An Obama Article During the Republican Convention

I generally don’t write about politics here on my blog, largely because I tend to be more issue-oriented than party-oriented, and that seems to bring out fire from both sides of the aisle.

Right now, I’m hopelessly behind on keeping up with the conventions – I’ve downloaded all the speeches from the DNC, but haven’t watched them yet.  Similarly, I haven’t yet watched a single minute from the RNC.

Strangely enough, however, I was forwarded a link to an article Marc Andreessen wrote about meeting Barack Obama in March 2008 that is worth reading:

A Hour and a Half with Barack Obama

Marc’s blog, by the way, is the blog that most closely resembles what I wish my blog could be.  Or should be.  Most of the articles are deep, interesting, sharp, and reflect frank advice and perspective that you don’t typically find in either professional news or popular blogs.  Worth subscribing to if you don’t already.

Osama Bin Laden and $144 Oil

Just got a pointer to this old article from the New York Times, dated October 14, 2001:

That sympathizers of Osama bin Laden sink three oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and choke off the narrow, bow-shaped channel that funnels 14 million barrels a day from the Persian Gulf to the rest of the world. That the United States attacks Iraq, and Israel launches a huge strike against the Palestinians, driving them from their camps and staking out more land — all of which spurs the Persian Gulf states to cut off oil for the West. Or perhaps that a popular uprising, led by sympathizers of Mr. bin Laden, topples the ruling Saud family in Saudi Arabia, by far the world’s largest oil producer.

”If bin Laden takes over and becomes king of Saudi Arabia, he’d turn off the tap,” said Roger Diwan, a managing director of the Petroleum Finance Company, a consulting firm in Washington. ”He said at one point that he wants oil to be $144 a barrel’‘ — about six times what it sells for now.

Very interesting and eery given today’s oil price.  And no needed to become king of Saudi Arabia to do it.

Obama Victory Probability at Over 85% (Iowa Electronic Markets)

I’ve really enjoyed the ongoing empirical experiments at the Iowa Electronic Markets, where people can use real money to trade futures on political (and other) events.  As can be expected, political polls tell a very different story than markets where real money is at stake.

Tonight, with the marginal victory for Clinton in Indiana, and the large win for Obama in North Carolina, a major shift happened in the future markets at IEM.   See below for the graph:

As pointed out on IdeoBlog, the likelihood of a Clinton victory, according to these futures, dropped today from 28% down to 12%… a 55% change.  That’s an incredibly significant shift, and it puts Obama back in the probability range that he spiked to after Super Tuesday.

Interestingly, there are still arbitrage dollars to be made on John McCain, whose futures are only trading at around 94.5%.  You can make 5.5% or so just by buying the obvious winner.  Of course, I believe IEM still limits your total funds to $500, so I’m not sure you can really make that much money here.

It’ll be very interesting to see the presidential futures for the final candidates once they are out – I’m expecting a very different story than the polls to date have been indicating.

Correlation or Causality: Starbucks & Obama

This one was too good not to share.  See below for a graph mapping out the correlation between the number of Starbucks and the margin of victory/defeat for Obama vs. Clinton.  From the Urbanspoon:

Is there really a connection between sipping your double tall breve and voting for Obama? We’ll leave political analysis to the professionals, but this is the kind of food question we’re equipped to investigate. Unfortunately, we can’t directly measure how much latte everyone is drinking. But as an approximation, we looked at the number of Starbucks stores per capita on a state-by-state basis. Compare this to how states voted in the primary:

The blue line measures the percentage by which Obama beat (or lost to) Clinton. The green dots represent the number of Starbucks stores per million people for each state. The black line is the trend line of Starbucks stores, drawn to make it easier to see the relationship between voting and latte sipping.

Love it.  Thanks to Paul Kedrosky for the pointer.

The Problem With Raising the Capital Gains Tax Now

OK, normally I stay away from posts that could be perceived as political.  But it’s hard to comment on economic issues in the heat of this intense primary season without venturing into those dangerous waters.

I’m going to try to be careful here not be too specific about any candidate or their plans.  I felt, however, that this topic was non-obvious enough that it was worth commenting on, despite the danger.  I can only hope that these comments might reach the ears of all three of the currently viable candidates…

Please don’t raise capital gains taxes in this environment

Or at least, please don’t raise them without also indexing gains to inflation.  It’s not a serious problem when inflation is extremely low for long periods of time, but it could be very very bad if we are, in fact, heading into an environment with a weak dollar and higher prices.

Why?  Because the capital gains tax today is based on nominal gains, not real gains.

Not clear on why this is a problem?  Here is an example:

Let’s say you bought a stock in 2009.  It’s a good stock, but not a great one, and it returns roughly 10% per year for the next 7 years.  In fact, by 2016 the stock has doubled, exactly, from $10 per share to $20 per share.  Since you bought 1000 shares, you’ve just turned $10,000 into $20,000, for a $10,000 gain.

That sounds good, and you might be thinking, “Well, with a $10,000, why should I begrudge the government $2,000 or even $2,800 of that gain?  After all, it’s this great country that has made that type of gain possible.”

Here’s the problem.  Let’s say inflation over the next 7 years is higher than it has been.  5% instead of 3%.  Well, then actually $10,000 in 2016 doesn’t buy what it did in 2009.  In fact, it takes over $14,000 2016 dollars to buy the same car that $10,000 did in 2009.

But the tax man doesn’t care.  The IRS still calculates your gain as $10,000, not $6,000.  So $2,800 might be 28% of your nominal gain, but it’s 47% of your real return, after inflation.


It gets worse.  If inflation manages to soar to around 8%, which it did in the 1970s, then actually that $2,800 tax becomes more than your entire real return.  At 8.1%, in fact, your real return becomes negative – you end up paying a real tax of over 100% of your inflation-adjusted gains.


That’s pretty much what happened to people in the 1970s.  And it really did have a drastically negative effect on capital investment and tax collection, because rich people basically decided to either avoid capital investments, or they decided to postpone taking gains.  (Little known fact, but capital gain tax revenue has increased since we lowered the rate to 15%… a combination of better market performance and likely some acceleration of people taking gains.)

Now, in the 1980s and 1990s, this wasn’t such a big deal, because we both lowered capital gains tax rates and we killed inflation.  Or, at least, we wounded it.  When inflation is low, and the holding periods are relatively short (under 10 years), you could argue that the inflation “tax” automatically adjusts the 15% up to something higher, but manageable.

So, I think that leaves us in a policy bind, since it’s very likely we’re headed for higher inflation in the next 10 years.  In fact, you could argue that cutting the capital gains tax commensurate with the increase in inflation and the average holding period might make sense, if the goal was economic neutrality.

One solution would be to index capital gains for inflation.  It’s a sticky problem, because it means that taxpayers would have to have a table of “multipliers” to apply to any investment, based on the year of investment.  You would also likely have to exclude shorter holding periods to avoid trading scams, and have some sort of wash-sale like rule.  But this is all doable.

If you see another path around this problem, I’d love to hear it.  Right now, it feels like inflation is going to take a serious whack at capital investment if we’re not careful.

Do I Agree with Paul Krugman on Trade?

Not that it would be so terrible, given that Paul Krugman is clearly a fairly brilliant economist.  But over the past few years, as he has become more and more of a shrill political voice, and less and less of a measured economic voice, I’ve found myself disagreeing with him more often than not.

First, hat’s off to Google for sharing their visiting scholar program online.  I found this video, from December 14th, on Youtube this week.  It’s a great talk, from Paul Krugman, about the causal elements behind the current housing liquidity crunch.  (It’s over 1 hour, including Q&A.  And yes, I listened to the whole thing.)

But that’s about housing, not trade.  However, hearing Krugman speak live (vs. his normal Op-Ed tirades), reminded me of how intelligent and thoughtful he can be.

Interestingly, in the same week, I caught this piece from his NY Time blog (Dec 28, 2007).   It’s about the current references to his original work on global trade, which is where I remember first seeing references to Krugman’s work.  He references this blog post, which discusses some of Krugman’s original positions on trade in some detail.

Of course, Krugman wrote a full Op-Ed on trade in the December 28 edition of the New York Times.  It’s available online here.  Strangely, it’s an extremely rational piece, and it makes me wonder if his politics are moderating a bit as we get closer to the 2008 election.

Some paragraphs worth sharing:

…recently we crossed an important watershed: we now import more manufactured goods from the third world than from other advanced economies. That is, a majority of our industrial trade is now with countries that are much poorer than we are and that pay their workers much lower wages.

For the world economy as a whole — and especially for poorer nations — growing trade between high-wage and low-wage countries is a very good thing. Above all, it offers backward economies their best hope of moving up the income ladder.

But for American workers the story is much less positive. In fact, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that growing U.S. trade with third world countries reduces the real wages of many and perhaps most workers in this country. And that reality makes the politics of trade very difficult.

This is perhaps one of the most fairly balanced assessments I’ve seen on free-trade recently.  The macro-economics behind the benefits of free-trade between nations is overwhelmingly positive, in terms of the aggregate economic gains.   But I’ve learned to be very suspicious of arguments that persist over long periods of time, between well-educated people, on topics that theoretically should be very simple.  If they really were that simple, you’d expect that over time, most well-educated people would resolve the discussion and move on.

The oscillation between free trade and protectionism doesn’t surprise me historically at a political level – it’s pretty easy to understand why the steel worker, seeing his wages drop and/or his local plant disappear, wouldn’t push politically towards protectionism.  But there has to be something more to this argument.  The macro-economics of this situation are clear: cheaper foreign steel means less money for domestic steel makers, but cheaper steel for everyone else in the country.  That may not be much consolation for the steel worker, but it is the answer on why free trade in the aggregate, tends to benefit the country more than it hurts it.

(No, I’m not going to touch the recent China poisoned toys issue.  Yes, it’s obvious that we need some amount of regulation to prevent poisoned toothpaste and lead-painted toys, etc.)

More from Krugman’s article:

All this is textbook international economics: contrary to what people sometimes assert, economic theory says that free trade normally makes a country richer, but it doesn’t say that it’s normally good for everyone. Still, when the effects of third-world exports on U.S. wages first became an issue in the 1990s, a number of economists — myself included — looked at the data and concluded that any negative effects on U.S. wages were modest.

The trouble now is that these effects may no longer be as modest as they were, because imports of manufactured goods from the third world have grown dramatically — from just 2.5 percent of G.D.P. in 1990 to 6 percent in 2006.

And the biggest growth in imports has come from countries with very low wages. The original “newly industrializing economies” exporting manufactured goods — South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore — paid wages that were about 25 percent of U.S. levels in 1990. Since then, however, the sources of our imports have shifted to Mexico, where wages are only 11 percent of the U.S. level, and China, where they’re only about 3 percent or 4 percent.

This is interesting.  Theoretically, it has always been roughly assumed that the high wage countries compensate for their wages, somewhat, with high productivity.  More value created per worker, usually due to heavy investment in education, capital, infrastructure, and low-risk environments.  But it’s possible that while mostly true, that logic reaches it’s limit at some point.  If labor in some countries is priced at 3-11% of US costs, and our trade shifts meaningfully in that direction, then that becomes a competitive depression on wages.

Once again, the economics are fairly clear that in the aggregate, those lower wages should mean cheaper goods for everyone.  But if a large percentage of our population faces this pressure all at once, it could lead to some extremely negative adjustment periods for not just those people, but for the entire economy.  This, in fact, is a potential explanation for some of the income disparity we’ve been seeing this decade as trade has shifted to China & Mexico.

One flaw I can see here already, potentially, is that a ever-declining percentage of our workforce is in manufacturing.  The last number I recall seeing was as low as 19%.  (please comment if I’m mistaken here). It’s tough to get to “most workers in this country” from there.

Now here is the part that scares me a bit – Paul Krugman’s conclusion:

So am I arguing for protectionism? No. Those who think that globalization is always and everywhere a bad thing are wrong. On the contrary, keeping world markets relatively open is crucial to the hopes of billions of people.

But I am arguing for an end to the finger-wagging, the accusation either of not understanding economics or of kowtowing to special interests that tends to be the editorial response to politicians who express skepticism about the benefits of free-trade agreements.

It’s often claimed that limits on trade benefit only a small number of Americans, while hurting the vast majority. That’s still true of things like the import quota on sugar. But when it comes to manufactured goods, it’s at least arguable that the reverse is true. The highly educated workers who clearly benefit from growing trade with third-world economies are a minority, greatly outnumbered by those who probably lose.

As I said, I’m not a protectionist. For the sake of the world as a whole, I hope that we respond to the trouble with trade not by shutting trade down, but by doing things like strengthening the social safety net. But those who are worried about trade have a point, and deserve some respect.

He’s right, the critics have a point.

Too often, opponents to free trade are kowtowing to special interests or misunderstanding economics.  Despite that fact, however, it’s clear that there are some significant macro-economic impacts from free trade that can not be brushed away, particularly around wage pressure and the percentage of the population affected.

I haven’t had time to formulate my own theories on how to weave through this complexity, but chances are that there is some analysis that could better quantify the impact of wage pressure of a given trade relationship.  That would give some guidance about when to slow down the pace of opening markets to phase in the pressures rather than having them catastrophically adjust over relatively small time periods.

Electronic Warfare: Israel’s Syria Bombing Raid

I don’t normally post about military or political events here, but this this article had a specific technology angle to it, and I thought it was too interesting to ignore.

From Aviation Week:

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said the Israelis struck a construction site at Tall al-Abyad just south of the Turkish border on Sept. 6. Press reports from the region say witnesses saw the Israeli aircraft approach from the Mediterranean Sea while others found unmarked drop tanks in Turkey near the border with Syria. Israeli defense officials admitted Oct. 2 that the Israeli Air Force made the raid.

blog post photo
The big mystery of the strike is how did the non-stealthy F-15s and F-16s get through the Syrian air defense radars without being detected? Some U.S. officials say they have the answer.

U.S. aerospace industry and retired military officials indicated today that a technology like the U.S.-developed “Suter” airborne network attack system developed by BAE Systems and integrated into U.S. unmanned aircraft by L-3 Communications was used by the Israelis. The system has been used or at least tested operationally in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last year.

The technology allows users to invade communications networks, see what enemy sensors see and even take over as systems administrator so sensors can be manipulated into positions so that approaching aircraft can’t be seen, they say. The process involves locating enemy emitters with great precision and then directing data streams into them that can include false targets and misleading messages algorithms that allow a number of activities including control.

A Kuwaiti newspaper wrote that “Russian experts are studying why the two state-of-the art Russian-built radar systems in Syria did not detect the Israeli jets entering Syrian territory. Iran reportedly has asked the same question, since it is buying the same systems and might have paid for the Syrian acquisitions.”

I find it a little surprising that your could commercialize an exploit like this.  I’ve done enough security software work to know that it’s not surprising that any system engineered in the last 50 years would have vulnerabilities.  Thanks to the ongoing wars over security on the Internet, in fact, our ability to “crack” into systems seems to be growing at a rapid pace.

That being said, when an exploit is discovered, typically a patch is quickly produced.  For example, if they find a serious exploit tomorrow in a common piece of networking equipment, like a Linksys home router, typically a software patch would be quickly released to block that exploit.

As a result, if an exploit like this existed in serious military systems, you’d think that a patch would be quickly released to block it.  The lead times to produce military systems in volume would seem to preclude commercializing an exploit the way this article describes.

Then again, I guess the exploit would have two things going for it:

1) The exploit would not be used frequently, making it hard for the enemy to “simulate” or understand the exploit well enough to produce a patch.

2) Not everyone keeps up-to-date with their security patches… do you?

It would be a fascinating turn of events if the next-generation military advantage did not depend on speed, munition strength, or even targeting & accuracy.  Instead, the real advantage could go to the force who could most rapidly disable and coopt enemy systems. Beta

Catching up on my friends’ blogs tonight. Found this tidbit from John really interesting.

Check out — an exceptionally important site brought to you by the same folks who bring you the very cool Democracy Player.

Sort of like a Wikipedia for US Congress, everything is hyperlinked, cross-referenced & RSSified.

It is a great way of figuring out what’s really happening in Washington, and I think is going to be a crucial resource leading up to the 2008 elections.

It’s really neat to see this kind of direct and open coverage of Washington. I’ve already subscribed to a few feeds, and I’m finding a lot of interesting things to dig into. Check it out.

Book Review: Empire, by Orson Scott Card

Does the idea of a book about a near future American civil war between conservatives and liberals sound interesting to you? Complete, of course, with a George Soros-clone turned militant leader, and mechanical robots policing New York and EMP laser weapons taking down F-16s?

Before I get into reviewing this book, let me just say that I’ve been an Orson Scott Card fan since I was 12. I’ve read almost every book he has published, even the way-far-out-there LDS material. Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books of all time.

This book, unfortunately, left a bad taste in my mouth, the same way that all of Michael Crighton’s books have since somewhere around Disclosure. It’s blunt, predictable, and seems written more for screenplay or a video game than as a full fledged novel.

There have been a lot of flame wars about this novel online, mostly from people who haven’t read the full book. Orson Scott Card has, for the past decade, developed a habit of sharing early chapters of books, for free, online, to solicit opinion and feedback from his fans. I think it’s safe to say that most science fiction fans, who skew to the left, didn’t take to kindly to a world where a “Progressive Restoration” raised its own army to “liberate” New York from the false US Government in power since 2000.

You can check out the fun at, in their book reviews. Liberal blogs like Lean Left skewer Card for his conservative mentality, although it turns out he’s a registered Democrat (My favorite part of that one is the fact that the author had not actually read the book. Sigh.) Here is a Podcast of an interview with Orson Scott Card. More interesting, here is an interview with Card about the state of video games on Wired.

Back to the book.

There are some redeeming elements worth noting.

First, maybe I’m just in a “Rome” state of mind these days, thanks to the HBO series, but I liked the idea that the United States of America is not currently comparable to the end days of the Roman Empire. Instead, the book posits that America today is like the last days of the Roman republic, in the immediate years before Octavian rose to power, quelled civil discontent, and established an Imperial line as Augustus Caeser.

Second, most critics haven’t read Orson Scott Card’s afterward to the novel, which really seems to make a heartfelt entreaty to move past the currrently hyper-partisan atmosphere. There is no doubt that Card skews conservative, but he states that there are dangerous extremists on both the left and the right, and that too many issues have been arbitrarily grouped together (abortion & global warming?) in order to villify and divide people as “red” or “blue”. This book is a clumsy expression of these sentiments, meant to highlight the dangers of such radical polarization, but it seems earnest.

As a side note, Card begins each chapter with quotes from one of his characters, a historian turned proto-dictator. Some of them are pretty neat:

If you always behave rationally, then reason becomes the leash by which your enemy pulls you. Yet if you knowingly make irrational decisions, have you not betrayed your own ability?

It is possible to be too much smarter than your opponent. If you give him credit for more subtlety than he has, he can achieve tactical surprise by doing the obvious.

In war planning, you must anticipate the actions of the enemy. Be careful lest your preventative measures teach the enemy which of his possible actions you most fear.

My prediction? Card uses these to write the next great trendy business leadership book, based on these pseudo-Sun-Tzu dictates… 🙂

In all seriousness, Orson Scott Card’s novels have become caricatures of his original style. Maybe it’s the price of success and insolation, maybe it’s just lowest common denominator publishing. I don’t know. I’m not unhappy that I read this book, but it felt about as deep and impactful as a reality show… within weeks I expect that I’ll have forgotten most of it.

Summary: If you like Orson Scott Card, reading this book isn’t worse than reading any of his other most recent novels. But you’d probably be better off going back and re-reading Ender’s Game again.

New XShares ETF for Carbon Emission Credits, and new Index from UBS

The magic of the modern capital markets. You can invest in anything.

First, you need to turn something into a tradeable security. With derivatives, you can do this with almost anything. London has done it with the weather. The Kyoto Protocol has done it with Carbon Dioxide emissions. Kyoto introduced a “cap and trade” approach to regulating carbon dioxide, similar to the program put in place by the United States in the 1990s to control sulfer dioxide and acid rain. In a cap and trade system, countries limit the total amount of carbon dioxide emissions on a per country basis, and then issue those rights to their companies. Companies can then trade those rights with each other, and even potentially earn “new rights” by putting in place technology and programs to cut existing carbon dioxide emissions.

The Kyoto Protocol currently covers 160 countries, representing approximately 55% of all carbon dioxide emissions globally. The United States, China & India are the most notable signatories missing from the current pact.

Emissions trading has become a big market, and with global warming a hot topic again (sorry, I couldn’t resist), a lot of people have been looking at the carbon dioxide credits as more than just environmental regulation, but as an investment opportunity.

After all, it stands to reason that the right to release a ton of carbon dioxide into the air is not going to get cheaper going forward. And of course, if you buy that right, then some other company can’t, which means you potentially have taken that right off the market… until you sell it.

Now, what most people don’t know is that there is also a voluntary carbon dioxide emissions market here in the US, the Chicago Climate Exchange. There is also now a firm, called XShares, that is investigating creating an ETF based on the exchange.

In other news, UBS has created a new Emissions Index, based on the two European exchanges, which trade about 46% of all the global emissions rights today. There is no ETF for this index, yet, but where there is an index, there is usually an ETF to follow.

I’m going to file this away in my “watch” folder for the time being. Carbon emissions might be a very interesting commodity, since there will be strong secular pressure to limit the rights to emit greenhouse gasses in the future. Also, it stands to reason that lower emission caps in the future will mean increased costs for corporations, which means it might be an interesting diversification play versus the corporate stock & bond markets.

Red State vs. Blue State vs. Purple America

Sorry, a lot of politics tonight. I guess it’s all the news about President Ford.

Still, I had to share this. I don’t know how I missed it, but in all the debate about what it means to live in a “red state” vs. a “blue state”, I found an interesting graphic when browsing Wikipedia.

It all started with the link to the 1976 Election page.

I immediately noticed that this chart had the Democrats in Red, the Republicans in Blue – the opposite of the current color scheme in use. In fact, I then found this very interesting piece on the origins of the entire color scheme here.

Prior to the 2000 presidential election, there was no universally recognized color scheme to represent the parties. The practice of using colors to represent parties on electoral maps dates back at least as far as the 1950s, when such a format was employed within the Hammond series of historical atlases. Color-based schemes became more widespread with the adoption of color television in the 1960s and nearly ubiquitous with the advent of color in newspapers. Early on, the most common—though again, not universal—color scheme was to use red for Democrats and blue for Republicans. This was the color scheme employed by NBC—David Brinkley famously referred to the 1984 map showing Reagan’s 49-state landslide as a “sea of blue”, but this color scheme was also employed by most news magazines. CBS during this same period, however, used the opposite scheme—blue for Democrats, red for Republicans. ABC was less consistent than its elder network brothers; in at least two presidential elections during this time before the emergence of cable new outlets, ABC used yellow for one major party and blue for the other. As late as 1996, there was still no universal association of one color with one party.[2]; if anything, the majority of outlets in 1996 were using blue for the GOP and red for the Democrats.

But in 2000, for the first time, all major media outlets used the same colors for each party: Red for Republicans, blue for Democrats. Partly as a result of this first-time universal color-coding, the terms Red States and Blue States entered popular usage in the weeks following the 2000 presidential election. Additionally, the closeness of the disputed election kept the colored maps in the public view for longer than usual, and red and blue thus became fixed in the media and in many people’s minds.[3] Journalists began to routinely refer to “blue states” and “red states” even before the 2000 election was settled, such as The Atlantic’s cover story by David Brooks in the December 2001 issue entitled, “One Nation, Slightly Divisible.” Thus red and blue became fixed in the media and in many people’s minds [4] despite the fact that no “official” color choices had been made by the parties.

Fascinating.  So we owe the current “red state”, “blue state” terminology to:

  1. The invention of color TV
  2. The standardization of treatment in 2000 by the networks
  3. The decision to use the opposite treatment for liberal vs. conservative that the rest of the world uses (typical)

Probably the most interesting picture I found here was the link to Purple America:

As someone who has only participated in elections in either the SF Bay Area or Boston, it was nice to see that the nation as a whole, even now, is far more balanced than you might think.  People seem to quickly forget how shockingly close all of the last 4 elections have been.  Amnesia seems to be tied to your party squeaking out the win.

Anyway, just an intellectual tidbit for this evening.  I’ll be back to personal finance topics soon – those do seem to be the aggregate favorite for this blog.

A Brief Note for President Gerald Ford (1913-2006) & My Historical Blind Spot

I’ve been reading a lot of the coverage this week about President Ford.  It has been extremely educational for me, since Gerald Ford falls into what I call my historical blind spot.

Almost everyone is familiar with the blind spot you suffer when you drive a car.  Off to the right, and down to the back, there is a triangle that seems like it should be visible in your mirror – but it isn’t.  Trucks & vans often have a worse blind spot than cars.  It’s a fascinating thing – so obvious when you look at it on paper, but so hard to recognize when you are actually driving.

I think the same thing happens to people around history.  Most people learn their history in two places: in primary & secondary school, and then throughout life as they are living it.  For example, my most in depth course work in history was in high school when I took AP US History in the 11th grade (1990).  Incredible depth and memorization of names, treaties, bills and events in the 18th & 19th centuries, all the way through about 1965.  Once we got past Kennedy & Martin Luther King, all of a sudden, the textbooks turned to mush.  A few days here and there of miniscule coverage of Vietnam, Watergate, and a couple of oil crises for good measure.  Stagflation.  Voodoo economics.

High school is also the time when I began following current events in some detail.  I participated in policy debate on topics ranging from retirement savings, prison reform, nuclear proliferation and space exploration.  I read several newspapers daily.

I’ve noticed since then, however, that I have a historical blind spot that dates from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s.  Sorry, no memory of Ford or Carter, although technically I was alive at the time.  I have some memory of the early 1980s, which has made it easier to fill in detail about the decade over time.  (My favorite, of course, was re-watching the televised Reagan-Carter debate in 1980 on PBS.   Although it was a landslide for Reagan, both in the debate and election, both seemed so much more coherent and direct than any modern debate I recall watching.)

Is this common?  Do most people have a historical blind spot between the time that their in-school history material ran out, and before their personal experience began?  As I read more about Gerald Ford’s Presidency, it feels strange that I know more about the 1930s than the 1970s.

Let me be clear, I certainly knew about Nixon’s pardon.  But not the rich color around it.  Not the detail I’ve been seeing the recent newspaper coverage.  Actually, Wikipedia has been wonderful here as well.  Their section on Gerald Ford is great, and the detail about the 1976 election is also great.  I think I was missing a significant part of history here.

Anyway, I’m going to augment my reading list for 2007 with some more material on the 1970s.  I think my approach to it has been too segmented (space policy, energy policy, monetary policy, etc) rather than a holistic view.  I’ll likely start with some of the biographies that will be hitting the presses momentarily.

Should Election Results Be Posted in Realtime?

I’ve been watching the 2006 Election Results all night, and I thought I’d share a discussion I had with my uncle tonight. Well, debate is more like it.

So far with this blog, I haven’t really solicited many opinions here. But maybe it’s time for me to try one of those “Tell me what you think” posts.

The question is:
“Will the United States move to realtime election results in the next 20 years?”

I’ll represent some of the key points from the discussion here, and I’d love it if you’d comment with your own thoughts and feedback. (I’ve simplified the arguments and made them more third person for readability)

Me: People are demanding realtime information more and more with the advent of technologies like the Internet. I know many people who want to know election results as they happen, not waiting until the polls closed. I think the United States might move to realtime election results in the next 20 years.

Uncle: Never. Releasing results before the polls close would definitely affect the outcome. It will never happen.

Me: No doubt it would influence the outcome. But it’s unclear to me that it would influence it in a bad way.

Uncle: If your candidate is losing, you might get discouraged and not go to the polls.

Me: Sure, if your candidate is losing, you might be discouraged from voting. Or, it might inspire you to actually go to the polls and vote. It’s hard to say that it would hurt anything, although it would change the dynamic.

Uncle: This country has a long tradition of secret ballots. Voting is a personal thing, it’s not supposed to be disclosed.

Me: It would still be anonymous. You could easily make sure to only report results in an anonymous fashion, not identifiable. Secret ballot is about people not facing persecution for who they voted for, not delayed results.

Uncle: It will never happen. No country reports elections like that, why would we change?

Me: Everything is moving towards more information and more transparency. It’s very hard to argue in a Democracy that less transparency is a good thing (though not impossible in some cases). Just because it hasn’t been historically possible or expected doesn’t mean that now that it is possible, it won’t be expected. The reason I say 20 years is that 20 years will roughly be the time before the “computer generations” – Gen X & younger – outnumber the Baby Boomers.

Uncle: I think you are way to focused on the computer thing. It will never happen.

I’ll give my Uncle the last word… not.

It’s not about computers, it’s about an insatiable demand for information immediately to help inform decisions. As it becomes common in more and more areas of life, it seems to me that people will expect it in others, like politics.

I’m actually not saying this necessarily will happen, but it’s interesting to think about:

  1. Whether it will or won’t happen?
  2. Would it be a good thing or a bad thing?

In 1980, Jimmy Carter conceded at 6:04pm, before the polls had closed on the west coast. Similar issues have taken place over the past two decades.

So, what do you think? Let’s see if we can break my comment record on this blog with more than three on this post! 🙂