Thursday, April 23, 2020

On Bombing Cartoons

NPR is reporting that a “high-ranking federal scientist focused on vaccine development says he was removed from his post because of his ‘insistence’ that the government spend funds on ‘safe and scientifically vetted solutions’ to address the coronavirus crisis and not on ‘drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit.’” [1] Pending litigation, there’s no way to assess the slant on that allegation. We do know that the “president suggested last month on Twitter that taking a combination of hydroxychloroquine — which is used to treat lupus and to prevent malaria — and azithromycin could be ‘one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine,’” and that “a panel of experts convened by the” National Institutes of Health “recommended against doctors using a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin for the treatment of COVID-19, because of potential toxicities.”

Now your humble servant must make an admission here: I don’t know what I’m talking about. I knew as early as high school that I wasn’t going to be a doctor when I dissected a rat and found that I had difficulty distinguishing the various internal organs. Concerned that I would remove someone’s liver when he presented himself for an appendectomy, I decided then and there that I would pursue another career path.

So, I really don’t know what the best thing is to do during a pandemic. But there are people who do, and they’re called “doctors,” and “biologists.” They are not called “politicians,” or “government bureaucrats.” Unfortunately, under the present system, those who know what to do have to convince those who don’t to take the proper actions; and we live in a society where those who don’t know what to do often refuse to listen to those who do. This tendency can have risible manifestations.

“A few years ago, a mischievous group of pollsters asked American voters whether they would support bombing the country of Agrabah.

“As you might expect, Republicans tended to support military action, while Democrats were more reluctant.

“There’s only one problem: Agrabah doesn’t exist. It’s from the animated Disney film ‘Aladdin.’ Only about half the people surveyed figured this out, and liberals and conservatives gleefully pointed fingers at each other.

“For experts in foreign affairs, however, there was no way around the alarming reality that so many Americans had a well-defined view on bombing a cartoon.” [2]

And they vote.

Long ago we decided that lawyers should be the ones who occupy at least the higher judicial seats. And the time has come to grant decision making power to other experts. Politicians are simply a too craven and amoral lot to have as much power as they have.

Do I mean to increase the number of people with governmental decision-making power who are not elected by popular vote? Yes. Absolutely. Decisions should be made by those who know what they’re looking at.

This can, in fact, be done democratically. Make tuition for higher education free, and everyone will have an equal opportunity to make themselves expert in the area of their choice. Money should have nothing to do with it. And money purchasing power, and politicians, is actually the system that we have now, which is far less democratic than what I’m proposing.

Submitted for your consideration.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

You Have to Choose

Your humble servant has borne witness to what appears to be a serious divide on the Democratic side of the electorate. Many Sanders voters are holding forth that they will not be casting a vote for Joe Biden in the general election, promising either to cast a third-party vote or to sit out the election. Whether that amounts to an effective vote for President Trump depends on where these erstwhile Sanders voters reside.

California will most certainly go for Biden in the general election. Mississippi will doubtlessly cast its electoral votes for Trump. Those individuals sitting out the election, either effectively or actually, probably won’t affect the outcome. In Arizona, on the other hand, where the race is close, Sanders voters sitting out the election could be outcome determinative. [1] And so it is in some other states.

Now for those who sincerely don’t see any meaningful difference between the major party standard-bearers, what I am about to say won’t have any impact. But for those who really, if secretly, harbor more loathing for one of the candidates, I must urge that they once again block their sensory pathways and vote for the candidate they loathe less. Yes, I am counseling that they vote for the lesser evil, as disdainful as that seems to be.

Third parties, like the Greens and Libertarians, are ideologically based. They come together because its members view issues in the same or similar manner. The Democratic and Republican parties, on the other hand, are coalitions of interest groups. These interest groups band together in order to increase their political strength. Because of that, the Democrats and Republicans will remain the major parties. Here is the explanation using a thought experiment:

Suppose you have twenty different interest groups, each of them forming their own political party. Then suppose two of them recognize that they have interests that don’t conflict with one another, so they decide to team up and run a single candidate. With plurality voting such as we have in these United States, the two parties who unified into one will win the election.

In the next election, the other parties, being rational actors, will seek their own alliances. It is easy to see how this process will eventually result in two large parties. It won’t result in one big party, because the less numerous or powerful interest groups will freeze out the groups with fewer people or less power, forcing them to split off into another party.

What if a couple of the original parties decide that such coalitions are an affront to their ideological purity? These are doomed to a political wilderness where they will never enjoy electoral success. Their members may feel good about themselves, but they will never persuade enough people to discard their self-interest for philosophy. In a democracy, people vote their interests by and large, even if they dress up their interests in terms of good and evil. To not vote your interest you have to be deceived as to what your interests are. Or you have to be rich enough that it won’t matter. (Of course, there are a lot of rich people who vote in the interest of staying rich.)

I don’t want to be misunderstood here. I’m not saying that our situation is a good thing. I’m with George Washington on this. I think political parties are a public nuisance, and I’m all for getting rid of them. But we haven’t gotten rid of them yet, and we have to play in the ballpark we’re in.

So, if you want the candidate you vote for to win, you have to vote for the Democrat or the Republican. You may have noticed that, with the exception of a rare local election here or there, that’s the way it always works out. If you vote for a third-party candidate, understand that you’re casting a protest vote, and are effectively sitting out the election; and I submit that there is no evidence that sitting out elections accomplishes anything useful.

Yes, this is a very disagreeable situation. It ought to change. But the way to do that is to work to change the system, not refuse to participate. Sometimes we have bad choices. But we have to choose all the same.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Toward a Nonpartisan Primary

Your humble servant has said from time to time that political parties are a public nuisance. One reason for that is that they distort the manifestation of the public will in our legislatures. The mechanism for doing that is the primary election or caucus system.

Consider a group of people holding an extreme political view. (I won’t say an extreme “right” or “left” view, since that would only serve to obfuscate the point I’m trying to make.) Let’s suppose the holders of this view are a quarter of the total population, but they comprise a majority of a political party. We’ll call their view “Position X,” and the political party they belong to “Party A.”

Now suppose there is a Party B, and that the majority of the members of Party B hold to Position Y. But those who hold to Position Y also comprise only a quarter of the total population.

Party A and B are the major political parties, meaning they are the only two parties who have a meaningful electoral chance in nearly every election. There are reasons for this, and they aren’t solely because of partisan rigging. Everyone has political interests, and such groupings rarely amount to a majority of the population. In order for these interest groupings to have any impact on governmental policy, they must ally themselves to one of the major parties.

Consider now that three-quarters of the population oppose both Position X and Position Y. But because of their particular interests, they must vote for Party A or Party B. In most states, when they vote in the primary, they will receive either a Party A or a Party B ballot. Because of the way those parties are made up, Party A will end up with a candidate that supports Position X in the general election, and Party B will have a candidate supporting Position Y. But if the majority of the population had their preference, they would vote for a candidate who supported neither position; the victorious candidate will be one that supports a policy favored by only a quarter of the population.

Third parties have been one attempted remedy for this situation. But they have not been successful for one very good reason: they are a bad bet. An interest grouping has a chance to influence public policy by being part of a major party. But if it throws in its lot with a third party, it guarantees that it will have no influence on government regardless of the outcome of the election. The choice is between having a 50% chance versus having a 0% chance, and in that situation there is only one rational decision.

The only solution is a non-partisan blanket primary. Only three states use this method right now. It involves all candidates appearing on one ballot at the primary stage, and, if no candidate wins a majority, the two candidates with the most votes compete in a subsequent run-off election. All of this is done without regard to party affiliation, and two candidates from the same party can run against each other in the run-off.

Right now the practice appears to be that candidates may indicate a party preference if they so wish in a non-partisan blanket primary state. But they mean nothing other than that the candidate self-identifies in that manner. One wonders what purpose allowing the practice serves, since the reason for non-partisan blanket primaries is to make party nominations irrelevant to the general election. It would be more in line with the philosophy behind such an electoral system to keep party affiliations off the ballot entirely.

The most pernicious aspect of partisan politics is that it causes elected representatives to represent their political parties rather than their constituents in their states or districts. The power of political parties should be reduced to the extent that Freedom of Association will allow. The non-partisan blanket primary is a necessary step in that direction.