William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Global Competitiveness Report: World Economic Forum

The World Economic Forum has released their 2010-2011 rankings of Global Competitiveness, a subject matter so important that it rates Capital Letters to introduce.

For each country, the economists from the WEF cobbled together a list of numerical criteria, weighted them, and them summed to create a score. Higher scores, and lower ranks, are better.

Coming in dead last is Chad, finishing way below the penultimate Angola. Who’s on first? Switzerland, the country everybody instantly thinks of when somebody says “Economic Powerhouse.” Two more “S” countries rapidly follow—Sweden and Singapore—followed by one more “S” in fourth place: the States.

Then Germany, Japan and then, where else?, Finland. Rounding out the top 10 are Netherlands, Denmark, and The Great White North (a.k.a. Canada).

Interestingly, the two countries China claims as their own, but have managed to operate independently—Hong Kong (11th place) and Taiwan (13th place; and a country which the report mysteriously labels “Taiwan, China”)—soar above the claimant, who comes in a mere 27th place.

The ratings were created, as all such ratings must be created, ad hoc and with data that is measured with error. Since this is so, the danger is not in creating a scheme, but in charging ahead in a Benthamite frenzy, pretending fine distinctions are meaningful. Rankings should not be taken too seriously. Is Singapore really better than the USA, competitively speaking? Or are they “about the same”?

It’s best, then, to take the results from any subjective rating scheme and consider them in blocks (say, in eighths to tenths). This means that, roughly, the top 14 to 17 countries should be considered “First Tier”, with no distinguishing intra-tier, and so on (remembering that the boundaries are fuzzy).

There are some interesting results, the most important contained in their Figure 1 (available in the full report).

World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness

As it says, this is the public debt as a percentage of GDP for different groupings of countries from 1950 until 2010, with projections out to 2015. The 100%+ rate starting in 1950 makes sense because, of course, the world was still recovering from World War II (in modern typography, War 2.0).

As the debris was cleared and new structures were built over the craters, and with people still skittish about the idea of powerful governments, the public debt shrank to reasonable levels. Until the Greatest Generation® began to retire and to meet their ultimate reward. The lack of this institutional memory began to show itself starting around 1980.

The levels now are not quite what they were in war time, or just after, but they are close and, if the democracies who make up the G-7 continue to vote themselves largess from the public coffers, we’ll soon return to the point where we owe more (to ourselves) than we can repay.

Since governments can create their own money ab initio, 100%+ debt-to-GDP ratios can be maintained for some time. But not, it need hardly be said, forever. Plus, the world—the G-7 world, anyway—is not rebuilding anything. Except authoritarian governments. At what point War 3.0?

GDP and debt data are pretty solid, and, relative to other measures in the WEF portfolio, contain only small error. But this is probably not so for every dimension that is tracked. The WEF does not provide (as far as I could tell) direct access to their data, but they do give us a tool where we can, for example, create scatter plots of various indexes.

For fun, I inputed “Organized crime” (x-axis) to predict “Overall Rank” (y-axis). Remember: lower is better for both. World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness

The tool lets you click the various dots, an action which brings up the name of the country belonging to the dot; the legend to the right is nearly useless. The country with the lowest organized crime was Rawanda. Yes, I said Rawanda, the country that was dead in the middle for competitiveness. Likewise, and more believably, El Salvador had the highest crime index, yet they were only two places away from Rawanda on the competitiveness rank.

World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Next, I tried Quality of math and science education. Bit stronger signal than crime, but not much stronger. Singapore was tops here, which is believable. Worst was Angola, also no surprise. The States came in at 52, right behind—you guessed it—Saudi Arabia. We did beat out the old UK (55), so it wasn’t all bad news. Taiwan was 6th and China 33rdth, incidentally.

GDP per capita is always fun. Luxembourgians are mighty rich, with an average $105 thousand per head. It’s less than half this for the USA. But it’s unclear how much the folks in Luxembourg must fork out back to their leaders. However, they cannot be too unhappy with their leaders, because Luxembourg came in fourth in trust of their politicians (p. 369 of original report). The USA is fifty-fourth! Venezuela is last; probably because it is not quite yet the socialist paradise promised by Hugo Chavez. After it arrives, look for Venezuela to take first place. World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness

There is much more: how much economies rely on bribery (New Zealand best, Mali worst), judicial independence (New Zealand best, Venezuela worst), government wastefulness, regulation, terrorism, infrastructure, savings, health, and on an on.

In fact, there is so much tracked, that you will be able to find good news for just about any country. Watch various new sources for confirmation of this.


Solar Flares, Coronal Mass Ejections, And Evil Alien Conquerors

NASA, when it can spare time from its outreaching to the Muslims of the world, manages to fit in a little science. Like from its nearly spanking new Solar Dynamics Observatory.

The picture below was taken by the SDO last week.

SDO solar flare

Isn’t that slick? If you don’t immediately notice it, look at the base of the flare, where I placed a tiny blue dot, which is roughly the size of Mother Earth. (Yes, the dot is squarish; a result of my limited graphical abilities; the scale, however, is accurate.)

Now, flares are often associated with things that looks similar, but are far more dangerous: coronal mass ejections. CMEs are a wind so hot that even atoms cannot stand the pressure; they dissolve into singular protons and electrons called a plasma.

Can you imagine what would happen if a CME of the size pictured were aimed directly at the Earth? No more NASA outreach, that’s what. Nor much of anything else, either. The lesson must be: don’t anger the Sun lest it unleash its fury upon you.

Unless, that is, you are part of a technologically superior, evil, conquering alien race. It shouldn’t be too hard for these alien masterminds—or for psychotic, Earth-bound, reclusive, minion-hiring billionaires—to invent a device which manipulates the sun’s magnetic field so that it squeezes out a CME in the direction of a populated planet. Could this be the beginning of a movie treatment?

Of course, in real life, aliens aren’t interested in poking the sun, just probing lonely females. Also, when the sun lashes out, our Blue Mother protects us by (1) placing herself far enough from Father Sun to be spared the brunt of his anger, and (2) wrapping us in our own shield-like magnetic field, which “deflects” most of the CME harmlessly off into outer space. But only most; something always leaks through, and if enough does, havoc is wreaked on the electrical and communications grid, in the form of power and cell phone outages. These in turn cause disquiet, nervousness, and tears.

But if we were a little closer to Father Sun, or if Mother’s magnetic shield weren’t there, we’d see some real global warming, boy. It would be a temporary toasting, but it would be real.

Incidentally, it’s the CMEs that you can’t see that are the real danger. The flare pictured above lashed out away from the Earth, at something like a right angle. The flares and CMEs that head straight for us appear like a faint yellow ring that widens as it gets closer to the Earth.

These rings are harder to notice than the brilliant tentacles that shoot off in the wrong direction. Which is why, naturally, the SDO is there; to be able to find the dangerous CMEs in time to warn the pertinent authorities.

There is usually plenty of time to get the word out to duck and cover, too. Light leaving the surface of the sun, as we all know, takes about eight minutes to make the trip, where it finally impinges on your skin, which, if you’re unlucky, is encouraged to become cancerous.

But CMEs, being made of lightweight plasma, which isn’t as light as light and therefore slower, take anywhere from one to three days to get here. This is usually enough time to notice the CME and then begin the warning process; which consists in peeling through various layers of bureaucracy until someone with the guts to make a decision can be found.

If the warning turns out to be a false alarm, the decision maker is usually fired, and an apparatchik in installed in this place. Thus, even when the warning system doesn’t lead to a valid protection of expensive equipment, it at least serves to strengthen and grow the bureaucracy. Everybody wins.

Since the CMEs are slow, there would also be enough time—but barely—to hire a quirky band of renegade scientists, who, after jumping through flaming hoops, some of which are in the shape of pretty girls, which pop up randomly in their path, and after showing the chief minion or evil alien the superiority of American-style fisticuffs, would at the last second set off a device which boosts Mother Nature’s protective shield, thus shunting away the destructive solar rays and saving civilization.

And also getting the girl. But that goes without saying.


Florida Pastor Won’t Burn Quran: Prediction—Late Posting!

I wrote this Wednesday night, and only learned of Jones’s reversal early Friday morning. Since it is now too late to write anything new, I give you my prediction, which was verified before I could make it!

Start of Prediction

When asked about his inflammable intentions, Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida, said Wednesday,

As of right now, we are not convinced that backing down is the right thing.

These, I think obviously, are weasel words; of the same kind used by politicians from time immemorial. And Jones is a politician, because theology is not practiced by press release except by politicos.

No true hell-and-brimstone preacher will start any sentence in the passive voice, especially in words that practically shout “Spontaneous” Change Of Heart On Horizon. And again, no religious leader who, as it has been reported, has his congregation wear t-shirts bearing the ungrammatical slogan “Islam is the Devil”, will temporize that “backing down” is not the “right thing.”

Given this, my prediction is that Jones will not burn his Quran. (Incidentally, when did we stop spelling it “Koran”?) Further, I think that he will announce his intention to shelf his matches just before the burning is scheduled.

Seeing the world’s cameras on him, he will step up to the bank of microphones, conveniently provided by reporters with J-school “degrees” but not sense, and he will say something like the following: “I do not need to burn these Qurans. I have proved my point.”

And, in part, he will be right.

Now, the world is already ablaze, rhetorically speaking, from Jones’s threatened stunt. Ad my guess it is this conflagration is the only one he ever intended.

Mayor Bloomberg, perhaps recalling his public vituperation against critics of the near-Ground-Zero not-quite-a mosque, was forced to say that Jones had a right to flick his Bic. He also said that Jones wasn’t a wise man, words he did not use for the not-quite-a mosque builder Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.

Bloomberg wasn’t the only one forced to chew on his own tolerance. Everybody from the ACLU, to even some folks at MSNBC, all echoed the line that Jones had the “right” to warm himself by burning the Quran. But all these people then said he had the responsibility not to.

They’re right, of course. Jones does have a moral responsibility not to act like an ass. But Jones’s behavior is not of interest. For we can now ask why those people who so vehemently supported the right of Imam Rauf to build his not-quite-a mosque did not also say that the grand Imam had a moral responsibility to consider the feelings of others?

End of Prediction

I chopped off the end of the prediction (mostly about how Muslims are “outraged”), because the story in yesterday’s news has made it all obvious.

Pastor Jones has claimed victory, as predicted, by saying that Imam Rauf has “agreed” to move the not-quite-a mosque to a new location. From the New York Daily News:

“We have agreed to cancel our event,” Jones said. “We are, of course, now against any other group burning Korans. We would right now ask no one to burn Korans. We are absolutely strong on that.”

“It is not the time to do it,” Jones said, before veering off into his claims that his threats had caused the New York mosque developers to blink.

“The American people do not want the mosque there, and of course, Muslims do not want us to burn the Koran,” said Jones. “The imam [Rauf] has agreed to move the mosque,” he said.

Once more, if you did not know that Jones was a Pastor, you would never guess it from his words, which sound like what you would hear from any politician. Except that one of the reasons Jones gave was that he had a “sign from God” to stow his matches.

We may never learn, since the event has been canceled, and given the attention span of the media, but I believe as I originally predicted, that Jones never intended to go through with this plan. I say this because, even yet, Jones says, “[W]]e are not canceling the event, but we are suspending it.”

This, of course, is the standard way a politician milks publicity, trying to squeeze out every last second of coverage he can. He believes that by holding onto the kerosene, he’ll have a flock of reporters asking him his opinion of everything from US-Afghanistan relations, to President Obama’s choice of vacation destinations (no shallow topic, that).

He’s wrong. Seven or eight days from now, people will have forgotten Jones. And even if he sets another burning date, people the world over will realize that they overreacted the first time, and will thus ignore him.

That’s what he gets from playing with fire.


The Education Bubble

Talk of the—and I mean the—education bubble is everywhere. But nowhere is it more succinctly or beautifully demonstrated than in a picture created by Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute.

It has been shown in many places, but for ease, it is re-pictured here (I wish I would have thought of this).

Education Bubble

What first hits you is the red bump—i.e. the bubble—in housing prices compared to the “consumer” price index (in blue). Everybody knows what happened when this bubble was pricked and burst. But just look at the tuition line (in brown)! It’s been called a bubble, but that’s clearly too weak a word. This is Weimar Republic-style inflation and it cannot last.

An anecdote: The place I am teaching has increased its tuition over 300% in something less than a decade. This is, as the chart shows, typical. Glenn Reynolds (a.k.a. the Instapundit) quoted from a Money magazine story which said, “After adjusting for financial aid, the amount families pay for college has skyrocketed 439 percent since 1982…Normal supply and demand can’t begin to explain cost increases of this magnitude. [ellipsis original]”

If you have any sense of the value of money, you should be agog. Over 400 percent since 1982! Over 300 percent in just the last ten years! (Look at the “kink” in the brown line in 2001.) Again, this cannot last. But why is this trend here and when will it end?

Reason number one: too many kids are going to college. This is usually expressed as “a greater percentage of high school graduates are attending college”, the tone suggesting that this is a good thing. This means that more professors must be provided to teach the influx. And more buildings must be created in which to teach and house them.

And, best of all, more administrators must be hired to strengthen and enlarge the educational bureaucracy. Why, at the place in which I am visiting, there are no fewer than four separate offices devoted to “diversity.” This is natural: the larger a bureaucracy becomes, the larger is seem to need to be.

At least the kids are benefiting, right? Wrong. According to Barone:

The National Center for Education Statistics found that most college graduates are below proficiency in verbal and quantitative literacy. University of California scholars Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks report that students these days study an average of 14 hours a week, down from 24 hours in 1961.

The American Council of Alumni and Trustees concluded, after a survey of 714 colleges and universities, “by and large, higher education has abandoned a coherent content-rich general education curriculum.”

They aren’t taught the basics of literature, history or science. ACTA reports that most schools don’t require a foreign language, hardly any require economics, American history and government “are badly neglected” and schools “have much to do” on math and science.

Reason number two: too much cheap government-provided—meaning out-of-your-pocket-provided—money. Michael Baron agrees: “Government-subsidized loans have injected money into higher education, as they did into housing, causing prices to balloon.”

Reynolds quotes a New York Times profile of “Courtney Munna, a 26-year-old graduate of New York University with nearly $100,000 in student loan debt.” Her “degree”? Religious and Women’s Studies. Does it make sense to you that a bank would make Munna these loans?

Remember Obamacare? To pass it, Congress had to invent a screwy legal maneuver that would make it appear that Obamacare would be “cost free” in terms of the federal budget. To do this, the government took over all student loans. Make sense? Congresspersons reasoned that if the government issued loans, the process would be more efficient and cheaper than if private businesses did so. I hope you weren’t drinking when you read that.

Anyway, the result will be: look for more loans and more money pumped into the system. This will be supported by university bureaucrats (they get bigger offices) and teaching unions (they get bigger offices, too). Nobody will have the guts to turn down what appears to be “free money.”

Reason three: Businesses are lazy and growing dimmer. In some sense, people like Munna are being rational. They are told by unthinking businesses that “You need a ‘degree’ to work here.” The specifications of the “degree” don’t matter, just that you have one: a “degree” functions more like an amulet than as a marker of ability. Since any old “degree” will work, why not one that is easy and content-free like Women’s Studies?

This system feeds back on itself. Perhaps Munna will be awarded a job in a business that requires a “degree”. Our Munna will then likely be involved in selecting future new employees at her organization. Using the skills instilled into her from her Women’s Studies studies, the first question Munna will ask is, “Does the prospective employee have a ‘degree’?”

And so the great cycle of college education returns to the beginning.

See also these stories by Mike Riggs and B. T. Donleavy.

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