Friday, May 19, 2006

Why No One Likes U.S. Presidential Candidates

Joe's post about good and bad presidential candidates (if you find this intro irrelevant refer to the final section of this post: Hank 5/19/06) inspired me to put down a few ideas I've been refining at work: since my job requires no thought I have plenty of time to hone my thoughts about other things all day long.

The focus of my criticisms will be, largely, the two party system, but these criticisms are nested within an overall criticism of any democracy that has a government as powerful as ours is.

As for that general criticism it is this: from amongst the infinite number of possible policies imaginable, a central government can only actually implement one policy. To put this another way, a government cannot simultaneously enforce contradictory rules. The point of this is that with regard to any particular issue the public will almost certainly embrace a wider set of potential policies than the government can actually implement (i.e. one). In some cases the people are fairly close to unity in their opinion. Very few people, for instance, would oppose laws condemning and punishing murder. There will, of course, be a diversity of opinion as to what punishment for murder ought to entail, or even what precisely constitutes murder, but at least we can come to nearly universal agreement with regard to the central issue. Questions as to how industry standards should be set, how transfer payments should be structured, and what our foreign policy should consist of are much more contentious. With regard to these more divisive issues we might expect opinions to be distributed much more widely along the spectrum, or more properly, within the space, of possible opinion. When our government passes legislation relating to these issues, which, as stated above, necessarily represents a single opinospatial point, we should not be at all surprised that most people find it at least partially dissatisfactory.

So the problem we're looking at is that, when we vote for a presidential candidate, we are forced to choose between two points of view that holistically combine individual opinions on every possible issue addressable. Even when faced with a single issue this a or b approach is clearly unsatisfactory. What color would you like your car to be? Black or yellow? What would you like for dinner tonight? Ham or turkey? Looked at from this perspective, the absurdity of voting upon such a vast complex of issues by choosing 'a or b' becomes perfectly clear. Imagine you were looking to buy a house and the entire market was just house a or house b. "Well, I did want the bathroom walls to be blue, and these are a sort of bluish green, and house b has pink walls in the bathroom. I certainly don't want that, hmmm…" You might want the deck but that means that you have to accept the brass fixtures, the smaller yard, the garish exterior lights, etc. Surely you see what I'm saying. The fact is that the decision that we make when we vote for a political party in fact conglomerates a vastly greater number of choices than those you would make in designing and decorating a home (and, in fact, a larger percentage of your income is devoted to the outcome of these decisions).

This, I think, highlights one of the truly bizarre peculiarities of our modern way of looking at politics. What I am talking about here is the concept of a political left and right. This universally pervasive idea implies a one-dimensional spectrum of political thought. All political thought, one might think, can be defined as being at some point on this line. There is a center, characterized as the midpoint between the Democrats and the Republicans. There is a point somewhere left of center, the Dems, and another just as far right of center, the GOP. Everyone, it would seem, then falls somewhere on this line. What this would appear to imply is that if I, for instance, take a harsher stance on criminal punishment than you do I must also favor a larger military, weaker social safety nets, stronger government interference in sexual activity, active corporatism, Christian lifestyles, etc. That is to say that, as I move along the spectrum, all of my values shift simultaneously to become either more Democratish or Republicany. I can be on the far left, by which we mean that I represent all the values of the democrats, only even more than they themselves. Now, I understand that few people take this analogy to be true in such an absolute sense, but I don't think that there is any doubt that these ideas, as I have elaborated them, pervade our thinking about our political environment.

The reality, as I explained earlier, is that political opinion exists in an infinitely multidimensional space, rather than on a one-dimensional line. Allow me to draw up a simplified example of what I am talking about. Let's imagine a three dimensional politospace (that being the number of spatial dimensions we inhabit, it's easy for us to visualize). Say on the x-axis (left to right) we have attitude toward gun control. At positive infinity (the extreme right) we have a policy in which we make weapons capable of annihilating the universe standard issue at birth; at negative infinity (the extreme left) we have a policy in which the shooting of a spitball results in lifelong confinement. Then on the y-axis (fore and aft) we have military combativeness increasing as we move forward and decreasing as we move abaft. Finally on the z-axis (up and down) let us plot attitudes toward the rights of the accused, up being less accommodating toward, and down being more protective toward, the rights of accused persons. Within this space we can plot the points representing the Democrats and the Republicans. The Democrats are somewhere leftward, rearward, and below the origin. The Republicans are somewhere rightward, in front of, and above the origin. We can plot a line connecting these two points and extending past them to infinity in either direction. This line represents the traditional 'left' 'right' spectrum. This spatial visualization clearly illustrates the problem that the linear representation presents. Virtually one hundred percent of the points within our space do not fall anywhere on the line we have drawn. In particular, six of the eight octants into which the planes of our axis divide this politospace are completely excluded from the line. These correspond to orientation combinations that do not bear the same proportional relationship between opinion types. Someone who, for instance, is in favor of militarism, does not support strong rights for accused persons, and who supports strict gun control legislation would fall in an octant that the line never enters and thus could not possibly be accurately represented as being 'right' or 'left' she is in fact some place perpendicular to the line, off in the neglected regions of politospace. When we take into account the fact that our real politospace is infinitely-dimensional rather than three-dimensional it becomes clear that not only will very few people coincide with the points that represent the two major parties but in fact very few will fall upon the line passing through these two points (or even in two the ifinants (my term for whatever it is 'quadrants' become when we are dealing with a space with two to the infinity power of them) through which this line travels) which we so commonly use as a proxy for all of politospace. In fact, there are many policy dimensions in which the two parties are identical. For a person such as myself who questions the necessity of the FDA and the Federal Reserve, there isn't even a lesser of two evils; the parties are both equally opposed to my position. Again we should not be surprised that most people feel poorly represented by the political status quo.

Now let's move on to what might be called the 'lesser of two evils' problem. We have already seen that virtually no one can be expected to be satisfied with positions of an individual party or candidate. So the inevitable problem is that in choosing between parties or candidates, be there two or twenty, we are inevitably forced to choose the one that most closely aligns with our average viewpoint. But why does what could conceivably be the 'better of many mediocre suitors' become the 'lesser of two evils'. Well the 'two' is fairly obviously the result of the 'wasted vote' phenomenon. In any electoral situation where there can be only one winner votes will gravitate to the candidates who have the strongest chance of actually winning. The partisans of weaker candidates will inevitably be absorbed into the coteries of the contenders one level up in the competitiveness hierarchy who most closely resemble their true favorites. This process of conglomeration appears to be inevitable. Our system settled into the two party solution quite rapidly and three-way races have remained exceptional. We see the same result in races for unique positions worldwide. Once we have arrived at the 'two' the "lesser of __ evils' also becomes quite easy to explain. Once we have two candidates who are assured to receive virtually one hundred percent of the votes they have a strong incentive to move to the center in an attempt to capture the lost votes that hang between their positions. That is, if a voter who is primarily concerned with a single issue--let's take gun control--will automatically vote for whichever of the two parties is closer to his position, the candidates will have no incentive to leave any space between their positions. If party A takes position A' and party B takes position (A' - d) [lets say that the negative direction is anti-control, so, in this case, party A is the gun control party] and all voters who lie in the negative direction from B will be guaranteed to vote for B and all those who lie on the positive side of A will vote for A,both parties have every incentive to reduce d to nigh on zero. This is because d represents the voters who, being neither (assuming an opinion axis where negative is represented by the leftward direction) to the left of B nor to the right of A, are not specifically guaranteed to vote for either party. Every step that one of these parties takes in the direction of its rival moves voters from the undecided d region into the guaranteed camp. Thus the natural equilibrium here is for the two parties to stand back-to-back, dead center, with an equal number of voters on either side.

The net result here is that the parties will never take extreme positions. This is because extremism necessarily costs them voters in the central region of the 'spectrum'. Thus we get the lesser of two evils. I read an enlightening editorial perspective on this issue in the Shotgun News (a firearm sales publication printed on my press at work). The author observed that if second amendment advocates really wanted to get the legislators to actively support their position (rather than just taking the least substantial position that would make them superior to their opponents in this regard) they must be prepared to withhold their votes, even from a lesser of two evils candidate, until he actively supported a position that they considered to be suitably stringent. That is, the author recognized that, in order to remove a candidate from a centrist position, constituents must not guarantee their vote to the lesser of two evils. They must represent their block as a carrot to be received only by a candidate who is willing to step decisively into their camp.

This last point leads naturally into another that is, probably, more important. We must recognize the power that a system such as I have described lends to a single-issue voter.

Imagine that, based on the principle that our gun-toting friend espoused, you decided to convene a policy advocacy group that would set a specific platform based on a core platform of issues, and that this group would promise its votes to whichever candidate best obeyed the mandates of your party platform. This would be just the sort of action that should gain you the most leverage in influencing real legislation. No guarantees, just performance based voting. Even if neither party worked well for you, you might vote just to punish the lesser of two evils for failing to reach out to you (this would be twice as effective as just not voting for him at all). The problem is that you would have to weight the issues in your platform. Necessarily some of your issues would be better addressed by one camp and some issues by the other. Whichever you choose to reward you will necessarily work contrary to a portion of your platform. Your prioritizing will, optimally, guide you to become a single-issue party. This is an essential feature of our current system. Given the vast diversity of issues addressed by our federal government most single-issue groups will be unopposed and as such will achieve easy victories. Such is the case with many industry advocates and other lobby groups. The single issue that they care about is unique to their area of concern and so there is no opposing platform. Thousands of pages of legislation are passed on behalf of such groups every year without the observation or concern of the general voting public.

A recent example of this sort of thing that came to my attention recently was a law passed in Wisconsin that requires children under the age of nine to use booster seats when riding in cars. In the article that I read explaining this law, it was mentioned that there were fifty children in this age group who had died (in the previous five years) who, it was presumed, would have survived had they been in booster seats. Now, given that there are five million residents in the state and that a conservative estimate would put one seventh of this population in this age group. Estimating, again conservatively that these children make two car trips per day (to and from school, day care, etc) over those five years we can further estimate that the increased risk of death (per trip) due to nonuse of a booster seat is one in fifty-million or less. This seems like a risk that could be left to the parents to assess. But I believe that there is a substantial single-issue safety lobby that argued in favor of this law and that, in the absence of a corresponding anti-safety lobby, they succeeded, even though I suspect that a significant majority of voters would oppose this legislation. This is an illustration of the power of the single-issue lobby. So long as there is no opposing group, legislators can guarantee themselves a block of votes at no cost to themselves. The issue is that, with thousands of pages of legislation being passed into law each year, voters cannot possibly monitor each bit of legislation. Under these circumstances a special interest group can enact legislation that benefits their own interests substantially while only negatively impacting the interests of the general voting population at large by a very small increment. Though each individual instance of this phenomenon may seem insignificant, over time, many such acts may be very detrimental to the interests of the general population. They simply do not have the wherewithal to combat so many diverse special interests on so many issues.

A corollary principle is that issues with regard to which there are two strong opposing single-issue groups will tend to dominate political discourse. The problem here is that these issues will eclipse others, which, though important, are supported only by groups with blurred (i.e. pluralistic) interests. I think this is the reason why such issues as abortion and gun control tend to dominate political discussions. It is political dynamics and not obscuritanist politicians attempting to mask more significant issues that lead to the preeminence of these issues. That is to say that I believe that the commonly acknowledged problem: that our political system obsesses over pointless and obscure issues, is a product of the actual positions of the voters, and that these positions, in turn, are the result of logical adjustments, by the voters, to the format of the system itself.

You may by now have guessed that my central position is that our federal government is making too many decisions at too great a level of complexity for the democratic system to function properly. The more numerous and involved these decisions become the more the possibility that they will closely mirror the desires of the people will be reduced. As the people come to believe that the state is the only avenue through which they can achieve their ends extremism becomes the norm and totalitarianism is the ultimate result. This is the inevitable fate of fascist and socialist political systems. One might argue that there are alternative approaches to structuring the people's suffrage, ways in which the two-party equilibrium can be disempowered. But the truth is that even if you have a ten party system the results do not change all that much. If you went in search of a career and everywhere you looked you found the same identical ten options I do not suppose that you would be well satisfied. Again I would assert that the number of variables that you might adjust in pursuing a career do not exceed those that you encounter when you make political decisions in our current system.

You might suspect that it is not a casual coincidence that causes me to repeatedly compare the options that democratic election present with those of free market options such as the purchasing of a home or the selecting of a position of employment. This is precisely the contrast that I intend to highlight. Government is necessarily authoritarian (this is true by definition) and its decisions are necessarily unitary. As more and more decisions are shifted into the sphere of public authority the people will necessarily become less and less satisfied with the actuality of their circumstance. The paucity of individual choice will necessarily lead to increasing polarism of opinion and intergroup antagonism. These consequences are not even directly related to the natural benefits of the free-market relating to efficiency. They are merely the product of communal decision-making. Each decision making opportunity that we remove from the public sphere by allowing individuals to decide for themselves will result in increased national unity, increased efficiency, and increased specificity in our ability to influence those policies that yet remain in the public sector. Some of these decisions may even be appropriate to government but perhaps just not on the federal scale. That is, the smaller the group, the greater the commonality. Thus, if these decisions could be devolved to state and municipal government units, the likelihood of accord being achieved would be greatly increased. I think that this was a significant part of the objective that our founding fathers had in mind when they provided the limitations of the federal government (through the enumeration of powers).

So, I guess that's my perspective on the issue. I think that our government has become so powerful that passing one bit (here I mean a bit in the true digital sense) per person per biennium is just not sufficient to define a satisfactory course. It has become so powerful, in fact, that a sole dictator could not even satisfactorily control it. No one is in a better position to make the important decisions that our society requires than those who are in the thick of the decision-requiring event. The free market provides for just this sort of individual flexibility and this is its great virtue. This is why the term 'free' market is so important to understand (as opposed to the compulsion and coercion of the state).

I hope you'll pardon any coarseness or incongruity that occurs in the latter portion of this document. I wrote it in three parts separated by probably about two weeks apiece. So I had two opportunities to review the first portion, one to review the second, and I only reviewed most recent portion after writing it this very evening. As I'm sure you recognize it is easier to objectively review a piece of authorship after an intermission, but at this point I haven't the patience to wait another day. The intro may not make much sense but this is because it refers to a piece that Joe posted immediately prior to my beginning writing this, something that is at least a month out of date. Fortunately it has little bearing on the rest.

Since I'm posting I'll just throw in my bit about a couple other things.

I have been consistently reading the posts here though I may not always be leaving a comment. I will strive to leave more just to assure you of my presence.

I downloaded the Colbert speech from Joe's bittorrent link. Mama B has watched and enjoyed it. I thought it was decent though I thought John Stewart would have done a better job.

I want to recommend one more time that you guys check out the link that I left to the MIT talk on 'Winning the Oil End Game'. I watched it again today and it really is a good talk. He discusses how we can eliminate oil demand (through efficiency) much more cost effectively than we can increase energy supply. It is a pleasurable hour and a half to spend in exchange for becoming truly knowledgeable about our nation's energy future.

Oh yeah. And since I always make such long posts I might suggest that we change the colors of this page to dark print on a light page. I acknowledge that Joe is the host and that I am merely a minor commentator. I don't think that the current negative format is obstructive when we read a paragraph or two at a time. But when I make such large posts I feel guilty for making you guys read it like this. I honestly can't say what the impact is since I don't read my posts on the blog, but on Word where I work on them. So just let us know if you find the current format uncomfortable or not.



Ryan said...

Henry - very interesting post and insightful analysis of our flawed political dynamics.

I do want to take issue with your example of the WI booster seat law as an example of a single issue lobby effort. This law was based on this cross-sectional study published in JAMA:
In the 4-7 age group, this study demonstrated an incidence of injury following a crash of 1.95% and 5 deaths with seat belt only use, and 0.77% and no deaths with booster/seat belt. Even after adjusting for known potential confounds (e.g. better drivers using boosters) there was still a 59% risk reduction of injury. Amazingly, kids in boosters had no incidents of seat belt syndrome - injuries to the abdomen, spine/neck/head induced by the seat belt itself.

In addition, an analysis by Tim Corden ( at UW-Madison predicted that use of boosters would have prevented 16 deaths and 84 hospitalizations from 1998-2002 in the 4-7 group. He does not do a general injury analysis, although there would almost certainly be a reduction here as well based on the JAMA study.

Although associational, these are fairly compelling data that support the use of booster seats in this age group. Passage of a law is an appropriate way to go here because it ensures a greater number of kids will be in a booster rather than relying on individual parent's own views. This is best current medical practice at work. The reason it may seem like a single issue lobby effort is that there isn't a very good case against it. While I would like to see a cost-benefit analysis done, these numbers suggest that, in monetary terms at the least, booster seat use would likely pay for itself. If one considers potential emotional/psychological damage, the benefit is likely even greater.

I would also point out that the booster bill received good press coverage as it was being debated. I don't think this was passed without voter awareness. In the interests of full disclosure, I myself wrote my representatives urging passage of the bill.

Henry said...

I don't doubt that riding in a booster seat can lead to real improvements in safety.

I admit that I was merely recalling this example from memory as something that had recently made me think about this issue.

From your numbers though it appears that my recollection was roughly accurate. I believe that the level of risk we are talking about is low enough that parents have many other unregulated opportunities to expose their children to this degree of peril. As well as many legal opportunities to put their children at much greater risk I imagine.

My objection to the law is that it will, in all likelihood, be widely disobeyed. This is based on my subjective reaction. I can picture many six and seven year olds objecting to sitting in booster seats. They would likely perceive it as an indignity. Children of this age are clearly aware of invidious distinctions that will mark them as juvenile or babyish. Most parents will simply disregard a law that appears silly (just my gut reaction, though I imagine a survey of people on the street would support my supposition) and invasively overprotective rather than try to overcome their child's resistance. Furthermore, a parent who picked up five of the neighborhood kids from a soccer match would have to bring five booster seats or become a lawbreaker? Come on. They're never gonna do it. And the few that do probably won't be at the top of the neighborhood kids' list of favorite rides.

You might say that a little family conflict, some inconvenience, a potential loss of popularity, and possibly, some humiliation, are a small price to pay for your child's life or health. But we have to remember that it is a very small risk of bodily harm that we are talking about. The weights of the guaranteed costs and remotely possible benefits can only be assigned subjectively and I think that it is right to leave this decision to the individuals.

We have to recognize the difference between means and ends. With regard to means we can use science and technology to define the best and most expedient course of action to take in a given situation. But, if our ends change, so do the means. If I say I want to get from point a to point b as quickly as possible I could expect a team of physicists, logisticians, and engineers to give me an optimal solution. Then if I say I want to do so within a budget I find comfortable, while enjoying scenic views, etc., the situation changes. Because the interplay of these different values is subjective, the utility of my team of consultants declines. If we assume that the preservation of life and health are the end all be all of human value, we can consult a group of medical professionals and actuaries to construct an optimal lifestyle. From this perspective, the mountain climber, the scuba diver, the motorcyclist, the smoker, and the gourmand are all madly irrational. But we know that, from their more complicated value perspectives, each of these individuals regards these activities as being ends the enjoyment of which is worth paying the associated costs. Though they may appreciate the input of the experts in order to help them properly evaluate the costs involved in their decision-making, only they can accurately evaluate the all-important subjective utility of the options by ultimately preferring a to b. When I decide to eat a big piece of pie with ice cream, I know that it is contrary to medical best practice; but some things are worth the risk.

So it is with parents and booster seats.

Also I want to note that public discussion of the issue is not necessarily the important factor here. Even if everyone is aware of a proposed law, the politics are skewed in the one sided way that I talked about so long as there is a group on one side who's votes will be changed by the outcome, but none on the other side. The small group of adamant supporters can overcome a largely indifferent majority to whom the potential law is merely a nuisance.

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