Politics

Nate Silver is Not God and other political musings

In the wake of the election, the big nerd story is the perfect stats-based prediction that Nate Silver of the 538 blog made on the results in every single state. I was following the blog and like all, am impressed with his work. The perfection gives the wrong impression, however. Silver would be the first to point out he predicted Florida as very close with a slight lean for Obama, and while that is what happened, that’s really just luck. His actual prediction was that it was too close to call. But people won’t see that, they see the perfection. I hope he realizes he should try to downplay this. For his own sake, if he doesn’t, he has nowhere to go but down in 2014 and 2016.

But the second reason is stronger. People will put even more faith in polls. Perhaps even not faith, but reasoned belief, because polls are indeed getting more accurate. Good polls that are taken far in advance are probably accurate about what the electorate thinks then, but the electorate itself is not that accurate far in advance. So the public and politicians should always be wary about what the polls say before the election.

Silver’s triumph means they may not be. And as the metaphorical Heisenberg predicts, the observations will change the results of the election.

There are a few ways this can happen. First, people change their votes based on polls. They are less likely to vote if they think the election is decided, or they sometimes file protest votes when they feel their vote won’t change things. Vice versa, a close poll is one way to increase turnout, and both sides push their voters to make the difference. People are going to think the election is settled because 538 has said what people are feeling.

The second big change has already been happening. Politicians change their platforms due to the polls. Danny Hillis observed some years ago that the popular vote is almost always a near tie for a reason. In a two party system, each side regularly runs polls. If the polls show them losing, they move their position in order to get to 51%. They don’t want to move to 52% as that’s more change than they really want, but they don’t want to move to less than 50% or they lose the whole game. Both sides do this, and to some extent the one with better polling and strategy wins the election. We get two candidates, each with a carefully chosen position designed to (according to their own team) just beat the opposition, and the actual result is closer to a random draw driven by chaotic factors.

Well, not quite. As Silver shows, the electoral college stops that from happening. The electoral college means different voters have different value to the candidates, and it makes the system pretty complex. Instead of aiming for a total of voters, you have to worry that position A might help you in Ohio but hurt you in Florida, and the electoral votes happen in big chunks which makes the effect of swing states more chaotic. Thus poll analysis can tell you who will win but not so readily how to tweak things to make the winner be you. The college makes small differences in overall support lead to huge differences in the college.

In Danny’s theory, the two candidates do not have to be the same, they just have to be the same distance from a hypothetical center. (Of course to 3rd parties the two candidates do tend to look nearly identical but to the members of the two main parties they look very different.)

Show me the money?

Many have noted that this election may have cost $6B but produced a very status quo result. Huge money was spent, but opposed forces also spent their money, and the arms race just led to a similar balance of power. Except a lot of rich donors spent a lot of their money, got valuable access to politicians for it, and some TV stations in Ohio and a few other states made a killing. The fear that corporate money would massively swing the process does not appear to have gained much evidence, but it’s clear that influence was bought.

I’m working on a solution to this, however. More to come later on that.

Ballot Propositions

While there have been some fairly good ballot propositions (such as last night’s wins for Marijuana and marriage equality) I am starting to doubt the value of the system itself. As much as you might like the propositions you like, if half of the propositions are negative in value, the system should be scrapped. Indeed, if only about 40% are negative, it should still be scrapped because of the huge cost of the system itself.  read more »

New panoramas of Israel, and of course a proposal for peace

I’m back from our fun “Singuarlity Week” in Tel Aviv, where we did a 2 day and 1 day Singularity University program. We judged a contest for two scholarships by Israelis for SU, and I spoke to groups like Garage Geeks, Israeli Defcon, GizaVC’s monthly gathering and even went into the west bank to address the Palestinian IT Society and announce a scholarship contest for SU.

Of course I did more photography, though the weather did not cooperate. However, you will see six new panoramas on my Israel Panorama Page and my Additional Israeli panoramas. My favourite is the shot of the western wall during a brief period of sun in a rainstorm.

In Ramallah, the telecom minister for the Palestinian Authority asked us, jokingly, “how can this technology end the occupation?” But I wanted to come up with a serious answer. Everybody who goes to the middle east tries to come up with a solution or at least some sort of understanding. Israelis get a bit sick of it, annoyed that outsiders just don’t understand the incredible depth and nuance of the problem. Outsiders imagine the Israelis and Palestinians are so deep in their conflict that they are like fish who no longer see the water.

In spite of those warnings, here’s my humble proposal for how to use new media technology to help.

Take classrooms of Israelis and classrooms of Palestinians and give them a mandatory school assignment. Their assignment is to be paired with an online buddy from the “other side.” Students would be paired based on a matching algorithm, considering things like their backgrounds, language skills or languages and subjects they want to learn. The other student, with whom they would interact over online media and video-conferencing (like Skype or Google Hangouts,) would become a study partner and the students would collaborate on projects suitable to them. They might also help one another learn a language, like English, Arabic or Hebrew. Students would be encouraged to add their counterpart to their social networking circles.

Both students would also be challenged to write an essay attempting to see the world from the point of view of the other. They will not be asked to agree with it, but simply to be able to write from that point of view. And their counterpart must agree at the end that it mostly does reflect their point of view. Students would be graded on this.

It would be important not to have this be a “forced friendship.” The students would be told it was not demanded they forget their preconceptions; not demanded they agree with everything their counterpart says. In fact, they would be encouraged to avoid conflict, to not immediately contradict statements they think are false. That the goal is not to convince their counterpart of things but to understand and help them understand. And in particular, projects should be set up where the students naturally work together viewing the teachers as the common enemy.

At the end of the year, a meeting would be arranged. For example, west bank students would be thrilled at a chance to visit the beach or some amusement park. A meeting on the west bank border on neutral ground might make sense too, though parents would be paranoid about safety and many would veto trips by their children into the west bank.

Would this bring peace? Hardly on its own. But it would improve things if every student at least knew somebody from outside their world, and had tried to understand their viewpoint even without necessarily agreeing with it. And some of the relationships would last, and the social networks would grow. Soon each student would have at least one person in their network from outside their formerly insular world. This would start with some schools, but ideally it would be something for every student to do. And it could even be expanded to include online pen-pals from other countries. With some students it would fail, particularly older ones whose views are already set. Alas, for younger ones, finding a common language might be difficult. Few Israelis learn Arabic, more Palestinians learn Hebrew and all eventually want to learn English. Somebody has to provide computers and networking to the poorer students, but it seems the cost of this is small compared to the benefit.

It will be tough reversing Citizens United

There are a large number of constitutional amendments being proposed to reverse the effects of the recent US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

Here the court held that Citizens United, a group which had produced an anti-Hilary Clinton documentary, had the right to run ads promoting their documentary and its anti-Clinton message. It had been held at the lower court that because the documentary and thus the ads advocated against a candidate, they were restricted under campaign finance rules. Earlier, however, the court had held earlier that it was OK for Michael Moore to run ads for Fahrenheit 9/11, his movie which strongly advocated against re-electing George W. Bush. The court could not find the fine line between these that the lower court had held, but the result was a decision that has people very scared because it strips most restrictions on campaigning by groups and in particular corporations. Corporations have most of the money, and money equals influence in elections.

Most attempts at campaign finance reform and control have run into a constitutional wall. That’s because when people talk about freedom of speech, it’s hard to deny that political speech is the most sacred, most protected of the forms of speech being safeguarded by the 1st amendment. Rules that try to say, “You can’t use your money to get out the message that you like or hate a candidate” are hard to reconcile with the 1st amendment. The court has made that more clear and so the only answer is an amendment, many feel.

It seems like that should not be hard. After all, the court only ruled 5-4, and partisan lines were involved. Yet in the dissent, it seems clear to me that the dissenters don’t so much claim that political speech is not being abridged by the campaign finance rules, but rather that the consequences of allowing big money interests to dominate the political debate are so grave that it would be folly to allow it, almost regardless of what the bill of rights says. The courts have kept saying that campaign finance reform efforts don’t survive first amendment tests, and the conclusion many have come to is that CFR is so vital that we must weaken the 1st amendment to get it.

With all the power of an amendment to play with, I have found most of the proposed amendments disappointing and disturbing. Amendments should be crystal clear, but I find many of the proposals to be muddy when viewed in the context of the 1st amendment, even though as later amendments they have the right to supersede it.

The problem is this: When they wrote that the freedom of the press should not be abridged, they were talking about the big press. They really meant organizations like the New York Times and Fox News. If those don’t have freedom of the press, nobody does. And these are corporations. Until very recently it wasn’t really possible to put out your political views to the masses on your terms unless you were a media corporation, or paid a media corporation to do it for you. The internet is changing that but the change is not yet complete.

Many of the amendments state that they do not abridge freedom of the press. But what does that mean? If the New York Times or Fox News wish to use their corporate money to endorse or condemn a candidate — as they usually do — is that something we could dare let the government restrict? Would we allow the NYT to do it in their newspaper, but not in other means, such as buying ads in another newspaper, should they wish to do so? Is the Fox News to be defined as something different from Citizens United?

I’m hard pressed to reconcile freedom of the press and the removal of the ability of corporations (including media ones) from using money to put out a political message. What I fear as that to do so requires that the law — nay, the constitution — try to define what is being “press” and what is not. This is something we’ve been afraid to do in every other context, and something I and my associates have fought to prevent, as lawsuits have tried to declare that bloggers, for example, were not mainstream press and thus did not have the same freedom of the press as the big boys.  read more »

Opening US immigration

Tuesday we and Aneesh Chopra, CTO of the USA come to Singularity University and among many things, he was asked about immigration. (In part because our class comes from 35 countries and many of them would love to be entrepreneurs in the USA.) Chopra announced some immigration rule clarifications that had come out that day which will help things somewhat. They did rule clarifications because getting congress to do meaningful reform is very hard.

I gave him one suggestion, inspired by something I saw long ago at a high-roller CEO conference for the PC industry. In a room of 400 top executives and founders of PC and internet startups, it was asked that all who were born outside the USA stand up. A considerable majority (including myself) stood. I wished every opponent of broader immigration could see that.

So I proposed that he, or others, go around to conferences of high-tech entrepreneurs and founders, and ask this question, and film the people standing up. Then edit that into a nice rapid-fire video to play for members of congress and immigration opponents. It’s hard to argue with. The hope of US leadership and job creation is severely diminished without immigrants.

It’s often been lamented that some of the brightest from the world, who beg to come to the USA to get degrees, are then kicked out when their education ends, and they go home with their PhD. “Staple a green card to a PhD” is one approach.

A different approach, possibly to be combined, is to create a provisional permanent resident status. The main rule, perhaps the only rule, is that if you are on it you must pay a minimum tax averaging $30,000 per year for six years. You can go below once or twice but must make it up to bring up the average. And once you hit the total of $180,000 you get a real green card. If you don’t hit it, you can leave. If you don’t leave and don’t pay, it’s tax evasion, for which you can be both jailed and deported.

Yes, this is access for the rich. It means the wealthy could buy green cards, but also that entrepreneurs or people will well funded partners could easily get in. More to the point, the people coming in would clearly not be a drain on U.S. society. And with the salary needed to pay $30K in tax being about $130,000 (based on the real tax rate including all deductions) these are largely not people “stealing US jobs by working cheap.” Admittedly an employer could offer to pay an immigrant a low wage and pick up the tax but that could be illegal if difficult to enforce.

This price is below the prices often cited for “buy immigrant status” programs in the US and around the world, and the values in investor visas. I think you want to get young, less well-heeled entrepreneurs so I think million dollar prices are the wrong idea. But it may be that there is some price that even the biggest xenophobes will agree results in a net win. What is that number?

Terror and security

One of the world’s favourite (and sometimes least favourite) topics is the issue of terrorism and security. On one side, there are those who feel the risk of terrorism justifies significant sacrifices of money, convenience and civil rights to provide enough security to counter it. That side includes both those who honestly come by that opinion, and those who simply want more security and feel terrorism is the excuse to use to get it.

On the other side, critics point out a number of counter arguments, most of them with merit, including:

  • Much of what is done in the name of security doesn’t actually enhance it, it just gives the appearance of doing so, and the appearance of security is what the public actually craves. This has been called “Security Theatre” by Bruce Schneier, who is a friend and advisor to the E.F.F.
  • We often “fight the previous war,” securing against the tactics of the most recent attack. The terrorists have already moved on to planning something else. They did planes, then trains, then subways, then buses, then nightclubs.
  • Terrorists will attack where the target is weakest. Securing something just makes them attack something else. This has indeed been the case many times. Since everything can’t be secured, most of our efforts are futile and expensive. If we do manage to secure everything they will attack the crowded lines at security.
  • Terrorists are not out to kill random people they don’t know. Rather, that is their tool to reach their real goal: sowing terror (for political, religious or personal goals.) When we react with fear — particularly public fear — to their actions, this is what they want, and indeed what they plan to achieve. Many of our reactions to them are just what they planned to happen.
  • Profiling and identity checks seem smart at first, but careful analysis shows that they just give a more free pass to anybody the terrorists can recruit whose name is not yet on a list, making their job easier.
  • The hard reality is, that frightening as terrorism is, in the grand scheme we are for more likely to face harm and death from other factors that we spend much less of our resources fighting. We could save far more people applying our resources in other ways. This is spelled out fairly well in this blog post.

Now Bruce’s blog, which I link to above, is a good resource for material on the don’t-panic viewpoint, and in fact he is sometimes consulted by the TSA and I suspect they read his blog, and even understand it. So why do we get such inane security efforts? Why are we willing to ruin ourselves, and make air travel such a burden, and strip ourselves of civil rights?

There is a mistake that both sides make, I think. The goal of counter-terrorism is not to stop the terrorists from attacking and killing people, not directly. The goal of counter-terrorism is to stop the terrorists from scaring people. Of course, killing people is frightening, so it is no wonder we conflate the two approaches.  read more »

So what would it cost to allow pre-existing conditions?

There is a number that should not be horribly hard to calculate by the actuaries of the health insurance companies. In fact, it’s a number that they have surely already calculated. What would alternate health insurance systems cost?

A lot of confusion in the health debate concerns two views the public has of health insurance. On the one hand, it’s insurance. Which means that of course insurers would not cover things like most pre-existing conditions. Insurance is normally only sold to cover unknown risk in every other field. If your neighbours regularly shoot flaming arrows onto your house, you will not get fire insurance to cover that, except at an extreme price. Viewed purely as insurance, it is silly to ask insurance companies to cover these things. Or to cover known and voluntary expenses, like preventative care, or birth control pills and the like. (Rather, an insurance company should decide to raise your prices if you don’t take preventative care, or allocate funds for the ordinary costs of planned events, because they don’t want to cover choices, just risks.)

However, we also seek social goals for the health insurance system. So we put rules on health insurance companies of all sorts. And now the USA is considering a very broad change — “cover everybody, and don’t ding them for pre-existing conditions.”

From a purely business standpoint, if you don’t have pre-existing conditions, you don’t want your insurance company to cover them. While your company may not be a mutual one, in a free market all should be not too far off the range of such a plan. Everything your company covers that is expensive and not going to happen to you raises your premiums. If you are a healthy-living, healthy person, you want to insure with a company that covers only such people’s unexpected illnesses, as this will give you the lowest premiums by a wide margin.

However, several things are changing the game. First of all, taxes are paying for highly inefficient emergency room care for the uninsured, and society is paying other costs for a sick populace, including the spread of disease. Next, insurance companies have discovered that if the application process is complex enough, then it becomes possible to find a flaw in the application of many patients who make expensive claims, and thus deny them coverage. Generally you don’t want to insure with a company that would do this: while your premiums will be lower, it is too hard to predict if this might happen to you. The more complex the policy rules, the more impossible it is to predict. However, it is hard to discover this in advance when buying a policy, and hard to shop on.

But when an insurance company decides on a set of rules, it does so under the guidance of its actuaries. They tell the officers, “If you avoid covering X, it will save us $Y” and they tell it with high accuracy. It is their job.

As such, these actuaries should already know the cost of a system where a company must take any client at a premium decided by some fairly simple factors (age being the prime one) compared to a system where they can exclude or surcharge people who have higher risks of claims. Indeed, one might argue that while clearly older people have a higher risk of claims, that is not their fault, and even this should not be used. Every factor a company uses to deny or surcharge coverage is something that reduces its costs (and thus its premiums) or they would not bother doing it.

On the other hand, elimination of such factors of discrimination would reduce costs in selling policies and enforcing policies, though not enough to make up for it, or they would already do it, at least in a competitive market. (It’s not, since any company that took all comers at the same price would quickly be out of business as it would get only the rejects of other companies.)

Single payer systems give us some suggestion on what this costs, but since they all cost less than the current U.S. system it is hard to get guidance. They get these savings for various reasons that people argue about, but not all of them translate into the U.S. system.

There is still a conundrum in a “sell to everybody” system. Insurance plans will still compete on how good the care they will buy is. What doctors can you go to? HMO or PPO? What procedures will they pay for, what limits will they have? The problem is this: If I’m really sick, it is very cost effective for me to go out and buy a very premium plan, with the best doctors and the highest limits. Unlike a random person, I know I am going to use them. It’s like letting people increase the coverage on their fire insurance after their house is on fire. If people can change their insurance company after they get sick then high-end policies will not work. This leaves us back at trying to define pre-existing conditions, and for example allowing people only to switch to an equivalent-payout plan for those conditions, while changing the quality of the plan on unknown risks. This means you need to buy high-end insurance when you are young, which most people don’t. And it means companies still have an incentive to declare things as pre-existing conditions to cap their costs. (Though at least it would not be possible for them to deny all coverage to such customers, just limit it.)

Some would argue that this problem is really just a progressive tax — the health plans favoured by the wealthy end up costing 3 times what they normally would while poorer health plans are actually cheaper than they should be. But it should put pressure on all the plans up the chain, as many poor people can’t afford a $5,000/month premium plan no matter that it gives them $50,000/month in benefits, but the very wealthy still can. So they will then switch to the $2,000/month plan the upper-middle class prefer, and go broke paying for it, but stay alive.

Or let’s consider a new insurance plan, the “well person’s insurance” which covers your ordinary medical costs, and emergencies, but has a lifetime cap of $5,000 on chronic or slow-to-treat conditions like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. You can do very well on this coverage, until you get cancer. Then you leave the old policy and sign up for premium coverage that includes it, which can’t be denied in spite of your diagnosis.

This may suggest that single-payer may be the only plan which works if you want to cover everybody. But single-payer (under which I lived for 30 years in Canada) is not without its issues. Almost all insurance companies ration care, including single payer ones, but in single payer you don’t get a choice on how much there will be.

However, it would be good if the actuaries would tell us the numbers here. Just what will the various options truly cost and what premiums will they generate? Of course, the actuaries have a self-interest or at least an employer’s interest in reporting these numbers, so it may be hard to get the truth, but the truth is at least out there.

Anti-atrocity system with airdropped video cameras

Our world has not rid itself of atrocity and genocide. What can modern high-tech do to help? In Bosnia, we used bombs. In Rwanda, we did next to nothing. In Darfur, very little. Here’s a proposal that seems expensive at first, but is in fact vastly cheaper than the military solutions people have either tried or been afraid to try. It’s the sunlight principle.

First, we would mass-produce a special video recording “phone” using the standard parts and tools of the cell phone industry. It would be small, light, and rechargeable from a car lighter plug, or possibly more slowly through a small solar cell on the back. It would cost a few hundred dollars to make, so that relief forces could airdrop tens or even hundreds of thousands of them over an area where atrocity is taking place. (If they are $400/pop, even 100,000 of them is 40 million dollars, a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of military operations.) They could also be smuggled in by relief workers on a smaller scale, or launched over borders in a pinch. Enough of them so that there are so many that anybody performing an atrocity will have to worry that there is a good chance that somebody hiding in bushes or in a house is recording it, and recording their face. This fear alone would reduce what took place.

Once the devices had recorded a video, they would need to upload it. It seems likely that in these situations the domestic cell system would not be available, or would be shut down to stop video uploads. However, that might not be true, and a version that uses existing cell systems might make sense, and be cheaper because the hardware is off the shelf. It is more likely that some other independent system would be used, based on the same technology but with slightly different protocols.

The anti-atrocity team would send aircraft over the area. These might be manned aircraft (presuming air superiority) or they might be very light, autonomous UAVs of the sort that already are getting cheap in price. These UAVs can be small, and not that high-powered, because they don’t need to do that much transmitting — just a beacon and a few commands and ACKs. The cameras on the ground will do the transmitting. In fact, the UAVs could quite possibly be balloons, again within the budget of aid organizations, not just nations.  read more »

Proposition T: All ballot propositions must fit in 140 characters

I was reviewing the voter information guide for the upcoming California Special Election. Even though I can’t vote it is interesting to look at the process. To my surprise, the full text of the propositions shows the real items to be incredibly complex. Proposition 1C, which updates lottery laws, is over 4 1/2 pages of dense print.

There is simply no way one could expect the electorate to make informed choices on constitutional changes like these. These are closer to the “Click to agree” contracts on a piece of software from the RIAA.

In this case, all the propositions were written by the legislators themselves, in response to a budget crisis. They want a bunch of constitutional changes that are outside their own power, but they have written them like legislative bills. (Well, frankly, those are even longer than a few pages.) The public gets a book with analysis (itself many pages long) and arguments and rebuttals by those on the for and against side. They get bombarded with ads on any proposition that has strong financial backers or opponents, usually propositions that involve lots of money.

So no, while I don’t really think you can fit every amendment into the size of a twitter post, there should be a size limit. If complex things need to be done, a shorter, understandable initiative should give the legislature the minimum powers it needs to do it — perhaps even temporarily. Watchdogs will examine just how much power this really is and warn about it, one hopes.

This isn’t the only type of legislator trick. The most common one, in fact, is the “bond measure.” Frequently on the ballot we will see authorization for the state to borrow money (issues bonds) for some sort of motherhood issue. For example, they will ask for billions to “fix levees in flood zones” or “fund libraries.”

Of course, they were going to fix the levees anyway. They were going to fund education anyway. There is no way they couldn’t. By issuing the bond, they don’t have to find room in the general fund for those things, allowing them to spend general fund money on something the public would never vote for. So instead of asking the public to fund tropical retreats for legislators, they ask the public to fund libraries, leaving the money that would have funded libraries to pay for the tropical retreat.

How do we stop this, short of removing public participation? I think a more reasonable limit (like 2,000 characters — about 400 words) might help a bit. And while bond measures may be sometimes needed, it might make sense to require that for the legislators to put a bond measure on the ballot, it must be something which they themselves voted against doing from the general fund. Then the minority who voted for it could ask to put it on the ballot. What this would mean is that before they could put library funding as a bond measure, they would have to have gone on record voting against library funding. I don’t know if this would be enough, though and perhaps a stronger method is needed. Of course, the bonds mean taxes must go up in the future to pay them back. (Or, they hope, tax revenues go up due to a growing economy, so tax rates don’t have to rise, as they know they will never get approval for that.)

What’s a way to make this work better and stop these abuses?

Punishing those responsible through the bailout

There are many opinions about whether the bailout and stimulus package are a good idea or not. But one thing that I hope everybody agrees is bad is that it teaches the lesson that if you screw up so badly that you hurt the global economy, we’re not going to let you fall. Take huge risks because in the event of catastrophe, the government has no choice but to make it better.

Is there a way to do a bailout that doesn’t end up rewarding, or even saving, the people responsible?

Well, outside of the frauds like Madhoff, many of them did not break the law, or didn’t break it severely. Those who broke the law should get the punishment of the law. A lot of people just looked the other way has horribly bad loans were financed, resold and insured in strange ways. Some people had no idea what they were doing was so dangerous. Some didn’t know but should have known. Some suspected but ignored the evidence. And some knew, but where happy if they were getting their share.

I propose taking a small fraction of the bailout and stimulus and using it for “punishment.” It need not be much. With a possible 2 trillion dollars to spend, even 1% would be 20 billion dollars which surely buys a lot of enforcement, and of course stimulates the industries of enforcement. But we don’t need even 1%.

The first step is to define a set of good practices and ethics defining who did wrong. They would be fairly narrow. They would not catch the people who didn’t know they were doing something wrong and were not at the level that they should have known. This is not a simple task but I think it can be done.

The next step is to say “no bailout or stimulus money for any company which employs or significantly compensates, above minimum wage, a person responsible for the collapse.” They lose their jobs. If millions are to be out of work, start with the people responsible. The most adapatable of the laid off can take some of their jobs. If the government can fire all the air traffic controllers without catastrophe, I suspect a lot of bankers can be fired too. Only minimal dole for those fired too, enough to survive, but not well. They will be incented to find other jobs, in industries not getting bailout and stimulus money. Or they can work for minimum wage in their old jobs.

Culpability will run up, as well. While there will still be standards of proof, and a presumption of innocence, if a group of people all working for one person are guilty, that person is going to have to work hard to convince a jury they had no knowledge of what went on underneath and that this was as it should be.

So yes, this means the CEOs and other top executives of most of the banks and brokerages involved will be out of work. I think they can handle it. If they are really civic minded, they can keep their jobs for minimum wage, no options, no bonus.

Now this is not my favoured plan. I think people who screw up should, wherever possible, be allowed to fail, and they and the stockholders will pay the price. If executives mislead stockholders, they should be subject to the rules. But if we have to not do that, somehow a message must get out that if you do something like this, you’re going down.

Note that I also expect, and hope, that many of these people have been fired already. But some of them haven’t. Some got fat bonuses instead.

An alternative to recounts in close elections

Like most post-election seasons, we have our share of recounts going on. I’m going to expand on one of my first blog posts about the electoral tie problem. My suggestion will seem extremely radical to many, and thus will never happen, but it’s worth talking about.

Scientists know that when you are measuring two values, and you get results that are within the margin of error, the results are considered equal. A tie. There is a psychological tendency to treat the one that was ever-so-slightly higher as the greater one, but in logic, it’s a tie. If you had a better way of measuring, you would use it, but if you don’t, it’s a tie.

People are unwilling to admit that our vote counting systems have a margin of error. This margin of error is not simply a measure of the error in correctly registering ballots — is that chad punched all the way through? — it’s also a definitional margin of error. Because the stakes are so high, both sides will spend fortunes in a very close competition to get the rules defined in a way to make them the winner. This makes the winner be the one who manipulated the rules best, not the one with the most votes.

Aside from the fact that there can’t be two winners in most political elections, people have an amazing aversion to the concept of the tie. They somehow think that 123,456 for A and 123,220 for B means that A clearly should lead the people, while 123,278 for A and 123 and 123,398 for B means that B should lead, and that this is a fundamental principle of democracy.

Hogwash. In close cases such as these, nobody is the clear leader. Either choice matches the will of the people equally well — which is to say, not very much. People get very emotional over the 2000 Florida election, angry at manipulation and being robbed but the truth is the people of Florida (not counting the Nader question) voted equally for the two candidates and neither was the clear preference (or clear non-preference.) Democracy was served, as well as it can be served by the existing system, by either candidate winning.

So what alternatives can deal with the question of a tie? Well, as I proposed before, in the case of electoral college votes, avoiding the chaotic flip, on a single ballot, of all the college votes would have solved that problem. However, that answer does not apply to the general problem.

It seems that in the event of a tie there should be some sort of compromise, not a “winner-takes-all and represents only half the people.” If there is any way for two people to share the job, that should be done. For example, the two could get together to appoint a 3rd person to get the job, one who is agreeable to both of them.

Of course, to some degree this pushes off the question as we now will end up defining a margin between full victory and compromise victory and if the total falls very close to that, the demand for recounts will just take place there. That’s why the ideal answer is something that is proportional in what it hands out in the zone around 50%. For example, one could get the compromise choice who promises to listen to one side X% of the time and the other side 100-X% of the time, with X set by how close to 50% the votes were.

Of course, this seems rather complex and hard to implement. So here’s something different, which is simple but radical.

In the event of a close race, instead of an expensive recount, there should be a simple tiebreaker, such as a game of chance. Again, both sides have the support of half the people, they are both as deserving of victory, so while your mind is screaming that this is somehow insane because “every vote must be counted” the reality is different.

This tiebreaker, however, can’t simply be “throw dice if the total is within 1%” because we have just moved the margin where people will fight. It must be proportional, something like the following, based on “MARGIN” being the reasonable margin of error for the system.

  • If A wins 50% + MARGIN/2 or more, A simply wins. Likewise for B.
  • For results within the margin, define an odds function, so that the closer A and B were to each other, the closer the odds are to 50-50, while if they were far apart the odds get better for the higher number. Thus if A beat B by MARGIN-epsilon, Bs odds are very poor.
  • Play a game of chance with those odds. The winner of the game wins the election.

A simple example would be a linear relationship. Take a bucket and throw in one token for A for every vote A got over 50%-MARGIN/2, and one token for B for every vote they got over that threshold. Draw a token at random — this is the winner.

However, it may make more sense to have a non-linear game which is even more biased as you move away from 50-50, to get something closer to the current system.

This game would deliver a result which was just as valid as the result delivered by recounts and complex legal wrangling, but at a tiny fraction of the cost. The “only” problem would be getting people to understand (agree to) the “just as valid” assertion.

And the game would be pretty exciting.

The League of 25 Concerned Citizens

Once they made rules that political ads had to specify who was sponsoring them, we started seeing a lot of ads that would say they were sponsored by some unknown organization with a good sounding name. You see this from all sides of the equation; everybody picks a name that sounds like they are for truth, justice and the American Way, and anybody against them is against those things.

But what does a name like the “League of Concerned Citizens” (I made this up) mean? Very little. So what if we extended the requirement that, at least in the political ads, the name had to talk about how many concerned citizens they represented. You might pay more attention to the “League of 84,000 concerned citizens” than a league of 25 of them.

The number would have to represent paying or contributing members, not just people who put their name on a petition. And even so, special interests would try to game it. But still, “The Sierra Club of 750,000” would hold more weight than “The union of 84 homeowners.”

Debate moderators need to rehearse questions too

The worst thing about political debates occurs when the candidates break into their canned speeches, often repeating ones they had done before, and often when they have very little to do with the question that was asked. This happens because the candidates’ teams, in negotiating debate rules, want it to happen. They want a boring debate, because they know that while it’s hard (but not impossible) to win an election with a great debate performance, it is certainly easy to lose one with a bad one. So they avoid risks.

We won’t stop that, but some of the questions asked by Gwen Ifill, Jim Lehrer and those selected by Brokaw could have been much better. Better, in that they could have pushed the debate towards real answers and away from canned ones, just a little. With so many questions, it is obvious before the question is finished either what the candidate will say, or what they won’t say. There are questions you just know no candidate will answer. Some questions are better than others.

So I want the moderators to workshop the questions in advance, with a small, dedicated team of political reporters who have followed the campaigns. Each proposed question should be tried out before the reporters, who will then think of how the candidate is likely to dodge the question, or what canned speech they will give.

Eventually you get a set of questions where the reporters, who have seen the candidate speak for weeks, don’t know the answers in advance, or think the candidate might give a real answer to. Care must be taken not to bias the questions. But they should be real reporter’s questions. As I said, a good candidate can dodge anything, but you can make it more obvious when they dodge, and give them better chances not to dodge. And certainly not give them question that make you shout “there’s no way they would answer that one.”

Next, in my dreamworld, I would like to see some sort of punishment for dodging. In this case, I would give a balanced audience voting meters where they indicate “Did the candidate actually try to answer the question?” And up on the board, like a baseball score, would go a series of Y and Ns, or 1s and 0s, for each question. The candidate will “win” this score if the crowd felt they actually tried to answer the question. Obviously there is a risk that the judges would bias towards the candidate they like. Reporters, who are used to asking questions and know when they have gotten a dodge would be the best judges. I guess if I can dream, I can dream that, because the candidates would never agree to that. One of them would always fear it was going to be against their interests.

Which is why the question rehearsal is possible, since that’s something the candidates can’t control in setting out the rules. Most other good ideas their teams can stomp out.

Democrats must learn how to speak to more conservative voters

As a Canadian, and one of libertarian bent, I hope I have a better perspective on the two parties in the USA. What I see does not bode well for the Democrats. I think they understand the Republican side poorly, worse than the Republicans understand them. And, over the last two elections, they have shown little willingness to learn about it.

I think George W. Bush is the worst president in living memory, perhaps the worst ever, and that this was clear by 2004. Yet more democrats voted for Bush than republicans voted for Kerry. Why was that? Many republicans also reported holding their noses and voting for Bush — they knew he was a bad President but couldn’t stomach Kerry. Why was that?

Something that played a larger role than people think was attitude. I may get a bias because I hang around with democrats more, but they exude an attitude of complete derision. It is not that Bush doesn’t deserve derision; it’s just that it is a terrible marketing strategy. “You haven’t just supported the wrong candidate, you’re a complete idiot because you’ve supported a stupid candidate, one whom anybody with any brains can see is a complete fool.” This approach doesn’t win votes. Quite the reverse, I think it causes the other side to close ranks and distrust the messenger. Nobody believes themselves to be a fool. If somebody tells you what a fool you’ve been you don’t say “oh my, what was I thinking?” You say “screw you, asshole.” And you don’t listen further.

People change their minds when evidence comes in through their own lens. Over time, more conservatives have turned on Bush and documented the problems, and his approval rating is extremely low, even among former supporters.

Now, as a practitioner of comedy, I fully feel and understand the temptation to engage in ridicule. There is great political comedy, but there really are two broad classes of it. One class is mean, and really only works on the already converted. It just offends the rest and causes them to ignore its message. The much better class of political comedy is not so bitter and can work on at least independents. We don’t get enough of that. Political comedy should be used, but with care.

(Indeed, with care it is one of the most powerful tools. I remember how Reagan, asked about his age, used the line “I refuse to let my opponent’s youth and inexperience be an issue in this election” and the age issue rarely troubled him again.)

Election-winning comedy must be able to stick in the minds of all voters, and it must not be bitter to do that. For example, when Guliani over-used 9/11 in speeches, and comedians satirized this, it played a large part in sinking him, which he didn’t understand. But it’s a joke his people can get and not find vicious.

Democrats need to do two things if they want to win:

  • Keep the attacks civil and less extreme. Consult with good comedians to stay on the right side of the line. Encourage the troops not to be bitter no matter how tempting.
  • Hire wise former (or mercenary) republicans and learn from them how to sell the message to conservatives and independents. Listen to them.

As I said, we’re coming off a Republican administration that the public knows was horrible for the country. Even the conservatives know that. Changing power in the White House should have been a true slam dunk. Making the conservatives close ranks by insulting them rather than talking to them in their own language is the way to undo the slam dunk.

Every election will be "The election that technology X changed forever."

Pundits like to point out when some new media technology changes seriously changed politics. When I was young, everybody talked about how the Kennedy-Nixon debates ushered in the era of the TV candidate and changed politics forever. (It did indeed seem unlikely a candidate in a wheelchair from polio could win today, but in fact in Bob Dole and John McCain we have two candidates without full use of their arms.)

No doubt when radio came into play there was similar commentary.

But now it’s more rapid. So I’ll make a prediction. Form now on, the pace of change in media and the other technologies of politics will be so rapid that every election will be different in some important way from those before it, due to technology. Some of the changes will be overhyped, some will be underhyped, but there may never again be “politics as usual” — meaning politics as they were 4 years ago.

This will be both good and bad. Most interesting to me is the cost of media. In the USA, most political corruption and influence comes because all politicians feel they must raise a huge amount of money, so much that they spend more time doing that than actually doing their jobs, and they will even admit this. They feel they need to raise this money to make media buys, in particular TV ads. So anything that breaks this equation, such as formalized political spam may have the potential for great good. As for the rest of the changes yet to come, it’s hard to say how we’ll feel about them.

Can't we have a lottery to decide who gets the first primary?

Legacy politics assured that Iowa and New Hampshire would get the lead in setting the political agenda of a Presidential race. If you can't please them, it's hard to get nominated. And now they protect this position as hard as they can. Florida tried to move and got slapped.

There is a better way. There should be a lottery, or simply a rotation, on who gets to go first each time. All parties in a state would have to agree, but I can't see why not, and really all you need is the Republicans and Democrats. Hold the lottery several years in advance.

Letting states or regions be equal is probably best. I originally thought you might allocate chances by state size but in fact you don't want big states first. Only states that want to participate, and have their event early would be in the pool. Any state could participate in a super Tuesday or other such later events without having to win the lottery. Iowa and New Hampshire would not be permitted to participate in the lottery for 50 years -- they've had their say!

A rotation might be even better, though it would have to initially be set by lottery. To make the rotation go faster, depending on how many states want the position, there could be a couple of "first" slots and 3 or 4 "second" slots allowing 5-6 states to be important each time. A rotation however has a problem when one state changes its mind and wants to join the early pool.

Of course, you might ask, why not actually have a deliberative process, where the states are carefully chosen to be more of a cross section of the general public? It sounds good, but little stops this now other than party cooperation, and it hasn't taken place. Of course the parties may well feel that Iowa or New Hampshire push their opponents in ways they want them pushed, but this should balance. And Iowa is certainly not representative -- as it is now popular to point out, a lot more people play World of Warcraft and live in urban condos than are family farmers. As it stands now the parties have to field candidates who won't piss off the Iowa or NH voter too much, and that's wrong, because it may be necessary for the right candidate to take stances against the interest of these minorities.

Update: It is suggested that some states, like California, are simply too huge to do an early primary, because candidates can't yet afford to campaign somewhere that big, nor can they get intimate with the public. I agree, and so possibly the largest states would have to bow out of the system. Or perhaps they could hold mini-primaries for just a small portion of the state if they win the lottery, and the rest of the state would vote later, on a Super-Tuesday or similar. This does mean for example that the Democratic primary might be in San Francisco, and the Republican one in Orange County, surveying very different voters. The regions could compete in the lottery rather than the state, assuming the state assigns delegates by geography.

Fixing Proposition 13

Even people outside of California have heard about proposition 13, the tax-revolt referendum which, exactly 29 years ago, changed the property tax law so that one’s property taxes only go up marginally while you own a property. Your tax base remains fixed at the price you paid for your house, with minor increments. If you sell and buy a house of similar value (or inherit in many cases) your tax basis and tax bill can jump alarmingly.

The goal of Prop 13 was that people would not find themselves with a tax bill they couldn’t handle just because soaring real estate values doubled or tripled the price of their home, as has often taken place in California. (Yes, I can hear your tears of sympathy.) In particular older people living off savings were sometimes forced to leave, always unpopular.

However, there have been negative consequences. One, it has stopped tax revenues from rising as fast as the counties like, resulting in underfunding of schools and other public programs. (This could be fixed by jacking up the rates even more on more recent buyers of homes but that has its own problems.)

Two, it generates a highly inequitable situation. Two identical families living in two identical houses — but one has a tax bill of $4,000 per year and the other has a tax bill of $15,000 per year, based entirely on when they bought or inherited their house. I would think this is unconstitutional but the courts said it is not.

Three it’s an impediment to moving (as if the realtor monopoly’s 6% scam were not enough.) There are exemptions in most counties for moves within California by seniors.

Here’s my fix: Each house would, as in most jurisdictions, be fairly appraised, and receive a tax bill based on that. Two identical houses — same tax bill. However, those who had a low basis value in their home could elect to defer some of that bill (ie. the difference between the real bill and their base bill derived from the price they paid for their home) until they sold the home. There would be interest on this unpaid amount, in effect they would be borrowing against the future equity of the home in order to have a lower tax bill.  read more »

Anti-gerrymandering formulae

A well known curse of many representative democracies is gerrymandering. People in power draw the districts to assure they will stay in power. There are some particularly ridiculous cases in the USA.

I was recently pointed to a paper on a simple, linear system which tries to divide up a state into districts using the shortest straight line that properly divides the population. I have been doing some thinking of my own in this area so I thought I would share it. The short-line algorithm has the important attribute that it’s fixed and fairly deterministic. It chooses one solution, regardless of politics. It can’t be gamed. That is good, but it has flaws. Its district boundaries pay no attention to any geopolitical features except state borders. Lakes, rivers, mountains, highways, cities are all irrelevant to it. That’s not a bad feature in my book, though it does mean, as they recognize, that sometimes people may have a slightly unusual trek to their polling station.  read more »

Darfur movie, with white actors

There’s a great tragedy going on in the Sudan, and not much is being done about it. Among the people trying to get out the message are hollywood celebrities. I am not faulting them for doing that, but I have a suggestion that is right up their alley.

Which is to make a movie to tell the story, a true movie that is, hopefully a moving as a Schinder’s List or the Pianist. Put the story in front of the first world audience.

And, I suggest with a sad dose of cynicism, do it with whitebread american actors. Not that African actors can’t do a great job and make a moving film like Hotel Rwanda. I just have a feeling that first world audiences would be more affected if they saw it happening to people like them, rather than people who live in a tiny poor muslim villages in a remote desert. The skin colour is only part of what seems to have distanced this story to the point that little is being done. We may have to never again believe that people will keep the vow of never again.

So change the setting a bit and the people, but keep the story and the atrocities, and perhaps it can have the same effect that seeing a Schindler’s list can have on white euro descended Jews and non-Jews. And the Hollywood folks would be doing exactly what they are best at.

Voter turnout in contested races is the real statistic

It’s always reported how low US voter turnout is in midterm elections. 2006, at about 40%, seems pretty poor, though it was higher than 2002.

However the statistic I would like to see is “Voter turnout in districts where there is an important, hotly contested race.” This is the number we might want to monitor from year to year.

Virginia, it turns out, which had the Webb-Allen “Macaca” race, had the highest voter turnout in its history. You wouldn’t think that after hearing about the low turnout of a typical mid-term. Of course it will also go down as the first time a major U.S. politician was taken down due to blogs, the web and YouTube. Since it was so close, almost any factor can be given credit for Allen’s loss.

It is not surprising that when there is no contested race, that turnout is low. The U.S. for various bizarre reasons, has most incumbents always safe in their seats. This switch of 30 or so seats in the house and 6 in the senate is considered a major upheaval, nigh a revolution, by Americans. With seats so safe, there is no suprise there is little incentive in voting. U.S. ballots are very complex compared to many countries, and there are often long voting lines, and you don’t get official time off to vote.

Contrast that to Canada, where a public upset with the Conservative party’s introduction of the visible Goods and Services Tax (a 7% VAT) took the party from having a majority of parliament to having TWO seats. 2, as in 1 plus 1. There’s no such safety zone for incumbents, no cry for term limits in much of the rest of the world. There, if the public gets upset it throws the bums out, or drops them back to a minority position due to the fact that there are more than 2 parties.

I hope one of the major statistical agencies starts tracking voter turnout modulated by how motivated the voters are in particular districts. Of course voter turnout is the final metric of how motivated they were, but there are other, earlier indicators in most cases.

Switching to popular vote from electoral college

A proposal by a Stanford CS Prof for a means to switch the U.S. Presidential race from electoral college to popular vote is gaining some momentum. In short, the proposal calls for some group of states representing a majority of the electoral college to agree to an inter-state compact that they will vote their electoral votes according to the result of the popular vote.

State compacts are like treaties but are enforceable by both state courts and federal law, so this has some merit. In addition, you actually don’t even need to get 270 electoral votes in the compact. All you really need is a much smaller number of “balanced” states. For example perhaps 60 typically republican electoral votes and 60 typically democratic electoral votes. Maybe even less. For example I think a compact with MA, IL, MN (42 Dem) and IN, AB, OK, UT, ID, KA (42 Rep) might well be enough, certainly to start. Not that it hurts if CA, NY or TX join.

That’s because normally the electoral college already follows the popular vote. If it’s not going to, the race is very close, and a fairly small number of states in the compact would be assured to swing the electoral college to the popular vote in that case. There are a few exceptions I’ll talk about below, but largely this would work.

This is unlike proposals for states to, on their own, do things like allocate their electors based on popular vote within the state, as Maine does. Such proposals don’t gain traction because there is generally going to be somebody powerful in the state who loses under such a new rule. In a state solidly behind one party, they would be fools to effectively give electoral votes to the minority party. In a balanced state, they would be giving up their coveted “swing state” status, which causes presidential candidates to give them all the attention and election-year gifts.

Even if, somehow, many states decided to switch to a proportional college, it is an unstable situation. Suddenly, any one state that is biased towards one party (both in state government and electoral college history) is highly motivated to put their candidate over the top by switching back to winner-takes-all.

There’s merit in the popular-vote-compact because it can be joined by “safe” states, so long as a similar number of safe votes from the other side join up. The safe states resent the electoral college system, it gets them ignored. Since close races are typically decided by a single mid-sized state, even a very small compact could be surprisingly effective — just 3 or 4 states!

The current “swing state” set is AZ, AR, CO, FL, IA, ME, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, OR, PA, VA, WA, WV, and WI, though of course this set changes over time. However, once states commit to a compact, they will be stuck with it, even if it goes against their interests down the road.

The one thing that interferes with the small-compact is that even the giant states like New York, Texas and California can become swing states if the “other” party runs a native candidate. California in particular. (In 1984 Mondale won only Minnesota, and got just under 50% of the vote. Anything can happen.) That’s why you don’t just get an “instant effective compact” from just 3 states like California matching Texas and Indiana. But there are small sets that probably would work.

Also, a tiny compact such as I propose would not undo the “campaign only in swing states” system so easily. A candidate who worked only on swing states (and won them) could outdo the extra margin now needed because of the compact. In theory. If the compact grew (with non-swing states, annoyed at this, joining it) this would eventually fade.

Of course the next question may surprise you. Is it a good idea to switch from the electoral college system? 4 times the winner of the popular vote has lost (strangely, 3 of those have been the 3 times the winner was the son — GWB, Adams - or grandson - Harrison- of a President) the White House. The framers of the consitution, while they did not envision the two party system we see today, intended for the winner of the popular vote to be able to lose the electoral college.

When they designed the system, they wanted to protect against the idea of a “regional” president. A regional winner would be a candidate with extreme popularity in some small geographic region. Imagine a candidate able to take 90% of the vote in their home region, that region being 1/3 of the population. Imagine them being less popular in the other 2/3 of the country, only getting 31% of the vote there. This candidate wins the popular vote, but would lose the electoral college (quite solidly.) Real examples would not be so simple. The framers did not want a candidate who really represented only a small portion of the country in power. The wanted to require that a candidate have some level of national support.

The Civil War provides an example of the setting for such extreme conditions. In that sort of schism, it’s easy to imagine one region rallying around a candidate very strongly, while the rest of the nation remains unsure.

Do we reach their goal today? Perhaps not. However, we must take care before we abandon their goal to make sure it’s what we want to do.

Update: See the comments for discussion of ties. Also, I failed to discuss another important issue to me, that of 3rd parties. The electoral debacle of 2000 hurt 3rd parties a lot, with a major “Ralph don’t run” campaign that told 3rd parties, “don’t you dare run if you could actually make a difference.” A national popular vote would continue, and possibly strengthen the bias against 3rd parties. Some 3rd parties have been proposing what they call a “safe state” strategy, where they tell voters to only vote for their presidential candidate in the safe states. This allows them to demonstrate how much support they are getting (and with luck the press reports their safe-state percentage rather than national percentage) without spoiling or being accused of spoiling.

Of course, I think the answer for that would be a preferential ballot, which would have to be done on a state by state basis, and might not mesh well with the compact under discussion.

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