Tag Archives: election 2016

2016 in Review

Each month this year, I picked three scary, three hopeful, and three interesting posts or groups of post from the month. Now I’m going to pick one of those three to represent each of the months. The choices are fairly arbitrary and the main point is just to review what the media was saying and what I was thinking about over the course of the year. Then I’ll see if I can identify any trends or come up with any insights.

Most Frightening Stories of the Year

  • JANUARYPaul Ehrlich is still worried about population. 82% of scientists agree.
  • FEBRUARY77% of jobs in China may be threatened by automation.
  • MARCH: An IMF official uttered the words “economic derailment“. That sounds like it could be a real train wreck. Meanwhile Robert Gordon has expanded his pessimistic article on future growth into a book.
  • APRIL: Robert Paxton says Trump is pretty much a fascist. Although conditions are different and he doesn’t believe everything the fascists believed. Umberto Eco once said that fascists don’t believe anything, they will say anything and then what they do once in office has nothing to do with what they said.
  • MAY: The situation in Venezuela may be a preview of what the collapse of a modern country looks like.
  • JUNE: Trump may very well have organized crime links. And Moody’s says that if he gets elected and manages to do the things he says, it could crash the economy.
  • JULY: The CIA is just not that good at spying.
  • AUGUST: A former U.S. secretary of defense thinks the risk of nuclear war is higher now than during the cold war. The Republic Party platform appears to be outright in favor of nuclear weapons, while the Democratic Party platform includes a tepid commitment to maybe “reducing reliance” and spending on nuclear weapons. Jeffrey Sachs says the Syria War has become essentially a U.S.-Russia proxy war.
  • SEPTEMBER: The ecological footprint situation is not looking too promising: “from 1993 to 2009…while the human population has increased by 23% and the world economy has grown 153%, the human footprint has increased by just 9%. Still, 75% the planet’s land surface is experiencing measurable human pressures. Moreover, pressures are perversely intense, widespread and rapidly intensifying in places with high biodiversity.” Meanwhile, as of 2002 “we appropriate over 40% of the net primary productivity (the green material) produced on Earth each year (Vitousek et al. 1986, Rojstaczer et al. 2001). We consume 35% of the productivity of the oceanic shelf (Pauly and Christensen 1995), and we use 60% of freshwater run-off (Postel et al. 1996). The unprecedented escalation in both human population and consumption in the 20th century has resulted in environmental crises never before encountered in the history of humankind and the world (McNeill 2000). E. O. Wilson (2002) claims it would now take four Earths to meet the consumption demands of the current human population, if every human consumed at the level of the average US inhabitant.” And finally, 30% of African elephants have been lost in the last 7 years.
  • OCTOBER: According to James Hansen, the world needs “negative” greenhouse gas emissions right away, meaning an end to fossil fuel burning and improvements to agriculture, forestry, and soil conservation practices to absorb carbon. Part of the current problem is unexpected and unexplained increases in methane concentrations in the atmosphere.
  • NOVEMBER: Is there really any doubt what the most frightening story of November 2016 was? The United Nations Environment Program says we are on a track for 3 degrees C over pre-industrial temperatures, not the “less than 2” almost all serious people (a category that excludes 46% of U.S. voters, apparently) agree is needed. This story was released before the U.S. elected an immoral science denier as its leader. One theory is that our culture has lost all ability to separate fact from fiction. Perhaps states could take on more of a leadership role if the federal government is going to be immoral? Washington State voters considered a carbon tax that could have been a model for other states, and voted it down, in part because environmental groups didn’t like that it was revenue neutral. Adding insult to injury, WWF released its 2016 Living Planet Report, which along with more fun climate change info includes fun facts like 58% of all wild animals have disappeared. There is a 70-99% chance of a U.S. Southwest “mega-drought” lasting 35 years or longer this century. But don’t worry, this is only “if emissions of greenhouse gases remain unchecked”. Oh, and climate change is going to begin to strain the food supply worldwide, which is already strained by population, demand growth, and water resources depletion even without it.
  • DECEMBER: The geopolitical situation is not good. If Russia did hack the U.S. election, it wouldn’t be the first election they have hacked. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are not over, and the rest of the greater Middle East is increasingly a mess.

Most Hopeful Stories of the Year

Most Interesting Stories of the Year

  • JANUARY: The World Economic Forum focused on technology: “The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.”
  • FEBRUARYTitanium dioxide is the reason Oreo filling is so white.
  • MARCH: Michael Pollan urged us to eat food. not too much. mostly psychedelic mushrooms.
  • APRIL: Genes can now be programmed just like circuits.
  • MAY: The world has about a billion dogs.
  • JUNE: Switzerland finished an enormous tunnel through the Alps that took 20 years to build.
  • JULY: I was a little side-tracked by U.S. Presidential politics. Nate Silver launched his general election site, putting the odds about 80-20 in favor of Hillary at the beginning of the month. The odds swung toward Trump over the course of the month as the two major party conventions took place (one in my backyard), but by the end of the month they were back to about 70-30 in favor of Hillary. During the month I mused about NAFTA, the fall of the Republic, the banana republicThe Art of the Deal, how to debate Trump, and Jon Stewart.
  • AUGUST: Here is a short video explaining the Fermi Paradox, which asks why there are no aliens. Meanwhile Russian astronomers are saying there might be aliens.
  • SEPTEMBERMonsanto is trying to help honeybees (which seems good) by monkeying with RNA (which seems a little frightening). Yes, biotech is coming.
  • OCTOBERNeil deGrasse Tyson says “we might expect to find as many as 100 alien civilizations in our galaxy communicating with radio waves right now.”
  • NOVEMBER: New technology can survey and create a 3D model of a room in seconds.
  • DECEMBER: According to Bill Gates, “new genome technologies are at the cusp of affecting us all in profound ways”. But an article in Nature says we should not be too hopeful about living much past 100.

And now for trends and insights…

Serious long-term threats related to population, food, water resources, natural capital depletion, biodiversity loss, and climate change. These are all inter-related. In past years I probably would have suggested that these threats are so likely and so consequential that we should focus nearly all our efforts on them. But things have changed a bit over the past year. Now it appears that we face dire short term threats as well in the form of serious geopolitical instability, risk of war and global economic stagnation. If you don’t deal with short term threats you might not be around to deal with the long term ones. And voters have chosen leaders in the past year who have no intention of dealing with the long term threats. They make no serious attempt to understand their nature or root causes. In fact, they don’t even acknowledge that the threats exist in many cases.

War. The possibility of war is certainly the biggest short-term threat we face. If we get through the next 4-8 years without a war between major powers or any sort of nuclear detonation, we will have to consider that a win. The greater Middle East from North Africa to Afghanistan is dangerously unstable, and the U.S. has already been drawn into a proxy war with Saudi Arabia and its allies on one side and Iran and Russia on the other side. And it appears that Russia may have played a direct role in influencing the U.S. election. An accidental clash between U.S. and Russian forces in Syria, Eastern Europe, or over the world’s oceans could be enough to set off a series of escalations and miscalculations that leads to a war nobody wants or stands to gain anything from. A naval confrontation between the U.S. and China could be a similar risk.

The Great Recession. Although the U.S. economy has picked up, the overall global growth and employment situation is deeply concerning. Rather than just a cyclical downturn, it may be a long term trend driven by demographics, debt, and underemployment caused by automation. The automation trend is going to be relentless. The 2007-8 financial crisis caused by excessive risk taking in the U.S. finance industry may just have been the straw that broke the camel’s back and made the long-term trends obvious, and another financial crisis that severe at a time of weakness might be the one the world doesn’t recover from. Our new U.S. leaders are already working with big business to roll back the necessary but still inadequate protections put in place after the ’07-8 crisis. Costs and risks imposed by climate change are not going to make the economy any better.

Technology. Technology brings us grave concern over the employment situation, but also great hope that we could see a long-term pickup in productivity, and therefore our overall wealth and quality of life. Of course, an increase in overall wealth and quality of life may help only a small slice of society if that society is structured to concentrate rather than share the wealth, and the leaders we have chosen in the U.S. for the next few years are clearly committed to the former. Extreme concentration of wealth could lead us eventually to a situation of such instability that the only outcomes are armed revolution in the streets or else absolute authoritarian control.

But let’s optimistically assume that our political system eventually comes up with a consensus on sharing the wealth. Now a higher rate of productivity growth (within ecological limits) would be good for everyone. In this world, people whose jobs are displaced by automation would be quickly retrained for new jobs, and they would be educated in the first place so that they are very flexible and adaptable to changing conditions. Over time, we could become so rich that we simply don’t have to work so much, and we could devote more of our time to leisure activities, learning for the sake of learning, the arts, civic and social activities, etc.

This might seem like a utopian vision, but it has happened in the past. People used to work incredibly long, hard hours to grow just enough food to survive, and they didn’t live all that long at that. Later people used to work long, hard hours in factories and sweat shops. Technology, cheap energy, and the wealth they have brought have made huge changes in working hours and life expectancy for most of us. With technology seemingly advancing all around us, the puzzle is why we aren’t seeing similarly spectacular advances today as we have seen in the past.

Advances like the tractor and electricity were enormous changes at the time of course. Maybe today’s technological advances, even though they seem impressive to us, simply aren’t as dramatic as these advances were in their time. That is the basic thesis of Robert Gordon, who I mention above. The World Economic Forum and Nouriel Roubini articles I mention above have good summaries of the advances we are seeing. Roubini categorizes them as:

  • ET (energy technologies, including new forms of fossil fuels such as shale gas and oil and alternative energy sources such as solar and wind, storage technologies, clean tech, and smart electric grids).
  • BT (biotechnologies, including genetic therapy, stem cell research, and the use of big data to reduce health-care costs radically and allow individuals to live much longer and healthier lives).
  • IT (information technologies, such as Web 2.0/3.0, social media, new apps, the Internet of Things, big data, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality devices).
  • MT (manufacturing technologies, such as robotics, automation, 3D printing, and personalized manufacturing).
  • FT (financial technologies that promise to revolutionize everything from payment systems to lending, insurance services and asset allocation).
  • DT (defense technologies, including the development of drones and other advanced weapon systems).

Roubini acknowledges the argument that these advances are not the equivalent of past advances, but also suggests that we may be in the lag phase between when technological advances happen and when they begin to have obvious effects on productivity. I think I said it pretty well in my post so I’ll repeat what I said:

Although the plow, the printing press, the steam engine, electricity, etc. were game changing, the game didn’t change as soon as they were invented. They had to catch on, infrastructure had to be built, resistance to change had to be overcome, and it took awhile. Each successive revolution happened faster though, which is why I am skeptical that this time is different… I think there is a lag, and it just hasn’t hit yet. If and when there is a sharp technology-driven surge in productivity, it doesn’t mean everything is going to instantly be great for everybody. As we produce more with less effort, there will be winners and losers, haves and have nots. And there will be a lag between when that starts and when it gets resolved. And just to beat a dead horse, we can’t just keep producing and consuming more forever unless we figure out a way to do that without growing our ecological footprint. And, we need to watch out for those defense technologies.

The information technology is all around us now, and the biotechnology is just starting to take off. 2017 could be the year when we have the same excitement in the popular imagination about biotech as we saw with the internet in the mid-1990s. Or maybe it will take a few years.

It is possible that our technology could advance so fast that ecological limits will cease to be relevant before they begin to exert a major drag force on our global economy and society. I don’t think it is safe to put all our eggs in that basket though. I am also saddened by the extreme and seemingly accelerating destruction of our planet’s ecosystems as we have known them throughout human history. We can try to preserve some of what is left, but even if we are successful it will be more like a museum or zoo recording what we used to have than a real, large-scale functioning planetary ecosystem.

There, I ended on a pretty pessimistic note. That’s how I feel at the moment. Not all stories have to have a happy ending. (This is exactly why King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare play, because the bad guys do bad things and get away with it, and sometimes real life is like that.) I just don’t want to get my hopes up about 2017. Come on 2017, maybe you will pleasantly surprise me.

Russian election hacking in Ukraine

Russia, or hackers in Russia, tried to hack an election in Ukraine in 2014 and got caught, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

Only 40 minutes before election results were to go live on television at 8 p.m., Sunday, May 25, a team of government cyber experts removed a “virus” covertly installed on Central Election Commission computers, Ukrainian security officials said later.

If it had not been discovered and removed, the malicious software would have portrayed ultra-nationalist Right Sector party leader Dmytro Yarosh as the winner with 37 percent of the vote (instead of the 1 percent he actually received) and Petro Poroshenko (the actually winner with a majority of the vote) with just 29 percent, Ukraine officials told reporters the next morning.

November 2016 in Review

Sometimes you look back on a month and feel like nothing very important happened. But November 2016 was obviously not one of those months! I am not going to make any attempt to be apolitical here. I was once a registered independent and still do not consider myself a strong partisan. However, I like to think of myself as being on the side of facts, logic, problem solving, morality and basic goodness. Besides, this blog is about the future of our human civilization and human race. I can’t pretend our chances didn’t just take a turn for the worse.

3 most frightening stories

  • Is there really any doubt what the most frightening story of November 2016 was? The United Nations Environment Program says we are on a track for 3 degrees C over pre-industrial temperatures, not the “less than 2” almost all serious people (a category that excludes 46% of U.S. voters, apparently) agree is needed. This story was released before the U.S. elected an immoral science denier as its leader. One theory is that our culture has lost all ability to separate fact from fiction. Perhaps states could take on more of a leadership role if the federal government is going to be immoral? Washington State voters considered a carbon tax that could have been a model for other states, and voted it down, in part because environmental groups didn’t like that it was revenue neutral. Adding insult to injury, WWF released its 2016 Living Planet Report, which along with more fun climate change info includes fun facts like 58% of all wild animals have disappeared. There is a 70-99% chance of a U.S. Southwest “mega-drought” lasting 35 years or longer this century. But don’t worry, this is only “if emissions of greenhouse gases remain unchecked”. Oh, and climate change is going to begin to strain the food supply worldwide, which is already strained by population, demand growth, and water resources depletion even without it.
  • Technological unemployment may be starting to take hold, and might be an underlying reason behind some of the resentment directed at mainstream politicians. If you want a really clear and concise explanation of this issue, you could ask a smart person like, say, Barack Obama.
  • According to left wing sources like Forbes, an explosion of debt-financed spending on conventional and nuclear weapons is an expected consequence of the election. Please, Mr. Trump, prove them wrong!

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

exit polls

I hate the election outcome, and yet you won’t find me out in the streets protesting just because I’m a sore loser. You might find me out in the streets if and when the new administration starts taking immoral actions, such as denying people access to health care, reversing progress on climate change, or endangering the stability of the international financial system.

I don’t doubt for a second that there are a lot of errors and inefficiencies in the U.S. election system. That is because it is so decentralized and disorganized. I doubt it is hackable on a broad scale though, just because it is so decentralized and disorganized. The fact that the results were so consistently surprising in so many states to me is further evidence that the polls and exit polls were just biased.

The exit polls are just weird though, as Jonathan Simon points out. The election result is different from the pre-election polls by several percentage points in Trump’s favor. One explanation that is consistent with the facts is that the way “likely voter” was defined by the pollsters was wrong. In other words, enough “unlikely voters” turned out to deliver the election to Trump.

This logic is a little harder to assign to exit polls though. Exit polls are supposed to be a random sample of people who actually voted. The exit polls in this election were very consistent with the pre-election polls, and very inconsistent with the vote count. What could explain that? Either the sample of people who actually voted has to be biased, or people have to have lied on a large scale, and in a very consistent and biased way.

I don’t have the answer. I think we need to accept these election results and move on. But a thorough review of the process to make sure it is as transparent and verifiable as possible in the future would be a great idea.

my election prediction

I have a little election prediction spreadsheet. It takes the poll averages for swing states as reported by RealClearPolitics, generates a random number for each with a 4% standard deviation, and runs 1,000 trials in about 10 seconds. Go to Nate Silver or other online sites for a much more professional and sophisticated approach. I do this just for fun and to help me understand how the system works. So without further ado, here is how I think Tuesday night might unfold. The poll closing times are the earliest closing times in a given state according to ballotpedia, so you would expect some numbers to start tricking in at that point. I’m writing Sunday around noon, just in case there is some big development between now and Tuesday.

Based on RealClearPolitics, if both candidates win the states they lead in right now, Hillary would win with 298 electoral votes to 240 for Trump. Nate Silver predicts 290-247, and puts the odds at 65-35. Betfair puts it at 323-215 and the odds at 80-20. My spreadsheet comes up with an electoral college average of 295-243 and odds of 85-15.

Here is one way the evening could unfold to get in the ballpark:

First, I assume Clinton and Trump have both won all the states considered relatively safe by RealClearPolitics. This means Hillary starts off with 218 and Trump with 165. Seems unfair, doesn’t it? But these are the demographics, and why the breathless media coverage of swing states is a bit misleading. If Trump is leading half the swing states on a given day, that doesn’t mean the race is anywhere near tied.

7:00 p.m. EST

  • Results start to trickle in from Florida, Georgia, Virginia and New Hampshire.
  • The night starts off with a bang for Clinton with wins in Florida and Virginia.
  • Trump gets Georgia and New Hampshire.
  • Clinton leads 247-185.

7:30 p.m. EST

  • North Carolina and Ohio
  • I’ll throw both to Trump.
  • 247-218. Getting slightly interesting.

8:00 p.m. EST

  • Pennsylvania and Michigan
  • I don’t think Trump has a realistic shot at either. They go to Clinton.
  • 283-218. It’s over!

9:00 p.m. EST

  • They split Arizona (Trum) and Colorado (Clinton).
  • 292-229

10:00 p.m. EST

  • Iowa and Nevada
  • I’ll throw both to Trump. I’ll also throw him New Mexico to look like slightly less of a loser.
  • 292-246

This is what I expect to happen. Of course, the votes get counted slowly, and we can pretend there is some suspense as they are counting votes in states that are not expected to be close. Still, I think we might all be in bed at 10 p.m. on the east coast knowing who the next President. And this is what I want to happen. Although I would enjoy some suspense on some level, rationally I know it is better not to live in interesting times.

For Trump to win, a lot of unlikely things have to fall into place, but here is a plausible scenario: Trump starts the night with a huge bang, winning Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Ohio. Clinton gets Virginia. Trump would be up 252-218. By the way, I gave Clinton New Mexico to start off this time. Clinton wins Pennsylvania and Michigan, going up 254-252. They split Arizona and Colorado (263-263!). Trump gets Iowa and goes up 269-263. It comes down to Nevada. Right now it looks like Nevada is reasonably solid for Clinton, so it comes down to a 269-269 tie. The House of Representatives casts the deciding vote, picking Trump for President. The National Guard is deployed in some states to ensure order.

So Florida is a big deal, obviously. We knew that.

my final case against Trump

I write this two days before the election. Trump has announced that he intends to cancel all spending to deal with climate change if elected. The evidence that we need to deal with climate change is so clear, and it is so clearly an existential threat to our civilization, that this is completely unethical. If I liked everything else about Trump, it would be enough, by itself, to cause me to reject him. (For the record, I like nothing about him.) Combine it with the completely unacceptable bigotry, racism, and religious intolerance, and it is just completely unacceptable. Finally, the lack of universal health care continues to be an international disgrace for our country. But we are closer thanks to Obama’s efforts to take on a Congress bought and paid for by the finance industry. Trump has vowed to destroy this progress and replace it with…nothing. Completely unacceptable.

Speaking of the finance industry, if a complex crisis like the 2007-8 financial crisis were to arise, we can’t trust Trump to understand it or to seek out advice from people who understand it. I don’t expect Hillary Clinton to take bold action to support long-term financial stability, which is what we need, but I do trust her to keep a cool head in a crisis, seek out competent advice, and make rational decisions. Similarly, in case of geopolitical crisis, I don’t expect her to be a strong force for peace, but I trust her to keep a cool head, seek out competent advice, and make rational decisions. Trump doesn’t have the ability to understand complex issues, yet he is overconfident and doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and if he seeks out the advice of others at all, I wouldn’t trust him to know whose advice to seek. Finally, he does not appear to be rational at times. I think he could easily make some horrible mistake if and when he is confronted by a crisis.

I don’t think either candidate will take bold action on campaign finance reform. Bernie Sanders was the candidate for that. Prove me wrong, Hillary!

R code to read Nate Silver’s data

Thanks to Nate Silver for posting all his polling data in a convenient text file that anyone can read! It’s a nice thing to do. Even though not many of us can do as interesting things with it as Nate Silver, it is a fun data set to play and practice with. Here is an R-bloggers post with some ideas on how to play with it.

 

the GOP’s “Growth and Opportunity Project”

After their 2012 election loss, the Republican Party made some surprisingly candid admissions and drew some surprisingly logical conclusions. I could almost begin to support a party that focused on sound, evidenced-based policies to create accelerated economic growth and true equal opportunity, while preserving a minimal but effective safety net for people who need it through no fault of their own.

We are the Party of private-sector economic growth because that is the best way to create jobs and opportunity. That is the best way to help people earn an income, achieve success and take care of their families.

But if we are going to grow as a Party, our policies and actions must take into account that the middle class has struggled mightily and that far too many of our citizens live in poverty. To people who are flat on their back, unemployed or disabled and in need of help, they do not care if the help comes from the private sector or the government — they just want help.

Our job as Republicans is to champion private growth so people will not turn to the government in the first place. But we must make sure that the government works for those truly in need, helping them so they can quickly get back on their feet. We should be driven by reform, eliminating, and fixing what is broken, while making sure the government’s safety net is a trampoline, not a trap.

Too bad their primary voters resoundingly rejected these reasonable ideas in favor of bigotry, science denial, and downright childishness. I doubt I will so much as glance in their direction again, even though I get frustrated with the subserviance to big business, warmongering and relatively narrow range of policies in consideration by the Democrats.