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28 December 03. Depressed, and taking you with me

Hi. I was a bit spent from the whole rant on Israel. The Evian conference alone is depressingness enough for a week. I retreated to econometrics for a nice, morally unambiguous respite, but I'm doing some work which is basically uncharted statistical waters (for me at least), which once again raises questions of meaning and certainty.

Went to Barnes & Noble, and did what I usually do: sit around looking at mindless magazines. Wound up looking at Adbusters, which was a mistake. The magazine is filled with great photos, and I generally agree with the non-consumption thing, which you'd understand if you'd seen my apartment. But most of their content is sort of, well, shrill, and repeats the same sort of thing that nonthinking liberals have been repeating since time immemorial. It complains about the concentration of media power, but offers no solutions. [I even agree with this one, having sketched out an academic paper on the very subject of the optimal number of media outlets (the conclusion: more). I gave it to the Chief Economist of the FCC, who was a Caltech professor, but politics forced him to toe the party line and allow the FCC to allow more mergings. Maybe my paper changed his mind.] Adbusters complains about how antidepressants are brainwashing the populace, and suggests that people who are suicidally unhappy for years on end should maybe just quit their oppresive jobs and get some sun. It complains about Israel in exactly the same fact-free way that all other nonthinking liberals complain about Israel, and says that the Arabs violently resisting, instead of just waiting for their Ghandi, will one day be revered as freedom fighters. Way to make the world a better place, guys.

Anyway, here's one thing that I do know for certain, which I've been meaning to write down properly for a while: democracy is a sham. More generally, the concept of a `will of the people' is a sham.

Condorcet Here's the easy case, a chestnut known as Condorcet's paradox. You've got three voters, choosing among three candidates, and their preferences are as follows:

one twothree
1st A BC
2nd B CA
3rd C AB

That is, person one prefers candidate A over candidate B, and prefers candidate B over C; person two prefers B to C to A, and person three perfers C to A to B.

So we need to set up a voting rule. Notice that a simultaneous three-way vote is a deadlock, so instead, we can set up a runoff system, wherein they first vote between A and B, and then run the winner against C. Well, in the A vs B vote, A gets two votes (persons one and three) and B gets one vote (person two), so A runs against C, and C wins. So C is the victor.

Or instead, we can run A vs C first, and then run the winner (in this case, C) against B. The winner will be B.

Or instead, we can run B vs C first, and then run the winner (in this case, B) against A. The winner will be A.

You get the picture: if we decide on an election of the form X vs Y and then the winner runs off against Z, then we can select an X, Y, and Z such that a candidate of our choosing will win. And everybody will think that it's totally democratic.

Arrow This little toy problem generalizes with a vengeance. Let us say you want a rule that will allow multiple people (more than two) to decide among multiple options (more than two), with the following two properties. First, the outcomes must always be transitive, meaning that we can't get these runoff cycles like above: for a given set of options, our runoff rules will select one and only one winner. Second, if candidate X is everybody's unanimous, undisputed favorite, then X will be the winner. Kenneth Arrow showed that there is only one decision rule which satisfies all these constraints: a dictatorship, wherein we pick one person and just go with his/her/its preferences, ignoring everybody else.

Since we don't like dictatorships, this is known as Arrow's Impossibility Theorem, since it establishes that it is impossible to have a collective decision rule which we would ever find palatable. I got to have lunch with Kenneth Arrow a few times a week or two, and he's a pretty cool guy. I asked him whether he prefers `impossibility theorem' or `possibility theorem', and he said that he originally called it the possibility thrm, because his adviser thought it was too pessimistic; but he agreed when the literature called him on it and redubbed it the impossibility theorem. Arrow would have gotten the Nobel prize in political science for this result, excepting only the unfortunate fact that there's no such prize.

But this is a big deal in the political science world, because it very clearly sets the ground rules: there is absolutely no way that you can describe `the collective will' of a group in any more than a simple binary choice (and such choices never really exist in the real world).

Government's decisions are an arbitrary amalgamation of a long series of manipulations of the agenda. If there's a general consensus among the voters that one choice is better than the others, then the agenda-manipulating to favor that choice will be much easier, and much more likely to occur, but for any pet policy a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, there is an agenda that will put any outcome through. This would be true even if everybody thinks it's a crappy policy. [This anything-can-happen fact is commonly referred to as the `McKelvey Chaos Theorem'. Richard McKelvey hated this name, and, also being too modest to use his own name to refer to a theorem, would just call it that result about the indeterminacy of the agenda or some such.]

So, in short: there is no `will of the people'. If we ousted Bush and put in a President who listened to people who aren't the President, there would still be no will of the people. Anything they told you in fourth grade that there is such a thing, and that democracy as exercised in the USA can correctly work out this nonexistent will of the people, is basically false.

Further, there is no Santa Claus.

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20 January 04. Why DC needs more Republicans

Just got back from a conference on voting. I learned a few things. First, I learned that I don't learn nearly as much from public presentations as from conversations and reading papers. Presenting technical material using bullet points is a complete waste of time. I learned that being at (name of institution) really is ideal for me, because the standard methods of academic political theorists are still too Chicago School Wannabee for my tastes. I learned that there there is no such thing as a gerrymander-proof district in a democracy (conclusion: do away with the frigging districts already). I got to meet Dr. NS of Saint Louis, MO, who is a pretty fun guy, and actually did seem capable of learning from bullet-pointed lists of equations. Finally, I was reminded of how DC is fucked.

Why DC is fucked DC has three electors in the Electoral college (3 out of 538 members=0.56%), making it basically irrelevant. One elector even abstained in 2000, in protest of the fact that DC gets a full 0% of Congressional seats. Where other state license plates have mottos like `the Show-me state' or `Ski Utah!', DC license plates say, `Taxation without representation'.

But beyond that, there's another fact that puts DC in a much, much worse position in terms of getting the ear of the politicians: it's solidly Democrat. Here are the votes cast in DC for the 2000 election (FEC source):
Gore: 171,923
Bush: 18,073
Nader: 10,576
So Bush would need about another 80,000 votes before anybody took him seriously in DC. This means Republicans aren't gonna waste limited resources making concessions, and that Democrats, knowing Republicans will make no efforts, won't make any efforts either. DC is punished for its loyalty by being ignored by all parties.

In fact, the Democratic party has so little respect for DC that it doesn't even recognize its primary. DC, in return, is OK with this, and will still be solidly Democrat in 2004.

Part of the problem is that DC is mostly a city of urban Black people---the most solidly Democrat group out there. Blacks need to learn from Hispanics, who have shown a strong willingness to vote for the Devil. In return, Hispanics get endless concessions from both parties such as those I discussed on 10 January. Similarly, DC needs to learn from New Hampsire, which is a very centrist state, and therefore gets loads of concessions from the Democratic party, such as going first in the primary cycle (which translates to agenda-setting power, which translates to a real effect on people's lives).

[One thing DC can do (and has begun doing) is attempting to get white suburban types to move in to the city. These White folk are more willing to vote Republican, allowing DC to look more centrist, and weakening the equation between DC and politically exiled urban Blacks. But this is a rather cynical way to go.]

The more direct yet more uncomfortable conclusion is that more urban Blacks and more DC residents need to tell the pollsters that they're willing to vote Republican. I'd like to think that a liberal third party would do the trick, but Nader got half as many votes as Bush, even after every research assistant between Capitol Hill and Dupont Circle voted for Nader. Google says: ``Your search - "african-americans for nader" - did not match any documents.'' The only real threat to Democrats are Republicans, so a vote switched to a third party (-1 for the Dems) is half as threatening as a vote switched to Republican (-1 Dems, +1 Reps). Support for a third party could conceivably allow DC and urban Blacks to gain attention, but that support is not forthcoming, the third parties don't have the resources to bring that support about on a sufficient scale, and it's not as effective as the strategy of demonstrating Republican support.

So there you have it. More analysis with queasy results from your pal Ben: until DC and Black Americans in general start showing some support for Republicans, they're fucked from both sides.

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22 January 04. More on the dumbness of elections

[Just aimless bitching today, but yes, I did write an academic paper giving statistical evidence backing this stuff up. Except the paper focuses more on the leptokurtosis of the error term in probit estimates of voter turnout than on underwear.]

Miss JATMM of Mount Vernon, VA, points out that the last episode, about DC's taxation w/o representation, is indicative of the general hypocrisy of the political system: after all, when the Southern states felt underrepresented, they started shootin', and the Republican party has always pushed for more state's rights, and everybody all around has always been up for the `Equal representation' thing. Yet all this rhetoric evaporates when it comes to talking about DC getting the right to vote.

voter turnout v thong underwear So let me tell you what I've been working on, which I presented at the conference last weekend: evidence (but not proof) that voting behaves like a fashion statement. Some groups (e.g., yuppies) are all about it, and some groups (e.g., urban Blacks again) don't go for it. We can argue all day about whether higher turnout is a good thing or not---after all, low turnout means that only people who really care and have some amount of information will show up, and people are free to not vote if they choose not to. But spotty low turnout, where certain groups consistently show up and others consistently don't, distorts the outcome of even the simplest binary decisions.

As discussed previously, no measure of group will is true or infallible, but some are much more perverse than others. A big factor in that perverse-ness is when there are systematic distortions in voter turnout based on facts unrelated to the governing of the nation, such as those that would actually induce most people to show up to vote.

The probability of being the pivotal voter who has a true and honest effect on the election is nil, so turnout is based on everything else: either an irrational belief that one person can make a difference when he very probably won't, or voters who wish to express their opinion for other reasons, such as a sense that this is what civic-minded people do, or because they're bored or because their friends voted so why shouldn't they.

Adding to the problem, the theory says that there are multiple equilibria in such settings. Why do some groups display their thong underwear and some groups like to wear big hats? It's random and arbitrary, based on history, luck, and maybe the preferences of the group members. But it has an effect in the current world: if all of your friends are displaying thong underwear, you too will start to feel pressure to do the same, and may eventually find yourself lingering at the thong rack at the department store. Conversely, if the same you is in the typical office setting, you will feel pressure not to display your underwear, regardless of how strongly you feel that it should be freed from the constraints of your pants. The same people can have different levels of equilibrium thong turnout, depending on the situation---it's not at all inherent to the people themselves.

You may feel that it's a bit silly for me to be comparing turnout to underwear choice, but there are some important similarities. The first is that all costs for both expensive underwear and turning out to vote are your own; the second is that most or all benefits go to the people around you. After all, you can't see your own lower back, and most of the policy of this nation of 265,000,000 has nothing to do with you.

Why you choose to wear what you wear or why you choose to vote is a personal decision which includes any of a number of factors which are known only to you. But for many, one of those factors is how others treat them as a result of their actions. The important point here is that this treatment differs depending on the group: some groups find voting to be very important and reward those who vote, and some groups are indifferent or even hostile. This affects the final ballot count, and distorts the perception of `public will' in systematic ways.

In an alternate universe, only urban Black males tie sweaters around their necks, while yuppies wear five-sizes-too-large baggy pants. In an alternate universe, Blacks were historically allowed to vote, and the non-voting social norm that now pervades the cultures of Blacks, immigrants, and other historically disenfranchised groups never had a chance to take root. But a voting system here in the real world, where these groups have been disenfranchised, and do have a social norm different from the social norms of other groups, is a voting system whose outcome relies heavily on history, luck, and the whims of fashion.

Of course, the groups that are most likely to show low turnout are the groups that are generally economically disenfranchised (you get to work out which caused which), and are generally represented by the Labor party, or as we call it here in the U.S.A., the Democrats. This makes the entire process a partisan one: Reps want low turnout among these groups, and Dems want higher turnout. Which brings us to yet more hypocrisy of the political system. A good representative democracy may not have high turnout, but it has turnout which is representative of the people it, um, represents. Yet attempts to make turnout representative are not forthcoming among the Republican leadership.

Next time you're hanging out with your exceedingly patriotic pro-Bush pal, ask him/her why he/she believes that the 572,000 citizens of the District of Columbia shouldn't be represented in Congress while the 494,000 citizens of Wyoming should be. Next time you meet a Republican harping about liberal bias, ask them whether they're bothered that even the crappy measures we use to determine public opinion today are themselves biased against the poor and historically disenfranchised.

Oh, you know what the answers will be, but it's fun anyway.

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22 February 04. Dear Nader supporter

I'm staying here with my pal, Mr. DCH of Highland Park, NJ. He suggested that I put more pictures on this here blog, and, not one to critique aimlessly, submitted Figure I, below.

See, Ralph Nader wants to run for president again. This brings up a number of important theoretical points, of course. The first is Duverger's Law, which I won't go in to. The other is the definition of causality. There are a few, my favorite being the `insufficient but necessary element of an unnecessary but sufficient set' test (the INUS test, as the law theorists call it. I can't tell if it's supposed to be funny.) So, for example, one unnecessary but sufficient set of events that led to the war in Iraq consisted of the following set of events:
--Ralph Nader runs against Gore and Bush.
--Butterfly ballots and assorted other slanty vote-counting methods cause the vote-margin to be narrower than it truly is.
--The Supreme Court has one more conservative member than liberal members.
--Terrorists hijacked a few planes and destroyed a few major U.S. landmarks, killing thousands.
--Saddam Hussein is an assh*le.
--The CIA fabricated/misinterpreted/screwed up intelligence about Iraq.

Everything there was necessary for this story to lead to an invasion, as well as a dozen other little details. But every element of this set fits the INUS conditions. Placing the weight of the blame on one or the other, I leave for the philosophers, but this definition of causality allows me to say the following:

Ralph Nader has caused approximately 10,000 deaths.

I won't even substitute `is responsible for' for `caused', as is often colloquially done, but I stand by that statement. Ralph Nader has caused the U.S. to incur $87 billion in war and reconstruction costs. He has caused John Ashcroft to be appointed Attorney General.

We can never predict the results of our actions with certainty, although the writing was pretty clearly on the Floridian walls in 2000. All one can really ask of somebody who does something that causes such supremely bad things is that he learn from his mistakes. As we learned today, Ralph has not done that.

So I am left pleading to you, dear liberal reader, to not vote for Ralph Nader this time around. Ralph didn't learn, but we can, and should.

Arguments for Ralph are not very well-founded. The most pervasive is that Republicans and Democrats are all just politicians and there's so little difference between them that there's no point voting for the Democrat over the Republican. As we've seen over the last four years, there really is a difference between how Republican and Democrat governors think and act. Voting for a Democrat really would lead to a different cabinet, different budgets, different laws getting passed and different laws being chosen for enforcement, and fewer invasions of foreign lands than if a Republican is elected, and those differences would lead to real changes in the lives of people around the world.

The argument that we should at least `send a signal' to the government by voting for the outsider are also rather ill-founded. There are a hundred ways to send a signal about the issues, none of which involve anonymously going to a voting booth. If you don't live in DC, you can call your representative and directly state your opinion. Operators are standing by, and will have a much easier time interpreting your comments, stated in English, than they'll have working out the informational content of your vote for Nader. For many political scientists, the sole purpose of an election is to simply throw the bums out. We have bums in office desperately in need of being thrown out, and that is what we need to focus on in this election.
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on Monday, February 23rd, Miss JATMM of Mt. Vernon, VA said

ok. but - say Nader gets on the ballot of a supremely conservative commonwealth that has zero probability giving any democrat its electoral votes. can this good liberal still vote for him and not incur the wrath of you?

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24 February 04. A critique of Ralph Nader's platform

OK, so on top of everything I said in the last blog, I also really dislike Ralph Nader. As such, here's a critique of most of his policies, as found on this page.

Before I start on details, I have to compliment him on this page. It was easy to find, and the information-to-rhetoric ratio is exceptionally high. I'd love it if the mainstream candidates had similar pages. Second, I support many of his policies, including some that are politically impossible to implement, like his call for universal healthcare.

The next issue on his list is electoral reform, which lets us get to the crux of Nader's public complaints about the political duopoly in this country. The thing about this duopoly is that it is not a question of some existing laws which need tweaking, but is a direct result of the U.S. Constitution, which stresses election by first-past-the-post, meaning that the one person to get the most votes is the winner, regardless of the mix of results. This is not true the world over: Israel is the best example of a system where a party with a small percentage of the popular vote gets a small percentage of seats in the Knesset. But first, notice that Israel is the size of one U.S. state, meaning that you can have a representative for a collective of like-minded individuals, whereas here in the U.S.A. we apportion representatives to geographical areas. [Dubya, when informed that Israel is a dozen miles across at its narrowest point, is said to have commented, `we have driveways that long in Texas'.]

It's no trivial matter to implement a system that allows a wider mix of beliefs but still ensures that all geographic areas of this third of the continent are represented. So to undo the political duopoly in the States, we'd need a new constitution, which would likely be significantly more complex than the one we have today. Such a reform is not really on par with tweaking tax policy; I'm not sure how one goes about calling a new constitutional convention, but a presidential campaign doesn't quite seem like the right forum. [Again, if you want obscure political science details on the duopoly topic, ask your favorite search engine about Duverger's law.]

Next up, as a sort of catch-all for many of Nader's public complaints, is corporate involvement in government. When I hear Nader speak of government's ``corporate paymasters'', I get flush with embarrassment, because it's the sort of gross oversimplification that makes people think liberals are all dumb. It is based on a false us-versus-them dichotomy. All of us, capitalists and laborers alike, want to have a healthy economy where we all have some kind of income and lots of the stuff we want to consume with that income readily available. Gosh, that's going to involve corporations, especially if we want things to be efficiently done (meaning the implementation of economies of scale and an efficient division of labor). As I've noted before, large corporations are a sort of natural law---and are always accompanied by a large number of small businesses. The number or scale of large corporations is not out of whack today; the sky is not falling in that regard.

But I digress. Nader wants us to believe that the large corporations are using their size to push for laws that favor them. This is entirely true. Under Nader, it won't change. You'd be an arse to change laws which affect ten thousand people without consulting some of them, and you'd also be an arse to change a law which affects a company of ten thousand people without consulting some of its leaders. From there, the average hearing is kind of scripted: the people complain that they are being unjustly oppressed, and the company will threaten to go out of business if its costs rise half a cent per unit. Like reading letters of recommendation, the decision maker then has to read through the boiler-plate phrases to work out what the real situation is. This is a non-trivial problem, is often entirely haphazard, and requires thinking on a scale which is much more detailed than any of Ralph's generalizations could ever address. Do governmental decision makers consistently rule unfairly in favor of corporations? I don't think there's really evidence that that's so; Ralph doesn't really present much evidence that it is.

As another vaguely apropos digression, let me tell you about my friend (Ms. TM of Washington, Columbia) who works for the Federal Court of Claims. When people have a complaint about the U.S. government, her court hears the case. My impression based on her discussion of her work is that it is amazingly un-political. The judges make a sincere effort to do the legal right thing, and many safeguards are in place to prevent conflicts of interest. They rule for the plaintiff about as often as they rule in favor of the U.S. government which employs them. The clerks who write the actual rulings are not major shareholders of anything, and typically perceive the cases as textbook legal exercises: plaintiff claims the law says one thing and defendant claims the law says something else---who's right? There's not a ``corporate paymaster'' in sight. As with most conspiracies, when we try to work out how the actual mechanism works, Ralph's claims that corporations run the government have no support. I'd give more examples, but have digressed enough as it is.

Nor is ruling in favor of labor the right thing to do 100% of the time. There's a balance to be struck between capital and labor, and both sides will always be pushing government to shift their way. This is a decent description of the structure of the last few centuries of civil society, and Ralph is not going to change it. The generalizations about parties (Reps are capital-biased, Dems are labor-biased) are generally true, and since Reps are in power now, the balance is decidedly skewed toward business interests, but electing a Democrat would undo this just as electing Ralph would.

There are certainly individual cases of blatant bordering-on-fraud business influence, notably everything Richard ``Dick'' Cheney has ever done. Now and then, there is a conspiracy, and it should be brought to daylight and eliminated. Mechanisms to ferret out conflicts-of-interest among decision makers, which already exist, deserve support. I agree with Ralph that we should take accounting and other corporate fraud much more seriously. But this is taking care to ensure that we correct the system when it breaks, which is very different from Ralph's rhetoric that the entire system is broken.

He opposes media concentration. From what I gather, the huge wave of mergers wasn't too much of a conspiracy either. It had a few causes, including economists for the people who couldn't get their frigging act together (really, I tried.), the Republican pro-business bias, and the existing system which already allocated the airwaves in a horrendously dumb manner (and can't undo that constitutionally---it'd be a takings case which would be brought to the Court of Claims, and Ms. TM would be correct to rule in favor of the corporations). I agree that the media is overconcentrated, and that this is important, but I expect that if we elect a Democrat, and he selects a reasonable human being to head the FCC, increasing media concentration will be halted and maybe reversed.

I think it's interesting that Ralph supports ``free access to ballot-qualified candidates on television and radio'', since he's an outsider now and therefore doesn't get matching campaign funds the way that the Reps and Dems do. Personally, I think the whole system would be more open and representative if the entire matching-funds thing were eliminated, but that's another article (which I promise to write soon).

His family farm policy says that we should support the independent and organic farmers. This is oh-so-close to the sort of agricultural subsidies that Ralph would complain about anywhere else. It's consistent with his `small companies are better' philosophy, but it seems hard to reconcile with the fair trade point on the platform later on.

He wants better employee protections. I concur with this point: calling people who work 37.5 hours a week `part-time' is a dishonest abuse of the letter of the law. Restrictions on unions mean that they can not negotiate on equal footing with the corporations they're supposed to be negotiating on equal footing with. This plank includes Ralph's most concrete and doable suggestion.

He wants to repeal incorporation laws. This is Ralph's anti-corporate stance taken to its silly extreme. The company-as-person is a convenience for the legal system which makes it easier to work out a consistent framework. But it's just a metaphor. Ralph points out (correctly) the corporate metaphor is applied selectively, giving corporations many of the rights of people but exempting them from some of the responsibilities humans have. But that doesn't mean that we need to outlaw the darn metaphor.

He opposes the occupation of Iraq. I agree that the invasion was a horrible idea, but I'm not sure what to do about it now. His one concrete proposal, installing a UN peacekeeping force, would shift some of the costs of clean-up to the rest of the world and away from the U.S., but the next president's hands are going to be tied regarding U.S. involvement in Iraq for a long time to come, and this would be true of President Ralph too. That's why this plank of the platform is heavy on bitching about the invasion from last year and is light on things to do in the future.

He wants to restore civil liberties, end the war on drugs, reform the criminal justice system, and care more for the environment. I concur. Why is this stuff way at the bottom of the platform, after all that us-versus-the-corporations rhetoric?

Perhaps it's because these positions are either in agreement with or just to the left of the Democratic positions. Most of what distinguishes Ralph from the other candidates is his rhetoric on how corporations are evil and need to be reigned in. Coincidentally, this is also the part of his platform which rides on a destructive oversimplification. Electing a President who will avowedly ignore all business interests is about as bad an idea as electing a Texas oilman to be President, and will lead to a government which is equally unbalanced and un-democratic, albeit with a skew that we find more agreeable.

If Ralph were a candidate within the Democratic party, and had run in the primaries, then he could have focused on the issues that the other candidates focused on, like civil liberties or criminal justice. We could have cast our votes for him and sent a signal to the party indicating that we like the candidate whose position is further to the left. Instead, Ralph has to distinguish himself from the Dems as much as possible, meaning that he needs to focus on his corporate rants over the more real issues which he agrees with Dems on. A vote for Ralph as an outsider thus becomes a vote for Ralph's corporate conspiracy theories.

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on Friday, February 27th, Ms. AC of Pasadena, CA said

Comment on the last paragraph: Would a vote for Kucinich send the right signal to the Dems that we want them to be more liberal? Somehow, I don't think so...

on Thursday, March 4th, Ms. AMJ of Richmond, VA said

Ralph just gets crazier and crazier. It's a shame. A long time ago, he was on the Daily Show actually shouting about corporations owning our genes. I mean, really.

I'm going to go contemplate whether voting for George Bush is good for the future of liberalism.

on Thursday, January 17th, M@ said

> the Daily Show actually shouting about corporations
> owning our genes. I mean, really.

You gotta remember that Nader has ALWAYS been viewed as a crazy... until 10-20 years down the road, when folks say, "Well, DUH! Of course seat belts save lives" Same thing with airbags.

Those that don't get that Ralph doesn't give a hoot at being called names/a crazy don't know much about the history of this man.

Take a look at the fine PBS Documentary on him (by fine, I mean balanced reporting). Ralph Nader, An Unreasonable Man, on the Independant Lens series --

It also counters (with facts and research) a bunch of the points listed above, like the oft said "Ralph made the Democrats lose", or "Why doesn't Ralph try to work/run within the Democratic Party?"

The Dems lost because they ran a sucky campaign, with the best slogan not being "John Kerry -- He cares about you" but instead "Anybody but Bush" and instead of welcoming Ralph's platform to get his constituency/voters, instead chose to threaten the voters by saying 'If you don't vote for us, you're voting for Bush'.

Once again, if the Dems had a clue they would've known that folks that support Ralph would laugh and say "Homey don't play that".

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12 March 04. A destructive myth

Here's an analysis of the effects of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which banned `soft money' contributions. Personally, I'd expected that this bill would bomb, and parties would just find ways around the letter of the law. But instead, the parties have adpated to new conditions, in large part by soliciting more contributions from more small donors. "...BCRA is promoting a democratization of party finance." [p 5] "$32 million of the DNC's $44 million in total 2003 receipts came from small donations." [p 6] I recommend the report as at least a good skim for anybody who cares about campaign finance.

But the important point to note here is that it basically falsifies Ralph Nader's main claim that the Republican and Democrat parties are slaves to their "corporate paymasters". If it's true that a party's campaign platform is all about the donors and the voters are an afterthought (which it isn't), then this means that the DNC is tailoring 74% of its platform to over a million small donors. Once again, the corporate/Democrat conspiracy which is the basis of Ralph's explanations of why you should vote for him simply have no basis in reality.

Why do I spend so much time bitching about Ralph Nader? Well, I bash liberals because I love them. I really want the liberal side to prevail, which means that liberals need the best possible arguments; however, everything that can be classed as `corporate consipracy' is a rhetorical waste of time or worse. A large part of the U.S.'s population works for a large corporation---which is why we call these corporations `large', see. Many of these employees generally like their jobs: they've been there for a decade or two, have some complaints but are basically comfortable, and would rather that their pension not get fucked with. Why alienate this gigantic portion of the voting population by telling them that the people they get a biweekly paycheck from should be arrested and the corporation they work for dismantled? This is not how you get people to vote for you, or even want to have a conversation with you.

So that's why I've spent so much time picking on Nader: as well as being the representative of reasonable left-leaning people like those of you who have commented on past posts, he is also the mouthpiece of a fanatic left, that tells a capital v labor story in the most black-and-white of terms---terms so stark that they are clearly false to many people and turn those people off to all liberals.

Anyway, just a note to watch out for subtlety-avoiding stories about big bad corporations. Next time, I'll restore balance by beginning a series of didactic essays on how to pick apart arguments by conservatives.

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28 October 04. Pre-election special

First, I'm not gonna tell you that you have to go and vote; that's pretty much up to you. But I am going to tell you how to vote if you do choose to.

The rolloff effect It's a fact: people vote less in local elections than in the big-ticket presidential elections. However, in terms of what will make your life better, it's the local elections that really matter. You will notice whether the garbage is collected and the police are around before you notice U.S. policy toward Indonesia. Also, your vote is more likely to matter in a smaller election. Don't be another statistic! Vote in your local elections.

Of course, this means you need to know who's running and what they promise; I'd give you links, but you can type ``(name of state) electoral endorsements'' ``(name of state) voter's guide'' into a search engine as quickly as I can.

Your vote is not a signal Please don't take your vote to be a signal about any one issue (unless it's a referendum). The easiest way to send a signal about a single issue is to write a letter to your representative or senator clearly expressing your opinion. That would be a much less ambiguous move than casting an anonymous ballot.

Please don't take your vote to be a signal that you are dissatisfied with the two-party system. The two-party system is a direct result of the first-past-the-post electoral system---this is known as Duverger's law among the political theorists, and is pretty darn consistent. If we want three parties, more media coverage and tweaking the federal laws won't do it: we'd need a constitutional rewrite. If you wanna push for that, feel free, but casting a ballot vote for a third party is not going to send a signal to anybody that you feel the constitution doesn't specify the right method for selecting the executive branch.

Please don't take your vote to be a signal to the people who do win that they should be listening to your subgroup. Bush won on a minority---did that make him a more moderate president? One could argue that in the primaries the party is feeling out the opinions of the constituents, and writes the platform for November accordingly, so voting for Kucinich made some sense as a signal back then, but this is not the case in the final election.

Vote as if you're pivotal For the sake of exposition, say that there are seven voters, including yourself. There are a number of possibilities for vote tallies among the other six voters; here are a few:

A06You don't matter
B15You don't matter
C24You don't matter
D33You're pivotal!
E42You don't matter
F51You don't matter
G60You don't matter

Let's say that in states A, B, C, E, F, and G, you're going to vote for candidate (oh, I need a random letter) N, but in state D, you'll vote for Kerry. But you can only cast one vote. One option would be to guess at what the state will be, and then vote based on your guess, but this ain't great: if you guess that the world is not in state D but it really is, then you'll be kicking yourself forever; but if you guess that the world is in state D but it actually isn't, then you'll just be a little annoyed. The downside is huge for this strategy and doesn't offset the modest upside. The only equilibrium strategy is to vote as if you're in state D and you are the pivotal voter.

Vote to minimize regret There are a lot of little stories about why people vote at all, and my personal favorite is `regret minimization.' It'd suck if the candidate you don't like is elected, and it'd suck if you took time to vote and your vote doesn't matter, but the absolute worst case by far would be if the candidate you don't like is elected and it turns out you were actually pivotal and could have made a difference. I can't tell you how to write your own utility function, but perhaps this is a good way to think about it---and it leads to the same result as above: vote as if you are pivotal.

End pre-election special; now back to our usual interesting tidbits from economic theory.

The above vote-like-you-matter logic has an interesting application to juries. Here's how the others members of a jury of twelve (besides you) could vote:

011You don't matter
110You don't matter
29You don't matter
38You don't matter
47You don't matter
56You don't matter
65You don't matter
74You don't matter
83You don't matter
92You don't matter
101You don't matter
110You're pivotal!

That is, your vote only matters if everybody else on the jury believes the guy did it. You may take that into account: if you think the guy is innocent but there's a unanimous opinion that the guy is guilty, then you may start to question your private beliefs/information and switch to convicting. The equilibrium strategy is to vote as if you're in the near-unanimous state, so if juries are good game theorists, the system is biased toward conviction. It may even be the case that a simple majority rule would lead to a lower chance of conviction. Half a decade ago, there was a flurry among the political theorists about the conditions under which this is true; depending on your model, it can be a broad range or a hairline case. Unanimity is best only in the case where jurors are resolute in ignoring all of the opinions and hints from fellow jurors.
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on Thursday, October 28th, Zzzzoe said

Nice post. I'll remember the arguments if I ever run into a Nader voter (although I suspect that in DC, if any exist, they've already learned to hide their voting intentions to avoid constant deluges of rotten tomatoes).

But I don't believe in the "minimize regret" strategy applied to a presidential election, except mmmmaybe in the swingiest of states - how would that explain voter turnout in California or Texas? I'd argue it's more about building your self-identity as a participating citizen and the fun little adventure of going to the polls, breaking your boring daily routine (which many peoples' seem to be). Which suggests an effective method for increasing voter turnout: providing entertainment for people standing in line at the polling booth!

By the way, the last section on juries merits a shoutout to the Sidney Lumet film "12 Angry Men" (shot all in one room as a long debate with a pivotal holdout juror)

on Thursday, October 28th, Andy said

I can reject the null hypothesis that I will be the pivotal voter in Massachusetts (at least the hypothesis that MA is tied 50-50) with at least 99.9% certainty (latest poll: K=50% B=36% N=805) -- I'm pretty darn sure what state that particular part of the world will end up in.
If I gain utility from voting for a 3rd-party candidate, then it makes sense for me to do so. Then, the argument becomes, my utility from voting for X is irrational because it's an inefficient signaling mechanism. I am not sure about that, though.

I don't think it's a coincidence that San Francisco--one of the most fervent areas of 3rd-party (mostly Green) support--is experimenting with ranked voting:
Also, look at the traction that the Colorado vote-splitting has gotten -- it won't pass, but has gotten a lot of attention and is pretty cool. Also, you could say that Ross Perot in 1992 with his emphasis on debt reduction laid the groundwork for Gingrich in 94.

on Monday, November 1st, Zirui said

I love the idea of registering as a member of party X, only to vote party Y during elections. It's sure to make that "pivotal" voter feel like a fool :)

on Monday, November 1st, D said

Thanks Andy! I didn't know that anywhere in the US was using that system. Neat! On the other hand, some local items are not important. Here in Ann Arbor we're voting on a local ordinance on gay marriage and for the 100th time we'll probably leaglize medical marijuana within the ann arbor township. How do these things that are bound to be considered outside of local juridiction end up on the ballot? It's silly.

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12 June 06. Transparency vs effectiveness

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Democracy and talent are fundamentally at odds. You want to be able to rotate people every few years if The People should decide that they want to shift left or right, but your bureaucracy is most effective when its members have time to gain years or decades of continuous experience. The bureaumetricians have observed this problem forever; I'm pretty sure Niskanen wrote about this in the early 70s.

[Don't ever say your field is boring until you've spent time in bureaumetrics--the statistical study of bureaucracy. I know only one guy who works on this full time, whose actual real-life name is Dr. Dull. Not to kill the joke, but he's a really fun guy and his work is kind of interesting.]

The number of people who can be successful managers in a technical discipline are few, because you're looking at the intersection of people in the technical field and people who have the skills to be managers. If you cut that list in half by only looking at people who are on the right or left, then you have a fifty-fifty chance of losing the most qualified individual. The person who has been on the job for a decade is pretty likely to be the most qualified, because they were about right for the job a decade ago, and now they have ten years' experience, so if we switch bureaucrats every time the regime changes we're paying a heavy cost in administrative effectiveness for the sake of democratic whim.

Resolving technical issues democratically
Worse is the case of the exceptionally technical fields. The People do not know a thing about welfare shifts from derivative securities regulation, or battlefield logistics, or the multiplier effect of the interest rate at the open market window.

The optimists tell us that for even the most technical discussion, somebody will be able to summarize it for readers with a ninth-grade education so that they can collectively aggregate their opinions to the wisest choice. The majority of The People will ferret out the truth through the authors' flowery writing style and argumentation tricks and select the right option, and then the elected politicians will listen to the majority opinion and successfully communicate the opinion to the technical bureaucrats who were having the original debate.

Majority rule is great because it decentralizes power better than most any other system short of just drawing straws, but there's nothing about it that makes it an effective means of detangling technical issues. There's the Iowa presidential futures market, that does a great job of aggregating a semi-majority opinion of how the majority will vote. There are the standard stock markets, which do a great job of aggregating information about how people will value a stock into a stock value. But the majority of voters are homophobes who would rather get a cut in their property taxes than fund their kids' schools, and the majority in the marketplace just wants more porn and SUVs.

The majority (by vote or dollar) has a lot going for it, but the claim that it makes wise choices is based more on faith than on fact. Some pro-market types define away the problem, by assuming that if the market wants something, it must be wise; this is 100% equivalent to somebody who says that we don't understand everything that the Good Lord does, but it must always be good. It also makes a certain assumption about Benthamic additive utilities that nobody actually believes.

Academia is incredibly political, but it's not a Democracy. Debates transpire between the handful of few people who have devoted their lives to minutiæ like supermodularity in production functions, and everybody else gets to hang on the sidelines and watch (while they have their own debates about other issues). You won't find many academics who think we should switch to a system where technical debates are resolved by a majority vote among the vaguely-informed.

Producing accountability
OK, so the technicians should be left to do math and administer bureaucracy as best they know how, without the uninformed masses telling them that their models need to take into account the immorality of the homosexual lifestyle. On the other hand, none of us want public policy handed down from a black box in the sky, because we know that the people in that black box have their own biases. Sometimes, the eggheads have ideas that don't sit so well with the rest of us on an ethical level that we lay-idiots can readily evaluate. So how do we get the good parts of accountability without the negative effects of political meddling?

There's no easy formula for balancing the need for accountability with the need for apolitical and clear-headed analysis, but some organizations are clearly doing a better job of it than others.

The Fed
The Federal Reserve has a whole lot of really smart people who write models that you will never see, but which affect your life. The Fed desperately needs to retain those people, and as far as I understand it, it does.

Mr. DF of Bozeman, MT, pointed out to me that the Fed does so well because it insulates its eggheads from politics. He reports that there is a whole layer of management whose job is to keep the politicians happy without revealing anything about what the modelers are doing.

Now, the Fed has a few features that allow it to maintain its secrecy. It is semiautonomous by design, and when it's short on cash it just prints bonds. The system is thus built so that a politically incorrect model won't cause budget cuts. Further, there's the simple justification that if the models were public, people could plan accordingly, thus frustrating some of the Fed's attempts at control.

Joel the Guru opines that the sole role of management in a tech firm is to insulate the talent from the mess of politics and money issues and customer complaints, while still keeping those customers happy. The strategy of the Fed's management is very similar: mollify the politicians while keeping their influence on the models minimal.

The Department of Defense
Like the Fed, the DoD does a lot of things about which The Enemy must not be informed, and which is too technical for the average person to really understand. It is basically the only department of the federal government that actually does anything besides printing forms and allocating funds, and it sure ain't run like a Democracy.

In this case, the big questions are presented to The People: e.g., should we invade Iraq, and given that we ignored the majority rule and invaded anyway, should we stay or go. The detailed questions about tactics and logistics and strategy are basically nondemocratic and in most cases classified.

I'm reserving judgment about whether this is an effective or correct means of doing things, but there's the DoD strategy: let the broad policy strokes be public and insulate all details of implementation.

Now let's have a look at last week's DHS funding reallocation. Under secretary Foresman assures us that "Political considerations play no part in the allocation process - none whatsoever. And I'm unequivocal on that." It sounds like there was a reasonably academic process involved, even including 2 X 2 grids, but I don't know what political haggling went in to the design of the nice, scientific allocation process. There were set criteria written down before the meeting, but did those criteria favor some places over others? E.g., perhaps less focus was placed on the iconic targets that are all over NYC and DC but not so common in Nebraska. There are a few frustrated economists shaking their heads at all of it (I've met them), bothered that their perfectly good research doesn't affect anything because others who were better at politicking got there first.

In short, the DHS has no insulation, and politically unpopular modeling will get you defunded. The DHS management that I've met is not entirely happy with this, and would rather be working on increasing security than increasing the perception of security, but the design of the system, rooted directly under the President, means that it will be an uphill battle to create that insulation. The fact that certain agencies keep doing unethical things in secret doesn't help.

The World Bank
My last entry went into detail about the World Bank, where a bunch of managers oversee research assistants who gather semirelevant research done elsewhere. The Bank's operations gain little respect from academics, and The People don't much like them either, so they're a worst-case situation.

In the context here, the modelers are in no way insulated from the politicians. Every Bank report gets handed to a politician somewhere, and the politician then decides whether his or her country will continue funding the Bank. An analyst can get fired for writing a politically incorrect model. The Bank's managers seem very OK with this setup, and in my opinion many even embrace it. But indeed, the embrace of politically-driven analysis leads to the sort of worst-case issues I've discussed, where neither The People nor the academics trust the output. But it is well-funded.

The UN, by the way, would probably fall into this class too, and nobody likes them either.

To the extent that I have any conclusion, it is this: the Bank and DHS and UN don't have to be this way. If the Bank's operations departments were able to retain good economists trained in modern methods (and right now they can't), the the role of management in this would not be to oversee RAs and generate half-baked research, but to insulate the real producers from the politics and ensure that they keep getting funded. In such a world, there would be less management than before, and the balance of power would shift in favor of the analysts and away from the politicians (because it can't shift any more toward the politicians).

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06 January 07. Mafias and governments

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Mafias are governments. They provide social services and protection from external threats, and in order to do that and maintain hegemony, they collect taxes and threaten physical harm upon those who don't comply with the plan.

That describes the traditional mafias, both in the Godfather style of old and the more modern Crips & Bloods style. It also describes the kings and feudal lords from centuries ago, who each had their own little army to protect against the neighbor's little army. It describes both Hezbollah--the organization that attacked Israel and then organized the reconstruction effort after the completely inevitable bombing--and the recognized government of Lebanon. For that matter, it even describes the government of the U.S.A., France, China, or any other government represented at the U.N.

Sorry, no citations today; this is just a set of interesting ways to think about things. Feel free to contribute citations. Also, I'll use government and mafia interchangeably herein.

The violence thing
I'll talk about how microgovernments provide social services next time; today I'll focus on the negative side: microgovernments tend to be orders of magnitude more violent than the larger governments. The mafias spend a lot of time flexing muscle, and for easy-to-understand reasons.

You know you're going to lose any fight against the U.S. government (though the U.S. Court of Claims rules for the claimant as often as for the Federal Govt), so you don't try. Forget what you saw in the movies: there is no way that you are going to overthrow the U.S. government or otherwise force your way into power, so you don't try. That means that although the government has the ability to use force against you, it never really has to. Forget what you saw in the movies: the odds are about nil that the Feds are going to show up at your door one day and cart you off.

The small mafia is a whole `nother story. With limited legitimacy and others who want to claim that they are the ones who should be controlling the taxes/protection money, it is very conceivable that others could take over, so the microgovernment needs to show that it is in control. History has shown that this often means killing people. Hamas members kill Fatah members, and Fatah members kill Hamas members.

Maintaining legitimacy: a case study
In days of old, the Catholic church (the reader will recall that the word catholic means universal) was a government. It had military force, which it used during the Crusades and against subjects who disobeyed. It was Church members who kept Galileo under house arrest and tortured people during the Spanish Inquisition. In the regions it controlled, it had about 100% membership, just as the U.S. Government collects taxes from all relevant parties (the only difference being that the Church had a 10% flat income tax, while the U.S. has a progressive tax rate).

Modern churches are not governments (well, outside of Vatican City.) They exert social pressure and make an effort to get government to use its coercive force to advance church goals, but they have shifted to maintaining their power exclusively by trying to be nice. It'd be great if that were enough, but we've never seen a non-militarized church as the sole government in a territory (counterexamples, anyone?). Thanks to the tourists, Vatican city has among the highest crime rates of any country. Membership rates are pretty far down: there are millions of people throughout what used to be the Catholic territories that are no longer affiliated with any church at all.

From which we learn that virtuous behavior and a divine endorsement are not enough to keep people subscribed to the team. For any modern government, it is difficult to ask the counterfactual question of whether people would support the government if there were no threat of force at all. Evidently, most wouldn't.

The model and the moral
For those who need a model, observe the game between the government in power and the other (either subjects or the neighboring power). First, notice the fixed value r , It indicates the perception of strength, and will factor in to how effectively people perceive the government's ability to maintain power. For the U.S.A., r→∞ , because nobody expects it to get dislodged any time soon; for the streetcorner pusher, r is low because competitors could move in relatively easily.

The game between those in power and everybody else.
Figure One: The game between those in power and everybody else.

Given this, the government chooses its display of military might, p . I assume that if there is no revolt, the payoff is -10p , meaning that the government prefers to keep p as low as possible. That is, they use violence only as a tool to maintain power, and not because they enjoy violence or the display of phallic imagery for its own sake.

After the government selects p , the other decides whether to revolt/invade or to maintain peace. If it does revolt, then it expects to succeed with probability 1 - pr , and to fail with probability pr . You can see the payoff to failure is much larger than the payoff to success, since failure usually means the revolutionaries get killed. That said, the opposition has an easy question: is the payoff to revolt greater than zero? You can easily verify that in equilibrium, the other will revolt only when p < 1/(11r) .

Working up the game tree, we see that the government will thus set p = 1/(11r)

There is an important moral to the game: a government's use of force is inversely proportional to the perception of strength. The superstable U.S. government does not have people wandering the streets of Washington with machine guns; Hezbollah was on the verge of disappearing and so had to lob some missiles into Israel.

Wouldn't it be nice if the organization being questioned put more effort into social services instead of violence? Yeah, it'd be wonderful, but somehow that never really happens.

For Israel and its environs, the policy implications are easy: we'll only have peace when both sides stop denying the legitimacy of the government(s) on the other side of the border. That means that Hamas causes destruction when it calls for the dissolution of Israel, and Israel causes destruction when it denies the legitimacy of Hamas. Israel gets about half a point here for taking great pains to work out how to put together a Palestinian government whose legitimacy it and others will recognize, but that may or may not put it back in the positive.

So should we never question legitimacy? That would be silly. But we should recognize the consequences of inciting the organization being questioned into proving itself. Go ahead, oppose the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine issue, either by insisting that Israel eliminate the Palestinian Authority or that the Palestinian Authority eliminate Israel. Just recognize that when you oppose the two-state solution, you are rooting for more misery and killing.

OK, that's enough for one column; more next time.

Relevant previous entries:
part 2 of this little essay

[link][4 comments]

on Saturday, January 6th, SueDoc said

A fair amount of churches threaten disobedience with eternal burny damnation. Not to mention excommunication or lesser forms of ostracism. Like psychological mafias...

on Monday, January 8th, Spoofy said

Legitimacy (OED definition):

Of a government or the title of a sovereign: The condition of being in accordance with law or principle. Now often, with respect to a sovereign's title, in a narrower sense: The fact of being derived by regular descent; occas. the principle of lineal succession to the throne, as a political doctrine.

My personal favorite OED definition: (now obscure) Genuineness.

on Monday, January 8th, Brett said

The formulation of the equation for when a state will use violence is all well and good, and I'm sure has a certain amount of legitimacy in terms of the use of force internally, but I think does not account for a variety of other interests that may press for state violence. For instance, can US state violence in Iraq be connected to a fear US government leaders of being overthrown? I think you would agree that this is not the case. Mafias use force to show their strength to possible competiters, sure, but also in order to enrich themselves. Certainly this plays a role in state violence as well.

on Monday, January 8th, Andy said

Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore have done some interesting work in this area, although less emphasis on the violence aspect from what I have read.

Do Bhutan and Tibet(?) count as counterexamples of nonmilitarized (mostly) religious governments?

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20 January 07. Mafias and bureaucracies

[PDF version]

In the last episode we saw that mafias are just microgovernments: both use force and social services to maintain power. I discussed how small mafias must use violence to maintain the perception of legitimacy. Here, I'll begin with the perkier side of efficient provision of social services.

Being nice guys
Everybody wants to think they're nice people. This counts for heads of state too, who want to be able to tell their kids that they're helping to make the world a safer and more pleasant place to live. Every mafia has its narrative of services provided, including protection from the mafia next door for those who have paid-up taxes, the list of Hamas's social services, and the U.S.'s Social Security system. The cynical can take this as PR to make sure that the subjects don't revolt, while the optimistic can take it as a true attempt to help people. Both are likely right to some extent.

Big government versus small
As a broad rule, small organizations are more adaptable and responsive and have fewer layers of bureaucracy between the idea and the final implementation of the service. This is broadly true whether we're comparing big and small governments, mafias, or corporations.

So say we had a small mafia, like Hamas, providing services comparable to those provided by the existing Palestinian government, headed by the well-entrenched Fatah party. Hamas could do more with less, and it is an easily-explained surprise that they won the election: you've got two competing governments, one of which is an entrenched bureaucracy inefficiently providing social services, and one of which is a small, relatively nimble organization doing better at providing the same services.

Families as government
The most basic form of government is the family. The family does provide the sort of services that one would expect from a government or even a market, like economic insurance and loans of capital. That stereotypical giant Catholic family is a credit collective. [2] And the decline of the traditional family in the U.S. (as endlessly lamented by social conservatives) is due to the increasing ability of the open market to provide for the individual's needs (as endlessly celebrated by economic conservatives).

The rhetoric of the close-knit family sticking together is all very appealing, but in many cases throughout the world, the outcome has been violent and decidedly unwholesome, as big families (aka clans, tribes) and small governments sometimes are one and the same. African clans often go to war with each other, the Italian mafia is primarily a coalition of families, and Saddam Hussein's government was to a large extent his clan--recall how his brother was high on the U.S.'s hit list.

The goals of government
Microgovernments often have a defined goal, which may or may not look evil to the rest of us. They could be seeking to overthrow the Nazi invaders, overthrow the U.S. invaders, make sure that a neighborhood that is ill-protected by the larger government gets its share, control the drug trade, or dissolve Israel.

Expansion also seems to be a fave goal for just about every government.

But as a government gets bigger and better established, its goals become much more diffuse. If the U.S. government has a set of distinct goals, I certainly can't guess what they are.

And, of course, we must not forget that the goal for the members of governments of all sizes is to grab stuff for the people in power and their pals.

The two are not equally comparable
People spend much time on defining these microgovernments, especially regarding the Middle East. Are they a mafia, a coalition of happy families, a legitimate government, a terrorist organization? Such a debate is a waste of time, because once we decide that Hamas is both a social service organization or a terrorist organization, we still have no idea whether this sums up to legitimacy or virtuousness. I'm perfectly fine with naming the world's service-providing, gun-toting mafias as governments, but that clearly does not imply legitimacy or an ethical justification for their actions.

Every government of all sizes maintains its power via both the threat of violence; and social services, virtuous deeds, and a story about why the founders are the rightful leaders (Divine right, blood ties, democratic will, or whatever).

So our first question in evaluating legitimacy is to evaluate the balance between violence and service. Even though the small governments are more efficient on the service end, they are almost always so far along on the violence side to make the edge in efficiency look trivial.

The other question is about the goals. Are the stated goals of those governments with stated goals destructive? Are the goals of expansion for the sake of expansion and the grabbiness of those in power in check?

Making such a judgment is hard. If you've read anything by me in the past, then you know how I personally score Hamas and Hezbollah, but how am I to convince you that their violence outweighs their social services? It's comparing meters to minutes. You decide for yourself, but do it without labels--to say that `they provide services and organize a militia, therefore they are a government, therefore they are legitimate' is to put too much weight on the legitimacy of all governments. Sure, on some level it's all just a bunch of comparable teams vying for turf, but some of those teams are much more destructive and some are much more constructive. Crips, Bloods, and the LA police all have some community support and some community animosity, but I'm comfortable rooting for the LA police in that one and that's even after the LA police fined me $271 for running a red light on my bicycle.

Abhorrent vacuums
Given that a government maintains its status via the threat of force, it seems immoral. That's the libertarian reasoning, which sort of stops there. But there are few situations anywhere where there isn't some type of government in place.

Where does one not find governments? In the U.S.A., government has explicitly stepped out of managing the drug trade. But, wonder of wonders, small mafias have taken over in that field and make sure that things are run in an orderly manner.

In Iraq, the government was quickly dismantled, but it is not the case that there is no government there either. Instead, a large number of small mafias are in a civil war to control at least their own little space, if not the whole country.

When there isn't a government in the recognized sense of the term, somebody will start one up, and the odds are darn good that whoever is running the thing is doing it out of personal self interest, that the microgovernment maintains status via regular demonstrations of violence, and if it maintains its power and expands enough for us to notice then it is likely providing popular services and telling a locally popular story about its inception.

I made up the word microgovernment for this essay again, I haven't scoured the Pol Sci literature, so I'm not claiming originality; but see [1] for an anecdotal account of the formation of mafias in Africa. because all the other words for such a thing have a tinge of violence and even evil: the gang, the mafia, the warlord's faction, the militia, and maybe we can even throw in the cult.

What happened in Iraq was no surprise to anybody except the Bush administration: when you eliminate a government which is blandly evil, a large, virtuous government doesn't magically spring up in place. It's much easier for small factions to form around the local charismatic figure, via a combination of violence and good storytelling, with a heavy lean toward the violence side. The blandly evil government is not the stopper on the bottle that one would ideally wish for, but if it is there, replacing it with another is risky. Sure, it would be great if we could eliminate drugs by just refusing to accept them in the law, and we could replace Hussein's government with a parliamentary democracy. But when there is no large, boring government overseeing a territory, then small, almost certainly violent governments come in to fill the space.

[1] @articleheald:mafias,
title = "Mafias in Africa: The Rise of Drinking Companies and Vigilante Groups in Bugisu District, Uganda",
author="Suzette Heald",
journal="Africa: Journal of the International African Institute",
volume= 56, number= 4,
year=1986, pages="446-467"

[2] @bookmassey:smoke, author = "Douglas S Massey and Jorge Durand and Nolan J Malone",
title = "Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration", publisher="Russel Sage Foundation",

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16 February 07. How strict constructionism can be judicial activism

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Today's episode is a guest blog by Mr. BK of Baltimore, MD

This is a note on the term `judicial activism', which is misused in subtle ways among pundits and politicians.

The key to how it is misused is the ambiguity of the terms liberal and conservative. I count five (5) distinct uses of these terms.

The first three are familiar to everybody. There's the liberal/conservative scale regarding change in general, where the L team is forward-looking and the C team seeks stability. There's the social scale, where liberals believe people should be left to do what they want, and conservatives seek a social order reminiscent of Norman Rockwell paintings. There's the economic scale, where liberals believe some social services are necessary, and conservatives seek smaller government.

These three scales are only tenuously related. It is easy to find futurist social conservatives, social liberals for smaller government (aka libertarians), and any other combination of the above. But, with only the words liberal and conservative used for all three axes, there's a strong--and clearly false--implication that one who is liberal on one axis is liberal on the others.

That said, let us move on to judges. Judges are often described as constructionists or activists, as if there is a single axis along which we measure judges. But as with liberal/conservative, it confounds a couple of concepts and just creates confusion. So, let's make some definitions.

There are two components to a law: the statute in the Constitution or as passed by Congress, and the interpretation of the statute by courts who had to contend with the law. One school of thought, strict constructionism, contends that one should focus as much as possible only on the statute as written, rather than subsequent interpretation. Congress wrote what it darn well intended the law to be, so why should later judges and pundits modify that intent?

The constructionist view bears much in common with the neoclassical economist's viewpoint, that people are very rational and very capable of forseeing the future. To the extent that this is correct, the constructionist claim (that Congress wrote what it intended the future to look like) works.

I work with patents, and patents are an excellent example of how constructionism and the hyperrational assumption can go horribly wrong. Thomas Jefferson wrote what is now 35 USC §101 (inventions patentable), and it hasn't even been looked at since 1952. So: did the 1952 Congress, or Thomas Jefferson, intend that web page designs should be patentable? Even the Psychic Hotline would have difficulty with such a question, yet a strict constructionist has a simple answer: yes, they did intend so, because they would have said so otherwise.

The alternative is to look at more recent rulings and try to conform with those. My impression is that this is the modal type of judge: they try to rule in conformance with the law, but that includes equal measures constitution/statute and recent rulings. Let us call this the developmentalist approach; some call it the activist approach. The language typically used sets constructionist = conservative and activist = liberal.

As an aside, the constructionist view toward the U.S. Constitution is often characterized as interpreting the constitution the way the Founding Fathers intended it. But this is an incorrect phrasing. Jefferson again: “No society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation.” [Letter to James Madison, 6 Sept 1789] The statement `I am a strict constructionist, because I interpret the law the way a set of developmentalists did in 1776' is somewhere between incoherent and ridiculous. Rather, the sane strict constitutional constructionist generally shoots for a direct reading of the words as written, outside of the context of colonial times.

Stare decisis
This is legal Latin for “to stand by things decided”. That is, if judges past have decided that the law of the land is X, then ya don't change it to Y unless there's a darn good reason.

Different judges interpret the phrase darn good reason differently. Some overturn past rulings at the drop of a legal hat; others steadfastly stand by the past rulings, and just mumble something about `it's a bad law, but it's Congress's job to change it' in rulings that they aren't happy writing.

There are two pairs of terms used to describe a judge's attitude toward stare decisis. The first is liberal/conservative and the other is constructionist/activist, and once again, both pairs of terms don't correspond to any of the above uses of these terms.

There are four possible combinations of liberal/conservative in the context of statute and stare decisis, and it's worth going over all four, because they reveal an important asymmetry.

It may happen that the law as currently interpreted differs significantly from the law as written. This is common for a law written decades ago, due to simple drift in conditions and legal understanding. The first option in this case is to be a statute liberal and a stare decisis conservative. That is, a judge could be a conservative in the sense of maintaining the status quo.

When there is a difference between the status quo and the original statute from times past, it is impossible to simultaneously be conservative with regards to both. Of course, this doesn't keep many judges from trying.

The next possibility is for a judge to be liberal with regards to both statute and stare decisis. Such a judge really is just making up the law. You won't find a judge anywhere who claims such a position, though there's endless debate as to whether some judges act like this. Therein lies the asymmetry between liberal and conservative: conservative on both scales is OK but usually impossible, but liberal on both scales is an abuse of judicial power.

The next option is to be a statute liberal and a stare decisis conservative. There are people like this in many contexts: folks who insist that the U.S.A. once had a decidedly Christian government (a claim that is itself up for dispute) and therefore the present government should be devoutly Christian as well; folks who insist that the only good music is the kind they heard in high school; folks who insist that all families must consist of a mother, father, and at least two children because that's how it had to be on the farm. Such people are radically liberal, in the sense that they oppose the status quo in favor of something different, which happens to have been the status quo at one point in the past.

Judges of this type are often called judicially conservative. Yup, a judge who rules for changing the status quo when faced with a conflict between statute and rulings is called judicially conservative, and a judge who prefers to maintain the status quo is typically called judicially liberal. It's things like this that make people learning English as a second language hate it so much.

To revert to the means of judging in times past would be a radical, jarring change from the present. (Painting credit: Raphael: {<EM>The Judgement of Solomon</EM>}, c. 1518-19)
Figure One: To revert to the means of judging in times past would be a radical, jarring change from the present. (Painting credit: Raphael: The Judgement of Solomon, c. 1518-19)

Patent law is a good example of judicial conservatism/status quo liberalism. The circuit judge who decided that software and business methods should be patentable (Judge Giles Rich) was very vehemently constructionist in citing statute and reading it as literally as possible. As such, he was massively activist, because he overturned a century's worth of stare decisis, including several rulings from the Supreme Court.

You know I am not happy with Judge Rich's ruling, but there are other cases of activist constructionists, the most salient being those who ruled in Brown v Board of Education, whom we all love to death. So even after we have acknowledged that the scales of liberal/conservative with respect to statute and liberal/conservative with respect to stare decisis are entirely different scales, and after we've pegged a judge on both, we still won't know whether their rulings are liberal/conservative with respect to the social and economic scales that people actually care about.

Gay marriage
The term activist judge has been bandied about by certain individuals, invariably as a derogatory term, but without clarifying to which of the above two sometimes contradictory definitions the speaker is referring. But the confusion is typically deliberate, and implies that any activism in the sense of interpreting laws based on judicial understanding must be of the radical form of arbitrarily revising law.

The activism question often comes up in judicial hearings as well, where judges often attempt to characterize themselves as strict constructionists, implying that this is a good thing. But it seems preeminently clear that a good judge makes an effort to balance statute and recent rulings in every situation. The Constitution just doesn't say anything about computer-generated pedopæliac images, so for a judge to claim that he considers only the constitution in deciding such an issue is to say that the judge feels at liberty to just make stuff up.

Not to accuse President Bush of simplistic thinking, but to say that any judge that does not strictly follow statute is rewriting the law is simplistic. Such a claim only works when the law as written is entirely and perfectly appropriate to all situations, even decades later--and remember that a case appears before a higher court only when there is some sort of open question, ambiguity, or controversy about the law as written. Thus, any high court judge that isn't braindead is an activist in the first sense of re-interpreting statute as written; if we insist that that means activist in the sense of inventing law, then we can only conclude that all judges are activist in the derogatory `hijacking the law' sense used by folks such as the guy linked above.

But why be abstract when we have an easy example? The term `activist judge' is the term preferred by people complaining about gay marriage. The big ruling in the gay marriage issue was Goodridge v Department of Health, which was the ruling in Massachusetts that allowed same-sex civil unions--and did so via an allegedly strict constructionist reading of the equal protection clause in the MA constitution, no less.

With regards to statute, there is clearly ambiguity because nobody ever bothered to strictly define the meaning of marriage, just as Jefferson didn't specify whether web pages should be patentable. You could ask what the word marriage meant in 1776, in which case you'd probably find gay marriage was not intended by the law--and neither was marriage between whites and nonwhites.

As for overturning stare decisis, I'm no expert on MA marriage precedent, but giving a casual look `round, I am unable to find claims that Goodridge was in contradiction of past court rulings. For so many claims that this is an activist court, you'd think somebody would find the ruling that they were supposedly contradicting. Rather, marriage law in the U.S.A. has been a slow slide toward disaggregating marriage into a series of social services (especially given the strict interpretation of the “no establishment of religion” clause in the Constitution), and Goodridge fell right into that by interpreting the civil union as such a bundle of social services.

So what we get here is that the court in Goodridge wasn't actually activist at all in either the statute or stare decisis sense. It read directly from the MA constitution using a plain English understanding of the language about equality under the law, and did not seem to disagree with past court rulings. So we conclude what many of you have probably been thinking all along: that the term `activist judge' in this context really is just a polysyllabic way of saying `socially liberal'.

Now, there's a specific reason for conservative rhetoricians to confound all five axes and claim that liberal on one means liberal on the other four, which returns to the asymmetry discussed above: if a judge is liberal on both judicial axes at once, then that judge is just making up law.

This is the crux of the implicit argument in the term `activist judge'. If we start with the false premise that a judge who is liberal on one axis is also liberal on all four other axes, then we get the false conclusion that all socially liberal judges are just making up the law, and so the only good judge is a socially conservative judge.

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on Friday, February 16th, techne said

I met the judge who wrote the Goodridge decision. Shook her hand and thanked her, all choked up, for it. She said "No need to thank me, it was right there in the law."

on Sunday, February 18th, owouldntyouliketoknow said

Going further with the Jefferson quote: "Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19. years." Is that really something you're trying to endorse literally? He's not saying the interpretation is not valid, he's saying the law itself is invalid, along with all national debts contracted more than 19 years prior. Jefferson said a lot of things. I'd differentiate more carefully between "strict constructionist" and "original intent" philosophies -- I like the first very much, the second is where the silliness lies.

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20 February 08. NIH contracting: a how-to

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I did work on a contract basis for the NIH in early 2007, and got paid today. Over the year of trying to get compensation for my labor, I have learned a whole lot about the NIH's billing system. This column will share with you what I've learned, both because it offers some interesting points about bureaucracy in general and because those of you who got here via a search engine may be in a similar position and will benefit from what step-by-step instructions I could manufacture.

First, a useful vocabulary, attributed (I am told) to Mr L Lessig: East Coast law is the typical legal code that the US Congress comes up with. West Coast law is computer code: what the database is actually capable of doing.

The problem is that the two sometimes disagree: The US Code says that the database must do some trick, but the guys who wrote the database somehow failed to include that trick. In this case, West coast law wins.

The NIH's Office of Financial Management (OFM) recently installed a new database system, with the pathetically generic name of New Business System (NBS). The NBS has very limited abilities. For example, I was repeatedly told that the technicians using the system are unable to look up a contract by taxpayer ID or name. They can only look it up by contract number and invoice ID. This is the first hint of trouble.

When you get your contract, a portion of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) will be stapled to the contract. But to the extent that the NBS manual and the FAR disagree, the OFM exempts itself from the rules laid down in the FAR. The example of this that hit me hardest was that the FAR does not list an invoice number as required for a proper invoice, but as above, an invoice number is absolutely essential for the NBS to keep track of the invoice. Therefore, an invoice with no number at the top is an invalid invoice, even though it complies with the FAR. Why can't the data entry technician just make up a number? I have no idea--there's probably not a law about it given that the FAR doesn't require an invoice number to begin with--but you'll see that, as a matter of actual practice, the OFM's technicians have only two responses to an invoice: process it or reject it, and they are very inclined to reject.

To continue my personal anecdote, my un-numbered invoice was just thrown out. The FAR states that I must be notified if an invoice is invalid within seven days, but being that they just threw the invoice out, I wasn't notified until a lengthy drama that took four months. The FAR states that I am entitled to interest, being that their non-notification delayed the payment process, but since the NBS can't possibly track owed interest on an invoice that never got entered, I ain't never gonna see an interest payment.

This is very clearly a problem of East coast law versus West coast law, with a system that does not do a very good job of implementing the East coast law is it charged with executing. As above, where there is a discrepancy, OFM employees will cite their internal NBS manuals as the rules governing the contract, rather than the FAR. Too bad you don't have access to their internal manuals. I repeatedly asked several people for complete rules for invoice processing, and finally established that there is no such document.

But one thing is for certain: if you follow the invoicing instructions on your contract, you will not get paid. Instead, you need to comply with the unpublished rules of the internal system.

So, here are some notes and suggestions for those of you who are faced with the problem of receiving payment for a personal services-type contract with NIH:

  • Avoid being a contractor: Push for a part-time job of some sort. The normal payroll department is doing fine, and doesn't suffer the dysfunction that the contract invoice processing system has.
  • Bill immediately: Nothing in the FAR says you have to do the work before sending the invoice, and neither the FAR nor the NBS are looking for a signature of approval or other proof. So send the invoice the day you get your contract.
  • Bill for billing time: If they're going to make you do the OFM's job for it, you might as well bill them for it. I sincerely hope that it takes you less than the several work-days of effort it took me to get paid, but be prepared for such an outcome by marking your hours from the start--don't just assume you'll write one invoice in five minutes and be done with it. If that means you're a PhD electrogeneticist billing $300 an hour to do clerical work that a decently-programmed database could do, so be it.
  • Read the West Coast law: Here is the list of NIH billing rules that I was given. Note well that this requires much more information than the FAR requires, because it seems that NBS makes it impossible for the invoicing people to look this information up themselves. This is in no way a comprehensive set of rules: I've submitted invoices that complied with these rules but were rejected for other ad hoc reasons.
  • Do not mail your invoice: The FAR says you should just mail in your invoice and that's all you have to do. That is simply hopeless advice from the East Coast. My lab has transmitted many pieces of paper to the OFM's Commercial Accounts division which were never heard from again. Gosh, I have an invoice that was stamped as officially received and then thrown out. My own experience has been that items sent to no one in particular have good odds of being lost, but individuals are very good about responding to emails. [Many seem to just check their email once a day, but that's sufficient.]
  • It takes two people to process your invoice--find them: There is one person who does receiving, and another who does the billing. I'm not very clear on why these two people are necessary and what distinct things each does, but there you have it. Call your contracting officer--the one listed on the bottom of your contract--and ask them who does receiving on you contract. While you're there, if you don't know any information in the extensive list above (I still don't know what a 2-way or 3-way match is) then be sure to ask your contracting officer.
  • Get immediate feedback from Receiving: Email your invoice to the person your contract officer specified, and in your email, ask for immediate follow-up on whether there are problems with the invoice. This is a dialogue: expect something to be wrong, and expect to be asked to resubmit. If you only follow the eight mandatory steps in the FAR, you are guaranteed a rejection; if you follow the instructions in the PDF above, then maybe you have a chance that it will be accepted on the first try.
  • Get immediate feedback from Billing: You will have to wait a day or two, and then start calling the OFM's Commercial Accounts division and ask if your invoice has appeared in their system yet. They have a "Customer Service" line--the name mystifies me because I'm a semi-employee, not a customer--but that line is frequently very busy with people trying to work out why they're not getting paid. Expect to wait an hour on hold before talking to anybody, though you might get lucky and have a significantly shorter wait. Once you do get through, ask if the invoice has been processed. The fact that receiving was able to process your invoice is no proof that the Commercial Accounts people will give your invoice the time of day. If your invoice was not processed, then get the email address of the billing person you're on the phone with [hint: if you wrote it down wrong, check in the online directory] and begin the dialogue again: email them a new invoice immediately, wait for them to reject it, email a new one, repeat until the invoice is accepted. You may want to cc your receiving person.

So, that's the best I could work out from the process. Once you have both receiving and billing accepting your invoice, you are theoretically done: the NBS has digested your invoice and should therefore be able to send you a check or deposit. If it hasn't, well, I'm happy to say that I haven't explored that part of the system (yet).

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on Sunday, February 24th, Ms. DH, formerly of Ann Arbor said

I'm working on a paper about this type of employment right now! In other countries, like Italy, the company purchasing your contracting services would be required to pay you at least monthly and you would be covered for some minimum benefits through the gov't. Your paperwork story is funny- but this sort of work bites benefits wise and isn't shown to work as a "foot in the door" either.

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