Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Improving democracy

Monday, August 15th, 2011
An overview of how democracy can go wrong, even when everyone has good intentions

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Election algorithms

Top left: We should reevaluate our choice of election algorithms.

Using simple plurality causes high levels of tactical voting and strategic nomination, and frequently produces results not desired by the majority.

A familiar example of tactical voting is declining to vote for your favorite third-party candidate, and instead voting for the "lesser of two evils", because you "don't want your vote to be thrown away".

A familiar example of strategic nomination is funding a weak opponent in the hope of splitting your main opponent's vote.

Simple plurality also entrenches two-party systems. This makes attack ads an effective strategy for politicians. The resulting polarization makes reasonable debate and compromise difficult.

I am a fan of instant round robin (Condorcet) methods. I especially like the beatpath (Schulze) method, since its independence of clones property suggests resistance to strategic nomination.

All election methods violate some intuitive criteria (Arrow). And all election methods sometimes admit tactical voting (Gibbard–Satterthwaite). But simple plurality is especially bad, and we should stop using it.

Moral heuristics

Top right: We should reevaluate our moral heuristics, upon realizing that our heuristics are motivated by a desire for (and often fail to create) prosperity, welfare, and happiness.

Moral heuristics serve us well in everyday life, where we are confronted with the need to make decisions quickly and with incomplete information. But the same heuristics can become counterproductive biases when applied to questions of policy. Examples include omission bias, as seen in the trolley-switch problem, and direct-effect bias, seen in the trolley-footbridge problem.

We should take care that we do not come to treat our moral heuristics as ends in and of themselves. (For more on the role of heuristics in consequentialist ethics, I suggest reading Siskind · Baron · Bennis+ · Bazerman+.)

Removing bad information

Top center: We should reevaluate our protections for freedom of speech, upon realizing that our protections are motivated by a desire for (and fail to create) effective democracy.

Protection for freedom of speech is motivated by a desire to ensure governments are not immune from criticism, to keep the powerless from feeling silenced, and to increase access to truth. In some cases, it is not clear that the protected speech furthers any of these goals.

Perhaps freedom of speech should limited in cases where the speaker has wide reach and says things that are demonstrably false, as an expansion of libel law. Or perhaps there should be limits on spending large amounts of money to amplify political speech. Other criteria that might be worth considering are intent to mislead, the speaker's power or incumbency, and whether the medium and timing make it possible to reply.

On the other hand, additional restrictions might not be worth the effort. The undesirable speech would probably become less effective, but not disappear completely. Any ambiguities in the law would create problems for both courts and speakers.

Adding good information

Center right: Perhaps the best way to combat incorrect information is with correct information.

The CFTC should stop discouraging the creation of economic prediction markets. Betting on unemployment, for example, serves legitimate hedging and transparency interests. Political discourse would improve if we had transparent predictions on topics other than the fate of large companies.

Policy experiments should be more common. Just as we require clinical trials for new medications, we should run field experiments for new policies when possible.

More government data should be open. Organizations like MySociety, Code For America, and Wolfram Alpha have done amazing things to help us visualize, interpret, and use the information available so far.

History and technology

Some advances in technology have weakened democracy by amplifying the problems highlighted in the chart.

First, increased interconnectedness is requiring democracies to operate at unprecedented scale. Advances in transportation and communication and warfare impel us to make some important decisions at the US federal level.

Increased distance and heterogeneity tests our individual capacity for empathy and altruism. Large scales magnify the incentives for concentrated interests to attempt to influence policy.

Second, the tools of subversion are improving. Advances in psychology and statistics allow for extremely manipulative advertising. Instant polling shifts focus from outcomes to opinions, and from policy to strategy.

But new tools that could strengthen democracy are also available, if we choose to use them.

Increasingly deep understanding of cognitive biases improves our capacity for reflection. Our experience running financial markets gives us ideas about how to create effective prediction markets.

And crucially, we have computers: computers to implement the voting algorithms invented as part of modern social choice theory, computers to run the advanced statistics that make field experiments reliable, and computers to allow citizens to make creative use of open government data.

Happy Loving Day

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

Shortly after returning from their DC wedding, Mildred and Richard Loving were arrested at their home in Virginia. Their crime? He was white and she was not.

Virginia's courts found that since the Racial Integrity Act punished the two Lovings equally, it did not discriminate against any race. They also came up with justifications for the law, some of which seem bizarre by today's standards:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

The Supreme Court of the United States, in contrast, could find no rational basis for the law. Instead, they described it as "designed to maintain White Supremacy", as it only divided whites from non-whites rather than trying to protect the "integrity" of every race.

That alone might have been enough to overturn Virginia's law, but the supremes went further. They held that "equal application does not immunize the statute" from the strict scrutiny applied to laws involving race. It would take much more than a supposed rational basis to justify a state law against interracial marriage.

The Supreme Court's unanimous decision concluded beautifully:

Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival.... To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law.

Loving v. Virginia brought the end of anti-miscegenation laws, not only in Virginia, but throughout the Southern United States.

I am struck by how recently this decision came: June 12, 1967 was only 42 years ago. That I grew up considering multiracial couples normal is a testament to the success of the previous generation's civil rights movement.

In the spirit of the court's decision, I would like to wish all couples a happy Loving Day.

I'll save the jealousy for February.

Protesting for gay marriage

Monday, November 17th, 2008

I joined yesterday's protest in San Francisco against the passage of proposition 8. I'd like to be able to say that I went only because I am outraged about counterproductive discrimination based on superstition. But the truth is I also had a selfish reason to be there: I wanted to see creative protest signs.

Attitudes toward political opponents

Many signs were angry: Fuck the H8 away, If you don't like.... One was so angry that it bordered on oxymoronical: Our diverse community does not tolerate haters.

Other signs tried to show opponents the light through compassion and empathy: All families matter, Careful whom you H8. It could be someone you love.

A few signs were simply patient and optimistic about the future: The winds of change are coming, Our love will outlive your vote.

Drawing historical parallels

Many signs drew parallels to civil rights movements of previous generations: separate is never equal, I can't believe we still have to protest this crap.

The most direct parallels involved laws against interracial marriage. One sign quoted Loving v Virginia, the supreme court case that overturned miscegenation laws: "Marriage is one of the basic civil rights of man". An especially touching sign read: I would not be here were it not for the courts legalizing interracial marriage.

One of the marching chants also evoked these parallels: "Gay, straight, black, white; marriage is a civil right!". (The parallel here isn't perfect: Loving allowed black people to marry white people, but we're not exactly fighting to allow gay people to marry straight people ;))

Attitudes toward religion

Quite a few signs were anti-religion, and anti-mormonism in particular.

But equally numerous were signs that drew on religion to argue for equality: All love is sacred, What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder, We are married by the power and in the presence of God.

Some protestors avoided bashing religion, and asked only for the separation of church and state: State/church shirt, Not your sacrament, just our civil right. If I had made a sign, I might have written: "Say what you will about 'holy matrimony', but 'marriage' belongs to all of us."

Humorous and strange signs

One man's sign read I really used to LIKE the number 8. Another sign reminded us to be careful how we use language: Discrimination is totally gay.

A few signs left me baffled: Marriage is totally gay, No queers, If the tooth fairy were gay....

Marching chants

After a few hours at civic center park, many of us marched three miles to fisherman's wharf, chanting various slogans. One frequent chant was "Separate! Church and state!" Chants were even used to direct the march: "Right on Lombard!"

Our most frequent chant revealed grammatical disagreement: "What do we want? Equal rights! When do we want ___? Now!". This was a call-and-response chant: only one person would yell the questions, while the crowd would yell the answers. Some callers yelled "it", but others yelled "them" or "'em".

The climax of the protest came as we marched through a tunnel. The sign above the tunnel entrance, "Quiet through tunnel", hinted as to what might happen once we entered. We did not obey this sign.


Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

Bill Clinton's biggest mistake was not his involvement with Monica Lewinsky. His biggest mistake was firing Joycelyn Elders.

If he had listened to Joycelyn, though, maybe he wouldn't have made the second (more embarrassing) mistake.

Politics of localization

Wednesday, March 7th, 2007

It seems that some people are angry that a Kurdish-language version of Firefox exists. The newsgroup has been full of posts about Kurdish, many of them similar to this message.

Who knew that making it possible for volunteers to translate a web browser into multiple languages could be controversial?

Continuous Daylight Saving Time

Wednesday, November 1st, 2006

Daylight Saving Time seems to serve three major purposes:

  • Health: keeping sunrise roughly constant relative to when work or school starts makes modern routines easier on our circadian rhythms, improving our pyschological health and perhaps also our physical health. In addition, the daylight "saved" by not "sleeping in" hours past sunrise during the summer makes more outdoor activity possible, increasing the amount of exercise we get without conscious effort.
  • Energy use: By using less artificial light and spending less time inside watching TV during the summer, America saves about 1% on total energy use by using Daylight Saving Time.
  • Safety: Daylight Saving Time tries to keep both morning and evening commutes in daylight when possible. But when that isn't possible, it tries to ensure that at least the morning commute is during daylight. This reduces car-accident injuries by thousands or tens of thousands per year.

I think a time system could improve health, energy use, and safety even more if it were to make small adjustments throughout the year instead of large adjustments twice a year. For example, a small amount of time might be added or taken away just before 2am every morning, in order to keep sunrises at 6am at a latitude of 40 degrees. The daily changes would be small enough for most people to ignore -- less than two minutes per day even around the equinoxes.

Interestingly, switching to continuous time change would also address the main criticisms of DST:

  • Lost productivity and an increase in fatal auto accidents twice a year due to disruption of sleeping patterns.
  • Lost productivity fiddling with clocks.
  • Farmers are forced out of synchronization with the rest of society.

It seems like my favorite kind of compromise, one that reveals a false trade-off and makes both sides happier than they would have been with their previous preferred solutions.

Of course, there would be new drawbacks. Certain time calculations would be more difficult: night-shift workers might find themselves needing to keep track of the changing length of each day, instead of being confused only twice a year. Planning a weekly meeting involving people in different hemispheres (or DST regimes) would become more difficult, especially if people on each hemisphere have tight schedules.

We would also have to replace our clocks and watches. I'm not about to pretend that forcing everyone to purchase new clocks would be a good thing by itself, but at least it would only be a one-time cost; computing power is cheap enough that the the price of clocks would not increase permanently. When we upgrade our clocks to deal with days that vary slightly in length, we should also give them all the ability to update themselves; this would be more pleasant than requiring you to enter the date in addition to the time after each power outage. We could also dramatically improve the user interfaces of most alarm clocks with respect to how often they fail to wake people up, but that's the subject for another blog post.

This "Continuous DST" proposal is not to be confused with the proposal known as "Year-round DST". The advantages of DST arise from the twice-yearly changes to our clocks corresponding to the changes in the seasons. While "year-round DST" might make sense as a short-term response to an energy crisis such as World War II, in the long term it equivalent to not having DST at all: over a period of several years, everyone will shift their hours back to when they are comfortable being awake unless the government also legislates working hours, store hours, and prime-time television.

I'll admit to being atypical when it comes to sleeping schedules. I work from home and can keep almost any schedule I want. I tend to be most productive at nights, when there are few distractions, so I often sleep during the day. I prefer to be outside during the evening and night, when I don't have to wear sunglasses. (As an added bonus, when I go grocery shopping, my dairy products will take less damage from the walk home). On the other hand, in college, when many students wouldn't even consider taking a class before 10am, I didn't mind having an 8am MWF class as long as I also had a 8:10am class on Tuesday and Thursday.

I'm sure many readers do keep "normal hours", whether by coercion or choice, so what do you think of Continuous DST?

Merry Holidays

Thursday, December 22nd, 2005

Fox News may have a point with its "War on Christmas" meme. It's hard to explain a paragraph I saw while ordering a gift for my girlfriend through Amazon:

Jesse Ruderman, some of your items will arrive after December 24, 2005. If you haven't already selected faster shipping options, doing so might help get your items there in time for the holidays.

Fox is missing the big picture, though. The use of the phrase "the holidays" instead of the word "Christmas" is the least of the threats against Christmas. Some of the larger threats:

  • Christmas muzac. Every Christmas song has been made into a hundred boring versions, which department stores, supermarkets, and airports play exclusively for about a month leading up to Christmas Day.
  • Hanukkah Bushes disguised as Christmas trees. (The giveaway is usually the Star of David at the top.)
  • In Switzerland, kids can no longer sit on Santa's lap at the mall due to fears of pedophilia.
  • Consumerist gift-giving distracts us from other aspects of Christmas and may be an overall deadweight loss.
  • Many parents tell their kids that Santa is real, causing all kinds of problems when they find out he isn't.
  • One can no longer wish people "Happy Holidays", "Season's Greetings", or "Merry Christmas" without offending someone and taking a side in a pointless acrimonious debate.

Top 14 reasons to invade Switzerland

Saturday, October 1st, 2005

Keepers of Lists rejected this list I wrote, so I'm posting it here (without yay/nay voting, unfortunately).

  1. They're not with us, so they must be against us.
  2. Once we control Geneva, we can modify the Geneva Convention.
  3. When was the last time Switzerland won a war?
  4. To see how long they remain neutral.
  5. They refuse to refund us for the holes in their cheese.
  6. Zurich and Geneva recognize gay marriage.
  7. Four percent of Switzerland is muslim.
  8. To freeze (and take) ill-gotten funds in Swiss bank accounts.
  9. Their army keeps supplying small knives to terrorists.
  10. To send a message to all the other "neutral" countries.
  11. They would never expect it.
  12. Easiest way to go to war with the entire rest of the world.
  13. Retaliation for tricking us into signing the Geneva Convention after WWI.
  14. To sieze control of lucrative domain names such as and