Have a Pair of Crystal Balls?

Contributor Dorian Dale takes a present day look at predicting the future. It’s Barack Obama vs. Dick Vitale and google vs. the government in this mashup of prognostication that might ultimately prove that groupthink and a precocious fourteen year-old know better than experts and even the President.

Do you have a pair of crystal balls?  IARPA would like to know.  The acronym that stands for U.S. Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity is out for a random walk.  The operative premise is that “a blindfolded monkey throwing darts at a newspaper’s financial pages could select a portfolio that would do just as well as one carefully selected by experts.”* If our expansive and well-equipped intelligence apparatus can be blindsided by the collapse of Evil Empires on life-support, what’s to say that the likes of Joe the Plumber could do any worse placing bets on the fate of North Korea’s quackocracy?

I was driving along several weeks back with my globally aware fourteen-year old son, Jed.  We were considering the Twitter revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.  I posed a challenge: which neighborhood tyrant would be the next to go down?  There was already some stirring in Yemen and Bahrain.  What other candidates for collapse might there be?  Oman?  Iran?  Jed went with Algeria, not a bad choice given the military suppression of an Islamic party election victory twenty years ago.  I chose the monkey in the middle of Egypt and Tunisia – Libya’s Qaddafi.  Can’t say precisely what it was in my caldron of knowledge of all things Qaddafi and Libyan.  Maybe it had something to do with Keeping Up with the Ghonims, Google’s young social media man next door in Egypt.  Qaddafi, being Qaddafi, hasn’t gone quietly into the night to join his Egyptian counterpart, Mubarek, so I haven’t collected my bet with Jed.

Qaddafi is every inch the devil-incarnate that we know.  But who are these rebels that we don’t know?  When asked to characterize the opposition, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, “It’s pretty much a pick-up ballgame…with no command and control.”  The future government, Gates suggested would probably be worked out among Libya’s numerous powerful tribes.  It is sobering, given Gates’ compound authority as former Acting Director Central Intelligence and SecDef, that Jed could have expressed equal uncertainty. 

If Libya is a pick-up game played with tanks and RPGs, then it plays to a core skill of our President.  It is Obama’s half-court game and die-hard fan’s eye that got him on ESPNs panel of forecasters for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.  This year his bracket choices went 29-3 through the second round placing him in the 99th percentile on ESPN.com after three rounds.  His Final Four choices, number one seeds all, didn’t escape the Elite Eight, dropping Obama to a, nonetheless, respectable 83rd percentile when the net was cut down by the champions.  Snoop Dogg came panting in at the 43rd while Dick Vitale, the voluble former coach turned b-ball bloviator dogged it out at the 21st along with ESPN pundit Scott Van Pelt. 

These results line up with the findings of “Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It?” by Penn Professor Philip Tetlock.  The takeaway – acclaim of so-called experts is inversely proportional to the accuracy of claims they make about the future.  It is far better to go with the “wisdom of crowds,” perils of groupthink and the lowest common denominator of consensus, notwithstanding.  By Tetlock’s reckoning, the average of all five million March Madness predictions registered at ESPN will beat 80-90% of the individual predictions.  Faced with a world checkered with unknown unknowns, IARPA’s Aggregative Contingent Estimation (ACE) Program has retained the professor to lead one of five teams in capturing this oracular phenomenon algorithmically. 

ACE aims “to dramatically enhance the accuracy, precision, and timeliness of forecasts for a broad range of event types, through the development of advanced techniques that elicit, weight, and combine the judgments of many intelligence analysts.”  Tetlock’s Good Judgment Project (GJP) team, has been soliciting recruits with no specialized background to conjecture on 100 impending possibilities on the world stage.  “Will former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf return to high office?”  “Will Hamas recognize the state of Israel by the end of 2012?”  Researchers from the GJP will evaluate combinations of individual forecasts to optimize the yield of “collective wisdom.”

Dorian Dale seen here with his ghostwriter, Babbo

A decade ago IARPA’s cousin DARPA over in Defense sponsored “Futures Markets Applied to Prediction.”  FututreMAP was to harness collective intelligence through market-based trading mechanisms for predicting geopolitical instability and threats to national security.   After all, orange juice futures, as we saw in Trading Places, are better predictors of weather than the National Weather Service’s forecasts.  Detractors accused the Pentagon of wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on “terrorism betting parlors,” and “fantasy league terror games.”  Defenders pointed out that traders in the Iowa Electronic Markets have been betting since 1988 with remarkable accuracy on the likely winner of the US presidential elections.  As circumstances unfolded, it was left to Tradesports.com, a Dublin-based online trading exchange to take bets on the “survivability of Saddam.”  But now Google has legitimized this approach by using prediction markets to “forecast product launch dates, new office openings, and many other things of strategic importance.”

For the C-Spanners out there who have longed to have their very own version of ESPN bracketology, the call is out for wonks looking to improve their “forecasting ability as part of cutting-edge scientific research.”  Pay is a mere $150, but GJP will be providing an invaluable reality check.  So go to http://surveys.crowdcast.com/s3/ACERegistration and get in touch with your inner Nostradamus.    

*Random Walk Down Wall Street, Burton Malkiel

Crude Behavior

A new president trying to sell American involvement in a new Middle-East conflict with a straight face is an old story, and the cracks are beginning to show. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the only defined foreign policy we have is being crafted by oil companies. And it’s not a very good one.

On now to Libya where the beat goes on. Another day, another despot, another billion barrels of crude. Our foreign policy since World War II has become so narrow and predictable it’s laughable. The whole world is onto us and has been for years but our national myopia allows our politicians to repackage decades-old malarkey and sell it to Americans with a bright, yellow starburst that says, “New and Improved!”

The idea that some sort of twisted moral imperative prompted the Obama administration to act forcefully against Libyan forces is tough to swallow. You can almost detect in his speeches and mannerisms how uncomfortable the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president is in authorizing force and intervening in a foreign civil war. That’s not to say Obama can’t sell. Of course, he can sell. He’s the president.

But selling hope ain’t selling war. If this was still the Bush administration, old Muammar el-Qaddafi would already be locked up in Guantanamo and his nation renamed Halibyarton. Hell, Obama is so non-committal compared to Bush that even the French beat us into Libya! And the French haven’t beaten us into a conflict since Vietnam.

It has to be understood by now that we only quarrel with nations in which we have either a current or potential vested interest in oil. Following through with these interventions and selling it with purpose and pizzazz is a lot easier when you control the timetable like we did in Iraq. But when the world is in freefall, our decision to only aid protestors in oil-rich countries exposes our hypocrisy in the worst way. The contrast is too stark for our public line of promoting democracy to be credible any longer.

Let’s go back to the French and dissect their actions for a moment. For years I’ve assumed French foreign policy consisted of doing the exact opposite of America because, well, they’re French. That’s what they do. It turns out their motivations might be more similar to our own than I thought. They have routinely criticized our military actions abroad for being examples of disingenuous imperialism. America being America. Then, before you know it, they’re bombing Libya first and asking questions later.

Makes you wonder who’s in charge over there. Consider the following: Total S.A., the largest company in France, is a $150 billion oil company with massive holdings in Libya and considered one of the “Big Six” in private, non-state-controlled oil companies globally. Now consider that Qaddafi declared that he would ban Total S.A. and all “western” petroleum companies from Libya if the insurrection continued. Sacre bleu! Them’s fighting words, even for the French. Hence the military action. Remember, though. They’re fancier than we are. They like their hypocrisy with a side of arrogance and a glass of disdain.

That still doesn’t answer why the Obama administration would choose this “humanitarian” mission over involvement in other nations whose citizens are being abused by dictators. As Americans we would like to think we are there to stand behind and beside anyone in the world being oppressed and abused. But we’re simply not. We are intervening in Libya because it poses an interesting financial proposition to the oil barons who truly run this country. Make no mistake, the world is experiencing Peak Oil. It’s a natural and unavoidable phenomenon that is beyond theory. It’s real. More to the point we are experiencing Peak ‘Cheap’ Oil. We have discovered new, incredible ways of obtaining fossil fuels but they are expensive to acquire and often difficult to refine. The type of crude oil that Libya offers is the stuff dreams are made of. With China fast acquiring African contracts and (get this) ignoring human rights in places like Sudan (shocking for China, no?) the race is on to tap into the last remaining pure crude on the planet.

The United States already imports almost two million barrels of oil per day from the African nations of Nigeria, Angola, Algeria and Gabon. Getting rid of the Qaddafi dilemma and adding Libya to the mix would be a huge win for the Big Six oil companies in the world. Crude like this is hard to come by, and so is a straight answer from politicians controlled by oil companies. C’est la vie.