Monday, 24 March 2014

Nate Silver's 2014 election predictions: they do exactly what they say on the tin

Nate Silver (above), that famed statistical guru of the last two US Presidential elections, is back at the forecasting now - predicting that the Republicans have the edge in this year's race for control of the Senate. Some Democrats are holding their heads in their hands as if an all-seeing seer just pronounced on their doom.

Now Mr Silver is getting quite a lot of flak about this - again. Other crystal ball gazers basically prefer to look at the polls when they come out with actual numbers attached to each party's chances - and when, quite frankly, we're a bit closer to the November elections, and we know exactly who is running aginst whom. At the moment, Mr Silver's model is entirely model-driven, based on the past performance of such indicators as incumbency, general opinion polls, the economy, and the Democratic- or Republican-leaning nature of each state Senate contest. Competing experts, quite naturally and rightly, have their own approaches.

But you know what? Mr Silver is doing exactly what he's always said that he's doinng - looking at the odds, and the averages, on past performance. It's a use of data that he's run to fit past performance and, though he might be out a bit on either side (quite a bit, at this juncture), he's not saying that he's got some passkey to the truth. Have a listen to what he says in his 2012 book, The Signal and the Noise:

Pure objectivity is desirable but unattainable in this world. When we make a foreacst, we have a choice from among many different methods. Some of these might rely solely on quantitative varibales like polls... [while others] may consider qualitative factors as well. All of them, however, introduce decisions and assumptions that have to be made by the forecaster. Wherever there is humanjudgement there is the potential for bias. The way to become more objective is to recognise the influence that our assumptions play in our forecasts and to question themselves about them.

Now have a look at the page on his relaunched website: It's all couched in the language of might, maybe and possibly, not will, should and ought. The hidden wiring is all there, and it's still there, front and centre, in the conclusion: 'our forecast might be thought of as a Republican gain of six seats — plus or minus five. The balance has shifted slightly toward the GOP. But it wouldn’t take much for it to revert to the Democrats, nor for this year to develop into a Republican rout along'. This kind of probabilism shows just how difficult it is to watch time's arrow onto the target, but it also tells us exactly the odds. Right now, control of the United States' upper chamber depends on Kay Hagan's 50:50 run in North Carolina, and Mary Landrieu's 45:55 (against) chances of hanging on in Louisiana. They might do it, of course: many vulnerable Democrats clung on in 2010, when their fate looked sealed. But now we've got some numbers about their chances.

Now lots of sites that look at different types of data - including interviews with insiders - could tell you just about the same thing, despite Mr Silver's disdain for the partial nature of their mere 'opinions'. Control of the Senate rests on a knife edge: that's the headline. That's all we know right now right now.

But what Nate's website at FiveThirtyEight does is give us some benchmarks, which we can come back to in a month, two months and three months. Then we'll see how the race is shifting - at least as measured against Nate Silver's model.

Isn't that worth a few number-driven speculations about the underlying nature of electoral choice?

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Chancellors should beware Budget gimmickry

Today's Budget-time announcement that there is going to be a new UK pound coin may well be justified, given the number of forgeries in circulation. And it's a nice bit of design, looking both modern and classic at the same time. Even so, Chancellors always risk going down in history for the little bit of newsworthy flummery they threw about - rather than their macroeconomic measures. Chancellor Selwyn Lloyd's tenure at No. 11 Downing Street ended in ignominy after the 'sweets and ice cream' budget in 1962, when he raised taxes on sugary treats - and no-one else noticed anything else he did. His Prime Ministerial boss at the time, Harold Macmillan, had already allowed his tenure in the same great office of state to be defined by the introduction of Premium Bonds, a not-inconsiderable idea but undeniably rather small reform that has never exactly set the world on fire.

So Chancellor George Osborne (above) should beware when he announces the new pound , because that's what he's likely to be remembered for.

For what are we offered alongside the new coin? Endless austerity, which is going to get quite a lot worse before it gets better (in 2018, if we're lucky). Probably some more movement on tax thresholds at the lower end of the spectrum - great if you're earning about £20,000 a year, but not so hot if you're on a really low income and the Liberal Democrats' insistence on taking so many people out of tax has already stopped you paying Income Tax altogether. Some middle-class tax breaks for childcare that will help the relatively well-off (and the relatively fertile) more than anyone else. Oh, and the extension of the Government's mad, bad and dangerous Help to Buy scheme all the way to 2020 - only for brand new houses, to be sure, but still a dangerous extra bit of petrol on the flames.

No doubt there'll be some other sweeteners - for instance on infrastructure, which the Coalition should never have cut so hard in the first place, and which they've been running to catch up on since 2012. But on the whole Budgets have the potential to shift votes - usually away from governments, it's true, but they're one of the few political events voters notice. A shiny new bit of gold and silver in your pocket isn't going to shift the polls, which have been moving slightly in the Conservatives' favour, but are still looking pretty static.

The lesson? Fewer gimmicks. More policy.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Farewell to Tony Benn

The death of Tony Benn, the leader of Labour's Left in the 1970s and 1980s (above), is an occasion of genuine sadness. Not just for his family, of course - to whom he was devoted - but to the wider political nation, too.

Yes, almost everything he said about the domestic economy was decisively rejected by the voters. Yes, the extremism of many Bennites - poorly disguised entryists who wanted to take over the Labour Party among them - turned off voters in their droves, ensuring that Mrs Thatcher had as long as she wanted decisively to change British society. The absurd and ridiculous claim that he would have turned the United Kingdom into a kind of European North Korea is a pretty offensive one for such a committed House of Commons man, it's true, but perhaps the UK would have looked a lot more like Yugoslavia or East Germany - to most citizens' detriment.

Even so, Mr Benn's legacy and contribution will probably be rather more subtle than can be measured in terms of mere party political success or the endurance of particular economic policy platforms. His analysis of power - of how decisions are really made amidst the 'hidden wiring' of the British constitution, and in the smoke-filled rooms beloved of powerful private and public sector players, was persuasive indeed - and is becoming much more popular once more. Why should the monarch, the House of Lords, top civil servants and chief executives make decisions about your life as a citizen that you're never told anything about? Why can't you elect such people, and then sack them if you don't like what you hear? It's a compelling case. It's one that the faux neo-liberal radicalism of the 1980s never really attacked, seizing on one set of unelected barons - trade union leaders - without attacking vested interests as a whole. Certainly a Miliband administration would have been much more to Mr Benn's liking than anything we've known since 1979. A young Ed Miliband used to work for Mr Benn, and his attacks on energy companies, betting shops, supermarket chains and payday lenders have a strong feel of Bennery about them.

And then there's the diaries. As the BBC's Political Editor, Nick Robinson, has pointed out, it's here he'll make his decisive and enduring contribution to public life. Historians - including this one - have lived with them for years. They're extraordinary - by turns touching, frightening, funny, silly and deeply resonant. They often gave more away about Benn himself than the great diarist may have thought, as the reader wondered exactly how the people reported to be in the room say the young technocrat and then the left-wing firebrand. But they were honest: he meant what he said as he said what he meant. They were mercifully free of the stench of hindsight and the suspicion of re-writing. The reason the Wilson and Callaghan years spring to life is the contribution of Benn's diaries, alongside those written by Barbara Castle and Richard Crossman. Without them, we'd have only a cut-and-paste job from the National Archives and contemporary memoirs, with all the corridor gossiping and office-door rows left out. He injected life into the present, and he's likely to go on providing colour to the past for many years.

In an age of diminished trust for politicians, that's what people were flocking to his popular one-man shows to hear: someone who was incorruptible, even if they haven't agreed with a word he said in his heyday.

It's not a bad epitaph - and it's a better writeup than many of our present leaders will get.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Welcome back to the housing merry-go-round

The news that UK house prices are now rising pretty fast should come as no surprise to anyone. Massive pent-up demand? Check. Crazy government plans to guarantee a vast slice of the country's mortgage debt? Tick: here's looking at you, Help to Buy. Lack of building? Oh yes.

We've seen it all before, each time with another dollop of self-justification and hypocrisy. The secondary banking crash of 1972-73. The run on couples' Mortgage Income Tax Relief that exploded in the government's face between 1988 and 1990. The repercussions of the bank runs and financial crisis of 2007-2008. And now we're just about ready to do it all again - go for a few years of asset-driven borrowing, only to wear hair shirt and eat humble pie in a few years' time.

We've got ourselves into a situation where more than half the nation's wealth is now tied up in property. That's most acute in London, of course. It's now getting to the stage where the merely ordinary rich - journalists such as Rachel Johnson - have for some time been sadly reflecting that they just can't keep up with the super-affluent: the families of unbelievably wealthy New York bankers and the like. Whole neighbourhoods of central London, once notable for their cheek-by-jowl mixed-up-ness, are being hollowed out by their reliance on the sheer weight of money emanating from such sources.

Now that has certain consequences for getting yourself out of the sort of hole we've been in for so long. It means that people can easily be made to feel richer, going out and spending as they feel nominally wealthier. It means that building and construction can be pumped up pretty quickly (once the weather abates) - albeit from a pitifully low base we haven't known in domestic housebuilding since the 1920s. But in the long term, it's just another turn of the screw on young people, the priced-out and the poorer. It's not just the wellsprings of communal life in London that are being poisoned. Property prices in southern English cities such as Oxford are now up to eleven or twelve times residents' incomes. That cannot be sustainable. It cannot be good for labour mobility, long-term income restraint or productivity - but it's a tempting, addictive, high-octane mix that Britain has now proved incapable of weaning itself off for four economic cycles in a row.

The long and the short of it: any historian can tell you that this one will end in tears. Pay down your mortgage as fast as you can while interest rates are low, before any other shocks hit the world economy (there are always some lurking out there, like rocks in the asteroid belt). And don't let anyone - television programmer, boosterish investor, boorish 'expert' - tell you anything different.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Ukraine: beware of getting into something you can't finish

It's not often that you read a straight up-and-down, shout-out piece of wisdom. But this time that old head of power politics, Henry Kissinger (above), has managed it. Russia's recent take-over of the Crimea is a blatant act of aggrandisement and affrontery, as the 1970s Secretary of State who plotted a lot of President Nixon's moves in office knows - but what's the point of grandstanding about it? Far better to accept some of Russia's legitimate interests - all the better to seem reasonable with if Russia does go even further - while trying to talk that country down from any crazier grab at the eastern Ukraine. They're only digging themselves into a quagmire if they go further in any case, and shouting will do the people of Ukraine little good anyway.

Regular readers of 'Public Policy and the Past' will know that this blog is no fan of Kissinger's brand of chess-board diplomacy, in which men in suits push symbols around maps while real people get hurt - or killed. But this time he's onto something: partly because the United States and its allies are dealing with a rival in President Putin who sees the world in romantic statist terms, and partly because the USA and European Union are no innocent parties with messing in Ukrainian domestic politics anyway.

So Mr Kissinger's advice - Ukraine should be a bridge and a buffer zone, not a tank trap - is the best we've got right now. As we argued last week, Russia is actually self-harming on this one: hurting its own economy, losing friends, securing the hold of its enemies in Kiev, spewing chaos around its borders left, right and centre, spending what international capital it had, and generally showing what a lousy idea a bad neighbour policy really is.

The West's response may be incoherent, but that's a function of how little the Ukraine really matters to its vital interests. Here's a football analogy: Mr Putin is playing inside his own penalty area. He might clear the ball. But the balance of the game - if game it is - hasn't changed. We can accept that there are unpleasant elements among the new authorities in Ukraine; that Russia has historic interests that can't just be ignored; Russian speakers should be protected in that country; that her naval bases could be put on a more secure footing; that the region can never look to Brussels in quite the same way that (say) Prague and Budapest have come to. That might mean de facto sovereignty for the Crimea, and some cast-iron constitutional guarantees about Ukraine's minorities - as well as a pledge not to encourage a Ukrainian application to join NATO. Mr Putin may take all that and still use force. But would we really be that worse off? We would know, once and for all, exactly where we stand. Which would be in the mire, but still.

The best advice to both sides in this imbroglio is the same as the best message everyone can send to the Kremlin: think about what you're doing. Step back from the punch-up. Think about how dangerous this could become. And start to treat Ukraine like a nation, not a game of Twister.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Putin's Ukrainian 'triumph' may be deceptive

Well, has anything happened while this blog has been on hiatus? Oh. One of the greatest crises to hit Europe since 1945 - right up there with the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1967 - seems to have hit us. You can't even turn off your wi-fi without a revolution breaking out and the threat of war looming over the entire European continent, can you?

The whole thing could be called 'depressing', if that wasn't such a measly word to use. On the surface, what we used to call 'the West' have been outsmarted at every turn. The crisis in the Ukraine (above) has seen the Russian state seize a key strategic asset - Crimea and its naval bases - on the Black Sea. Moscow's quick punches have made Europe and the US seem divided, slow to respond and confused, shouting and stamping their feet about an attack on national sovereignty that they can do absolutely nothing about whatsoever. The Ukraine's new revolutionary masters look, for the moment, isolated in their Kiev stronghold.

President Obama's many detractors have indeed blamed a lack of US 'leadership', of course - a big old reach of a claim that doesn't stand up to that much scrutiny. Had Obama fired off some missiles at Syria last year, they claim, or shouted more at Iran (they seem to have no desire to actually invade either off those countries), then the Russians would be more likely to back off. The Kremlin senses weakness: it's reacting the only way it knows how. With violence.

But just stop and think for a moment. This is a line of argument that thinks nothing of Russia's historic links to the Ukraine, its deep-seated attachment to the idea of parts of that country (particularly the Crimea) as part of the motherland, or the opportunity that the Russians were faced with - a low-hanging bit of fruit that proved so tempting that the use of marines and special forces seemed to become an unbearingly alluring piece of no-brain opportunism.

President Obama's domestic critics - and those who fret more generally about the growing might of a resurgent and assertive Russian Federation - really shouldn't get too hot under the collar for now. Far from representing some far-sighted, wolf-like mastermind thwarting their every move, Mr Putin has shown himself yet again to be a better tactician than a strategist. He's lost most of the Ukraine. He'd already lost most of his friends in east-central Europe. His lack of support in Soviet successor states stands exposed, for no vast demonstrations in favour of rule from Moscow have yet rocked the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine. President Putin's domestic economy is too dependent on oil and gas, and vulnerable to seismic diplomatic shocks such as the crisis in the Ukraine - which sent the Russian currency and stock market into an unpredictable tailspin until cooler heads started to prevaill. And for what? The Crimea? A chunk of a crisis-ridden state mired deep in political division and corruption that he could have de facto mastered without going to alll this trouble. Russia is lucky that the Americans don't just say 'okay, have it all, see where it gets you'.

'Public Policy and the Past' doesn't comment all that much on foreign policy. It's not our field of expertise. But here's a thing, as obvious as the nose on your face: Moscow has dropped a brick. President Putin probably doesn't read blogs. If he did, he should get one message loud and clear: it's easy to get into a military face-off. It's difficult to get out of the quagmire later. American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to go quite well to start off with - as did the original Soviet invasion of that latter country way back in 1979. The result? Years of toil. Unpopularity. Having to govern people who didn't want you there. Having to pick winners in their domestic politics - struggles that Washington and Moscow hardly understood, let alone mastered. And in the end? Partial failure at best, and disaster at worst. It turns out that it's easy to start shooting, but hard to stop. Who knew, eh?

In his heart, the strongman in the Kremlin knows this very well, which explains his evasive, scattergun and self-contradictory zig-zagging on every single relevant question. The last couple of days have seen some signs that he might want to step back from an all-in strategy that might even involve a full-scale invasion... as well he might, for he has looked over the brink.

President Putin, you should start to talk, negotiate and make new friends now, before you make the corner you've painted yourself into look very small and very cramped indeed.