Author Archives: Doug Woodwell

End of year prediction wrap-up, 2016 edition

As I look bad at my January predictions for 2016, I wonder to myself – why would anyone read this blog (thanks, by the way)?  Clearly, I have no idea what I’m writing about.

2016 was, in fairness, a rough year for a lot of prognosticators. However, I clearly batted below .500.  Here’s a look at some of the things I got wrong. . .

1). The election – mostly.  Rubio for President?  What was I thinking?  Epic failure. Well, at least I got the party right in January.   I wrote that the makeup of Congress would remain largely the same plus a few Republican seats.  I got that right too.

2).  Boko Haram will flourish in Nigeria.  I’m happy that I got this one wrong.  While the Nigerian government’s proclamations that Boko Haram has been crushed should be taken with a grain of salt, clearly it has made inroads against the group this year.

3).  The Transpacific Partnership will pass in a lame-duck session of Congress.  In the words of Miracle Max, the agreement is definitely mostly dead.

4).  Mahmoud Abbas will exit the scene.  Nope again – still hanging on.

5). Cypriot leaders will be “serious” about negotiating a peace agreement on the divided island nation of Cyprus.  Serious, maybe.  Successful, no.

6). Epidural stimulation for spinal cord injuries will be big news.  Sadly, not a peep this year – but I am hopeful the good scientists in Louisville and elsewhere are working hard and have a great journal article in store for the upcoming year.  I also suggested that something called the Zika virus would be big news as well.


What did I get (mostly) right?

1). The Iraqi government will re-take Mosul in December 2016.  They’re pretty close . . .

2).  Syria will look more hopeful, in part, due to Russian intervention.  Depends on your definition of hopeful, I guess, but with the government in control of Aleppo and most major cities, there’s finally an end in sight.  Maybe not a good end for the cause of freedom, but not a good end for ISIS either.

3). Spotlight will win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

So, all in all, I got most things wrong about domestic (and some international) politics but had a pretty good read on how ISIS would fare in 2016 and continued my Academy Award streak.  In order to cheer myself up over this year’s admittedly dismal performance, let’s take a look back at the best ten of my predictions over the last five years . . .

1). Syria’s Bashir al-Assad will cling to power despite opposition and instability (2012).

2). Boko Haram will become more of a household name (2012).

3). President Obama will beat Mitt Romney and win all the battleground states except Florida (he won Florida, but lost North Carolina).  Otherwise, pretty close for a January prediction (2012).

4). The weak mandate of the Affordable Care Act will cause healthcare reform to remain more controversial than it would otherwise be (2014).

5). The Iraqi government neglects northern Iraq and it becomes a staging ground for Islamic militants (2014).

6). Iran and the US strike a nuclear deal (2014, 2015)

7). Thailand’s military takes over (2014)

8). Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party win Israeli elections (2015)

9). The Colombian government and FARC will reach an agreement (2015 . . . a year early)

10). All five Academy Award Best Picture nominees!  This year I have my eye on Lala Land. . .


Okay … Maybe I agree with Trump a little

Writing a blog entry that stands the test of time days before a presidential election is difficult.  Any assumptions about what should happen in the coming months and years might be upended by what actually does happen on Tuesday.

Like most analysts who try to put their feelings aside and focus on the available data, I’m fairly confident that Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States.  Averting the “Trump apocalypse” would mostly be a positive thing, but, cutting through all the bombast, scandals, and lunacy of the past six months, there were several issues, especially where foreign policy is concerned, that I found myself in agreement with Trump more so than with Clinton.  Here are the issues that I would hope a Clinton administration would consider or reconsider were she elected – and would comfort myself as silver linings were Trump to win.

  • Our relationship with Russia. It’s certainly a change from the Cold War era that the Democratic candidate for president seems to view relations with Russia primarily through the lens of deterring an Evil Empire while the Republican candidate advocates co-existence. While I am no personal fan of Vladimir Putin and while Russian interference (whether it’s from the top or not – it is almost certainly Russians) in US electoral politics has been disturbing, the Russian perspective that the US has been cavalierly ignoring regional and global Russian interests and threatening Russian security is understandable.  Rather than attempting to understand and assuage these legitimate concerns, both the Obama administration and the Clinton campaign have been doubling down on a hard line on Russia that has only made cooperation on the many issues where our interests converge that much harder.  While many Democrats have questioned whether a Trump presidency would raise the specter of a nuclear war versus the cool and seasoned diplomacy of a Clinton one, I wonder, based on the 7, 300 Russian nuclear warheads pointed in our general direction, whether this is really the case or whether the opposite is true. 
  • Our alliance partners are free riding. And they always have.  Anyone remember the old joke that it was Germany and Japan that won the Cold War as the US shelled out trillion of dollars to provide a security umbrella while they invested their dollars at home?

Today the situation is largely the same.  Only four countries, other than the US, out of 28 NATO members have met the agreed-upon NATO target of spending 2% of their GDP on their militaries.  While it is hard to argue that US military spending is much affected by our free riding allies (it probably isn’t) or that somehow we could muscle other countries into spending significantly more (we can’t), it does bring into question why the US should be committed to the security of countries that aren’t particularly committed to their own.  While it is important to emphasize our resolve in honoring our existing alliance obligations, rethinking the nature of those obligations is not as absurd as Trump’s opponents have suggested . . . which brings up the next point . . .

  • US relative power is declining . . . and Trump is willing to openly admit it. Make no mistake – the US is unquestionably still the most influential country in the world.  That will, however, not be the case forever, and policy-makers should already be thinking about ways in which the US can manage the rise of “the rest” in the decades to come.  This will involve inevitably involve the type of burden-sharing and re-assessment of relationships that Trump has mentioned at points during his often-incoherent ramblings on foreign policy.  As I said in a radio interview yesterday, “I agree with some of the underlying message, it’s just the messenger that’s the problem.”

While I feel that a Trump presidency would be a disaster on important issues like global climate change, the now-settled Iranian nuclear issue, and global trade relations (for a start), I at least appreciated some of his outside-of-the-box ideas that would have raised some valid concerns in a more traditional campaign year.


Postscript:  Just because a colleague asked me, here’s my prediction for Tuesday.  I’m a little more optimistic than other Clinton supporters, in part because I tend to have an affinity for Bayesian statistics and the data analytics that I think will prove decisive in several close states.

So:  Clinton 46%, 320 electoral votes   Trump 40%, 218 electoral votes

Debate Season Begins

In 1992, Dan Quayle debated Al Gore in a Vice Presidential Debate that everyone assumed would end badly for Quayle – after all, Gore was the competent, brainy one and Dan Quayle – well, Dan Quayle had trouble spelling (Admiral Stockdale was there as well, but nobody much cared at that point).  One of my professors, known by us students for his Republican-friendly views, cautioned us during a class discussion that Quayle would do better than people thought.  I was skeptical – but he was right.  The Bush-Quayle team had done such a good job at managing the “expectations game” that achieving what was widely considered a “draw” in the debate felt like a resounding victory for Quayle at the time (not that, like any other Vice Presidential debates, it made much of a difference in the election’s outcome).

Similarly, although Gore rolled out fact after fact in his 2000 Presidential debate against a George W. Bush whose most memorable replies were in calling Gore’s mound-of-statistics “fuzzy math,” George W. Bush was perceived as coming out ahead. After ninety minutes of policy discussion, people most remembered Al Gore’s sighs.

I guess the takeaways are that it’s far from a forgone conclusion that intelligent answers to substantial debate questions will translate into subsequently better poll numbers and that Trump will quite possibly be seen as a winner if he doesn’t completely meltdown on the stage.  Clinton supporters who think that the comparison of her thoughtful answers to Trump’s bombast and attempts to change-the-subject-to-something-he’s-prepared will spark an epiphany among those who would otherwise support Trump are likely to be disappointed.

Still, whoever is perceived as the winner or loser, the debate will be I matter of historical record (sort of like the Lincoln-Douglas debates . . . just kidding but he’s not).  If many Americans want simply to vote for the person to whom they find more relatable – that’s fine – but I’d like to see substantive views of the candidates side-by-side. Politics might be fun, but it’s policies that will matter in our lives in the coming years.  At least those of us who care more about the latter than the former should have a chance to hear what might be or think back later about what could have been.

So, here’s hoping that the Republican moderator, Lester Holt (who I just had an opportunity to see live 1 ½ weeks ago), gets to the meaningful policy questions sooner rather than later.  The somewhat vague topics that will guide the selection of questions will be “America’s Direction,” “Achieving Prosperity,” and “Securing America.”

There are some really good lists of questions for this and future debates found here and here.  I doubt I could do any better.  At the very least, I hope questions about the Clinton and Trump Foundations (everyone has pretty much decided on their assessment of each candidate’s character already) do not get in the way of questions designed to see if Trump will go on the record about the “hoax” of global climate change or offer concrete wisdom on how he will deal with ISIS – subjects that really will influence our future lives.

Unfortunately, Tuesday morning will undoubtedly be filled with clips of the pre-prepared zingers and analysis of how the candidates comported themselves rather than any contrast of the substance of their arguments.  Nevertheless, I’m happy that the almost 100 million Americans expected to tune in for themselves will at least get an opportunity to focus upon what they want to focus upon in selecting a future leader.  As Americans, we are the only ones with a direct say in an election that will affect not just ourselves, but the other 95% of the world.  It’s a heavy collective responsibility.

The Clinton Files

In 1996, a younger me voted for John Hagelin, the Natural Law Party candidate for President.  I admit, I didn’t really know or care much about the party’s views (although their advocacy of Yogic Flying sounded fun), but I couldn’t bring myself to vote for the two major candidates.  Although a registered independent at the time, it was clear that the Republican candidate, Bob Dole, and I were out-of-sync policy-wise.  As for Bill Clinton – well, I supported most of his policies, but I couldn’t get past how Nixonian his administration came across in its misuse of FBI files to gather information on political opponents.

Two years later, investigators cleared both Clintons of all charges in the matter.  While other controversies and scandals soon emerged, the narrative leveled by Clinton’s opponents had worked on me – I had bought into a story that was far from conclusive. Of course, in my defense, the Clinton record up to that point had not exactly been one of forthrightness and moral rectitude.

I think a lot of Americans feel similarly about Hillary Clinton this election season.  There’s not really evidence of any crimes having taken place – but, then again, it’s the Clintons, right?  The most common questions people – especially Democrats – have posed to me this year has involved explaining the Clinton “scandals” to them.  They’re torn between the feeling that Hilary Clinton is not trustworthy and the feeling that Republican accusations, often overhyped and occasionally manufactured, are even less so.

Of the “big three” scandals involving Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation, and e-mails, the supposedly nefarious role of former Secretary of State during and after the Benghazi attacks is the scandal I tell people to ignore — it’s origins are entirely political.

On the evening of September 11, 2012, during his campaign against President Obama, Mitt Romney, upon hearing early reports of the attacks, disregarded the informal lets-leave-politics-out-of-things-on-9/11 ceasefire of the two camps, and immediately and somewhat awkwardly sought to tie them to President Obama’s alleged foreign policy “apologies” for “American values.”

Within several days the new narrative had become that the President couldn’t even bring himself to proclaim that the attacks were by “terrorists” – at least until debate moderator Candy Crowley embarrassed Romney on the issue soon thereafter.

After that narrative failed to stick, Republicans decided that administration officials had intentionally misled Americans in order to seem less culpable for the attacks – the Sunday “talking points” narrative that has since been thoroughly debunked as a combination of minor bureaucratic miscommunication and genuine lack of knowledge as the facts were sorted out.

In what is probably the most fascinating aspect of the greatest non-scandal in modern history, Republican politicians and right-wing media began to take cues from one another in a strange viscous cycle that somehow led to this.  Republicans became so thoroughly enmeshed in their own narrative that, in the end, even relatively honorable politicians like John McCain began to believe the story spun by their own party.

Unlike, Benghazi, the controversies surrounding the Clinton Foundation and those “damn e-mails” actually merit concern.  The Clinton Foundation’s primary goal has been to promote greater networking and cooperation among governments, corporations, and wealthy individuals with non-profit organizations seeking to address serious problems like global poverty and climate change.  This focus differs somewhat from that of a group like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation which is more direct in providing aid to groups seeking to directly address issues associated with under-development.  The Clinton Foundation’s approach is often a very personalistic one – which was and is part of the problem.

When Clinton served as Secretary of State, the Foundation agreed to restrict its donations, including a ban on donations from wealthy foreign individuals, in order to avoid the perception of interest conflicts.  Many such individuals, however, simply donated to organizations that, in turn, then donated to the Clinton Foundation.

The e-mails that have come to light this year suggests that many of those who donated to the Clinton Foundation later sought personal meetings with Secretary Clinton.  The problem is that, as Secretary of State, she might well have met with such prominent figures, like a Crown Prince of Bahrain, or the famous Nobel Prize winning economist, Muhammad Yunus – whether or not they had donated to the foundation.  There’s no evidence of a quid pro quo, but it looks understandably questionable whether some may have “bought” influence by establishing themselves as prominent supporters – and the Clintons have not done a good job of allaying such suspicions.

Some liberals seized upon a similar dynamic during the first GW Bush administration when they accused Vice President Dick Cheney as being similarly beholden to his earlier business contacts and friends in Halliburton – with some of the more conspiratorially-minded accusing him of having started a war on their behalf.  Such charges were often overblown – but it’s hard to see how any office holder could completely separate themselves from their earlier contacts and associates.  The continuing question of how to institutionalize the separation of moneyed interests, foreign and domestic, from unfair influence over policy-making is a problem this country has barely tackled whether it involves Hilary Clinton, her predecessors, or much of the rest of Washington.

Finally, there’s the mishandling of the e-mails themselves – the most egregious of the blunders that Clinton made.  As the final FBI report suggested, it is doubtful that Hilary Clinton had a private e-mail server installed in her house with the purpose of hiding anything conspiratorial any more than Colin Powell intended to do so with his private e-mail account.  However, it’s also likely that she failed to even consider that she was potentially compromising secret information in an age when cyber-security is a pressing issue – a disturbingly out-of-touch mindset.  Just as important, her decision to have lawyers delete tens of thousands of e-mails under her own terms was unbelievably high-handed, short-sighted, and invariably going to lend credibility to her critics.

The “Filegate” scandal I discussed at the top turned out not to be an example of Nixonian scheming, but, rather, a sloppily run White House that fostered an all-too-permissive culture in regard to ethical rules – a culture notably absent over the last eight years under President Obama.  My fear is that under President Clinton the sloppiness and permissiveness might return – her stint as Secretary of State is not altogether encouraging in this respect.  Of course, looking across the lunacy across the aisle that’s likely to rank among the worst campaigns in history, I also know the alternative could be much, much worse.  This time, I won’t waste my vote this November wishing for a perfect candidate.

Trans-Pacific Partnership –complex and messy

Back in the early nineties, one of the first courses I took in college was Macroeconomics.   During the course, I remember the professor giving the familiar econ 101 spiel about how international trade was based on the principles of comparative advantage.  What really stuck out in my mind, and still does, was her contention that there would be a net economic advantage to simply asking low-tech textile workers to stay home and have the government mail them a check for $120,000 a year.  I can’t verify that number (although I remember it well), but I was largely sold on the importance of international trade agreements by the end of the semester and remember feeling relief when Congress narrowly passed NAFTA the next year.

The real world, however, does not always operate along the nice, simple models presented in an undergraduate introductory economics course – a lesson politicians opposed to current health care reform in favor of allowing “the market to work” should remember.  It’s also something that I need to remind myself when considering the impact of the Trans Pacific Partnership that will greatly reduce remaining tariffs among the US and 11 other countries.  My personal bias is for free trade in its simple, theoretical form, but there are numerous valid concerns about the TPP.

The first concern, and why labor unions are so opposed, is because, in this country at least, labor likely does take the brunt of the negative effects of trade agreements.  A manifestation of the Stolper-Samuelson theory (another economic “theory” that has mixed empirical evidence at best), suggests that countries that are labor versus capital rich (lesser developed countries) will see benefits for workers at the expense of financial, tech, and service-type industries, while capital-rich (including “human capital”) countries will witness disproportionate benefits to the educated and wealthy – thus the argument that trade replaces poorly paid jobs with better paid jobs.  In classic economic theory, however, the disadvantage “factors” lose less than the advantaged factors gains, representing a net economic gain for each country.  In principle, with the political will, money can be re-distributed such that the impact of differential gains is mitigated.  We all also get to buy cheaper stuff at Walmart, which frees up money for other economic activities.

Whatever the empirical findings supporting or contrary to particular economic theories, however, most economists agree that trade is a good thing overall for a country — but with very visible downsides like when Carrier relocates a plant from Indianapolis, as they recently did, and diffuse, and largely invisible, upsides that are hard to isolate from other economic trends.  Trade is as unpopular as it is because people relate to people they see and know losing their jobs more than they appreciate the aggregate savings of spending a dollar less here and there on imported goods or understand whether a new company in their region would exist due to higher profits a company makes from exports and lower costs.

Thus, in general, it’s hard not to support freer trade and some economists have analogized lost jobs to the effect of electric lighting on candle-makers – bad for candle-makers, good for the rest of us.  That being said, the growing income divide in this country is almost certainly, in part, a result of freer global trade – a fact that belies Republican narrative that everyone pretty much gets paid what they’re worth and suggests that we need more, not less, redistribution of income in this country.

Other concerns about the TPP revolve about many of the other provisions of the treaty (the full version has not yet been released to the public).  One of those concerns involves the ability of corporations to sue the US government over unfair trade practices (i.e. potential environmental and labor legislation) at an independent tribunal.  But, as this article points out, such provisions are written into all trade legislation and, since 1993, the US government has been brought before 13 such tribunals – while foreign cases in traditional civil courts number about 700,000.  There is little reason to suspect that the US government will suddenly witness “a flood of lawsuits,” and, if it does, we can simply leave the agreement if we choose.

Another major contention is that the agreement seeks to strengthen and clarify international intellectual property laws.  This is particularly concerning if it makes pharmaceuticals more expensive and inaccessible in poorer countries.  Groups like Doctors without Borders have been vocal about such provisions.  However, as one writer for the Council of Foreign Relations explains, the empirical evidence from past trade deals with similar intellectual properties safeguards seems to suggest that there is little effect on the subsequent price of medicine.  In the end, the issue is an important one – but should there be a surge in accessible drug prices, drug companies have been successfully pressured before to offer alternatives.

Such potentially concerning issues are outweighed, in the end, by other factors that will positively affect lives in the developing countries involved.  More so than any past trade deals, the TPP is said to contain stronger provisions that explicitly protect local environment and fisheries (environmental groups are divided), strengthen labor standards, and promote stronger measures against corruption.  While the estimated economic impact on the US will be quite modest, some countries, like Vietnam, are expected to benefit greatly, potentially lifting millions out of severe poverty.

Some of the most important benefits to the US would be political.  Trade agreements like this are a strong symbolic commitment of the US to the countries involved – and vice-versa.  The US currently has free trade agreements with 20 countries – many of them key allies in volatile regions like Colombia, Jordan, and South Korea.  The political impact of these agreements are sometimes intangible, but nevertheless influential.  Like it or not, we are competing with China for the hearts, minds, allegiances, and pocketbooks of much of Southeast and East Asia.  No country’s leadership would be more gleeful to see the agreement rejected than that of China . . . except maybe a Trump administration.

The politics of trade in the country have become genuinely weird as Republicans compete for blue collar voters while educated, middle and upper class Democrats, many of whom shook their heads at the supposed insanity of the UK choosing to leave the EU, shout their support for Bernie Sanders’ anti-TPP positions.  Hillary Clinton has disavowed a treaty she openly supported, while her new running mate flipped his position as soon as it became clear he would be on the ticket.

There is a precedent to Democrats retreating from free trade stances when it is politically favorable to do so.  The lowest point in the Obama campaign of 2008, for me, occurred when he pandered to his perceived audience by promising to “renegotiate NAFTA.”  All I could do is shake my head and think, “no, you won’t.”  And he didn’t.

When the smoke clears from the campaigns, the Obama administration will still have two months to introduce and pass the TPP during the “lame duck” Congress (it’s unlikely the administration would try sooner).  Freed from the constraints of the current electoral cycle, I think there is a reasonable chance it will pass – a prospect Sanders’ vowed to block in his Monday DNC speech.  If it does, it will benefit most Americans in small ways and hurt some in big ways.  It will help lift many Asians and Latin Americans out of poverty, and improve governance and workplace standards in several countries.  It will likely help the environment in some ways, and harm it in other ways.  As a colleague indicated in his book title, “real world economics” is “complex and messy.”  The weight of evidence suggests, however, that the TPP would be good for the US overall as well as the citizens of the other countries involved.


Wage gap deception

Every year when I teach students about statistics, I offer up a couple canards from both liberal and conservative discourse to show how both ends of the political spectrum play with data in deceptive ways.  I tell the conservative students that man-made global climate change is about as close-to-proven as science gets and that most of those arguing against it are either under-informed or being intentionally deceptive.  I tell the more liberal minded-that the same is true when it comes to those leaders and politicians who use the 77 (now 78) cents to the dollar “wage gap” statistic as liberal “red meat” in order to imply widespread discrimination against women in the workplace.

Arguments against man-made climate change and in favor of the wage gap-equals-discrimination arguments both reflect ignorance of how statistical control works.  When researchers use statistical models to analyze data, they can generally incorporate and account for any known and measured variable in such a way that the effects of the main variables of interests are isolated from other correlated influences.  Thus, one can find out, for instance, the independent effect of carbon dioxide on global temperatures ceterus parabis (“all things being equal”), effectively eliminating other potential measurable sources of climate change like changes in solar radiation, volcanic activity, or ocean currents.

The wage-gap deception is based on a similar misunderstanding of the power of statistical control.  Instead of assuming there are other explanations for the wage gap (as climate change deniers do), wage-gap rhetoric hinges on conveying the impression that there is only a single reason that the median woman earns over 20 cents less than the average man – discrimination.  While it is difficult to measure directly for discrimination, numerous unbiased studies have utilized a variety of variables based on choices of profession, time away from work, and other factors representing different trends in male and female lifestyles and preferences and found that the true wage gap is about 5-6%.  These studies were conducted by organizations like the Department of Labor and academics who crunch such numbers for a living – not exactly groups we think of as being comprised of rock-ribbed conservatives.

So – isn’t 5-6% still bad?  Sure, if you want to insist that the entirety of that estimate reflects discrimination.  There’s some evidence to suggest it isn’t, but the simple truth is that no one can say for sure.  Unfortunately, “94 or 95 cents to the dollar and the rest we’re not sure about” does not exactly make for a great bumper sticker.

Some would argue that women should be encouraged to make different choices about their choice of work and how they balance work and family.  The National Organization of Women and other feminist groups suggest that a main problem is that younger women are discouraged by society from pursuing interests in more lucrative professions like math and science.  There are no quick fixes if they are correct, but certainly I’d agree that cultivating an atmosphere that encourages rather than discourages women to enter such fields is an admirable goal.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t try to convince, say, a Buddhist, to trade fulfillment for a higher pay check, and maybe women are doing a better job of pursuing a fulfilling life than men as-a-whole.

Even if we say that some women might be discouraged by peer, mentor, or societal attitudes from pursuing certain fields, however, it does not let-off-the-hook those who insist on implying the wage gap is based directly on widespread workplace discrimination.  Many public figures, such as the Obama administration figure who was forced to backtrack after using the 77-cents figure as well as President Obama himself, surely know that they are being deceptive – or at least they should.

Since much of the “gap” is attributable to individual choices that tend involve trading “temporal flexibility” for higher pay, pursuing less poorly compensated professions, and time off to raise children, it’s unlikely to change soon.  Laws providing for paid maternity leave are overdue in this country, but such laws might lead to an even larger wage gap in the long term as women exchange work experience for more time with the little ones.

If we want to close the wage gap, however, there is one sure way to do so.  Raise the minimum wage.  Two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women – so raising the minimum wage would disproportionately raise the median income of women.

None of this is suggests that women don’t sometimes face discrimination or that it wouldn’t be good to have more women in government and the higher echelons of business . . . only that more often than not Democrats have the facts on their side in Washington debates and there’s no need to muddy the waters by stooping to the level of those on the other side of the aisle that like to play fast and loose with the truth.

Bad, worse, and worst in the Middle East

Last year I wrote about how I thought that the conflict in Yemen held out more promise for a solution than other conflicts in the region.  Unlike the other conflicts in the region, the Yemen conflict is mainly between two relatively unified factions – the “Houthis,” who are mostly Zaydis, a minority denomination within Shia Islam, and the largely Sunni-supported forces who support Abd Rabbuh Mansar Hadi, who was ousted from the capital in late 2014.  Al Qaeda-allied forces have taken significant territory, including the country’s fifth largest city, and ISIS has made some in-roads as well.  Meanwhile, with logistical support from the US, the Saudi government has conducted a bombing campaign on behalf of Hadi supporters, killing thousands of civilians in the process . . .

. . . and yet Yemen represents the Middle East’s version of a simple conflict. That is why, although Yemen’s conflict is bad, it is also the most readily-resolvable regional armed conflict.  One reason is that the Houthis represent more of a traditional aggrieved minority than a hate-spewing death cult, like Al Qaeda and ISIS.  In addition, since the two main sides are largely locked in a stalemate, negotiations seem like the only way forward for the parties in Yemen.  Currently the two sides are indeed currently negotiating in Kuwait, and, while getting-to-demobilization will not be easy, it is at least conceivable.  Of course that wouldn’t be the end of fighting in Yemen; but one thing both sides have in common is a desire to take on Al Qaeda and ISIS.

The conflict in Libya, on the other hand, is a lot more intractable situation.  The situation is similar to that in Yemen in that there are two big players, Libya Dawn, a religiously conservative political movement that ousted the democratically-elected Parliament from the capital in 2014, and those who support the government’s continuing “Operation Dignity” operations against them.

Although there are parallels with the situation in Yemen, Libya is a more chaotic place – typified by the fact that an Al-Qaeda affiliated group successfully captured the coastal city of Derna from ISIS while Libya Dawn claimed credit.   Unlike Yemen, the opposing sides lack unity and there exists a myriad of well-organized third parties fighting with and against one side or another.  Negotiations held at the end of 2015 were an abysmal failure.

Possibly the biggest obstacle to peace between the two major sides in Libya is the attitude held by the government’s leader general, Khalifa Haftar, as well as many other government supporters, who, like General Sisi of Egypt, equate conservative Islamist religious parties with groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS.  Such a view makes negotiations more difficult and fails to recognize that such political groups actually represent one of the best bulwarks against jihadist groups who reject all politics in favor of violence.

While the situation in Libya is worse than that in Yemen, the situation in Syria remains the worst of all.  Whereas in Yemen and Libya there are at least two major discernable actors, in Syria the Assad government, ISIS, and a hodgepodge of “opposition” militia groups fight with a variety of political goals in mind.  Outside intervention complicates the situation, with the US, Russia, Saudis, Turks, Iran, and other states supporting their own factions and agendas in the country.

The biggest problem in achieving a negotiated peace between opposition groups and the government in Syria lies with the role played the Al-Qaeda allied fighters of al-Nusra.  Unlike ISIS, al-Nusra forces have willingly cooperated with other opposition factions, who regard them as a capable ally.  Given their goals and affiliation, however, Russia, the US, and the Syrian government understandably regard negotiations with the group as inconceivable .  Since al-Nusra forces are often interspersed with other opposition groups, government and Russian bombing campaigns often target both moderate and radical alike in retaliation for al-Nusra attacks.  This renders successful negotiations more difficult than they already are and explains a lot of the difficulties in UN-brokered peace talks.

As to what the US and other countries should do to support the peace processes in these countries – well, we’ve tried the gambit of options in the Middle East.  Invasion in Iraq, “leading from behind” in Libya, modest support of militia groups in Syria – none of it has yielded outcomes making us safer.  Perhaps the best approach we can take is the one we have taken with Israel and its neighbors; namely, be ready to often lots of money to the various parties as an incentive to keep a future peace.  Dollar for dollar such aid might represent a much better investment in future security than our futile search for military solutions and represents a much better idea than simply ignoring these countries once their troubles leave the front page.

Why I’m teaching a student to “gamble” on politics

The last time I wrote this blog back in January, I made a series of off-the-cuff, not so serious predictions for the coming year.  Some were pretty spot on, such as my yearly Oscar best picture prediction or the fact that something called the Zika virus was about to become big news.  Others, such as the potential that, despite a slow start, Marco Rubio might eclipse his rivals – well, not so much.

Since I wrote that list I have read Tetlock and Garner’s Superforecasting, which reinforced something I think we all know but rarely practice conversationally — namely that forecasting the future in any sort of absolute terms is a little silly.  Back in 2008, one of my colleagues insisted, while gently hitting a table, that Barack Obama could simply “no longer be elected President.”   More recently I’ve had colleagues assert that they thought that Jeb Bush was going unify the party, that the most likely outcome of the current primaries will be a brokered convention, and that Donald Trump had little chance of winning the Republican nomination.  None of these outcomes is likely, even if, statistically, none of them is impossible.

That we live in a world defined by probability rather than determinism is a difficult thing to instill intuitively in both colleagues and the students they teach.  At most universities in most courses, students learn that things work in concrete “provable” (“prove” is a word I ban from my courses) ways – whether it’s in math or science or in the typical humanities or social science essay that calls for a strong thesis supported by a bunch of cherry-picked evidence to support the thesis.  Reality, however, is filled with uncertainty and randomness, and the ability to feel one’s way through what’s random and what’s not, the very cornerstone of critical thinking in my mind, is simply not a skill set that students encounter often at their university.

What’s even worse is that the question of what-will-happen-in-the-future seems to be the most common people ask or want to ask.  Students often want to write papers about future events like whether or not Great Britain will leave the EU only to have me remind them that it is difficult to “research the future.”  Similarly, reporters often want “experts” on TV, radio, and print to use that expertise to tell them what the future holds.  As Tetlock and Garner point out, bigger and bolder predictions make for better stories, more popular pundits . . .  and worse predictions.  It might make for good TV, but what we see with expert political predictions is simply what it looks like when someone enthusiastically expresses his or her personal cognitive biases.

Does that mean that we have no ability to predict the political future?  Of course not.  It’s just that most predictions that are likely to be right are also not very interesting.  Will Putin still be president of Russia in six months.  Most likely.  Will John Kasich steal the Republican nomination at a brokered convention?  Unlikely.  It’s the in-between, medium-likelihood events that are the most interesting to predict.

The best way to predict such events – not whether they will happen for sure or not – but, rather, assessing what the likelihood of particular events happening is, is through crowd sourcing.  There is a famous story of the discovery of the “wisdom of crowds” by Francis Galton over a hundred years ago.  He observed that in a contest involving almost 800 people guessing the weight of an ox, that no one got the weight right.  Collectively, however, the guesses averaged out to within one percent of the ox’s weight.

The same principal seems to work with political prediction markets.  There are several that operate with “play money” and a couple that, under the justification that they are for research purposes, allow people to log on an invest their own money.  Several studies   have shown that both systems do a similarly good job of according with the frequency of real world events – much better, in any case, than do most individuals.

Playing the prediction market (in my case for modest sums of money) has not only been fun, but also educational.  As a recent Daily Show piece illustrated, “betting” on politics is a sure way to get people politically involved and can raise political awareness and enthusiasm.

Of course, as an educator, I want to bring some of what I have learned to my students.  While I don’t plan on introducing a Prediction Market 101 course anytime soon, I’ve raised a few eyebrows at work sitting down with a student office assistant on occasion who has taken an interest in the process.  She’s someone who took well to the statistical intuition and basic methods I teach in a course she had with me, and it seemed like a good way to encourage her to continue her education in both politics and the nature of our probabilistic world.  Plus, as I’ve reminded her, the 10 dollars she invested is less than 10% the cost of some of her textbooks – a pretty good price for teaching her not to “grow up” to be the next confident windbag.

As for the real answer to questions like: Who will be the next president?  The best answer, according to prediction markets, is still that Hilary Clinton has about a 60% chance to be in the White House next year (and about a 25% to be indicted on federal charges before then).  Donald Trump only has about a 1 in 4 chance of winning.  A brokered convention is about 40% likely to happen and Great Britain is estimated to have about a 1 in 3 chance of voting to leave the EU in June.  Jeb Bush is still estimated to have a 2% chance of getting the Republican nomination because, well, nothing’s impossible in statistics.

You won’t be everyone’s favorite conversationalist if you start speaking probabilistically about what you think will happen in the future, but you’ll nevertheless be the most correct person in the room.


Predictions for 2016

As we enter 2016, there is only one prediction that everyone cares about.  Let’s start off with a look back at 2012, when I predicted that:

“President Obama will edge out Mitt Romney in the presidential election.  While a lot of factors, including a real lack of support for Obama among independent voters, favor the Republicans, it is hard to imagine Romney out-campaigning or out-debating President Obama. So, Romney, along with his running mate Florida Senator Marco Rubio, will take the vote in Florida, but Obama will win Ohio, Virginia, and enough other battlegrounds to win the election.  He’ll win the popular vote by only 2-3%.”

I did pretty well considering it was only January 2012 and the Republican primaries had not yet begun.  Mitt Romney unwisely chose Paul Ryan as his running mate, lost Florida, as well as Ohio and Virginia, and Obama went on to win with 3.9% of the electorate favoring him.

So, what’s my prediction for 2016?  Well, I could take the easy route and choose Hillary Clinton, who the traders at give a 54% of winning, with challengers Trump, Rubio, and Cruz splitting most of the rest of the odds.

I’m going to take a chance, however, and say that Republicans, in the end, want to win the election, and will select the candidate most likely to do so – which brings me back to my 2012 Vice Presidential prediction – Marco Rubio.  If they choose Rubio, Republicans will be more likely to win than not.  If Rubio chooses a strategically savvy running mate who can balance his youth with a sense of gravitas while delivering a swing state, like Ohio, then I think Rubio would very likely win the election.

So there you have it, my prediction is that a Rubio-Kasich ticket defeats a Clinton-Crist (Crist would make an interesting choice, given that Clinton might not want to concede Florida) ticket in a very close election – one that might even be won with electoral, but not popular, votes.

Or . . . one of the other candidates wins the Republican nomination, says a lot of interesting things, and gets thumped by five or more points in October . . .

2). What about Congress?  Well, in the unlikely event that things unfolded like I just described above, congressional representation would not likely change much.  Maybe a couple additional seats for Republicans in the House with little movement in the Senate.

3). As for all the other things going on in the world, the fate of ISIS is what most interests would-be prognosticators.   I was a bit pollyannaish last year – thinking that, given time, the weight-of-numbers would favor the Iraqi army which, with support from the US and others, would retake Mosul and much of the rest of northern Iraq.  I still stick by this prediction, I just think it was a bit early.  Mosul is apparently heavily fortified, and will take a major effort to win.   My prediction — Mosul will fall to Iraqi forces in December 2016.

As for Syria – I’m actually slightly more hopeful for the upcoming year.  The Russian intervention, as much as it has irritated the Obama administration and Turkey, might be a blessing in disguise as the Russians will be increasingly motivated to find a solution to the ongoing crisis – even if it means pushing Assad aside.  After five years of conflict, I think this is the year that things get serious negotiation-wise in Syria.

In the West, however, ISIS will be as big a threat as ever.  Now that ISIS has realized what Al Qaeda never did – that mass carnage is more accessible with firearms than it is with explosives – I would expect more ISIS-inspired shootings to occur.

4).  Even deadlier this year than ISIS, Nigerian-based Boko Haram continued to grow stronger in 2015.  There is no evidence that the Nigerian government will make any more inroads against the group in 2016 and will, in desperation, probably seek to negotiate some sort of settlement with the group – perhaps even offering a safe haven in northeast Nigeria.  This will be a bad idea.

5). Vladamir Putin was another boogeyman in the West in 2015.  After taking territory in Ukraine year, many predict more potential problems in other places home to Russia diaspora – like Estonia.

I’d argue that Putin is effectively deterred in areas under NATO control, like the Baltics, and has no interest in alienating governments in Central Asia, like Kazakhstan, which, while home to sizable Russian minorities, maintain relatively close ties to Moscow.

Putin’s main goal in 2016 will be to undo the diplomatic and economic fallout of Russian actions in 2015.  This year will witness Putin attempt to play the part of wise man and peacemaker.  He may not get very far with the West, but 2016 will see a very different face of the Kremlin.

6). The Trans Pacific Partnership treaty that was signed in October has not played a major role in the Presidential primaries because both Democrats have come out against it, most Republicans are in favor of it, and nobody wants to touch it during election season.  Nevertheless, the White House has stated that they would like a Congressional vote on the treaty sooner rather than later.  My guess – the White House tries to trot it out in the spring, finds that Mitch McConnell was right in suggesting that a vote wait until after the election, tables the idea for a while, and later a lame-duck Congress approves it as President Obama’s last achievement as he’s headed out the door.

7). Mahmoud Abbas is old and increasingly without either purpose or legitimacy as head of the Palestinian Authority.  By the end of the year, he will either be out or on his way out of the door.

8).  Searching for a positive story for the year, I like this prediction from Al Jazeera:

“Keep an eye on Cyprus, an island divided since 1974. ‘The Cyprus Problem’ has defeated international diplomats for decades, but there are hopeful signs that Greek and Turkish leaders on the island are actually serious about reunification.”

Sounds good to me.

9). My tech prediction for the year is somewhat personal.  Epidural stimulation for spinal cord injuries is the real deal and set to be tested on dozens of people over the next couple years.  So far it has worked on all four people that it has been tested on.  The sight of paralyzed people standing up again will make for some good visuals for the journalists out there.  The introduction of this technology might even be bigger medical story than the impending deluge of Zika virus stories we are likely to see this year.

10).  And, finally, my prediction for the Best Picture Oscar goes to . . .

Spotlight – because it’s already heavily favored and fits the modus operandi of the Academy, which likes stories about people overcoming injustice.

Finally, as a bonus, my Superbowl prediction is the Arizona Cardinals over the Pittsburgh Steelers – let’s say 27-17.  As with my other predictions, make sure you put some money on it.  Happy 2016 everyone!

The past year in predictions

I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but I’m looking forward to Philip Tetlock’s new book, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, which is based on oft-cited and interesting work Tetlock has conducted over the last decade that tries to understand what types of people are good at making predictions about the world.  In Time magazine this week, Joel Stein summarizes Tetlock’s findings by describing a good forecaster as someone who 1) has a habit of keeping track of their failures (check); 2) a disbelief in fate (sort of); 3) a willingness to consult experts (do the links count?); 4) a vague proficiency at mathematics (that’s about right); and 5) not famous (bingo).  So keeping in mind that, like most “dart throwing chimps,” I only meet some of the requirements of a good forecaster, here’s another humbling look at the predictions I made for 2015.

1). I predicted Scott Walker would be leading the pack of Republican contenders at this point.  Did you believe me? I also thought Tim Pawlenty would be the favorite by the end of 2011.  Apparently I still don’t quite understand the Republican mind.  I was right about one thing, however – that things would be “fluid” and that it would be hard to predict during any given month what the outcome would be.  As for Trump – I didn’t see that coming.  Onto the next failed prediction . . .

2). Northern Iraq will be mostly under the control of Iraqi forces.  Nope.  As a matter of fact, despite recent successes, ISIS controls more territory in Iraq than it did at the beginning of the year.  The momentum seems to be shifting, however.

3). Okay, I’ve been pretty good at predicting economic growth in the past.  According to the NY Times, the best estimate of annual US GDP growth for 2015 is about 2.5%.  I predicted 3-3.5%. So, my estimate was a bit high, but not as catastrophically wrong as the first two predictions.

4). My next prediction was about Venezuela and the instability I expected it to witness after it held parliamentary elections this past month.  The elections resulted in a trouncing of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, led by President Nicolás Maduro, by the opposition MUD party.

To Maduro’s credit, the violence I anticipated would follow government shenanigans either in terms of the election itself or over the results have yet to materialize.  Venezuela’s still a mess, however, and it remains to be seen how the new state-of-affairs will play out.  But, I was wrong on this prediction too, for now . . .

5).  Sadly, I was correct on my fifth prediction, however.  Despite being a bit of an underdog, Benjamin Netanyahu pulled out a victory in the March Israeli election over Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, in part by playing to some of the worst instincts of parts of the Israeli public.  Any hope of peace with Palestinians is even further away now.

6).   On a happier note, I was correct that the US – Iranian nuclear talks would succeed.  While it came down to the wire, the moderates on both sides won the day.  Whatever the naysayers think, this deal is likely to pave the way to a new era of semi-cooperation with Iran on important issues, especially when it comes to rolling back ISIS.  That is, unless the next US President is a Republican who decides to back out of it.

7).  I predicted that tensions in Ukraine would simmer down.  They have.  Vladamir Putin even offered some words of reconciliation with the West this month.  And why shouldn’t he?  Putin is playing a long game in which he is willing to trade a stable Russian economy in the short-term for permanent gains in territory and influence in the long-term.  Soon it will be business-as-usual with Russia while the Crimea remains under their control and the Donbas region remains a permanently frozen conflict.

8). In October, negotiators reached an agreement on the Trans Pacific Partnership trade treaty, which was a bit earlier than I expected (I said probably not by year’s end).  Congress will vote on it during the coming months.  I’ll save my prediction about the outcome for my next posting.

9). I predicted that “things in Syria will still be a mess.”  No surprise there, although maybe I should have predicted that they’d be an even bigger mess.

10). Speaking of an even bigger mess, I predicted that the US government, finding common cause against ISIS and Al Qaeda, would increase its cooperation with Houthis in Yemen after they seized control of the government.  Instead, Saudi Arabia, with an unfortunate measure of US support, launched a bombing campaign against the Yemeni government that continues to this day.  Meanwhile, ISIS has taken advantage of the chaos to grow even stronger in the region.

11). Another hopeful prediction was that Afghanistan would look more stable by this time of the year.  The fall and recapture of Kunduz this year was emblematic of the fight there.  Afghanistan neither appears stable nor like it’s going to fall apart (although the Taliban itself, might, which could be good news or bad news).  The country is still treading water, and it looks like the lingering US presence there will continue to be there for a while.

12). I predicted that the Colombian government and FARC, the longest running insurgency in the world, would reach an agreement to end the conflict there.  In this case, I was halfway right.  The two sides have taken a piecemeal approach to negotiations, and have agreed to several major important measures.  The hardest measure in ending civil conflict, however, entails how to convince rebels to demobilize and hand over their weapons.  This last, big hurdle remains in 2016.

13). I predicted that 3D technology would become the next-big-thing in 2015.  I jumped the gun a little on that – but I stand by the prediction.  The year 2016, and beyond, will see some really interesting tech inventions with 3D technology.

14). I predicted that New England would win the Superbowl – in a blowout.  Well, they won, but not in a blowout.  And they may only have won because of Pete Carroll’s not-so-crazy goal line decision-making.

15). And, finally, the last prediction.  This year, I seemed to have failed at more predictions than usual. At least I have my flawless record of Academy Award Best Film predictions to fall back on.  In January of last year, I suggested that the Academy would prefer a movie about people in the entertainment industry – like themselves – and select Birdman to win.  And for the fourth straight year I got this one right.  If only politics were so simple.