My conversation with Nate Silver

The video, podcast, and transcript are here.  Nate of course was excellent, here are just a few bits:

COWEN: What are the differences between forecasting and futurism, and do you have any predictions for the year 2050? They don’t have to be great. They just have to be better than the market. We’ll take a 52 percent prediction and go home and celebrate.

SILVER: I’m mildly pessimistic in some ways.

COWEN: What’s the biggest source of your pessimism?

SILVER: [laughs] There’s probably some survivorship bias in the United States, and thinking about how our way will persevere forever and ever and ever. We were talking backstage about how you go to Asia and I go to Asia — not as often as you. If you want to feel optimistic about civilization, then go there.

And:

COWEN: You’re a fan of baseball, and I’d like to ask you, of all the different baseball records, which is the one that is most impressive to you, or the most a statistical aberration, and try to stay a bit modern. We both know in 1889, Hoss Radbourn won 59 games.

Start with [Owen] Wilson’s — was it 36 triples in 1912? That, and up through the modern age. What’s the most statistically impressive baseball record, and why?

SILVER: I think the biggest outlier is the number of intentional walks that Barry Bonds drew. I forget what year it was, 2001, where he had like 161 intentional walks, and the next closest player is 50?

And:

COWEN: Singapore. Overrated or underrated?

SILVER: Underrated except by you.

There is of course much, much more, including remarks on the candidates and the elections, as well as My Bloody Valentine and more on sports too, prediction markets as well, the weather, and why so few professional athletes have come out as gay.  Recommended.

 

Comments

Nate Silver completely missed the rise of The Golden One:

http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/02/donald-trump-iowa-nate-silver

And the rise if far from over. It seems logical to me, that if Trump taps New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, as his running mate, it will be set and match for the Presidential election. With that move, he adds more women votes, more Hispanic votes and beats Hillary.

I think his best bet would be to take someone who is more ideological and knowledgeable than he is about his core issues, making him look more moderate by comparison to the people who have not been exposed to his glorious truths. For instance, Jeff Sessions (or Ann Coulter). Would you assassinate Trump knowing that the guy replacing him is Jeff Sessions, who really does know what he's talking about?

Trump is already getting plenty of Hispanics and women to support him. He doesn't need to do targeted pandering and it might actually hurt him at this point. I also think a good bet would be to cement his Republican heretic credentials and maybe take Jim Webb as VP. An old style Democrat for the workers, but with a Minority wife, who could bleed off some Bernie Bros and deliver them to Trump.

He should pick Ivanka.

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Well I must say, I laughed at the thought of the pants-wetting reaction that would set in if the Trump/Coulter ticket won in 2016.

Trump could start off by declaring as his action in office that he is offering "free" tickets to any illegal immigrants who want to take up the offer to move to the Canadian Cape Breton Island.

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/meet-the-canadian-welcoming-americans-if-trump-wins-20160222

The reactions to that alone would keep me laughing for days.

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You should google Susana Martinez.

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If Trump taps New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, as his running mate, it will be set and match for his Presidential run. Because, with that move, he adds more women votes, more Hispanic votes, brings in the Republican establishment, and beats Hillary.

She'll nab him New Mexico's 5 electoral votes, which the Republicans commonly lose; that's about it. A better reason to put Gov. Martinez in the VP slot is that she's had a considerable history as an executive so is a passable understudy. The question is, can she support a Trump administration in good conscience on non-negotiable questions.

"The question is, can she support a Trump administration in good conscience on non-negotiable questions"

"Good conscience" may not be much of a hurdle for Susana Martinez to sprint over:

"New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez says she's opposed to the Obama administration's plan to accept any more Syrian refugees until there's a clear plan in place to properly vet and place them.}

"Susana Martinez is ... mandating that the able-bodied among the 455,000 people who get benefits through the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, go out and find jobs, sign up for job training or perform community service.

The federal government isn’t kicking them off food assistance. Susana Martinez is doing it."

"As district attorney, Martinez displayed the kind of hard-driving tactics that would come to define her. She was known for demanding harsh penalties, and didn't hesitate to lock up defendants awaiting trial. (In 2012, the county said that Martinez's office was partially responsible for an incident in which a mentally ill man named Stephen Slevin was left in solitary confinement for nearly two years without trial, and later agreed to pay a $15.5 million settlement.)"

"On policy, Martinez drew on borrowed ideas and flashy initiatives such as repealing a law allowing undocumented immigrants to get state driver's licenses."

Hopefully Tejana Susana will tap another Secretary of State with a bad gambling addiction that leads to massive embezzlement.

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In other words, she's right on a number of contentious issues and that bothers you. Well, you're a social problem, bub.

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So Gov. Martinez doesn't like playing Santa Claus, which is to her credit. She would be foolish to accept such an offer, though.

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Hopefully Tejana Susana will tap another Secretary of State with a bad gambling addiction that leads to massive embezzlement.

One hopes you'll figure out that the Secretary of State in New Mexico is an elected position.

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Choice of VP hardly matters at all in elections.

My gut tells me Cheney helped Bush and Palin hurt McCain. And in this election, do we still have heuristics for predictions?

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Profiling Trump's Americans:

http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/02/22/christian-churches-the-master-race-and-american-exceptionalism/

We get it. You and the editors of CounterPunch operate under two illusions:

1. That you're decent human beings.

2. That you're in a position to tell normal human beings that they;re not.

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Wait a minute! Weren't you banging the drum for H1B visas? And now you want to build a wall? Are you a fake JAMC or did you have a stroke or head injury?

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Shouldn't this be appearing in the New York Times?

It looks like they did.

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We were talking backstage about how you go to Asia and I go to Asia — not as often as you. If you want to feel optimistic about civilization, then go there. -

The Near East is a wreck where it isn't a tinderbox, India and adjacent states have had their share of accomplishments over the last 35 years but remain quite poor, and most of Central Asia's dirt poor and politically retrograde. The peripheral Far East has had its successes, but there's one thing therein strongly correlated with affluence: a collapse in fertility. Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore are all in incipient social crisis. China's better off; China's also run by an abusive political machine. Why would that induce anyone to feel 'optimistic' about 'civilization'?

> China’s also run by an abusive political machine. Why would that induce anyone to feel ‘optimistic’ about ‘civilization’?

Art, you are starting to sound like our host wrt. China. Their progress over the last 30 years has been remarkable. While we don't know if it will continue, you have to give them a tip of the hat for their sustained exceeding of expectations.

My beef with Silver is almost exactly the opposite: he casts his pessimism about the West as a novel or contrarian view, in opposition to misguided 'survivorship bias' optimists.

Where are these optimists? If one thing nutjobs from across the political spectrum agree upon, it's that the West is going to hell in a handbasket.

Pessimism is eternally fashionable.

"Pessimism is eternally fashionable."

+1

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William Bernstein has this great bit about the futility of designing portfolios to achieve really low probabilities of running out of money, because the big risks dominate the "normal" portfolio risks at that point. A developed nation only has about an 80 percent chance of making through the next 40 years with suffering invasion, revolution, the ascendance of a Chavez, or some other massive wealth-destroying calamity. The US really has been quite lucky in this respect.

There's something to the survivorship bias point.

"80 percent chance of making through the next 40 years with"
->
"80 percent chance of making through the next 40 years without"

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"A developed nation only has about an 80 percent chance of making through the next 40 years without suffering...some...massive wealth-destroying calamity."

I'm skeptical. This suggests the likelihood of ruin is 0.56% per year for a "developed" country (in my mind, Venezuelan data doesn't mean much for the US.)

I guess it depends on what you mean by developed country. If there are 40 developed countries in the world, I reckon we expect one of these to blow up every five years or so.

Maybe for 40 Greeces, but not for 40 US's.

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Well I'm pretty sure two Euro-centric World Wars heavily effect that number.

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Well, the US did have a civil war in the not-too-distant past. And it quite nearly went to war with the Soviets. It's not just Europe. But obviously Europe is much more at risk than the US; all that water is a very helpful defensive obstacle. I wouldn't put even money on Germany staying uninvaded for a century.

Chavez is there to indicate people can peacefully install crazy governments. I could have said Hitler, but there's a lot of baggage with that example and Chavez is more recent. Anyway, peaceful installation of something crazy happens often enough and is meaningfully different from revolution.

Anyway, I'm not convinced the number is exactly 80 percent (i.e., 20% disaster); that was Bernstein's estimate. But I do think it's a lot worse than most people think. Folks get complacent and forget about tail risk.

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"I reckon we expect one of these to blow up every five years or so."

I bet they come in bunches. I wouldn't expect a smooth, even distribution.

Of the great powers, only the US and the UK escaped this fate in the last century; arguably in the case of the UK. And about evenly split between revolution, electing a despot, and being invaded...

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http://www.efficientfrontier.com/ef/901/hell3.htm

The above links to one version of his argument.

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I thought Tyler was rather bearish on China lately?

Nevermind. Misread you.

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A very recent article in The Economist about the recent Chinese New Years party propaganda on TV, and stifling of even slight criticism of it, might lead you to believe that the broader improvements are not presently being sustained, and may indeed be going in reverse, when it comes to stuff like press and political freedoms: http://www.economist.com/news/china/21693242-rotten-new-flavour-chinese-propaganda-core-values.

I'm mildly optimistic that this might be a temporary about turn, but given the communication tools of the internet age, I think there are good reasons to expect things to get worse.

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They've done very well economically and they're not facing the fertility crisis that Japan is facing. That having been said, they're big, they're there, they're pissed off. One challenge of the next generation will be to manage the improvement in China's position more deftly than the rise of Germany was managed between 1871 and 1914. The political economy of China is not making that task any easier.

There weren't thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at Germany from several countries during its rise.

Battleships. They were a thing.

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Their working-age population is shrinking and their elderly population is growing. That seems like a crsisis trend to me.

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While I think China's claims of historical legitimacy over various maritime claims are bunk, in that they amount to saying that some warships occasionally passed by or some fishermen camped out on an island from time to time, it is worth emphasizing that their claims have been 100% consistent since 1949, in the form of the non-dash line. They are not an expansionist power.

The second they extend any territorial claim so much as an inch, I am fully prepared to do a 100% about turn on this perspective.

"nine-dash line" not "non-dash line".

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Yeah, I don't get China saber-rattling, except as a pretext to pour yet more into the Pentagon.

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"Yeah, I don’t get China saber-rattling, except as a pretext to pour yet more into the Pentagon."

Three simple reasons. If China can enforce its territorial claims, it means its navy has effective control over some of the most important shipping lanes in the world which gives it the power to disrupt energy supplies and essential goods to other countries. That is one more bargaining chip that will give China more leverage in international affairs. Second, for all the "why they hate us" talk that happens in the U.S., the countries who are starting to love America more and more (including, ironically, Vietnam which has always resented Chinese power) are those whose territorial claims are being impinged by China. Third, there is already a large arms race among countries in the South China Sea region and any hint of a U.S. concession or lack of interest will accelerate that process. This could undermine regional stability and, in an extreme case, nuclear non-proliferation as well.

In short, if you like globalization and free trade, the U.S. having allies, and don't like destructive and destabilizing arms races and nuclear proliferation, China's claims should be concerning.

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@Ricardo,

You've convinced me. We spent $800 billion on defense in FY 2015. How much do we need to increase this by?

I heard Obama eviscerated the military.

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"We spent $800 billion on defense in FY 2015."

Source?

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http://www.usfederalbudget.us/federal_budget_estimate_vs_actual_2015

$797.9 billion. I exaggerated.

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The Defense budget was only $600 billion, so I was wondering where the other $200 billion came from. It looks like it's from the VA.

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@JWatts,

Well, I'm not an accountant, but I'd chalk those costs up to the military.

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Well that seems a little more reasonable than the $25 billion in "International development and humanitarian assistance" that's also included under Defense by that categorization.

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It's easier than Germany in 1913 because Germany wanted to expand, it wanted more overseas possessions, it wanted to challenge all its neighbors (a lot of that came from the Kaiser; Bismarck had no interest in a large navy or a fight with the UK). And its Prussian dominated political class dreamed of large landed estates in the East.
China doesn't want any of its neighbors lands (other than Taiwan, and accepts Taiwan as it is as long as there is no declaration of independence). China is even propping up North Korea precisely because it does not want to deal with that land. Are there areas of conflict in the South China Sea? Yes. But the lack of a general expansionist desire, and the traditional Chinese belief that China is the best and the center of the universe, help make that easier.

The following applies to @NathanW's comment as well as @AgraBrums.

Expansionism and borders aren't what they used to be. Post WWII borders have been extremely stable and for the most part, national-greatness machoness no longer expends much effort trying to expand coloured regions on maps.

Re China, that can be interpreted two ways. (1) We have entered a newer, more peaceful era where we don't have to worry about macho powers starting works. Or (2) expansionism is no longer a correlated with aggression and so China is just a dangerous as some 19th empire builder.

I think that (1) explains perhaps 70% of the truth. Does that mean we will get 30% of a world war? But with nukes?

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Rate and direction of change, not the comparative snapshot. Kind of like concerning oneself with capital flows, not capital stocks, when evaluating an economy. It does seem like a oversell though. Your list of genuine problems is definitely a short-list, but one could make a rather long list of causes for optimism as well.

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The decline in fertility is a real problem for Japan, which still rejects the idea welcoming outsiders as immigrants. But it's simply an interesting development for Singapore which can draw on high-skilled immigrants from throughout the region. Hong Kong and Taiwan to a lesser extent are small countries that can also draw in the diaspora Chinese, skilled immigrants and blue collar workers from the poorer countries of Southeast Asia. You can't really talk about Southeast Asia along with Taiwan and Hong Kong without looking at migrant flows and dependencies on other countries. Vietnam and Indonesia are making significant progress in their own right.

"But it’s simply an interesting development for Singapore"

This is true only if you define Singapore as a bunch of buildings and the rocks under them.

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"so few professional athletes have come out as gay": were you thinking of males or females, Mr Cowen?

I'm not sure how to even take that comment. Does anyone know what the percentage of gay professional athletes is? It's just reading tea leaves.

I'm shocked by the tiny number that have publicly announced their love of asparagus.

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Guys go through the struggle of football with visions of banging lots of hot chicks. Not difficult to get laid if your a gay man. I'd imagine that applies to a lot of endeavors straight men disproportionately excel at.

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He said "professional".

I expect the difference to be even bigger in professional ranks. What do you think straight men envision when they daydream of million dollar contracts? The leggy blonde is a big part of it. High risk/high reward professions select for straight men.

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Silver looks pretty small - how tall is Nate Silver? And how tall is Tyler Cowen?

I met Tyler at a Q&A in Houston circa 2005ish and I think he was maybe 5'10"?

Tyler, can you confirm?

Yes around that tall, don't know exactly.

Of all the comments to respond to?

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"Trump Kills Last Mosquito ... "

Ah yes, but when is he going to stop the seas from rising?

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Re baseball records - the one that doesn't get enough respect is J. VanderMeer's back to back no-hitters. The one that gets too much attention is DiMaggio's 56 game hitting streak. I believe Ted Williams actually outhit DiMaggio over that 56 game stretch.

Agree on both, although DiMaggio's streak will NEVER be broken, that's how much of a statistical outlier it was, The closest anyone has come is Pete Rose's 44. Any time a player gets in the high 20s the media is all over it, and they never get past 35 or so.

Another random one I like that will NEVER happen again is from the 2005 playoffs, divisional round, the White Sox lose game 1 to the Angels, then sweep the next 4. But they did that with all 4 pitchers throwing complete game victories. No relievers at all. Never to be repeated (in the playoffs I mean, but probably not ever)

I think it's likely to happen again at some point, especially in the World Series where starters are looking at two starts max, then no more starts for five months.

Likely? I don't even think it's ever happened otherwise with just 3 in a row. I'm sticking with never.

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The thing is, in the playoffs relievers tend to get used far MORE than normal, even though starters are about to get the winter break. Relievers are too, but there's far more mixing and matching and bullpen use in the playoffs. 1 game or even 2 in a row, ok maybe not. 4 in a row? Never again.

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Cal Ripkin. Never going to see that streak again

I've always thought that's an overrated streak anyway. Honoring a guy for showing up to work consistently? And he only works for six months out of the year?

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DiMaggio's 56 game hitting streak, during which he .only 408, was a lucky fluke. But his other traditional statistics tend to understate how great of a player he was, so the hitting streak gets over-emphasized.

In the end, it all kind of balances out fairly: DiMaggio's fame endures.

+56

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Williams had a better year anyway. His .406 in 1941 was the first .400+ BA in 11 years and the last ever.

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Where has he gone? Why did he leave and go away?

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DiMaggio was a really lucky guy, I guess, since he holds the major league hit streak record and the second-longest minor league hit streak record.

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Camille Paglia, yeah! I can't wait.

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Why so few athletes come out as gay? Because they are straight? I assume he meant male athletes - there are plenty of gay female athletes (WMBA). The lack of understanding of real world by some intelligent people amazes me. Why are so few lesbians getting pregnant after having unprotected sex?

Athletes tend to get arrested in bars and strip clubs or get sued for sexual assault quite a bit. Just about every one of the countless scandals I've ever heard of involving famous male jocks has had a heterosexual angle. In contrast, the scandals that other kinds of celebrities find themselves in, such as Republican politicians, often times have a gay angle. So my guess is that that famous male jocks (outside of figure skating and diving and other dance sports) tend to be gay only a very small percentage of the time. Sure, athletes have an incentive to cover up the gay aspect of their scandals, but then so do Republican politicians. And yet Republican politicians get outed as gay fairly frequently by arrests and lawsuits.

(The one famous old baseball player whom my readers have convinced me is gay was always known as a cultured gentleman who was too refined to get into crude scandals.)

And yet Republican politicians get outed as gay fairly frequently by arrests and lawsuits.

Fairly frequently? You're talking about a half-dozen cases in Congress in 35 years, some of them nothingburgers (Schook, Dreier).

Compared to zero professional athletes out of a significantly larger potential pool than congressmen.

Fewer than 1% of the Republicans who have served in Congress since 1978 have had this problem splashed over the newspapers. How is that 'fairly frequently'?

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Art, I think you are misreading the comment. The point is that it's very rare for a male sports figure to be publicly gay. Not that it's common for Republicans to be publicly gay. If it's 1% of Republican's, it's way less than 1% of professional paid athletes.

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Then there are the state legislators, etc...

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Koufax was not gay, Steve. Just because you don't go to strip clubs doesn't mean you like dudes.

For those who might not know, Koufax came up when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. He was wild and ineffective. Also, he retired relatively young.

So a young person judging players by their numbers might not understand that Koufax was unquestionably the most dominant pitcher since WWII.

I think Pedro Martinez can make a case too, and he did it during the steroid era, Koufax did his 4 amazing years before they lowered the mound.

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I think he was talking about Le Grand Orange.

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From a sponsorship point of view, coming out as gay would be an advantage for most if not all athletes. The only possible exceptions I can think of would be the true superstars who are best off being as vanilla as possible (Messi, Ronaldo, Federer) since they are going to be in every home anyway.

i've always assumed Ronaldo was gay

To me the most obviously gay athlete who hasn't yet come out is Terrell Owens. He's retired now though.

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A few years ago I was half-listening to a baseball game on TV and heard the announcer say, or at least I think I heard him say, that one of his statistics guys had done some data mining and found that some player had a hit streak of 70 or 80 games in a row in [ something like ] "weekday afternoon games at opposing Western division ballparks excluding Seattle". Maybe I did not understand that he was joking, or maybe I misheard "on-base" streak as "hit streak, " and as far as I know you can't google "weird stuff old baseball announcers said," but it seems, from a statistics point of view, plausible. Anyway, there is a good book on DiMaggio's impressive hit streak, I would love to read a second good book on that specific subject. On the subject of streaks, Capablanca and Anthony Young have great ones, too.

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Lee Kwan Yew used to defend his model against Western liberal critics by painstakingly explaining the unique circumstances in which Singapore is forced to operate (e.g. no hinterland market for a global company to stand on, inherently hostile neighbors, religious and ethnic diversity with a history of racial riots, inherent fragility of key industries, etc.). In that context he was on strong ground, but lately there has been a change in the winds - Singapore is now promoted as a global model, not only for those with Singaporean-like circumstances, but for nations like the US. That's not to say that things couldn't be better with certain elements of the Singaporean model in place, but rather that I don't think the larger socio-political environment allows for them to be put or kept in place. It's a bit like admiring them for their widespread accessibility of cheap prawn mee, and wishing that this were also the case in the US. Yes, it would be nice, but I'm afraid it's not very likely to happen.

The idea that strategies that work for city states can broadly be applied to large nations is one that never really made sense to me. Not that their strategies are necessarily not applicable, but that we should be strongly critical in supposing that we can transplant strategies that worked for a city state to some of the largest economies on the planet.

@Nathan - well maybe. But I bet Singapore's model of low corruption, harsh on crime, public cleanliness, good infrastructure, support for business, support for "skilled" immigration, rule of law in commercial areas and properly thought through medical insurance system and low taxes would work just about everywhere.

It's a question of feasibility of implementation. Take the skilled immigration point for example. Immigration is one of the issues most susceptible to populism, and Singapore is able to override that only with the confidence that comes from their stranglehold on power. Low corruption has the same issue, as key corruption prevention policies like linking government wages to private market wages would be some of the first things to go in a populist election (their PM is the highest paid on earth). Or low taxes - Singapore relies on low taxes to attract business from elsewhere, so they would be hurt more by a tax raise than, say, the US would, so the incentives are different and the way that message can be packaged for the public is also different. Expenses are also much different, as they essentially don't have to worry about connecting rural areas or cross-country infrastructure. So the overall point is that you would have to change so much about the US fundamentally to even match a small bit of the Singapore model.

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Interestingly, the enforced racial quotas per block/neighborhood are basically never cited as something we should copy: http://www.hdb.gov.sg/cs/infoweb/residential/buying-a-flat/resale/ethnic-integration-policy-and-spr-quota. It is not difficult to see how this could have positive impacts on race relations in the longer run, were it not for the fact that various groups would be howling at the mere suggestion (I don't actually support racial quotas ...).

Haven't there been some significant studies showing that racially integrated neighborhoods lead to lower levels of trust, higher levels of racism, etc.? In the U.S. that is. Forcing Chinese people to live near Malaysians is maybe not so serious.

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Singapore's medical system is one that is unlikely to scale to larger countries and much has been written on this already. Singapore is praised for keeping medical costs very low but one way it does so is that the state simply owns and manages most of the country's hospitals.

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Tyler, didn't realize that you sanitize the comments section.

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