STUMP » Articles » Tempest in an Academic Teacup: The Problem with Illinois is Not Complicated Math » 3 October 2017, 05:52

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Tempest in an Academic Teacup: The Problem with Illinois is Not Complicated Math  


3 October 2017, 05:52

I saw the following story via Wirepoints yesterday.

Are gov hopeful Biss’s claims of math prowess pi in the sky?

State Sen. Daniel Biss touts his background as a mathematician as he campaigns for governor, calling himself the “Skinny Math Man” ready to tackle the state’s hardest problems.

But it turns out the former math professor’s claims don’t completely add up. Some of his published papers were found to contain flaws, some deemed “critical” errors by fellow mathematicians.

Biss — elected in 2010 to the Illinois House of Representatives and to the state Senate in 2012 — graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor’s degree, and earned his Ph.D in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At 25, he joined the University of Chicago’s mathematics faculty, according to his campaign website biography. Biss is one of eight vying for the Democratic gubernatorial primary in March.

The Sun-Times inquired about some errors made in the Evanston Democrat’s mathematical papers, including an “erratum” — or an error in printing or writing — made to the Annals of Mathematics about a 2003 paper and another “erratum” submitted for a paper he wrote in 2006. Another paper from 2002 was retracted. Some of the errors were noted on Retraction Watch, which tracks scientific errors.

The website in February noted a retraction in a paper Biss wrote in 2002. “Topology and its Applications” wrote that the article was retracted “after receiving a complaint about anomalies.” The editors asked for further reviews “which indicated that the definitions in the paper are ambiguous and most results were false.” The website followed up and said the journal noted the findings were “inaccurate” but “not fraudulent.”

What Mark Glennon had to say in his response to the story:

Comment: I’ve talked to Biss about the budget and pensions a number of times. The problem isn’t that he doesn’t understand those things or the math. It’s that he’s a liar and a fraud. He knows full well the positions he advocates are quack demagoguery — designed to exploit the economic ignorance and innumeracy of the far left.

More to the point, the math being described as Biss’s field is pure math, which has precious little to do with public finance. The most complicated item one ever has to deal with in public finance is compound interest. Can you take something to an exponent? Wait, your Excel spreadsheet can? Then we’re good.

My own area of graduate study was applied math, which I applied to modeling neurons. That also has very little to do with public finance.

But here’s the deal: I can believe Biss’s work on his paper was on-the-level, and maybe it was shoddy, or maybe just full of the errors one expects from a fledgling academic. The very famous (among mathematicians) Andrew Wiles had a fatal flaw in his own work on Fermat’s Last Theorem, and because he was committed to working the problem, he went back and ultimately fixed it.

Amusingly, somebody made a little musical about the period where Wiles was trying to fix that flaw in his proof. The work was called Fermat’s Last Tango. I got to see it in NYC when it came out — I also was in Berkeley when Wiles announced his result… with the flawed proof (so we in the math community were partying hard – the discovery of the flaw didn’t come for some time.)

This seems to be a complete performance of Fermat’s Last Tango:


I agree with Glennon that the issue with Biss isn’t his academic math work. I didn’t finish my own dissertation partly because the code I wrote to implement my neuron model kept giving me negative probabilities (the issue with trying to use numerical integration on a PDE involving a probability distribution – and strictly speaking, it gave me negative values for the density function on a set of nonzero measure, but it ultimately meant negative probability, which isn’t a thing.)

The beauty of pure math is that it’s of the definition/theorem/proof variety, and unlike a computer simulation, there’s no easy way to tell that your proof has gone off the rails. Biss has no intention (at this point) of going back into academia, and his mind hasn’t been thinking of topology in years. Of course he can’t go back and fix his errors now. To the extent that anybody cares about that particular piece of work, they can go and fix it themselves and get a nice paper out of it.

But I doubt that will happen. Well, I don’t know. It’s pure math. That was never my bag. But part of me walking away from my dissertation was that not only was I stuck, but that I realized nobody else cared about my model… and then, I realized, even I didn’t care. At which point, I decided to do something else. It’s pretty clear that Biss doesn’t care about topology at this point, and that’s no big deal.


I decided to dig up every time I’ve mentioned Biss on this blog (which has been around for only three years.) I’ve noticed him as he’s come up. Three posts came up in my search:

May 2015: Pension Quick Takes: Reactions to Illinois Ruling

State Sen. Daniel Biss, a Democrat, said:

“Today the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that Senate Bill 1 is unconstitutional. While this is not the opinion the authors of SB1 had hoped for, we must respect the Court and strictly adhere to this ruling. The Pension Clause of the constitution provides important protections, and today’s ruling proves the depth of those protections.

“The State of Illinois and many of its local governments are still facing serious fiscal problems, including significant pension debt. I look forward to working with all parties to find ways to ensure that adequate resources are available to properly fund our pension systems in the context of a responsible budget that funds crucial services. Our public employees, our government bodies, and our taxpayers deserve nothing less.”

Biss was one of the sponsors of SB1, along with Elaine Nekritz. Nekritz just announced she’s retiring, btw. I will be addressing the big wave of Illinois political retirements in a later post.

I didn’t comment on Biss at the time of this ruling, which basically said: Nuh-uh, you can’t cut a damn thing on the pensions of current Illinois employees or retirees. That includes cutting cost-of-living increases.

I did make this remark:

And that’s the bottom line. That situation is not sustainable.

There will be no “cool tricks” that will fill that hole in any meaningful way, unless that trick is a majorly lethal pandemic that targets those over age 60.

Yes, I can be a bit grim.

Mention #2 of Biss is from February 2016: On the Illinois Bailout Idea and Other Shenanigans


Daniel Biss thinks so.

Daniel Biss is a Democratic politician in Illinois who has made proposals re: Illinois pensions before. I mention one of the pension reform bills he co-sponsored last year.

Well, Biss is getting a bit huffy that Rauner is acting like he won an election or something. Yes, his margin was thin. But he did pretty well for being a Republican in Illinois. And it’s not like “I love them unions!” was a plank in his election bid.

Let’s see what Biss has to write:

‘But until Massachusetts made a surprise appearance in his State of the State address last week, Rauner’s efforts at reform have focused on emulating anti-union policies enacted in very conservative states like Texas, South Carolina and Mississippi—and, more recently, states like Wisconsin that have undergone dramatic political change.

‘The Illinois General Assembly has rejected many of Rauner’s ideas, but media coverage of the ensuing budget stalemate largely has focused on political and personality disputes.

‘What this coverage neglects is that the underlying dispute is about economic philosophy and values between a Republican governor and a Democratic-controlled Legislature. Rauner and his supporters believe in a theory of economic growth that focuses on competitiveness, which to them means decreasing costs for businesses and decreasing wages and benefits for workers. Democrats believe in a theory of economic growth that invests in people and infrastructure while relying on rising wages to build a thriving middle class that then drives further consumption and growth.

‘Rauner has been slow to figure out that this is a genuine disagreement. It’s not a consequence of politics or coalitions or alliances. It’s one of deep, long-held beliefs. If he wants to make progress on these issues, he’ll have to—slowly—convince lawmakers he’s right, not just rely on political pressure.’

[Now back to me:] Oh, you cutie-pie. You think this is about principle? I don’t think Rauner is even hung up on principle.

If the principle is “opportunity for graft”, then sure. The public employee unions provide plenty of that. I noticed your code words of “invests in people” (i.e. shove money to the public teachers unions).

But the lovely thing is, if a certain Supreme Court case goes the way I wish it will (I am tired of paying “agency fees” to a union with whose interests I do not align at all, for my hobby job), Biss will find out just how much those Illinoisians love their unions.

Look at what’s happening in Wisconsin, Biss.

So, this is fun. The SCOTUS case I linked to was deadlocked with the death of Scalia. But we’re getting another bite at the apple, with Scalia replacement Gorsuch this upcoming SCOTUS season in Janus. Here’s a link to a National Review piece on the case.

Third mention of Biss: June 2017 Illinois Steps to the Edge: No Budget, Credit Downgrade, Stupid Tax Idea — guess who came up with the stupid tax idea:

‘State Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, told the Senate floor Wednesday that his bill that would impose a tax on money managers that use federal loopholes to declare their income as capital gains. This means their income is taxed at a rate of 23 percent, as opposed to the the top personal federal income rate of 43 percent.

‘“What Senate Bill 1719 does is to plug that hole,” Biss said, adding that it would raise the state hundreds of millions of dollars in new money.

‘If passed into law, Illinois would be the only state that imposes a tax attempting to close the gap between capital gains and federal income tax rates.’

[back to me:] Daniel Biss is proof that just because one is smart in pure mathematics doesn’t mean one has a lick of sense when it comes to the mathematics of reality.

But hey, maybe there will be something in academia for you, Biss.

Republican politicians pointed out the obvious problem:

‘State Sen. Chris Nybo, R-Lombard, argued that investment managers aren’t typically tied to a location and would simply leave the state, negating any new tax revenue.

‘“The people that you’re hoping to tap into, they’re going to leave,” Nybo told Biss. “There’s no question that they’re going to do anything that they can to avoid being subject to this first-in-the-nation tax.”

Which brings me back to Biss: I found it hilarious when people assumed that at least in the math department, you wouldn’t find screeching liberals, compared to the humanities departments. Oh, you’d be so so wrong.

Indeed, while John Nash was a special case of a certifiably mentally ill person hiding out in academia for decades, his situation is not all that unusual. I’m not saying that all math profs are unhinged, just that academia is a congenial place for them.

Anyway, there may not be a place in academia for Biss now – well, not in pure math at any rate. Some politicos do manage to get themselves appointed to do-nothing one-class-a-semester-with-only-15-students positions as an easy landing once they leave politics, though.


And from the end of the article I linked up top:

“We understand that in the heat of political campaigns operatives will push silly opposition research, but these attacks don’t add up,” Biss spokesman Hari Sevugan said in a statement. “More likely, the math problem that’s really bugging folks is why a centrist billionaire who has already cut his campaign over $20 million in checks to fund TV ads can’t seem to blow away a unapologetically progressive middle-class math professor,” Biss’s campaign said in a statement.

Biss, you ain’t a math professor. Maybe you used to be one, but you’re not one now.

You’re a politician.

An Illinois politician.

Just like Rauner has become. So it’s not like you can really tar Pritzker on being a fatcat. It’s not like Illinois politicians have a better reputation.

And nobody is buying the math professor ploy. And even if he were professor-ing it up, it wouldn’t help him at all in the politics.


So now getting to the nub: the math involved in Illinois finance is not difficult at all.

It’s so easy that a fictional character from Dickens can explain it:

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.” – (Wilkins Micawber, David Copperfield, Chapter 12)

Government is just a collection of humans. What is true of the finances of one man is the same as that of a government. There’s no magic.


I recently linked to this post on getting stuck in math, and having to work through a problem. To tie it to the beginning, this came from a conversation with Andrew Wiles, talking about his struggle with Fermat’s Last Theorem:

Wiles explained the process of research mathematics like this: “You absorb everything about the problem. You think about it a great deal—all the techniques that are used for these things. [But] usually, it needs something else.” Few problems worth your attention will yield under the standard attacks.

“So,” he said, “you get stuck.”

This was my comment:

Mary Pat Campbell My biggest challenges, fwiw, have nothing to do with math/technical issues. For the types of things I work on, math is the easy part. That’s not where I get stuck.

But the “getting stuck” has to do with any big-impact endeavor. If it were easy, somebody would have already gotten it done.

My problem is people. The problem in general is people — and in many serious things, people usually are the problem.

The problem with Illinois finance – and especially pensions – isn’t the math. The math says Illinois can’t afford what they’ve promised in the past, and the law says “you can’t get out of this obligation”. But the law, per se, isn’t the problem.

The law (and constitution, specifically) can get changed.

But it takes people willing to see the problem and that they’re not going to get everything they want.

The law and/or constitution may not get changed in time to prevent the money from running out. Which will show the strength of law on paper versus the law of reality. It’s already been demonstrated a few times in the past decade, and many more times than that throughout history.

But sure, this time it’s different.

Anyway, Biss has the charisma of a carrot. Not that Pritzker or Rauner are much better.

As I remarked in disputing the ability of governments to declare a legal bankruptcy, I wasn’t claiming what I thought would happen was a good choice. There are no good choices here (unless you’re thinking the seniors-only pandemic is a good option… but if you do, I want to stay far, far away from you.)

There are no winners in Illinois politics right now, because the problem isn’t math per se. It’s people. And very expensive promises.

People like to get what they’re promised. The law is premised on promises, especially governmental promises, being upheld.

And the math says “Oh, you should’ve been putting in a hell of a lot more money than you have for 40+ years.”

But the people didn’t want to listen to the math.

“We’ll pay for it later! We’ll soak the rich! Pensions can’t be defaulted on!”

The math has been easy. But the math tells people things they don’t want to hear. So they ignore it.

It’s like “SCIENCE!” – “MATH!” is used to proclaim stuff only when people (or certain people) are happy with what it says. When it says things people don’t like to hear, they ignore it as long as they possibly can.

Which seems like a good place to put in some Simon & Garfunkel:

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