Election Counting Day

At the outset I must say that I’m deeply disappointed (based on the sources I’ve seen, mostly based on googling) with the reporting around the US presidential elections.

For example, if I google, I get something like “Biden leads Trump 225-213”. At the outset, that seems like useful information. However, the “massive discretisation” of the US electorate means that it actually isn’t. Let me explain.

Unlike India, where each of the 543 constituencies have a separate election, and the result of one doesn’t influence another, the US presidential election is at the state level. In all but a couple of small states, the party that gets most votes in the state gets all the votes of that state. So something like California is worth 55 votes. Florida is  worth 29 votes. And so on.

And some of these states are “highly red/blue” states, which means that they are extremely likely to vote for one of the two parties. For example, a victory is guaranteed for the Democrats in California and New York, states they had won comprehensively in the 2016 election (their dominance is so massive in these states that once a friend who used to live in New York had told me that he “doesn’t know any Republican voters”).

Just stating Biden 225 – Trump 213 obscures all this information. For example, if Biden’s 225 excludes California, the election is as good as over since he is certain to win the state’s 55 seats.

Also – this is related to my rant last week about the reporting of the opinion polls in the US – the front page on Google for US election results shows the number of votes that each candidate has received so far (among votes that have been counted). Once again, this is highly misleading, since the number of votes DOESN’T MATTER – what matters is the number of delegates (“seats” in an Indian context) each candidate gets, and that gets decided at the state level.

Maybe I’ve been massively spoilt by Indian electoral reporting, pioneered by the likes of NDTV. Here, it’s common to show the results and leads along with margins. It is common to show what the swing is relative to the previous elections. And some publications even do “live forecasting” of the total number of seats won by each party using a variation of the votes to seats model that I’ve written about.

American reporting lacks all of this. Headline numbers are talked about. “Live reports” on sites such as Five Thirty Eight are flooded with reports of individual senate seats, which to me sitting halfway round the world, is noise. All I care about is the likelihood of Trump getting re-elected.

Reports talk about “swing states” and how each party has performed in these, but neglect mentioning which party had won it the last time. So “Biden leading in Arizona” is of no importance to me unless I know how Arizona had voted in 2016, and what the extent of the swing is.

So what would I have liked? 225-213 is fine, but can the publications project it to the full 538 seats? There are several “models” they can use for this. The simplest one is to assume that states that haven’t declared leads yet have voted the same way as they did in 2016. One level of complexity can be using the votes to seats model, by estimating swings from the states that have declared leads, and then applying it to similar states that haven’t given out any information. And then you can get more complicated, but you realise it isn’t THAT complicated.

All in all, I’m disappointed with the reporting. I wonder if the split of American media down political lines has something to do with this.

Opinion polling in India and the US

(Relative) old-time readers of this blog might recall that in 2013-14 I wrote a column called “Election Metrics” for Mint, where I used data to analyse elections and everything else related to that. This being the election where Narendra Modi suddenly emerged as a spectacular winner, the hype was high. And I think a lot of people did read my writing during that time.

In any case, somewhere during that time, my editor called me “Nate Silver of India”.

I followed that up with an article on why “there can be no Nate Silver in India” (now they seem to have put it behind a sort of limited paywall). In that, I wrote about the polling systems in India and in the US, and about how India is so behind the US when it comes to opinion polling.

Basically, India has fewer opinion polls. Many more political parties. A far more diverse electorate. Less disclosure when it comes to opinion polls. A parliamentary system. And so on and so forth.

Now, seven years later, as we are close to a US presidential election, I’m not sure the American opinion polls are as great as I made them out to be. Sure, all the above still apply. And when these poll results are put in the hands of a skilled analyst like Nate Silver, it is possible to make high quality forecasts based on that.

However, the reporting of these polls in the mainstream media, based on my limited sampling, is possibly not of much higher quality than what we see in India.

Basically I don’t understand why analysts abroad make such a big deal of “vote share” when what really matters is the “seat share”.

Like in 2016, Hillary Clinton won more votes than Donald Trump, but Trump won the election because he got “more seats” (if you think about it, the US presidential elections is like a first past the post parliamentary election with MASSIVE constituencies (California giving you 55 seats, etc.) ).

And by looking at the news (and social media), it seems like a lot of Americans just didn’t seem to get it. People alleged that Trump “stole the election” (while all he did was optimise based on the rules of the game). They started questioning the rules. They seemingly forgot the rules themselves in the process.

I think this has to do with the way opinion polls are reported in the US. Check out this graphic, for example, versions of which have been floating around on mainstream and social media for a few months now.

This shows voting intention. It shows what proportion of people surveyed have said they will vote for one of the two candidates (this is across polls. The reason this graph looks so “continuous” is that there are so many polls in the US). However, this shows vote share, and that might have nothing to do with seat share.

The problem with a lot (or most) opinion polls in India is that they give seat share predictions without bothering to mention what the vote share prediction is. Most don’t talk about sample sizes. This makes it incredibly hard to trust these polls.

The US polls (and media reports of those) have the opposite problem – they try to forecast vote share without trying to forecast how many “seats” they will translate to. “Biden has an 8 percentage point lead over Trump” says nothing. What I’m looking for is something like “as things stand, Biden is likely to get 20 (+/- 15) more electoral college votes than Trump”. Because electoral college votes is what this election is about. The vote share (or “popular vote”, as they call it in the US (perhaps giving it a bit more legitimacy than it deserves) ), for the purpose of the ultimate result, doesn’t matter.

In the Indian context, I had written this piece on how to convert votes to seats (again paywalled, it seems like). There, I had put some pictures (based on state-wise data from general elections in India before 2014).

An image from my article for Mint in 2014 on converting votes to seats. Look at the bottom left graph

What I had found is that in a two-cornered contest, small differences in vote share could make a massive difference in the number of seats won. This is precisely the situation that they have in the US – a two cornered contest. And that means opinion polls predicting vote shares only should be taken with some salt.

Why Trump Will Retain Power

One piece of news that might have gone unnoticed in the middle of all this Covid19 news is that Bernie Sanders has suspended his campaign to be the Democratic nominee for this November’s American Presidential elections. So it looks highly likely that Joe Biden will take on fellow-septuagenarian Donald Trump.

Thinking about it, it doesn’t matter which Democrat takes on Trump. He is going to win. I suspect that Sanders realised this as the covid crisis was panning out, and so decided to fold.

Essentially what the Covid-19 crisis has been largely positive to things that American conservatives traditionally value, and showed the perils of some of the things that American “liberals” have traditionally valued. As a consequence of this, we will find that people who are on the margin (I’m told there are very few fence-sitting voters in the US, compared to India for example) are likely to shift more conservative.

In fact, everyone will become a little more conservative (in the American sense) after this crisis is over (though most Americans have such extreme political opinions that this won’t matter). And that means that in this year’s elections at least, the Republicans are going to win. So assuming he remains healthy, Trump has four more years in the Oval Office.

So what are these “conservative and liberal values” that influenced by this crisis? Let’s make a laundry list.

  • Borders: Open borders, at state and national level are a favourite of liberals (except, in the American context for some strange reason, for skilled labour immigration). They are great for economic growth, but also for pandemic growth. We are surely likely to see tougher border controls (maybe Brexit will be followed by Nordexit? Can’t be ruled out) continuing post this crisis.
  • Cities: Conservatives are all about urban sprawl, owning McMansions and commuting by car. Liberals bat for high density cities and public transport. The tail risk of high density cities as being higher risk for pandemic spread (which had largely been hidden following the rapid advances in medicine in the first half of the 20th century) has been exposed.
  • Families: When you are isolated you would rather be living with your family (“near and dear ones” as some like to put it). The lockdown has been hardest on people living alone or living “with roommates”. American conservatives are all about marrying early and staying married and “two parent families”, which means fairly low chances of living alone. On the margin, people are likely to rediscover “family”.
  • Individualism: Sort of related to the previous one. This is something that is likely to affect me as well. Liberals have been about “breaking free of the community” and living by and for yourself. Crises like this one make you realise the value of having a community, and cultivating relationships in good times that might come of use in bad. So we are likely to see less individualism.Related to this, liberals are far more likely than conservatives to cut ties with families on account of their political leanings. The pandemic might force a rethink on this.
  • Privacy: Countries that have managed to suppress the disease to great extent (such as Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea) have done so by increasing surveillance on their citizens. As Raghu SJ wrote in this excellent blogpost, countries are facing an “impossible trilemma” in terms of protecting citizens’ privacy, containing the disease and protecting the economy.
    And he wholeheartedly agrees that privacy is the one thing that should be sacrificed now. I’m thinking he’s not alone. Moreover, instruments like Aadhaar and Aadhaar-linked bank accounts, which was vociferously opposed by privacy fundamentalists, can be of excellent use for fast direct transfer of benefits now (that India, which has this infrastructure, is only doing a tiny stimulus is another matter).
    Going forward, people will be more willing to trade off privacy (which a lot of us are already doing with Facebook, etc.) for superior service, and privacy fundamentalists will get less attention.

There are some mitigating factors as well.

  • Church attendances will go down, since religious gatherings have been shown to be a reliable source of infection spread.
  • The health crisis can mean that some sort of Obamacare might make a comeback.

On the balance, though, at least in the social sense, you can expect Americans to become more conservative. Move to smaller towns and suburubs (greater remote working will aid this), keep factories in the US (a favourite Trump theme) and become more family oriented. While all this may not last for too long, it should be enough to win Trump this year’s election.

It doesn’t matter how well or badly his government handles Covid-19.

I deliberately decided to not talk about India, since I’m not sure there’s that much of an ideological difference between political parties here. But similar trends, at the personal level, are likely to happen here as well.

Denying people their jokes

When I was in Bangalore earlier this year, I was talking to a “US returned” friend about moving back to India, and he mentioned that one of the reasons he moved back is that he didn’t find very good “culture fit” in the US. “The thing that got to me”, he said, “was that I couldn’t even connect with their jokes”.

Living in the UK, that is not that much of a problem for us, since British humour is pretty good, but this anecdote illustrates how important jokes can be for people.

Regular readers of this blog might know that I get damn irritated by the new-found culture of political correctness. While it is not my intention to hurt anybody or their feelings, I feel that political correctness is being overdone nowadays, and that severely restricts what you can say. And that is a problem for people like me who like to say things without thinking.

Reading the odd news report from the US – about the Trump campaign, for example – it’s clear that I’m not alone in having a problem with this newfound political correctness (oh – I can now expect people to attack me for having views similar to Trump’s voters). In some ways the left-right battle in the US can be described as a battle of political correctness, where the “left” likes to be all correct, and expects that everyone else is also always politically correct and not offensive, while the “right” wants to say things as they are.

Anyway, putting together my friend’s anecdote about not getting American jokes, and the culture of political correctness, I can think of one other, possibly major, reason why people are pissed off about the culture of political correctness – it denies people their jokes.

Most popular jokes – may not be the best ones, mind you, but ones that have high memetic fitness – are cracked at the expense of an “other”. This “other” can sometimes be another person – even a public figure, but at other times, it defines a particular community (though not necessarily a certain community). And the joke consists of laughing at this particular other community (broadly speaking).

So you have short people jokes, and black jokes, and Jewish jokes, and Pakistani jokes, and Muslim jokes, and so on. And then you have sexist jokes.

Now put this in the context of political correctness – most jokes that most people have grown up on are now taboo, because they are offensive to one or the other community, and it is not polite to make fun of these communities. So a whole truckload of jokes that people are grown up on can now not be cracked in polite company. And as even the Soviet Union discovered, that can be oppressive.

I recently read this book called Hammer and Tickle – a History of Communism through Communist Jokes (you can find an extract here). This sub-heading accompanying the extract summarises the Soviet attitude towards jokes:

Communism is the only political system to have created its own international brand of comedy. The standard interpretation is that communist jokes were a form of resistance. But they were also a safety valve for the regimes and jokes were told by the rulers as well as the ruled—even Stalin told some good ones

Now if only the “modern Soviets” were to get this!

Indian Americans and the Selection Bias

There is this one chart from the Economist that has been doing its rounds over the interwebs over the last few days:

Basically it shows that Indian Americans are much more accomplished academically and professionally compared to other immigrants. And there are many theories floating around as to why Indians are so successful.

The answer, however, is rather simple – selection bias. Migrating from India to the US was an extremely difficult task till the 1960s – there were some quotas that the US had for immigration under which the Indians had nothing. And when Indians did finally start migrating in the 1960s, it was mostly for education.

Most people who migrated from India to the US even in the 1960s and 70s did so to go to graduate school. And this meant that they already had 16 years of education in India, which either meant an engineering or medical degree, or a masters in one of the other fields. So basically most Indians migrating to the US were highly accomplished already.

And considering the kind of foreign exchange controls imposed by the Indian government, the only Indians who could afford to go to the US for an education were those that received a fellowship or support from their universities. Thus increasing the seelection bias! (Now that I’ve mentioned foreign exchange controls, you should listen to this song, which was apparently meant to parody such policies)

Yes, you had the odd Patel without much education who made it to open a “Potel” (Patel run Motel), but that is probably the reason that the Indian bubble in the above chart is not farther out!

So that Indians have done better than other migrating communities in the US is not about innate Indian intelligence, or innate Indian ability to work hard, or because the Americans took in the Indians much better than other nationality. It is simple selection bias, based on tight immigration controls and tight emigration controls and stupid foreign exchange policy on the part of Indian government (which, at one point of time, only allowed citizens to take out eight dollars from the country).

To illustrate this point, look at the country that is “second” (quotes since we are looking at two dimensions here, so second is subjective) in this list – Iran.

Targeting government transfers

Bryan Caplan, quoting from Greg Mankiw, puts out some very interesting numbers on government transfers to households in the United States.

Source: Econlog

As Caplan puts it, this table shows a pattern “neither liberals nor conservatives will expect”. Some points to be noted:

1. government transfers per household to the top quintile is much more than to the bottom quintile. While the former pay taxes and the latter don’t, this is simply bizarre and shows how ill-targeted transfers in the US are

2. The bottom 60% of households in the United States pays negative tax! The “middle quintile” pays taxes but gets transfers from the government of twice the amount.

3. The net taxes paid by the 4th quintile is negligible ($700 per household). So effectively in the US, only the top 20% pays tax.

I wonder if it is possible to get such data for India, and if we can, what it will look like. If we manage to tack on all subsidies to the “transfers” thing (food, fuel, etc.) it should present a very interesting picture. My guess is that the “effective tax base” in India will be much lower than that of the US.

Any data sources that can help us construct one such table for India?

Why Should Anyone Invade Syria?

I don’t understand why the US or the UK or any other country should invade Syria now. Yes, there are gross human rights violations in that country now, and the civil war has been raging for a while now. However, before any foreign country wants to intervene, they need to ask themselves the following questions:

1. what is the objective of the invasion? 

The objective of the US invading Afghanistan in 2002 was to track down Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the WTC attacks of 2001. The then Afghan government (Taliban) was not cooperating with the US’s efforts in locating bin Laden, and sensing that having bin Laden on the loose for too long would be a further threat to America’s national security the US invaded. So far so good.

The objective of the US invading Iraq in 2003-04 was that Saddam Hussein was apparently harbouring “weapons of mass destruction”. The US decided that if any such weapons existed with Iraq, it would harm their national interest and so went ahead and invaded. That no such weapons were found is a different matter.

The question is what would be the objective of the US or the UK or any other invading power in Syria? Do they know what they want? Or is it just that they want to invade simply because they can? I repeat – Syrians might be dying but why is it in the national interest of any other country to intervene?

2. What does the invading country seek to achieve by invading?

This is similar to the previous point, but different. Basically what does an invading power seek to achieve in Syria? Rather, what is the event that needs to happen at which point the invader will decide to call off the invasion and return? In Afghanistan there was one such objective – get rid of bin Laden, get rid of the Taliban, put in a new government, stabilize it and go. Yet it’s taken this long. The objective in Iraq wasn’t as clear, still it’s been an extremely long invasion. What would an invading power’s objective be in Syria? Remove Assad? But what would that achieve?

3. What about the chemical weapons then?

Agreed that both the sides in Syria might possess chemical weapons, but why would the US or Western European countries want to invade because of that? If anyone would want to invade for that particular reason it would be one of Syria’s neighbours – Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, etc – for they are the ones that are likely to be vulnerable to collateral damage. Given that both sides are likely to have chemical weapons it is unlikely that by taking sides in the civil war the chemical weapons could come under control.

Moreover, the nature of the civil war in Syria seems rather uncivil, and I don’t think either party will care about any convention that restricts the use of a particular kind of weaponry. So hoping that one side will give up the use of chemical weapons just because you take their side is futile .

To me, the civil war in Syria is like the Battle of Kishkindha, where Vali faced off Sugriva in a one-on-one combat. There, Rama had a strategic reason to intervene, for he had 1. struck a deal with Sugriva. 2. having no army of his own, he could count on the support of the victor in his campaign against Lanka. As far as any Western nation is concerned, there is no such incentive here. There is no treaty, and it is unlikely that help in this war will lead the victor to be an ally of the invader. The reason I qualified the previous sentence with a “Western” is that it doesn’t apply to Russia. Russia (and formerly USSR) has a pact with al Assad, and they have been long-standing allies. By taking al Assad’s side in this war, Russia knows that they will have a valuable ally in the Middle East in the event of his victory.

None of the Western countries have any such agreements. The only organization which has any sort of alliance with either side in Syria is the al Qaeda, which is supposedly supporting the rebels.

That Western powers such as the US and the UK want to intervene in Syria, and that too on the side of the rebels (in alliance with al Qaeda) shows that these countries are yet to get rid of the cold war mindset. They seem to want to intervene in Syria on one side only because Russia is supporting the other side. In fact, if the US or the UK were to want to invade Syria, the only thing that might make sense is to get in on Assad’s side and take out the Islamist rebels.

H1B visas in 2013

It is amazing how much of the annual quota of H1B (worker) visas that the US issues goes to IT outsourcing companies.  The top 20 beneficiary companies are shown in this graph.

Source: http://h1b-visas.findthecompany.com/
Source: http://h1b-visas.findthecompany.com/

As you can see, Infosys is by far the biggest beneficiary of this. I wonder if it is a result of the lawsuit by an American employee last year against the company, which alleged that the company was misusing B1 (business) visa, which has led the company to play it safe by taking H1B visas instead.

Indian companies have been shaded blue, while non-Indian companies have been shaded red. The amount of blue on this plot tells you that India is the biggest beneficiary of the H1B visa system of the US.

The data also gives the mean salary paid by each of these companies to their H1B workers.

Source: http://h1b-visas.findthecompany.com/
Source: http://h1b-visas.findthecompany.com/

Apart from Intel, all non-Indian companies pay their H1B employees well over $90,000 per annum. None of the Indian companies even come close to that number. This might help you understand why H1B visas are such a contentious point in American domestic politics.