Monday, November 07, 2011

Roadkill myths IV: End-of-2010 update

Six years ago, back in 2005, I wrote a series of essays on road safety statistics in Israel. With six more years of data available, and the subject resurfacing lately in the Israeli media, it's time for an update.

To get the most out of this post, please read (or reread) at least the first two of my original essays. I'll be here when you get back.


With data now available through 2010, what has changed?

As in my previous essays, we need to look at several types of statistics: 1) the total annual number of fatalities, 2) the fatality rate per capita, 3) the fatality rate per kilometer driven, and 4) Israel's international ranking in fatalities per capita and 5) per kilometer driven.

If you had asked me then what I expected the data to look like in six years, I would have anticipated a continuation of the established trends: steady, gradual improvements in the fatality rates, with occasional setbacks along the way. The trend in total fatalities is harder to predict, as it depends on the interaction between the falling per-kilometer rate and the rising total distance driven. Given the tailing off of the post-Soviet immigration, I might have anticipated a modest fall in total fatalities, but now I'm second-guessing my former self.

So what actually happened?

1) Total annual fatalities

Based on the data through 2004, I wrote: "Annual fatalities have been stuck at 450-550 for over fifteen years now." Already, we see a significant change (click image to enlarge):

In 2005, the annual fatality total fell below 450 for the first time since 1991. But that's not all. In 2007, it fell below 400 - all the way to 382 - for the first time since 1985, 22 years earlier. Then, incredibly, in 2009 it plummeted to 314, the lowest level since 1963!

Unfortunately, in 2010 the number bounced back up to 352, and it looks likely to exceed that in 2011. This is an example of what statisticians call regression toward the mean. When a statistic trends in a particular direction, sometimes it will overshoot its long-term trend and sometimes it will undershoot it. While it may appear to have gotten much better and much worse, in fact it mainly reflects random variance around its trend line. (Even while total fatalities remained largely stable between 1987 and 2004, the total changed by as much as 17.5% a year in either direction.)

Overall, between 2004 and 2010, the total number of annual Israeli road fatalities fell by an average of 5.0%/year, for a total of 27%. That's significant.

2) Fatality rate per capita

In 2005, I noted that fatalities per capita had showed a gradual improvement since 1980. The 2004 figure was 7.0 per 100,000 population, falling at an average 1.6%/year over the preceding five years. It would have been reasonable to expect that trend to continue.

But the decline not only continued, it accelerated:

Over six years, the fatality rate per capita improved by 34%, falling an average 6.7% per year. That's over four times the decline rate of the previous five years.

In 2010, it fell as low as 4.7 per 100,000 (having regressed from 2009's record low of 4.2). As the graph makes clear, values in this range are entirely unprecedented in Israel.

3) Fatality rate per distance driven

In 2004, fatalities per distance driven were at 12 per billion vehicle-km and falling at 2%/year. As with the other figures, this too showed a dramatic improvement through 2010:

Or, to zoom in on the last 20 years:

In six short years, fatalities per kilometer fell by a whopping 42% to just 7 per billion vehicle-km, an average decline of 8.5% a year. (The record low in 2009 was 6.4.)

So if anyone tells you that road safety in Israel is again getting worse, now you know the facts. The recent deterioriation is a short-term statistical fluctuation greatly overwhelmed by dramatic long-term improvements.

I'll save the international comparisons for a followup post. Brace yourself for more good news.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

No, God was not punishing Obama

Emerging from hibernation to address an issue of vital national importance...

Within minutes of the exceptional east coast earthquake, the net was buzzing with claims that it was God's way of punishing Obama for some disfavored policy or other. Most of these were probably in jest, but not all of them, it would seem.

We heard the same nonsense about Katrina. All the rebuttals apply, but more so. The idea doesn't make sense if you think about it for longer than it takes to send a tweet. It amounts to "Big earthquake near Washington - what more proof do you need?"

So for these misguided souls and others who may be misguided by them, I give you...

Why the earthquake was not a divine punishment of Obama:

If God wanted to punish Obama, why did the earthquake hit Washington (well, about 80 miles south of Washington) just when he was in Martha's Vineyard? Did He forget to check the president's official schedule? Or maybe God's aim is way off?

If God wanted to punish Obama, why did the earthquake hit when he was on vacation? Was he being punished for playing golf? Why didn't it hit while he was delivering a policy address, or at least busy at work in the Oval Office?

If God wanted to punish Obama, why did the earthquake cause so little damage and so few injuries? Was this some kind of warning shot? Does God even do shots across the bow? Some punishment, huh?

And then of course there's the whole ambiguity thing. Exactly what policy is God supposed to be punishing? His stance on Israel? Abortion? Gay marriage? Corporate taxes? The debt ceiling deal? What would motivate God to mete out a vague, unspecified "punishment" which didn't even hit the president, or virtually anyone else? For that matter, how do we even know this punishment was aimed at Obama, as opposed to Congress, the Supreme Court, the D.C. city council, or even Fred from Alexandria on line 1?

At this point, sensible people realize they've drawn an unsupported conclusion and admit their error. Others, though, will try to engage in sophistry to explain why in fact it does make sense to interpret this as a form of divine retribution against the president. The quake could actually be felt on Martha's Vineyard, they'll say. Washington clearly symbolized the president. And Washington was hit hard, even if not directly. What else could a historically-strong earthquake represent but divine displeasure? etc., etc.

But press them on how they can know their interpretation to be correct when none of the details are quite right, and they may explain that it's close enough - we can't expect to understand precisely how God works in this world.

Exactly. We don't understand how God works in this world. So stop claiming that you do. Especially when it doesn't make sense!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

How to disperse haredi demonstrations against Shabbos violations

A simple nonviolent technique: The police need to set up an electric eye which triggers halogen floodlights. No honest haredi can cross that beam on Shabbos!

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The anti-Reagan feeds the beast

In the Reagan years, some conservative wonks supported tax cuts not because they really believed in their stimulative effects, but because they wanted to "starve the beast" - that is, government. (See this typically biased Wikipedia citation for references.)

Government had grown too large and intrusive, and it was politically impossible to cut government programs. But tax cuts, and the ensuing revenue reductions, would force spending cuts by starving government of the revenues it needed to keep growing. With tax increases no less politically hazardous then spending cuts, growing deficits would eventually make it possible, if not necessary, to cut back the state. Tax cuts today would give rise to spending cuts tomorrow. (Or so they thought; reality was a bit different.)

I mention this because President Obama seems to have adopted the reverse theory.

He wants to "feed the beast" today, introducing an unprecedented parade of new government programs under the rubric of economic stimulus. But he knows he doesn't have the political support to pay for them with new taxes, and even if he did they couldn't be imposed during a looming recession. But over time, as the new programs develop entrenched constituencies and become politically impossible to cut, the enormous and growing deficits will create irresistible pressure to increase taxes to cover the gap. Spending on new programs today will give rise to new taxes tomorrow.

Or so he thinks. Reality has plenty of time for the final word.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Haveil Havalim #20X

It's been a long time since I've appeared in Haveil Havalim, the Jewish/Israel blog carnival. This week it's at Here in HP, by Leora. I've been away so long I haven't the faintest idea who or what that is, but well done Leora!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The real reasons Israel can't play the violin

"Doctor, when my arm heals will I be able to play the violin?"
"Sure - I don't see why not."
"Great! I could never play it before!"
-- A bad joke with an important point.

Israel is afflicted with diplomatic "doctors" like the one in that joke. They identify one reason why Israel has not achieved peace - sometimes a true and important reason - and then jump to the groundless conclusion that solving that issue will therefore bring peace. But like the patient who won't be able to play the violin even after his arm heals, Israel will not have peace even after the alleged cure, because the state of war is due to fundamental conditions it fails to address. If you never learn to play the violin, it doesn't matter how healthy your arm is.

So we read, time and again, self-proclaimed analysts explaining that "the settlements make a peace deal impossible." That may be true, I admit. But it does not imply that removing them would make a deal possible. Just as evacuating Gaza (or Lebanon) did not bring peace any closer there. The state of war was not a result of Israel's presence in Gaza, but if anything a cause of it. Eliminating the effect cannot remove the cause.

"Israel will not have peace without dividing Jerusalem." Again, that may be. But neither will we have peace if we do divide Jerusalem, God forbid.

"There is no military solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict." Perhaps. But that doesn't mean there is a potential diplomatic solution.

"Syria won't agree to peace without the entire Golan." Probably not. But all indications are that even forfeiting the entire Golan would not bring peace with Syria.

"The Palestinians can't strike a deal as long as they're divided between Fatah and Hamas, West Bank and Gaza." True again. But there's no evidence that they could strike a deal were they undivided either.

The worst culprits tend to be those Western liberal academics who tell us that "the terms of a final-status peace agreement are known; what's missing is the political will on both sides to implement it." As if there's a well-defined set of legalistic, logistical and structural arrangements which could yield peace were they only implemented.

If both sides were comprised of Western liberal academics, that may be the case. But we're not, on either side. Israelis and Arabs have fundamental differences in our attitudes to this land and our rights to it. That's what the so-called experts dismiss as "political will." But all the tunnels, bridges and international forces in the world can't bridge those gaps in attitudes and goals. Peace is not being blocked by the lack of logistics, but by essential and apparently unbridgeable differences of outlook.

Ultimately, Israel will not have peace until its Arab neighbors come to accept that we have the right to sovereignty here as a Jewish state - or at least that we're not going anywhere in the foreseeable future, and so they have more important things to do than continue fighting us in vain. Without one of those changes in Arab mindset, all the arm-healing in the world won't teach them to play the violin. None of the other alleged obstacles to peace is relevant so long as the core grievance remains.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Who should I vote for, 2009 version

In March 2006, last time national elections came around, I discussed how I perceived the choice of parties and which one I decided to vote for. Time has come for another round of Wheel of Proportion(al representation).

Rereading the old post, it's interesting how much has changed, and how much has stayed the same. On the one hand, the constellation of major parties likely to enter the Knesset has remained the same, except for the fissioning of the NRP/National Union. On the other hand, most of them have replaced their leaders.

The biggest changes, though, have been in the geopolitical situation. Oddly, these changes are only somewhat reflected in the political campaigns; many of the parties seem to think they can keep hitting their old themes and slogans without reacting to the changes around them.

In 2006, remember, Olmert's Kadima ran on a promise of further unilateral territorial concessions, including substantial withdrawals from Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria. This time around, after Hizbullah's success in Lebanon and the Hamas occupation of Gaza, no one's talking about that. We've given our enemies enough rocket launching areas, thank you very much.

But rather than reach the obvious conclusion that there is no diplomatic solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Olmert and Livni have been busy negotiating with Abbas under the Annapolis process. Even in the unlikely case we could reach a deal with Abbas, what good will it do as long as Hamas controls Gaza and the Palestinian parliament? On that, Livni is mum.

Labor continues to talk about war and peace as if nothing of interest has changed. It's also shamelessly exploiting the Gaza campaign to score political points. What, are they trying to confirm the cynics who claim Barak went to war because of the elections? Heck, I'm not sure I'd put it past him myself.

Considering the choices of right-wing parties I briefly flirted with Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu. But seeing his campaign, which is solely based on fanning the flames of hatred towards Israel's Arab citizens, he holds no appeal to me whatsoever. I have no illusions about the challenges Israel faces from its Arab population, but we gain nothing by deliberately demonizing them. Disgusting.

Shas is striking a hawkish note, attacking Livni for refusing to rule out negotiating over Jerusalem. Okay, but everything short of that is okay with them? I expect so.

Which narrows me down to the usual suspects: Likud, NRP (now "the Jewish Home"), and the National Union. (By coincidence, I know at least one of the candidates in a realistic slot in each of the three parties.)

From the Likud this time around I hear a substantial - and refreshing - change of tone. No more talk about working for a negotiated settlement or expectations of peace. Netanyahu is talking soberly about the challenges we face and the hard choices to be made. No more "I'll bring you peace with security, or security with peace." Netanyahu has put forward a plan for "economic peace", suggesting that in the absence of real prospects for a diplomatic agreement we work on agreed steps to help the Palestinian economy. Frankly, I think that's a crock, but it's a potential way to maintain a diplomatic track which doesn't entail unrealistic expectations or unacceptable demands. In other words, it may be a way to buy time while filling the diplomatic void with something concrete.

I'm less sanguine about his economic program. It's nice to hear him talk about tax cuts - no one else is - but it's plain that his promise of a 20% cut over four years is unrealistic, especially with global economic crisis. Why set himself up for failure, when he could set a more modest but achievable goal?

Do I trust Bibi? Do I look forward to his leadership? Not particularly. But I'm still in general agreement with his positions, more so than any of his rivals. And Likud has plenty of good candidates who are reliable security hawks, including representatives of Feiglin's Jewish Leadership faction. Likud may actually elect more religious Knesset members this time around than either of the religious-Zionist parties.

Then there's the NRP. My natural political home, one would think. Yet, when you get past the flags and knitted kipot, what exactly do they stand for? What is their record of legislative effectiveness? Why do they think it makes sense to populate most of their list with novice politicians? They're opposed to territorial withdrawals, but stayed in the Sharon government until the last moment. Their economic platform seems to confuse Judaism with socialism. Their educational program is generally based on increased budgets for religious schools, but does anyone think the real problems with the religious schools are financial? I love Uri Orbach, and I respect the records of the rest of the list, but what do they plan to accomplish in the Knesset? Wrest the rabbinate from Shas? Unlikely.

And the National Union. Again, I admire Ketzeleh, but what legislative experience does he have? I also have a serious problem with the partnership with the neo-Kahanist crowd, and in general with the factions which have started to turn against the legitimacy of the state. And there's virtually no chance of them joining a coalition - in the current diplomatic climate, no government will openly agree to funding the settlements. So a vote for them might only help drive Bibi into a unity coalition; he'd rather prop up Labor against Kadima than be seen as caving in to the demands of radicals. Finally, I'm still disappointed with Uri Ariel for splitting the religious-Zionist camp - though I'm aware it might also salvage thousands of votes which would otherwise be wasted on fringe right-wing parties.

All that said, I have to decide how strongly I want Netanyahu to lead the next government. The stronger the Likud, the more likely he is to get the nod. Unlike in the old two-party days, today the "centrist" Kadima can always claim the ability to form a government, since it can reach out either left or right. To trump that, Likud needs a solid lead in mandates. Voting for the religious parties won't help that. If I didn't feel more strongly about Likud v. Kadima, I'd be more inclined to vote NRP. (Before you vote for a small party because you're certain Likud will win the election, read this.)

So once more I'm leaning towards the Likud. For different reasons than last time, but nonetheless.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

What he said!

Following up on my last post, take a look at Anthony Cordesman. (Hat tip: Larry Johnson.)

I hope our leaders have something up their sleeves.

If Hamas survives, Israel has lost

To adapt an old joke about lawyers:

Q: What do you call 300 killed Hamas "operatives"?

A: A drop in the bucket.

With all due gratitude and admiration for the IDF, it's becoming increasingly clear that the current operation is running out of steam. If it ends now without advancing to the next stage - apparently entry into urban areas, with all the risk that entails - it will have failed to achieve any long-term goals.

Killing hundreds of Hamas terrorists, including a handful of senior officers, is welcome. So is destroying tunnels, blowing up offices and command centers, and just plain frightening them into thinking hard before assaulting us in the future.

(Though I wonder if those 300 include the Hamas police cadets killed at their graduation on the first day of the airstrikes? And if the total death toll is over 600, who were the rest of them - we've been told the vast majority of the dead have been combatants?)

But as long as Hamas leaders continue to issue threats and set conditions for a truce, they have not been defeated. And unlike Hizbullah, which is a Lebanese political party and bears some public responsibility for bringing down Israeli wrath on Beirut, Hamas is itself the government in Gaza and faces no apparent public pressure to desist, to say the least.

No, the only way to deter Hamas is to depose them. Whether that means wreaking such havoc on its ranks that there's no Hamas left to govern, or moving in and occupying their seats of power, is secondary. If this campaign ends with Hamas in charge of Gaza it's hard to see how it will be considered a success.

I don't see Hamas budging from its positions as long as it still breathes. If we're afraid to remove them from power for fear of what comes next, then they hold the winning hand in any confrontation with Israel. The only conceivably effective deterrence against a militantly ideological terrorist enemy is to demonstrate that if they attack us they won't survive to tell the tale. Not as individuals, but as a movement.

We're presented with nightmare scenarios of "Somalia in Gaza", a chaos of warring factions with no central government or effective regime. This would be less than ideal, no doubt. But it takes an effective central administration to gather international funds, import heavy weaponry, organize a military, launch an information effort. Gaza has countless long-range rockets because it has an effective central regime - one hostile to Israel and devoted to fighting us. A chaos of warring factions would not yield security for Israel, but it would be a far less potent threat.

Fear of "what if" must not deter us from fighting "what is". Whatever that demands.