Category Archives: Political Science

The AG Cartel Breaks Down

On the Reuters news wire, Dan Levine reports on the breakdown of a gentleman’s agreement between state Attorneys General not to target each other in elections:

That hands-off stance ended this month when Republican AGs voted to abandon the agreement and spend money to help unseat Democrats in other states, according to the Republican Attorneys General Association.

I’m sure this is important news to those who were aware of this agreement, but for me, it’s the existence of the agreement in the first place that is news. Bad news.

It has long been my observation that any news story featuring the phrase “attorneys general” is going to be bad news. Nothing good comes from having these power-mad politicians combining their forces across state lines.

The  so-called ‘incumbency rule’ observed by the state attorneys’ party fundraising arms reflected a rare bit of bipartisanship in the polarized environment of U.S. politics, aimed at promoting cooperation across state lines on issues of common interest, such as consumer protection.

Consumer protection? Those sons of bitches! If two corporations agreed to divide up the market this way, it would almost certainly violate anti-trust laws.

They’re even doing it for the same reasons companies do it: Money. They’re essentially cartelizing the campaign spending market. They save money by not spending campaign funds to fight the opposing party’s incumbents in each other’s states. And the incumbents save money too, because they don’t have to spend as much to defend their positions. It’s win-win.

Except for the voters, who are more likely to find themselves stuck with an attorney general who faces little competition from the other party.

I assume this is all legal, because elections aren’t subject to commercial anti-trust laws, but it sure as hell smells bad.

The State of the Union in 2017

I got bored writing about the State of the Union addresses a few years ago — Obama was the same thing every year — but maybe the new guy will be more interesting. Let’s see what Donald Trump had to say in his State of the Union Address. I’m just going to think out loud a bit here. I warn you now: It’s not going anywhere important.

(I’m really tired of hearing why this isn’t the State of the Union Address, so I’m resisting calling it his address to a joint session of Congress. They are all just big political speeches that get a lot of coverage.)

Transcript by the failing New York Times. Applause notes and Times fact checking omitted, reformatted for readability:

I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart.

It’s always nice when a speaker inserts the subtext of his speech directly into the speech.

Then, in 2016, the earth shifted beneath our feet. The rebellion started as a quiet protest, spoken by families of all colors and creeds, families who just wanted a fair shot for their children, and a fair hearing for their concerns.

Here we go again. He’s reliving his election glory…

But then the quiet voices became a loud chorus, as thousands of citizens now spoke out together, from cities small and large, all across our country.

Finally, the chorus became an earthquake, and the people turned out by the tens of millions, and they were all united by one very simple, but crucial demand, that America must put its own citizens first, because only then can we truly make America great again.

Okay, we get it, we get it. You won, Donald. Now what.

Above all else, we will keep our promises to the American people.

[Note to self: Insert list of everything Trump has lied about and all the promises he has failed to keep.]

Thank you. It’s been a little over a month since my inauguration, and I want to take this moment to update the nation on the progress I’ve made in keeping those promises. Since my election, Ford, Fiat-Chrysler, General Motors, Sprint, Softbank, Lockheed, Intel, Walmart and many others have announced that they will invest billions and billions of dollars in the United States and will create tens of thousands of new American jobs. The stock market has gained almost $3 trillion in value since the election on Nov. 8, a record.

And you’re going to take credit for all of that, aren’t you?

We have undertaken a historic effort to massively reduce job-crushing regulations, creating a deregulation task force inside of every government agency and we’re imposing a new rule which mandates that for every one new regulation, two old regulations must be eliminated.

That’s nice as an abstract idea, but the 2-for-1 rule will just encourage bureaucrats to game the system. And it only works if there’s some kind of accountability when regulatory bodies don’t comply with your silly rule.

We’re going to stop the regulations that threaten the future and livelihood of our great coal miners. We have cleared the way for the construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines thereby creating tens of thousands of jobs.

Jobs. Politicians always have to make everything about jobs. The benefit of building oil pipelines is getting to transport oil more efficiently. Jobs are part of the cost of building oil pipelines.

And I’ve issued a new directive that new American pipelines be made with American steel.

Why not use the most cost effective steel for the pipeline, regardless of where it comes from? Isn’t it important to spend wisely?

We have withdrawn the United States from the job-killing Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Sigh. The TPP had problems, but it would probably have produced a net benefit, and it would have help connect the United States to the Asian markets.

To protect our citizens, I have directed the Department of Justice to form a task force on reducing violent crime. I have further ordered the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice, along with the Department of State and the director of national intelligence, to coordinate an aggressive strategy to dismantle the criminal cartels that have spread all across our nation.

Oooh, you created a task force! And coordinated a strategy! I’ll bet the criminals are quaking in their boots now!

To any in Congress who do not believe we should enforce our laws, I would ask you this one question: What would you say to the American family that loses their jobs, their income or their loved one because America refused to uphold its laws and defend its borders?

What would you say to the thousands of American families that lose parents, brothers, and sisters, along with their income, you deported them for no good reason?

As promised, I directed the Department of Defense to develop a plan to demolish and destroy ISIS, a network of lawless savages that have slaughtered Muslims and Christians, and men, women and children of all faiths and all beliefs. We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet.

Aspirations and goals are not a plan, plans are not operations, and operations are not victory.

Tonight, as I outline the next steps we must take as a country, we must honestly acknowledge the circumstances we inherited. Ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force.

That’s a suspicious number. “Out of the labor force” typically refers to everyone over the age of 16 who doesn’t have a job. That includes unemployed people, but it also including students, non-working spouses, retirees, the disabled, and anyone else who doesn’t have a job. Many of these people are not working because the don’t want to. That’s not necessarily an economic problem (although the situation gets more complicated if they are receiving welfare transfer payments).

This is why we usually focus on the unemployment rate — those are people who want a job but can’t get one, and that’s always bad. However, since the unemployment rate recovered a few years ago, a lot of Obama critics have chosen to focus on labor force participation which is just over 62%, the lowest it’s been in 30 years or so, but not that much lower than the highs of 67% in the 1990s.

We’ve lost more than one-fourth of our manufacturing jobs since Nafta was approved, and we’ve lost 60,000 factories since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.

Manufacturing jobs have been declining as a percentage of the work force since World War II. Yet we manufacture more stuff than ever before. We’ve gotten really efficient at it, so it doesn’t take as many people. There’s no place to bring those jobs back from.

Our trade deficit in goods with the world last year was nearly $800 billion.

It’s deceptive to talk about goods while omitting the trade in services. And either way, trade deficits by themselves aren’t bad for the economy.

But to accomplish our goals at home and abroad, we must restart the engine of the American economy, making it easier for companies to do business in the United States and much, much harder for companies to leave our country.

It will be harder to attract companies to do business here if they know they’ll have a hard time leaving. Also, attracting companies here will raise our trade deficit, if you’re the kind of person who worries about such things…

Right now, American companies are taxed at one of the highest rates anywhere in the world. My economic team is developing historic tax reform that will reduce the tax rate on our companies so they can compete and thrive anywhere and with anyone.

It will be a big, big cut.

I actually agree with cutting a lot of business taxes, but that money is going to have to come from somewhere else if you don’t want to run the national debt way up.

At the same time, we will provide massive tax relief for the middle class. We must create a level playing field for American companies and our workers — have to do it.

If you’re going to reduce taxes on the middle class, you’re going to have to raise taxes for someone else. The poor don’t have anything to tax, so does that mean you’re going to tax the crap out of the rich?

(In theory, Trump could also be planning to reduce spending, but that’s not the direction he’s going in the rest of this speech.)

The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, warned that “the abandonment of the protective policy by the American government will produce want and ruin among our people.”

Republicans have a long history of craven protectionism.

I am not going to let America and its great companies and workers be taken — advantage of us any longer. They have taken advantage of our country no longer. I am going to bring back millions of jobs.

Nope. There’s nowhere to bring them back from.

Another Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, initiated the last truly great national infrastructure program: the building of the interstate highway system. The time has come for a new program of national rebuilding.

This is probably true. The construction industry and its political supporters has been exaggerating the scope of the problem for decades, but we really are going to need to do a lot of rebuilding over the next 10 or 20 years.

To launch our national rebuilding, I will be asking Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure of the United States, financed through both public and private capital, creating millions of new jobs.

This effort will be guided by two core principles: Buy American and hire American.

Because God forbid a government project should actually buy from the lowest bidder that meets specifications, which is what you’d do if you thought infrastructure was important. But no. It’s always about jobs with politicians.

Tonight, I am also calling on this Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare with reforms that expand choice, increase access, lower costs and at the same time provide better health care.

What? No ponies?

The way to make health insurance available to everyone is to lower the cost of health insurance, and that is what we are going to do.

This is Trump all over. (And, really, most politicians.) Expand choice, increase access, lower costs, provide better health care…all great ideas. But how? Aspirational statements are not a plan.

Obamacare premiums nationwide have increased by double and triple digits. As an example, Arizona went up 116 percent last year alone. Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky just said Obamacare is failing in his state, the state of Kentucky, and it’s unsustainable and collapsing.

One third of the counties have only one insurer, and they’re losing them fast, they are losing them so fast. They’re leaving. And many Americans have no choice at all. There’s no choice left. Remember when you were told that you could keep your doctor and keep your plan? We now know that all of those promises have been totally broken. Obamacare is collapsing, and we must act decisively to protect all Americans.

Yes, Obamacare has some real problems and may be collapsing into a death spiral (indicators are murky), but how will your plan be better? The American healthcare system is gigantic, expensive, and politically connected. It’s going to be really hard to fix. Just saying you want something better is not enough.

Here are the principles that should guide Congress as we move to create a better health care system for all Americans.

Oh, well maybe I spoke too soon…

First, we should ensure that Americans with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage and that we have a stable transition for Americans currently enrolled in the health care exchanges.

That’s just another aspirational statement.

Secondly, we should help Americans purchase their own coverage, through the use of tax credits and expanded health savings accounts, but it must be the plan they want, not the plan forced on them by our government.

Okay, that’s actually part of a plan. I could even get behind some of these ideas.

Thirdly, we should give our state governors the resources and flexibility they need with Medicaid to make sure no one is left out.

Another aspirational statement. Although I guess it is nice of him to mention a plan for poor people since tweaking taxes only helps people with a decent income.

Fourth, we should implement legal reforms that protect patients and doctors from unnecessary costs that drive up the price of insurance and work to bring down the artificially high price of drugs and bring them down immediately.

Not sure what that means. Tort reform? Drug manufacturer immunity?

And finally, the time has come to give Americans the freedom to purchase health insurance across state lines which will create a truly competitive national marketplace that will bring costs way down and provide far better care. So important.

Another idea I can get behind. Not a huge deal, but a step in the right direction if implemented properly. But then we go off into a fantasy world…

Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved. And every hurting family can find healing and hope. Our citizens deserve this, and so much more, so why not join forces and finally get the job done and get it done right?

On this and so many other things, Democrats and Republicans should get together and unite for the good of our country and for the good of the American people.

My administration wants to work with members of both parties to make child care accessible and affordable, to help ensure new parents that they have paid family leave to invest in women’s health, and to promote clean air and clean water, and to rebuild our military and our infrastructure.

[…]

If we slash the restraints, not just at the F.D.A. but across our government, then we will be blessed with far more miracles just like Megan.

Eliminating unnecessary government restrictions is a nice idea in theory.

In fact, our children will grow up in a nation of miracles. But to achieve this future, we must enrich the mind — and the souls — of every American child. Education is the civil rights issue of our time.

I am calling upon members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children.

Broadly speaking, I’m in favor of school choice, but most school funding comes from the states, so it seems like this should be a state initiative. Just get the federal government out of the way. Maybe impose a few standards to head off corrupt bullshit.

But to create this future, we must work with — not against — not against — the men and women of law enforcement. We must build bridges of cooperation and trust, not drive the wedge of disunity and it’s — really, it’s what it is, division. It’s pure, unadulterated division. We have to unify.

Great, what do you propose that law enforcement does to earn back the trust they’ve lost?

Police and sheriffs are members of our community. They’re friends and neighbors

— Then they should goddamned well act like it! Stop riding the streets like an occupying army. Stop the violent raids for drugs. In fact, stop arresting people for victimless crimes. Stop throwing young men in jail when they belong in school. Stop harassing citizens with fines and jail for minor violations. None of my friends and neighbors do shit like that. Come back when you’ve cleaned up your act — consistently punishing bad cops would be a nice start — and we’ll talk.

And we must support the victims of crime. I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American victims. The office is called Voice, Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media and silenced by special interests.

I’m all in favor of better crime data, but how exactly does tracking immigrant crimes help the victims? It sounds like just a cheap shot to demonize illegal immigrants. Frankly, it’s kind of a creepy thing to do.

Finally, to keep America safe, we must provide the men and women of the United States military with the tools they need to prevent war — if they must — they have to fight and they only have to win.

I am sending Congress a budget that rebuilds the military, eliminates the defense sequester and calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.

It would be nice to get some details about this military build-up.

We strongly support NATO, an alliance forged through the bonds of two world wars, that dethroned fascism and a Cold War and defeated communism. But our partners must meet their financial obligations.

Or what? We can’t actually withdraw our support without risking the safety of Europe, which would risk our own safety.

Think of the marvels we could achieve if we simply set free the dreams of our people. Cures to the illnesses that have always plagued us are not too much to hope. American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream. Millions lifted from welfare to work is not too much to expect. And streets where mothers are safe from fear — schools where children learn in peace, and jobs where Americans prosper and grow — are not too much to ask.

When we have all of this, we will have made America greater than ever before, for all Americans. This is our vision. This is our mission. But we can only get there together. We are one people, with one destiny.

We all bleed the same blood. We all salute the same great American flag. And we are all made by the same God.

When we fulfill this vision, when we celebrate our 250 years of glorious freedom, we will look back on tonight as when this new chapter of American greatness began. The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us. We just need the courage to share the dreams that fill our hearts, the bravery to express the hopes that stir our souls, and the confidence to turn those hopes and those dreams into action.

The calls to setting free the dreams of our people are nice, but the “one people…one destiny” stuff is a little scary. What if we don’t all have the same dreams? I worry about this kind of thing. It tends to devolve into national greatness bullshit, where our nation’s leaders expect us to sacrifice to fulfill their grand visions instead of pursuing our own petty goals like having happy families that live in nice homes.

(Sigh, I seem to have edited out all the parts of the speech where he wants to ramp up the war on drugs, but yeah, he’s a drug warrior.)

Still, it’s not as self aggrandizing, authoritarian, bigoted, or batshit crazy as it could have been. In fact, it sounds kind of mainstream Republican (except for the anti-immigrant stuff). I guess that counts as a win these days.

Four Ways President Trump Can Ruin Things

I expect the Trump presidency to be a disaster. And given what we’ve seen so far, I think there are four possible areas where Trump is likely to ruin things. They break down into short-term ruin, medium-term ruin, and long-term ruin, plus a wildcard.

We’ve already seen activity in the short-term area of ruin: Immigration. This is a policy area where the President has a lot of power to set changes in motion without help from Congress. Look how much turmoil we’ve gone through just from the executive order implementing Trump’s Muslim ban, despite the fact that the courts have been tearing it apart. It’s hard to tell for sure, because some of these things might just be getting more news coverage than they did under the previous administration, but Trump also seems to have encouraged the jackbooted thugs at Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be more aggressive about catching and detaining illegal immigrants. Instead of focusing on deporting illegal immigrants who cause trouble, ICE seems to be running up their numbers by catching anyone they can, breaking up families and deporting people to dangerous parts of the world regardless of their individual qualities.

There are a lot of moving parts to our international trade policies, many of which would require cooperation from Congress to change, so I think this is where it will take Trump longest to do damage. Trump’s view of international trade is distorted, ignorant, and dangerous. He sees imports as a disaster, he sees our trading partners as our enemies, and he has no respect for the right to trade freely. At the very least, restrictions on imports will harm American consumers by raising prices and reducing the quantity and variety of goods available. The restrictions will also harm American industries that use imported goods as production inputs. It will get even worse if our trading partners respond with restrictions of their own, blocking our exports and throwing us into a trade war. And once we and our trading partners no longer receive the mutual benefits of trade, there’s a lot less stopping us from getting into a shooting war.

In between those two scenarios lies the medium-term ruin of national healthcare. As with trade policy, Trump needs Congress to make big changes here, but the Republicans seem eager to join in, so the damage is likely to come much faster. One of the biggest concerns about Obamacare was that it was making major changes to the market structure of a very large and very import industry. Mistakes could destroy important capabilities and hurt innocent people. As it turns out, the Democrats did a reasonably good job of putting together Obamacare: It hasn’t been as successful and popular as its supporters hoped, and its long-term viability was up in the air even before the election, but it wasn’t the instant gigantic disaster it could have been. But now Trump and the Republicans are talking about repealing it, and that has all of the same problems as implementing Obamacare: It’s another major change to a very large and very import industry where mistakes could destroy important capabilities and hurt innocent people, and this time the people doing it seem a lot less prepared and a lot more likely to introduce frightening levels of uncertainty.

Finally, there’s the wildcard: Foreign policy. I don’t know much about foreign policy, but I’m pretty sure Donald Trump doesn’t know much either. For example, he seems to be under the impression that the United States’s defense of NATO countries is a money-making proposition rather than being an important part of our national security strategy. Trump is also famous for off-the-cuff remarks that have foreign policy implications. I don’t trust him to protect our interests from our enemies, and I really don’t trust him to preserve our strategic friendships. He’s also talked about building up our conventional and nuclear forces. So it feels like anything could happen.

Of course, Trump has his big address to Congress today, so God only knows what else he’ll add to this list.

Something Missing From Trump’s Inaugural Address

Okay, I’m still up, and I’d like to talk about that inaugural address. It’s all gloom and doom, blamed on elitist politicians and foreigners, leading to Trump’s usual calls for nationalism, trade restrictions, and border controls.

I was planning to tear into the speech line by line, but I’m too far into the rum to keep it together for as long as that would take, so let me offer just one observation. Trump winds up the speech this way:

Together, We Will Make America Strong Again.

We Will Make America Wealthy Again.

We Will Make America Proud Again.

We Will Make America Safe Again.

And, Yes, Together, We Will Make America Great Again.

He said nothing about making America free.

The Highpoint of the Trump Presidency

Eight years ago, when Barack Obama had just taken the Presidential oath of office, I wrote that it was “The Highpoint of the Obama Presidency,” and I see no reason not to say just about the same thing about the Trump Presidency today.

As the most populist presidential candidate in a long time, Trump’s supporters have been projecting their hopes and dreams onto him for almost two years. He’s been Harry Potter’s Mirror of Erised, reflecting back their heart’s desire.

That’s all about to change. Starting today, his ambitions are going to get a lot more specific and concrete than just “Make America Great Again.” Starting today, we’re going to judge him not just on what he says, but on what he does and—even more importantly—on what he accomplishes.

If you have high hopes for Trump, he’s going to disappoint you. He has to. There’s no way he can accomplish all the things he’s said he’s going to do, and as I’ve learned from watching Obama, in many cases, he’s not even going to try. Personally, I think this will be an even bigger problem with Trump, since he has more than the usual politician’s gift for telling people what they want to hear.

If Trump wants to get anything done, he’s going to have to make some tradeoffs, and then his choices will reveal his true nature. His supporters will find out what his presidency is really all about. They’ll find out which of them he really loves, and which get left in the cold. My guess is that he only really loves himself, so he’s only going to help people who can help him.

As a libertarian, I have nothing to look forward to in a Trump administration. The most I can maybe hope for is that his drunkard’s walk through public policy will occasionally lead to some random idea I like. A few libertarians are encouraged by Betsy DeVos’s support for school choice, but she strikes me as the sort of person who just doesn’t like other people running the schools. I doubt she’d be so excited about alternative schooling if the public schools did things her way. I suppose a few of Trump’s economic team have vaguely pro-free-market leanings, but what good they might do is likely to be more than undone by Trump’s mercantilism and crony capitalism. And what good is a stable dollar when the President can jolt the markets with just a tweet?

Trump campaigned like an authoritarian, and I expect him to be one, which is going to make me miserable for the next four years. However, I don’t think most current Trump supporters are going to be feel much better about his presidency. The reality can never live up to the promise — especially with a guy who doesn’t see a need to keep promises — and starting today, the reality of the Trump presidency is unavoidable. Whatever it is, here it comes.

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.

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.

Voting Gary Johnson…but Never Trump

I’ve never been in love with the presidential candidate from either major party, not in any election. That’s not, as some people assume, because I can’t tell the difference between them. It’s because I don’t care about the difference between them. On many of the issues that matter most to me, there’s very little difference between Republicans and Democrats. Even in this election, the policies of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have a lot in common from a my point of view. A few examples:

  • Freedom of speech — From Trumps’ expansion of libel laws to Clinton’s attack on rap music and video games to their shared interest in shutting down parts of the internet, they both suck.
  • The War on Drugs — Other than a small amount of movement on marijuana, neither one shows any interest in dialing back the war on drugs.
  • Civil forfeiture abuse — Our law enforcement agencies have been ripping people off for decades in the guise of fighting crime, and it’s still not a major election issue.
  • Criminal justice reform — Clinton has said a few nice things, but the Clintons have historically been part of the problem, and there’s no reason to believe Hillary will change her ways. Trump is an authoritarian who’d love to run a police state.
  • Sex worker rights — This is a new issue for me, but nobody in either party cares about it.

If this were a normal election, the candidates’ agreement on my issues would leave me indifferent to which one wins, so I’d cast my vote without hesitation for the libertarian candidate — Gary Johnson this year — because that might at least send a message.

That possibility is making democrats a bit nuts this year, and they’ve been warning Johnson voters that they’ll be responsible if Trump wins because voting for Johnson could pull votes away from Hillary. I responded with an angry rant taking Democrats to task for making self-righteous demands without admitting their own enormous culpability. It attracted thousands of new visitors, and I got a bunch of comments. (It turns out that anger and swearing will get you pretty far on the internet. Who knew?)

The thing is, despite my rant at Democrats’ insulting demands, I do share their belief that Donald Trump is a uniquely bad candidate. After all, If I thought Trump and Hillary were equally bad, I wouldn’t be so angry about them trying to pin Trump on us libertarians.

It’s not that I love Hillary Clinton. But she’s a bad politician in a normal sort of way. Hillary is a standard-issue technocrat who sees a government solution for everything. College too expensive? Start a program. Terrorists killing people? Start a war. That’s a pretty awful way to govern, but it’s also a pretty common way to govern, and we know how to survive it.

As for the allegations of corruption, she’s a standard-issue influence peddler, trading her attention and influence in exchange for help achieving her political goals. I guess I’m not outraged by that because I grew up in Chicago, where everyone knows that’s just how politics works. It’s a big problem, but it’s also a very familiar problem.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, is whole different kind of threat. He’s a terrible person who’d make a terrible President. He’s a cruel narcissistic sociopath who seeks the approval of racists and instinctively tries to exert personal control over everything. He’s the kind of populist authoritarian who looms large in the history books, often in chapters with titles like “Factors Leading to War” or “How the Republic Fell.”

On the issues, although I find him and Clinton equally bad on the items I listed above, he has nevertheless raised an entirely new issue where the difference is stark. Well, it’s not really a new issue, but it’s one which I hadn’t thought of as an important factor in elections because all of the recent candidates have been pretty good about it. I’m talking about xenophobic bigotry. Trump himself seems to be an anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, anti-Asian, and anti-immigrant bigot, and he tolerates anti-black bigotry among his supporters.

This is something we haven’t seen in a while, and it creates a bit of a dilemma for those of us who have been planning to vote for Gary Johnson to send a message, as Jennifer Abel explains:

[…] remembering that “the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’” – here’s an interesting anecdote I’ve noticed this presidential election: of the many people who say “Trump and Clinton are equally bad, and thus the only moral voting options this year are to either vote third party or not vote at all,” they’re all white and overwhelmingly male — i.e., NOT members of any ethnic, racial, religious or gender group whom a President Trump would seek to legally discriminate against.

[…] there’s one way HRC is hands-down better than Trump: she does NOT want to, for example, deport all Muslims from the country, she has NOT said that American-born citizens of Mexican ancestry are too untrustworthy to be federal judges, and so forth.

Whatever a Trump Presidency might mean, middle aged white guys like me will probably not bear the brunt of it. It’s not that I’m guaranteed to be safe — people like Trump tend to cut a wide swath of destruction — but I probably won’t be a target.

The same cannot be said for everybody. Immigrants, Mexicans, and Muslims seem like they’ll be in for a particularly hard time. I know Muslims who are genuinely concerned for their families, and I can’t honestly tell them everything will be okay.

So if I send a message by voting for Gary Johnson and that throws the race to Trump, it will be people other than me who suffer the burden. I think it’s important to let politicians know there are voters who value libertarian ideas, but it’s not so important that I’m willing to sacrifice the welfare of minorities, immigrants, and women to send the message.

That this conflict exists is not the fault of libertarians. We didn’t create this mess, and Democrats are being total dicks by blaming us for it. But… We are, nevertheless, in this mess. It’s our responsibility to respond to it in the best way we can, and our moral calculus must be based on the reality we face, not the world as we’d like it to be. We have to play the cards we’re dealt. And for some of us Gary Johnson supporters, that might just mean voting for Hillary Clinton to block Trump.

Here in Illinois, I have it easy, because Clinton is all but certain to win the state’s 20 electoral votes. Of the 53 polls that FiveThirtyEight believes to be statistically predictive in this state, Clinton has won every single one, including the 37 polls that included Gary Johnson. So voting for Gary Johnson can’t help Trump in Illinois because nothing can help Trump in Illinois.

(I was planning to point out that libertarians in small states like Vermont have it even easier because not only does Clinton have a double-digit lead in every poll, but the state is also so small that even if it flipped to Trump it would be unlikely to change the outcome of the election. However, Clinton’s lead has recently narrowed to the point that losing Vermont could conceivably make a big difference.)

Libertarians in Tennessee also have it easy, for the opposite reason: Trump has won all 39 significant polls there, and there’s very little chance he won’t carry the state. Nothing can stop Trump in Tennessee, so Johnson supporters there might as well send a strategic message by voting their conscience.

People like Jennifer, however, don’t have that luxury. She lives in Georgia, where the candidates are much more closely matched. FiveThirtyEight still projects Trump as the most likely winner there, but it’s not a sure thing. In particular, Trump’s lead in the polls is often less than the size of the Johnson vote, which means that if all the Johnson voters switched to Hillary, they could probably block Trump from getting Georgia’s 16 electoral votes. That’s why Jennifer felt she had to bite the bullet and vote for Hillary in order to block Trump.

To be honest, even in the battleground state of Georgia, there are so many people voting that it’s very unlikely that Jennifer’s single vote will be the deciding vote in the race. That may sound like I’m arguing she might as well have voted Gary Johnson, but it’s actually an argument that she might as well have saved herself the trouble and not voted at all.

But if you, like Jennifer, are going to go through the trouble of voting, you might as well pretend it matters and do it the right way. Check the polls before going to the voting booth.

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