Voting Illusions

Voting is an illusion.

Well, at least the purpose that most people assign to voting is an illusion.

There is a lot of handwringing these days about voter turnout and ‘the will of the voters’ with regard to Presidential candidates, especially one in particular. Buried in this worry is the belief that voting is a statistical measurement of popular will. Let everybody choose, and the wisdom of the crowds will choose the best candidate.

But is that the actual purpose of voting, the real reason that popular voting was adopted by the United States in the beginning?

If statistics were the real objective, then we would structure voting differently. We would either require everyone to vote, or we would randomly choose people to vote. We would definitely not have a system of ‘turn out the vote’ which is just a means to bias the sample.

But that assumes we want a rational, proper result.

What if we’re not worried about people’s thoughts as much as their feelings? Who is the most excited? Who cares the most? This fits a little better with what we actually do. Let the parties appeal to emotion rather than reason and see how many people they can get excited enough to turn out to vote. It would also explain the barriers to voting we build: multiple registrations as people move, polling on a standard workday, single polling places, etc. How excited and passionate are you? Will you go through all the hoops? And when you have, do we really want to trust someone elected based on the decisions of people caught up in their passions?

But that really just leads us to real question: do we care what voters think?

Who should answer that? Sounds like a question for the people who came up with this system, or as they’re normally referred to, the Founding Fathers.

Present American: Can you help us? The voting system has been perverted and 
the will of the people is being thwarted. Please tell everyone that the 
reason for voting is to get a true measure of the will of the people.
Founding Father: What is this 'will of the people thing', and why would we 
want it? The tyranny of the majority is always a worry. It's something to 
fear, as much as something to desire. And why would I think that the 
ignorant masses would choose the best, most competent leaders?
Present American: Then how do we choose the best leaders?
Founding Father: The same way you choose the best leaders for anything. 
You use critical thinking and try to build a society with the morals and 
ethics you want to see in your leaders. They're not magical beings. 
They're just reflections of the society you've built.
Present American: What does this have to do with voting?
Founding Father: You seem to be too worried about finding 'the best'. 
Voting is about excluding the worst. As I said, the quality of your 
society will determine whether the best ever shows up. Voting simply 
allows you to remove the worst.
Present American: But that means we need everyone to vote, right?
Founding Father: Why does that matter? As I said, it's not about following 
the majority. It's just that voting someone out tends to be less 
disruptive than actual revolution. Ballots vs torches and pitchforks. 
As long as the public accepts whoever is elected, it really doesn't matter 
how a non-worst candidate is selected. We just found that voting is the 
most effective way of providing political legitimacy, and if people don't 
vote, yet are willing to accept the result of the vote, the system has 
worked.

The fundamental issue is that the purpose of voting has nothing to do with either the will of the people or choosing the best candidate. It’s about having a peaceful means to remove bad leaders and a means to provide political legitimacy to whoever does take power.

 

In Support of a Functioning Congress

A common criticism of President Obama from the conservatives is that he acts extra-Constitutionally.

  • The decision not to deport refugees.
  • The decision to delay implementation of some of the ACA provisions.
  • The agreement with Iran over nuclear weapons.

In the Constitution there are two branches of government which are meant to balance each other: Congress and the Presidency. The judiciary forms a third branch, but it’s main check on the other two branches is the power to declare acts or laws unconstitutional. But this power is not granted to the judiciary in the Constitution. It is assumed only through the power of precedence from Marbury vs. Madison. Consequently, the primary check on the power of the Presidency was always meant to be Congress.

So how is Congress doing these days?

One of the main controls Congress has is the purse. In the Watergate era the Congress wrested the power of the budget from the Presidency. Before that Congress would authorize certain expenditures but the Presidency had a lot of leeway to run the Treasury at its own discretion. Taking control of this represented a significant limitation on Presidential power.

The problem is that with power comes responsibility, and Congress has not dealt well with actually assuming responsibility for the budget. In lean times budget authority means cuts in spending. Since 99% of federal spending ends up in some American’s pocket, that means cutting spending will always piss someone off and lose you votes. In an environment with biannual elections and no term limits, this will never happen. The result has been a refusal to even pass budgets for the last couple of decades. There are almost yearly continuing resolutions or at best an omnibus bill that has not been reviewed by anyone passed in a flurry of activity before some deadline such as defaulting on the debt.

The only tactic that has gotten any traction is the idea of ‘starving the beast’. Sounds awesome. There will be heroes and victories and … No, there will only be villains. Starving the beast involves not collecting taxes. The federal government is a huge employer of primarily Americans doing jobs that Americans have said they want done, such as monitoring borders, safeguarding food, building roads, etc. Not collecting taxes is the same as a business saying they’ll stay open, but they’ll stop collecting on accounts receivable. After all, they’re spending their customers’ money and that’s just not right. If that sounds stupid, there’s a reason.

Taxes are freedom.

Many times the choice is phrased as paying taxes or not paying taxes. Sometimes that is the choice. But often it is not. The true choice is often between taxes or regulation. Politicians don’t wake up in the morning and think about ways to abuse the public. They are self interested, but they are also working on projects that their constituents have said are important. A lot of the time that means changing how some part of the economy works. The two tools the politician has to effect these sorts of changes are regulation and taxes, and one of them will occur. Regulation normally comes from the executive, the Presidency. It is non-representative and it restricts your liberty by telling you what to do. Regulation sucks. Many times the best alternative is taxation. Taxation is normally done by Congress, so it is representative, and it simply alters the cost of something. It gives you the choice of paying the higher price or acting differently. Thus ‘starving the beast’ does little more than cede control to the Presidency while also promoting regulation.

Compromise is control.

Recently Congress has also become more polarized, with powerful factions voicing their refusal to compromise, ostensibly based on principle. The US is a diverse country in people and places, and the Congress reflects that diversity. The Constitution was designed that way. It can actually help to think of the Congress as a market. How does a price get set in a market? It is a balance between opposing forces of supply and demand. Similarly the Congress is a balance of the political demands of the nation. A refusal to compromise is no different than a consumer demanding below market prices or a producer demanding above market prices. The market only functions if they meet in the middle. And the country only functions if Congress is able to reach compromises. If a market stops, nobody makes money. If the Congress stops, then the Presidency is unconstrained.

There is also an apocalyptic tinge to the discussions in Congress. Disaster is just around the corner. It will be the end of the country. We’ll lose everyone’s respect. And so on. The problem is that it almost never happens. This would make these sorts of discussions simply amusements, but sounding a prophecy of doom can make the prophesyer decide that he has an interest in making that doom occur. The best example is the flirtation with defaulting on the federal debt for purely artificial reasons. Thus prophesies of doom can become cover for actions which are not in the public interest and could be viewed as treasonous.

For the last two decades, the culpability for Congressional failure falls squarely on the Republicans. They have controlled Congress for the last 22 years with only short periods of Democratic resurgence that were no longer than a single election cycle. The form of their failure has taken several forms.

  • Groups within the party: the Tea Party refusal to compromise.
  • Policies within the party: the Hastert rule which cedes control to a minority within the Republican party.
  • Control of Congress: as they have been the ones in control, they bear the blame.

Would things have been different with a Democratic Congress? Possibly not, but we’ll never know. People bear responsibility for the actions they take, not the ones they might have taken.

So here are a few tips on who to avoid when voting for Congress:

  • If the person says they will never raise taxes, they are a moron. Don’t vote for them.
  • If the person says they will stick to their guns and not compromise, they are a moron. Don’t vote for them.
  • If they keep saying how the country is going down the drain, they are a moron. Don’t vote for them.

(P.S. I know. I know. This should have been published before the election. Sorry.)

Short Rothfuss Fan Fic

I have recently been catching up with an author that some friends suggested, Patrick Rothfuss. In one of the books he has a character named Auri. She’s in an odd mental state and she lives below the University. Her character is sufficiently interesting that Patrick wrote a novella just about her, The Slow Regard of Silent Things. I decided to follow suit and use her in fanfic mode for a writing prompt in my writing group. They liked it enough that I decided I’d share it here as well.


No light ever reached the Abyss. For most people that was probably frightening. Auri smiled. How odd people were? The Abyss was simply pure, steadfast in itself, not needing the affirmation of others. It was an elder of the Underthing.

Without light Auri was a creature of texture, temperature, and sound. She moved lightly forward, her shift billowing slightly in a light breeze as her foot touched water. Not much further. Another step. Another step.

With barely a splash she slid down into the water. Not cold. Just wet. Very wet. Covering her. Hiding her. The rest of the world could not intrude on her here. Maybe she could forget him here. Currents pulled at her shift as she floated below the surface, breath held. In the moment. Her hair floated free, forming a halo of gold around her head that no one could see.

Just be.

Just be.

A voice spoke to her, slowly, comfortingly. Eventually it decided it was enough. She pushed down and returned to the surface, thoughts slowly returning. She climbed back out into the Abyss’s cloak of darkness. Shivers. But there was an answer to that. With a small hiccup she moved into a skip, headed toward Bellows. He would dry her. He always knew what to do.

Connect the Dots Physics

How many of you have heard about inflation?

No, it’s not what’s going to happen because of the Fed’s monetary policy. It’s what happened roughly 14 billion years ago during the first moments of the universe.

Or it’s what we use to connect the dots.

One of the great accomplishments of the last 15 years is the amount of detailed data we have on the cosmic microwave background. For those who don’t know, this is the light that came from ‘the last scattering surface’ when the universe cooled enough that atoms started forming. Before that the light had been in thermal equilibrium with the protons and electrons, which means the photons were scattered before they could move any distance. This signal was first observed in the sixties and led to a Nobel Prize in 1978. The thing that is new, or at least more recent, is that there is data on the detailed structure of this last scattering surface.

And it’s ringing.

When one plots the frequency spectrum of the spatial differences, it displays a set of harmonics. Call it the aum of the early universe if you want. Well, that’s fine. Why shouldn’t there be sound waves bouncing around in the plasma of the early universe?

The problem is the phase coupled with the finite speed of light.

This issue is that the scale of these oscillations only recently entered the light cone of the rest of the universe. Put another way, the oscillations which cause this ringing were of such a scale that they could not harmonize, or be in sync at the time of the last scattering surface. Consequently, they should not be in time with each other (random phases), which would not give a set of harmonics. It would just give a noise spectrum.

Here be dragons, I mean inflation.

A classic way around a problem is to change the question. Rather than directly answer how these oscillations could be in phase, inflation postulates that their scale was small enough in the early universe that the oscillations could be in sync (inside the light cone), then something called inflation pushed the scale of these oscillations outside the light cone.

I consider this an example of what I consider the connect the dots approach. Since we know something has to connect what came before to what came after, we postulate its existence and give it a name. A similar story holds for ‘dark energy’. In neither case is there an explanation of a mechanism of what would cause the phenomenon, just that there is a gap in our knowledge which requires a solution with certain properties.

One might wonder why we care about this ringing. The answer is that it ties into all sorts of other questions about why physics works the way it does: quantum mechanics, relativity, etc. I’m not enough of an expert here, but I know enough to know that it’s important.

A Simple Ode to Robin Williams

There once was a large porcelain doll that cried all the time.
It cried for its emptiness.
It cried for its loneliness.
It could not stop crying.

There was a little, stuffed clown who heard these cries,
and it thought to itself
This doll is empty.
I can fill it with laughter instead of cries.

And so one day, the clown visited the crying doll.
And it put its mouth to the doll’s side and laughed a hearty laugh
That echoed inside the doll.
It did this the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, …

But even as his laughter entered the doll,
The cries of the doll entered him.
The cries slowly undid his stitching,
And one day as he came back from his visit to the doll, he simply fell apart.

The doll still cries today.
There are those who say it is destiny, that that is who the doll is.
But the laughter of the clown still echoes inside the doll.
And the doll remembers the one who made those echoes.

Sins of Omission

Everyone is aware of the Senate report on CIA torture during the ‘war on terror’ at this point. Working in an international workplace, I don’t see where revealing it could do any actual harm. Anecdotal evidence was already abundant, and when things are covered up, it only encourage people to believe the worst. There seems to be less emphasis on the willful neglect of oversight on the part of the Senate committee. Which leads me to the subject of this post and two items that it made me think of.

The first of these is the movie The Insider. If you haven’t seen it, I would suggest it. It stars Al Pacino and Russell Crowe and dramatizes the incident where big tobacco pressured 60 Minutes into retracting a story exposing them. There’s a point where Al Pacino makes a judgment, without saying it, stronger than I’ve ever seen it made anywhere else.

Integrity is something you have all the time, or you don’t have it any of the time.

Trust Al to know how to make a point. I would suggest it to the CIA director.

The committee on the other hand reminded me of a quote.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

I knew I had heard it, and it is attributed to Edmund Burke. Although several things he said can be paraphrased that way, there is no evidence that he ever actually said those words. Yet it’s a regular quote. And the equivalent has shown up in quotes from other prominent figures. Being a scientist, I admit to liking Einstein’s version.

The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.

Types of Dreams

I was once having a conversation with a trusted friend. I was distraught because I wasn’t sure whether I should continue pursuing my current goal or change to another one. That was when he explained the four types of dreams.

“There are four types of dreams, my friend.

There are those you achieve,

There are those you let go,

There are those you delay,

And there are those that are never meant to be.

It is up to you to decide which one this is.”

Perhaps there are people who would argue over the last one, but it’s true. For example, the dream of waking up as a frog and hopping across lily pads would fit there.

Nevertheless, when making decisions, I still remember that conversation.