Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Abyss Stares Also

There's been a lot of talk recently among people who dream of bringing the two-party system low, and ushering in a new era of three-party politics; with, of course, their own favorite third-party as the newcomer. They see their new party as a mediator, keeping the other two parties honest, and everyone, Republican, Democrat, and $NEWPARTIER alike will all be better off!

Let me lay this out in no uncertain terms: it won't happen; not like that anyway.

Here's the problem: it's a two-party system. I know what you're thinking, "This guy has no vision, no drive; history is written by those who believe in doing what others say can't be done; forget him!" No, that's not it at all. What I'm telling you is this: if you suceed—and I wish you the best of luck—it will not be by creating a three-party system where there was once a two-party system, it will be by destroying and taking the place of either the Republicans or the Democrats.

There are several lines of reasoning to support this; let's start with history. As I covered in a five part series late last summer, while parties have collapsed (Federalist), split (Democratic-Republicans), died (Whigs), and re-cast themselves over again (Democrats, Republicans), there has never simultaneously been more than two strong nation-wide parties. There are some people who seem to think that the Republican party began as a third-party movement and grew to supplant the Whigs, but that's not the case. The Whigs were well on their way to destruction when the Republican party formed among the despondent anti-slavery Whigs, and it then immediately attracted strong support from the anti-slavery faction of the Democrats. And this happened in a historical blink of an eye. In the 1852 presidential election, the Whigs took over 43% of the vote. In 1856, they didn't even hold a convention, and the Republicans took over 33% of the vote. The change in congressional seats tells the same story; the complete supplantation of one party by another in just four years (and this rapid change rippled across America before the invention of the telephone, let alone the internet).

The second line of reasoning is mathematical. It really is a two-party system. This is an application of Duverger's Law, which is the tendency of all single-member plurality voting systems to favor just two parties (note: I would personally extend it to all single-member spoiler-prone voting systems, but Wikipedia disagrees with me.) No amount of wishful thinking, inspired begging, or hard work can ever change that. This doesn't mean that your dreams of power for your preferred third-party are hopeless, not by a long shot; it means that if you are successful, you will become (half of) the two-party system.

But before you get excited about that idea, let's pause for a moment. In 1860, this nation snapped. Yes, the two-party system changed, something that it seems everyone always wishes will happen, and yet something that so rarely does. And over 600,000 died, and the echoes from those battles still haunt our politics today.

Why do I advocate for better voting systems? Because the system we have now, that we've used for over 200 years, too easily allows for politics to become calcified, for the government to become unresponsive, for the people to become disengaged and despondent. And when that happens, the nation is ripe for corruption, disorder, and in the worst cases, civil war. Spoiler-free election systems would allow a smoother and more graceful transfer of power because they allow a third-party to rise up non-violently.

So, if you are successful, remember what happens to he who fights with monsters. And if you want your success to come more organically, consider supporting score and approval voting now.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Game Theory and Healthcare on Slate

A few months ago, I wrote about how the prisoner's dilemma from game theory applies to voting, and before that I mentioned how score voting could help with healthcare reform.

Now, Slate brings us a story about how the prisoner's dilemma and another famous game-theoretical example called "battle of the sexes" apply in the debate on healthcare reform... although they don't offer any suggestions for resolving the dilemma/battle.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Oscar Update

As we discussed last summer, the Oscar for best picture is moving from a field of 5 to a field of 10, and the vote is done by instant runoff. Here's the 2009 best picture nominees, vs. IMDB's "Top Rated Titles".

  • Avatar
  • The Blind Side
  • District 9
  • An Education
  • The Hurt Locker
  • Inglorious Basterds
  • Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
  • A Serious Man
  • Up
  • Up in the Air
  1. Avatar
  2. Up
  3. Inglorious Basterds
  4. District 9
  5. Fantastic Mr. Fox
  6. Star Trek

The IMDB list is a little truncated, since they only list by decade, and only the top 50 of the decade, so its hard to find IMDB's best 10 films for any one year (maybe they don't want to step on the Academy's toes). You'll note, there's a good amount of overlap this year, which isn't too surprising since the nomination step uses a "name five" approval-style ballot, in which each voter names up to five films, without ranking them. The ten most-often-named films become the nominees. Top-5 is mathematically similar to IMDB's score-based voting system; at least, the two are more similar to each other than either is to the instant runoff voting (IRV) used for the final round.

But which picture will win? It's tempting to say Avatar, since it's IMDB's top rated film of the year, but we know that IRV has somewhere between a 5 and 15% chance to exhibit non-monotonic behavior, in which the true first-choice is eliminated before the final round. And that's with three strong contenders; the odds get worse the more there are, and I think at least four of these can be considered "strong contenders".

But what does "true first-choice" mean? For me, it means consensus. If you put all the Academy voters in a room and told them to watch a movie, which movie would engender the greatest total happiness for the crowd? That's the question that score voting (and IMDB) asks. But supporters of IRV instead speak of something they call "core support"; they say that it's most important for a winner to have a large following of fanatics, voters who like them best of all. They don't use the word "fanatic", but it's appropriate. Instant runoff repeatedly removes the choice with the fewest fanatic followers and shuffles them off to their next favorite group; it's fair to call them fanatics because other options that you may also like are never considered until your number-one is eliminated. In other words, IRV doesn't offer you much of an opportunity to offer a compromise, because its almost always the compromise that gets eliminated by non-monotonic behavior. So the question is, is Avatar a compromise? Does it make everyone mostly happy, or does it make only a few people very happy? Luckily, IMDB records that data too! Maybe we'll examine that next time.

Also, remember that the Academy hates science fiction, and animation. In which case, maybe Inglorious Basterds has a good chance...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Grab Bag

I feel as if I blinked, and missed half of December and the entire month of January. I have a good excuse though: I quit my job, moved over 3,100 miles, and got married in that time. (It sounds a lot more dramatic than it actually is; we'd been planning all this for close to six months.) Anyway, as I dig out from under the mountain that is life, here are some stories I wish I had the time to write more in-depth about:

  • Via Ezra Klein, Lawrence Lessig's powerful presentation on the damaging influence of money on politics. It's close to an hour in length, but it is absolutely worth watching.
  • Via Daily Kos, don't try to spin it, according to Public Policy Polling, Fox is the most trusted news agency. About 2/3rds of McCain voters/Republicans/conservatives trust Fox and no one else, whereas Obama voters/Democrats/liberals are split: half of them trust no one, a quarter trust everyone except Fox, and a quarter trust everyone including Fox. If I were a national news agency executive, I see opportunities at both ends of that spectrum.
  • From Ballot Access News, Alaska is considering a new way to deal with independents and primaries. In a world full of cumbersome work-arounds to plurality voting, it's better than most; but to really fix the problem, you've got to get rid of plurality!
  • Meanwhile, California is fiddling with primaries too. Like I said, a world of work-arounds...
  • Portland, Maine is recommending IRV. I blame Vermont for spreading this bad idea eastward. It doesn't even look like they considered anything besides plurality and IRV.
  • Finally, the Green party is using a collaborative process to modify their party platform. That's great, and I've already made a comment regarding the parties foolish support for IRV, when they'd be much better served by score or approval voting.

That's everything from the last week that I'd wished I had time to do a full analysis of.