Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

The paradox of ranked-choice voting

October 23, 2011

Ranked-choice voting is a technical fix to voting problems. But it can often make matters worse.

In ranked-choice voting, aka instant runoff voting, you rank the candidates in order. Then the candidate with the lowest number of first preference votes is eliminated, and people who voted for him have their second preference counted instead.  Keep eliminating candidates until there’s only one left.  The aim is to make sure people don’t worry about “wasting” their vote on a comparatively unpopular candidate.

Proponents of ranked-choice voting generally fall into two camps. The first hopes to get more centrists elected, like the UK’s Liberal Democrats, or California’s Tom Campbell. Another popular reform of this type is open primaries, and centrists will keep coming up with these ideas as long as they can’t get anyone to vote for them.

The second hopes to get more left-wing parties running, like Greens or Socialists. The argument goes that people don’t vote for Greens like Nader because they’re worried about splitting the left-of-centre vote and letting the right in, as in 2000. But with ranked-choice voting, Nader could have run, disaffected Democrats could have indulged themselves with a protest vote for him, and it would have all worked out OK – Nader’s votes would have been redistributed to Gore, letting him win. It’s an attractive position, as it lets you be smugly superior in your purist vote without actually having to face the consequences of eight years of Bush-Cheney.

So how can it make things worse? One example is San Francisco, where it’s combined with public campaign financing to give 16 candidates for the mayor’s race. Mercifully, San Franciscans don’t have to rank order the whole set – they only need choose their top 3. But that gives 16*15*14 = 3360 possible choices, quite enough to induce analysis paralysis among anyone who took the task seriously. The “paradox of choice” says that all these options will give worse results.

And how is the election shaping up? With 16 candidates, all the messages blend into one vague mush of centre-left platitudes – protecting the environment, encouraging sustainable growth and so on. Nobody attacks anyone else, because they want their supporters to put them second or third. It’s San Francisco’s most boring election.

Who benefits from all of this? The same people who always benefit – incumbents and moneyed interests – the only ones who can cut through the chatter. What the reformers have forgotten is that, since Ancient Rome, any election worth anything has been, at base, a contest between rich and poor. Not that the patrician candidate is always worse – the rich didn’t get to be rich by being dummies. But the best way for the rich to win the class war is to deny and obscure its existence, and ranked choice voting is an excellent assistant.

Update: The left-wing SF Bay Guardian notes “Several consultants and election experts [the editor] talked to this week said that [incumbent mayor] Lee would be far more vulnerable in a traditional election. ‘He would lose a runoff against almost any of the top challengers,’ one person said.” and quotes Corey Cook, a political scientist at the University of San Francisco as saying “Ranked-choice voting clearly favors incumbents.”


Wikileaks and the capital of Kyrgyzstan

December 27, 2010

What to say about Wikileaks?  The most curious thing is that it has attracted such little attention.  Oh, certainly the usual suspects (Michael Moore, Sarah Palin) have rushed to defend or attack Assange, and various groups have found stories of interest to them (the left-wing U.K. paper The Guardian “discovered” that Prince Andrew was an idiot, and Tories were poodles of the U.S.), but generally it has been a minor breeze in a small teacup.  Why?

The fact is that we already know how American foreign policy works, more or less.  More information is not that useful at this point.

Consider Kyrgyzstan.  On the one hand, we know nothing about it.  (Who runs it?  Where is it?  How to spell it?  What’s the capital?)  What use could cables from Bishkek be to us?  But, on the other hand, we know everything about it.  Oil, minerals, ethnic rivalries, corruption, blackmail, fanatics, shady trade deals, great power rivalries – they are all in there somewhere, or in the next country down the street. What could cables from Bishkek tell us that we couldn’t already guess?  Not to mention that the inner workings of bureaucracies are generally  not too exciting – we have bought a ticket to a James Bond film, but ended up at an Elks lodge committee meeting.

What will happen next?  You already know.  Wikileaks will reveal that bankers broke the law to make more money.  Anonymous will give free stress-testing to corporate websites.  And Assange will go to jail for a long, long, time, for saying too much, and understanding too little.

No on 20, no on 27, no to the myth of electoral reform

October 26, 2010

Every election in California seems to have some well-intentioned proposal to improve government, and this one is no exception.  Prop 20 would extend the powers of the Citizens’ Commission to draw congressional boundaries and eliminate gerrymandering [they already have this power for the state legislatures], while Prop 27 would eliminate the commission entirely.

Ever since the Roman Republic, people have tried to tinker with the democratic process, generally to little effect.  Saturday voting, open primaries, public financing – the list is long and I suspect the good-government types won’t stop until every elected official is a milquetoast blend of Tom Campbell and Evan Bayh.

Do these reforms do any good?  Well, the early California reformers introduced the recall, which gave us Governor Schwarzenegger, and the initiative process, which gave us governmental paralysis.

Let’s take 20 first.  It abolishes Congressional gerrymandering, so we get fewer Democrats, which is bad.  So no.  But gerrymandering’s not fair, you say?  Who the Hell wants to be fair?!  Was Bush v. Gore “fair”?  Was JFK’s 1960 victory “fair”?  Was it fair when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!  No, no, and no.

Now on to 27.  This abolishes the commission entirely, so the legislature can continue to gerrymander their own state districts.  If there’s one thing more annoying than a goo-goo reformer, it’s a worthless member of a worthless legislature.  Congress occasionally does something, but would we ever miss a few Democrats in the Assembly or Senate?  Would we even miss the whole Assembly or the Senate?  So no on 27 too.  Let’s give this commission a chance to have some fun on the meaningless state bodies – it’s not like anything bad can happen.

So no on 20 and no on 27 (the same position as the League of Women Voters, incidentally).  And no to the pernicious myth of electoral reform.  California has enough real problems – whether you think it’s the public employee unions or Prop 13, let’s get to work on those, rather than getting distracted with repainting the staterooms on the Titanic.

Obama’s gamble

August 15, 2010

The President has finally weighed in on the so-called Ground Zero mosque, supporting the right to build it.  Why?

The simplest reason would be that he believes in it.  That’s true, but doesn’t get us too far.  He more than likely believes in gay marriage too, but has come out against that.  The big reason is electoral.

With the midterms coming up, Democrats need something to bring the base out (or, less cynically, demonstrate why Republican governments are bad).  The economy is in the doldrums, so that leaves ratcheting up the culture war.  The mosque is a battle that Dems can win – people may not like it, but they will really hate the Republicans’ attacks on it, which will inevitably go too far, crossing over into racism and bringing out the worst of the right.  We’ve seen this before, when Palin’s rallies turned to angry mobs and played a role in driving people to Obama.

Speaking of Palin, she benefits from Obama’s move.  Her interests have been aligned with the President’s for a while now – they both want her to have a large role as the face of the Republican party, ideally as the 2012 nominee.  Indeed, he might be playing a long game to energize her base and sucker the Republicans into nominating her or someone similarly toxic.

Let’s not get too cynical, though.  It is a gamble, it is courageous, and the President does deserve our support on this.  But it may not be a bad move even from a pragmatic point of view.

The puzzle of Barbados

May 25, 2010

Recently I was on honeymoon in Barbados.  It is a socially conservative and well-governed place, as if a particularly well-organized group of Rotarians were put in charge of a country.  Indeed, in a recent NPR Planet Money radio story, the interviewer asked a random Barbadian about life in Barbados, and got the reply that Barbados had been blessed with extremely good government.  But unlike many other such countries, it actually has a functioning democracy.  Where does a state of only 300,000 people manage to find everyone needed to run it?  300,000 is less than half the population of San Francisco.  Let’s be generous, and take the whole of SF, and suppose it had to run itself as an independent country.  We could maybe have Nancy Pelosi as Prime Minister or President, but after that it becomes difficult to imagine a cabinet.  Who would be Minister of Defence?  The Treasury?  Would Mayor Gavin Newsom make a good Minister of the Interior?  I would barely trust him with the Ministry of Interior Decorating.  Which San Franciscan would you want to be ambassador to the U.S.?  Supervisor Chris Daly, who moved his children out of the city and curses on a regular basis?  The city would be invaded in a couple of weeks.  And yet, Barbados manages to find seemingly competent people for all these tasks and more.  Not to say that it is a utopia – unemployment is 10% (like many places), and the local paper manages to be one of the dullest I have ever read (sample headline: British High Commissioner Impressed with Barbadians).  Still, I’d take that as part of the whole package.

So what separates Barbados’ competent government from San Francisco’s dysfunctional one?  Are San Franciscans too leftist?  But Barbados has a Labour government, which heavily subsidizes education, housing, and transport.  Is it the benefits of Empire?  But Jamaica has a state of emergency in its capital for crime, St. Kitts and Nevis can barely hold itself together as a single country, and Grenada flirted with Cuba and got invaded.  Is it Barbadian culture?  (Everyone we met was quite concerned that we see all the correct tourist sights, and our bellhop was very disapproving that we left it late to get gifts for work colleagues – “What were you doing yesterday?” he asked).  But that seems to mix causality with description.  Whatever the reason, you’d think we’d know more about it than we do.

The U.K. election – lessons for the U.S.

May 7, 2010

Britain’s political system is quite different from America’s, but Americans can still draw some lessons from the recent British election.

1) Politics is often tribal

No matter what the circumstances, there are people who will remain steadfastly loyal to their political party.  It’s not that they vote Labour – it’s that they are Labour, or Conservative, and would no more change that for economic reasons than they would convert to Islam because the local mosque had some nice biscuits.  See “I hate Tories.  And yes, it’s tribal” for an example of this.  You can’t argue them out of it, because they weren’t argued into it – often there was some pivotal event that set up their allegiance for life, and they kept it, even long after the original battle (e.g. anti-apartheid protests).  This tends to work against the centre – who can really be viscerally moved by moderation and “reasonableness”?

The lesson for the U.S.?  From Alaska to Arizona to the Daily Show, the GOP is busily convincing a generation not to be Republican.  Not a big concern for now, but it will set some views for life, and the problem will get worse as they get older and vote more.

2) Beware of being a blank slate

The Liberal Democrats’ leader, Nick Clegg, was compared to Obama at one time, but failed to live up to the promise of “Cleggmania”.  Why?

Both Clegg and Obama were, to a certain extent, blank slates – you could imagine that they would do all sorts of things if they got power.  In Obama’s case, this worked excellently – everyone knew that he would not be Bush and was free to make up their ideal candidate.  But Clegg ended up with Fear rather than Hope – if you leaned left, would voting LibDem let the Tories in?  If you were a Tory, would Clegg keep Gordon Brown in office?  With no clear guidance from the LibDems, people projected their own personal fears on the blank slate, and reverted to the devils they knew.

The lesson for the U.S.?  You can be an independent, but you need to say which side you’re on.  Joe Lieberman was able to do this successfully, winning CT as an independent, but basically promising to vote with the Dems, as does Bernie Sanders, from the other wing.  What will Charlie Crist do in FL?  If he avoids committing himself, he may find no-one committed to him.

Sarah Palin – crazy like a fox?

November 30, 2009

Sarah Palin – America’s cross between Evita, Ahmadinejad, and Perot.  Can we count her out of politics just yet?  Perhaps not, especially now that Huckabee seems to have blown his chance at 2012, as a felon he granted clemency is suspected of multiple murder.  With him out of the running, that leaves her the heiress apparent of conservative Republicanism.  Now that she’s quit the governorship, she has no need to worry about doing the wrong thing politically – she can just practice her stump speech on the book tour circuit.  Who will be a good challenger for her among Republicans?  Romney?  Pawlenty?  Another Bush?  Obviously they will have to come up with someone, but which candidate other than Palin is any more exciting than a spreadsheet?

Californias’ dreaming

October 24, 2009

Every so often, there are proposals to split the state of California.  Some prefer a north-south split, while some want coast vs. inland, and a few would like San Francisco to be its own state.  It’s not surprising that there are proposals to split the state.  What is surprising is that none of them have yet succeeded, and that very few states have split (Maine from the geographically separated Mass., West Virginia from Virginia in the Civil War).

It’s comparatively easy to split a U.S. state – all you need is the approval of the state legislature and Congress.  Why might you want to?  Here’s a couple of reasons:

1) Suppose your state is pretty homogeneous politically.  Then you can double its senators by splitting, and gain at least 2 electoral votes.

2) On the other hand, suppose your state is roughly 50-50 with mostly Republicans in the North and Democrats in the South.  By splitting the state, politicians from both parties can gerrymander themselves into safe governorships and senate seats.

(1) is pretty dangerous, at least in theory.  A party in control of Congress and enough states could split its states as much as it liked.  Taken to an extreme, it could completely control the Senate and Presidency (where several mini-states would each get 3 electoral votes, outweighing any competition).  If we were computer scientists, we would say that the U.S. constitution was fatally broken.

In practice, we could probably rely on the states’ mutual suspicion to stop things getting out of hand, but proposals don’t even seem to make it to Congress.  Something seems to have gone terribly right with the system.  But what?  Does state pride limit any such movements?  Did the Civil War make splitting in general seem like a bad idea?  Or will it be the next play of the Republicans, similarly to how they used redistricting in Texas?  If we start to see a Citizens’ Committee for a South-East Dakota, watch out.

California – working as designed?

October 16, 2009

From the U.K. Observer on the left to National Affairs on the right, everyone says that California’s government is broken.  There are many suspects – Prop 13, wealthy people buying initiatives, overregulation, unions, business lobbyists, and, for all I know, there are still some people blaming the Union Pacific.
It’s hard to defend a system where the state has recently paid its bills in IOUs, but is it really broken, or is it working just as it should?  Consider this story:

Sigmund Freud is walking down the street, when he is accosted by a man in great distress who says – “Dr. Freud, I am plagued by horrible neuroses.  My life is unbearable.  If you can take me on as a patient and cure me I’ll be eternally grateful.  I’ll do anything!”  Freud calmly replies, “Please sir, there is no reason to be so melodramatic.  I will be satisfied with my usual fee of fifty krone per hour.”  The man pauses and says “But isn’t that rather expensive?”

Like the prospective patient, Californians would like government to do more, but they really don’t want to pay for it.  Many systems would force us to face up to this and make a choice.  But with initiatives we have a less judgmental form of government.  We can have our cake, eat it, sell bonds to buy more cake and ensure that it uses only local cruelty-free ingredients.  If we get sick of cake, we can mandate that 40% of the meal be in vegetables.  Everyone is happy, without needing to do any of those nasty things politicians sometimes talk about, like raising taxes or expanding offshore drilling.  And if things are still not perfect, we can always blame the legislature.

Some people think that a constitutional convention will “solve” matters, but why should people vote for such a convention or its proposed revisions when it might lead to taxes going up or services being cut?  If people wanted such things, they could vote for them now.  And if a convention did not lead to change in such matters, then what difference would it make?

You might object that eventually the bondholders will tire of California’s unique system, but we have a few tricks left up our sleeve.  While a state must have prison officers and prisons, it need not have prisoners, who only add to the expense of the system without providing any votes.  If we need more revenue, we can always legalize and tax marijuana or even heroin.  And do students really need textbooks and schools, when all knowledge can be found on Wikipedia, and you can get all the social interaction you need on Facebook?  Besides, another boom is surely just around the corner, in biotechnology, alternative energy, or virtual goods.  Or perhaps we could go back to gold – prices have been rising recently, and we can’t have used it all up the first time around, can we?

Lincoln on Gladney?

September 3, 2009

One of the many strange stories to come out of the recent protests against healthcare reform was that of a black conservative protester, Kenneth Gladney, who got into a fight and then asked for donations because he didn’t have health insurance.  (His story did change over time.)

What would Obama’s hero Lincoln think of this?  Perhaps we can get some insight from a speech of his on March 17, 1865, “on the reported intention of the Confederacy to employ negroes in the army“.

There are but few aspects of this great war on which I have not already expressed my views by speaking or writing. There is one—the recent effort of “our erring brethren,” sometimes so called, to employ the slaves in their armies. The great question with them has been, “Will the negro fight for them?” They ought to know better than we, and doubtless do know better than we. I may incidentally remark, that having in my life heard many arguments—or strings of words meant to pass for arguments—intended to show that the negro ought to be a slave—if he shall now really fight to keep himself a slave, it will be a far better argument why he should remain a slave than I have ever before heard. He, perhaps, ought to be a slave if he desires it ardently enough to fight for it. Or, if one out of four will, for his own freedom, fight to keep the other three in slavery, he ought to be a slave for his selfish meanness. I have always thought that all men should be free; but if any should be slaves, it should be first those who desire it for themselves, and secondly those who desire it for others. Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.

Of course, our President is much too wise and good to make such an unfair, overblown, and inflammatory analogy.  But I wonder if it came to his mind.