Monthly Archives: February 2008

How the mighty have fallen

I’m watching with bemusement the freefall of Nicholas Sarkozy. John Thornhill in today’s Financial Times outlines three reasons for his problems: the economy, the personalization of the regime and the president’s “baroque personal life”. Thornhill seems to think Sarkozy’s reform plans are still on track, but having already caved in to taxi drivers, many other observers reckon his reforms will prove half-hearted.

Far more damning, however, is the verdict of a columnist in Spain’s El Pais (via Eurointelligence). My Spanish is poor, but thanks to Google’s translation tools, I can quote the last line:  “He has brought the republic to the level of the principality of Monaco.” Ouch.

Bad news judgment

I’ll echo Dave Winer. I’m astounded at the coverage of Roger Clemens’ appearance at a Congressional hearing. I don’t expect anything better of the cable news programs, but it was the lead story on NPR during my morning drive to work and it was the lead story when I returned home at the end of the day. C’mon NPR.

The science of prediction

I had a comment on my post yesterday that Democrats are deluding themselves if they think America is ready for an African-American presidential candidate. I hope and think that’s not true.

But it raises perhaps the key aspect of prediction. Part of my living is made as a forecaster (fortunately not a political forecaster), and I’ve devoted a lot of time to studying what some might call the science of prediction. And in some areas, there certainly is a science of prediction. I can state with absolute certainty that there will be a solar eclipse on August 1st. But the hard truth is there is no science to most of what we try to predict. “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future,” as the great physicist Niels Bohr said (bizarrely mis-attributed to Yogi Berra on a lot of websites).

One statement I can make with great certainty, however, is that firmly held beliefs about the future are true – until they aren’t.

I don’t mean that sarcastically. Even the most perceptive, intelligent people are terrible at understanding the significance of the forces that create change (present company included). Once change occurs, analysis can be very effective. I recall a conversation with some political scientists in 2005 about the next year’s congressional elections. Despite the growing opposition to Bush, the electoral mathematics – the power of incumbency, the way districts were drawn, the seeming handful of truly contestable seats  – made it seem highly improbable that the Democrats could seize control of the House. Until they did.

Now it may prove that there is a hard core of Americans so benighted that they cannot bring themselves to vote for a black man. And that hard core may be large enough to prevent Obama becoming president in November as the Democratic nominee. I personally find it hard to look at the electoral map of states a Democrat needs to win to triumph and believe that. But for people who think that might be the case, the reality is that it’s true until it isn’t.

This voter's curse

My wife reminds me every once in a while that I had a feeling in 2004 that John Kerry was going to win. And I was utterly confident in 1992 that Neil Kinnock would be the next prime minister. My record of political prediction isn’t good. There have been plenty of times, as well, when I knew I was supporting a lost cause but it was the right thing to do.

I voted this morning for Barack Obama, and I think he has a real chance at the nomination. I’m utterly confident that whoever wins the Democratic nomination will be the next president of the United States (but see my record on prediction above). I’m not sure, however, whether my support might have something of a curse attached to it.

Here’s my personal record in elections where either I voted, or had a personal interest (I was too young to vote in 1968 and 1972, but I still cared). I’m counting both the Democratic nomination and the presidential election as a contest:

1968 Supported Gene McCarthy. Humphrey took the nomination. Nixon won the presidency. My record: 0-2.

1972 Supported George McGovern. Unfortunately, Massachusetts wasn’t the whole country. Nixon again. My record: 1-3.

1976 Wasn’t inspired by anyone. Looking back, it seems incredible that George Wallace took 12 per cent of the vote in the Democratic primaries. Jimmy Carter of course won the nomination and the presidency. My first vote for a winner for president. My record: 2-3.

1980 Supported Ted Kennedy, who of course failed to dislodge the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter. Reagan wins in November. My record: 2-5.

1984 Supported Gary Hart. Walter Mondale won the nomination, Reagan won easily in November. My record: 2-7.

1988 Another election where I don’t remember having any deep feelings. I was in London, rooting half-heartedly for Jesse Jackson. Michael Dukakis won the nomination, George H. W. Bush won the presidency. My record: 2-9.

1992 Finally. Supported Bill Clinton for both the nomination and, obviously, for the presidency. My first clean sweep. Hey, I’m up to 4-9.

1996 Clinton again. This is getting better: 6-9.

2000 Supported Al Gore. Florida allegedly didn’t. And we ended up with the worst president in American history. Slipping again: 7-10.

2004 I was a Deaniac. Didn’t turn out well. Turned out worse in November. 7-12.

2008 Obama. Fingers crossed.

Here's one to try at home

Cliopatria reports on a survey of American high school juniors and seniors asked to name the ten most famous Americans in history. The results:

  1. Martin Luther King Jr.: 67%
  2. Rosa Parks: 60%
  3. Harriet Tubman: 44%
  4. Susan B. Anthony: 34%
  5. Benjamin Franklin: 29%
  6. Amelia Earhart: 25%
  7. Oprah Winfrey: 22%
  8. Marilyn Monroe: 19%
  9. Thomas Edison: 18%
  10. Albert Einstein: 16%

I’m going to see what the response I get from my 7th and 4th graders at home.

A really super bowl

I’ll be watching the Super Bowl with one of my sons tomorrow afternoon, but the match I’d really love to watch is the African Cup of Nations quarterfinal between Ghana and Nigeria. This pits two of the most exciting teams in the game most of world calls football, playing in a high-stakes match on Ghana’s home turf. But my options for watching it in the US, despite the hundreds of channels on my television, are pretty poor.

If I could get Canada’s TV5 on my Comcast cable I’d be set. But I can’t. Given the success of the World Cup last year on both ESPN and Univision, I can’t understand why neither of those channels picked up the Cup of Nations. Or why not Fox Soccer Channel? In Europe, it’s recognized as perhaps the most exciting of the international competitions. So I’ll be reduced to watching the match streaming on the web thanks to LiveSoccerTV.  Not high-def, but better than nothing.

Brazil's minister of ideas

There’s a fascinating profile of Roberto Mangabeira Unger in today’s New York Times. He’s the Brazilian minister for strategic affairs. I enjoyed this snippet:

Some of [president Lula ] da Silva’s top advisers view Mr. Unger as a political wild card, somewhat awkward and eccentric. He speaks Portuguese with a decidedly American accent. During a tour of Africa last summer with the president, Mr. Unger could often be seen engrossed in Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”

I think the world would be a better place if more ministers were engrossed in Paradise Lost.