Kevin Drum - June 2009

The Vote in Iran – Revisited

| Sun Jun. 14, 2009 11:27 AM EDT

Yesterday I posted a chart showing that as Iran's Interior Ministry announced election results throughout the day, the winning percentage for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had stayed almost eerily constant.  It seemed likely that in a genuine election there would have been a little more variation, so this looked like a piece of evidence that the vote count had been rigged.

It still seems likely that the vote was rigged, but the steady vote count apparently doesn't prove anything one way or the other.  Nate Silver plotted the 2008 U.S. election results using waves of states in alphabetical order, and he came up with an almost dead straight line, just like the Iranian results.  One of Andrew Sullivan's readers did the same with the results as announced every half hour through the night, and again the line was as straight as a laser.  So this is apparently a null piece of evidence.

But now I'm curious.  The Sullivan graph shows that by 7:30 pm Eastern time, when you have two data points, you could predict the final popular vote in the 2008 election with about 99% accuracy.  Question: would you get the same results if you plotted the last five or six elections?  If so, it means that most years we'll know with almost complete certainty who the winner is by 7:30 pm, exit polls be damned.  Can this really be true?

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New York, New York

| Sat Jun. 13, 2009 10:54 PM EDT

In a couple of weeks I'll be taking a few days off and jetting to New York City for a short vacation.  Marian has never been before, and neither has half of the couple we're going with.  So far, the Circle Line tour and the Empire State building are on the agenda, as well as an afternoon at Carnegie Hall, where a friend of ours is singing.  Anybody have other suggestions?  Both obvious and nonobvious ones are OK.  We're staying at a place on 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, so restaurant suggestions in the general area would be great too.

Marian constructed our San Francisco weekend a couple of months ago out of suggestions from commenters, which is why I'm going back to the commentariat for help again.  You guys were great with Bay Area recommendations.

Also, anyone know the best place online to get Broadway show tickets?

Getting Out the Vote

| Sat Jun. 13, 2009 10:11 PM EDT

Alex Moskalyuk reviews Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive and offers up this summary of #15:

Labeling people into a social group tends to increase their participation ratio. A group of people was interviewed regarding their voting patterns. Half of them were told that based on their response criteria, they were very likely to vote, since they were deemed to be more politically active. Later on the election day that specific half did indeed turn up a participation rate that was 15% higher than participation of the control group.

Hmmm.  This sounds pretty handy as sort of the mirror image of a push poll.  (1) Identify people likely to vote for your guy, (2) call them up and ask them to participate in a survey because they're "politically active," (3) watch them show up to the polls at a higher rate than normal.  Result: as long as you've done (1) reasonably well, instant boost for your candidate.  Campaign managers take note.

The Vote in Iran

| Sat Jun. 13, 2009 11:25 AM EDT

The chart on the right comes from Andrew Sullivan, and it shows the size of the announced vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in six different official announcements on Saturday.  As Andrew says, "They didn't even attempt to disguise the fraud."  A real vote count would have shown at least a little bit of variation during the day, not the laser-like precision of this one, which shows Ahmadinejad winning almost exactly two-thirds of the vote against reformist challenger Mir Hussein Mousavi every step of the way.

I was at a book party for Bob Wright's The Evolution of God last night, and even then it was obvious that the Interior Ministry was probably rigging the vote.  One of the topics of conversation was: when autocracies decide to do something like this, why do they do it so clumsily?  Why not give Ahmadinejad 52.7% of the vote, which would be at least within the realm of reason?  Or force a runoff and let Ahmadinejad win a week from now?  Why perpetrate such an obvious fraud?

Hard to say.  Maybe it's just too hard to orchestrate something more believable.  Maybe, against all evidence, they believe that smashing victories are always more convincing than close ones.  Maybe it's just rank panic and stupidity.  It's a mystery — and a counterproductive one, too: there isn't a person on the planet who thinks that Ahmadinejad could have won two-thirds of the vote with a turnout of 85%, and the possibility of inciting an internal revolt is a lot higher with a barefaced fraud like this than it would be with something a little more subtle.

On the other hand, maybe we're looking at this through the wrong lens.  Obviously something about Mousavi started to badly spook the powers-that-be during the past week, and maybe they decided something needed to be done about it.  Maybe they wanted to provoke a round of violence from Mousavi's supporters as an excuse to lead a crackdown on dissidents.  And what better way to do that than to make the election rigging so obvious even a child could see it?

Maybe.  My crystal ball is cloudy, though.  I'm not sure what to make of this.

UPDATE: Juan Cole summarizes the evidence that the vote was rigged and then speculates about what happened:

Just as a first reaction, this post-election situation looks to me like a crime scene. And here is how I would reconstruct the crime.

As the real numbers started coming into the Interior Ministry late on Friday, it became clear that Mousavi was winning....The ministry must have informed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has had a feud with Mousavi for over 30 years, who found this outcome unsupportable. And, apparently, he and other top leaders had been so confident of an Ahmadinejad win that they had made no contingency plans for what to do if he looked as though he would lose.

They therefore sent blanket instructions to the Electoral Commission to falsify the vote counts. This clumsy cover-up then produced the incredible result of an Ahmadinejad landlside in Tabriz and Isfahan and Tehran.

The reason for which Rezaie and Karoubi had to be assigned such implausibly low totals was to make sure Ahmadinejad got over 51% of the vote and thus avoid a run-off between him and Mousavi next Friday, which would have given the Mousavi camp a chance to attempt to rally the public and forestall further tampering with the election.

This scenario accounts for all known anomalies and is consistent with what we know of the major players.

UPDATE 2: The election still seems likely to have been rigged, but this chart apparently isn't evidence for it one way or the other.   Details here.

Friday Cat Blogging - 12 June 2009

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 2:11 PM EDT

Everybody is green today.  On the left, the mighty hunter Inkblot is in search of his prey: a blade of grass or two to munch on — which he will eventually barf up.  On the right, the mighty snoozer Domino has burrowed her way under a quilt and is wondering why she's being disturbed in her hidey-hole.

In other feline news, Scientific American examines the evolution of the housecat and concludes that it's all about the food bowl.  They love us because we feed them.  Needless to say, this is not exactly breaking news, especially for those of us who open cans of cat food each night and are exposed to such piteous cries that you'd think we had been keeping our furballs in kitty concentration camps all day until dinner was served.  Luckily, they make up for this mercenary attitude by being really cute, which is clearly their comparative advantage.  Otherwise they'd never have lasted.

Detainee Photo Update

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 1:20 PM EDT

In a conference committee meeting yesterday, House negotiators held firm on their insistence that an upcoming war spending bill not include a Senate amendment that retroactively exempts detainee abuse photos from disclosure under FOIA.  Senate negotiators then dithered a bit, finally backing down only after Barack Obama promised to "take every legal and administrative remedy available" to ensure the photos are not released.  The photos, Obama said, wouldn't add "any additional benefit to our understanding of what happened in the past and the most direct consequence of releasing them would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger."

Nick Baumann isn't impressed:

Obama's argument against releasing the photos is total poppycock. It should be totally non-controversial that additional photos will add to our understanding of what happened in the past. There's a reason the CIA destroyed the interrogation video tapes: images convey a different kind of truth than words do. It's one thing to read that Americans abused detainees, not just in Abu Ghraib, but throughout the world, encouraged by the highest levels of government. It's another thing entirely to see the photographic evidence of that abuse. The second part of the White House's argument is equally silly, because it can be extended ad infinitum. Are we supposed to keep secret anything that makes the US look bad? If Obama does decide to pull a Cheney and classify the photos as secret, he better get ready for a long slide down a slippery slope. What happens the next time there's something that embarasses the US and might inflame opinion against Americans? Will he classify that, too?

I agree entirely with Nick's second point, but not with his first.  It's true that images are different from words and videotape is different from images.  But we already have plenty of images of detainee abuse, and what we're fighting over here is more images, not videotape.  It's genuinely not clear that releasing yet more images will really accomplish anything.

That doesn't mean that Obama's position is correct.  Preventing release via legislation or unilateral classification just because you don't like the possible result of a court fight is an appalling precedent to set.  If a court orders the photos released, they should be released even if they do end up causing some harm.  Still, I think it's worth at least acknowleding the fact that releasing the photos is likely to do some damage and isn't likely to tell us anything we don't already know.  It's really not a great combination.

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Mapping Iran

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 12:52 PM EDT

Over at TPMCafe, Todd Gitlin linked today to a post at the Internet and Democracy Blog mapping out the support for the two main presidential candidates in the Iranian blogosphere.  And since we're all whiling away the time waiting for real news now that the polls have closed, I thought I'd share their colorful results with you.  Basically, Mousavi has support from all over the blogosphere, while Ahmadinejad's support is confined mostly to only the most conservative precincts.  This is presumably good news for Mousavi, as is the high turnout so far, which means that urban voters are probably voting in substantial numbers.

No telling what this means, really, but it's kind of cool.  Enjoy.

Chart of the Day

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 11:51 AM EDT

Via Andrew Gelman at the Monkey Cage, here's a cool chart showing changes in attitudes toward gay marriage at the state level.  (The original paper is here.)  Andrew says there's all sorts of cool statistical wizardry involved in creating it ("multilevel regression and poststratification"), but the bottom line is not just that attitudes toward gay marriage are becoming more liberal everywhere, but that they're becoming more liberal fastest in the states that were most liberal to begin with.  Andrew is surprised by this ("I generally expect to see uniform swing, or maybe even some 'regression to the mean'") but I don't think I am.  My guess is that there's some kind of positive feedback for these kinds of things, where more liberal attitudes feed on themselves as the resulting change turns out to be fairly obviously benign or even beneficial.  Andrew has a couple of other plausible explanations too.  For now, though, just revel in some cool chartmaking and the good news it conveys.

TV Talk

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 11:07 AM EDT

Two pieces of TV news today.  First, Alex Tabarrok is puzzled by the bizarrely high price of HDMI cables for Blu-Ray players:

Why don't any stores stock cheap HDMI cable?  I knew cables were a ripoff yet I could not find reasonably priced cables at Best Buy, Radio Shack, Target or even Wal-Mart.  Ordinarily, we would expect competition to push prices down but in this case it seem as if the mere existence of Monster is anchoring high prices everywhere but online.

My best guess is that this is an unusually strong version of the hidden fee model of Laibson and Gabaix.  In that model, firms overprice one aspect of service — such as a hotel charging exorbitant rates for telephone service — as an idiot tax.  Crucially, the idiot tax is matched by an IQ-subsidy; the price of the hotel room is lower than it would be without the idiot tax — so the idiots don't know to shop elsewhere and the high-IQ types are, in fact, drawn to stores with an idiot tax.  Thus, buy your blu-ray player at places such as Best Buy which sell a lot of expensive cable as well as massively overpriced extended warranties.

Maybe so.  Another possibility is path dependence: back when I managed a Radio Shack store (about 30 years ago), 10% of my store's sales came from stuff like cables and electronic parts.  However, they accounted for upwards of 50% of the store's profits because the margins were fantastically high.  We got away with this because the absolute prices were so low: people will shop around for the best price on a stereo or a computer, but they just don't care about saving a few dollars on stuff like cables and batteries.  The same thing is true for USB cables, which are bizarrely overpriced in places like Office Max or Staples, or high-tech razor blades at your local supermarket.  My guess is that even now, when the price of things like cables and razor blades is high enough to make it worth shopping around, inertia keeps everyone thinking that this stuff is basically cheap and not worth hassling over.

But I admit that the lack of competition is still surprising.  For a few stores to overcharge is understandable.  Maybe even for most stores.  But all of them?  Last year I made the rounds of every retail store in the area after I got annoyed at the price of a simple Cat-5 network cable, and there wasn't a single place that sold them for a reasonable price.  Not one.  It was almost like there was a cartel or something.  (And the cartel worked!  I didn't feel like waiting the few days it would take to order online, so I went ahead and bought an expensive one.  Their fiendish strategy turned out to be remarkably effective.)

And the second piece of TV news?  Something that's close to my heart: broadcasters have promised Congress that by September they will have standards in place that prevent commercials from being wildly louder than the TV programs they're embedded in.  Hooray!  It's only taken them 40 years to finally address this.  "We get it," an industry flack told Congress about loud ad complaints. "As a matter of pure economics, we do not want to lose viewers."

The bad news, however, is that the industry's sweet talk has convinced Congress to halt work on legislation to force broadcasters to address this.  Too bad.  Like the Do Not Call list, this is one of those things where ideology plays no role for me.  I don't care if this is liberal, conservative, libertarian, or anything else.  I just want it to stop, and I don't care a whit whether or not it's a justified interference in the free market.  JUST MAKE IT STOP!

China's Economy

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 10:11 AM EDT

The United States needs to reduce its trade deficit, but arithmetic being what it is, that can happen only if other countries reduce their trades surpluses.  That means Germany and Japan, but most of all it means China — and as the chart on the right shows, China's exports are indeed down.  Good news?  Not really: as Brad Setser has pointed out in the past, this only produces a declining trade surplus if imports also go up — or at least decline at a slower rate than exports.  Ed Hugh delivers the bad news:

The decline [in exports] was the biggest since Bloomberg data began in 1995. And more to the point as far as Brad is concerned China’s imports dropped 25.2 percent last month, compared with a 23 percent fall in April. Hence China just one more time ran an increased trade surplus (up to $13.4bn in May from $13.1bn in April), and it is no clearer to me than it is to Brad how a country running a trade surplus can be leading a surge in global demand. Indeed this months data, far from prodiving evidence of an accelerating “recovery” continues to point towards ongoing weakness in global demand, just like the evidence we are receiving from Germany and Japan.

Ed has more at the link, including some detail about China's imports that provides even more cause for gloom, but the bottom line is that there's not much hope in the short term that China will be leading a global recovery.  Their economy isn't rebalancing, it's just falling.  No green shoots here.