Reflections on Kellogg Biotech Case Competition

Back in January, I had the privilege of participating in the Kellogg Biotech Case competition (link). It was the first time I’ve participated in a case competition, and although this is a touch overdue, I wanted to share my reflections on the experience, particularly my thoughts on the methodology, now that I have the benefit of hindsight.

Case Competition Rules

Case competitions are common in business school. Basically, teams are given a description of a business challenge and their goals is to prepare a presentation which analyzes the problem and recommends a solution. Teams then present to a panel of judges, who evaluate them on the their analytical rigor, thoroughness, clarity, and presentation quality.

The rules of specific competitions can vary, but for this one:

  • Teams were 4-5 people each
  • The case (a ~13 page description of the business challenge) was sent to the teams on Friday, January 17th, and all presentation materials had to be submitted by the following Friday, January 24th.
  • The presentations were expected to be ~20 minutes long, with an extra 5 minutes to answer questions (25 minutes total)
  • Although we were permitted to present in any format, PowerPoint is generally considered the best practice

The topic of this year’s case was peanut allergy treatments, as seen from the perspective of Oakdale Pharmaceuticals, a fictional company. Oakdale’s business development team was considering whether it should acquire Aimmune Therapeutics, a (real) company developing a product called Palforzia.

Palforzia is an “oral immunotherapy”, a tablet which, taken daily, reduces an allergic patient’s sensitivity to peanuts. Palforzia had completed its Phase III clinical trials, which demonstrated that is was safe and effective, and as of January 2020 was on the cusp of receiving FDA approval. In the case, the market value of the company was $2.31 billion dollars The question is whether this value was accurate.

(As an aside, this reflected the value of the company in January; if Oakdale were buying Aimmune today, they would only need $0.9 billion. Call it the COVID-19 discount).

I wanted to talk about how we approached this problem, because I think the lessons from this exercise are generally applicable to any problem where you need to build a model. Note, the approach I describe below is not what we did, but a description of what I would have wanted to do with the benefit of hindsight.

Solving the Modeling Problem

The valuation of Aimmune is a modeling problem. The company’s value is directly tied to how profitable we expect manufacturing and selling Palforzia to be. Once we model the year-to-year profits, it’s just a matter of comparing the value I derive from my model to the company’s $2.31 billion dollar sticker price.

Because the model is so important, the focus on the presentation should almost entirely be on justifying the model design and/or our choices for the input parameters.

Choosing parameters for your model

How hard it is to choose your parameters can be very different for different problems. Fortunately, I was able to help our team shortcut this process somewhat because I spent 4 years working for an expert in forecasting revenues for pharmaceutical products.

Here’s an overview of the industry standard parameters:

Market Size 
prevalence and incidence Of the 
medical condition in the overall 
population 
% of patients that seek treatment 
% 01 patients With the ability to 
pay/access treatment (i.e. have 
necessary insurance coverage) 
Other treatment-specific 
eligibility criteria. 
Some treatments are only 
appropriate for patients With a 
severe disease 
A treatment With a 
complicated dosing schedule 
may not be appropriate for all 
patients 
Some treatments might target 
a specific biomarker 
Market Dynamics 
• peak Market Share for each 
product on the market: the 
theoretical maximum % of patients 
that Will get each product, assuming 
perfect information. 
uptake/adoption speed; accounts 
for the time it takes MDs/patients to 
learn about a new treatment and get 
comfortable using it 
• Impact Of other events, exq,.. 
The approval of a new 
treatment in the area 
A product going Ott patent and 
the entry Of generic competitors 
Monetization/ Financial 
• Revenue per-patientlyear, allows 
you to calculate total annual 
revenue 
Discount rate accounts for the fact 
that money earned in the distant 
future is less valuable than money 
eamed in the near future 
Cost Estimates associated with 
the sale/marketing,'administration of 
the product

I should note that these aren’t hard and fast rules, and you can tweak them to fit with the specific disease and the data that is available to estimate the values of each parameters.

For example, my team decided that several of the factors above could be rolled into a single statistic: the % of patients with a peanut allergy who are prescribed an EpiPen. Because EpiPens are prescribed to basically all patients who show up to a doctor’s office and are considered at risk of a severe allergic reaction, it captures patients who seek treatment and disease severity.

I won’t go into much depth about the actual construction of the model in excel. It takes a little bit of work to set everything up, and it helps to have seen a finished model before, but at the end of the day, it’s mostly just multiplication. The simplicity of the model is one of it’s strengths– it means that most of the people who would use the model understand the parameters that were used to construct it.

The challenging part is estimating the values of your parameters. This is where you have to make some judgment calls that a skeptical audience might press you for justification, and for good reason. You’re trying to predict the future, which is not an easy thing to do. The goal is to simultaneously seem self-assured, confident in your model’s outputs, while also acknowledging the inherent uncertainty of this entire exercise.

I think a good rule of thumb, when deciding whether to include a piece of information in the presentation, is to ask yourself whether the information will help you justify one of the decisions you made when estimating one of the values.

Accounting for uncertainty

It’s a truth universally understood, but rarely acknowledged, that most of the numbers in these models are barely-educated guesses. This is doubly true in competitions like these, where the situations are partially fictional and the contestants have one week to do their analysis and no research budget.

(In the real world, pharma companies will often commission primary market research, costing tens of thousands of dollars per study, to get a marginally better estimate of their product’s future market share.)

The problem is that there are a lot of parameters, and beneath each parameter is a very deep rabbit hole of research. If you have done one of these exercises before, you know what I’m talking about. If not, I’m not sure it’s possible to exaggerate just how deep these rabbit holes can go. It’s very easy to spend a lot of time and energy trying to understand one of your parameters, only to realize that the answers are inconclusive, don’t help you support your estimates, and are to convoluted to communicate in the context of a presentation.

To avoid going down rabbit holes, it’s important to know what is good enough. When can you stop doing research? What numbers are you looking for?

Here, I want to outline my current thinking about how to answer these problems, though I confess, this is where I depart from experience and I begin to speculate.

The first is to give your Best Guess for each parameter based on an initial round of research. This is what you will plug into your first draft of the model. Sometimes, your best guess will be well supported by your research. Other times, it could be raw speculation. But you need to put something into the model.

The second is what I will call the Range of Plausibility. The Range of Plausibility, implied by its name, is the range of values that you think a parameter could plausibly take. This range is a little subjective. Maybe you’re just ballparking the estimate. Maybe the methodology that other sources use to estimate the value of the parameter have some sort of error. Maybe there are multiple sources the provide conflicting estimates. At the end of the day, it’s helpful to have an estimate in your head.

For example, my research on the rate of EpiPen use among PA patients found some conflicting estimates. One source said ~50% of patients had an EpiPen Rx; another other said 35%. As such…

  • Our Best Guess, which we used in our model, was ~45% (we thought that the 50% study was a little more credible, but hedged down a little bit)
  • Our Range of Plausibility was 55% to 30%.

If the Range of Plausibility is large, it may be productive to also think about a Range of Sanity. The range of sanity covers possible values that are outside your range of plausibility, but not impossible, assuming your analysis is loosely connected to reality. Put another way, if the true value of a parameter is outside your Range of Sanity, it means you’ve missed something really, really fundamental.

Sensitivity Analyses

So you have a best guess for all of your parameters plugged into your model. You also have, in the back of your mind, a range of plausibility and a range of sanity for each of your parameters. Now what?

The answer: you run a sensitivity analysis.

A sensitivity analysis tells you what happens to your model’s output if you change each of your inputs. In more colloquial language, a sensitivity analysis answers the question “how wrong can I be about my parameters without having to change my story”.

Here, your range of plausibility and range of sanity allow you to evaluate that answer.

If a parameter can take value within its range of plausibility without substantially changing your story, you’re golden. If it can’t, that’s a sign that you should do some more research and develop a more informed opinion, and hopefully narrow your range of plausibility. For example, if two studies give conflicting estimates for the value of a parameter, dig a little deeper into the study’s methodology to see if one is more credible than the other.

The sensitivity analysis tells you where it’s important to do more research, and go little deeper down the rabbit hole.

A note on correlation between parameters

The standard sensitivity analyses that I know how to run don’t consider the interaction between multiple variables. However, there will be times when this isn’t enough because variables are correlated with each other. There are several such parameters in this case. For example, if doctors think the clinical profile of Palforzia to be outstanding, they are likely to both prescribe it to more patients (the peak market share is higher) and adopt it more quickly (the uptake curve is going to be steeper).

Here, I think the best way to handle it is to make multiple models, one with an “upside” scenario, where the correlated parameters are better than the base guess and one with a “downside” scenario, where the correlated parameters are worse than the best guess.

Implementation

Are a two main  challenges to actually carrying out this sort of analysis in the context of a case completion.

The first has to do with the timing. Turns out, a week is a really short amount of time to wrap your head around a novel problem and put a presentation together. This is compounded by the second challenge, which is that the work is spread across 4-5 people, all of whose understanding of the problem is in flux.

This is, as far as I can tell, the nature of the beast. But I have a two speculations about best practices.

First, start building the model as early as possible, and make sure that everyone on the team is kept up to date with changes. This way, it’s much easier to divide work by giving a discrete, concrete task to individual people. You can assign each person a group of parameters, and then they can come back with something to put back in the model. In fact, the point of this framework is to help get people on what sort of research is useful. You want your research to support the credibility of the parameters in the model.

Second, start practicing your “voice over” with rough PPT slides as soon as possible. This will help you and your team fill in missing ideas as you build the presentation. Also, hearing you and your teammates think aloud will help with team alignment.

So what?

I think it’s helpful, when you start working on a modeling problem, to have a sense what your final presentation is going to look like. For me, at least, it’s helpful to think about levels:

On the first level, you want to show the output of the model (the “so what”), and connect it to a specific, actionable recommendation. These form the titles of your slides and the main bullets in your executive summary.

On the second level, you want to demonstrate that you have thought about the right factors when designing your model. What parameters did you use? What, at a high level, did you use to estimate them. These are the supporting bullets of the slides in your presentation.

On the third and final level, you want your reasoning about each of your parameters to withstand scrutiny. This is what you put in the appendix and prepare to respond to questions about. 

Most of what I’ve talked is about helping you sort the mess of information that your research turns up into the appropriate levels. In any case, this is what I got from the experience. I look forward to testing these recommendations the next time I have a modeling project.

Social Science should be Funny

A popular theory is that humor is created by the violation of expectation, or “incongruity”.

For example, take a pun. When a veterinarian’s office adopted a pig, they named him Chris P. Bacon. This caused a news anchor to lose his shit, and it was amazing.

According to incongruity theory, the name Chris P. Bacon is hilarious because it calls to mind two very different ideas (a name and a pork product) in a context where both sort of make sense.

I bring this up because I was struck with the realization in class yesterday that the social sciences are actually comedy gold mines. We were discussing credit markets (a business school topic, if there ever was one), and an example we were asked to consider were those created by the mafia.

One of the many things that the mafia does is provide an alternative to banks for people to borrow money. And as we all know from watching the movies, when someone fails to pay their debts to the mob, it is standard for the mob to send goons to the debtor’s house to his break kneecaps. Now, academic language is often very dry, and well… goons breaking kneecaps is many things, but it isn’t “dry”. And, so help me god, it’s FUNNY to see a professor describe kneecap busting as “a way for lenders to mitigate the risks created by information asymmetry and adverse selection in the credit market”.

More generally, a social scientist’s job is to create an academic language to systematize people’s activities and behaviors, and the tone and tenor of academic language often is really incongruous with the subject being discussed. Hence the humor.

And, of course, this is when the academic language is being used correctly. What’s even funnier is watching students attempt to deploy academic language while they are still trying to wrap their heads around it. For example, in class, we were asked to discuss the drawbacks of using goons to break debtor’s kneecaps. Here are some of the answers we produced:

  • A goon army doesn’t scale well, and is expensive to maintain
  • Using goons to break people’s kneecaps sabotages debtors’ ability to repay their creditors
  • Sending out goons to break debtor’s kneecaps violates our ethical mandate
  • With a large standing army of goons, we risk undermining the state’s monopoly on violence, risks all of the negative externalities associated with turf wars between goons

Now, before I get accused of dunking on my classmates, let me be clear that that two of those are mine. In fact, I don’t think that the ridiculousness here is a bad thing.

The title of this post is the social science education should be funny. This is because the teacher’s goal is to help students connect the abstract language used to talk about a subject with the subject itself– if you will, to connect the conceptual map to the territory. There is, by nature, incongruity between these things. And incongruity, as we discussed, is often funny.

Of course, not all things that are incongruous are funny. But I’ve spent many years in school, and I read about the social sciences for fun, and one thing I’ve noticed is that the best teachers and writers are really good at toeing the line between analysis and farce.

Take, for example, the way Ada Palmer, professor of Renaissance history, describes what Niccolò Machiavelli (yes, that Machiavelli) was doing during his stint as a diplomatic representative of Florence.

Good morning, Mr. Machiavelli.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to prevent Cesare Borgia from conquering Florence.  You will serve as our official ambassador to his court.  You will shadow the Duke-Cardinal as closely as possible, report to us about his character and tactics, and develop a strategy to keep him from adding Tuscany to his expanding kingdom.  While at his court, you will need to maintain yourself and your team with grandeur sufficient to make him take us seriously as a political force, but we can’t send you any funds to pay for this, since Borgia has so completely destroyed peace and order in the region that bandits are rampaging through the countryside robbing and murdering all our couriers.  As always, should you or any member of your team be caught or killed, the Signoria will disavow all knowledge of your actions.  This message will self-destruct in a few weeks when your office is inevitably looted and burned, but if you throw it in the fire that will speed things up.

Is this treatment appropriate for most subjects? Almost certainly not. But I fear that it’s far easier to go too far in the other direction. If, in the study of any subject, you’re never laughing, it’s a sign that the connection– and the distance– between the abstract and the concrete is not being appreciated. It suggests that you may have succumbed to the fate that looms above everybody who deals in abstractions: getting lost up your own ass.

I think, in pedagogy, humor is treated like a spoon full of sugar. It keeps people amused while they absorb the lesson. It helps the medicine go down. And sometimes that is exactly how it works– just take any segment of Last Week Tonight. But the point I’m trying to make is that humor can be much more. It can help us understand and overcome the conceptual distance between the models in our heads and the messy realities that we actually have to work in.

This is not just a problem in academia. There are plenty of people in the private sector– managers primarily– whose deal largely in abstractions. Humor, used properly, serves to keep these people grounded. So don’t be afraid to be funny.

Kicking off the MBA Diary

I

Just over two months ago, I started an MBA program at the Yale School of Management. I started the MBA program for reasons that I’ve come to learn are fairly common: I wasn’t satisfied with my career, and the MBA seemed like the best way to pivot, given that I possess only the vaguest notion of what I want to pivot into. The MBA program feels, in some ways, like being inside a particle collider. It’s a place where you have hundreds of people on very different paths and trajectories, converging in the human equivalent of high-energy plasma for a brief time before they ricochet back out.

So far, it’s been exhilarating. The thing that I’ve been most struck by in these past few months is the diversity of the people in my program compared to other educational settings. As an undergraduate, everybody was a former high school student. Conversely, in PhD and professional programs, the people are on mostly parallel courses to careers in their discipline or industry.

Not so in the MBA. People come from a much wider variety of professional backgrounds, at different stages of their lives, aiming to pursue a variety of different careers. To illustrate what I mean, here are the backgrounds represented among the people in my nine-person learning team (who I work with for group projects):
• Soldier (US military)
• Elementary school teacher
• Engineer (from Nigeria)
• Data Analyst
• Market Researcher (that’s me)
• Financial Auditor
• Banker (from Peru)
• Think Tank Analyst

The thing that we all have in common is what I mentioned earlier. Most everyone in my class has spent several years pursuing a profession. Most of us also feel dissatisfied by their professional track in some way, and are looking for a path to something new, even if we aren’t sure what just yet.

II

My decision to go to business school at Yale specifically bears discussion.

Yale, of course, is one of the most recognized and highly regarded educational institutions on the planet. However, the business school is, to crib from one of my classmates, a “top 13 business school.” This is to say (if one will forgive my candor) that it doesn’t have the same pedigree or history as many of its peers. The Yale School of Management is actually quite young, having been started in 1973 (for comparison, Harvard Business School was established in 1908, Sloan at MIT in 1914, Columbia in 1916, and Wharton in freaking 1881).

As such, the School of Management tries to position itself somewhat differently from other business schools. The school’s mission is to “educate leaders for business and society,” with extra emphasis on the “and society.” It hopes to distinguish itself from other business schools by being 1) more globally oriented, 2) more closely integrated with its parent university, and 3) more focused on professional tracks that prioritize social impact. It makes sense, when the reputation of the parent university for educating society’s leaders is one of the school’s major selling points.

In practice, seems to have manifested in a culture that is less focused on traditional MBA career paths in consulting and investment banking in favor of policy, non-profits, and other “social impact” organizations. It also means that there is more exposure to people at other professional schools (such as the school of public health, or the school of forestry and environmental studies, as well as the other graduate programs). The sense of diversity that I described earlier is a feature of the Yale experience. It seems like its easier to have unique experiences here, easier to avoid the fierce competition to be the most Polished, Composed Professional™.

This isn’t to say that I am without reservations. The Yale brand comes with a certain set of elite pretensions. We are told that we are the future leaders. We are also told that we are going to be taught to comport our business conduct with a strong sense of social responsibility. But how does this story actually play out? How much of it is hot air? For me, these are still open questions.

III

I want to take a moment to talk about why I I’m taking the time to write about these experiences. After all, writing takes time, and one might reasonably ask why I think that composing essays with quadruple digit wordcounts, in addition to homework, recruiting, other extracurriculars, and having a social life is a good idea.

There are three reasons.

The first is because of writing helps me think. It forces me to think a little more clearly and precisely about my experiences, and select when elements make the most sense to discuss. These next few months are going to be something of a fulcrum in my life, and I want to be thinking as clearly as I can.

The second is because writing is another way for me to connect with people. If anyone reads this and finds what I have to say interesting, that’s one more person who I might be able to connect with and collaborate with in the future. This will hopefully be a way to meet interesting people who I haven’t had the good fortune of bumping into.

The third is because a blog is a uniquely good place to compile and connect ideas and experiences from disparate places and settings, with the time and space to properly contextualize them. For example, here I can present, side by side, an interesting newspaper editorial, a video essay, a paper I read in undergrad, and an anecdote from last week.

This last reason bears some additional elaboration, because I think making these sorts of connections is an important part of the business school experience. I’ve already discussed the importance of the diversity of MBA program. However, I think that in order to reap the benefits of the diversity, it takes some amount of effort, and a willingness to go beyond the strictly professional when engaging with my peers and with my institution. If Yale wants us, as business leaders, to integrate social and ethical priorities into our lives and careers, it stands to reason that we should also integrate these priorities non-traditional priorities into our business education.

These are interesting times, I’m in an interesting place, and it would be a shame not to write about them.

A productive post on productivity

I’ve been grappling with an issue at work– I think I care about the ability to communicate effectively more than other people, and yet I feel like I struggle more with it than they do.

Here, the obvious explanation is probably correct: that I suffer from a form of “performance anxiety”, which is to say that I want to do it really well, which means that I want to put off starting, which means it ultimately gets done rushed. This is, of course, a typical pattern for procrastinators, who occupy themselves with minor distractions because the prospect of working on something important is stressful and aversive.

This is also been the case for me when preparing job applications– I know that they are important, and I fear that an error will reveal that I don’t know what I’m doing. This is stressful, and it prevents me from getting useful experience putting them.

The solution, of course, is well known: I ought to give myself permission to make a shoddy initial attempt which I then can build upon. Some sources recommend, half-seriously, that you use self deception to accomplish this: invent a second, even more urgent, more high-stakes, more anxiety producing task, so working on the first task feels like a welcome distraction. With mental Aikido, the urge to procrastinate has been suplexed into productivity!

(As an aside the short essay, How to get Things Done, by Robert Benchley, treats this idea with the humor it deserves)

Rationally, this makes no sense. Rationally, when I approach something like job applications, I want to think critically about what I know and what I don’t know, identify the unanswered questions, and then develop a strategy for answering them.

But I suspect, in actuality, it is a mistake to start with anything other than trial and error. If left to think abstractly, the mind has a way of conjuring paper tigers. They say that no plan survives contact with the enemy, so put yourself face-to-face with the enemy, and then start developing plans.

Another, tangentially related observation. The problems I have with job applications I also have when writing essays (like this one!) I write about ideas all the time, but the second I consider the possibility of posting about, it becomes IMPORTANT, and therefore stressful, and therefore I don’t want to work on it.

Part of me wants to dig down and spend more time thinking about the purpose of my writing.  Is it sufficiently thoughtful, original, and well sourced? But I suspect that this is my mind conjuring a paper tiger. Understanding the purpose of writing comes after I start sharing it, not before, for after all, who can better help me understand the purpose here than my readers?

Readers are the best, and most valuable compass. The text above has undergone some amount of editing, mostly for flow and concision and transforming bullets into paragraphs, but it has been build upon the unstructured thoughts I had at 1:00AM. I decided to share it (which, I suppose from your perspective, is something of a foregone conclusion), but I nevertheless appreciate your having read it.

Consider it an experiment.

On Game of Thrones, Season 8

As of tonight, the phenomenon that is Game of Thrones can be evaluated in its entirety, and I wanted to take the chance to get down a hot take. My focus is not on the final episode, but the one previous, since it contained the the last significant plot development. Tonight’s episode is spent managing the repressions of the previous episode and typing up the loose ends.

Of course, there will be spoilers, so be warned. For a spoiler-free discussion,  recommend this twitter thread, which I will elaborate on below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First, a recap:

The major event in Season 8 Episode 5 was Dany’s “heel turn”. The action unfolds basically like this: Dany uses Drogon to destroy all of the city’s anti-dragon defenses and wipe out the Golden Company, the mercenary army that that Cersei had contracted for defense, all in a matter of minutes. At this point, the bells toll in the Red Keep, signaling the city’s surrender and giving Dany the opportunity to secure the city and the throne without any further bloodshed (and basically zero civilian casualties, which had been a major point of contention between her and her advisers up to this point). Dany rejects this opportunity, and commands Drogon to start indiscriminately torching the residents of King’s Landing.

Now, the writers did fairly clearly sketch out what motivated Dany’s decision. Earlier in the episode, Dany had come to the conclusion that she will not be loved in Westeros, so she must secure her rule by inspiring fear in her would-be adversaries. She decides that the best way to inspire fear is by demonstrating, in the most dramatic way possible, that she’s willing to be horrifically brutal to her enemies. To rationalize this, she argued that the commoners of King’s Landing, by failing to rise up in rebellion against Cersei, made themselves complicit with and ultimately accountable for her crimes. Emotionally, Dany was also stricken by grief and lacked anybody to check her worst impulses, since all of her trusted friends and advisors have either died (Missandie, Jorah, Rhegal), betrayed her (Varys), rejected her (Jon), or displayed staggering incompetence (Tyrion).

The Criticism:

My contention, which I share with most of the show’s other critics, is not that this development of Dany into the Mad Queen is bad, but that it’s execution was extremely rushed and clumsy.

Game of Thrones is defined by its willingness to play with and deviate from standard fantasy formulas in very interesting ways. Having the prophesized, underdog queen turn out to be a mass-murdering maniac is an excellent subversion of expectation, in the same pattern as the earlier deaths of multiple main characters.

However, Dany’s heel turn being thematically similar to Ned’s death and the Red Wedding does not mean that it should be executed in the same way.

Ned’s death and the Red Wedding stand out because they are sudden and shocking, but the reason these specific events work as shocking moments is because the relevant point-of-view characters shared some of the reader’s faulty assumptions about the trajectory of their story. Neither Ned nor Rob and Catelyn expected to die in the time or manner that they did. We can be blindsided because they are blindsided.

One of the core problems with the writing of the show once it outpaced its source material has been its apparent fetish for “sudden, shocking moments”, to the exclusion of other, more interesting ways to play with genre conventions.

Take, for example, the character arc of Jamie Lannister. That the treacherous child-murdering incestuous nihilistic jackass a redemption arc is a brilliant subversion of genre, and is arguably one of the most interesting facets of this story. But this subversion is explored over the course of multiple books/seasons, because it takes a lot of time to explore subversions that are rooted in character development.

I’m not saying that Dany’s character development should necessarily have been explored as exhaustively as Jamie’s. What I am saying is that her character development should not have been presented as a SUDDEN SHOCKING TWIST. Not everything can or should be shocking and sudden.

Of course, Dany’s descent into madness did not come completely out of left field. She had shown herself to be capable of extreme brutality towards her enemies on numerous earlier occasions, and she has always been somewhat impulsive and emotional, held in check by the efforts of advisers and mentors who are now no longer there.

But this account of her character is very incomplete. Yes, Dany has always had a brutal streak, but her moral universe had also always made the distinction between the powerless and downtrodden and the powerful, and she had repeated demonstrated concern for the former. She locks her dragons in a dungeon because they killed an innocent child. She repeatedly refuses to assault King’s Landing, (albeit grudgingly), out of concern for the welfare of the commoners.

There are many ways this change in Dany could have been explored and justified. We could discover that Dany’s concern for the commoners was ultimately shallow and perilously contingent on her feeling that the commoners love her, but this idea deserves more than a single episode.

What does this mean?

After watching the show, a lot of the fans have been trying to pin down what feels missing. This is difficult, with the finale so fresh, and the fact that fandoms are notorious for complaining. Also not helping us achieve clarity are the elements of that show that have remained consistently great or even surpassed the very high bar set by previous seasons.

But at the end of the day, I think the failures of the recent show are substantial and can be traced, more or less directly, to the limitations of its writers. The Game of Thrones was at its best when it was able to distill the sprawling plotlines of its source material down to its essentials (with pragmatic edits) and bring them to life with stratospheric talent and production values.

However once the show’s writers no longer had the source material from which they could graft and distill multi-episode arcs, and their bag of tricks was just too limited for the story that they were trying to tell. They maintained viewer interest with a combination of production values, fan service, and SHOCKING TWISTS, but the result was a season that managed to feel both bloated and rushed, with a bunch of scenes that didn’t feel like they mattered AND twists that didn’t feel organic or properly set up.

Of course, it’s hard to say at such an early date how the show will be remembered. History might be forgiving. This story may not have been possible to finish in a satisfying way, even by George R.R. Martin himself.

But I also suspect that this is the first of many great TV adaptations of fantasy novels. We’ve gotten to the point where technology is good enough and cheap enough to bring fantasy stories to life with enough time to explore them in the way they deserve. We have seen American Gods and Good Omens receive the prestige TV treatment. HBO is creating an adaptation of His Dark Materials, which I am giddy about. I suspect all of these owe their existence to success of Game of Thrones, and for that, at least, I can be grateful.

Russia Hacked the Election!

Well, no, not really.

The story, as far as I can tell, is that unnamed sources in the CIA believe that Russian agents hacked the emails of prominent Democrats and made their contents public in order to influence the election.

Even if 100% true, to call this “hacking the election” is profoundly misleading, and would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that basically every major news outlet has picked up on that phrasing.

It’s not that I think it’s good that private communications are being hacked and publicized by foreign nations in order to influence our political process. I’m just saying that when somebody does actually hack the election (i.e. actually interfere with the actual casting or counting of actual ballots), I don’t want to have to say “they nuked Washington DC” to communicate the gravity of what actually happened.

Plus, remember how we were worried about how, when Trump inevitably lost the election, he would undermine the legitimacy of the democratic process by saying that it was all rigged?

Yeah… Is it too much to ask for a credible opposition party right now?

I don’t want to downplay the significance of cyber espionage and is ramifications for politics. We live in a world where communications stored on hackable devices have a not-insignificant chance of being made public and used against political candidates. But that’s the reality we live in, regardless of whether the hackers in this particular instance were ex-KGB, Iranian secret service, or random guys in their basement.

More to the point, this isn’t really about Trump either. If email hacks are having an undue impact on political process, the solution is better cyber security protocols and more robust political strategies that won’t be upset by a few leaked emails. It’s a problem to be worked around in the next national election, but not a cause to panic.

Of course, there is a larger argument, which goes that Russia wanted Trump to be elected because they believed that Trump’s administration would weaken the United States and diminish our prestige and influence on the world stage. This might well be true. But the relevant story is that Trump’s administration would weaken the United States and diminish our prestige and influence on the world stage, not that Putin thinks this.

Of course, the real reason this is getting so much play is because the Clinton campaign had already been pushing a narrative about Trump’s connections with Vladimir Putin. I have never thought there was much to this. At one point on the campaign, Trump said something off the cuff about Putin being a stronger leader than Obama (which, while bad, is hardly the worst thing Trump has said off the cuff), and then someone on the Clinton campaign decided that the specter of our cold war adversary loomed large enough in the American psyche that alleging connections with Putin was the most damaging thing you could say about Trump (maybe it did well in focus groups).

And now we see this message has evolved into a full-blown conspiracy theory.

I think Freddie DeBoer’s take on this is pretty spot on. Even if the CIA has it right, there are plenty of more prescient reasons to oppose a Trump administration. I don’t want to see the opposition party spin itself into irrelevance by focusing on conspiracy theories.

One hopes that this is just an excuse to produce content about Trump, despite the fact that he’s not yet in the position to do anything newsworthy. Hopefully once he takes office and starts actually doing things, our news media will have enough interesting things to write about that conspiracies and rumors will drop off the map.

Hopefully we can get to work…

Ambiguity and Politics: Part 1

Although it is often called an optical illusion, this well-known image of a rabbit/duck technically isn’t. Optical illusions are images designed to trick your visual systems into perceiving something that isn’t there, such as motion in a static image. By contrast, the rabbit-duck is an ambiguous image. It plays with your head because it can be interpreted in multiple different and contradictory ways.

duck-or-rabbit-1

 

Why do I bring this up? Because I think the rabbit-duck, along with other ambiguous images, illustrate one of the reasons why people disagree about politics, due to the fact that multiple high- level narratives can be used to make sense of the same collection of experiences.

Take another ambiguous image:

2012669_f260

This image can be interpreted either as the silhouette of a vase, or the silhouette of two faces, depending on which features of image are interpreted as the foreground and which are in the background. The idea of the foreground/background concerns is extremely helpful for understanding political disagreements. Take this excerpt form Scott Alexander:

Some people think of government as another name for the things we do together, like providing food to the hungry, or ensuring that old people have the health care they need. These people know that some politicians are corrupt, and sometimes the money actually goes to whoever’s best at demanding pork, and the regulations sometimes favor whichever giant corporation has the best lobbyists. But this is viewed as a weird disease of the body politic, something that can be abstracted away as noise in the system.

And then there are other people who think of government as a giant pork-distribution system, where obviously representatives and bureaucrats, incentivized in every way to support the forces that provide them with campaign funding and personal prestige, will take those incentives. Obviously they’ll use the government to crush their enemies. Sometimes this system also involves the hungry getting food and the elderly getting medical care, as an epiphenomenon of its pork-distribution role, but this isn’t particularly important and can be abstracted away as noise.

I think I can go back and forth between these two models when I need to, but it’s a weird switch of perspective, where the parts you view as noise in one model resolve into the essence of the other and vice versa.

The key insight here is that the reason for the disagreement is not really about matters of fact. In this example, anti-government partisans are perfectly able to acknowledge that government does provide some valuable social services, just as the pro-government partisans able to acknowledge that governments are sometimes corrupt. Their disagreement is more about which concerns are central and which are peripheral.

Or you can take another issue, like whether or not we provide asylum to Syrian refuges, and notice that there are very strong opinions on both sides of this debate, despite the fact that everybody involved mostly agrees that 1) a large majority of refugees won’t pose any security risk whatsoever, and 2) Muslims are over represented among perpetrators of mass shootings and other acts of domestic terrorism (jihadists were responsible for about 1/3 of the mass shooting deaths in the past 10 years in the united states, despite the fact that Muslims make up about 1/100th of the US population).

This is certainly not a new observation about political debates, but its illuminates a reason that they can be very frustrating. If you assume that both you and your debate opponent are intelligent enough to avoid buying into any outright falsehoods (a la the fake news), it’s actually quite difficult to articulate a reasons why one set of concerns should be viewed as central, while other concerns should be viewed as peripheral.

It’s so difficult, in fact, that most of the time, partisans don’t even try to acknowledge the ambiguity at all. Instead, they will try to talk loudly about the issues that are broadly consistent with their preferred narrative, and change the subject when issues come up that contradict it. The result is that most political debates feel a lot like acrimonious disagreement over whether it’s a picture of a duck or a rabbit.

This isn’t necessarily to say that political issues are ambiguous, and that all positions are equally valid. For example, on the issue of Syrian refugees, I do actually think that the risk of terrorism is negligible compared to humanitarian benefits. But making a principled argument as to why is very tricky without, misspeaking, being misunderstood, or exposing myself to dirty debating tactics.

There’s a saying that an accusation against a political opponent need not be true in order to be damaging. It simply needs to be harder to refute than it is to sate. If you hear that and think “wow, that’s a really low bar”, you’re absolutely right. This is a large part of the reason why negative rhetoric is so common in politics. It’s easier to say “that policy is a disaster” than it is to explain why a policy X was a good idea.

The affordable care act has problems. It also has benefits. However, if your goal is to defend the affordable care act, it’s a lot easier to talk only about the benefits (and pivot whenever someone brings up problems) than it is to actually assess the problems and make the case that the benefits outweigh them.

This is true about politics in general. Even if your argument is sound, if it’s not simple, it’s not worth making. Negotiating ambiguity isn’t simple, and as a result practically nobody does it.

 

Looking back on the election

On election day, I flipped to facebook, and saw an event: “Laugh at Trump tower on November 9th”. A couple thousand people were going. I smiled to myself and tabbed over to 538. Nate Silver’s model gave Trump somewhere between 25% and 30% chance of victory.

Roughly the odds of two coin flips coming up heads, I thought. Not great, but not unthinkable either.  I knew that this was tempting fate– in fact, I said as much in a comment– but part of me didn’t want to feel left out.

I feel like I had been more prepared than most for Donald Trump winning. The day before the election, I read this piece by Scott Alexander, which I think brought home how small the margins of error were for both candidates. Just 1-2% would swing the election one way or another;. The day after the election, Nate Silver himself made basically he same point about how silly it is to radically change one’s thinking about the United States based on how 1-2% of the electorate cast their ballots. Basically, whatever could be said about a country where Trump won by a 1-2 point margin could also be said about a country where Clinton won by a 1-2 point margin. Either way, we would be a 45% pro-Trump country, give or take.

Of course, no matter how slight the victory, the spoils go to the victor, although the impact of the democratic loss was more resounding than any of us anticipated. Not only was the presidency lost; so were most of the tools the democrats could have used to restrain him.

The following morning, “Laugh at Trump Tower” had become “Protest at the Trump tower”. My thought at the time was something along the lines of well, it’ not like we have many other options. At 5:00 in the afternoon, it became clear that these protests weren’t only happening in Chicago; it was happening in most large cities.

I didn’t actually get to the protest until 9:00 in the evening, as things were winding down. At this point, people had been gathered since 5:00 in the afternoon, although still, several hundred remained assembled around the tower, milling about, waving signs. Some had climbed onto the cement platforms of the street lights. I heard that there had been counter-protesters there earlier in the day, but they had given up and gone home before I got there.

I was disappointed by that. I wanted a chance to see Trump’s more enthusiastic supporters first hand, get a sense of who they were, how they talked to each other…

I knew the Trump/Pence message was appealing in ways that most of my peers didn’t appreciate. I even said so on this blog after watching the vice-presidential debate, where I thought Mike Pence put on a much better show than Kaine, largely because he managed to look calm and sensible, while Kaine, “harped relentlessly on Trump’s gaffes (with a giant smirk on his face and obviously pre-prepared zingers), making himself look like the archetypal sanctimonious progressive.” All talk, no substance.

But of course, I had still concluded that the man’s campaign was doomed when, a few days later, the recording of Trump talking about grabbing women by the pussy came out and a quarter of his own party was calling for him leave the race.

I was also far from the only person to point out that many of the messages that liberals were selling absolutely stank of elitism. I read the Smug Style in american politics. I read Fredric DeBoer. I read Nixonland, which extensively catalogs the liberal consensus simply not getting it (Trump has even invoked Nixon’s “silent majority” in speeches). I grocked the backlash against the left’s overriding focus on the rhetoric of identity politics. I was surprised that the Trump campaign managed to pull it together, but I wasn’t shocked.

Of course, this isn’t saying much- it simply means that I have a slightly better intuition about the worldview of 47% of the electorate than some of my liberal peers. Sometime soon, I’ll write up a more detailed picture of what I think Trump represents…

In the past week, an enormous amount of virtual ink has been spilled talking about not only why the Democrats lost, but how they could have been so thoroughly blindsided by the loss, so thoroughly unable to stand upright as the ground moved beneath their feet.

At the protest, I was struck by how things seemed to happen on their own accord. Periodically, chants would emerge, fill the air for a few minutes, and re-emerge in a different form after they died down. At one point, a wave of sitting swept across the crowd. I sat with them, not sure exactly why. We may have been resisting an order to disperse from the police, which we were resisting, but it was hard to tell. After a few minutes of this, the crowd decided that it was going to disperse after all and began to walk en-masse down State Street.

The slogans kept coming.

“Fuck Trump! (What?) Fuck Trump! (What?)”

“We! Re-ject! The president elect!”

“No Trump! No KKK! No Racist USA!”

Sometimes I chanted along, but it was half-hearted. It seemed like more of the same. The same tired talking points, the same rage, the same push to frame everything in the terms of a narrative that had just been rejected, that had just failed in a spectacular way to unite the country.

But there was one chant that I found myself repeating with conviction. It went:

“No hate! No fear! Immigrants are welcome here!”

It was something that we could fight for, not against, captured in a couple of rhyming couplets.

There’s a vision of America, where the human spirit can flourish without the threat of persecution or violence, supported by the wise allocation of public resources. I do think a Donald Trump administration stands in the way of this vision, and could do more than any administration in recent history to prevent it from happening. And it’s in the service of the vision that he should be opposed.

The Heroes we Need

You know the scene in the Dark Knight, where the Joker has rigged up two boats with explosives and gave the people on each the detonator for the other boat? One boat was filled with convicts, the other with civilians. They are given an ultimatum: blow up the other boat, or in 30 minutes the Joker will blow up both.

In the movie, the people on the boats manage to resist blowing each other up  while Batman and  the Gotham PD take out the Joker, and prove that there is still good in the people of Gotham, or something like that.

But what if things had gone the other way? What if, 30 seconds after they were offered this ultimatum, one of the boats had blown the other sky high? So much for goodness at the heart of Gotham.

This is probably the more realistic scenario. As people, we often have opportunities to rise to the occasion and do the good thing, but we have a less-than-sterling track record of doing so.

The question is, if this happens, does the Batman hang up his cloak? Does he decide that Gotham isn’t worth saving?

I’d like to imagine that he doesn’t.

There’s something powerful about a love that can see a person, a city, or a country, with all of its faults laid bare, and still love it and fight for it. This love seems to me to be more admirable than love that idealizes or glosses over flaws. It’s easy to fight for something when you’ve convinced yourself it’s perfect. It’s harder, and therefore much more remarkable, when you haven’t.

So here we are, with the election of Donald Trump as the leader of the United States. I suppose you could say our faults have been laid bare. And yet, I still love my country. Let’s hunker down and get to work; America will need champions in the coming years.

The Cynical Case for Democracy

The latest New Yorker contains a review-essay of Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy, Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance, and Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter. This essay is described by  of the Marginal Revolution as “fair, knowledgeable, and informative”.

I agree with Tabarrok; the review provides an excellent outline of the avenues one can use to criticize our cherished form of government. Many of these criticism predate the American government, were explored in depth in classical political thought, and loomed large in the minds of America’s founders. Political thought since then has elaborated criticisms. There are many policy domains where democracy at least seems uniquely bad.

For example, take foreign policy. This piece, by T. Greer, is good enough that I will quote it at length.

Strategists and analysts often wish American policies were grounded in a sophisticated strategic vision implemented by a cadre of disinterested statesmen who have a nuanced understanding of the world and its doings. This is a fantasy. America is a democracy. Its statesmen must justify their actions to the masses on a set electoral time table. Top level bureaucrats are mostly chosen for partisan reasons. Important foreign policy decisions usually have more to do with value signalling on the domestic stage than a sober assessment of American interests on the international one. Leaders in both the executive and the legislative branches surround themselves with aids and hanger-ons with no special expertise or experience in foreign affairs. For basic economic reasons (which I have explained before), few Americans learn foreign languages. The American media do not care very much about foreign affairs, and the issues they do care about are given attention disproportionate to their import. These journalists, like almost all Americans, are appallingly ignorant of the history, religious traditions, and cultural quirks of foreign peoples. Policy must be filtered through layers of unresponsive bureaucracy, and the various agencies that implement these policies are poorly coordinated. To top if off, senior policy officials do not read books.

To these enduring elements of American politics we must add the distinctive features of the present moment: a divided, hyper-partisan federal government so severely gridlocked that long term planning is not possible; falling budgets that sharply constrain American activity abroad; and a wild upsurge in populist fervor that focuses political attention inward and demands simplicity from all candidates who wish to win over the masses.

We may lament these realities, but they are realities. They will not change in the short-term. Some may never change at all. Any successful strategy for America must be a strategy that can be created, sustained, and implemented in this system.

Note that this was written in October of 2015, many months before it would be vindicated tenfold by a particular orange man with a platform of “build the wall”, “take the oil”, and “bomb them into the stone age”.

I don’t think anybody can deny that democracy has really profound weaknesses, so I won’t to argue the point.

Rather, I wanted to briefly offer a minimal justification for democracy. It is cynical, but then, most “minimal” justifications are. Simply, I think democracy is the only form of government where the people who could conceivably lead a popular uprising, with all of the violence and pain these things entail, do not have an incentive to do so.

The logic is roughly this: winning an election and leading a popular uprising require a similar skill sets- charisma, resources, political talent. The difference is that it’s a lot easier to convince people to check your name in a box on election day than it is to convince them to take up arms, march into battle, and risk death and dishonor to overthrow the government on your behalf.

There may have been figures in American politics who had the wherewithal to accomplish the latter. But they had no incentive to try, because their skill, charisma, and resources- the very things that would give them a credible shot at overthrowing the government- would also make it incredibly easy for them to achieve power through electoral politics. Put another way, if a figure with presidential aspirations couldn’t handily win a somewhat fair election, it would not bode well for their ability to lead a popular revolt.

All of this hinges on the fact that self-interested, ambitious, power-craving plotters in the United States look at the world and decide that their best interests are served by playing the game by the rules that are set up- and all this requires is that our institutions aren’t obviously rigging elections, and that spoils of elections are real enough to be coveted.

Democracy gives the ambitious and the powerful a battlefield where blood is spilled very rarely, and in small quantities. It may also give us other things, but this alone is enough reason to defend it. To bring it back to the review in the New Yorker,

Maybe voting is neither commons nor market. Perhaps, instead, it’s combat. Relatively gentle, of course. Rather than rifles and bayonets, essentially there’s just a show of hands. But the nature of the duty may be similar, because what Brennan’s model omits is that sometimes, in an election, democracy itself is in danger.