Thursday, November 8, 2012

Here's an idea

We could work together to fix stuff and not just to win elections.

Winning isn't everything if you think that governing is the point.

What it is

There's a very entertaining Twitter thread today about Nate Silver and his math magic that's developing as a super-nerd parody of the Chuck Norris tough guy jokes of recent years:

“The only reason Nate Silver runs statistical analyses on a computer is so he can laugh when it's wrong.
“Nate Silver does not breathe air; he just periodically samples the atmosphere.”

One wag has also built a Web site that asks "Is Nate Silver a Witch?" (Conclusion? Likely he is -- there is no other plausible explanation for his uncanny ability to accurately predict yesterday's election.)

All this is due to Silver's NY Times blog, FiveThirtyEight, where he applies his extraordinary statistical abilities to political polling in the service of forecasting elections. In the run up to Tuesday's election, a number of Republican politicos accused Silver of a political bias against their guys. They didn't like his forecasts, so they began attacking his neutrality. He was cooking the numbers, they said. Silver's responses basically said "It's the numbers, people, not my wishes." His job is to solve math problems, not to inject opinions into his reports. Still Silver was poked and jabbed for being effeminate --that is, gay -- for inserting bias into the weighting of data from different national and state polls and so forth. (Some really smart stuff about Silver and his disruptive effects on political punditry can be found here.) This is rather typical of in-the-bubble partisanship: people who want to see the world in a particular way badly enough begin to see information that contradicts their beliefs as politically motivated, not as facts. Even when they really are facts. 

Silver's projections about Tuesday's election were nearly perfect.

Today, when an Internet acquaintance mentioned on FaceBook that the US stock market had declined 2% the day after Obama' election, I thought about Silver and his conservative antagonists. My acquaintance is conservative. His implication was that bad-for-business Obama's reelection was at the root of the 2% loss. I've seen several comments today that we're due for another recession, for inflation, for higher unemployment, and for a host of other economic ills because of Obama's fiscal and monetary policies. What is needed is a period of austerity like the Europeans have undertaken to pay down the debt. This is what Romney and Ryan planned to do. Their conservative ideology led them to believe it was the best way to get the country out of the economic doldrums.

So I was moved to look at some data.

My wife and I have some money saved for retirement. Some of it is in a Vanguard total market stock index mutual fund (VTSMX). Some of it is in a Vanguard European stock fund (VEUSX). Both funds track an index, and are not actively managed. That is, they reflect the health of the total markets they follow, and not the skill or luck of a manager. Both funds recorded five-year highs on December 3, 2007. Both then declined and later tumbled in value at the time of the Lehman bankruptcy and world-wide credit collapse in September of 2008. Later on, both hit five-year lows on the same day: March 2, 2009. Both have rebounded as the world's economy has begun to recover.

The Euro fund lost 65.3 % of its value between the end of 2007 and the beginning of March 2009. Ouch. The US fund lost 54.4% over the same period. Ouch again. These were terrifying losses.

Since that time, things have improved, but they haven't improved equally for the two funds. As of this afternoon, the US index is up 200% from its low, bringing it within 95.7% of its historic high. The Euro fund, however, has grown 165% -- impressive, but less so than its American counterpart. At today's close it was worth only 57.3% of its peak value.

America, where the Obama administration stimulated the economy, did better in this metric than Europe. It's Europe where austerity is the policy. In effect, we have a macro experiment underway: austerity vs stimulus. I've made more money from the stimulus than from Europe's austerity. Yet we continue to live with a persistent myth that tightening the budget is good for business. I can see no evidence.

It's essential that we not let theories about who's winning in the polls and about the realities of economic recovery impede our understanding of the facts we must navigate.

If Nate Silver says "You wanna bet?" the right answer is no.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Political Theology

Richard Mourdock, who might be elected to the US Senate from Indiana, said he was opposed to abortions in the case of rape the other day, and a whole lot of people got hopping mad. But it looks like more than a few missed his point. What the dude said was that the conception and not the soul-crushing violence of the assault was a gift from God.  All life is a gift from God. And one must take the gift that is presented. He said this. He looked into his heart and spoke from his core beliefs. We all have our beliefs. But he is working to get elected at present, to make governmental policy, and that is a problem.

Ancient representations of the Buddha often show him seated upon a lotus flower. This is because the pure white lotus blooms above water turbid with mud and slime. The Buddha’s enlightenment – like the lotus – was a form of purity arising out of a conundrum of filth. I suppose the dude in Indiana to have reasoned in a similar vein when he spoke of God’s gift arising even from a crime of humiliating violence and degradation.

His expression of faith, while doubtless sincere, is a religious judgment. He speaks of the intervention of a supernatural being into the lives of rapists and their victims – into the lives of all women who conceive in love as well.  He speaks of a gift from God, a material interaction between the divine and the corporeal. And here the image of a gift is a metaphor. Conception does not come wrapped and ribboned. The word “gift” is a poetic expression of faith, of a way of ordering and understanding a world which is sometimes beyond ordinary understanding. Religious expressions frequently resort to metaphorical language because that is a way we can speak of wonderful and extraordinary things. 

There are a number of ways to speak of wonderful things.

The Buddha, sitting on his lotus flower, is also sometimes called a gift. Having achieved enlightenment, he was free from the cycle of birth and death and rebirth. He left our understanding of things behind, became something other than a man. And yet he remained among men, compassionately helping us with our suffering. Buddhists speak of a kind of giving that is perfect – dana paramita – a selfless giving that gains nothing for the giver. One teacher says you should practice giving so that you become like a fire that burns itself out, leaving no ash behind. Having no conception of a consciousness anything like this, we fall back upon poetic language. We can call it love, but we just don’t know. We are left with the wonder. We cannot be certain, because we are incapable of understanding the consciousness of the Buddha.

Would the dude in Indiana settle for a Buddhist conception of conceptions?

I think he would not. His is a religious conviction ossified in certainty. I have heard nothing of doubt from him or his supporters, nothing of the tolerance of alternative understandings. In this way he has hidden his metaphors from himself and largely done away with wonder and faith. Being certain is not believing. Being certain ends investigation and the desire to expand your understanding because the tale is already told. Being certain is also a sure way to extremism and intolerance.

Such certainty is perilously close to blasphemy to the extent that lays claim to a knowledge of the mind of God. “I know this is what is real, and I know it beyond all doubt.” Is a candidate for the US Senate from Indiana really so theologically gifted? Is anyone? How holy is the holy, anyway? I mean is anyone among us capable of certainty about God’s will? 

Generally speaking, strongly held religious beliefs are a very bad foundation for governmental policy.  Mourdock believes in his heart that the government has an interest in determining the legal and medical options available to the body of a woman who has been assaulted in the most demeaning, humiliating and depersonalizing way. And he believes this because of his theology.  That’s a crock. In theologies and biologies, alternatives exist. This is why we do not establish religion in America. This is why we do not predicate public policy and law upon religious conviction.

There are too many ways to understand our wonderful existences for us all to settle on the rock-hard certainties of some dude in Indiana who has learned not to doubt and so not to believe. We owe it to our conviction to that which is greater than us to be humble in our confidence.

Don’t get me started on the Popol Vuh.