Saturday, April 05, 2014

Probing the future: very good news… and some very bad...

Good-judgment-projectWe'll get to weighing some very good news… and some bad… in a second. But first --

So You Think You're Smarter than a CIA Agent? asks an article on NPR News, citing The Good Judgment Project -- a four-year research study organized as part of a government-sponsored forecasting tournament. Thousands of people around the world predict global events. Their collective forecasts are surprisingly accurate. 

For the past three years, 3,000 average people have been quietly making probability estimates about everything from Venezuelan gas subsidies to North Korean politics as part of  an experiment put together by three well-known psychologists and some people inside the intelligence community. According to one report, the predictions made by the Good Judgment Project are often better even than intelligence analysts with access to classified information, according to Alix Spiegel on NPR News.

Philip Tetlock, one of the three psychologists who came up with the idea for the Good Judgment Project, also wrote Expert Political Judgment: How Good is it? How Can We Know? His concept started simple:

First, if you want people to get better at making predictions, you need to keep score of how accurate their predictions turn out to be, so they have concrete feedback.

PredictionsRegistryBut also, if you take a large crowd of different people with access to different information and pool their predictions, you will be in much better shape than if you rely on a single very smart person, or even a small group of very smart people.'

These desiderata will sound familiar to some of you, who have read my own, decade-old calls for new kinds of Predictions Registry concept — which ought to be civilization’s utter-top priority, for a number of reasons that I lay down in that article.  As for "collective smarts" see how Smart Mobs are portrayed in Existence!

== Reasons for optimism, while everyone goes grumpy ==

A fascinating study for the US Defense Department concludes that three "almost shocking" dollops of positive news are transforming our prospects for the better -- even as the public mood in the U.S. keeps sinking into inexplicable funk. The report: "Some Aspects of the Future Security Environment: Considering 1987, 2012, and 2037," looked back and forward 25 years, according to an unclassified summary released by Office of Net Assessment of a Summer Study in late 2012, by Jesse H. Ausubel and Alan S. Curry.

It begins by surveying the world effects of globalization, an ongoing phenomenon which remains fraught with tension and opportunities for economic setbacks… but under which vast numbers of human families are rising, every year, out of grinding poverty, into some level of (very) basic comfort. Those who complain about other effects of globalization, while conceding the good things, have some credibility. Those who do not, have none.

Optimism-PessimismThen comes a real surprise: "Water provides a second big change in resource concerns during the past 25 years. In 1975, almost all experts forecast large increases in use of water by the United States. In fact, most of the forecasts vastly overestimated demand -- and water withdrawals in the United States peaked about 1980. The trend in actual use has been flat for decades, even as U.S. population has grown about 80 million, the population of Turkey. Agriculture consumes far the most water. In the United States the decoupling of food production from land accounts for much of the moderation of demand. Sparing land usually means sparing water, both here and abroad. We see in farming in other industries increasing precision where we use more bits of information but less stuff -- less energy, fertilizer, pesticide and water. So the idea of a global water crisis seems far-fetched."

How fascinating. We've become so used to gloom and assuming the world will burst into flame everywhere over water. Indeed, there will likely be some local stress!

"At the same time, some regions clearly experience stress because of weak management and complex borders. Among regions to watch are upper basins where nations are building dams to capture water that flows downstream through other nations, e.g. the upper Indus, Mekong, and the Tigris and Euphrates, where Indian, China and Turkey; respectively, are adding storage with all its benefits and risks, including political consequences downstream.”

Okay, as Forest Gump would say – “one less thing….” Sort of. But then…

== Is fracking your friend? ==

"A third big surprise in resources of the past 25 years is the discovery and acceptance of the abundance of natural gas, methane."  Since this report was issued in 2012, the arrival of frack-released gas and oil has crashed into public attention, with nearly everyone leaping to take one extreme position or the other. Either this is capitalism at its best, with no need to regulate, or else it is satanic poisoning of the air and aquifers.

In fact, there are many reasons to believe the trend needs and merits strongly assertive regulation by a government that implements the public will, to get both the economic stimulation/jobs/security that come from energy independence and the capping of leaking greenhouse gas sources and tight protection of aquifers. Both the benefits of methane weaning us off of filthy coal and continuing the spectacularly successful incentives that have brought sustainables like solar and wind into the mainstream, becoming viable at a rate that’s far faster than automobiles and airplanes became practical, a century ago.

The potential harms that accompany good news seem to set members of my Baby Boomer generation a-quiver with agitation and zero-sum thinking. Almost never do boomers, of left or right, contemplate the positive sum, win-win. The possibility that we might enhance the good effects and minimize the bad.

Our calmer and more pragmatic heirs will be better off without our grumpy-boomer asses around.

== Feed us! ==

Then there’s agriculture. It was thought that the increases in crop yield that happened under Borlaug’s “Green Revolution” were peaking just as populations were rising, bringing the curse of Malthus back into play. In fact, the verdict is mixed, so far. There is clear evidence that climate change is affecting crop yields - destroying both farmlands and grazing zones. These problems are exacerbated by many stupidities in re water use, pest management, monoculture, monopoly controlled GM seeds and a myriad other vexing perplexities and needs for action. On the other hand, new kinds of crops emerge all the time. And we also have on the horizon algae-culture, and tissue-culture meat, and far better fish farming, any of which may be game changers.

We’ll need them. For when fertile zones at lower latitudes turn to desert, we lose areas with two growing seasons. Canada and Siberia may get warmer but the new “farmlands” lack topsoil and languish in total darkness for half the year. This is not a fair trade.

The report also discusses mixed news about population. There is the aging developed world, with fears of demographic collapse. There is China, with it’s own one-child-affected situation. There are realms like Africa and India where Malthus looms as a spectre… and a few places of relative balance like the US and Canada, who benefit from the invigoration of immigration. It is WAY too soon to breathe any sigh of relief!

Still… it don’t look (yet) like Soylent Green.

Ah, but then there’s worrisome news….

== China on the brink? ==

China-shakes-world“China is like an elephant riding a bicycle. If it slows down, it could fall off, and then the earth might quake.” – James Kynge, China Shakes the World: A Titan's Rise and Troubled Future -- and the Challenge for America.

After 30 years of sustained economic growth topping 8% and a successful bank cleanup in 2000, the People’s Republic was well on its way to blowing through the “middle income trap” and transitioning to a more advanced consumption-based economy. But then in 2008 the banking crisis in the United States abruptly ushered in a painful era of balance sheet repair across the developed world and delivered a demand shock to emerging markets. Rather than allow the Chinese economy to fall into recession at such an inconvenient time, the Party leadership sprang into action to stimulate demand with its largest fiscal deficit in more than 60 years and to mobilize bank lending with historically low interest rates and enormous liquidity injections.”

As a result, China’s total debt-to-GDP (including estimates for shadow banks) grew by roughly 20% per year, from just under 150% in 2008 to nearly than 210% at the end of 2012 … and continued rising in 2013. Even more ominous, corporate debt has soared from 92% in 2008 to 150% today. 

“China has consumed just 65pc of the cement it has produced in the past five years, after exports. The country is currently outputting more steel than the next seven largest producers combined – it now has 200m tons of excess capacity, more that the EU and Japan's total production so far this year.”

But property is the biggest bubble, as it was in the U.S. and Europe. “The average price-to-rent ratio of China's eight key cities is 39.4 times – this figure was 22.8 times in America just before its housing crisis.”

George Soros holds that “The major uncertainty facing the world today is not the euro but the future direction of China.”

== The lesson: optimism? Pessimism? ==

OPTIMISM-PESSIMISM-3It’s neither! It is that the world is far, far too filled with good trends and news to make cynicism and gloom anything other than wretched, simplistic treason. Show me the cynic who is actually and pragmatically useful to anyone! Or who actively and effectively helps to solve any of the problems that he (almost never “she”) grouses about!

I would say the same thing about fizzy, polyanna, best-of-all-worlds optimists, too… if you could point me at any. Sure, I know a few “singularity” types who think we’ll all be gods within 30 years. But none of them prescribe indolent shrugs, the way cynics do. Most optimists admit the desperate need for action!

But cynics aren’t our worst adversaries. The very worst people – enemies of your future and of your grandchildren – are the manipulators who are propagandizing to millions that they should hate science. Hate the people who know stuff. Hate the very idea of mixed, vigorous, confident, can-do effort to solve problems, partly together, via consensus government, while mostly through our markets and families and individual efforts.

Those are the folks who are waging war against your kids.


Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Paul
Back to Earth:

"The solution is to tax each exchange or expenditure of money used in political campaign activities."

Political donations (and PACs) are treated as tax deductible charities. Simply removing that, by tightening the definition of charity, would siphon a chunk of cash away from them without requiring any special new taxes.

The idea is to tax EXPENDITURE on campaigning,
You could start by taxing political advertising on television
(And you may be able to stop there)

This would mean that you would not effect charities or churches
Just campaigning

Anonymous said...

Can you post a link to the declassified version of the DOD office of net assessment report? It is somewhat hard to find on the interwebs. Very curious to read it in full. thx.

Robert said...

Read the Economist and New York Times concerning China and its economy. China has far less debt on its books than the U.S. and Europe had. Thus it has the ability to spend its way out of economic hardship in the near future. For the long run this isn't a good policy... but China just has to pilot its economy into a softer landing. If it needs to use Keynesian economics to do so then it does.

Rob H.

Alex Tolley said...

Re: Wisdom of Crowds. This works as long as you have a diverse group and that there are no iterations based on group knowledge. Iterative convergence can lead to a number of pathological outcomes, including lynch mobs. A CIA example that I saw on a documentary recently was due to confirmation bias.

even as the public mood in the U.S. keeps sinking into inexplicable funk
We have have had 5 years of high unemployment and a government unwilling to do much about this. We have had over 10 years of government that has been shredding the US constitution. We have had a Supreme Court willing to enable a plutocracy. Inexplicable Funk? LOL

Re: Water California is demonstrably running short of water. The central valley aquifers are being drawn down at ~1 ft/year. The Ogallala aquifer is also being run down at a similar rate. LA has run up against water limits. Yes, there is also good news. Recycling is getting important and desalination is getting cheaper. We installed a grey water system to reuse washing machine water. There was also a news item that a farmer has a pilot solar thermal ag water recycling plant operational that can scale).
OTOH, fracking uses huge amounts of water. Municipalities are going to be running out of water in some areas, like Texas. The technique has contaminated aquifers. I would believe it wasn't serious if there wasn't so much government supported secrecy around the problems.

re: China debt It is my understanding that bad loans have been hidden. The cracks are now coming to light as low growth exposes these loans to default. A financial collapse in China will have global repercussions. Whether it is the next shoe to drop in our globally stagnating economy, or a blip of little consequence, I don't know.

Whether one is a cynic (easy to be given the track records of many governments), a pessimist, an optimist, or something in between, isn't the issue. The problems and opportunities are many, but how we resolve them for a net positive balance is important, and which balance is important too. The desired outcomes are different for different people, even nations. For example, if we have a global economy that has grown, that life is better for millions, but AGW has resulted in some Pacific island nations to disappear due to rising sea level. Even Britain experienced unprecedented flooding this year. If this was a consequence of AGW, clearly the affected people were getting the benefit of low energy costs due to unrestrained fossil fuel consumption.

I would argue that thinking that big problems can be solved via markets and individual action is just pollyannish ideology. Concerted government action (i.e. globally important nations in concert) hasn't happened in any meaningful way for over 25 years regarding fossil fuel consumption. Alternative energy generation at this point is still a drop in the bucket, and the US is now exporting coal to China. Markets will work eventually, but today they are not doing much to change things, and vested interests are using their political clout to prevent changes. The irony is that the vested interests working withing a "great stagnation" are replaying the scenario in "Atlas Shrugged".

LarryHart said...

Alex Tolley:

The irony is that the vested interests working withing a "great stagnation" are replaying the scenario in "Atlas Shrugged".

Yes, the oligarchists like to pretend that they are the great producers who will "go on strike" and leave us poor takers bewilderly wondering why things are falling apart.

But in point of fact, things are falling apart precisely because those guys won't go away.

matthew said...

I entered the Forecasting World Events / Good Judgment contest three years ago after hearing about it here. I was rated a "Supercaster" (top 1% prediction performance) the first two years and am in the middle of a very bad season right now.
There are interesting things about how the contest is set up - you are graded on team performance ( as well as individual) but the user interface is set up very explicitly to discourage discourse. There have also been some very controversial rulings over outcomes of questions.
I remember that another regular around here was also going to join and report back. Anyone remember who that was?

David Brin said...