Trolling by Polling


By Mike Cronin

Now that the presidential campaign season is in full swing, we are being treated to the usual inundation of “demographic” polling results (i.e. how are “soccer moms,” Hispanics, gays, white men, etc. going to vote?)  Taken individually, as they are usually reported, the vast majority of these polls tell us nothing useful.  Piolls that tell us how a state will vote are getting closer to valuable.

Consider: This page at Real Clear Politics lists numerous polls with entries similar to this one:

Race/Topic: State X:         Poll : Qunipiac                Results  Trump 44, Clinton 38                            Spread: Trump +6

Trump is up by six points over Clinton in State X.  Sounds dire for Clinton, right?

You still might be getting “trolled.”

Regardless of how you’d like the race to go, we need to remember how presidents get elected: by winning the Electoral College vote.  The popular vote heavily influences the Electoral College, but the nature of that influence is determined by state laws. As we’ve seen as recently as 2000, it is possible to win the popular vote but lose the electoral vote and the election. In terms of polls: It means that generic surveys of this or that demographic, such as the one cited above, are almost useless by themselves for telling us how an election might go, especially in “solid” red or blue states. It makes no difference if a candidate’s poll numbers go up in a state that was already going to vote for them.  It makes a great deal of difference if a candidate’s numbers change in a battleground state with a lot of electoral votes, such as Florida or Ohio – such a shift could move electoral votes from one column to the other, perhaps enough to get to 270.

Thus, even taken in aggregate, “demographic” polls aren’t much of a barometer.  A much more instructive product would tell us how every state is currently trending, with caveats for the states (Nebraska and Maine) that are not “winner take all.”  Such a tool would give us a much better predictive assessment of the electoral college votes likely to go to each candidate.

Such a beast exists: They have broken down the race several ways.  If we look at their map that “kluges” current polling data with expert forecasters’ opinions, Mrs. Clinton already has 272 votes in her camp, two more than are needed to win.  But  if we look at their chart that displays the accumulation of polling data only and omits “expert opinion,” then Clinton has about 200 electoral college votes in her camp (out of 270 needed to win), while Mr. Trump has 163.  Either situation sounds much more troublesome for him than “Trump up by six” sounds for Clinton, doesn’t it?

If “demographic” polls vice “electoral vote” polls do little to predict the outcome of the Electoral College race, why publish them? At least two possibilities come to mind:

  1. There’s nothing like stirring the pot in order to keep you tuned in and watching advertisements.
  2. To shape voters’ behavior in some way favorable to whomever commissioned the poll. Example one: Clinton’s current lead only translates to victory on Election Day if enough voters actually go to polling places and pull levers.  If you want Clinton to win, maybe you paint her as losing ground in the polls in order to generate a hint of doubt. Maybe that will motivate folks to go vote that might have stayed home if they felt comfortable she was going to win. Example two: If you want Trump to win, you might commission such a poll in order to generate enthusiasm by painting him as an underdog coming from behind and pulling ahead – a narrative that always does well in America.

Manifestly, Donald Trump still has an uphill battle.  In his best case scenario, he has to take 107 more votes and keep Clinton from gaining, while in his worst case he needs to take at least three of Clinton’s existing votes away!

Despite being much more instructive than run-of-the-mill poll reporting, even such tools as the “270towin” charts are not infallible, nor is the sentiment recorded today going to be the same on election day.  Clinton’s recent bout with “pneumonia,” clumsy messaging regarding her overall health, and “deplorable” commentary on Trump supporters certainly helped Trump’s polling tick up a bit, but did it affect the electoral vote trend?  Time will tell – and we still have to get through the “October Surprise.”

While such and event or revelation may yet upend the race, there is sure to be a battle over the next few weeks for the remaining available electoral votes. Poll results that don’t tell you how that aspect of the election is going are probably not worth your consideration.

Testing our Constitution


By Mike Cronin

Today ought to be a national holiday.  229 years ago today, the Constitution was created.  It was ratified and became the highest law of the land two years later in March of 1789.  Contrary to popular opinion, or even popular “fact” taught in many of our schools, the Constitution didn’t give us a democracy, even though it specified certain democratic processes for electing the president and members of Congress and for proposing and enacting legislation.  It gave us a republic – a form of government where the people’s rights were protected by law and could not be voted away at the whim of the majority.  It gave us the first country in the history of mankind founded on the ideal of individual liberty and personal freedom.

The Constitution, and our republic, has been under attack, either literally or rhetorically, ever since.  Some, like Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, would have us believe the Constitution is a “living document,” i.e. open to re-interpretation through whatever cultural lens exists at a given time.  The Framers knew better than that.  They knew America would not be the same in 1887 or 1987 as it was in 1787, so they crafted a mechanism into the Constitution that would allow for it to be changed: via amendments. They deliberately made the amendment process challenging, but not impossible.  It has worked just fine at least 17 times over the last 229 years.  The most recent, the 27th Amendment, was ratified in 1992.  (Yes, there are 27 amendments, but the first ten were enacted simultaneously as the Bill of Rights, hence 17 instances the amendment process has been carried out.)

One of those amendments, the first in fact, is being tested right before our eyes today. There is a public controversy over several NFL players who are refusing to stand during the playing of the National Anthem.  As a veteran, I am in the curious position of both feeling pained and proud.  It pains me to see people disdain the anthem, because so many have fought and died to protect the freedom and liberty the flag stands for. And yet, the very first freedom protected by the Bill of Rights is the freedom of expression.  As much as it galls me to admit it, our country has not always acted in accord with its own highest law.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, for nearly a century after the Constitution was ratified, men could own other men in this country…if they were black. Our history has other examples of its failure to abide by the Constitution and the principles of individual freedom it protects: Confiscatory income taxes. The draft. Excessive bureaucracy and scandalous deficits and debt. Spying on citizens. Obamacare. Failures to hold officials accountable for their transgressions in office. The list is not short.

So when an NFL player refuses to stand for the National Anthem, and no government sanction ensues, I can be proud to witness an instance where the Constitution itself is being honored by the government, even if those who have given everything in its defense are being dishonored.

Of course that works both ways.  Just as those few players have the right not to stand, the fans, the teams, and the league have the right to express their displeasure at the offending players.  It would not pain me at all to see the league fine, or the teams discharge, the players in question!

Nuclear Power, Shaving Cream, and Magnets

By Mike Cronin

Q: How is the nuclear power industry like shaving cream?

A: We’ll get to the answer in a moment, but a little background is in order. According to the video above, the “energy density” from nuclear fission (splitting atoms of heavy radioactive elements, like uranium and plutonium) is a million times greater than from chemical reactions, such as occur with conventional explosives or burning fossil fuels.  A nuclear reactor perhaps the size of your thumb could power your car. Yet there is a huge fear factor with nuclear power because nuclear fission is also the same energy source in atomic weapons, and because of incidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.

We needn’t be so fearful.  Check out these facts:

The nuclear energy industry is safer than the coal industry. As of Februray 2013, no one had died due to radiation poisoning from Fukushima.  In fact, despite the deaths that occurred at Chernobyl, the nuclear power industry is the safest of all of the major power generating industries in terms of deaths per terawatt hour generated.  Here’s the breakdown (retrieved from ):

Energy Source Mortality Rates; Deaths/yr/TWh

Coal – world average, 161

Coal – China, 278

Coal – USA, 15

Oil – 36

Natural Gas – 4

Biofuel/Biomass – 12

Peat – 12

Solar/rooftop – 0.44-0.83

Wind – 0.15

Hydro – world, 0.10

Hydro – world*, 1.4

Nuclear – 0.04

That’s right: even solar and wind energy are more hazardous to workers than nuclear power.

So if nuclear power is safer and more energy-dense than any of these other forms of power, why aren’t we using more of it, and burning less fossil fuels? Cost, mainly.  Because nuclear power scares people, and because a reactor safety failure can lead to radioactive contamination, the industry is heavily regulated and plants are very expensive to build. (By the way, the coal industry releases far more radioactivity into the atmosphere than the nuclear industry!)

But some of that problem is due to the business model followed by the industry.  Power plant reactors are designed to use radioactive uranium or plutonium isotopes in their cores. Very little of the uranium that occurs naturally in the earth is of the required isotope.  The necessary isotope can be made by “enriching” regular uranium through various processes, all of which lead to a very expensive (on par with gold or platinum in price per ounce) final product.  Plutonium doesn’t even occur in nature, but it can be man-made, or “bred,” in nuclear reactors using enriched uranium…for about the same price per ounce.  Both enriched uranium and plutonium can be made “weapons grade” and used to make the cores of atomic bombs. In fact, the weapon industry, inaugurated by the Manhattan Project, gave rise to the power industry as we know it today.

So how is the nuclear power industry like the shaving industry?  Some time ago, Gillette came upon the idea of selling razor handles cheaply, at or below cost, or even giving them away, and charging prices with high profit margins for shaving consumables (disposable blades, creams, and gels).  A perpetual profit engine was born.

Nuclear power companies often work the same way.  They might build a power plant for a utility for little or no profit, but then reap a profit stream via the consumables (enriched uranium and plutonium) end of the business.

There is another business model that might make nuclear power much more palatable to the average customer, if the corporations in the industry could be convinced it would be as profitable.  It involves using a much more widely available radioactive material to generate the fission reaction: thorium. In this model, the thorium would be mixed with fluoride and circulated in the reactor as a molten salt.  The acronym the industry uses for such a system is LFTR (“lifter”). The benefits are worth considering:

Thorium is far more plentiful and far cheaper to obtain than uranium or plutonium

The reactor can’t “runaway” and “melt down” through its own containment – the fuel is already molten, but it’s at ~700 degrees, not the thousands of degrees needed to melt through steel and concrete

The fuel can be used much more efficiently (there would be far less radioactive waste)

A power plant that used it would not be cheap, but it wouldn’t need to cost any more than a standard nuclear plant

The reactor operates at ambient pressures, which means the plant doesn’t need expensive pressure containment “vessels,” such as the ones that failed at Fukushima

There is increasing debate about using the LFTR model in the nuclear power generation industry.  It may or may not be a better system, but to have a chance at replacing the current standard, proponents will have to convince the industry that they can make as much or more profit from LFTR than they can with traditional reactors.  They may get two boosts from unexpected quarters: magnets and China.

Not just any magnets, but strong, rare-earth magnets made from a metal element called neodymium. Neodymium magnets are used in such applications as microphones, speakers, and computer hard drives.  Where thorium may be plentiful and cheap (compared to the desired uranium isotope), neodymium is relatively scarce and expensive…but it is often found in the same geological areas (in other words, a thorium mine might produce some significant quantities of neodymium as well, according to an extended version of the video above). China currently has a corner on the world market for neodymium, and China, and a few other countries, are looking into building LFTR nuclear plants.   Switching the US nuclear power generating paradigm from uranium to thorium might not generate the same kind of profitable consumables stream, but obtaining the neodymium might make up for the loss – and break China’s near-monopoly on neodymium to boot.

Comfortable Lies and Painful Truths


By Mike Cronin

Comfortable lie: The one-percenters have too much money. They should have to pay their fair share of taxes so the rest of us can have more government benefits.

Painful truth(s): 1.The 99-percenters in the developed world (especially in the US) are the one-percenters compared to the rest of the world. If you have food, (even if it wasn’t prepared by a private chef) a car (even if it’s a used beater), a roof (even if it’s a crappy apartment or trailer), multiple changes of clothes (even if you got them second hand), air conditioning, a microwave, and a flat screen TV (or could have those things if you didn’t blow your money on tattoos, booze, drugs, or lotto tickets) then YOU ARE NOT POOR, even if you are living “below the poverty line.” 2. Regardless of how much money a rich person has, it is their money.  If you elect politicians to take money from the rich via taxation, you are no different than a gangster who hires thugs to rob people at gunpoint (unless it can be proved that a given rich person obtained their wealth via theft, exploitation, or other criminal means – and even in such circumstances, the only people who deserve their “fair share” of that wealth are the direct victims, not the rest of us).

Comfortable lie: Your employer owes you a “living wage” and medical benefits.  People who don’t get those things are being exploited.

Painful truth(s): 1. Your employer owes you what you agreed to work for when you signed on and not a dime more.  2. The idea that your employer OWES you medical coverage is fallacious – unless such coverage was part of the compensation you agreed to before you started working there.  The practice of offering medical insurance became popular as a way to increase compensation to deserving employees during World War II without violating the government-imposed wage freezes of the time.  3. You OWE IT TO YOURSELF to increase your knowledge, skills, and abilities in order to increase your worth to your current employer (in order to merit raises and promotions) or to progress up the career ladder at subsequent employment – if you want to increase your income, increase your value.   4. You OWE IT TO YOURSELF not to start, or increase the size of, your family while you are working low-wage/low-benefit jobs. 5. If the pay in your chosen field is generally lower than you might like, it’s probably because there is no shortage of people waiting in line that can take your place. If people with similar skills sets to your own aren’t scarce, there is no need for employers to offer higher compensation. Again – if you want to increase your income, increase your value.

Comfortable lie: We have a right to life, liberty, and happiness. The government must take care of all of our needs from birth to death.

Painful truth: You have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The government is supposed to protect those rights by not allowing others to interfere with you, so long as you don’t interfere with others.  The government cannot “take care of” everyone without violating those very same rights.  Consider: if the government MUST provide your health care, then it MUST force doctors and other medical professionals to deliver that care. In so doing it has violated the medico’s right to life and liberty and pursuit of happiness (because the government has directed, under threat of penalties, how some portion of the medic’s life is to be spent).

Comfortable lie: We must nurture every kid’s sense of self-esteem by awarding participation trophies, de-emphasizing grades, and eliminating every objectionable word or insensitive influence, etc…

Uncomfortable truths: “If you look like food, you will be eaten.” (Clint Smith) 1. All life is competitive. Predators have to catch prey; prey has to outrun predator. Even plants compete for sunlight.  If you try to protect your kids from competition instead of teaching them how to function in a competitive environment, you are doing them a disservice. (Oh, and by the way, sports are an excellent place to do that…but they are not the only arena!) 2. A kid who has never felt the sting of losing or the “thrill of victory” isn’t going to have healthy self-esteem; he or she is going to have a dysfunctional sense of being entitled to things he or she didn’t earn.