Ryan Beck
  • Coronavirus Vaccine Information

    November 23, 2020

    Trying to get information on the potential coronavirus vaccines has been frustrating. The information I want is never in one place, it’s often vague and usually scattered across multiple links. So I thought I’d take a shot 💉 at providing a more useful resource. The table below has the latest information I could find on the vaccines the US has agreed to purchase. Sources and notes are below the table with more information. The embedded table is a bit hard to navigate so for better full-screen viewing go to this link. I’ll be updating this table occasionally, check the date below the table for when it was last updated.

  • Predicting the Biden Presidency

    November 20, 2020

    I thought it would be interesting to predict what will happen under the Biden presidency. I think making falsifiable predictions is important for improving our perceptions and predictions and holding ourselves accountable. There seems to be an epidemic of unfalsifiable predictions and assertions lately, and I think that may be either a symptom or a cause of what I perceive as a decrease in social trust and an increase in conspiracy theories.

    Here are my predictions of what will happen in Biden’s first term. What do you think will happen? Feel free to copy some or all of these and make your own forecast and we can compare in four years. There’s a google spreadsheet at the end too that you can copy and use if that’s easier.


    First a bit about how I’m doing the predictions. The Senate is still contested and Democrats could win control of it by winning both Georgia runoff seats. So the main percentage is my prediction with Republican control of the Senate. The number in parenthesis is my prediction if Democrats control the Senate. If there are no parenthesis I think it’s something that doesn’t depend on the Senate.

    The closer to 0% or 100% the more confident I am, closer to 50% means less confidence. Sometimes percentage probabilities can be difficult to think about, so it can help to think about other ways, such as a 25% chance is in 1 in 4 and 10% chance is 1 in 10. There’s a way to score how you do on predictions that I’ll discuss at the end of the post.

    :icecream: = Biden has specifically proposed or advocated for this or an even larger version
    :x: = Biden has specifically said he won’t do this

    No emoji means I’m not certain enough of his stance to say one way or the other.


    95% - Rejoins the Paris agreement (counts even if not ratified by Senate) :icecream:
    0% (1%) - Bans fracking (defined as a direct blanket ban on all fracking) :x:
    20% (60%) - Implements a carbon tax
    10% (65%) - Passes significant climate legislation (I’m defining as a climate bill including at least $500 billion invested in climate change mitigation and related areas) :icecream:

    5% - Implements a mask mandate (defined as one that’s legally enforceable or has a defined punishment. Still counts if later ruled unconstitutional)
    95% - Implements a mask policy (one not federally enforceable, such as guidelines or incentives for states to implement mask mandates. Counts even if it’s referred to as a mandate but not actually required or enforceable) :icecream:
    85% (99%) - Passes a coronavirus relief bill providing $500 billion or more in relief and funding :icecream:
    35% (65%) - Pass a coronavirus relief bill providing over $1 trillion in relief and funding and including stimulus checks (one bill of this size would also satisfy previous question) :icecream:

    95% - Increases refugee admissions to about where they were before Trump (I’m defining as a cap of 80k or higher maintained over most of the term) :icecream:
    25% - Sets the refugee admissions cap to 200k or higher (about double Obama’s 2017 cap, maintained over at least one year)
    5% (20%) - Creates a legal pathway to citizenship (defining as a law passed by congress that would allow undocumented immigrants to eventually become citizens after meeting certain criteria) :icecream:
    85% - Removes the travel ban (or Muslim ban) on more than half the countries currently barred from certain types of travel or immigration (archived link listing countries with prohibitions as of 11/19/2020: https://web.archive.org/web/20201119223419/https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Executive_Order_13780) :icecream:

    80% - Decreases average tariffs on China
    90% - Decreases average tariffs on Canada and other allies
    10% (60%) - Raises the corporate income tax :icecream:
    90% - Raises the minimum wage for federal employees and contractors to $15 an hour or more :icecream:
    5% (40%) - Raises the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour or more :icecream:
    40% (35%) - Increases direct taxes on those making under $400,000 (I’m defining direct taxes as income, payroll, social security, etc. taxes paid directly by individuals, indirect taxes like an increase in the corporate tax resulting in lower wages or a carbon tax resulting in higher prices would not count) :x:

    20% (55%) - Passes a public option :icecream:
    0% (3%) - Passes Medicare for All (defined as a single payer healthcare plan that covers all or nearly all healthcare costs) :x:

    3% - Enters the US into a new authorized war (counts regardless of how it was initiated, a war authorized by Congress either directly or with funding) :x:
    15% - Enters the US into a new unauthorized war or conflict (US drone strikes or US soldiers performing combat operations would count, monetary support would not count, current example would be ongoing US activity in Yemen) :x:
    99% - Rejoins the WHO :icecream:
    75% - Rejoins the Iran nuclear deal :icecream:
    65% - Fewer US troops in Iraq at end of Biden’s term than at end of Trump’s term* :icecream:
    65% - Fewer US troops in Afghanistan at end of Biden’s first term than at end of Trump’s term* :icecream:

    *I’ll base troops at end of Trump’s term on his last order. If he orders a withdrawal that continues into Biden’s term it’ll be based on Trump’s last order.

    30% (60%) - Decriminalizes marijuana at the Federal level (removes jail time as punishment for first time possession of small amounts of marijuana, no longer goes on record) :icecream:
    5% (15%) - Legalizes marijuana :x:
    5% (25%) - Eliminate the death penalty at the federal level (does not mandate elimination at state level) :icecream:
    5% (35%) - End mandatory minimum sentences at the Federal level :icecream:

    55% (80%) - Increase the child tax credit :icecream:
    20% (65%) - Increases or expands EITC benefits or EITC-like benefits (LIFT act or similar) :icecream:
    25% (70%) - Expands housing voucher funding or access to housing vouchers :icecream:

    30% (65%) - Cancels $100 billion or more in Federal student loans :icecream:
    15% (55%) - Makes public colleges tuition free for families with incomes less than $100,000 :icecream:

    0% (5%) - Bans “assault weapons” :icecream:
    5% (30%) - Bans online sale of firearms or ammunition (counted as yes if either are banned) :icecream:

    10% (40%) - Pass legislation to require community development grant recipients to implement zoning reforms for less restrictive zoning to be eligible for the grant (HOME Act or similar) :icecream:
    30% (60%) - Pass a significant multi-year infrastructure bill (defined as at least $250 billion in surface transportation infrastructure funding over several years) :icecream:
    0% (25%) - The Senate filibuster is eliminated

    25% - Roe v. Wade overturned
    10% - Harris replaces Biden before his term is up
    1% - A state that went to Biden ends up going to Trump as a result of a recount or court decision
    35% - Democrats win a majority in the Senate in 2020 (50 seats plus Harris as tiebreaker)


    Why am I so uncertain on getting some of these things done even if Democrats win the Senate?
    Because the filibuster exists and I think it’s unlikely Democrats get rid of it even with control of the Senate, which makes it very difficult for them to pass legislation they want to pass.

    Why are some of these proposals less than what Biden has proposed, for example free college for families earning less than $100k instead of his $125k proposal or $500 billion for climate change instead of his $2 trillion proposal?
    Because no president gets what they want and I wanted to set the bar for the question at something more plausible to make it interesting. If I set his free college income limit at $125k but the final bill ends up at $110k I think most people would consider that being a goal fulfilled for Biden, even though he didn’t get quite what he wanted.

    Why did I pick these questions and issues?
    Mostly I just focused on the bigger issues and things that will have a clear yes or no resolution. Biden has tons of pretty specific proposals on his website, so I just picked some of the biggest or most controversial to keep things simple and the ones I think will have the most attention on them during his term. I also picked a few that I’m interested in and want to follow. Predicting things is a good way to keep track of what happens with them, it gives you a bigger incentive to follow up on their outcome.


    The most common way of scoring predictions is with the Brier score. The Brier score is a measure of the difference between your forecast and the outcome. Like golf, a lower score is better. It’s the difference between your forecast and reality squared. For example, if I predict a 70% chance that the sun rises tomorrow, and the sun does rise tomorrow, my Brier score would be (1 - 0.7)^2 + (0 - 0.3)^2 = 0.18. That equation represents my forecast of 70% that the sun rises minus the outcome of it rising (100%) plus my implied forecast of 30% that the sun doesn’t rise minus the outcome of it not rising (0%). A perfect Brier score is zero. The worst Brier score is 2. The Brier score of guessing at random (50%) is 0.5, so to be better than random guessing your Brier score should be below 0.5.

    Note that there’s another way to calculate the above Brier score which would be (1 - 0.7)^2 = 0.09. This method leaves out the implied 30% chance the other thing happens. Under this method random guessing equates to a Brier score of 0.25. I’m using the first method instead of this one just to be consistent with the way I’m used to seeing it.

    If you want to participate I made a google sheet you can copy and fill out your own percentages that will do the scoring for you. You could even modify it to forecast on other questions if you wanted to too. But you definitely don’t need to use this, it’s easy enough to score by hand. And using Brier scores isn’t really necessary either, it’s just a useful way to compare scores, you could always make predictions and just see how far off they were without using an actual score. https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1_p_WArcp0RFRhVYbaKZgr38BlHOCc96ma4cgMqx_owg/edit?usp=sharing

    So that’s that, if there are any big questions about his presidency you think I should add let me know! I encourage you to forecast some of these questions yourself either publicly or privately and see how you do four years from now.

  • The Logic (or Lack of) Behind Third Party Voting

    August 13, 2020

    I want to discuss the strategy and logic behind the decision to vote third party or sit out of an election. Below are some of the common reasons people use to vote third party, and I’ll discuss each of these.

    1.) If a third party does well in this election maybe more people will start to see that party as a viable option and we can stop choosing the lesser of two evils. 2.) The candidates are both bad, I don’t want to vote for either. 3.) I genuinely like this third party candidate a lot. 4.) My vote doesn’t matter so it doesn’t really change anything if I vote third party.

    This may not be a comprehensive list but I think these are some of the primary considerations. People often have more than one of these reasons for voting third party, and some of these apply to people who abstain from voting. The following discussion isn’t intended to be specific to this election year. It mainly only applies to presidential elections, some of these responses aren’t as valid at the state or local level.

    1.) If a third party does well this election maybe more people will start to see that party as a viable option and we can stop choosing the lesser of two evils.

    This reasoning depends on a couple assumptions. One is that there are enough voters out there who would prefer a certain third party to one of the two main parties. Another is that our voting system is stable with three or more prominent parties.

    The first assumption is at least plausible, but I’m also very skeptical. For one, the reason the two main parties have remained in power so long is because the parties’ politics shift to match public opinion as best they can. One example is same-sex marriage. The opinion of both the general public and of Democratic politicians shifted very quickly on this issue. That change is likely both because Democratic politicians genuinely changed their opinion like many in the public did, and also because they had to shift their public stance or risk getting voted out. Even most Republican politicians no longer talk about this issue because the public opinion has shifted so much. So the idea that a third party is going to capture enough of the voters from either of the main two parties to win an election is hard to believe.

    The second assumption is the idea that our electoral system can support more than two parties. I don’t think it can, and the reason is because of how voting currently works. We cast one vote for one person. This system requires compromise and consolidation. Imagine if there were 100 candidates of about equal popularity. No one would win, a different candidate would probably win each state and no candidate would get enough electoral votes to win the electoral college (you need 270 out of 538 to win). To win the field has to consolidate enough so that a candidate can receive a majority of electoral votes. That consolidation can either happen by voters cooperating and focusing on one compromise candidate or by candidates cooperating and dropping out to support other candidates. The candidates that are similar but stay in the race will split votes and each be weaker than they otherwise would be.

    That same effect works when going from two to three candidates. If there are more than two candidates those that are the most similar will split votes and be weaker than they otherwise would have been. Having a third party only strengthens the party that’s furthest away politically from the third party, and the stronger the third party the bigger this effect. Theoretically the third party could get large enough to replace one of the two main parties, but it would likely take many years of lost elections for the two weaker parties to swap. The largest percent of votes for a third party in the last 100 years was for Ross Perot, running as an independent in 1992. He got 18.91%, and even a showing that good didn’t lead to renewed interest or greater success for third party candidates.

    2.) The candidates are both bad, I don’t want to vote for either.

    This is a reason that can be used for both voting third party and not voting. As described in the discussion of reason 1, a third party vote is very unlikely to result in a viable third party or end lesser of two evils voting. It’s essentially the same as abstaining. So I’m going to refer to both as abstaining in the discussion of reason 2.

    One of the two major party candidates will win. By abstaining you are not expressing your preferences at all. Your opinions have no effect on the outcome. And usually the idea that the two main party candidates are the same is just a figure of speech. They’re clearly different in many ways. Just as an example look at Biden and Trump. Biden wants to rejoin the Paris climate change accord, Trump left it. Biden wants to increase the number of refugees admitted to the US, Trump has been decreasing the amount admitted. These are just two differences out of many, but both are things that the president essentially has complete control over and can change on their own without Congress.

    Despite the existence of differences it may still be reasonable to abstain if overall you think they will be equally bad. Maybe you don’t care about immigration, or what the tax rate is, or climate change policy, or healthcare, or gun policy or any of those things the candidates normally have wide differences on. Maybe you only care about specific things like abuse of presidential power, global nuclear disarmament, or our relationship with Canada and you think both candidates would be equally bad on that issue. Or maybe you do care about the other things too but both candidates are a mix of okay and really bad on those issues. If you legitimately can’t decide which would be worse it makes sense to abstain. But only as long as you’ve made a genuine effort to compare the two and have fully considered the impact that the differing policies would have not only on you but also on other people in the country.

    In reality that’s not always how the “both sides are the same” reason is used. Often it’s that one side wants to do things the abstainer hates, while the other side wants to do some things the abstainer hates and some things that are sort of in the right direction but don’t go nearly far enough. In this scenario abstaining accomplishes nothing. One of the two will still win, but the abstainer gets no say in which things are at least sort of in the right direction.

    3.) I genuinely like this third party candidate a lot.

    This one is similar to reason 2 except that voting third party isn’t only a protest vote, the third party candidate genuinely aligns with you on most policy preferences. Sometimes people who use this reason may even like one of the main party candidates but they just like a third party candidate a lot more. The same discussion for reason 2 still applies. As much as they align with your policy preferences and values, by voting for the third party candidate you are essentially not voting, your preferences aren’t being counted toward the actual decision being made.

    4.) My vote doesn’t matter so it doesn’t really change anything if I vote third party.

    This one can be true, depending on where you live. A voter in California who would normally vote Democrat but wants to vote third party for whatever reason is probably pretty safe in doing that. But as I discussed for reasons 1 through 3 it’s probably ineffective to do that regardless. And which states are competitive can vary election to election. While California and Kentucky are probably not going to be competitive anytime soon, this year Texas, which is traditionally a red state, is polling pretty close. And near my neck of the woods there’s Nebraska 2, the district of Nebraska containing Omaha, which is close too and could potentially flip from Trump to Biden.

    I think that covers the main reasons people vote third party or abstain. In summary the only logical reason to vote third part or abstain is if you genuinely believe the two candidates would be equally bad after fully researching and considering the effects of their different policies on you, your fellow Americans, and the country itself. Your vote shouldn’t be thought of as a moral endorsement or a perfect expression of your politics, it should be thought of as expressing your preference between the candidates most likely to win.

    If you don’t like that third parties aren’t viable in the United States then start advocating for ranked choice voting. Ranked choice voting would allow everyone to vote for their first preference without wasting their vote, because once the first choice was found not to have enough support their vote would shift to their second choice, and so on. I think this would increase voter satisfaction and allow everyone to see what the country’s true preferences are. However, if we do someday manage to switch to ranked choice voting I think people should be prepared for the possibility that it doesn’t change the two party presidential system. Like I discussed in reason 1, the two main parties are probably many people’s genuine first choice out of all the options. But if that’s actually the case at least our voting system would reveal that and we could move on from the theory that everyone would vote third party if they just knew more about them or stopped voting for the lesser of two evils.

    Thoughts? Did I miss any important factors or argue any of these badly or unfairly? Follow me on social media and share your thoughts.

  • Vice President Discourse Usually Neglects a Big Factor

    August 03, 2020

    Biden will be announcing his pick for vice president soon, and I think one aspect of the VP selection has been overlooked in the discussions about it. Most of the focus on the VP has been about what the pick does for the presidential nominee’s electability or appealing to different demographics. I don’t know if the data supports those factors, I would guess they’re very overrated. But the factor that doesn’t get enough attention is whether the chosen VP will be a good candidate for a future presidential election.

    In recent years several VPs have gone on to run for president and win the party nomination. I wanted to look at this more closely and see how common it is and if there are any trends. So I looked at all 48 VPs to see if they sought the presidency after their VP term, whether they got the party nomination, and if they eventually won the presidency. See the first image for the table I put together summarizing that information (it’s color coded to be more at a glance, see the second image for the key).

    *Used where VP died in office or president died and VP assumed office. VPs who succeeded to the presidency are not counted as a nomination or run for presidency.

    As you can see there’s a recent trend toward VPs becoming the party nominee in the future. A couple things surprised me about this table. One is that a lot of VPs and presidents died in office. Those are the rows in gray. This table also seems to point out the benefits of improved healthcare, as deaths of the VP or president appear to be less common now.

    Another surprise was how recent the trend is for VPs to win the party nomination. It’s a lot more common now than it used to be. It’s become increasingly likely that a VP will go on to win the party nomination. See the third image for how successful VPs are at running for president and how often they choose to run.

    I think there are a couple reasons this trend is happening. One big factor is that the presidential nominee has trended toward being chosen by the public instead of by party leaders. The first state primary was in the first decade of the 1900s. Prior to the prominence of primaries it was up to just the delegates to choose the presidential nominee at the convention, and the delegates were typically important members of the party. I think that as the public gained more control over who the nominee is, name recognition became a bigger factor. Party bosses would be more likely to know all the major players and their politics, so they have a larger pool of favorites to pick from. Your regular citizen might know only the big names and want someone familiar to them.

    The other big factor is the role of vice presidents and how they’re selected. In the 1700s the vice president was the candidate receiving the second most electoral votes for president. This changed after Jefferson and Burr tied in 1800. But even after the change vice presidents were often selected at the convention instead of being carefully chosen by the president beforehand. Vice presidents have to be confirmed by the delegates at the convention, and as recently as the 1980 Republican national convention this was done by casting votes. Since then the parties have confirmed the presidential nominee’s desired VP by voice vote. Reagan was also the first presidential candidate to announce his choice for VP prior to the convention in 1976.

    That’s not to say that prior to that the presidential nominees weren’t picking the VP, in the decades prior to the change to voice votes the delegates would usually just confirm whoever the president wanted to be their running mate. For example, Nixon announced that he wanted Agnew to be his VP at the 1968 Republican Convention and Agnew won the nomination easily. But in the first half of the 1900s and earlier, the VP was often primarily selected by the convention instead of by the presidential nominee. As late as 1944, many in the Democratic party opposed Roosevelt’s VP, Henry Wallace, and convinced him to drop Wallace in favor of Truman.

    What does VP selection have to do with the recent trend of VPs winning the nomination in the future? In my opinion a big reason for this trend is increased unity between the president and the VP. VPs are now carefully picked to ensure unity with the presidential nominee and the convention automatically accepts the chosen VP. In contrast, since VPs were historically not chosen primarily based on unity with the president they often butted heads with the president and some publicly opposed some of the presidents’ policies. That kind of opposition can make a VP a controversial figure, which in my opinion is why they less frequently received the presidential nomination after their term as VP. And this combines with the previous factor I mentioned when you consider that it was party leaders acting as delegates who were choosing presidential nominees. Those party leaders would be more attuned to conflicts between the VP and the president, and would be more likely to have a preferred side than your average member of the public. The increased unity between president and VP in recent years means that partisans who liked the president will probably like the VP and support their nomination in later years. And if the president wasn’t particularly well liked the VP can skirt around most of the bad press while still associating themselves with the qualities that voters liked about the president.

    The high likelihood of the VP becoming the party nominee in the future should have much more weight in the way we talk about the VP selection process. It’s often ignored in these discussions, and I think it should probably be the main criteria for selection. Using presidential prospect as the main criteria forces us to put more weight on factors like age and electability. I’m also very glad that Biden promised to nominate a woman. Putting a woman in prime position to be party nominee in a future election greatly increases the chances of a woman becoming president in the near future. After hundreds of years with very little diversity in the oval office any move to increase the odds of greater diversity and representation is very important.

    If I made any errors please let me know. My sources for this were mainly a whole bunch of Wikipedia articles that are easily found so I won’t bother linking to them, and a few other articles I used to verify things that were vague or looked questionable. And as a final note keep in mind the sample size is low, particularly when we’re just looking at the last 50 or 75 years, so this isn’t a bulletproof analysis by any means. But I do think the trend is legitimate considering the changes that have happened in the ways presidents and VPs are elected.

    Here’s a link to the spreadsheet I put together and pulled the above images from. If you find it useful or want to copy and modify it feel free to use as you please. https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1xHAgo15nLrWb_TqqQy3J-8vF0WGosy_aVmZK0ERUae0/edit?usp=sharing

  • Robot Sumo

    July 12, 2020

    When I wrote the drones in SEER this was kind of what I had in mind for how quickly they move and attack. Being controlled by computers means they would be able to acquire targets and make adjustments at lightning speed. Picture this kind of battle happening between hundreds of airborne drones. Of course, since they have to destroy each other instead of just push each other out of the ring it probably wouldn’t be over quite so fast. It’ll be cool to see how advanced these kinds of competitions become within the next decade. Having no remote controls really ups the pace, and I can imagine some pretty exciting robot battles in the future.