Habent PM

Australia and Julia Gillard, that is, three weeks after the election that resulted in neither major party having a majority. It’s a bit curious that we’re seeing negotiated coalition governments all over the place (well, Australia and the UK, anyway) under non-PR systems (Australia uses PR for their upper house, but IRV/AV and single-member districts for the lower house, which is the relevant one here).

John Quiggin is on the scene:

Habemus PM

The Australian election three weeks ago turned out about as close as possible. The two main parties (Labour and the permanent Liberal-National-Liberal National coalition) each ended up with 72 seats (out of 150) and almost exactly 50 per cent of the two-party preferred vote, the relevant measure of support in our preferential (=IRV/AV) system. That left six remaining seats: one Green, one non-coalition National, one leftish independent and three country independents, all formerly associated with the conservative National party). Because the Parliament has a Speaker, 76 supporters are required for a stable government.

Unsurprisingly, things took a while to sort themselves out. Because of postal voting and the need for recounts, the final determination of seats took more than a week. Then there was another week of haggling and jockeying. The Green MP declared for Labor first, followed by the leftish independent (Labor) and the dissident National (Coalition). No surprises there. That left the three country independents. It was expected they would move as a bloc, but in the end, one announced support for the Coalition, and the other two for Labor (the last of them spending half an our of explanation before finally stating what had been obvious from the moment his ally went that way). So, after 17 days, it was 76-74, and Julia Gillard retained the office she had snatched from Kevin Rudd only weeks before the election.

Overall, it was a startlingly good outcome. Any democratic system is going to have trouble when the vote is as close as this, but compared to the US in 2000, or Belgium/Holland right now, things went relatively smoothly. And, startlingly, to get the independents on board, Labor actually had to promise better government, rather than pork-barreling for those electorates fortunate enough to have a pivotal vote. By contrast, the Liberal leader Tony Abbott, came with an open chequebook and was rebuffed. It’s true that the effect will be to give much more favorable treatment to rural and regional areas in general, but the independents have a fair enough basis for the claim that these areas have been neglected (complex and competing calculations of the relative treatment of urban and rural areas are a staple of Australian policywonkery).

Even better, when the newly elected Senate takes its place (not until July 2011 thanks to the marvels of our electoral system) Labor’s dependence on the Greens will be enhanced by the existence of a Labor-Green majority in the Upper House. Going into the election, Labor had dumped the commitment to action on climate change that gave it victory in 2007 (how this happened is too depressing to relate. I think George Monbiot covered it a while back). But now, with the government dependent on Greens and greenish independents, the issue is back on the agenda.

It’s often said that a country gets the government it deserved. Going into the election, with two competing leaders who had seized power without any real popular support, and policy platforms derived entirely from particularly dimwitted focus groups, I wondered what we Australians had done to deserve this. Now, I wonder how we merited such good fortune. I only hope it will last.

Hand washing dispels the decision demons

Science, via Ars Technica. My interest in this stuff relates generally to how we strange creatures make decisions—voting, say.

Hand washing dispels the decision demons

According to an unusual study, washing your hands is not only healthy, but it may also put your mind at ease about recent past decisions. A couple of researchers at the University of Michigan conducted a study asking students to choose between two objects out of several they had ranked. When students washed their hands after making the choice, they seemed to experience less cognitive dissonance, while students who did not wash their hands behaved as if they needed to justify their choices to themselves.

People often try to justify choosing one thing, such what to eat, over another by convincing themselves that their choice is superior, even though both items seemed equally good a few seconds ago. This is our way of dispelling the cognitive dissonance choosing creates; if we don’t do this, we tend to fret about whether we decided correctly. A couple of researchers decided to test how this dissonance might be affected by the act of washing, which is sometimes linked with moral self-judgment, but hasn’t been tested much in relation to other psychological processes.

They set some college students about the task of choosing ten CDs for themselves out of a set of 30, and then ranking them in order of preference. For participating, students were offered a gift of their fifth- or sixth-choice CD. Next, the students were split in two groups— one group washed their hands, and the other just evaluated liquid soap packaging.

When the two groups re-ranked their ten CDs, students that did not wash their hands ranked the CD they chose higher, as if to indicate to themselves that they wanted that CD anyway. Students that did wash their hands, though, ranked their chosen CD about the same, showing that hand-washing somehow dispensed with the need to justify a choice.

The authors think this indicates that physical cleanliness may have a broader impact on individual psychology than previously thought—washing has been linked before to absolution of moral guilt, but less so to self-perception. The study was small and limited in scope, but if the link is real, we need hand wipes served with hot wings more than ever.

Magical voting

Is voting magical? | Andrew Brown

… So as a rational, self-interested actor, it makes no sense for me to vote. There is a reason why it’s important to tell us on election day that our votes will make a difference: thinking about it will lead the economically rational to conclude it’s not true. Nor did it make any sense for me to hold my nose. It was even more absurd than the enthusiasm of the football supporters in the pub last night, shouting in disappointment when their team missed a goal on television. They are least were taking part in a collective ritual with their friends; I was quite alone and unobserved.

One way of interpreting all these actions is as a form of sympathetic magic. While my rational mind knows perfectly well that neither my vote nor my pantomime will have any effect they are both behaviours that make sense only if on some level I do expect them to be effective. Similarly, the football fans surely believe that their support helps their team along – they behave as if they do, and still more as if the team was damaged by a lack of belief.

A more radical explanation is that the belief that we believe in magic is itself a rationalisation. Holding my nose while voting or shouting at an invisible football team is is entirely instinctive behaviour, and can be triggered even when it has no purpose at all, any more than giggling when I am tickled does, or sneezing when exposed to bright light. This is actually quite an important point in some theories of religion, like Pascal Boyer’s and one that is hard to answer: almost all our accounts of ritual behaviour are based on the idea that it is a conscious attempt to manipulate the world but maybe it is done entirely for its own sake. …


Archdruid Eileen: On Voting Systems

As you may know, I have an interest in elections and voting, and follow the literature more than casually. I’m delighted to pass on this excellent paper, On Voting Systems, by Archdruid Eileen of the Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley.

It’s a brief paper, but contains a fairly comprehensive review of portal, hydraulic and feline balloting systems, along with the single most compelling argument I’ve come across for electronic voting.

I won’t quote any of the paper here, so as to encourage you to read the whole damned thing.

For Less Voting

Matthew Yglesias makes the case that we (in the US) vote too much. Heretical, of course, but it has the ring of common sense.

For Less Voting

Ezra Klein saw the same Larry Lessig presentation I was at yesterday. His take is more skeptical than I would be about the pernicious influence of money in politics. If I disagree with Lessig about anything in this regard it’s that I think the focus on the precise modalities with which special interests are allowed to offer bribes to members of congress is too narrow. I certainly support things like “clean elections” laws, but I think we ought to also look at broader reforms.

Consider, for example, America’s staggering quantity of elected officials. If you live in Toronto, you vote for a member of the Toronto City Council, you vote for a member of the Ontario Parliament, and you vote for a member of the Canadian Parliament. That’s one large Anglophone city in North America.

What happens in New York City? Well, you’ve got a city council member, a borough president, a mayor, a public advocate, a comptroller, and a district attorney. You’ve also got a state assembly member, a state senator, an attorney-general, a state comptroller, and a governor. Then at the federal level, there’s a member of congress, two senators, and the president. That’s sixteen legislative and elected officials rather than Toronto’s three. New Yorkers don’t have three times as much time in their day to monitor the performance of elected officials. Instead, New Yorker elected officials simply aren’t monitored as closely. That creates more scope for corruption. What’s more since campaign money has diminishing marginal returns, the proliferation of elected makes money matter more than it otherwise would.

A big country like the United States is never going to have public officials who are as well-monitored as the ones in a place like Denmark. But we make the situation much, much worse by proliferating the quantity of elected officials to the point where most people have no idea what’s happening. How many people can name their state senator? How many people know what things their school board has authority over and what things their mayor decides? And this is all without considering the absolutely insane practice of electing judges.

What the Supreme Court got right

Glenn Greenwald, thoughtful as always.

What the Supreme Court got right

The Supreme Court yesterday, in a 5-4 decision, declared unconstitutional (on First Amendment grounds) campaign finance regulations which restrict the ability of corporations and unions to use funds from their general treasury for “electioneering” purposes.  The case, Citizens United v. FEC, presents some very difficult free speech questions, and I’m deeply ambivalent about the court’s ruling.  There are several dubious aspects of the majority’s opinion (principally its decision to invalidate the entire campaign finance scheme rather than exercising ”judicial restraint” through a narrower holding).  Beyond that, I believe that corporate influence over our political process is easily one of the top sicknesses afflicting our political culture.  But there are also very real First Amendment interests implicated by laws which bar entities from spending money to express political viewpoints. 

I want to begin by examining several of the most common reactions among critics of this decision, none of which seems persuasive to me. …

Update: in a follow-up, Greenwald points out that, while the case was decided 5–4, all nine justices agreed on two matters: that corporations have free speech rights (the question of personhood doesn’t arise, I think, in the speech clause) and that restrictions on spending do infringe on those rights:

… To the contrary, the entire dissent — while arguing that corporations have fewer First Amendment protections than individuals — is grounded in the premise that corporations do have First Amendment free speech rights and that restrictions on the expenditure of money do burden those rights, but those free speech rights can be restricted when there’s a “compelling state interest.” In this case, the dissenters argued, such restrictions are justified by the “compelling state interest” the Government has in preventing the corrupting influence of corporate money. That’s why the extent of one’s belief in the First Amendment is outcome-determinative here. Those who want to restrict free speech always argue that there’s a compelling reason to do so (“we must ban the Communist Party because they pose a danger to the country”; “we must ban hate speech because it sparks violence and causes a climate of intimidation”; “we must ban radical Muslim websites because they provoke Terrorism”). One can have reasonable debates over the “compelling interest” question as a constitutional matter — and, as I said yesterday, I’m deeply ambivalent about the Citizens United case because that’s a hard question and I do think corporate influence is one of the greatest threats we face — but, ultimately, it’s because I don’t believe that restrictions on political speech and opinions (as opposed to other kinds of statements) can ever be justified that I agree with the majority’s ruling. There are reasonable arguments on all sides of that question. …

R: ACORN stole the election

Via TPM. Puts Steve Jobs’s reality distortion field to shame.

Poll: Majority Of Republicans Think Obama Didn’t Actually Win 2008 Election — ACORN Stole It!

The new national poll from Public Policy Polling (D) has an astonishing number about paranoia among the GOP base: Republicans do not think President Obama actually won the 2008 election — instead, ACORN stole it.

This number goes a long way towards explaining the anger of the Tea Party crowd. They not only think Obama’s agenda is against America, but they don’t think he was actually the choice of the American people at all! Interestingly, NY-23 Conservative candidate Doug Hoffman is now accusing ACORN of stealing his race, and Fox News personalities have often speculated about ACORN stealing the 2008 Minnesota Senate race for Al Franken.

The poll asked this question: “Do you think that Barack Obama legitimately won the Presidential election last year, or do you think that ACORN stole it for him?” The overall top-line is legitimately won 62%, ACORN stole it 26%.

Among Republicans, however, only 27% say Obama actually won the race, with 52% — an outright majority — saying that ACORN stole it, and 21% are undecided. Among McCain voters, the breakdown is 31%-49%-20%. By comparison, independents weigh in at 72%-18%-10%, and Democrats are 86%-9%-4%.

Condorcet cellphone paradox

The Condorcet voting paradox, in voting theory, says that it’s possible to have (for example) three candidates A, S & V such that the voters collectively prefer A to S, S to V and V to A. It sounds impossible, but that’s why it’s called a paradox.

There seems to be something like that for cellphone service providers. Sprint is bad. AT&T is worse than Sprint. Verizon is worse than AT&T. And Sprint is worse than Verizon. Follow that?

Sprint has the worst coverage by far, though I use it because it happens to cover my house in the boonies. iPhone lovers hate AT&T, and many iPhone prospects won’t buy one until it show up on another network. So that leaves Verizon, right? Not so fast, says David Pogue.

… The more Verizon gouges, the worse it looks. Every single day, I get e-mail from people saying they’re switching at the first opportunity, or would if they could. In time, the only people who will stay with Verizon are people who have no coverage with any other carrier.

Every company’s dream, right? A base of miserable customers who stick with you only because they have no choice. …

Each provider is worse than all the others. That’s Condorcet’s paradox applied to cellphones. As Pogue asks,

Why wouldn’t it be a hugely profitable move to start pitching yourself as the GOOD cell company, the one that actually LIKES its customers?

That, of course, is crazy talk. Next thing you know he’ll be suggesting that there could be a GOOD airline company, and we’ll have to call the men in the white coats.

Cleanliness, Godliness and … Windex?

Two studies of the rationality of human behavior (ScienceDaily):

Clean Smells Promote Moral Behavior, Study Suggests

People are unconsciously fairer and more generous when they are in clean-smelling environments, according to a soon-to-be published study led by a Brigham Young University professor.

The research found a dramatic improvement in ethical behavior with just a few spritzes of citrus-scented Windex.

And from an article a year ago:

Cleanliness Makes People Less Severe In Moral Judgments

New research in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science has found that the physical notion of cleanliness significantly reduces the severity of moral judgments, showing that intuition, rather than deliberate reasoning can influence our perception of what is right and wrong.

Lead researcher, Simone Schnall explains the relevance of the findings to everyday life; “When we exercise moral judgment, we believe we are making a conscious, rational decision, but this research shows that we are subconsciously influenced by how clean or ‘pure’ we feel.

“Take for example the situation of a jury member or voting in an election — if the jury member had washes their hands prior to delivering their verdict, they may judge the crime less harshly.

“Similarly, someone may find it easier to overlook a political misdemeanor had they performed an action that made them feel ‘clean’ prior to casting their vote.”

Gerrymandering and incumbent reelection

This one’s a bit on the wonky side. Via John Sides we have a newish paper, The Rising Incumbent Reelection Rate: What’s Gerrymandering Got to Do With It?.

The answer in brief: less than nothing.

Some background. The reelection rate of Congressional incumbents has always been high, but over time it has gotten higher, as shown by this graph from the paper:


Why is this? The authors aren’t willing to say for sure, but they are willing to say that it’s not because of increased or technically improved gerrymandering. Decennial census-based redistricting has actually decreased incumbents’ reelection rate, while other overriding factors (whatever they might be) have increased it.

A reasonable conclusion (and no real surprise to many of us) is that new independent-commission redistricting schemes such as California’s are not going to do much to change the incumbent advantage.

PR in Germany

I ran across two rather different takes on the proportionality of the results of Germany’s recent election.

First we have Matthew Søberg Shugart at Fruits and Votes:

The German result

Perusing the results of last Sunday’s German election (thank you, Adam Carr), one thing that jumps out at me is the high—by standards of Germany’s proportional system—disproportionality. …

While we have this from Pauline Lejeune at FairVote:

Germany’s federal parliament: fair and accurate representation

… The highly representative outcome of the German election is the product of its Mixed Member Proportional System…

There’s no real dispute here, but rather implicit comparisons of the German results to rather different standards. Lejeune:

Merkel’s Christian Democratic alliance and their partner, the FDP [secured] a clear majority in the Bundestag (53.37% of the seats) with 48.4% of the nationwide votes.

Historically, this is a rather high level of disproportionality a German election, and Shugart conjectures as to the reason behind it. But for the American voter, Lejeune’s point is the more interesting one:

Without the party list votes and seats, the CDU/CSU would have earned an overwhelming 73% of all seats and been able to govern on its own despite taking less than 40% of the district votes and barely a third of the party list votes.

So with PR and a little less than half the votes, the winning coalition won a little more than half the seats, while in a US-style majority-take-all system, it would have won nearly three quarters of the seats.

Quoting Ernest Naville,

In a democratic government the right of decision belongs to the majority, but the right of representation belongs to all.

…in Germany, anyway.

(If you’re not familiar with Germany’s mixed-member proportional (MMP) system, Lejeune’s article isn’t a bad place to start.)

Mill on voter qualification

John Stuart Mill was an early and strong advocate of universal suffrage, at a time when it was taken for granted that women, for example, did not vote. In Considerations on Representative Government, published in 1861, when the modern suffrage movement was just getting started, he wrote:

…it is a personal injustice to withhold from any one, unless for the prevention of greater evils, the ordinary privilege of having his voice reckoned in the disposal of affairs in which he has the same interest as other people. If he is compelled to pay, if he may be compelled to fight, if he is required implicitly to obey, he should be legally entitled to be told what for; to have his consent asked, and his opinion counted at its worth, though not at more than its worth. There ought to be no pariahs in a full-grown and civilised nation; no persons disqualified, except through their own default. Every one is degraded, whether aware of it or not, when other people, without consulting him, take upon themselves unlimited power to regulate his destiny. And even in a much more improved state than the human mind has ever yet reached, it is not in nature that they who are thus disposed of should meet with as fair play as those who have a voice. Rulers and ruling classes are under a necessity of considering the interests and wishes of those who have the suffrage; but of those who are excluded, it is in their option whether they will do so or not, and, however honestly disposed, they are in general too fully occupied with things which they must attend to, to have much room in their thoughts for anything which they can with impunity disregard. No arrangement of the suffrage, therefore, can be permanently satisfactory in which any person or class is peremptorily excluded; in which the electoral privilege is not open to all persons of full age who desire to obtain it.

Clear and unequivocal? Not quite as unequivocal as we, reading this with 21st-century eyes, might think. I don’t mean the “full age” qualification; we might argue over the age in question, but we generally accept an age qualification for voting. The catch shows up in the phrase “no persons disqualified, except through their own default” and again, “open to all persons of full age who desire to obtain it.”

Mill isn’t being coy. He explains in the very next paragraph how his vision of universal suffrage differs from our default idea of automatic universal suffrage.

There are, however, certain exclusions, required by positive reasons, which do not conflict with this principle, and which, though an evil in themselves, are only to be got rid of by the cessation of the state of things which requires them. I regard it as wholly inadmissible that any person should participate in the suffrage without being able to read, write, and, I will add, perform the common operations of arithmetic. Justice demands, even when the suffrage does not depend on it, that the means of attaining these elementary acquirements should be within the reach of every person, either gratuitously, or at an expense not exceeding what the poorest who earn their own living can afford. If this were really the case, people would no more think of giving the suffrage to a man who could not read, than of giving it to a child who could not speak; and it would not be society that would exclude him, but his own laziness. When society has not performed its duty, by rendering this amount of instruction accessible to all, there is some hardship in the case, but it is a hardship that ought to be borne. If society has neglected to discharge two solemn obligations, the more important and more fundamental of the two must be fulfilled first: universal teaching must precede universal enfranchisement. No one but those in whom an à priori theory has silenced common sense will maintain that power over others, over the whole community, should be imparted to people who have not acquired the commonest and most essential requisites for taking care of themselves; for pursuing intelligently their own interests, and those of the persons most nearly allied to them. This argument, doubtless, might be pressed further, and made to prove much more. It would be eminently desirable that other things besides reading, writing, and arithmetic could be made necessary to the suffrage; that some knowledge of the conformation of the earth, its natural and political divisions, the elements of general history, and of the history and institutions of their own country, could be required from all electors. But these kinds of knowledge, however indispensable to an intelligent use of the suffrage, are not, in this country, nor probably anywhere save in the Northern United States, accessible to the whole people; nor does there exist any trustworthy machinery for ascertaining whether they have been acquired or not. The attempt, at present, would lead to partiality, chicanery, and every kind of fraud. It is better that the suffrage should be conferred indiscriminately, or even withheld indiscriminately, than that it should be given to one and withheld from another at the discretion of a public officer. In regard, however, to reading, writing, and calculating, there need be no difficulty. It would be easy to require from every one who presented himself for registry that he should, in the presence of the registrar, copy a sentence from an English book, and perform a sum in the rule of three; and to secure, by fixed rules and complete publicity, the honest application of so very simple a test. This condition, therefore, should in all cases accompany universal suffrage; and it would, after a few years, exclude none but those who cared so little for the privilege, that their vote, if given, would not in general be an indication of any real political opinion.

We find (or at least I found, at first reading) this to be just a bit shocking, reading it through the lens of history, in particular Reconstruction and the Jim Crow South, aware as Mill was not of the pernicious use of literacy tests and poll taxes to prevent whole classes and races from voting, even after legal suffrage was granted.

On the other hand, it’s hard to see how a democracy can work if its citizens are throwing darts at their ballots or, worse, voting based on systematically bad information, something demagogues and soundbites make their living on.

To the extent that we try to address Mill’s concerns these days, it’s through voter education: media reporting, candidate debates and the like. But these can generate more heat than light, with he-said/she-said and horserace reporting, and “debates” that end up being extended exercises in message control.

This is, I believe, the central problem of the democratic project, and I’m completely at a loss for a solution.

Expanding the House

It’s not quite at the top of my list of democratic reforms, but congressional districts (and for that matter many state legislative districts, notably California’s) are too big. This leads to very expensive campaigns, which in turn favor the big donors who can fund them. More districts would be better for proportional representation, too, which is at the top of my list.

The limited number of congressional districts (you remember: 435) leads to another problem that we don’t see in state legislatures: widely disparate district sizes from state to state, because, of course, the districts can’t cross state lines. The range of district sizes is pretty high:

Expand the House?

… The most populous district in America right now, according to the latest Census data, is Nevada’s 3rd District, where 960,000 people are represented in the House by just one member. All of Montana’s 958,000 people likewise have just one vote in the House. By contrast, 523,000 in Wyoming get the same voting power, as do the 527,000 in one of Rhode Island’s two districts and the 531,000 in the other.

That 400,000-person disparity between top and bottom has generated a federal court challenge that is set to be filed Thursday in Mississippi, charging that the system effectively disenfranchises people in certain states. The lawsuit asks the courts to order the House to fix the problem by increasing its size from 435 seats to at least 932, or perhaps as many as 1,761. That way, the plaintiffs argue, every state can have districts that are close to parity. …

Peter Baker, NY Times

A lawsuit filed today will challenge the constitutionality (under the doctrine of one-man-one-vote) of leaving districts as large as they currently are. Read the article for more background.

The case has its own website with a link to the complaint.

The Specter of Losing an Election

About a week ago, Nate Silver posted an interesting piece on Arlen Specter’s recent voting behavior. Here’s the most interesting graph:


The key events on the timeline were the Quinnipiac poll, which shows Specter losing badly to a right-wing Republican challenger, Specter’s subsequent switch to the Democratic Party, and finally the prospect of a primary challenge from the left.

First, it’s apparent that Specter’s votes are driven overwhelmingly by a desire to be reelected. My sense is that Specter is a likely winner in the general election against either potential opponent, so his strategy is to focus entirely on the primary.

A commenter writes:

Well, at least Specter is responsive to the voters. That’s more than can be said for senators like Max Baucus, who seems to be working solely for the insurance companies. Baucus, unfortunately, has 5 more years before having to worry about re-election so he can continue rolling in the favors from big insurance to get his friends positions as healthcare lobbyists, popular will be damned.

I don’t think that the comparison is necessarily apt. Baucus is a long ways from his election, and voters have short memories, so who’s to say what he’ll do in 2–3 years? And if we assume that Baucus is as driven by the desire for reelection as Specter, then, given his situation, his best strategy might well be to ensure a steady supply of campaign funds, rather than worry too much about a challenge from the left in Montana.

You can’t win a Senate, or even a House, election without a big pot of money, and without getting through a primary (well, Lieberman only needed the former, but his case is exceptional). And the more competitive a seat is, the more a senator or house member is motivated to be “flexible” in their voting, to ensure a steady stream of cash or primary voters, as needed.

What a system.

I’m already socialized?

Ezra Klein continues his Health Care Reform for Beginners series this week with Health Care Reform for Beginners: The Many Flavors of the Public Plan and Health Reform for Beginners: The Difference Between Socialized Medicine, Single-Payer Health Care, and What We’ll Be Getting.

You’ll want to read them both, but here I want to focus on the pretty pictures.


On the evidence, the correct answer is “better”, but let’s move to the fun one. 30% of Americans polled think that I’m already getting socialized medicine (Blue Shield HMO, as it happens):


Klein writes,

You’re reading that right. About 30 percent of Americans think HMOs are socialized medicine. Which implies a couple things. First, the term “socialized medicine” has been diluted beyond all meaning. Second, it’s no longer considered a terrifying outcome. And third, nothing that’s this amorphous — and actually preferred by a plurality of the population — is likely to prove a terribly effective attack against health reform. Socialized medicine has become such a stand-in for “not this system of medicine” that it’s begun to look good in comparison.

Milton Friedman on radical reform

This nice quote from Milton Friedman (in the context of overhauling the Federal Reserve, as it happens) was recently quoted in the context of health care reform, specifically in support of considering single-payer systems. I’d add democratic reforms such as proportional representation to the list.

… it is worth discussing radical changes, not in the expectation that they will be adopted promptly but for two other reasons. One is to construct an ideal goal, so that incremental changes can be judged by whether they move the institutional structure toward or away from that ideal. The other reason is very different. It is so that if a crisis requiring or facilitating radical change does arise, alternatives will be available that have been carefully developed and fully explored.

Public Deeply Ignorant About Cap and Trade

OK, this can hardly be surprising. But still…

Matthew Yglesias: Public Deeply Ignorant About Cap and Trade

Via Dave Weigel, an unusually useful poll from Rasmussen Reports:<

Given a choice of three options, just 24 percent of voters can correctly identify the cap-and-trade proposal as something that deals with environmental issues. A slightly higher number (29 percent) believe the proposal has something to do with regulating Wall Street while 17 percent think the term applies to health care reform. A plurality (30 percent) have no idea.


The political press has a very strong structural bias toward overestimating the extent to which the public has real opinions about hot political issues. I wish more pollsters would put these kinds of polls in the field that do something to probe the extent of public ignorance. Polls that attempt to directly probe the public’s views about cap and trade wind up measuring a lot of pseudo-opinion. As you can see right in this result, people are incredibly unwilling to admit that they “don’t know” something or other. Thus 46 percent of the public says they know what cap and trade is about even though they don’t, in fact, know what it’s about.

Rats Outperform Humans in Interpreting Data

Via Mark Thoma. Lots more, mainly on spurious data mining.

Rats Outperform Humans in Interpreting Data

Laboratory experiments show that rats outperform humans in interpreting data… The amazing finding on rats is described in an equally amazing book by Leonard Mlodinow. The experiment consists of drawing green and red balls at random, with the probabilities rigged so that greens occur 75 percent of the time. The subject is asked to watch for a while and then predict whether the next ball will be green or red. The rats followed the optimal strategy of always predicting green (I am a little unclear how the rats communicated, but never mind). But the human subjects did not always predict green, they usually want to do better and predict when red will come up too, engaging in reasoning like “after three straight greens, we are due for a red.” As Mlodinow says, “humans usually try to guess the pattern, and in the process we allow ourselves to be outperformed by a rat.” …

Irish reject e-voting, go back to paper

A little more than two years ago, I published a review in Voting matters of the Second Report of the Irish Commission on Electronic Voting.

The government of Ireland chose an electronic voting system for use beginning with the local and European Parliamentary elections of 11 June 2004. Responding to public criticism, the government established the Independent Commission on Electronic Voting and Counting at Elections in March 2004. In April 2004, the Commission issued an interim report recommending against using the chosen system for the 2004 elections, citing concerns over secrecy, accuracy and testing. The Commission issued its First Report in December 2004, and its Second (and final) Report in July 2006; the Commission was dissolved in September 2006. Except for a limited pilot test in 2002, the system has not been deployed.

The experience was not entirely satisfactory (read the report, or my review). I concluded,

The Irish government is left with several options for moving forward.

1. Adopt the Commission’s recommendations. Improve the voting machine and its software, improve procedures during and between elections, and replace the IES with alternative software that can meet the Commission’s standards.

2. Adopt the Commission’s recommendations as above, but require the vendor to provide a voter-verifiable audit trail (VVAT), and adopt appropriate procedures for taking advantage of the VVAT.

3. Abandon the chosen system, begin a process to define new criteria for a voting system, and then identify and acquire such a system.

4. Abandon the chosen system and continue to use the existing paper-based system, perhaps with procedural improvements, leaving open the option of considering an electronic voting system at some future time.

The Sunday Business Post (Dublin) reports that the government is leaning toward option 1, estimating the cost of complying with the Commission’s recommendations to be approximately 500K, compared with a sunk cost of some 60M.

The 500K figure is disputed, however, and regardless of the cost of option 1, the cost of option 2 would be substantially higher.

My advice? Choose option 4, and establish a new commission that would, with public participation, recommend improvements to the present paper-ballot system, monitor the experience and (dis)satisfaction of other users of electronic voting systems, and develop criteria for the eventual selection of a system for Ireland. The world of electronic voting is evolving rapidly, and Ireland is in a fine position to take advantage of the experience (including the bad experience) of others before taking such an important step.

In the event, the Irish Government has accepted acted consistently with my advice, reverting to paper ballots and establishing an Independent Electoral Commission to make further reforms (though apparently not explicitly including another go at electronics).

Minister Gormley announces Government decision to end electronic voting and counting project

The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Mr. John Gormley T.D., today (23 April 2009) announced that the Government has decided not to proceed with the implementation of electronic voting in Ireland. A process will now be put in place, including discussions with the supplier, to address the disposal of the electronic voting and counting equipment and termination of storage arrangements.

“It is clear from consideration of the Report of the Commission on Electronic Voting that significant additional costs would arise to advance electronic voting in Ireland. This decision has been taken to avoid such costs, especially at a time of more challenging economic conditions. The financial and other resources that would be involved in modifying the machines in advance of implementation could not be justified in present circumstances”, Minister Gormley said.

The Minister noted that “the public in broad terms appear to be satisfied with the present paper-based system and we must recognise this in deciding on the future steps to be taken with the electronic voting system.” The Minister also acknowledged that “the assurance of public confidence in the democratic system is of paramount importance and it is vital to bring clarity to the present situation”.

Quite. Good. Carry on.

Nate Silver needs to discover proportional representation

Self-described election junkie Nate Silver (FiveThirtyEight) has a piece in the NY TImes today bemoaning the failure of the US electoral system to produce competitive elections except as a rare exception.

Sadly, his solution is pretty lame:

The good news for fans of competitive elections is that some of these factors could conceivably be changed through acts of Congress. Congressional districts could be drawn along strictly geographic lines, for instance, or campaign finance laws could be reformed to give incumbents less of an advantage.

Consider his main complaints: the advantage of incumbency, geographically self-sorting voters, and inflexible parties that don’t, for example, permit liberal Republican candidates to run in San Francisco. Certainly Silver is right that campaign finance reform must be part of any solution to the incumbency problem, though he doesn’t bother to point to good examples of such reform at work (Arizona comes to mind). But simple arithmetic demonstrates that redrawing district lines (his other solution) is not going to solve the problems.

The real solution is technically simple, but politically difficult: proportional representation. There are seven or so congressional districts in the San Francisco Bay Area. Conservatives are a relatively small minority of Bay Area voters, but there are no doubt enough of them to elect two or three representatives, with a range of politics, under just about any PR system. Ditto liberals in Texas.

PR isn’t a cure-all. It doesn’t fully address the problem of incumbency advantage, and it’s of no real help for senatorial elections or for states with only one or two House seats. But it’d be a big step forward in giving representation to more voters.