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 

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.)

Excuse me, please

Following the lines of a previous post, I recently had a bout of bad excuses both on my side and on the side of others. So here’s a list of quotes on excuses (from the quotegarden).

We have more ability than will power, and it is often an excuse to ourselves that we imagine that things are impossible. ~François de la Rochefoucauld

Several excuses are always less convincing than one. ~Aldous Huxley

Two wrongs don’t make a right, but they make a good excuse. ~Thomas Szasz

It is wise to direct your anger towards problems — not people, to focus your energies on answers — not excuses. ~William Arthur Ward

In a different vein, I once had a copy of Dogbert’s Clues for the Clueless, and it covered the evolution of the phrase “Excuse me”.

  • Long ago: Excuse me was a form of apology, “Excuse me, kind sir, for my rudeness.”
  • Not so long ago: Excuse me becomes a method for telling people to get out of the way, “Excuse me, coming through.”
  • Modern: Excuse me becomes a sarcastic remark. “Well, excuse me.”

Can a Computer be Human?

The Economist had a cover article on the rise of robots recently. It feels like it’s been years, decades even, that people have been trying to make a machine that thinks. It’s called artificial intelligence.

I was thinking, though. I’ve told people several times that this will never happen for a very simple reason. Humans have an innate ability to maintain and process information that is inherently contradictory. It’s like the ability to believe that 1 equals 1, but 1 does not equal 1. I’ve finally realized that this is not a limit on our ability to create artificial intelligence.

It’s a limit on our ability to create artificial stupidity. That’s the challenge. Because it defies logic and math, which form the basis of intelligence.

Consequently, I think we may be able to make something which mimics the mind of Einstein, but I don’t think we’ll ever make a computer which simulates the mind of Rush Limbaugh.

Directions, Please?

Do you ever get tired of missing verbs when someone tells you what they support or oppose? One of my favorites was the Violence Against Women Act. Are you opposing or promoting violence against women? Couldn’t it just as easily have been Stop Violence Against Women Act?

At work, this shows up in our training. Everyone has to take Sexual Harassment training. What exactly are they teaching there? Maybe I don’t want to take that training. Or maybe I do. The latest one was Practical Preparedness for Workplace Violence. Well let’s see. Let me check my list.

  • Bring extra magazines.
  • Plan your route ahead of time.
  • Know when your coworkers arrive.
  • Save one bullet, you may need it.

Oh, wait, you meant something else? Sorry, I couldn’t tell.