Political Calculations
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November 27, 2015

Shopping - Source: atg.wa.gov Today is Black Friday, 2015 - the proverbial day that, if you believe U.S. retailers, enough Americans turn out to the nation's brick and mortar stores to finally lift them into profitability for the year. Which retailers try to ensure by slashing their prices, thereby reducing their marked up profits, in order to lure as many Americans who also have the Friday after Thanksgiving as a holiday into their stores, where they hope to somehow eke out a profit for the year by selling mass quantities of things instead of simply way overpriced things.

But Black Friday has a dark downside. The name really originates in Chicago, where on previous days after Thanksgiving, so many consumers swarmed the city's streets and stores to shop that large numbers of traffic accidents and outbreaks of violence became inevitable, including fatalities, prompting the city's police department to begin calling the day "Black Friday" so they could discourage those activities.

Black Friday brings an inherent conflict of interest for American consumers, who both want to find the ideal Christmas gifts for the people in their lives, and who also don't want to die because of all the other people out shopping at the same time they are.

We have a solution - we've built a tool that you can use to put a limit on how much shopping you need to do to find the perfect gift, which in turn will limit the amount of time that you're exposed to the mayhem that U.S. retailers wrought, increasing your probability of survival. And all you meed to know is how much shopping you're willing to commit to do while shopping for the "perfect gift" before you've seen enough and can simply buy the next best thing you see.

Emily Oster recently addressed this problem in taking on a question from a young couple seeking a new place to live, but not as yet having much luck in finding suitable accommodations. She writes:

You have, perhaps inadvertently, happened upon an extremely famous area of statistics: optimal stopping theory. The classic example is the secretary problem: you want to hire a secretary, and you have many applicants you interview in order. How do you know when to stop interviewing and hire someone? In your case, how do you know when to stop viewing apartments and just rent one?

Part of what attracts statisticians to this problem is it turns out to have an extremely elegant solution. First, figure out how many apartments you expect to see. Let’s say you think you’ll see 50. The solution says that you should reject the first 50/2.71 apartments (or, about the first 20 of them) and then rent the first one you see after that which is better than any you’ve seen before. (For those of you following the math, the precise number you reject is 50/e, the base of the natural log.)

This is pretty easy to follow and statisticians have proved it will get you the best apartment about 40% of the time, which definitely isn’t 100% but is better than any other strategy!

Well, with that kind of statistical endorsement, how could we possibly pass up the opportunity to build a tool to do the math for you? Just enter the total number of possibilities that you're willing to consider in your search to find what's just good enough for you, and we'll determine the minimum number of possibilities you need to consider to make a decent decision! If you're reading this article on a site that republishes our RSS news feed, click here to access a working version of this tool!

Number of Possibilities to Consider
Input Data Values
Maximum Number of Choices for Your Shopping Search

The Optimal Stopping Point for Shopping
Calculated Results Values
Minimum Number of Choices to Consider to Make a Good Choice

For our default example, in a search for where you would be willing to consider up to 20 possible options in your pursuit of the best choice for you, by the time you've considered at least 7 of them, you will have seen enough and can jump at the first opportunity you have that is better than all that you have previously seen.

And, for what it's worth, there's even a 40% chance that you'll be right. Happy shopping!

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November 26, 2015
The Turkey: An American Story

How did the turkey become the centerpiece for the United States' national dinner? Andrew F. Smith took on that question as Chapter 5 in his book The Turkey: An American Story. Here's a Thanksgiving Day excerpt, in which Smith describes the origins of turkey farming in colonial America:

Domesticated turkeys were reportedly raised in Jamestown by 1614, but they were evidently still rare in 1623 because a law was passed imposing the death penalty for the theft of turkeys if valued at more than 12 pence. Within a decade, however, tables were filled with turkeys at Jamestown. Likewise, domesticated turkeys were sent to Massachusetts Bay by 1628 if not earlier.

During the early years wild turkeys were numerous and easy to acquire. Domesticated turkeys were smaller than wild ones and known to destroy crops and cause other damage if not controlled; some farmers considered domesticated turkeys so mischievous that they were judged uneconomical to raise in large numbers. To further complicate turkey-keeping, cocks had to be separated from hens, especially when the hens laid eggs in the spring.

Because raising turkeys was a marginal activity for most farmers, little attention was directed toward breeding them. Free-range domesticated turkeys mated with wild turkeys, however, and produced new breeds, one of which was the Blue Virginia. Larger than the European turkey, it was therefore more valuable as a food source. Turkey flocks increased to such an extent that by 1744 they were being exported from southern colonies to the West Indies. This export business expanded, and by the following century American turkey growers were sending thousands of turkeys abroad. Two in Massachusetts, for instance, sent a total of 1,300 live birds to London during one month in 1833.

But the thing that really took turkeys from the wild to the farm was their role in supporting the early colonists' first major cash crop:

By far the most important reason for the growth of the domesticated turkey population in America, particularly in Virginia and Maryland, was tobacco. Colonists were lured to the southern colonies, where conditions for that crop were ideal. Tobacco was America's first agribusiness and the preeminent colonial export.

A major challenge in growing the crop was to control tobacco hornworms (Sphinx carolina), which infested fields in the South from June to August. In a time before pesticides and other deterrents, planters were helpless to fight hornworm infestation other than by sending numbers of slaves through fields to hand-pick the worms from tobacco leaves. Even then, half of a crop could be lost to the voracious creatures. To the rescue came the turkey, an omnivore that loves to feast on insects and bugs and finds the large and meaty tobacco worm irresistible. By the mid-eighteenth century planters were sending turkeys into their tobacco fields to eat the worms. In 1784 John F.D. Smyth, a British traveler, reported that turkeys were particularly dexterous at finding hornworms. A tobacco grower would keep a "flock of turkeys, which he has driven into the tobacco grounds every day by a little negroe than can do nothing else," reported Smyth. "These keep his tobacco more clear from horn worms, than all the hands he has got could do, were they employed solely for that end."

We find then that if not for the appetites of domesticated turkeys, it is likely that slavery would have been an even larger institution in early America than it became.


November 25, 2015

Here at Political Calculations, we sometimes live up to the "political" part of our name by taking on, shall we say, delicate topics, where by delicate we occationally mean "really personal".

And what can be more personal than addressing the proverbial turkey on the table every Thanksgiving, the lurking dangers of all the interpersonal interactations that can explode into open conflict as you join your family for your annual holiday feast.

That can be especially challenging in 2015, because thanks to the explosion of the mobile web, many of your family members are unable to go more than a few minutes without some sort of tech-channeled stimulation.

Today everyone is constantly plugged in. We have laptops, smartphones, iPads, ipods, work computers, television, TiVo for on-demand television watching, and Redbox video rental kiosks on every corner. This constant need to be preoccupied with electronic toys is leading to the breakdown of our community ties, and it is likely a strong piece of the puzzle in the ADHD epidemic that seems to be overtaking our society. It seems that excessive use of technology can be harmful to our extended social support systems, and our cognitive development.

Even though many people will argue that technology helps them keep in touch with loved ones easier, there still seems to be a breakdown in social connection. Yes, you can email your family often and text your daughter to see if she is home from school all while you are sitting in a meeting at work. But this is your immediate social support system. Your community is composed of individuals who live in your town. Your relations within your community are extended social support. However, it seems like there has been a gradual breakdown of interest in developing relationships with neighbors, or those you see on the streets everyday.

So in the interest of improving your family's cohesion through real-time, tech-free social interaction, today, we're going to feature Adam Conover's three-minute exercise designed specifically for the tech-addicted so they can begin developing the skills needed to be able to go without that wi-fi or mobile connection for the sake of direct, face-to-face interactions with other human beings in real life, even if just for a few minutes. Good luck....

If you're a tech addict, we appreciate just how hard that was for you. That one ten second long period of silence really did feel like an hour had passed, didn't it?

But you've made it through, so that means that you have a chance - a real chance - of surviving your family's Thanksgiving dinner in 2015. And if you're up for the challenge, if you want to improve your odds even more, go ahead and watch it again. Otherwise, your Thanksgiving dinner experience could turn out like the one portrayed in the following video.

If you fear that sort of calamity taking place at your family's Thanksgiving dinner this year, we'll point you to Doc Palmer's suggestions for putting yourself in the right frame of mind to avoid that kind of outcome altogether.


November 24, 2015

Last Thanksgiving, we presented a chart featuring a spurious correlation between the average live weight of U.S. farm raised turkeys and the MSCI World Stock Market Index, in which we showed how U.S. turkeys predict global stock market crashes. Here's what we wrote at the time....

As you can see in our carefully calibrated chart above, whenever the value of the MSCI World index has exceeded the equivalent live weight of an average farm-raised turkey in the U.S., the index went on to either stagnate or crash. And in 2014, the value of the the MSCI World Stock Market Index has once again exceeded that key threshold, which can only mean one thing.... The climate for investors has changed, and it's time to sell!

And if they try to tell you that doesn't make any real sense, you should hold firm and tell them that the correlation is really strong (the R² is 0.9616), which means that the science is settled and that they really shouldn't want to be some kind of climate change science denier.

Speaking of which, the rising live weight of U.S. farm-raised turkeys also is strongly correlated with global warming. Believe it or not, the correlation between atmospheric carbon dioxide and global temperatures is not very strong at all (other factors do a much more coherent job in explaining actual temperature observations).

Say what you will about the science, but you cannot deny that by using tips like this, you can make the conversation around your Thanksgiving dinner table a lot more lively this year!

The correlation between the live weight of U.S. farm-raised turkeys and global stock prices is still spurious, and yet amazingly, our prediction based upon it has largely come true in the past year, as the worlds' stock markets did indeed go on to either stagnate or crash.

And with those stock prices still above the live weight of U.S. turkeys, we can't as yet say that global markets are finished stagnating or crashing as yet.

Spurious Correlation: Average Live Weight of U.S. Farm-Raised Turkeys and MSCI Global Market Index, 1970-2015 (Year To Date)

If it seems irrational to link the weight of U.S. turkeys and global stock prices, just remember the old saying: the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent. Do you really feel lucky enough to bet against the birds?

U.S. Farm Turkeys - Source: CDC.gov - https://web.archive.org/web/20151124141836/http://www.cdc.gov/flu/

Data Sources

MSCI. MSCI - World Stock Market Index. (End of Day Index Data Search). [Online Database. ]. Accessed 23 November 2015.

National Turkey Federation. Sourcebook. [PDF Document]. October 2013.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. Turkeys Raised. [PDF Document]. 30 September 2015.

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November 23, 2015

Today, we're going to consider the counterargument to the data we presented yesterday, in which we showed that the population of farm-raised turkeys peaked at 302.7 million in 1996 and has fallen steadily since. Or rather, through 2014, as 2015 saw the population fall as a direct result of an outbreak of avian influenza among U.S. farm flocks of turkeys.

While the population of farm-raised turkeys in the U.S. would appear to indicate that's the case, in reality, the truth is somewhat different because today's turkeys are much larger than those of yesteryear. In the chart below, we've graphed the live weight of turkeys raised on U.S. farms for each year from 1970 through 2015 to show just how much the size and weight of U.S. turkeys has changed over time.

Average Live Weight of Each Turkey Produced in U.S., 1970-2015

In this chart, we see that since the 1970's, the average live weight of a turkey raised on a U.S. farm has increased by 61% through 2014, from 18.7 pounds to 30.2 pounds.

In 2015 however, we see that the average live weight of a turkey has dropped by 3% to 29.3 pounds, which is directly attributable to the outbreak of avian influenza at a number of turkey farms early in 2015. Here's how the U.S. Department of Agriculture described how the outbreak affected the average live weight of turkeys it recorded (emphasis ours):

U.S. turkey meat production in third-quarter 2015 was 1.35 billion pounds, down 9 percent from a year earlier. This continued the downward path for turkey production in 2015, with a strong increase in the first quarter, a small decrease in the second quarter, and most recently, a strong decrease in the third quarter. The third-quarter decline was due to both a lower number of turkeys slaughtered and a drop in their average live weight at slaughter. The slaughter number fell to 57.5 million, 6 percent lower than a year earlier, while the average live weight at slaughter declined to 29.3 pounds, a drop of 3 percent from the previous year. Since April the average live weight at slaughter has been lower than the previous year, for a period of 6 consecutive months—reflecting the impact of the HPAI outbreak, which caused processors to slaughter birds somewhat earlier than they normally would in order to maintain supply levels.

We find then that 2015 represents an outlier in the data for the average weight of U.S. farm-raised turkeys.

That's an important fact to consider in considering our next chart, in which we're showing the aggregate weight of all turkeys raised on U.S. farms for each year from 1970 through 2015, which would represent the product of the average weight of farm-raised turkeys and the number of turkeys raised on U.S. farms in each year.

Total Live Weight of Turkeys Produced, 1970-2014, with Estimate for 2015

In this chart, we see that the total weight of all turkeys produced in the U.S. has fallen within a fairly narrow range in each year since 1996, ranging between 6.9 and 7.9 billion pounds in any given year from 1996 through 2014 and varying with the health of the U.S. economy, even though the number of farm-raised turkeys peaked in 1996. Meanwhile, our outlier year, 2015, fell back below the 6.9 million pound mark, but clearly would not have done so if U.S. turkey farms hadn't been forced to cull their flocks to prevent the further spread of the outbreak of avian influenza in early 2015.

With that being the case, what's important to consider in the consumption of turkeys in determining whether the U.S. has passed "peak turkey" is not their number, but their aggregate weight, as turkey meat is consumed by the pound.

A similar phenomenon can be seen elsewhere in the economy when considering the state of oil production in the U.S., where 2015 has seen a declining number of working rigs at U.S. oil fields as oil prices have fallen, but also a much smaller than might otherwise be expected reduction in actual crude oil extraction, as the remaining rigs have been made more productive.

U.S. turkey farms have likewise become much more productive over the years since the total population of farm-raised turkeys peaked in 1996, and really, since the stagnant 1970s.

Which is to say that not only has Peak Turkey not arrived, there is also no great turkey stagnation.

Data Sources

U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Outlook - November 2015. [PDF Document]. 17 November 2015.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. Poultry - Production and Value, 2014 Summary. [PDF Document]. April 2015.


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