A Skeptical Audience

So Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey, as everybody knows by now. This immediately drew parallels to the Saturday Night Massacre, where Nixon ordered his Attorney General to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

At the heart of the matter are three questions. First, whether Comey was the best person for the job. The second question is whether this will hinder any ongoing investigations, specifically the investigation into Russian involvement in the Presidential election; and what if anything will be done to safeguard these investigations.

The third question is the most important, and is simply; which of the first two questions did Trump answer when firing Comey? That is, did he fire Comey because he felt Comey wasn’t a good director? Or did he fire Comey specifically to stop the Russian investigation (or any other)?

If it’s the first, and Comey wasn’t the best fit for the job (or even if Trump just honestly thinks so), then there’s no real problem. If it’s the second, then basically Trump is abusing the office to enact a personal agenda, using the department of justice as a political tool, and obstructing justice. Essentially, what Trump did is either a standard (if somewhat unusual) way of acting as President, or an impeachable offense; either it was as bland as Bill Clinton dismissing FBI director William Sessions, or as corrupt as Nixon firing Cox.

* * *

Having just finished a class on negotiation; I was struck by an study by Huthwaite inc, called “The Behaviors of Successful Negotiators” which looked at (no surprise here) the behaviors of successful negotiators. It was one of those truly great readings, the point of which seems obvious to me after reading it, but never once occurred to me beforehand. There were some behaviors which were kind of boring, (such as skilled negotiators talking more about long term topics), some which were somewhat reasonable but not much use elsewhere (skilled negotiators don’t have a predetermined sequence of when they wish to discuss which issue), but some which were meaningful and profound.

The fact I was most impressed with were the fact that skilled negotiators rarely used words like “generous,” “fair,” or “reasonable” to describe their own offers. Within a negotiation, calling something “fair” which you present, even if you think it is fair, is unlikely to convince your counterparty; it will only serve to aggrevate him or her if they don’t think its fair.

The second fact which I thought was really valuable was that skilled negotiators often made fewer arguments in their favor; but those were typically better quality. That is, if you’re trying to convince a hostile (or even skeptical) audience of a fact, and you present 5 arguments, they’re naturally going to latch on to the weakest argument you make. People are not rational Bayesian calculation machines, 2 strong arguments in favor are greater at convincing humans than 3 strong and 3 weak arguments in favor.

In both cases, the lesson is similar, in convincing a skeptical audience less is often more. Using more neutral language is more persuasive than persuasive language, and using fewer arguments is more persuasive than using many. The stronger you believe something (or come across as believing that thing), the less persuasive you can be to a skeptical audience.

* * *

Today, while packing up my apartment, I was listening to a several months old episode  of Bill Simmons’ podcast, the BS report. Simmons’ guest was one of my favorite essayists, Chuck Klosterman. In it, they were discussing who the NBA MVP will be, Russell Westbrook or James Harden. Klosterman had a very intriguing argument, which essentially went like this (I am of course paraphrasing):

1: The people who favor Westbrook think its obvious that the MVP should be Westbrook and there’s no other choice. (Westbrook averaged a triple double over the season, something that hasn’t been done since the legendary Oscar Robinson).

2: The people who favor Harden think its an interesting question and there are arguments for multiple candidates, but Harden is overall their favorite.

3: The people who are undecided will see the above two arguments, and almost tautologically will relate to 2nd one more. Because (by definition) they haven’t made up their mind, they can relate to those who think its a close race, who favor Harden.

Its an almost brilliant idea, and I have no idea if it will be correct or not, but it has a certain logic to it. Underlying it all is the same lesson, your ability to convince a skeptical party of something can be inversely related to the strength of your own belief.

* * *

Trump’s approval rating is low, but its not historically low. 538.com has him at 41%; Gallup had Obama at the low 40’s for much of 2011 and 2014 (of course this time in 2009 Obama was in the low 60’s, 20 points better than Trump is now.) Gallup had W Bush’s low at 25%, HW Bush at 30%, Clinton at 40%, Reagan at the mid 30’s, Carter at 30%, and Ford at 40%. (the counterclaim is that none of these Presidents were this unpopular this soon in their Presidency, but that’s kind of beside the point).

I’m not a Trump fan, and I certainly don’t think I will be. I see a number of things which Trump has done as being bad, corrupt, or incompetent, and the demeanor in which he has conducted himself has at times seemed unhinged and almost crazy. This to go with his numerous scandals, problems, gaffes, and remarks he made while campaigning and as a public figure.

Yet as much as 41% of American voters still approve of Trump. Why is this?

* * *

All this brings us back to President Trump and James Comey. If you’re already inclined to believe that Trump is a despot you will probably see the Comey situation as analogous to the Saturday Night Massacre, and Trump as obstructing justice. If you’re a fan of Trump you’re much more likely to see the situation as nuanced, or as analogous to Bill Clinton dismissing Director Sessions. And if you’re in between? Well, articles like this probably won’t convince you.

I think that those people who either support Trump or at least still giving him the benefit of the doubt just see all the criticism blending together, drowning itself out. They see Trump detractors reacting to firing Comey in the same way the reacted to Trump’s February 16 press conference. As long as they see the tone and not the substance of their opponents’ arguments, they’ll get no new information, and of course won’t change their minds.

Take an article like this, very anti-Trump, which purports to list all the bad things Trump has done. Yet it seems like half the things listed aren’t things Trump has done, but rather things he’s said or tweeted. Going back to the fact about skilled negotiators, how they will use fewer stronger arguments. Then compare that to the list in the nymag article. For many of the “Trump said this” arguments, if you’re not convinced now, you may not be ever. And if that argument won’t convince a skeptic, then making it will probably make better arguments less convincing.

With a skeptical audience, the strength of your beliefs can often work against you. There’s no shortage of liberal antipathy towards the Trump administration, yet I wonder if the strength of the left’s beliefs is actually hindering its ability to make a convincing argument.

Follow the money

To absolutely nobody’s surprise, towns in Massachusetts with higher median household income do significantly better than towns with lower median household income. You can see a nice little scatter plot here for HH income and percent proficiency (average of math, English and science for a school district).

Other than the hard cap at 100 (no matter how well funded a school is, it’s not going to have more than 100 percent of its students passing); its a really damn good correlation.

Proficient Scatterplot

 

Here’s the same data but with advanced:

 

Advanced Scatterplot

It’s even more clear (also, the hard cap doesn’t really come into effect). A full 65% of the variance in advanced test scores can be explained by median household income.

So whats going on here? Well, the obvious idea is that these schools have more funding than poor school districts; this leads to better schools. Is that true?

In Massachusetts, the school system with the least per pupil expenditures is East Bridgewater. Yet they are above average in the MCAS (the state testing regime) for proficiency in English, Math and Science. The highest is Cambridge, yet they are below average in English and Science. Well, those are just anecdotes; so lets talk data:

I ran regressions for percent of students who are proficient in English, Math and Science and who are advanced in English Math and Science, all against per pupil expenditures.

The result, of the six regressions, none of the test scores were positively and significantly correlated with expenditures. Two, (percent of students who are advanced at English and percent of students advanced at math), were negatively correlated at p < 1%. Percent of Students advanced in Science was negatively correlated with expenditures at p <10%. The other three were not significant, but all the signs were negative.

Here’s the scatterplot for  for the percent of students advanced at English (with a trend line):

Eng Adv Scatterplot

The answer is no, it is not explained by (only) funding. If anything, funding is negatively correlated with test scores (ok, this is a cheat, I’m doing two single-linear regression at the same time and comparing them which is kind of a statistical bad thing. I did run a some multiple linear regressions, which don’t change much, although the the sign on funding flips to positive but not significant for advanced; the sign for advanced is still negative but also not significant).

This is weird at first glance it appears that rich towns have better schools, but that this has nothing to do with funding.

One theory is reverse causation; that is some school systems are randomly good, which attracts well off people. After all, school systems are probably the number one concern for for families in choosing which town to live in. There’s a ton of truth in this, I imagine. But i highly doubt its the whole story.

The most likely theory is that, for whatever reason, children of well off families are more likely to do well then children of less well off families. Whether that thing is due to culture, genetics, or other economic reasons (better access to healthcare as an example), I don’t know, but I think this is very important.
So here’s the aside where I’ll talk about how I wanted to finish this. I wanted to make points about culture, about moral reasoning, about economic aid and welfare. And I’m realizing that I’m just not able to do those topics justice, at least right here. So I’ll close with one thought.

The above analysis should scare you. Because, basically, the rich are getting richer. And its not because we just poor resources in to the rich districts and starve resources from poor districts. If it was we’d almost have reason to celebrate. All we’d have to do to fix schools is just pass a bill and move money around; but its just not that simple.

 

(all stats regarding education from http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/state_report/mcas.aspx)

Housing Crisis

Lets imagine 4 groups of people: responsible rich people, responsible poor people, irresponsible rich people, irresponsible poor people.

Everybody wants a house. Banks won’t lend to poor people regardless of how responsible they are, but they’ll lend to any rich people, regardless of whether they are responsible or not (and the rich will not default even if they’re irresponsible).

The government sees many advantages to home ownership, so it decides to get responsible poor people to buy houses.

Since banks won’t lend to them, the government makes it much easier for poor people to borrow.

Who takes advantage of this? Responsible poor people make a decision about how they can pay off debts, and some of them are helped by the lower lending standards, so some portion of responsible poor take out loans. The irresponsible poor take advantage of the program no matter what, meaning they buy lots of houses.  This drives up the price of housing a lot. After a short time, housing prices rise so much that the responsible poor cannot afford housing anymore, so they stop buying houses. The irresponsible poor can’t afford it either but buy anyway. After a time, the irresponsible poor start to default on their loans, have their houses foreclosed, housing collapsed, yada yada yada, 2008 financial crisis.

A few things about this model. First, obviously there was a lot more going on in the 2008 financial crisis than this simple model. Second, it doesn’t say anything about whether the rich are more or less responsible than the poor; only that they have more money. There needs to be a certain percent of the poor who are irresponsible (or at least bad with money); I don’t know what that percent needs to be or what it was, but as long as there is a high enough percent of irresponsible people in your target group, a program like this is bound to fail.

Way back in the Bush years, there was a lot of discussion about the benefits of an “ownership society.” Basically, they saw that people who owned homes were much better off than those who didn’t. Obviously this screams correlation is not causation, but lets ignore that for a second. Let’s assume that home ownership really does magically make people more responsible. Does my model still work?

Yes. Even if, once a homeowner moves in, he moves from irresponsible poor to responsible poor, its already too late. He’s already made the decision and cannot easily back out.

Again, in our little model here, we basically hurt everyone, the rich have to pay more for houses, so they’re hurt a little bit; the responsible poor are probably effected the least, they couldn’t afford housing before and can’t afford it now, and the irresponsible poor now have debt and bankruptcy and foreclosure to think about. Also, the country is thrown into a recession; which is good for no-one. Its also pretty clear that the poor are hurt more than the rich are by this.

All of this is a really long winded way of saying that programs can backfire. Over my lifetime, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened. And I think that most or all of the programs we have designed to fix it do more harm than good.  I’m going to attempt to relaunch this blog while tackling this phenomena.

Air Travel Safety

I found this website, basically its a list of all plane crashes in the US going back 15 years, its kind of insane how safe air travel is.

Looking at serious plane crashes (planes with a capacity of 10 or more with at least one fatality), there have been only 14 since the year 2000. The fatality count by incident is below:

3
44
49
20
13
21
260
92*
65*
64*
45*
82
109
19

*includes the 9/11 hijackers in fatality totals.

The total number of people killed in while on major incidents is 886. 867 if you don’t count the 9/11 hijackers.

The vast majority of them happened in four instances: a 747 from Taipei to LA in October 2000, the Concorde crash in July 2000, the bizarre crash of an American Airlines plane in New York city just months after 9/11, and the September 11 plane crashes themselves.

All of those took place in 2000 or 2001; since 2002 there have been no crashes with 100 or more fatalities in the US (including flights into our out of the US).

Since 2000, there have been about 10 billion passenger flights in the US (about 2 flights per person per year), or about 1 in 11 million chance of dying on any given flight.

If we only look at the last ten years, we get an even better picture, 116 fatalities with 7.2 billion passengers, for a one in a 62 million chance of dying on any given flight. The past five years it becomes one in a billion chance; although with only one incident it probably understates the chances somewhat.

What’s equally crazy is the change in safety numbers. In the 1990’s a US passenger had about a one in 5 million chance of dying in any given flight, which is pretty damn safe; in comparison it was about as dangerous in the 1990s to board any given flight as it was in 2007 to drive 16.5 miles. The 2000s have been about 70% safer (or if you prefer, 42% less dangerous), meaning that boarding any given flight is about as dangerous as driving 9.5 miles (in 2007 miles). The past ten years? Well, you’re about as likely to die from boarding any given US flight as you are from driving 1.15 miles. And if we limit our data to the past five years, boarding any given flight is as dangerous as driving the length of a football field.

Of course, the last five years probably aren’t actually a good indicator; if we’re in a point where air crashes happen on average once every 10 years, then looking back five years will necessarily give you a bad estimate, (ie, either higher than average, if the previous 5 years had a plane crash, or lower than average if it didn’t). So you’re chances probably aren’t one in a billion of dying when boarding a flight, they’re probably more like one in a hundred million or so.

All this is to say that, as measured by safety, the US has done an incredible job at promoting flight safety. Regulators have a clear mandate to make things safer, there isn’t much of a opposition group (while there are people who might want fewer regulations in principle and some people who might want to cut corners on safety, nobody is against aviation safety), and can be clearly measured. When these things happen, well, you get government success; the NTSB and FAA are examples of government greatness. Boring greatness mind you, and perhaps they are impressive because they’re boring. We have been able to take something mad, to travel at a speed of 500 miles per hour suspended miles above the ground by nothing but air, and have made accidents as unlikely as powerball victories.

Sources:

Number of Air travel passengers:

http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/IS.AIR.PSGR?page=3

Number of auto fatalities and air fatalities before 2000:

http://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/publications/national_transportation_statistics/html/table_02_01.html_mfd

Number of air fatalities since 2000:

http://www.airsafe.com/events/us_ten.htm