The Have-Nots Paradox

Thomas Edsall has an insightful description of how the ongoing changes in party politics reached apotheosis in the present election, turning the Democrats to a party of “haves” and the Republicans to a party of “have nots.”  Yet, in so doing, he introduces a peculiar paradox:  how the wealthy who now make constitute the core of the Democratic Party seem more “generous” while the poor who make up the Republicans apparently are not.  Specifically, he observes:

There is, in addition, a significant difference in the attitudes toward the poor coming from voters in the “social elite” and those from “the disinherited.” Asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “Most Americans who live in poverty are there because of their own bad habits and choices,” the social elite sharply disagreed, 81-19, while the disinherited were split (47.2 percent agree, 52.8 percent disagree).

It is not clear to me that this is necessarily accurate:  the people who (would) make up “disinherited,” after all, did make up the coalition that coined the seemingly paradoxical phrase “get government out of my Medicare.”  I don’t think this idea is at all paradoxical:  they came to accept the idea of Medicare as a basic right, not necessarily something that is granted them as a “favor” by the government.  If something is part of the basic set of rights, then it exists beyond “government,” not something that one should be “grateful” for.  “Government” is not necessarily the body of infrastructure that maintain and provide for the “rights” of “the people,” but a group of political actors who seek to change the way government policy is administered and the “rights” are distributed.  It is worth remembering that what the Obamacare skeptics feared most was not that the services would be expanded, but the fear that, in order to provide for the expansion, existing services and “rights” would be cut.  Since they did not feel that they had a say in how that process was going to be undertaken and did not trust those who were supposedly going to be doing the cutting–i.e. the “government”–it stood to reason that they should have indeed been suspicious, whether justified or not.  The assurance that they needed, then, was not simply that the new system was going to be “better” (they don’t know that) but that everything that they already had was going to be stay the same.  That all the existing “rights” would remain unchanged, that the “Medicare” in the form of the rights that the “disinherited” already had, was going to be kept in an ironclad lockbox, so to speak.  Whether this would have been trusted, or deemed as a dirty back door trick, who knows?  But this was the path that was not taken–simply expanding Medicare to cover the uninsured would have changed as little as possible while expanding coverage, while, most importantly, providing the necessary proof that nothing was changing except more people getting coverage, but, to repeat, this is not what happened, in favor of significant changes and new infrastructure for providing new services, which did not engender trust among the people who were already distrustful.

In a sense, this is a rhetorical difference:  do all “people” have the basic right to certain minimum “floor,” in education, health, and livelihood?  I don’t think the “disinherited” will differ much from the “affluent” in how they answer this question.   But I don’t think people ask this question often enough.  When the question is couched in terms of receiving favors, from government or others, this is different.  Favors come with a price and/or a disreputable tag.  Proud people do not want to be subject of someone’s mercy and pity, and that is a good thing, because proud people will go beyond the letter of the contract to do what needs to be done if only for the pride in themselves, their accomplishments, and their mission.  But they do recognize that, sometimes, they fall on hard times and need a helping hand, to maintain their dignity on which their pride rests on.  Couching the “help” as “rights” helps preserve this pride and dignity.  Insisting that they are recipients of help and favor helps succor the self-righteousness of those who are offering it, but they do so at the price of destroying the pride and dignity of the recipients.  I always wondered if this is the problem:  a welfare state needs to be based on the notion of rights, of proud citizens who are entitled to a minimum of dignity, not pitiable wrecks subsisting on the favors of the haves, sullen and wallowing in self-pity.  Yet, the way American welfare state has been presented seemed to increasingly be heading in the latter direction:  we the enlightened leaders think that those who we think are deserving of pity should be forcibly handed our largess so that we can feel good about how generous and wonderful we are.  Well, the predictable response to this would be “we don’t want your self-serving crap, white man.”  This is what happened in many colonial societies (and many of them, in turn, were swallowed up by smooth-talking conmen who took over as dictators).  Apparently, this is what is taking place now in United States.

Romans drew a sharp distinction between “citizens” and “subjects,” and this continued throughout the Middle Ages, in the form of distinction between “nobles” and “peasants,” as well as “citizens” of various city states, which were positions of privilege, not just anyone.  Citizens and nobles were entitled to certain dignity, even if they were to be executed for treason–hanging was considered particularly contemptuous form of punishment because they were reserved for peasants only, and except in the most extraordinary circumstances, nobles and citizens were not hanged, but were beheaded or shot.  (This places the guillotine during the French Revolution in a peculiar context:  everyone was beheaded, befitting their status as “citizens,” not hanged like mere peasants.)  The “dignity” and “pride,” however symbolic they might have been, was carefully preserved.  At the same time, however, this also meant that citizenship (and nobility) was not usually universally distributed:  it was only the dying days of the Roman Empire that Roman citizenship became universal, and by then, the value of Roman citizenship had fallen to nothingness.  For all the bravado about universal citizenship and rights during the Revolutionary days, the French state of the 19th century went far out of their way to protect the rights of French citizens from encroachment by foreign powers, not just “anyone” but because they were special, because they were French “citizens”–this was, among others, how the French wound up intervening in Mexico in 1838, leading to a shootout in Vera Cruz with a group of Mexican soldiers during which General Santa Ana lost a leg while charging after some French soldiers who were retreating anyways.

The idea of “citizenship” which confers “rights” only on proper “citizens,” unfortunately, turns into its own rabbit hole.  It is necessarily parochial and restrictive.  Not everyone will be “citizens,” entitled to the rights thereof.  But who shall be granted these rights?  This obviously ties into the “immigration” debate, especially of the rights of immigrants to gain legal status and the associated “rights of citizenship” (not necessarily same as that of legal “citizenship.”)  It also feeds into racist sentiments among certain unpleasant groups, who hold that only “real Americans” (whatever that means) should hold rights of citizenship.  Some balance must be struck between the two extremes:  some delimiting and “restrictive” enough criterion that entitles one to benefits of citizenship as a matter of unconditional right beyond politics has to be defined, but that criterion has to be universal enough to be not limited to boundaries of race, creed, and any other problematic categories.  In the end, I suppose, this criterion would have to be something “mystical, spiritual, and irrational,” something that exists because people believe in it, not necessarily because it has a “logical” basis (even if well-defined–after all, it will have to be legally enforceable.)   I always hated the world of Starship Troopers–the novel by Heinlein, not the movie by Verhoeven that savagely mocked the novel–but, in a way, I am beginning to appreciate its underlying logic, and how it  might be created without descending into fascism.  (but Verhoeven is also right–an attempt to create a sense of citizenship without an obvious common “cultural cues” as the focal point is bound to be dangerous and potentially open to massive abuse…)

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Paradoxical Empires that Trade Made

At the height of the South Carolina secession crisis, Andrew Jackson supposedly said the following:

“… the Tariff was only the pretext, and Disunion and a Southern Confederacy the real object. The next pretext will be the Negro or Slavery question.”

In a sense, this is a prescient, but also a highly subversive statement.  It suggests that the difference between the North and South that precipitated the Civil War was not just the slavery question, but something more fundamental.  As Jackson saw it, the anticipated slavery question, as was the tariff question at his own time, would merely be a pretext, not the cause.  It is tempting at this point to jump around abstract philosophical and “political” causes that separated the North and the South, but I think that is mistaken.  It should suffice only to look at the linkage between tariff and slavery:  they were both fundamentally economic question with political roots.  Essentially, the South was a coalition of free traders who benefited from the comparative advantage granted them by their ability to take advantage of cheap labor, which they did so through political and social means, in the form of slavery.  An important caveat, of course, was that, as Jackson foresaw, in a sense, overt slavery was not the only means through which the South could maintain the comparative advantage of cheap labor:  through segregation, sharecropping, and union-busting, South was able to maintain its comparative advantage via political means for many decades even after 1865.

The South was not the only empire of free traders building on unfree labor, and certainly not the most paradoxical one.  That title goes to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth a full century before the rise of the American South.  The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was built on a system of extensive liberties that was available to all races and creeds–Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and Free-Thinkers, as long as you were a nobleman.  Among this cosmopolitan elite, the Enlightenment Thinking was the big hit:  everyone, who was noble, that is, received extensive education, spoke multiple languages, and went around the world looking for causes to fight–like Kosciusko and Pulaski who went halfway around the globe looking for righteous causes to join.  But, at home, their enlightened status depended on a brutal and unfree system of labor that allowed them to profit from free trade:  the invention of efficient cargo ships by the Dutch, the fluytschip, in the late 16th century made it profitable to trade even in bulk cargo like grain.  Central and Eastern Europe, where the Polish nobles held sway, could concentrate on becoming the granary to the Western Europeans in a manner not unfamiliar to the Southern cotton planters:  they used their political and social power to tighten the grip of serfdom on their underlings, reduced them to unfree labor essentially held in bondage, who could be ruthlessly exploited for profit from foreign trade, the profit that could be funneled into their allegedly more enlightened enterprises.  A great irony of 19th century history is that the liberation of the slaves at the end of the American Civil War (whether in form of the Emancipation Proclamation or the 13th Amendment) and the liberation of the serfs in the Russian Empire in 1861 did, indeed, share the same context:  the liberation of the serfs was intended largely to destroy the economic power of the troublesome (and very hypocritical) Polish nobles who were resisting the Russian rule, in a manner, one might say, that bore certain resemblance to the resistance of the Southern oligarchs to the Federal rule in antebellum United States.  For good or for ill, though, the peculiar history of the serfdom in Poland is not as well known outside Belarus or Ukraine:  when the serfs and masters look alike, I suppose, it does not seem obvious to the outsiders, even if the history of serfdom persists in form of the peculiar socio-, ethnic-, and religious divides in these countries even today–including in context of the present civil war in Ukraine.

These provide a disturbing context for the social-, political-, and economic-divides in present day United States and Western Europe.  Free trade and open societies may or may not provide net benefit to all, but it is clear that the benefits are concentrated among the political and economic elites inside the Beltway, on Wall St, and in Silicon Valley,  while the costs fall heavily among the masses outside all three.  Whether these have done more good or not, their effects are perceived starkly differently by different audiences.  Like 19th century South Carolina and 18th century Poland, the global social, economic, and political order of today rests on a dangerous paradox:  while Kosciusko’s and Pulaskis were fighting for “liberty” abroad, their agents were suppressing the uppity and unenlightened serfs back home, who were, in turn,  being riled up by the autocratic Czars and Czarinas in Moscow.  (with the peculiar shadow cast by Putin, even this has a strange analogue today.  In case of Ukraine, the conflict there is almost exact replay of the old conflicts that never really ended.)  Is today’s global order enlightened, or not?  Who knows.  But this too rests on a highly combustible basis at home.

The Rise of Right Wing Feminism?

I think this article by David Graham in the Atlantic is on to something huge and fundamentally insightful.  One seemingly persistent belief that has not been born out by actual politics is that women are somehow more liberal in terms of politics.  In general, women have tended to vote for Republicans more than men–without white women’s votes, Romney would not have done as well as he did in 2012, even if he lost, for example. Republicans have produced as many elected women officials as  Democrats have.  In a sense, Phyllis Schlafly, notwithstanding her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, is a giant of American political feminism, possibly greater than anyone since Susan B. Anthony–which, apparently, is recognized by Susan B. Anthony List.

If Trump candidacy breaks the Republican Party, it won’t be because of racism–Republicans already lost vast majority of minority votes.  It will be because they lost much of their credibility to women, who make up a majority of the voting public and among whom Republicans had always done rather well.  What is more there is no good reason that Republican should lose these votes, except for the fact that Trump is exactly the wrong kind of candidate who would offend many of the people who were already more or less in the Republican camp even if he could draw out voters who were not there.  In a sense, I think this is a tragedy:  God knows that there are many people who have been left behind that needed a champion inside the Beltway, and they were already split by difficult-to-reconcile worldviews–Sanders supporters and Trump supporters.  The former already lost and the latter will lose with near certainty, and worse, having a crazy loon as the standard bearer will certainly discredit the fact that they are being seriously underserved.  I don’t see much, if any, good coming out of denying their existence–but it will be too easy to do so.  But, as the Langston Hughes poem implies, a dream deferred too much explodes.  (irony intentional–the logic of the poem has gone intersectional, sadly–it applies multiracially now.)

Why Academics Should not Comment on Politics, especially Hot Button Issues.

I did not realize that Princeton University Press had been running a blog that invited its authors to comment on current events.  I think it’s a horrible idea, and this post by Mike Chwe pretty much makes the case.  I would not have noticed it except for an indirect reference to a right wing site (Daily Caller) drawing attention to it, with the usual flourish about how academics are claiming, more or less, that white males are evil, and, the truth be told, the less than diplomatic language used by Chwe pretty much makes it difficult to say otherwise.

I have two problems with the post, and the idea of the blog.  The kind of post that Chwe contributed is not something that draws on academic skills and background.  Chwe is a game theory, a brilliant one at that, with odd ideas and insights that don’t fit neatly into everyday politics.  Commenting on current events and moral dimensions thereof is not his academic suit.  As it were, he is doing nothing more than any other opinionated partisan wordsmith, who have been assailing Trump candidacy pretty on the exactly points he had been bringing up.  There is no good reason that anyone should trust him, and, truth be told, they shouldn’t–it’s his opinion, and that is all.  But the problem goes deeper:  the public does not know what political science really does.  For example, Chwe’s insights on coordination, symbols, and rituals are absolutely brilliant and it has been on full display throughout this campaign, even if being deployed in a manner inimical to his political views–but very few people really understands them and their significance.  Instead, to many, he will go down as another crazy partisan academic who had said standard partisan things like any other political hack.  He will have influenced no one’s opinion and in so doing, furthered the right wingers’ hostility to academia.  I think that’s a losing proposition.

The problem is further compounded by the accusatory tone that the post takes.  The truth is that Trump draws his strongest support from those whom economic and social progress of recent years have passed by, people who are from areas not doing so well economically, people who feel that their opportunities are being taken away, their communities are being destroyed, and, quite frankly, literally dying.  These are angry and frustrated people latching on to something, however ludicrous, that gives them the means to fight back against their perceived enemies.  While Trump’s personal conduct, both during and, in fact, for years before, the campaign have been absolutely deplorable, it should bother us that many people are not only willing to support him, but to do so enthusiastically.  One frequent problem that social scientists have been tending to do is to put their theories first and declare observations contrary to their theories as being “wrong.”  So the theory is that today’s society is great and those who are not doing great are wrong?  So the literally dying  people in Middle America that Case and Deaton have found, who happen to be particularly strong Trump supporters getting their just deserts?  I’ve met people who hold views like that, who are convinced that we are in such a great age that those who are doing badly are morally wrong for not doing well.  I think these people are nuts, personally.  The truth is that the presence of such an angry mob who are threatening to disrepsect election results is a dangerous sign that something has seriously gone wrong with the political institutions in this country.  Maybe they do need to be confronted in the short term, if only to ensure that there is something tomorrow, proverbially speaking, but fighting them, if one were to go down that route, would be a fool’s errand.  It will ensure that the American society will be ripped asunder, with no means of patching it back together.  That support for Trump has taken on a racialist tone should worry people–not just because the racialist tone is itself wrong, but that it furthers the fractures that trouble the American body politic.

Never mind moral grandstanding!  How can we keep the rot from spreading?  In order to do so, we have to understand the disease, not declare the disease immoral and start lecturing at it.  Sadly, very few people seem interested in calling for understanding the disease rather than moral declarations.  I find this disturbing because this happened before, at that time with a real disease–in 1980s, with the AIDS epidemic.  The disease, at least in the Western world, was largely limited to the gay community at the beginning.  Rather than trying to fight the epidemic as a menace to public’s well being and, indeed, lives, the political universe took it as an opportunity for moral grandstanding.  Lives, by the thousands, were lost while the politicians and self-claimed public intellectuals lectured on pointlessly.  The forces underlying the Trump phenomenon (and to an extent, Sanders’ also, although different in that his supporters did not take on ugly tones the way Trump’s did) represent a threat to public’s well being–indeed, literally, as witness the Case and Deaton article–possibly orders of magnitude greater than AIDS was in 1980s.  Dealing with it means treating the disease, not hold moralistic exorcisms for those who are not afflicted.  If the gays were not being struck by Divine wrath in the form of HIV for their alleged moral failings, the angry and frustrated people who form core of Trump’s support are not suffering the wrath of the atheist rationalist god for their alleged moral failings either.  We have to understand the disease and come up with a treatment, with the awareness that the support for candidates like Trump is but a symptom.  The real disease is the prevailing frustration and alienation that so many voters had fallen into, and how the American political system has failed them.. This is something that academics can and should do.

On Agreements and Disagreements

As a matter of principle, I like people whom I don’t agree with. I wonder if this feeling is always mutual, as I’ve discovered that people have polar opposite reactions to disagreements.

I am, by original training, a mathematician, and by experience, a statistician, even if wound up doing applied social science research.  There are three reasons behind why people disagree and, as far as I’m concerned, every one of these reasons is a reason to keep up the conversation.

On matters of “data,” or facts, people may disagree because they see different facets of facts.  To invoke the famous fable of the blind men and the elephant, people might disagree on what an elephant is like because they are privy only to a subset of the whole truth about the whole truth.  Since we do not know what the “whole truth” looks like under almost any set of circumstances, it stands to reason that disagreements over matters of “facts” should be common.  If we should happen to disagree over the facts, it follows that we should investigate how the elephant can be both like a wall and a rope at the same time, or, in other words, investigate where my facts and yours are at odds and think of how they can be both be true in the same “truth,” without presumption that the “truth” is zero sum, i.e. that I must be privy to the whole truth.

On the matters of logic, people disagree because they start from different sets of premises, which, even if logically and rationally pieced together, might imply a different result.  This is, after all, how we wound up getting non-Euclidean geometry from Euclid’s Fifth Postulate, which, despite seemingly obvious, turned out to be a bit more, eh, complicated. If the conclusion logically follows from a reasonable set of starting premises, it would be foolish to dismiss the premises just because we don’t agree with the conclusion.  Things can change.  The premises that might seem implausible today can be more apropos tomorrow.  If the conclusion follows logically, then it is logical, given the premises that give rise to it.  That is beyond dispute because that is true.  Even if we might consider it unlikely, you cannot ignore it as “untrue.”  It should always be kept in the back of mind, so to speak, as a possibility even if it might seem unlikely.

On the matters of opinion, there is no reason to expect an agreement.  We have opinions because we don’t know what the whole truth is, we don’t know what the right answer is, or, far more often, there simply is no set truth and there is no right answer, so we substitute what we think should be the truth in absence of something better.  So a difference in opinion simply means that my interlocutor and I simply have different values, and my values are no better than his values.  But, at minimum, it behooves that I should learn what his values and what makes him tick.

Or, in other words, if we disagree, we should talk.  I wouldn’t expect to nor want to change your thoughts.  Instead, I want to learn why you think as you do because the disagreement means you know things I don’t know.

But investigating why and how we disagree is a difficult and time consuming process. When all we know is that we are not in agreement about things, that just means that we are not on the same page.  If we have been stuck on the same island forever, and we’d been telling each other same jokes forever, we’d know to laugh when you say “three” because we all know that’s reference to joke #3 which we know by heart and we all agree is very funny.  But we see someone whom we have had never seen before saying “three,” we would not know what to make of it.  In order to ensure that we are on the same page, making the same shared references, we need to know if we agree on how the world works, that we share the same values, and we have the same “mental model” of the universe.  So we need the recitation of the Creed, that we believe in “begotten, not made” and all that.  Do we really understand what the difference between “begotten” and “made,” the whole theology debated at the Council of Nicaea?  Not the vast majority of us, but understanding is not relevant.  Knowing the creed is the secret handshake:  it identifies us as members of the same tribe, who buy into the same shtick.  We may look different, but we are of the same tribe.  This is, of course, why Creationism is so powerful a force among certain segments of population, as I had written before.  The nitty gritty of the science behind evolution, the real thing, is complicated, as complicated as the theology of “begotten” vs. “made,” and for most, just as (ir)relevant.  The important thing is the public show of faith in the creed, the indication that we are of the same tribe.  Understanding does not matter.

This becomes a logical problem:  disagreements may be the beginning of wisdom, the key to learning.  The trust that those who don’t agree with you genuinely know things that are worth learning, that are worth investing time in, is what should prompt people to start thinking outside the box that you might have been comfortable with in the beginning.  But, at the same time, disagreements indicate that you are not part of the “tribe.”  By disagreeing, you leave yourself open to suspicion.  Wanting to learn costs you your place in the society when people don’t have time for open-ended understanding–which will be most people.

 

Decline of Personal Representation

The Atlantic has a thoughtful piece on the decline of “populism” in the post-reform House, a topic of much interest to me, obviously.  However, I suspect that the author is using the term “populism” in a loosey-goosey way that is a bit too vague.

The kind of politics that, according to the article, Wright Patman subscribed to is not exactly “populism” per se, but the personal style of representation that Richard Fenno described.  At the heart of personal representation, in turn, was a relationship between the elected official and the voters that went beyond “ideology” and “partisanship” and was centered around mutually intelligible communication.  The politician came to the voter and listened to what the voters had to say about the major problems they faced, and in turn, brought back solutions to these problems in terms that made sense to the voters.  The kind of accomplishments that people like Putman and other New Dealers could point to to their voters were neither abstract nor ideological, but answers to practical problems that the voters did not need much, if any, further explanation:  “Electricity. Telephone. Roads. Social Security. Soil conservation. Price supports. Foreclosure prevention.”  Voters knew what these meant and liked them.  Anyone who was against them could not be decent people.

Fast forward 60 years, what are the “solutions” that either party is proposing to the practical problems facing the common folk now?  Almost all the issues that the parties are supposedly polarized around are, in fact, abstract.  People might talk about civil rights, human rights, and environment.  But nobody is against the basic civil rights.  While there is widespread belief, justified by facts, that there are serious abuses taking place towards all manner of people, the solutions to these problems are not so obvious as building new power lines and turning on electric lights.  Most obvious and patently unfair barriers to minority voting, for example, have been removed.  While the less obvious and informal barriers remain, how to deal with them is hardly obvious even to those who are directly affected by them, let alone people to whom those challenges are distant, abstract, and “unreal.”

This is not to say that the working class whites who were the backbone of the New Deal coalition are necessarily against these things:  if anything, the strong show of support among many of these voters for Sanders candidacy shows that there is a significant potential electorate among them for a liberal agenda.  But that liberal agenda has to offer them something that they can see benefits them, in addition to whatever else they want to do to change the world.

In a sense, this is something that was understood by the Cold War generation:  people like Hubert Humphrey, Scoop Jackson, and Richard Nixon offered the voters a continuation of the New Deal, but this offer was bundled with Cold War international politics–of the war in Vietnam and other misadventures.  The international conflict against communism, taking place in faraway lands, made little or no sense to the folks back home.  But New Deal and its benefits, they could understand.  In a sense, what made Robert Kennedy and his candidacy, cut short by his assassination, stand out was that he understood the artificial nature of the tie between aggressive internationalism and the continuation of the New Deal domestic politics:  it was perfectly possible to turn great many of these voters around behind a peace platform if it was explained in simple enough terms that made sense to them and accompanied by a guarantee of the continuity of the New Deal.  Unfortunately, without an independent reputation, in the form of a Kennedy name, to be a big enough symbol, nobody could break through the consensus on Cold War internationalism internationalism in Washington so that he could make a pitch to the voters.  If the New Deal is what drew the voters to a Democrat on the main street, Cold War internationalism (and other policy consensus among the elites) is what drew in the political insiders inside the Beltway.  A successful candidate needed both.

The arrival of the “Watergate babies” might have broken the stranglehold among the incumbent elites, but in so doing, it also broke the bonds of trust that maintained the linkage between voters and politicians.  The insights that propelled Robert Kennedy’s candidacy, that good relationship with the voters exists on a separate plain from Washington policymaking, were lost.  Or, were they?  In a sense, these Watergate babies did not capture power by drawing on the voters on the main street, but by enlisting support among the “marginalized” elites–particularly the policy wonks and the big businesses, particularly the financial sector, that had been restrained for the benefit of the masses.  It was, in a sense, a palace coup, not unlike the coup that brought down the Brazilian monarchy that was popular enough but did not command any love among the players–not even the emperor himself tried to defend the monarchy when it was overthrown.  The masses were interested in preserving the fruits of New Deal, not in defending Cold War internationalism or Jim Crow or whatever other schemes that the incumbent elites had in mind.  Once the machinery that kept the old elites in place were subverted in 1975, through the House reforms, the New Order could take charge unchallenged.

The caveat, however, was that the changes in policy that the New Democrats sought did not necessarily require renunciation of the New Deal.  They were interested in changing policy at the national scale.  They did not care whether the voters got government subsidized electricity or not.  In this sense, they were not so different from the Cold War Democrats whom they supplanted, who, after all, were interested in beating commies or maintaining Jim Crow, not especially whether there were enough bridges for their supporters back home.  As long as the support from the voters could be enlisted by giving them material benefits that they could see and understand, a change in course was not necessary.  And so it continued for decades after the House Reforms following Watergate. In this sense, the real change came long before Watergate: the Cold War Democrats, if forced into a choice between Cold War and the New Deal, would have gladly ditched the New Deal:  they simply did not have the voters to manage that.  The New Democrats, in a sense, took on the villainous role because they realized that they did not need the votes from many of the New Deal beneficiaries to win elections.  They were, in 1970s, 80s, and 90s, on the “right” side of the Culture Wars, meaning the side that yielded more votes.  They could more easily take on the symbolic positions and gain votes from the “right” demographics cheaply enough, while cutting back on the New Deal for the benefit of their new allies, the businesses.  The symbolic politics were cheap:  you didn’t need to talk to the voters and understand their problems.  Symbolic politics, often, were based on obvious traits that people showed off that did not require understanding of technical knowledge. To appreciate the problems of farmers meant that you had know something about technical aspects of farming:  you could not simply state that you support the farmers conserving their top soil.  On the other hand, there was nothing technical about gay marriage:  it was either the right thing or the wrong thing.  Stating your position won support from one set of people and opposition from the other.  If you had to learn something technical to win farmers’ votes, why bother, especially if there should be so few farmers left?

This is where a peculiar paradox emerges:  Hillary Clinton and others like her pride themselves in their wonkism, that they know practical details of policymaking that somehow affect the real lives of people.  Yet, I’m hard pressed to think of any one thing that the average voter can imagine that these wonks know that pertains to their lives.  They know technical details of banking regulation, international trade, election monitoring in Third World, and many such things, things that are important to, well, people who are interested in such things–in other words, people who are in financial sector, big businesses, or international NGO’s, not exactly the people on the main street.  I don’t think knowing what farmers need and knowing about democracy promotion abroad are necessarily mutually exclusive–certainly, the likes of Robert Kenneday would not have thought so.  If you know both about election monitoring and farming, maybe you could even get farmers to support intervention in East Timor, by winning over their trust.  But this has not been seriously attempted for decades now.  If there was one policy agenda that the Obama administration, and before that, Hillary Clinton herself, in course of the so-called “Hillarycare” fiasco, could have scored major points with the masses, it would have been by making a credible attempt to communicate with and mobilize mass support for their agendas, which, after all, was predicated on selling tangible benefits to many people, who, if spoken to directly in a language that made sense to them, would have been supportive of their program.  Instead, any effort that they made was only in the language of wonks that made no sense to the masses and engendered only suspicion and apathy.

I think this is yet another place where the political science has been going astray.  It makes little sense to define politics along the left-right continuum.  It makes more sense, I think, to conceptualize politics in terms of intelligibility.  If the argument makes no sense to the audience, it does not matter whether an argument is far left or far right, it is gobbledygook, and all gobbledygook looks the same.  To many voters, there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between Hillary Clinton and Paul Ryan other than the former wears pants and the latter has no ‘nads, so to speak, because they are equally incomprehensible to them, even if what they say may be very different–as C. Auguste Dupin, the master detective created by Edgar Allan Poe might say, an Orangutan’s scream and Italian are the same to one who does not understand Italian.  Bernie Sanders, for all his alleged leftism, can command widespread support despite all odds because he is understandable to everyone.  The same argument can be made for Donald Trump, except that his negatives are just as plainly visible as his positives.  That both Sanders and Trump should have done as well as they have against an allegedly moderate centrist should indicate to us that there is something huge we are missing.

What The Atlantic article calls “populism” is really the lost art of political communication, where the politicians would actually try to communicate with the voters in terms that make sense to both sides, not force them into abstract choices that mean very little to them.  Instead, we are getting too busy pointing fingers at the witness who heard a strange scream for both not knowing Italian and for being bigoted against Italians, not about the murders of two women whose bodies were stuffed inside chimney.

Orwell, Dostoevsky, Scientism, and Wonkism.

It is difficult to imagine George Orwell’s 1984 as a novel themed around naive optimism, but, at least one sense, it does reek of Whiggishly optimistic view of the “truth.”  A central theme of the novel is that the world of Oceania is, in fact, built around lies.  Yes, the lies are winning and there is nothing that can be done to resist it, but everything is a lie, which is casually recognized even by members of the inner party, i.e. those who are privy to the “real truth” even they recognize the lies as “the accepted truth” (thus the principle of doublethink).   The boot may be stomping on the human face forever, but the reader, if not Winston, knows that behind the boot is a pack of lies.  That the boot is invincible may be the source of frustration, but the reader can at least take solace in that at least he knows that 2+2 is not 5, even if that may be the enforced truth in the world of 1984.

Half a century before Orwell, Fyodor Dostoevsky, in The Notes from Underground, offered this little vignette.

“Once it’s proved to you that, essentially speaking, one little drop of your own fat should be dearer to you than a hundred thousand of your fellow men, and that in this result all so-called virtues and obligations and other ravings and prejudices will finally be resolved, go ahead and accept it, there’s nothing to be done, because two times two is-mathematics. Try objecting to that.”

In Dostoevksy’s dystopia, the reader is denied the comfort of knowing that there is a better world that could have been, if not for the artificial creation of the Party.  Behind the boot is not a pack of lies, but the truth.  In Czarist Russia, the Truth does not set you free.  The Truth stomps on your face, forever, so to speak.  One might say that the protagonist/fictitious “author” of the Notes, and by extension, the readers who recognize as he does that 2×2 = 4 are members of the inner party, already steeped in the principle of doublethink.  2+2 = 5 is already true, so to speak, so the problem is not so much that we should be troubled by the strange people in the “inner party” who subscribe to the obvious untruth, but the crazy proles and heretic outer party members like Winston who insist that what is obviously true, from our perspective, is not.

Whiggish worldview is a distinct pathology of the Anglophone (and perhaps the Western world in general).  They saw the truth and the progress as interchangeable:  find the truth, and you will find progress.  The dystopia of 1984 is that progress via truth is denied by the artifices of the Party dictatorship.  That, once you find the truth, it will always set you free, is something even Orwell, for all his cynicism, could not break free of.  Dostroevsky and the far more mystical Eastern Orthodox-influenced intellectual tradition of Russia he came out of, did not see the truth in the kind of misty eyed optimistic light that characterized Orwell, let alone the most hopeful members of the Western tribes.  Quite frankly, for the tribes not of the Western intellectual tradition, the “truth” of the enlightenment, grounded on empirical materialism, constrained to the physical measurable universe. quite frankly, sucked.  It destroyed the social order and ripped apart social fabric,, all in the name of Invincible and Unconquerable Truth.  This Truth was just as inconquerable as the Party of 1984, with the added despair–there was no hope, even if persistently unrealized, that one might escape the dystopia by discovering the truth–because the dystopia was the truth itself.

Enter the world of Dostoevsky, and you also discover the world of modern day mystics, not in the Czarist Russia, but in middle America–the same group of people who are seemingly rejecting the empirical “reality” of wonks and “scientists,” those who are seemingly irrational, overly given to the “spiritual,” quite racist, and communally minded (incidentally, many of the same  characteristics of the Russian “mystics” of late 19th and early 20th centuries–this intellectual movement gave the universe pacifists like Leo Tolstoy, but also batshit crazy mass murders like Ungern-Sternberg, and somewhere between the two, romantic ultranationalists like Solzhenitsyn.)    Perhaps Tolstoy would not have supported Ungern-Sternberg, and vice versa, but on can imagine the likes of Solzhenitsyn siding with one or the other.  Substitute Sanders for Tolstoy and Trump for Ungern-Sternberg, we have the United States of 2016, with many of the supporters of either taking the role of Solzhenitsyn.

With regards these folks, the reality that we, the putative members of the Inner Party face, fluctuates between 2+2 = 5 and 2×2 =4.  We are obviously convinced that our truth is the truth, and the other guys are as foolish and ridiculous as Winston Smith was to believe otherwise.  But how do we know?  How do we know if our truth is, indeed, the “truth” other than the fact that we are comfortable believing it as the truth and that it must be so–and that the other guys are ridiculous for believing it.

Thomas Kuhn, in his Structures of Scientific Revolutions, did not subscribe to the Whiggish view of “the Truth.”  In his worldview, the knowledge was constrained by technology available, which is always limited.  The theory of how the universe works and the data that sustains it–what we know of the universe–are not the same thing as the truth.  Just an imperfect approximation of it.  (To be fair, Kuhn was not the first to argue this point, but he is one of the most articulate in laying down this view.)  “Science” is necessarily incomplete and imperfect.  It is not the principle around which the society should be built around–even if its lessons might be recruited to improve its workings when possible.  Whether 2+2 = 4 or 5 is, in itself, irrelevant.  The important point is simply that 2+2 =4 as far as we know.  

This raises an interesting question that Orwell never raised–perhaps because he never even thought about it.  If the Party in 1984 insisted that 2+2 = 4, rather than 2+2 = 5 at the pain of torture, would it have been any better?  Perhaps an aspiring Orwell (probably not Orwell himself, who, I suspect, would have started thinking were he asked this question) would retort by saying that, since 2+2 is self-evidently 4, why should anyone try to impose it on the masses through torture?  Surely, people will see it as the truth on their own volition.  But if this were so obviously true, Dostoevsky’s dystopia could not have been written or the millions people who supported crazy socialist ideas of Sanders or the angry populist rhetoric of Trump would not exist either.  Truth is rarely so obvious or self-evident.  And, more important, O’Brien thought 2+2 = 5 is equally self-evident and obvious as the reader thinks 2+2 = 4 is.

Wonks operate on the same premise as “scientism,” which is to say that theories of science and the data that undergird them are necessarily “truth,” sufficiently reliable to build the real world around.  The recognition that all science is, if you will, just a theory–meaning the best guess we have about how the world works, but ultimately, only a “guess” is incompatible with their worldview.  Since most theories are “true” most of the time, as measured by the data, wonks will be generally right, but potentially with significant exceptions.  Wonks may be slightly wrong all the time, or hugely wrong some of the time, or some mixture of both.  Trying to account for how wrong the wonks are may not pay much–because they are so often right and following the wonks and the “formulas” provide simple paths to the good answers most of the time–they are not wrong often enough to worry about their being wrong.

But politics and society operate on a different principle from just winning and losing.  As Riker famously observed, it is waste to try to build a coalition larger than the minimal winning–provided that the losers can be safely assumed out of the picture.  When Sanders was talking about how many millions voiced their demand for a political revolution, his opponents in the Democratic primaries claimed that more millions voted against him–implying, in effect, that the millions who were unhappy with the status quo should simply shut up and disappear.  The same thing will likely repeat itself when Trump loses in November.  But the losers in elections don’t disappear.  In fact, problems arise precisely because they cannot be made to disappear.  There will be many millions of discontented people whose face the jackboot of “Truth” is constantly trampling upon.  Will they simply accept that 2+2 = 5 like Winston did?  I don’t think we have prepared the same sort of MiniLuv as Oceania has, and there are many millions of Winstons, however ridiculous their beliefs might be.

Information, Uncertainty, Incentives, and Trust.

Sandeep Baliga at the Cheap Talk blog has an outstanding summary of the contributions by Bengt Holstrom and Oliver Hart, the latest winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics.

The Holstrom-Hart Nobel is a bit personal to me, albeit through an indirect route, via one of my former teachers Paul Milgrom.  Paul liked to talk about how he came to graduate school not for PhD, but for MBA because he wanted to be an actuary, and how he found ways to apply actuarial thinking to economic theory.  Given the contributions by Holstrom and Milgrom that I found most enlightening brought together statistics and epistemology to a theory of incentives, this is an apt starting point for my reflection on their work.

The example by Baliga is an excellent illustration of the basic problem:  a worker at a burger joint does two things, one easily observable (the number of burgers), the other not so observable (the work in the kitchen).  By tying the incentives only to the number of burgers sold, the principal winds up discouraging kitchen work, and in so doing, subverting his own interests.  The solution is to create a low-powered set of incentives that depend comparatively little on burger sales.

But this opens up a whole slew of other questions.  Two questions pop into my mind immediately because these concern my eventual work in political science, especially with regards the relationship between voters and elected officials.  First, does the principal really know where the unseen parts of the business is?  Second, how does the principal know if the kitchen is being genuinely looked after?

In the legislative arena, the functional equivalent of burger sales come from the public record of legislative accomplishments and actions:  the number of bills, the voting record, etc.   Yet, these constitute comparatively little (and often, easily “faked”) aspects of the legislative work. Fenno and Mayhew, back in 1960s and 1970s, had written about how valued the “gnomes” (to borrow Mayhew’s terminology) who slave away at the unseen aspects of legislative and policymaking work without public accolades are by the legislative insiders, who reward them with currency that are particularly valuable intralegislatively.  Yet, this understanding is not shared by the members of the voting public, nor, apparently, by political scientists lately.  Very few regular voters appreciate how complicated the inner workings of the legislative process is, the kind of hidden negotiations and compromises that are needed to put workable bills and coalitions together–especially bipartisan coalitions.  Still, there is an implicit understanding that, without legislative outcomes, something isn’t being done right, that their agents are shirking somewhat and somehow that prevents their production–perhaps they are right in their suspicion.

The more problematic might be the obsession of the political science in putting data in place of theory (notwithstading the immortal Charlie Chan quote, “Theory, like fog on eyeglass, obscures facts.”–because “data” is not same as “facts.”)  The visible part of the legislative accomplishments, often padded by “faked” votes designed only to put votes on records (for example, the increasingly innumerable but meaningless “procedural” votes in the Senate designed only to publicly show who’s on which side, more  or less), are used to generate various statistics that purport to measure things like “ideology,” which, in turn, are assumed to be homologous to Euclidean space, and are fitted into models.  Since the measures are derived from the observed facts, they describe what goes on fairly accurately–but with significant exceptions that change over time, which are usually dismissed with the claim that they are mere “errors” and “nuisance.”

Fenno and Mayhew thought things differently.  Granted, they didn’t have the kind of legislative data or the tools for analyzing them that their more modern counterparts do (this is literally true:  the changes in Congressional rules around 1975 immediately tripled the number of recorded votes in the House, for example–coinciding neatly with the changes in House organization that followed the ouster of Speaker McCormick, engineered by the liberal Democrats.)  They saw the paucity of data that prevented data intensive analysis on their part as a normal part of the political process, where the seen and the unseen coexist and the importance of the unseen aspects of politics is deemed as important, even by those who did not know the specifics–e.g. the voters.  That brings the question back to what prompted to Holstrom to wonder, why so few contracts are written based on the “sufficient statistic” criterion, and as such, echoes the argument by Weber 100 years into the past (to be fair, there’s a paper by Oliver Williamson on this very point–if I could find it.)  Weber’s argument was twofold.  First, the compensation for the “professional” (“bureaucrat” in his terminology) should be low-powered, set without much regard for the visible indicators of performance because how exactly the professional “performs” is too noisy and complicated to measure with precision.  In turn, the professional should develop a code of ethics and honor–“professional conduct,” literally–whereby their work is carried out dutifully and faithfully without regard for the incentives in the contracts.  If you will, the mail will be delivered with utmost effort, as a point of honor, through rain, snow, or sleet, because that’s what mailmen do, so to speak. Most important, both must be part of the common knowledge:  the professionals “know” that they will be paid no matter what, while the principals “know” that the professionals are doing their utmost, even though the results are not necessarily obvious.  In other words, I don’t know what exactly they are doing, but whatever it is, I know it’s important, dang it.

This is a difficult equilibrium to sustain, with a LOT depending on the players’ beliefs, and potentially open to a lot of abuse and suspicion.  Mike Chwe might say that these beliefs, in turn, would require a lot of cultural trapping to sustain, various rituals carried out to show that the “professionals” indeed are being “professional.”  The “home style” by the legislators whereby they return home and engage in various ritualistic interactions with their voters to show their tribal solidarity might be seen in the same regard.  One might say that a lot of seemingly irrational socio-cultural activities, such as belief in creationism, are exactly that as well.  Of course, this is the kind of equilibrium that IS being subverted by the tilt towards visible data:  as we can see below, the correlation between Democratic shares of House votes and the DW-Nominate scores of the incumbents (with signs adjusted):

correlation

What the graph is showing is that, if you know the voting records of a House member in the preceding session of Congress, you can predict his vote share with increasing accuracy as 20th century progressed.  It does mean that the voters were becoming more “policy-minded,” in the sense of measuring their evaluation of the politicians more on the basis of visible record, but does it mean that the voters were becoming more “rational”?  To claim that would presuppose that the performance of the burger joint depends only on the burger sales and that kitchen is irrelevant to its success. Holstrom (and Max Weber before him) would say in no uncertain terms that that’s stupid.  But what does this mean for the trends in politics today?  I’ve been making a series of argument (and was halfway through a book manuscript) on this very point, but shockingly few people seemed to care, even if, I strongly suspect, the mess of the 2016 elections is a sharp reminder of this problem.

This is an illustration of the potential danger that the data-intensive environment of today is posing us:  because we have so much data, we become contemptuous of the unquantifiable and unaware of the potential limitations of the data that we are using.  If the data is always right, so to speak, i.e. has zero error, there can be no statistics that can be done with it, so to speak.  Then we’d know THE answer.  We do statistics to be less wrong, not necessarily to be “right” (I’m paraphrasing my old stats prof.)  If we insist on mistaking statistics (or indeed “science”) for the “right answer,” woe be upon us.

PS.  One great irony is that, while, intellectually, Paul was one of major influences on my way of thinking, I had precious little interaction with him when I was actually at Stanford. By the time he was teaching his “module,” (Stanford econ reorganized its graduate courses  when I was there so that we had 4 “modules” instead of 3 quarters.  Go figure) I was fairly deep in my occasional depressive spirals and was unable to do practically anything, let alone prepare for prelims.  In a sense, studying for econ prelims is easy–you literally have to study the textbooks and know the formulas, so to speak–just the answers you are supposed to know, even though, admittedly, the questions will be hard.  But depressed people have the hardest time doing routine chores when locked up, figuratively speaking, without anyone talking to them.  It is easy, in a sense, for people who have no stakes to think that depressed people ought to be locked up by themselves until they are better.  In practice, what almost always happens is that, after being locked up for a few months, they will be far more damaged than when they began.  But talking to depressed people requires way too much commitment for people without stakes of their own, too much to be asked of “strangers.”

 

Take Me out to the Holosuite

I was never a big fan of the Star Trek:  DS9 episode “Take Me out to the Holosuite” in the past.  I suppose it seemed to fit awkwardly in the larger sweep of the show and struck me as a filler episode, up to a point.  In so doing, furthermore, it departed sharply from the usual characterization of the Federation, in a manner far harsher than the rest of DS9, already thought to be much darker and edgier than the rest of the franchise.  I mean, segregated starships (e.g. the all Vulcan crew on Capt. Solok’s ship?)  Overtly racist attitude of Capt. Solok (granted, he’s no Spock, but this is the first show of open racism within Federation, that, furthermore, Federation citizens themselves take for granted on any kind of Star Trek.)

Reading and thinking about the social forces at work in the 2016 elections, however, makes me wonder how prescient, in a way, the worldviews colliding in the episode are.  The dominant worldview today prescribes to the inherent superiority of “logic” and “rationality,” encapsulated in the kinds of attitude almost uniformly embraced by the “elites” of both parties, including both the Clintons and the likes of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, comprising free market neoliberal economy, legalized protection of businesses and property rights (e.g. all manner of digital copy rights, free movement of capital underwritten by internationalized system of financial rights, and so forth), and a forceful enforcement of “international human rights and democracy” underwritten by mostly American force of arms.  Like the physical abilities of the Vulcans that give them a vast advantage in the baseball realm, their views are, on the whole, probably a more accurate description of the way things are.  When placed on the same playing field, it is far more probable that the Vulcans should triump, with the “humans” (most of whom, in the episode, ironically, were not actually “human”) can only score momentary victories by chance and accident–which they do on the episode.

In a sense, I have to confess sharing some of the puzzlement felt by Capt. Solok at the end of the episode.  The Vulcans beat the “humans” humiliatingly by an absurd margin.  “Humans” scored only one run, and that only by happenstance.  To the degree that winning is the objective of the game, what was the point of it all?  Sisko can offer excuses and justifications for the “moral” victory, in the small sense of the sole accidental run they scrape together or the broader sense of exposing the Vulcan smugness and conspiracy.  But the bottom line remains that the humanity is bound to be defeated, resistance is futile, and submission to the almighty logic is the only choice–if the only point is to “win” that is.  In the like vein, the coalition of “losers” who have banded together to support Sanders or Trump (slightly different coalitions, but motivated by similar sentiments) are likely bound to lose, more often than not.

Of course, this is hardly a new trope:  it is the whole premise underlying “enlightenment vs. romanticism” contrast, and it is worth remembering that, after the excesses of enlightenment that brought wars and travails of late 18th and early 19th centuries, it was romanticism that was ascendant for half a century.  Another observer, H.G. Wells, commenting on the same, wryly remarked, “half-dozen comparatively slender young men in blue pajamas who were standing about their victorious land ironclad, drinking coffee and eating biscuits, had also in their eyes and carriage something not altogether degraded below the level of a man.”  (from “Land Ironclads,” a short story from 1903-a timely piece anticipating what would take place only a decade later).  Reason, when allowed to become dominant, becomes bigger than the human, with the latter, and their “irrational” wants, needs, and foibles, reduced to troublesome children that don’t even make for useful moving parts.  If people cannot even be counted on to slaughter one another with automaticity, why bother rely on them to do anything right?  (Remember:  this is the theme of the movie War Games, from 1983).  Something like the “dignity” or “spirit” of mankind is not definable and probably is not “rational” by the usual definition.  Yet, there is little else whereby one can justify the jackboot of inhuman reason stomping on the human face forever (to paraphrase 1984).

Why might you want something that is “irrational” and “unreasonable”?  Precisely because what you consider “rational” and “reasonable” may not provide an adequate understanding of how the universe really works.  “Rational” is only a theory, one might say, and you have no right to expect the reality to bow to your notion of what is (and isn’t) rational.  Of course, this theme, too, shows up in science fiction–this is the theme element behind Ender’s Game and the classic Doctor Who episode “Remembrance of the Daleks.”  For humans, and apparently Vulcans, too, this is difficult to avoid:  “Of course my theory is right.  My theory is rational.  Your theory isn’t, and data shows that my theory is right 95% of the time while yours is right only 85% right.”  But how correlated is my right-ness and theirs?  If they get right 5% of the 15% where I am wrong, consistently, there is something that they can teach me here.  “Percent correctly predicted” is not a score to brag about, but simply a statement of what it is that we do and we not understand, with many caveats.  As Spock might have said, data analysis provides information about where we are and what we need to learn, i.e. the beginning of the wisdom, not all that there is to know, i.e. the end.

Of Data and Predictions

The story of Literary Digest and its failed prediction of 1936 elections is the standard fare for all sorts of references on the pitfalls of sampling bias.  Missing from practically all these warnings is any kind of guidance on how one might avoid such things, or indeed, these problems are really at all avoidable–I’d wager, in fact, that they are not.

Without revealing too much for confidentiality reasons, I’ll just say that I had run numbers on some polling data for the current election, using essentially same methodology, but with one major difference:  once, the numbers were run using the data on the 2012 turnout patterns as post-stratification weights and the other without post-stratifying.  The results are almost exactly the opposite, at least in electoral college terms: post-stratifying by the 2012 numbers predicts a narrow Trump win that masquerades as an electoral college landslide; without post-stratification, the numbers imply a significant Clinton victory that looks like an even bigger electoral college landslide.

As far as “data analysis,” both are absolutely “correct,” within confines of the data as we have it.   The real questions concern not the alleged “conclusions” of these exercises, about “who will win,” which, at this stage, is nothing more than educated guess reinforced by some data about the recent past and the belief that the future will look like yesterday, depending on what we mean by “yesterday.”  Specifically, if the election day looks like 2012, in terms of who shows up, but if the people who show up behave like those who are similar to them that participated in the polls, Trump stands an excellent chance.  If the people who show up on the election day look like those who participated in the polls, in terms of demographics, but still behave like those who participated in the polls, accounting for demographic variations, Clinton stands an excellent chance.

We can be fairly certain that both sets of numbers are, in all likelihood, wrong, in terms of describing the “reality,” since there is nearly no question that they are tainted by variants of “sampling biases,” in that the actual electorate that will materialize in November will not resemble either, on state by state basis.   Both sets of assumptions, in absence of a better means of predicting the future, is at least “defensible” in a fashion, however.  Neither is really any less reasonable than practically any other guesstimate that is presently possible, short of spending significant resources trying to model a reasonably detailed prediction of who will show up–which will still suffer from much uncertainty until the day of reckoning comes.

This points to a significant problem in data analysis business, especially when they put up the pretense of “prediction” or “forecast.”  We are not.  We are merely describing the past, which, after all, is where the data originates from, and, to the degree that we think they pertain to the future, it is predicated on the assumption that the future fits into some pattern that we are guessing today, in lieu of definite knowledge.  I’m a little bit weary of the pretense that data can help “predict,” to say the least.  The real ability to learn from the data, I think, comes not from using the data to predict things by forcing the future into the procrustean bed of the past, but understanding the circumstances of the past that led to the data that we see, and being able to assess how these data generating processes will change in the future, with what probabilities.  This is the historian in me doing the talking:  we deal with nuances and changing circumstances that we have little reason to repeat themselves precisely as they did before.  The 18th of Brumaire may happen again, but what was tragedy yesterday, to paraphrase Marx, could easily be remade as a musical comedy.  If it does, maybe we should know something about differences between tragedies and musical comedies, not just the data of yesterday, or whenever the 18th of Brumaire was.