Whither Windypundit?

Regular readers may know that I bought a house back in June and moved out to the suburbs, where we’re still getting used to a new way of living. Our condo needed a bit of work before we could sell it, but we finally got it ready and on the market in September, and we closed on the sale last month.

That brings me to a disturbing question: Since Chicago is “the windy city” and I no longer have any connection to Chicago…am I still the Windypundit? Is it time to change the name of the blog? Granted, Windypundit has never been about Chicago any more than Vodkapundit has been about vodka or Iowa Hawk Blog has been about birds of prey, but there was always a connection. Until now.

And that just has me thinking about the blog, which has been going on for a very long time now, and seems to be increasingly irrelevant. (For Christ’s sake, my last post advocated a type of “white genocide,” and nobody even bothered to call me a “cuck.”) Maybe it’s time to make some changes…

Should I change the name? “Windypundit” doesn’t exactly fill the reader with breathless anticipation of greatness.

Should I start a whole new blog? I tried that once before, when Rogier van Bakel, Rick Horowitz, and I tried to restart Rogier’s old blog in a new location (we even got Maggie McNeill in on it!), but after an initial burst of activity and buzz, it eventually ground to a halt.

Should I join another group blog, if anyone would have me? I tried doing that at When Falls the Coliseum, but I never got involved enough to post regularly. Somebody invited me to contribute to Being Libertarian, but I don’t know if that would be right for me.

So, as the year draws to a close and I contemplate the future of the blog, does anyone have suggestions? I’ve already thought of releasing all new posts as videos of bikini models reading them out loud, but any other suggestions would be given full consideration.

(And if you want to send me audition videos for the bikini thing…)

Embrace the Genocide!

I have no idea what Drexel University associate professor George Ciccariello-Maher meant when he tweeted this:

And, really, like Robby Soave at Reason, I didn’t much care what he meant. A college professor who teaches “Radical Studies” said something crazy? That’s about as dog-bites-man as it gets. I thought we should all just point and laugh and move on.

But apparently it’s touched off something of a kerfuffle, especially on alt-right twitter, which has gone a bit nuts, and I think the professor is almost-kinda-onto something. He’s apparently said some other things which are indefensible, and he may be something of an asshole, but his claim that this particular tweet was a joke at the expense of the racist right seems plausible. What he’s saying he meant now — that he was mocking racist conspiracy theorists — may not really be what he meant when he said it, but what he says he meant makes sense, and I agree with it. Bring on the white genocide.

Perhaps I’d better explain that…

White supremacists use a special definition of “genocide” that isn’t what most of us think of when we hear the word. They don’t mean anything as horrendous as the Nazi holocaust against the Jews in the middle of the last century, nor even the various violent campaigns of “ethnic cleansing” or “purification” over the centuries. On the racist right, white genocide does not mean the violent extermination of white people. Instead, it means just about anything that tends to dilute the supposed purity of the “white race.” And they don’t just think it’s something to guard against in the future. They think white genocide is actually happening all around us right now.

This captures the flavor of it:

White genocide is a white nationalist conspiracy theory that mass immigration, integration, miscegenation, low fertility rates and abortion are being promoted in predominantly white countries to deliberately turn them minority-white and hence cause white people to become extinct through forced assimilation.

In other words, these people think State Farm Insurance is promoting white genocide in this ad:

The idea seems to be that there is some kind of essential whiteness, and that it’s something worth preserving. From a genetic standpoint, this idea of racial purity is nonsense. Even the concept of human racial groups in general is a sketchy proposition at best.

The human population can be divided into subgroups based on statistical clustering of genetic components, but these clusters appear to have arisen due to geographic isolation of our ancestral populations, and the boundaries between these clusters lack sharp delineations, suggesting continuous migration and interbreeding. Furthermore, the traditional human racial groups (whites, blacks, asians…however we’re dividing up humanity today) tend to be collections of somewhat arbitrarily chosen sets of these clusters, often made up of clusters that are actually very diverse. In fact, within-group diversity is much higher in human racial categories than the statistical differences between the categories. And also…oh, never mind. The point I’m making is that human genetic classification is all just a big muddle, and as modern humans escape geographic barriers in greater numbers than ever before, interbreeding will only make it even less clear.

I guess that’s what’s got white nationalists so upset, isn’t it? The idea of a white race, which was never a very meaningful concept, is becoming even less important in our modern age. And even if “white race” was a useful concept with real scientific meaning (like one of the well-defined dog breeds, say) it would still only ever be a statistical property of human population genetics…which sounds like a pretty dumb hill to die on.

Especially at such a high cost to individual freedom. A white friend of mine joined the Army and was stationed in Korea, where he met and married a lovely Filipino woman. They’re here in the U.S. now, and they have two wonderful children. Other white friends of mine have adopted non-white children, some of them from overseas. I’m white, and I don’t have any children. I also support a more open immigration system. According to the white supremacists, we are all victims or participants in the ongoing white genocide, and they want us to change our ways.

To these racists, white genocide lurks in our freedom to choose when to have children, and how many to have. White genocide is in our freedom to choose where to live, and with whom. It’s in our freedom to choose who to love, and our freedom to form the families we want with the people we want.

To me, that makes the white supremacists’ idea of genocide sound like a pretty good way to live. And there’s no reason to limit it only to white people. So in the spirit of the season I would like to extend this heartfelt holiday wish to all my readers: Embrace the genocide.

If you’re marrying outside your ethnic group, or raising children you’re not related to, or not having children, or you’re immigrating from other countries, or you are otherwise forming a family that does not conform to a racist fantasy, my hope is that you enjoy your good life. You are individual people, not a population. Your happiness and that of those you love is far more important than preserving some arbitrary statistical properties of human genetics. You owe your “race” nothing.

Damn anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.

The Mythical California Problem

Now that we’ve had a second recent election in which the candidate who won the popular vote ended up losing the electoral vote, lots of people are talking about getting rid of the Electoral College. My gut feeling is that it would be a good idea, because it seems like an unnecessary complication that violates the one person, one vote principle, but I’m willing to be persuaded. There’s one argument, however, that just doesn’t work.

That’s a little…simplistic. Maybe let’s look at the Federalist Papers Project post by Robert Gehl that he links to

If the election was decided by the popular vote, than we would be swearing in a President Hillary Clinton.

But that’s not how it works. And – as he has said many time – if Donald Trump was campaigning for the popular vote, rather than the electoral vote, he would have campaigned much differently.

Perhaps he would have spent more time in California – a state that voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton.

But he didn’t and Hillary’s margin of victory in that state was 4.3 million votes – or 61.5 percent

And therein lies the rub.

The purpose of the Electoral College is to prevent regional candidates from dominating national elections.

California is now a one-party state. There were zero Republicans running for statewide office and no GOP candidates in nine of California’s congressional districts. At the state level, Investor’s Business Daily reports, six districts had no Republicans for the state senate and 16 districts had no Republicans for the state assembly.

Clinton was going to win California’s 55 electoral votes, so Trump didn’t campaign there.

That argument is a real muddle. For one thing (and you can’t imagine how much it pains me to say this), Donald Trump is right: If the election had been based on the popular vote, he would have changed his campaign strategy. So would Hillary, of course. As a result, you can’t project the results of a popular election system using the popular vote obtained under an electoral voting system. The systems just work differently. Both candidates knew that the results of the election would depend on the electoral college and they shaped their campaigns for that system. Voters knew it too — pundits have been talking about it for a year, and swing state voters couldn’t go ten minutes without someone telling them how important their vote was — and all that would have figured into their choices, including the choice of whether or not to vote.

(This is also the error made by people who say that Hillary’s popular victory gives her a moral right to be President: By definition, she only won the popular election among voters who made their choices knowing that the popular election didn’t matter. It’s not clear she would have won under a straight popular vote after both candidates spent half a year campaigning for that vote.)

This is why Gehl’s argument is incoherent: On the one hand, he argues that a popular election would be unfair because it gives Californians too much power, and on the other hand he argues that Trump could have won a popular election. I don’t think you can have it both ways.

Let me try yet another version of the California argument, this time from one of my favorite foils, Jack Marshall:

The Electoral College was designed to prevent big states in a federal system from dictating to the other states, which might not share their culture or sensitivities. Imagine a big, wacko state like California dominating our politics. In fact, that’s exactly what would happen without the Electoral College. In the election just completed, Clinton won the Golden Bankrupt Illegal Immigrant-Enabling State by almost 4 million votes, while Trump got more votes than  Clinton in the other 49 states and the District of Columbia.  That’s why we have the Electoral College, and a more brilliant device the Founders never devised.

Reducing the power of large states may very well have been the intent of the designers of the Electoral College, but it’s a morally dubious goal. The Constitution was negotiated by representatives from the states, and under the Articles of Confederation, each state counted equally. Delegates from the larger states felt this was unfair, since they represented the interests of more people. Because of this conflict, the U.S. Constitution is a compromise between proportional representation and representation by state. This shows up in the different methods of choosing members of the House and Senate, and in the related method for allocating electoral voters.

However, as a matter of equity and fairness, I don’t see how you can claim that all people are equal when using non-proportional representation. Anything other than exactly one person, one vote gives some citizens unfair advantages over others. Wyoming has three electors, roughly one for every 200,000 residents, whereas California has 55 electors, which works out to about one for every 700,000 residents. All other things being equal, if California voters get one vote for president, then Wyoming voters are each getting about 3.5 votes. You can argue that this system was a necessary compromise at the time, but there’s no way it’s a fair arrangement today.

Furthermore, the idea that California would dominate our politics under a popular vote system is nonsense because under a popular vote system, there are no states. Imagine you had a giant map of the entire United States showing every voter colored red or blue to indicate which presidential candidate they voted for. It would be a vast mix of shades of purple, with deep blue cities and vast open patches of red, all made up of 125 million tiny colored specks, one for each voter. It would look a bit like this:

 countymappurple2012

(That actually shows county results from 2012, tinted proportionately, but I think it’s close enough to demonstrate the idea.)

Now imagine drawing a box on that map large enough to contain 13 million voters, a little more than 10% of the electorate. If you arbitrarily draw the box so that it contains a lot of red, you might be able to get a 2:1 ratio of Republicans to Democrats, so that Republicans outnumber Democrats by 4 million votes. On the other hand, if you happened to draw a box that contains a lot of blue, you might get the opposite result: 4 million more Democrats in the box than Republicans. It’s the same map, and the same popular vote totals either way.

When folks like Gehl and Marshall argue that Hillary only won the popular vote because of California, all they’re doing is drawing a box, this time following the California border. The fact that they can draw such a box doesn’t prove that the people in the box “dominate” the election. It’s just an arbitrary box.

You might object that this isn’t an arbitrary box, because it’s the State of California. Yes it is, and under our current electoral voting system, the voters within its boundaries control a block of 55 electoral votes, about 20% of the 270 votes needed to win, and they all go to whoever wins the popular vote within the state, even if they only win by a little. That makes California pretty important to control.

But if we switch to a nationwide popular election, no one has control of California, because state boundaries don’t matter any more. The voting totals reported on election night might be organized by state for administrative purposes, with fancy computerized maps and everything, but all that really matters in a popular election is the total vote. The State of California becomes just an arbitrary collection of 13 million individual voters based on where they happen to live. It’s no more significant than grouping them by the first letter of their last name, and it’s no more sensible to talk about California domination of the popular vote than to argue about whether people whose names start with “S” are dominating the election.

California is a vast and diverse state, with cities, small towns, and farmland. It’s a home for a gigantic tech sector, it’s a center for international trade, and it’s a major exporter of agricultural products and entertainment. It has given us Jerry Brown and Ronald Reagan, and it’s a mistake to think of its residents as a uniform collection of bankrupt illegal immigrant-enabling leftists, as some would have it.

Basically, saying Hillary only won because of California is a silly game. You could just as easily say that Trump only won because of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which have a combined population of about ten million fewer people than California. Heck, if you just nudged the borders of those three states enough to push about 100,000 Republican voters into neighboring states, Hillary would have won the electoral vote.

To put it yet another way, the population of California is greater than that of Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Rhode Island, Utah, and West Virginia combined. In a system where everybody counts equally, Californians are a large fraction of everybody — about 1/8 of the U.S. population —  so why shouldn’t they have a proportionately large effect on the election?

I’m not saying there aren’t any good reasons for the Electoral College, but the California effect isn’t one of them. People who complain about the effect California would have in a popular election are just complaining that large numbers of people disagree with them, and in arguing for the Electoral College on that basis, they are arguing for partial disenfranchisement of those people.

What Are the Magic Words?

Over at Simple Justice, Scott Greenfield is lamenting the fact that courts are requiring criminal suspects to leap ever higher obstacles to invoke their rights when being questioned by police.

Roland didn’t invoke when he said, “I ain’t signing shit without my attorney”?

To successfully invoke the right to counsel, the suspect’s desire to have an attorney present during his or her custodial interrogation must be sufficiently clear so that a reasonable police officer would understand that the suspect is invoking his or her right to have an attorney present during the interrogation.

See what they did there? The invocation must be “sufficiently clear so that a reasonable police officer would understand.” As bars go, it doesn’t get much lower.

Deputy Devost never questioned Defendant. Based on the circumstances here, a reasonable police officer would not have understood Defendant’s statement refusing to sign the consent to search form to be an invocation of his Fifth Amendment right to counsel.

In other words, the “without my attorney” only referred to his signing the consent form, not the refusal to subject himself to custodial interrogation. After all, didn’t Roland specifically say “I ain’t signing shit,” not “I want my attorney”? What more could you possibly expect of a reasonable police officer? They’re not mind readers, you know.

Invoking your rights now requires you to use certain magic words that a reasonable police officer would understand to be an invocation of rights. Or rather, you’re required to use magic words that a court would rule that a reasonable police officer would understand to be an invocation of rights. It’s kind of weird that the burden falls on the defendant to know what a reasonable police officer would understand. The cops are the ones who are supposed to be trained professionals, so wouldn’t you think the burden should fall on them to recognize when a reasonable citizen would believe they are invoking their rights?

In the comments, someone going by the moniker JAV sarcastically asks:

If I printed the statement on cards and handed it out to an officer, would that work? The communication is non-verbal, but is more permanent. How big would the type have to be? Will 12 point type work, or should I go with 20 in case the officer needs glasses to read?

Funny you should ask, JAV, because here in these parts the Cook County Public Defender’s Office has a handy-dandy card you can download and print out which explains how you should respond to police questioning:

Cook County Response to Police Questioning

Oh crap. That’s a bit concerning. The current Cook County Public Defender is actually Amy Campanelli. Edwin Burnette hasn’t been the Public Defender since 2009. And checking the metadata on the PDF file, it looks like the card was created back in 2004, so…it’s possible some of those magic words aren’t as powerful as they used to be.

It’s probably just as well, since it’s only a matter of time until some judge rules that “A reasonable police officer could not be expected to correctly guess that the Defendant handed him the card as a response to questioning.”

Blowing Snow

Today I am a man suburbanite. We had a few inches of snow overnight, and this morning I got out the snowblower and cleared the driveway. I also did the sidewalk out front, the walkways to all the doors, and the patio in the back yard.

I know that seems like no big deal to many of you, but I’ve never used a snowblower in my life. The last time I lived in a place where I had to deal with the snow was in 1982 when I was living with my parents, and I used a frickin’ snow shovel because I was young and strong and my knees still worked right. Ever since then I’ve been living in dormitories, apartments, and condominiums, where there was always someone responsible for clearing the snow. The most I’d have to do is shovel out the car after it got plowed in.

But I spent a lot of time learning about snow blowers, and finally pulled the trigger on one a few weeks ago, which was delivered on Friday. This morning I checked the oil level, filled the fuel tank, and started it up. It’s got an electric starter, so I could have plugged in an extension cord to start it, but I decided to try the pull-starter, and it worked just fine.

After that, it was surprisingly easy to use. I spent a few minutes practicing the steering on the backyard patio before risking maneuvers it near our cars, but it wasn’t too hard to control. I haven’t had near enough time to internalize the controls, so it got away from me a couple of times, and I reflexively tried to hang on instead of just letting go of the wheel lever.

It was also a bit of a puzzle to figure out which direction to throw the snow. I don’t want to throw it all over my neighbors’ driveways, or into their yard, or onto our cars, or onto a walkway that I just cleared, or into the street, or at a window… It kept me thinking. I only had to re-do a little bit of walkway.

Owning a house is turning out to be more complicated than I expected, but that’s a good thing. I like learning about new stuff. And frankly, when all you know is a shovel, a snow blower is pure awesomeness.

The Worst Way To Fight Fake News

There’s been a lot of talk about “fake news” lately, apparently because some people blame it for Donald Trump’s election. Over at Bloomberg View, columnist Noah Feldman, who’s also a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard, thinks it’s time to do something about it. Basically, he doesn’t think our experiment with free speech is working out:

In the free marketplace of ideas, true ideas are supposed to compete with false ones until the truth wins — at least according to a leading rationale for free speech. But what if the rise of fake news shows that, under current conditions, truth may not defeat falsehood in the market? That would start to make free speech look a whole lot less appealing.

I’ll leave the legal analysis up to the lawyers (Scott Greenfield’s review of this article is scathing), but I think the professor has an interesting analysis of the problem. I think his solution is wrong, which I’ll get to later, but his analysis is still interesting.

But to take the marketplace metaphor seriously means admitting that sometimes, markets fail. Holmes himself gave us the most famous example of market failure when he said, in a different 1919 case, Schenck v. United States, that even “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”This thought experiment in turn led Holmes to his most famous formulation of free speech doctrine: that the question in every case is whether the words “create a clear and present danger.”

Falsely shouting fire in a theater is a perfect example of market failure in the communication of ideas. The person shouting knows he is lying — but others don’t know, and won’t have time to check. The words will cause an immediate panic, even if everybody is acting rationally, because the only logical thing to do is to get out, and get out quickly.

The “marketplace of ideas” is mostly a metaphor, not a literal marketplace, but putting aside the questionable value of Holmes’s example, this is actually a fairly good analogy to the kind of market failure that can occur because of asymmetric information between the parties.

As the Nobel Prize winning economist George Akerlof showed in his classic 1970 article, “The Market for Lemons,” asymmetric information can systematically distort the quality of what’s available in the market. In his stylized example, if good cars and lemons are both for sale, and consumers know this but don’t know which are which, they will be willing to pay the average price. That will lead the sellers to withhold the good cars, which could fetch a higher price — but that in turn will lead consumers to lower the price they are willing to pay. The resulting spiral of adverse selection leads to market failure.

As it happens, it’s a lot more expensive to generate true news stories than false ones. News requires reporting and research and institutional structures like editors and fact checkers to support them. Fake news only takes one person’s imagination. And there is certainly information asymmetry between the person who writes a story and the person who reads it. Applying the Akerlof analysis suggests that fake news could conceivably drive out true news.

This is an interesting example of applying economic thinking to a problem that is not normally considered economic in nature. “The Market for Lemons” argued that in the presence of asymmetric information about quality, buyers wouldn’t know how to identify quality products and therefore the market would not reward sellers for quality. Sellers of high-quality products would therefore leave, and the process would spiral down until only very low-quality products were trading. In the worst case, the market would disappear completely.

Ackerlof’s paper takes asymmetric knowledge about product quality as a given, but in real-world markets it’s often not clear whether asymmetric information is a serious problem. That’s not a slam on Ackerlof. He was clear about his assumptions, and there’s strong evidence that asymmetric information does cause real problems in some markets. (It rules how insurance plans are designed and sold.) But there’s also evidence that many real-world markets have found ways to circumvent the problem.

The most common solution is for sellers to try to reduce the information asymmetry by establishing and maintaining a reputation. This makes use of the fact that buyers will want to purchase the same product over and over, so if a seller has a history of producing good products, buyers can rely on that history to guide their purchasing decisions. This sets up a positive feedback loop: The seller’s reputation gives buyers confidence in the product and therefore a willingness to pay more money, and that increase in potential future revenue makes it valuable for sellers to have a good reputation, which makes it worthwhile for sellers to build a good reputation by expending the effort to produce a quality product.

Another common solution is for buyers to try to reduce the information asymmetry by relying on third parties to provide reliable assessments of product quality. I had to buy a snowblower for the first time this year, and I relied on information from knowledgeable friends, Consumer Reports, a variety of web sites, and online buyer reviews at Home Depot, Lowes, and Amazon. In this age of the internet, information is easier to find than it’s ever been.

(Other solutions, such as offering easy returns and product warranties are effective as well, but I can’t see a way to apply them to news.)

Feldman, however, doesn’t seem interested in any of these solutions. He goes straight to stepping on necks:

The classic solution to market failure is regulation. Holmes, in his fire-theater example, certainly believed that was permitted by the First Amendment.

The question is whether government regulation of fake news would be justified and lawful to fix this market failure.

Justified? No, not even under Holmes’s example. If you’re in a crowded theater and someone shouts “Fire!”, your best move is to get out as fast as possible. You don’t have time to reflect on the shouter’s claim and debate it with your fellow theatergoers. The “market failure” in shouting fire in a crowded theater is that there’s no time for the “marketplace of ideas” to operate.

Reading the news doesn’t come with that kind of urgency. There’s plenty of time to research stories and read what other people are saying about them.

Obviously, it would be better if the market would fix the problem on its own, which is why attention is now focused on Facebook and Google. But if they can’t reliably do it — and that seems possible, since algorithms aren’t (yet) fact-checkers — there might be a need for the state to step in.

Here’s where Feldman tries to play a trick on his readers. He starts by saying the problem is that Facebook and Google are unable to function as fact checkers, which is fair enough, and then he says the state should “step in.” But he doesn’t just want the government to provide the fact checking that he says is needed. He wouldn’t need to write an article about that because fact-checking isn’t legally controversial: Government employees are free to research the statements of fact within a news story and publish their evaluation, and government press offices do that all the time already.

No, what Feldman wants is for the government step into the marketplace of ideas and pick winners by force, which is why he runs into concerns about constitutionality.

Under current First Amendment doctrine, that wouldn’t be allowed. The Supreme Court has been expanding protections for knowingly false speech, not contracting it. And it would be extremely difficult to separate opinion from fact on a systematic basis.

From there, Feldman’s argument dissolves into attacking a straw man with a flurry of hand waving:

But we shouldn’t assume that the marketplace of ideas works perfectly. And given that, we shouldn’t be slavishly committed to treating the marketplace metaphor as the basic rationale for free speech.

Perfection is not the standard. I don’t think anyone believes the marketplace of ideas is perfect. But if you propose to replace the free market with something else, you should at least do your audience the courtesy of trying to explain why your proposed solution would be better, and Feldman doesn’t even try. It’s like he thinks it’s just obvious that of course government can do this.

The current freakout over false news depends on two major items of concern: (1) That fake news is produced by liars, and (2) that fake news is believed by fools. Feldman’s proposal is utterly lacking in detail, but I’d love to hear why he’s so sure that his solution will not be created and carried out by more of the same liars and fools.

For Christ’s sake, we’ve spent the last year and a half watching a gruesome demonstration of how government leaders are chosen. What in God’s name makes anyone think those people should have the final word on what’s true in the news?

False news that hinders public discussion and encourages irrationality may have a role in the marketplace; but it doesn’t contribute to the good functioning of democracy.

Speaking of democracy, politicians are notorious liars. Unsurprisingly, so are a lot of the government functionaries who work for them. I’m not talking about crazy anti-government conspiracy theories, either, I’m talking about the routine lies that government employees tell to keep their jobs and make them easier: Cops lying about incidents, experts exaggerating their credentials, and department heads who refuse to recognize facts that would be inconvenient for the continued funding of their departments.

I’m talking about the Drug Enforcement Agency refusing to recognize the medical benefits of marijuana long after its acceptance by the medical community. I’m talking about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. I’m talking about the numbing sameness of the lies that many cops tell on the stand. I’m talking about the legal fictions that label people as drug dealers when they don’t deal drugs, as pimps when they aren’t pimping anyone, and as money launderers when they aren’t laundering money.

I’m sure Professor Feldman imagines that when the government implements his fake news suppression program they will decide which news is real or fake with the help of wise and honest scholars (such as himself). I think it’s more realistic to assume it will be staffed by people like TSA agents, DMV clerks, and those public school administrators who call the cops when a kid makes a shooting gesture with his fingers.

Deceitful Words: Disqualifying

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts about words and phrases that should make you suspect that someone is trying to get something past you. I’m starting with one that we heard a lot of during this last election: “Disqualifying.”

People kept saying things like:

  • “Hillary Clinton’s risking American lives by mishandling classified emails should be disqualifying.”
  • “Gary Johnson’s ‘What’s Aleppo?’ moment should disqualify him as a serious candidate.”
  • “Donald Trump should be disqualified as President for accepting support from white supremacists.”

All of these comments cite bad behavior, but “disqualifying” implies that they were a special kind of bad. We normally encounter the concept of disqualification in situations where something is being judged, and disqualification usually means that some kind of balancing mechanism is being overridden by a hard rule.

For example, equestrian competitions are scored using a complex system of faults, timing, and subjective observations, but if any rider is found to have over-used the whip or spurs to the point that a horse is bleeding, they are simply kicked out of the competition. Their score no longer matters. Another example of disqualification occurs in competitive contract bidding. Normally, the bids are compared on the basis of things like price and compliance to requirements, but bidders can also be eliminated for missing critical milestones or failing to meet certain crucial requirements regardless of price. The disqualifying condition overrides all other considerations.

Elections don’t work that way. The scoring mechanism is very loose — everyone can vote for whichever candidate they want for whatever reason they want — and the vote is the only thing that matters. There are no disqualifying events because there are no rules for how voters should judge the candidates. There are technical disqualifications for conditions like not being a citizen or being unable to perform the duties of office (because of, say, illness or incarceration), but that’s not what these cries of disqualification are about. Thus, describing some politician’s behavior as “disqualifying” is usually just wishful thinking: We’re so appalled that we hope everyone else will feel the same way about it.

But labeling a politician’s behavior as “disqualifying” can also be a disingenuous attempt to smuggle in the overriding decisiveness of disqualification to win an argument: “Sure, you have a list of ten ways your candidate is better than mine, but yours did that awful thing, and that should be disqualifying.” The hope is that others agree the behavior in question is awful, and are thus unwilling to challenge your implicit argument that the awful behavior overrides other considerations, or that they can be convinced to think of the behavior as analogous to technical disqualification.

It’s temping to try to come up with exceptions to this. For example, surely outright racism should be disqualifying, shouldn’t it? Or are even Ku Klux Klan levels of racism not disqualifying? I don’t think they should be.

Don’t get me wrong, on the scale of evil, the KKK is pretty damned awful and should lose to almost any other contender. But the key word is almost, because there are a lot of things out there worse than the KKK. The Nazis, for example. It may not be a good idea to summarily disqualify a KKK Imperial Wizard if the alternative is a Nazi with plans to exterminate millions. The abyss of totalitarian evil is very deep. Sometimes the lesser of evils is all that’s possible.

Finally, there’s a difference between doing horrible things and wanting to do horrible things. The awfulness of a candidate is going to be limited by the fact that elected officials do not have absolute power. They are embedded in a system of checks and balances, so however awful their desires, depending on their role, they may not be able to do very much damage. Thus a crazy state governor who wants to re-institute slavery or nuke Mecca, for example, can’t do nearly as much real world harm as a governor who wants to drastically disrupt services to the poor in their own state.

(The converse is also true, so it’s a fair criticism of my KKK vs. Nazis comparison to point out that the KKK might have been worse than the Nazis if they’d ever had the power.)

The point is that even something as reprehensible as outright racism may not be as bad — might not be disqualifying — when viewed in context. Consider that when former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke ran for Governor of Louisiana in 1991, four percent of black voters looked at his opponent, the notoriously corrupt Edwin Edwards, and decided they’d be better off with a Klansman. Presumably they figured that the legislature and the courts would keep his racism in check.

And if that wasn’t disqualifying, nothing else should be.

Some Observations on Halderman’s Concerns About Election Hacking

Word has been going around that some computer scientists have urged Clinton to challenge the election results because of possible hacking-related voter fraud in key states:

Hillary Clinton’s campaign is being urged by a number of top computer scientists to call for a recount of vote totals in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, according to a source with knowledge of the request.

[…]

The scientists, among them J. Alex Halderman, the director of the University of Michigan Center for Computer Security and Society, told the Clinton campaign they believe there is a questionable trend of Clinton performing worse in counties that relied on electronic voting machines compared to paper ballots and optical scanners, according to the source.

The group informed [the Clinton campaign] that Clinton received 7% fewer votes in counties that relied on electronic voting machines, which the group said could have been hacked.

Their group told Podesta and Elias that while they had not found any evidence of hacking, the pattern needs to be looked at by an independent review.

I have a few observations:

First, as of the time I’m writing this, nobody has found actual smoking gun proof that any election machines were hacked, let alone that a significant number were.

Second, Halderman is a legitimate computer scientist and an expert on computer security. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s not also some kind of political hack, but in that absence of evidence of dishonesty, we should probably make a rebuttable presumption that he knows what he’s talking about.

Third, Halderman’s statistical observation, as described here, is pretty weak. It’s based on a correlation showing that Clinton received fewer votes (compared to polls) in counties that used electronic voting machines. Like all correlations, whether it has found something meaningful depends on whether co-factors have been eliminated.

In this case, the problem is that use of electronic voting machines was not randomly assigned to counties. This makes it likely that both the decision to use electronic voting machines and the decision to vote for Trump are somehow related to a third factor. For example, Nate Silver has argued that the effect goes away when you control for race and education. This suggests that (I’m just guessing) perhaps affluent well-educated white people are more likely to lie and say they didn’t vote for Trump, and affluent counties are more likely to spring for electronic voting machines. You’d want to rule out things like that before declaring that the election had been fixed.

Fourth, the preceding does not mean that Halderman is (perhaps dishonestly) leaping to conclusions. Rather, this is how scientific investigations work. You begin by doing a quick and inexpensive investigation to see if it looks there might be something interesting going on. In this case, if they’d found no correlation whatsoever between electronic voting and a deviation from the polling data, they could have pretty much ruled out hacking and moved on to investigating something else. However, because the quick statistical analysis couldn’t rule out some kind of problem, the next step is to investigate further, perhaps by using more advanced statistics, or by examining the paper trail from the vote.

Fifth, Professor Halderman says pretty much the same thing in his post on the subject. He makes it quite clear that his best guess is that the election has not been tampered with. However, given the well-known security vulnerabilities in many of our electronic voting systems — Halderman’s team has hacked real voting machines in the lab — he thinks it would be nice to examine the paper trail, just to make sure. But random college professors have no legal standing to get this done. The legal request has to come from one of the candidates, and as a practical matter, only the losing candidate has an interest in a recount. That is pretty much all that Halderman is asking for: That someone in a position to do so asks to take a look at the evidence.

It’s worth noting that computer scientists as a group are unusually skeptical about the security of electronic voting machines. (I have two degrees in computer science, and I’m skeptical.) Before the first electronic voting machines appeared, computer scientists had spent decades researching how to build secure voting systems, yet it’s clear that few real-world electronic voting machines are based on that research. I’ve also heard that voting machines are not designed and operated in keeping with modern security practices. For all those reasons, a lot of computer scientists think it’s a good idea to stick to paper ballots.

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