinct from the Cold War military stockpile of nuclear weapons) arguably ceased to be an existential threat sometime in the early 1980s due to the combination of

  1. Western economies recovering from the oil shocks of the 1970s
  2. China adopting a capitalist economic model under Deng Xiaoping
  3. The Solidarity movement in Poland
  4. Gerontocracy in the Soviet Union
  5. The absence of any significant “domino effect” following the 1975 Communist victory in Vietnam. Ironically, that primarily triggered conflicts between Communist states, with China attempting to invade Vietnam and Vietnam invading Cambodia/Kampuchia.

15. That is, the attitude of : Got a problem with United?—Well, all you economy air travelers are miserable little farts who are getting no more or less than what you deserve from the unfettered marketplace, and you should be happy you don’t just get shoved out the exit door mid-flight. As we learned from Ms. Rand, the only deserving people are those who own airlines—well, actually those airlines are all public corporations so these Giants of Industry, these Masters of the Universe, merely manage those companies, and only that if we aren’t terribly picky about the definition of “manage” but details, details…—and anyone who can’t at least afford to lease NetJets, but preferably have unlimited use of a corporate—or personal—executive jet, why such people don’t really deserve to even be considered human. (And by the way, wait until you discover what’s really in that “Soylent Green” we keep in our offices! Economy class scum, that’s what!)  Why the only reason economy class exists at all is to trim the balance of the aircraft and we should probably just be using our many stacks of gold bars for that!

16. That’s not the exact quote, which I’ve not been able to locate on the web, but close enough. But while we are on the topic of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, it also contains a cosmic origin story for our planet not dissimilar to the bozo capitalism hypothesis. Hanc marginis exiguitas non caperet.

17.tl;dr alert! The highlight of my past two weeks was receiving a survey from the Pennsylvania Department of Economic Development—I haven’t lived in the state for nearly two years—asking what plans I had for improving my business. I gleefully responded “Moving it out of Pennsylvania.” Which allows me to get away from this: 49 separate tax forms that might apply to an LLC, with no practical guidance to the small business owner which is needed. I digress…

At the small business level, the most insidious efforts of state legislatures over the past couple of decades—particularly those who claim to be conservative—have been to create an ever-expanding India-style license raj of requirements for utterly bogus and never-before-regulated “professions” that have been created for the joint benefit of restricting competition—“going medieval” in precisely the manner that guilds held back the development of modern markets for centuries—and lining the pockets of for-profit “schools” which extract tens of thousands of dollars for astonishingly low quality training in tasks that have traditionally been learned at the side of an experienced and successful practitioner. George Will has recently taken on this issue and The Economist has been going at it for the last couple of years, Florida in particular in its crosshairs.

To see just how absurd this has become in the somewhat business-friendly Commonwealth of Virginia, consult this list. Or even better, this, which provides the disaggregated list of 141 generally working-class “professions”—note that this does not include traditional professions such as medicine, education and law—that the Commonwealth feels necessary to regulate. And it doesn’t include my favorite: Virginia’s regulation of ginseng dealers. I cannot begin to tell you how much better I sleep at night knowing that the Commonwealth protects the innocent citizenry from the scourge of unlicensed ginseng dealers.

But what about those guys who took down the 100-foot tree in front of my house last month, a task that improperly done could have crushed my house or my neighbor’s car or any number of cats?: Nah, they don’t need a license. But they sure the heck had insurance! A long-established market solution to occupations which might do harm…wow, imagine that. Maybe that crafty old bird Fred Hayek thought of that solution as well? But thank heavens those guys don’t sell ginseng!

In all likelihood, the reason we don’t have an obligatory for-profit “Acme School of Tree Trimming” is while anyone who can’t actually make a living doing tree trimming can buy a few state politicians—at the rate bozo capitalism is developing, you’ll soon be able to get these on EBay—and get a law passed to require tree trimmers to first accumulate 2000 hours at their school, in this domain they could quickly end up dead or disabled after some hapless demonstration of tree trimming went awry. Whereas failed realtors, unemployable art history majors, or people without the GPA to get into dental school can open obligatory realtor, interior decorator and tooth-whitening schools with little risk to life or limb.

That’s probably the actual story of why tree trimming has escaped licensing requirements. But the story I’d like to imagine is that every time a state legislature considers the regulation of tree trimming, they are visited by a group of large sweaty individuals with extensive tattoos, carrying chain saws and trailing sawdust on the carpet, individuals who think nothing of tossing 150-lb objects around, and make tasteful little jokes about how easily they could snap the forearms of the legislative assistants. In the wake of these visits, the legislators decide that perhaps the more prudent course of action is allowing the market to continue regulating tree trimming. Before returning to the pressing problem of ginseng dealers, who also generally have tattoos but, alas, don’t have quite the same capacity for snapping forearms.

18. On republicanism, not The Prince. The Prince, like J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, was just a failed job application.

19. Nor has it been uniformly obstructionist: notice how much credit conservatives have given to the Obama administration’s EPA for their permissive approach to the expansion of hydraulic fracking, a development with stunning global political and economic implications generally favoring the U.S. Yeah, neither have I.

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

Seven Concepts a Dept. of Defense Program Manager Needs to Successfully Develop Social Science Models: Part 1

pdf_iconThere you go again. Ronald Reagan [1]

It was with a mix of deja vu, amusement and resignation that I saw the latest Dept. of Defense (DoD) pronouncements—try here and here —about their intentions to take a very important innovation in machine learning, recurrent neural networks [2], and use this as the centerpiece of a major new machine-human interaction initiative.  

It’s that word “human” that’s setting me off, as when it comes to technical applications, DoD can’t ever seem to do “human. Wow, creative new initiative but…been there, done that, and I’ve seen so many similar things come and go over the years—decades in fact—always with the same result [3]: a big heap of money spent that might as well have been stuffed into [Chinese] fireworks and sent skyward on the Fourth of July.

It’s probably getting worse for me now that I’m just a couple hours south of the Beltway and can attend meetings on short notice. There’s a pretty consistent script: You start with something ambitious though awkwardly defined—the sort of thing that in academia I would have sent back to a grad student for a re-write—but generally plausible. You’ve got a bunch of people in a room [4], and some of these are absolutely top in their field and are sincerely trying to be helpful and want to get to a feasible project definition, figure out some appropriate technology, and move everything forward. For an hour or two, things are going pretty well.

But invariably, after a promising start, we head down a very predictable rabbit hole and end up—yet again—at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. And typically stay there. Curiously, in my experience, this is endemic just to DoD, making it all that more puzzling.

Or not, since the proximate cause of the descent into madness can always be traced to inevitable presence of a cluster of pallid, over-weight men (they’re always white men) of late-middle age—the Pillsbury Doughboy look—representing all of the usual suspects of the permanent civilian defense contractor class. Whenever things start looking promising, these dudes start asking the stupidest of questions, exhibiting unbounded cluelessness concerning the topic at hand, and going into long discourses on the impossibility of doing the sorts of research that other parts of the US government have been doing with great success for decades [5], often on precisely the same topic under discussion, and the likes of Amazon, Google and Facebook have as a gadzillion-dollar business model.

So, methinks, what gives? Are these guys really that stupid and sent by their bosses to get them out of the building? If we were ISIS, of course, these folks would be placed at the top of the roster list for suicide missions, but we’re not ISIS. So why are they here?

With the intensified exposure to this phenomenon in the past couple of years, I’ve finally figured it out: the Doughboys are the equivalent of the Communist era minders in Soviet puppet states, and, consistent with the tactics of the Old Left, their entire purpose is to make sure that these meetings remain completely pointless [6] and avoid the disastrous possibility that DoD might, say, spend $10-million on some social science [7] research that would prevent a $100-million mistake or even worse, spend $100-million on research that would prevent one or more $1-trillion mistakes, or, worst of all, develop a sophisticated social science research culture within DoD comparable to that found in numerous other parts of the government, to say nothing of academia and the private sector. No, discretionary DoD money needs to kept where it has been all along, funding mind-boggling levels of contractor fraud, weapons systems that don’t work , and 12-figure cost over-runs.

Well, gotta give the Doughboys credit, they’ve done one heck of a good job for their corporate masters! But that doesn’t mean we have to like it.

So in the spirit of the Yule season and as a public service, MouseCorp—which, full disclosure, is not entirely uninterested in having DoD learn how to do research appropriate to the 21st century—will provide guidelines to a small number of critical concepts which individuals trying to manage these new programs might, just might, be able to use to shut up these parasitic bastards [8]. There are more than seven—though the list is still fairly small—so for convenience this will be done in two segments, the first focusing on fairly specific technical concepts, the second, in a week or so, on some more general literatures.

For the sake of exposition, let’s assume somehow one or more of these new proposed projects makes it through the preliminary efforts to kill it, and you are managing it, and you quickly figure out that you could get a big boost if you’d incorporate some state-of-the-art social science modeling methods into the project. You’ve got the Doughboys with their corporate overlords and Gucci-clad lobbyists hamstringing you at every step, trying to make sure the project fails, but you’ve got some of that anachronistic Greco-Roman Stoic civic virtue thing going, and you’d really like the project to succeed. And since this is DoD, you’ve got a budget at least an order of magnitude greater than what the National Science Foundation or “the part of the national security community that shall not be named” would have available—granted, fully half of the funding will go to program reviews and PowerPoint slides [9]—so resources are not the issue. Deciding on workable approaches is the issue. So here are some key concepts, with more to follow:

1. The Forecaster’s Quartet

Become familiar with the following:

  • Daniel Kahneman. Thinking Fast and Slow: 30 years of research which won a Nobel Prize and is a great read, long residing on the business best-seller list [10]
  • Nassem Nicholas Taleb. The Black Swan.
  • Philip Tetlock. Expert Political Judgment [11]
  • Nate Silver. The Signal and the Noise: popular-level antidote to the contention that human behavior is not predictable

And finally at the article length and a more challenging technical level, but in terms of political prediction using formal models, easily the most important work in the past quarter century:

Michael D. Ward, Brian D. Greenhill,  Kristin M. Bakke. The perils of policy by p-value: Predicting civil conflicts. Journal of Peace Research 47(4) 363–375 [12]

Like most such paradigm-smashing contributions, they had a very difficult time getting it published.

2. Model specification and the centrality of theory

This comes first in the list of technical terms, since if you don’t get the model specified right, everything else is doomed, and the best weapon in your arsenal here is a thorough review of existing theory. The Doughboys hate that—their motto is “A week in the lab saves an hour in the library” since that attitude keeps the meter ticking and the money flowing. DoD projects [13] tend to approach every problem like they were the very first people to ever think about it, whereas in more cases than you’d expect, someone was thinking about it 2,500 years ago and helpfully wrote those ideas down. If not 2,500 years ago, then almost certainly in the past 50 years. A lot of it is garbage but you will discover that the slop dished out by people utterly unfamiliar with existing theory generally isn’t very helpful either.

A good theory tells you which haystack you need to look in to find the needle. Once you’ve got that, you don’t want to just pile on more hay. Conversely, specify the model incorrectly, and you’re just doing the wrong thing better. [14]

3. Latent dimensions and colinearity

A “latent dimension” is the technical term for what would commonly be called a “generalization,” and in statistical terms involves a set of indicators which co-vary. “Economic development” is the standard—and appropriate—example: we know from experience that advanced industrialized economies differ in a large number of ways from developing economies, and while GDP/capita is the most common way of measuring these, plenty of others would work just as well. Famously in the conflict forecasting realm, infant mortality rate.  “Democracy”, “quality of governance,” “globalized economy” and “political instability” are other common relevant latent dimensions in the conflict forecasting literature.

The key point about latent dimensions is once you’ve got a couple of measures for a dimension—or even a single really reliable measure—adding more variables gives you very little information. In fact, in the linear models commonly used in statistical studies—discussed in the next entry—this becomes counter-productive because of a problem called co-linearity, which plays havoc with the variance of your coefficient estimates.

Latent dimensions are also the reason Achen’s “Rule of Three”—discussed next time—is so successful. The Doughboys hate this: their interest is in piling on redundant indicators to drive up the costs and delay the project, and hairball models are a solution, not a problem. Resist.

4. “Error” is part of the process

For starters, in social science models, it’s not really “error” in the same sense that we think of “error” in tightly controlled physical processes. You are better off thinking about “error” as “things not included in the model” because we’re dealing with open complex processes, not the engine cylinder clearances on a BMW 760. They’ve not been included because the information is not reliably available, or is not cost-effective [15], or the indicators will actually introduce more error than they reduce, or the process is intrinsically random. [16]

So, it’s not “error”, it’s “everything else”. But keeping with convention, we’ll keep calling it “error.”

5. Accuracy, Sensitivity, Precision and ROC curves

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure” right?  In the bad-old-days, social scientists tended to measure errors using a single linear correlation-based measure called R-squared but contemporary models for predicting whether or not something will happen are generally evaluated on the aforementioned series of measures that the machine-learning folks have been using for quite some time. Look’em up: Wikipedia has vast resources here. The “ROC curve”—and the most common statistic based on it, the AUC [area-under-curve: Google it]—is particularly challenging to grok because it has an invisible dimension—the change in the threshold at which the model predicts the event will happen—but this is now nearly universally used, so put in the effort.

Most prediction problems relevant to national security concern “rare events” and these present a number of measurement challenges, not all of them resolved. Again, get up to speed on this and know the “gotchas” E.g. it is trivial to generate very high accuracy on any rare events problem without producing anything useful for policy purposes. [17]

6. Estimation

All non-trivial models have coefficients [18] and these must be estimated from the data. All estimates have—that word again—errors, or more accurately, variation, and this can also be estimated, though the veracity of that estimate is dependent on the extent to which the characteristics of the data—nowadays the term is usually “data generating process”—corresponds to the assumptions used to derive the estimation method, and as anyone with any experience in the field knows, the Data Fairy is frequently not very kind. All estimation methods can exhibit pathological behaviors when confronted with sufficiently weird data but fortunately for the widely used modeling methods—discussed in the next entry—these are extensively studied and understood.[19] New methods?: you’ll be the test case, and these may go very badly. [20]

Historically, social science statistical work was done “in-sample”, where the data used to estimate the model and the data used to test it were the same. This leads to “over-fitting” or “fitting the error” and often did not generalize. Contemporary work—and virtually all machine learning work—uses any of a number of more robust  “split sample” designs where the “training” and “test” data are separate.

7. Significance testing versus Bayesian approaches

Historically, virtually all social science statistics were done using the “null hypothesis significance testing” approach [21], which is both highly counter-intuitive and very often misinterpreted even by people who should know better, but was the only practical method prior to the availability of large amounts of computing power and some innovations in estimation methods that only occurred a couple decades ago. Significance testing is gradually being replaced by Bayesian methods [22], which are more likely to provide the information you are actually looking for, and in principle should integrate well with qualitative approach: the buzzword here is “informed priors.” The important thing: understand what each approach does and does not do.


Enough for now, and I’m a bit over the word limit already. There’s more to come, and I’ve already assigned too much homework. Still, just with this material alone, you can start the push-back and keep your project from going off the rails: just look those Doughboys straight in the eye and growl “So, feeling lucky, punk?” [23]

Beyond the Snark

Not a lot this time: Wikipedia is generally pretty good on the subject of statistics—well, it is amazingly comprehensive and technically accurate; sometimes the exposition leaves a bit to be desired. Quite a number of people who teach methodology, where a huge amount of labor goes into producing a good set of lecture notes, have posted these on the Web. As has MIT. [http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/sloan-school-of-management/15-075j-statistical-thinking-and-data-analysis-fall-2011/]  I’ve generally used standard terminology here, though in a few areas things get a little confusing because the statistics and machine-learning communities, having developed more or less independently (this is actually quite remarkable but hey, academic silos are built to withstand a lot of pressure) not infrequently use different terms for the same concepts. But in general with all of these terms “Google it” will get you lots of information.

My original and somewhat technical exposition on what is wrong with most of the existing approaches: http://7ds.parusanalytics.com/Schrodt.7DS.JPR.May13.pdf. By the way, a few people have interpreted this article as my rejecting quantitative approaches. Far from it, starting with the fact that doing quantitative work is how I keep food on the table. I’m merely saying if you are going to use these increasingly effective methods, do it correctly.

GSA excess: http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/04/18/gsa-scandal-so-what-does-823000-buy-you-in-las-vegas/ And the practical consequences: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/clampdown-after-gsa-scandal-puts-some-federal-workers-in-a-pinch/2015/02/08/d8217240-a5a4-11e4-a7c2-03d37af98440_story.html

Defense contractor-sponsored equivalents to GSA: funny, you don’t see any stories about those events. An absence of curiousity which I’m sure is entirely unconnected with the presumably rather costly defense contractor advertisements that keep popping up on my—perhaps not your—Web versions of the New York Times and Washington Post. “Yes, an F-35…why, just in time for the holidays, a perfect gift for my nephews! I’ll take three, my good man, and can you have them wrapped and delivered? Jolly good of you to remind me with that expensive animated advertisement!”

How Rome became with the hegemonic successor to the Hellenistic empires: haven’t read it but Mary’s Beard new popular history, SPQR [http://www.amazon.com/SPQR-History-Ancient-Mary-Beard/dp/0871404230] has gotten a lot of good reviews. There’s more to the story than gladiators. Really.  And with a level of wealth inequality approaching that of imperial Rome, there’s stuff we can learn.


1. With Reagan now subjected to vicious character assassination by the Fox News crowd, I’m going to open the next few entries with Reagan quotes. Judge people by their enemies, eh? Besides, in the current environment, he’d be considered a bit of a lefty, what with all that arms control and raising taxes.

2. I’m not providing many links this time: With every technical phrase in this entry, if I can Google it, you can Google it.

3. And whenever I’m told this, people outside of DoD—never from the inside—suggest I’m cynical because all of the highly successful projects are secret. Well, if they are I’m one important guy, because a huge pile of money has been spent on unclassified foolishness over the years just to distract me from learning about the good stuff. Really, I don’t think I’m that important.

4. In the old days, these came with a nice spread of donuts and sandwiches—typically we’re doing these things for little or no compensation beyond expenses. But with the combination of the Tea Party trash-and-burn budgetary tactics and that wonderful tax-payer-funded Las Vegas bacchanalia of the GSA, those days are gone. Launder that same tax money through a defense contractor, of course, and the bacchanalia are still absolutely fine: been to a few of those as well, and other than the experience of seeing the reckless extravagance making me want to throw up, they are splendid exercises, and most of the attendees, staggering about under the burden of unlimited quantities of cheap booze, consider them a professional entitlement. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if those things have pushed more than a few folks—at least the caterers—into the Tea Party, albeit with no effect.

Get yourself to one of these defense industry affairs and it’s night after night of lobster, champagne and live entertainment in lavishly decorated resort hotel ballrooms, all provided by—smirk, smirk, wink, wink—”company sponsorship.” Going to a government-funded conference on finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, or teaching kids to read, or preventing rusting bridges from collapsing?: it’s gonna be Subway and a diet cola, maybe followed by a pitcher of Miller Lite shared with your buddies at an anonymous sports bar in a strip mall, and remember to bring your wallet, because all this comes out of your own pocket.

Some dumb hick from Abilene, Kansas pointed out the problems with this system back in 1961. Lotta good that did.

5. Seriously, do you think the Federal Reserve Board and the Centers for Disease Control spend their days listening to a gaggle of demented bozos braying about how human behavior is unpredictable?

6. There’s a little ritual in these meetings where the program manager earnestly intones a little mantra—I’m not sure whether the original was in Latin or Sanskrit—about their deep responsibility of not wasting public money. Given they know the Doughboys are in the room precisely to insure that public money is wasted, it must be hard to do this with a straight face. Though I suppose that why program managers get paid the big bucks. Joke.

7. For the Doughboys, “social science” is an oxymoron, an observation they will share endlessly. In fact they probably have ” ‘social science’ is an oxymoron” tattooed somewhere on their bodies, probably somewhere I’d certainly prefer not to look.

8. Technical term of art: actually, one of my several working titles for this essay was “Seven Under-stated Reflections on When the Hell are You People Going to Learn How to Keep Those Parasitic Bastards from Making Off with My Tax Dollars?” But that doesn’t scan particularly well.

9. When the history of the decline of United States hegemony is written in a century or two, the role of the Doughboys will probably deserve at least a footnote. Though the role of the PowerPoint virus—no, not a virus carried by PowerPoint; PowerPoint is a virus—will get a chapter.

That history may be written in English—in New Delhi—rather than Chinese, just as the successor to the Hellenistic empires was not the obvious Mediterranean candidate, the wealthy and commercially savvy Phoenicians from their base in Carthage—but instead a theretofore marginal group of Italians living along the Tiber. The second mouse, as it were.

10. I will assume you can find these on Amazon or, if you prefer not to support a soul-destroying mega-corporation whose business model involves removing every last visage of humanity from the workplace, a local bookshop if you have one. Probably run either by some balding old guy who is likely to engage you in an extended conversation when you really just wanted to buy a book, or someone with cats. Though I’m also actually becoming rather fond of the Barnes and Noble chain, particularly when after seeing the grey hair, they let this old guy to the front of the line for a seat at an overflowing author’s event, and at Union Square in New York City no less! I digress…damn old guys who don’t know when to stop…well, “communicating”, if that’s even the relevant concept… 

11. We’ll deal with his more recent work on superforecasters in the next entry.

12. General link is http://jpr.sagepub.com/content/47/4. Since I still have an adjunct academic appointment with library access, the version I’m seeing isn’t paywalled; your results may differ. If you dig a bit,you can usually located non-firewalled versions of widely-cited academic papers, and this would qualify. Or you can pay: none of that payment goes to the authors, of course, as academic publishing doesn’t work that way, instead it is a monk-like humble offering to the cause of restricting the flow of knowledge generated through public funding and to further increasing the level of inequality through the support of a tiny oligopoly of rapaciously profitable publishers. Yet again, I digress.

13. And GOP presidential candidates…

14. For some fairly technical reasons, “specification error” in some of the most commonly used models is even worse, since if a variable you’ve incorrectly put in the model is correlated with variables which are actually causal, the variable will appear to have a stronger effect than it actually has. Though if you are only interested in prediction, this isn’t that big a deal. Still, a model that is consistent with a correct theory will almost certainly have better properties than a model that isn’t. Which is also why the “data will replace theory” arguments are overly optimistic: a good theory is vastly more useful than any undifferentiated mess of data.

15. Hey, give us poor proles who still actually have to pay taxes a break here, will you?: even in DoD research there should be a concept of “too expensive.”

16. Or appears to be, as in chaotic processes such as weather. I’ll say a bit about chaotic processes in the next entry; for now suffice it to say these are not the semi-mystical phenomenon some would have you believe, just an unexpected but completely deterministic aspect of a very simple dynamic equation you can easily experiment with in one column of a spreadsheet.  Intrinsic randomness could be an essay in its own right…maybe later…

17. But caution, particularly if you’ve only skimmed Taleb: rare events are not the same thing as black swans.

  • Black swan: an event that has a low probability even conditional on other variables
  • Rare event: an event that occurs infrequently, but conditional on an appropriate set of variables, does not have a low probability

Using a medical analogy, certain rare forms of cancer appear to be highly correlated with specific rare genetic mutations. Conditioned on those mutations, they are not black swans.

Taleb definitely gets these distinctions, but many of the popularizations of Taleb (who in turn is quite consciously—he profusely acknowledges their work—a popularizer of Kahneman and his collaborators, and Tetlock) miss it.

Also worth noting here—since I ran out of my seven allocated categories—are events which are too predictable: these are called “auto-regressive” or “auto-correlated,” which simply means that the value of a variable at time t is highly correlated with the value at t-1. Most human activities have this characteristic—humans, and particularly human institutions, are fairly boring and predictable, except when they aren’t. The sorts of sequences one tends to look at in political conflict forecasting are highly autocorrelated except for a small number of highly consequential exceptions which are…rare events. From the perspective of a methodologist, it makes the whole problem rather interesting.

And in a final, really techy, aside, there’s a tendency to confuse autocorrelated variables and autocorrelated errors. The presence of the latter considerably complicates estimation, all the more so when you get both at once. Errors are autocorrelated for the same reason variables are autocorrelated: human behaviors tend not to change much over time, and “errors” are just the factors not included in the model, and quite a few of those involve humans.

18. Google “coefficient” if you aren’t familiar with the term: I can’t begin to count the number of meetings I’ve sat through where we appeared to be operating under an assumption that functioning models would be delivered by, well, maybe Elminster Aumar, High Wizard of the Forgotten Realms?…I dunno, sure the heck wasn’t going to be through any systematic estimation method worthy of discussion.

19. Newer machine learning methods also have a “hyperparameter” issue—the estimators can be configured in a wide variety of different ways, some better than others, and optimizing these using vast amount of machine cycles is another important new research field. Older methods were derived algebraically and generally had a very small number of free parameters.

20. It is remarkably difficult to find new methods that consistently outperform the “obnoxiously effective” old standbys I will discuss in the next entry—conventional and logistic regression, support vector machines, conventional neural networks, and clustering methods. That’s why they are old standbys. That’s also why a genuinely effective new entrant like recurrent neural networks is such a big deal.

21. Usually referred to an “frequentism”, particularly by its detractors. Its supporters call it “statistics.” In some circumstances, frequentism is completely appropriate. But it isn’t universally appropriate and until about 20 years ago, it was treated as such.

22. Look at the research interests of the faculty in almost any university statistics department and you’ll find that most of the younger people are working on Bayesian methods: this is not an instance of random selection.

23. Like so many memorable quotes, that’s not the actual line, which had a rather rambling preamble before finally getting around to:  “You’ve gotta ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya,punk?” Rather as the oft-quoted “Play it again Sam” condensed seven lines of dialog  none containing the word “again.” For simplicity, and cognizant of the date, 17-Dec-15, stick with “Han shot first.”

Posted in Methodology, Politics | 1 Comment

Seven Updated Observations on Trump

pdf_iconIt is now exactly five months since I posted Is Trump pulling a Colbert on the Republican Party? (https://asecondmouse.wordpress.com/2015/07/09/is-trump-pulling-a-colbert-on-the-republican-party/) and for some reason, presumably quite unrelated to that timing, that entry has experienced an upsurge in views over the past couple of days. So, perhaps it is time to update.

Like pretty much everyone, I’d expected Trump—irrespective of whether he was pulling a Colbert/Snape—to be political history by this point, and given that he is not, as a good Bayesian we need to recalibrate.  And thus we will:

1. Trump’s supporters are a genuine political movement with a coherent set of grievances against the GOP [1]

Trump’s base, it is now clear, comes from socially conservative less-educated whites who forty years ago heeded the siren call of Richard Nixon to abandon the Democratic Party with its new multi-ethnic agenda and cast their lot with the GOP.

So how has this worked out for them?

  • The GOP has delivered on none of their social agenda: prayer in schools is still outlawed [2]; gun access has probably been expanded a bit, though this can largely be attributed to the NRA; at the Federal level nothing has changed on abortion (it has been somewhat restricted at the state level), and they’ve suffered an epically stunning reversal on gay rights.
  • Economically they have been at either a standstill or, more realistically, gone backwards, with various elements of globalization accounting for much of this, both in closed factories and competition with younger immigrants for low-wage jobs.
  • Their life expectancy is declining, their neighborhoods are wracked by drug abuse, suicide and divorce; their Main Streets are a mix of shuttered storefronts, pay-day loan operations and consignment shops, and the few remaining viable businesses are all controlled by distant corporations.

Not a pretty picture.

The initial response to this situation were the Tea Party movements beginning with the 2010 electoral cycle, which delivered first the House, and four years later the Senate, into Republican hands. And with this newly mobilized power Republicans—faced with a President who the 24/7 bloviator media circus assured them was the most depraved politician since Caligula, having already secretly reduced the US to the level of Libya and on course to turn it into North Korea—in the face of this profound existential threat the Republican establishment did…well, basically nothing, because in fact the Republican [and Democratic] elite are perfectly content with the status quo and have no real incentives to change anything.[3]

The distinction between now and 2014, I would suggest, is that this group—who may be largely powerless, but are certainly not stupid—realized that the core strategic error of the Tea Party was a naive faith that they could gain power in some sort of bottom-up libertarian self-organization with elements of Bukunin’s collectivist anarchism, but without central coordination. That failed. The obvious alternative is to seek a central leader, and into that political vacuum, perhaps not even fully realizing what he was getting himself into, walks Trump.

2. Yes, Trump is a fascist but…

Ross Douthat pretty much has nailed this one: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/03/opinion/campaign-stops/is-donald-trump-a-fascist.html : not really anything else to add here.

3. He has no street power, nor will he ever

That is, we’re not going to see true European-style fascist movement emerge here, as those require extra-legal power in the form of urban militias. That is an incredibly high bar for Trump to cross for at least the following reasons:

  • The bulk of his support is older and rural, not young and urban. While the U.S. has long experience with right-wing rural rebellions, starting with Shays’ Rebellion, the dominant approach has been to pretty much ignore these, with the Nevadan deadbeat Cliven Bundy being the most recent example, and alternative approaches such as those used against the Branch Davidians and Ruby Ridge did not end happily. That’s one of the advantages of living in a really big country with lots of empty space.
  • Even if Trump could somehow attract a younger crowd, they aren’t sufficiently fit for regular combat, and it is hard to imagine they would be fit for street combat. A positive side to the High Fructose Corn Syrup epidemic, I suppose. [4]
  • Unlike Europe, the U.S. has no culture of soccer hooliganism, and soccer hooligans are the shock troops of modern urban street violence. Ask Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. For this we probably can thank the university-based structure of U.S. sport in contrast to the club-based structure found in the remainder of the world. So the NCAA is good for something. [5]
  • And finally, U.S. police forces are pretty well equipped for and experienced at dealing with mass urban violence. For better or worse.

But really, this is not going to get to the point where U.S. riot control tactics are deployed against masked Trump supporters: I see no credible path for Trump to mobilize significant mass violent street support, thus restricting him to the ballot box.

4. Trump is not Mussolini

This meme was circulating here in Charlottesville a couple weeks back, and as a consequence I read a whole lot more about Mussolini than otherwise I’d be inclined to do, and except for some imperfect convergence in ideology, Trump and Mussolini have absolutely nothing in common. Nor, except for ideology, do Trump and Hitler. Yet today we see no less than the usually sane Dana Milbank making the same comparison in the Washington Post.  It ain’t so.

Trump and the Italian billionaire politician Silvio Berlusconi have a fair amount in common, and not just their attitudes towards women. But the only thing Berlusconi and Mussolini have in common is they are Italian and their names end with the letters “ni”. Apparently sufficient for an analogy these days.

5. It’s not just the polling

We are witnessing a great deal of strum und drang over the weaknesses of contemporary polling methods, plus the usual caveats that polls distant in time from the actual elections have little predictive power. But the persistence and size of the Trump numbers, which are also supported by the fact people show up at his rallies and tell a fairly consistent story seems well beyond what one would expect of measurement error. I’m not a pollster but I know what randomness in a time series looks like, and that’s not what we are seeing.

6. The choices for the Republican nominee are probably down to Trump, Cruz and Rubio, and Cruz is very well positioned here.

As I’m sure has occurred more than once to Cruz, in the absence of Trump, Cruz can make the best argument for being an establishment outsider—by all accounts he is completely loathed by his fellow Republicans—as well as having good Tea Party cred and, unlike Trump, understanding evangelicals. So if Trump somehow crashes, Cruz is the clear beneficiary, and doesn’t really need to work on this, though he is doing so anyway.

I’m practicing U.S. politics prediction without a license here, but with the complete meltdown of the Jeb Bush campaign it seems like Rubio is the only serious establishment player. But how long it takes to get to that point, and whether we go to the GOP convention in Cleveland with three major candidates (can both Trump and Cruz remain viable?) or two remains open until we start seeing primary votes. Polling on second-choices would be useful here—if Trump is completely out [6], do voters go to Cruz or back to the establishment choice, presumably Rubio?—but given the difficulties in the first-choice polling, that would be hard information to get.

7. A Trump-led third party could potentially be more than a spoiler

In the absence of the very real possibility of the Republican nomination, I’d put the probability of a serious—probably at a Ross Perot level, certainly more than a Ralph Nader or Strom Thurmond level, probably not Theodore Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party level—Trump third-party bid at about 50%. This is currently seen as putting him in the role of a spoiler, and at the 2016 Presidential election, it most certainly would be, virtually guaranteeing a Clinton victory and possibly Democratic control of the Senate.

In a larger time frame, however, it is easy to imagine an anti-immigrant populist third party emerging with significant influence in Congress and at the state and local level for at least a few election cycles, as that is precisely what we are seeing in Europe. At that level, the relevant comparison would be the French National Front under Marine Le Pen, which has seen considerable success in recent years despite once being thought beyond the fringe. Third parties always have a difficult time in the U.S., which has neither proportional representation nor any sort of transferable vote, but with a strong regional base can have a significant impact.

To a large extent, we’re already in the midst of this experiment with the Tea Party, and per my first point, the Tea Party constituency has tried and failed to have significant influence within the GOP so one can almost argue that they can’t do much worse outside of it. For political consistency with Britain and France, this new party should be called the National Front. People’s Party is good general name for a populist party but, alas, it is used by the Danes, and I’m guessing even a mere whiff of Nordic socialism, even in opposition, would kill it. So it is more likely to be just be called the Tea Party, or the New Tea Party, or possibly even the Trump Party.


At this point, I’m pretty sure Trump is not playing Severus Snape. Trump is Voldemort.[7] Cruz is clearly Lucius Malfoy; Hillary Clinton is Minerva McGonagall; the constantly shape-changing Christie is Remus Lupin. If he uses his massive campaign war-chest to take out Trump in a sacrificial move [8], Jeb Bush will be Albus Dumbledore. Otherwise he is the well-meaning but bumbling half-giant Rubeus Hagrid. This scheme works pretty well, actually, except there’s one major player I can’t readily place: Rubio. Definitely not Harry Potter, though I’m seeing quite a few parallels with Arthur Weasley.[9] 

Beyond the Snark

FP’s  Siobhad O’Grady with a somewhat different take on Trump-as-fascist:  http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/12/09/trump-may-be-a-loudmouthed-demagogue-but-is-he-a-fascist/ Mike Godwin—the Godwin of Godwin’s Law—on the issue: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/12/14/sure-call-trump-a-nazi-just-make-sure-you-know-what-youre-talking-about/ Still another, somewhat inconclusive, discussion of fascism, also agreeing that extra-legal violence is an essential element: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/16/opinion/whose-fascism-is-this-anyway.html. Upshot of all this: “fascist” has probably outlived its utility and something more general like “authoritarian populism” would be better.

Later analysis by Ross Douthat on the Trump/Cruz/Rubio finalists—this seems to be the “common wisdom” now—from an ideological perspective: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/17/opinion/campaign-stops/the-gop-at-a-crossroads.html. Again noting that Trump isn’t particularly conservative and one could imagine if he’d chosen to move just a bit further left he could have presented a Huey Long-style challenge to the Democrats rather than causing chaos for the Republicans.

Bakunin collectivist anarchism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikhail_Bakunin. Not a perfect match, particularly since the Trump supporters are in a post-industrial environment, which explains much of their predicament. The Tea Party is also frequently compared to the various 19th century United States populist movements (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_United_States_(1865%E2%80%931918)#Populism), but—unlike Bakunin’s anarchism—these never had a libertarian element, were very interested in national organization, and the industrializing vs post-industrial environment is again huge here.

Rural rebellions: Cliven Bundy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bundy_standoffBranch Davidians: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waco_siegeRuby Ridge: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruby_Ridge. Though I suppose I don’t really need to provide links for things in Wikipedia.

U.S. young adults too fat for the military: http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/2015/07/15/report-nearly-1-in-3-young-adults-too-fat-for-military/30178023/

Issues with polling: This is a pretty good recent summary of the issues specific to the early primaries: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/12/07/trump-continues-to-lead-the-polls-heres-why-he-might-not-win-the-election/.

Thomas Edsall on the Trumpistas vs Republican establishment:  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/16/opinion/campaign-stops/can-this-really-be-donald-trumps-republican-party.html

Political power of soccer hooligans: for the Egyptian case, start with http://edition.cnn.com/2011/SPORT/football/06/29/football.ultras.zamalek.ahly/ but there were quite a few other analyses along these lines. David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla  discusses this in considerable detail, emphasizing the rather unique set of street-fighting skills imparted by hooliganism. None of this is new: one of the greatest challenges confronted by the early Byzantine Empire were the Nika riots (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nika_riots) instigated by chariot race hooligans. The Emperor Justinian’s response left a bit to be desired in terms of human rights standards, though Trump would presumably approve.   

Trump Winery property and dog killing: http://www.washingtonian.com/articles/people/greatest-most-amazing-absolutely-huge-story-of-how-donald-trump-took-over-virginias-biggest-vineyard/ The drums and the rooster feathers: let’s just say I made that up—it wouldn’t happen in the 21st century. Would it?

French National Front party: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Front_(France) Viktor Orban’s (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viktor_Orb%C3%A1n) Hungarian Fidesz party—now the governing party—is another good comparison here, and Orban is certainly a closer parallel to Trump than Mussolini.

J.K. Rowling thinks Trump is worse than Voldemort: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/11/world/europe/donald-trump-muslim-britain-petition-ban.html

Kurtz reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurtz_(Heart_of_Darkness) (but you knew that, right?)


1. Quite independently—that is, I wrote my screed prior to seeing this article—the ever-perceptive Ross Douthat reaches much these same conclusions with respect to the limited options of the Republican establishment: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/10/opinion/campaign-stops/the-crisis-of-republican-authority.html

2. I’m old enough to remember when Protestant prayer was a regular part of the public school day. And so, I’d guess, are many of Trump’s supporters, who tend to be older.

3. Consider the position of the US elites (party affiliation is irrelevant here: we’re looking at the denizens of the 158 families, right and left)

  • At the elite level, the country has fully recovered from the Great Recession and other excesses of the Bush era: the Dow-Jones average is almost 50% above its 2008 levels, elite unemployment is effectively zero, inflation is almost too low to measure; for the first time in decades the country is on the path to energy independence.
  • Economic growth is steady and probably at about the highest sustainable level for a mature industrial/service economy. Years of manipulation of the tax laws have insured that the gains from growth go entirely to the economic elite, with none of that unpleasant “trickle-down” from the mid-20th century. De facto taxation of elite income sources—many of which escape taxation altogether—is at levels not seen since the Gilded Age of a century or more in the past.
  • As with economic growth, the elites acquire virtually all of the benefits, and incur virtually none of the costs, of globalization. And there are many. Same for information-technology-driven automation.
  • The education system has been co-opted into a corporate model that has brought merit-based social mobility to a standstill—well below the levels of Europe by many though not all accounts—as well as insuring that in the course of their “education” precious little Jason and Ashley will never encounter people or ideas which will make them feel uncomfortable. But they’ll have access to a great fitness center.
  • Violent crime is on a steady decline (with the consequence that in coastal cities urban property values, another asset of the elite, are hitting stratospheric levels); the legal system has been manipulated to the point where white-collar crime is virtually impossible to prosecute.
  • This system is overseen by a very stable, centrist government disinclined to the ideological and imperial over-reach of previous administrations and under the sway of a corrupt campaign finance system fully endorsed by a Supreme Court controlled by right-wing revisionist judges.

All of which is to say that while the elites pretend to react to the current situation by echoing the dying Kurtz’s “The horror, the horror…” if they have even the slightest self-awareness they should awake each morning pinching themselves and saying “I can’t believe I live in such a wonderful time!”

But even if they aren’t sufficiently self-aware to do that, at the very least they recognize that legislative “paralysis” merely maintains a status quo that, short of formally discarding, on the model of Darth Sidious/Palpatine, the remaining silly trappings of democracy, really couldn’t get any better. What the Tea Party sees as a problem, the elites see as a solution. [10] So ain’t nothing going to change here any time soon.

4. Is the obesity epidemic also the explanation for the decline in street crime?: the correlation is certainly there. Heck, you don’t even need “You can run but you can’t hide” if the miscreant can’t even run in the first place. For this same reason, anyone who thinks the size of the U.S. military can be substantially increased (short of relying on immigrants) is deluding themselves: recruitment quotas are being missed even now. 

5. Though not, it appears, imposing sanctions on the University of North Carolina.

6. He’s still got the Trump Winery curse to deal with. You haven’t heard about the curse?: Local lore has it that the property is cursed thanks to a groundskeeper who a few years back was killing the neighborhood dogs so that the owner—at the time the wealthiest man in the US—could hunt pheasants on the property with his fat-cat friends. This was before Trump bought the place—he wasn’t up there in his black helicopter stalking the poochies with an AR-15 modified for fully automatic fire, well, at least not back then—but killing your neighbors’ dogs is not taken lightly in the hickory-covered hills of central Virginia, and after the dog-killing incident, bad things started happening with people associated with that property, starting with the [natural? Or supernatural?] death of the wealthy owner. Really. Trump apparently was so impressed with his own bargaining skills that he didn’t explore the possibility that the sellers had some really good reasons for wanting to be rid of it.

And there are probably parts of the story we don’t know about: that night when the groundskeeper heard the sound of drums, and saw the ghostly flickering of torches in the distance, and in the morning found the gateposts of the property smeared with chicken blood and black rooster feathers scattered about…yes…in the hickory-covered hills of central Virginia, the unwary can find themselves dealing with forces the likes of which the Trump family cannot even imagine, much less hope to control.

Polling data haven’t factored this in either.

7. It seems J.K. Rowling, who we must acknowledge knows more than a bit about Voldemort, considers Trump worse than Voldemort, but I’m okay sticking with the original equation.

8. Like Dumbledore, Bush is doomed anyway.

9. The astute reader may be observing that this blogger has spent perhaps a bit too much time reading the Harry Potter books.

10. Though it is at least possible that this same set of circumstances may shed light on one of the other great mysterious of the current electoral cycle, Bill O’Reilly’s vicious attack on Ronald Reagan, Killing Reagan, which has been thoroughly denounced as a dark fantasy by virtually everyone who has either worked with or studied the 40th president.

That one of the most pompous bloviators in the Fox multi-verse should compose a book-length character assassination virtually devoid of factual content comes as little surprise: in fact that’s probably a requirement for the position. But targeting Ronald Reagan?—that requires some explanation.

Unless this is a signal—something akin to those scriveners who under Stalin inspired the phrase “Soviet history is very hard to predict”—that the GOP elite are ready to abandon the “Reagan Democrats” before the “Reagan Democrats” abandon the GOP. It was Reagan, after all, who finished the job of changing the affiliations of lower-middle-class whites that Nixon had begun, a task Reagan accomplished both through his not inconsiderable political skills, and by the helpful fact that he wasn’t Nixon. Is O’Reilly trashing Reagan in order to trash this legacy of Reagan?

But that would leave another mystery: how can the GOP win elections only with the votes of aging wealthy white people?—voter suppression is only going to take you so far. Oh, wait, perhaps now we see why the computer code on electronic voting machines is proprietary and can’t be examined…

O’Reilly’s next book will be titled Killing Kittens. Excerpt: “They may look cute, but they grow up to be ruthless predators of songbirds, a vector for the spread of mind-altering viruses and live in total contempt of the humans who ply them daily with food in exchange for a modicum of feigned affection.” Then on to those discredited stories about Dick Cheney, kittens and the wood chipper.

Posted in Politics | 3 Comments

Seven lessons the national Democratic Party should draw from the victory of John Bel Edwards [1]

pdf_iconNovember 22 dawned with the news that Louisiana Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Bel Edwards had not merely defeated the loathsome Republican David Vitter, but totally whomped’em. And accomplished this in the deep South with the votes of a group long written off by the national Democratic establishment, the lower middle class white demographic (LMCWD until someone comes up with a better neutral acronym [2] ).

For reasons elaborated below, the Democratic Party establishment quickly dismissed this as a fluke [3] explained by a spectacularly unsuitable GOP candidate. But the GOP has moved towards “spectacularly unsuitable” as a requirement for candidates!: their motto is “There’s a demolition derby going on, Dad, let me have the car!” With the GOP heading to the hard right, anyone with a lick of sense—or reading Anthony Downs—would know that the Democrats need to make a move for the center right rather than simply further consolidating their existing base.

But that’s not what we’re seeing. So a few unsolicited suggestions on why this should change.

1. Accept the LMCWD as a distinct and embattled cultural minority that should be part of the Democratic coalition.

This comes first because it is going to be hardest. But if the statistical evidence presented in Case and Deaton doesn’t make this point for you, I don’t know what ever will.

In days gone by, this was not a controversial position, even if the connection between the LMCWD and the Democratic establishment was largely mediated by a combination of long-gone industrial unions, urban political machines, and assorted racial arrangements now firmly associated with the contemporary GOP which we most definitely do not want to revive. [4]

Eyes firmly fixed on the rearview mirror, the contemporary Democratic elite has conveniently pigeon-holed the entire LMCWD as a bunch of gun-totting racists with rotting teeth who keep a year’s supply of canned tuna fish and peanut butter in the basement along with a two-year supply of ammunition and are married to their cousins. Granted, such individuals are not entirely hypothetical, and periodically the International Brotherhood of Democratic Party Campaign Consultants rounds up enough for a focus group and sends the resulting video around to scare the hell out of everyone [5] to guarantee:

  • Except for a couple unpleasant months in New Hampshire and Iowa every four years, the consultants will never be required to work more than an hour from a five-star hotel
  • Their base, the NPR Democrats, can continue to hold tightly to their single most valued asset, a smugly refined sense of cultural superiority
  • The consultants can just keep doing the same things they’ve been doing since the Johnson administration.

The abject terror of the Democratic Party establishment to anyone who takes the LMCWD seriously can be seen in their response to the 2010 and 2016 populist senatorial campaign of retired Admiral Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania, where the party machine preferred subjecting the country to six years of ultra-conservative Patrick Toomey to accommodating Sestak. Heck, the Democratic establishment has made it pretty clear they’d support Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi over Sestak. This, I would suggest, is a problem.

2. Send your copy of What’s the Matter with Kansas (WTMWK) to a recycling center.

At the height of the popularity of WTMWK, my University of Kansas [6] colleague Allan Cigler—who had spent his entire career actually studying politics in the state—gave a talk which went through every major hypothesis of the book and demonstrated that it was contradicted by systematic evidence from economic and survey statistics. Facts, how inconvenient. [7]

WTMWK is, of course, little more than the hoary “false consciousness” hypothesis of the Old Left, and more generally yet another indication that the American political system is still in the thrall of three mid-20th century clusters of ideas, the awful Rs: [Franklin] Roosevelt, Reagan and [Ayn] Rand, dead hands of the mid 20th century around the throat of the 21st.

3. Acknowledge that hyper-wonkized government is a serious burden for the LMCWD

The motto of the largely Democratic wonk class is “One person’s bureaucratic bottleneck is another person’s job.” The wonks are barnacles on the ship of state, and their current preferred habitat is with any candidate whose name rhymes with “Clinton.” Which is why it took Barack Obama to create a nationalized health care system that given sufficient time may get us to the level of Bulgaria. Similarly, implementation of the hyper-wonked Dodd-Frank banking legislation began with a 192-page loop-hole ridden form—presumably by now is a couple orders of magnitude more complex—in lieu of merely reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act repealed under—you guessed it—a Clinton, which could have been accomplished with a couple of sentences.

NPR Democrats, of course, are generally in positions where they are coddled by large bureaucratic structures and, in the case of the Democratic elite in their gated communities, have lawyers, lobbyists and accountants on retainer. The LMCWD, in contrast, are likely to be self-employed or in small businesses and have to deal with this ever-increasing complexity and the emerging Indian-style license Raj directly, and get very few benefits from it. Acknowledging this fact would be a major step forward.

4. Address the issues of rural and suburban poverty, and in particular the rural drug epidemic.

Case and Deaton again. [8] The LMCWD has a pretty good idea of what is wrong with their communities, and there is plenty of room for a new indigenous populism of the left, but that would affect some Democratic vested interests like Big Pharma and prison guards.

I’m not sure exactly what these solutions are going to look like, but I’d guess they will

  • Be simple, innovative and decentralized, and will not provide new jobs for the vast armies of wonks and consultancies who have attached themselves to the Clintons
  • Quite a few, though by no means all, will use elements of classical democratic conservatism [9]
  • Quite a few of these ideas, though by no means all, will work

Though as a beginning, follow the suggestions of Paul Krugman, issue a whole lot of very low interest bonds, start up a bunch of long-overdue infrastructure projects and trust me, the talent (and consequent jobs) needed to complete these will be found in the economically distressed counties of rural America, not among the latte-sipping set who spend thirty hours a week in meetings writing mission statements and the remainder updating their Linked-In profiles.

5. Stop trashing religion.

Remember how WTMWK dealt with religion?—Thomas Franks found some bozo who thought he was the Pope. As did his cousin. Trust me, the average church-going Kansan does not believe he or she is the Pope. But the “religion is only for weirdos” sells, big time, with the NPR crowd.

Dealing with religion is going to be complicated: the US is clearly on a decidedly different path than post-Christian Europe, starting with having spent the past fifty years of first liberal Protestants, then conservative evangelicals, deciding—with equivalently disastrous results—that their route to continued relevance was politics, a strategy that consulting some old texts (Matt. 4:8-10; Luke 4:5-8) would have advised them against. Exactly where we go from here is unclear, though I’d suggest it will not be the European model of abandoned churches reduced to art venues and tourist attractions: that required the inflexibility of established religion. [10]

6. Sixth, fire all of the consultants. [11]

The national “Democratic Party” of course, is little more than an illusion perpetrated by a clique of lavishly compensated consultants who live in gated communities rubbing shoulders daily with hedge fund managers and CEOs who complain bitterly that the Wall Street bailouts didn’t go far enough, all supported by 79 or so families with vast reserves of wealth who dabble in politics as a diverting little pasttime rather akin to butterfly collecting. [12]

Which is to say, fundamentally we are in a post-democratic era—the subject of about a dozen future blog entries that have yet to fully congeal—and the oligarchs are just letting us live here. So far. But—the 79 families, humor me for a minute—aren’t those consultants thoroughly ripping you off by leading the country into an ever-more polarized and dysfunctional system that does no one any good? If those people were your landscapers and your lawn looked like a bad case of mange, the re-routed driveway ended in a muddy ditch, and that expensive palm tree they’d recommended you plant—in Minnesota—had mysteriously died, you’d fire them and find someone else, right? And that’s a pretty good metaphor for the current state of American consultant-dominated “politics”, right? So as our overlords, shouldn’t you think about hiring someone new? At least consider it, eh?

7. Rebuild the state and local level parties and stop centralizing power in Washington. And northern Virginia.

I’d guess that the attitude of most Democratic voters towards involvement in state politics is currently “What do you take me for, a complete loser??” But we’re embarking on a twelve-step program here, and one of the premises of twelve-step programs is you’ve got to hit bottom before recovery can begin, and with the LMCWD, the national Democratic Party has certainly satisfied that requirement. So now at any point you can begin the recovery,and you can start by looking at what the Democratic establishment been doing to Joe Sistak and promise to do the opposite. [13] Those strategies aren’t going to come out of Washington, or from the staggering zombie legions of wonks attached to the Clintons, and certainly not from the 79 oligarchic families.

In conclusion…

Once again, the objective here is not to accommodate all of the LMCWD, just the rather sizeable segment who now realize they have been thoroughly screwed over the past fifty years by their allegiance to the GOP, which given the chance will also happily screw them over for another fifty years. If Stanley Greenberg’s analysis in American Ascendant is correct—and Greenberg suspiciously works with facts—the GOP is demographically doomed [14], but at the current pace completing this process will probably take two decades, possibly including some quite unpleasant periods. Accommodate the center of the LMCWD and you reduce that perhaps to ten years, possibly very few unpleasant.

Think big, think 1932, think of a Roosevelt-like ascendency that will last for half a century. Not the entire LMCWD, as you’ll never accommodate people completely absorbed in the Fox/Trump fantasy world. But you don’t need to: just get the reasonable ones and you’ve reestablished a 21st century electoral coalition that can bring about 21st century social democratic policies.

In the configuration of 2014, however, Democrats couldn’t win a gubernatorial election against a man who by 2015 was the most hated governor in the country, behind even Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal. That occurred, of course, in Kansas.

Beyond the Snark [15]

Alec MacGillis (NYT) “Who Turned My Blue State Red” which was the immediate impetus for this: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/opinion/sunday/who-turned-my-blue-state-red.html

Anne Case and Angus Deaton, the other impetus: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/03/health/death-rates-rising-for-middle-aged-white-americans-study-finds.html. For the original: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/10/29/1518393112.abstract

Another article on the white drug-overdose epidemic:
Note the observation that blacks and Hispanics aren’t affected because docs won’t prescribe them painkillers: must be great fun when you’ve got metastatic bone cancer…

Stanley Greenberg’s America Ascendent which is the book-length exposition of the “demography is destiny” argument. http://us.macmillan.com/americaascendant/stanleybgreenberg

Washington Monthly‘s Nancy LeTourneau review of Greenberg: http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/novemberdecember_2015/on_political_books/oneparty_fate058475.php

Dan Balz (Washington Post) on Greenburg, circling around some of these same points as this essay: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/for-democrats-its-not-just-demographics-as-destiny/2015/11/28/199d3a18-9539-11e5-a2d6-f57908580b1f_story.html

Anne-Marie Slaughter and Ben Scott on the increasing irrelevance of Washington think-tanks (Washington Monthly) [and by implication, the zombie wonks: good start, but the situation is even worse…]: http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/novemberdecember_2015/features/rethinking_the_think_tank058469.php

The Economist on Ivy League discrimination: http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21669595-asian-americans-are-united-states-most-successful-minority-they-are-complaining-ever

Mancur Olson on why “bad things happen” when regulations accumulate unchecked: http://www.amazon.com/The-Rise-Decline-Nations-Stagflation/dp/0300030797

Plus a shout-out to the recently deceased Douglas North whose work headed in much the same direction: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglass_North

Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy: http://wikisum.com/w/Downs:_An_economic_theory_of_democracy

The efficacy of decentralized community-based solutions: pretty much everything Elinor Ostrom ever wrote: http://www.economist.com/node/21557717

Paul Krugman on the wisdom of financing new infrastructure with long-term bonds at extraordinarily low interest rates [16]: well, about every third column he has written in the New York Times for the past seven years: http://www.nytimes.com/column/paul-krugman.

Ted Robert Gurr 1994 ISA presidential address: http://isq.oxfordjournals.org/content/38/3/347. But it’s paywalled, and so I can’t tell whether the critique of Huntington, which figured prominently in the lecture Gurr gave at the ISA meeting, made it into the presumably much shorter article. It’s paywalled. That, by the way, is the standard academic mode: write something interesting, give it away—with very few exceptions, academics are not paid for the articles they write; they are paid (sort of) for books—to some rapacious proprietary publisher [insert link to image of Cthulhu here…] who then locks this away so that no one except other academics can read it—though most academics are blissfully unaware that you need access to a research university-level library to read most articles, and think JStore is a public service rather than an extortion racket—then complain bitterly that their ideas are having no influence on the public discourse.

Divergent paths of religious institutions in the US and Europe: Stark-Bainbridge theory of religion: http://www.rodneystark.com/ [or more generally, just Google that term.] The “Iron Laws” are mouseCorp, not Stark-Bainbridge.

The 158 families: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/10/11/us/politics/2016-presidential-election-super-pac-donors.html

Brownback: http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/obama-tops-brownback-ruby-red-kansas

Louisiana: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/23/us/louisianas-john-bel-edwards-overcame-big-obstacles-to-win-governors-race.html

Sestak campaign: http://joesestak.com/ Get on his mailing list for a running account of everything the Democratic establishment is doing to try to undercut him.


1. So with the worrisome decline in productivity in this blog, mouseCorp—slave drivers!—has decided to impose some discipline. Seven-point blog entries will henceforth be limited (or is that “limited”?) to 1800 words—an overall average of 200 words per point plus 200 each for the introduction and conclusion. A new “Beyond the Snark” section will now be required to give pointers to some of the factual material that underlies…uh…the snark, rather than in-text links which were sometimes useful, but might also just send you off to a picture of Cthulhu. I managed to negotiate—this was tough, but had to be done—unlimited words on the footnotes, but everyone skips those anyway (joke…). There’s a backlog of about a dozen half-completed entries, and we’ll see if this improves things.

2. “Joe and Jane Sixpack,” “single moms,” “trailer trash” and “rednecks” do not qualify.

3. Do I have a shred of evidence to support this claim? No! But we are in the post-modern era and everybody has won and all must have prizes! Okay, so of course I’m lying, but hear me out. (An old Hollywood joke.)

4. Contemporary attitudes towards race relations in those segments of the LMCWD that could be courted by a 21st century Democratic party, while nuanced, are arguably considerably more tolerant, and considerably more meritocratic, than those of the Clintons’ friends on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and the Ivy League universities.

5. Republican consultants achieve the same level of anxiety using a 30-second video of kittens playing with yarn under a picture of Barack Obama shaking hands with Pope Francis.

6. New motto: one Vitter down, one to go.

7. About the same time Ted Robert Gurr, in an International Studies Association presidential address, did the same to Samuel Huntington’s infamous Clash of Civilizations. Facts, how inconvenient.

And no, the Paris attacks are not validation for Clash of Civilizations: for every unit of effort ISIS has spent attacking the West they’ve probably spent a thousand killing other Moslems and attacking Arab institutions.

8. Hey wonks, that top-down Washington-led “War on Drugs”?—how’s that working for ya?

9. That’s classical conservatism, not to be confused with the bloviator conservatism served up on the Fox Fantasy Hour—same program, merely repeated in 24 daily segments with different hosts—which bears the same relationship to classical conservatism as an elementary school kazoo band does to a virtuoso performance of the Toccota and Fugue in D Minor. A topic to be elaborated upon in a later blog entry.

10. The First Iron Law of U.S. Religious Movements states that the politically dominant religious affiliation changes about every eighty years—Calvinist to Quaker to Methodist to liberal Protestant to conservative evangelical—and as such we are heading towards the next transition. The Second Iron Law is that whatever the dominant sect, Baptists are number two, and Catholics number three. The Third Iron Law is that there is always more going on with new religious movements that the first three groups would like to acknowledge.

11. The original aphorism in Henry The Sixth, Part 2 Act 4, scene 2 alas, has some human rights issues.

12. The “Republican Party”, of course, has precisely the same structure, albeit with a different if overlapping set of families, and everyone owns guns. Or claims they do.

13. More generally, for negative policy examples, particularly those involving the sale of beer and wine, and the management of college athletic programs, it’s really hard to beat Pennsylvania. I digress.

14. Probably, but not necessarily. The GOP of Trump, Carson, Cruz, Bachmann, Huckabee and Palin is doomed. For a different but equally compelling set of reasons, so is the GOP of Brownback, Walker, Christie and Jindal. The GOP of McCain, Romney, Kaisch, Bloomberg, the Bush dynasty and Rubio probably is not doomed, and the GOP of Landon, Eisenhower, Dole and Kassebaum would not have gotten into this mess in the first place.

15. Okay, so this is a new experiment to try to get more of these blogs out the door. You see, these usually start when I’ve run into a series of related articles that get me writing. But once it gets going, Krans, the Demon of Snark, takes over and we end up with, well, we end up with these blogs. So I’m going to try a new section—and not just links and footnotes, particularly since the footnotes are usually be even worse than the body of the text—providing pointers to the serious stuff as well. We’ll see how this goes.

16. The wonks and think tanks ain’t signing on to this imminently rational proposal, presumably at the behest of their paymasters on Wall Street and in the 79 families, who have absolutely nothing to benefit from either the infrastructure—they live in gated communities and fly NetJets, remember?—or low-interest long-term bonds.

Posted in Politics, The Blog | 3 Comments

A Field Guide to Millennials and Gen-Xers in Social Data Analytics


Background: This was vaguely solicited advice to a funding agency which, exercising the usual discretion characteristic of this site, shall remain anonymous. [1] Hence the organization into ten points rather than the usual seven.

1. They are digital natives: You cannot manage them unless you speak that language, and fairly fluently at that. They will instantly detect posers in this domain.

2. They are very social and travel in non-exclusive herds or, as they prefer, tribes. They are innately collaborative and remarkably adept at self-organization, including long-distance collaboration.

3. Consistent with their social ethos, they share and expect others to share. In the data analytic world, if you aren’t on GitHub, you might as well not exist.

4. Observational evidence suggests that they can survive a total of between three to ten hours of exposure to the 200 yellow-on-green, 8-point-type PowerPoint slide presentations that characterize monthly program reviews. Ethical constraints have precluded establishing this number precisely, though they will usually respond to such treatments by fleeing the project—see Point #10—rather than clawing their own eyes out.

5. They are fearless adopters, assessors and modifiers of new technology. Contrary to stereotypes, when properly motivated they have a remarkable capacity for work: A millennial working on the early stages of one project I was involved with ended up in the emergency room due to dehydration after a night of data-wrangling. He survived, and now teaches at Princeton.

6. They like feedback, intermediate rewards and have a possibly overly acute—though generally accurate—sense of injustice when assessing organizational management.

7. Unlike the notoriously sexist first generation of political methodologists (and the hopelessly sexist game theorists before them [2]) they are fully open to participation of, and leadership by, women. In fact they find exclusively male environments rather odd and alienating.

8. They prefer to approach their work with a sense of humor: at the recent New Directions in Text as Data conference, the first slide of the first presentation was a drawing of a squirrel with a martini glass [3]. The presenter, a woman, said “Every presentation at this [predominantly Millennial and GenX-er] conference needs to have a picture of an animal.” This had not been announced in advance, but indeed every subsequent presentation contained a picture of an animal.[4]

9. They are skeptics, and if someone tells them something is impossible when they know it has already been done—the forte of physicists and engineers talking about social science research—you will lose them immediately. They are also skeptical of each other: the recently established Millennial and Gen-X journal Research and Politics has the strongest replication norms in political science, and quite likely anywhere in the social sciences..

10. Every reasonably-sized data analytics company in the world has at least half a dozen openings: a Millennial’s alternative to working for your project is to work for Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook or Microsoft. Not Starbucks.

A Gen-Xer social data analytics researcher I know seeking to escape an academic institution in a rather remote village interviewed with each of these five, and within weeks had offers from every one; she went with Microsoft Research in New York City. Another, who had taken several graduate courses from her institution’s statistics department, concluded that the methods required for publication in a certain social science were completely useless, so she quit and after a few months at a data start-up, ended up at Apple, in a city which is probably at the outer limits of the possibility curve on the dimensions “coolness” and “affordable.” A final example—though I have more—involved a student with considerable experience in conflict data analytics who took a summer internship at an insurance company where he wrote a little model to predict the location of pirate attacks, which the company then used to secure a contract with the world’s largest shipping company. You will be shocked, shocked to learn that he has an offer for non-academic employment as well. Also in what has been considered one of the world’s coolest cities. During the time of the Roman Empire. Before that unpleasantness with the Saxons. I digress.


1. Which is to say, blindingly obvious to almost everyone likely to read this. It is not Penn State.

2. Where various personality disorders at the clinical level also seemed to correlate with professional success, and I’m not just thinking of John Nash. Though apparently John von Neumann was a pretty nice guy.

3. It made sense in context…well, sort of… The martini had an acorn rather than an olive. I do not know whether the martini was shaken or stirred: it wasn’t that kind of squirrel.

4. My contribution (taken at a workshop I attended in South Africa):blackswan


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments