September 14, 2003

The Ten-Year-Old Evades a Trap

The Ten-Year-Old: You know, it was strange in that Mel Brooks movie--"Space Balls"--that he played the President? It didn't seem to me that that society would have a president.

Adult: Well, he was much more a dictator who took the title of President.

The Ten-Year-Old: But he called himself a President.

Adult: "President" doesn't have to mean elected. After all, "President" is just a Latin word meaning, "the guy who sits in the front of the room."

The Ten-Year-Old: But that was two-thousand years ago. Meanings drift. Since then, the word "President" has picked up more meanings--it's not just a title.

Adult: So are you saying that any government can call its ruler "President," but that only someone elected in a free and fair election in which a majority of the voters casting ballots voted for him or her is a real President?

The Ten-Year-Old: Yep. A majority of the voters. Or a majority of the votes in some weirdo electoral college setup that makes no sense but that is nevertheless part of some duly-ratified constitution. Yep.

Adult: Ah.

The Ten-Year-Old: I'm only ten, but I'm not stupid you know.

Adult: Ah.

Posted by DeLong at September 14, 2003 08:59 PM | TrackBack

Comments

So what does the Ten-Year-Old call Mushy? :)

Posted by: Ritu on September 14, 2003 11:49 PM

I'd watch that one!

Posted by: Eccles on September 15, 2003 12:35 AM

Well, quite a few other democracies aren't always democratic. In 1996, the Liberal Party (which is actually the conservative party there) won the Australian election despite losing the total popular vote by a percentage considerably higher than Gore's margin over Bush, because Labor's votes were disproportionately concentrated in a smaller number of urban districts. And Churchill returned to power in 1951 for the same reason -- despite the fact that Clement Atlee's Labor Party got slightly more votes nationwide. Any parliamentary democracy with electors chosen by geographical districts runs such risks.

This, of course, leads us to the fascinating problem of how to set up the most genuinely fair election system -- and how many different ways our current system falls short of it.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw on September 15, 2003 01:27 AM

To be fair, I don't think the two situations are quite equal. In the UK, Prime Ministers are not directly elected by the people but are chosen by the winning party to lead them. Hence Margaret Thatcher can be dumped by her own party when they get sick of her. The geographical distinction for the election of each MP means there is closer contact between them and the place they are meant to represent - something which is lacking in most proportional systems.

Personally, I think there should be a modified system where most MP's are elected directly and some are picked up to ensure proportionality. When electing a countrywide President, it only makes sense to count the entire votes of the entire country. Otherwise, small states have a disproportionate influence on the outcome - in other words, their votes are worth more. That isn't democracy.

Posted by: Larry Lurex on September 15, 2003 03:26 AM

The Ten-Year-Old is ready for Alice through the Looking Glass (get it in Martin Gardner's Annotated Alice - essential explanations, wise comment and proper Tenniel illustrations too). See Alice's dialogue with Humpty Dumpty, cited in http://www.wordspy.com/words/HumptyDumptylanguage.asp

As good nominalists we must agree wih Humpty that humans are masters of their words - you can define a string of characters to mean what you want.

But Alice is also right:
" "The question is, " said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." ".
Exploiting ambiguities tactically and redefining meanings on the fly are forms of cheating. Humpty's cheating is hilariously extreme, but Victorian British politics included its fair share of spinners.

Posted by: James Wimberley on September 15, 2003 06:19 AM

- "To be fair, I don't think the two situations are quite equal. In the UK, Prime Ministers are not directly elected by the people but are chosen by the winning party to lead them."

Actually I'd say it is equal, the Conservative Party won the election despite receiving fewer votes than their opponents. Sounds very familiar to me.

Posted by: Keven Lofty on September 15, 2003 06:30 AM

- "To be fair, I don't think the two situations are quite equal. In the UK, Prime Ministers are not directly elected by the people but are chosen by the winning party to lead them."

Actually I'd say it is equal, the Conservative Party won the election despite receiving fewer votes than their opponents. Sounds very familiar to me.

Posted by: Keven Lofty on September 15, 2003 06:32 AM

So when are you going to introduce the Ten-Year-Old to Arrow's Dictator Theorem?

Posted by: Seth Gordon on September 15, 2003 07:21 AM

So when are you going to introduce the Ten-Year-Old to Arrow's Dictator Theorem?

Posted by: Seth Gordon on September 15, 2003 07:26 AM

Gregory Bateson published several "Metalogues" in which he explained his basic ideas to his preteen daughter Mary Catherine (now an author herself). Brad's little things remind me of that.

The American system of postponing serious intellectual education to age 18 in most cases wastes a lot of potential.

Posted by: zizka on September 15, 2003 07:44 AM

Gregory Bateson published several "Metalogues" in which he explained his basic ideas to his preteen daughter Mary Catherine (now an author herself). Brad's little things remind me of that.

The American system of postponing serious intellectual education to age 18 in most cases wastes a lot of potential.

Posted by: zizka on September 15, 2003 07:49 AM

"Otherwise, small states have a disproportionate influence on the outcome - in other words, their votes are worth more. That isn't democracy."

Suppose we have a hypothetical nation; let's call it "Iraq". There exists an ethnic/religious majority we might label "Shiite". There also exist other minority factions we might call "Suni" or "Kurdish" -- maybe others.

In a pure democracy, while the Shiites hold the majority they hold the government. It then becomes in the interests of the Kurds and others to forget Malthus and attempt to breed their way to power. Or, in the shorter term, to explore genocide (of their competitors) as a political ploy.

In a republic, however, the minorities need only band together to form a LOCAL majority within one or more of the sub-national jurisdictions.

Say, just hypothetically again, that the Kurds cleverly concentrated in one part of the hypothetical nation of Iraq, and set up a precinct or province they might call "Kurdistan" ... if that province were promised a certain number of positions in the national government, and if the Kurds had the, admittedly unfair, chance to pack those seats, they MIGHT, hypothetically, be willing to cooperate with the majority.

But in a democracy, there would be no such incentive.

This isn't a bug, it's a feature.

Not that there are NOT bugs allowing small states disproportionate power. Ross Perot once compared the governorship of Arkansas versus the presidency of the United States to a kid running a lemonade stand versus running a WalMart. Were Perot running again -- all to the good from a Large "D" democratic point of view, I would suspect -- he might have similar remarks about the governorship of Vermont. Still, a "fix" that only allowed us to choose from candidates that had previously governed in New York, California, Texas or Florida might be worse than the problem we have now.


Posted by: Pouncer on September 15, 2003 07:56 AM

<quote>Personally, I think there should be a modified system where most MP's are elected directly and some are picked up to ensure proportionality.<unquote>

That's how it works in the Welsh Assembly. The Conservatives win very few geographical seats, but have members chosen from the party list to represent their solid minority backing.

Posted by: Keith on September 15, 2003 09:27 AM

I'd appreciate any response from anyone who votes in parliamentary-style elections.
In the U.S., it's not uncommon to split your vote: a President of one party to run the administrative machinery and conduct foreign policy and a congressperson or senator of the other to legislate. In a parliamentary system, do you go into the booth thinking about the good qualities of the local MP candidates, or do you think of the local MP candidates as merely a way to elect Blair over Smith or Thatcher over Kinnock?
By the way, what happens if, say, Labour wins, but Blair loses his local seat because his dog yaps too much? Is there a defined line of succession or does the party name a new PM?

Posted by: C.J.Colucci on September 15, 2003 09:46 AM

>Well, quite a few other democracies aren't always democratic. In
>1996, the Liberal Party (which is actually the conservative party
>there) won the Australian election despite losing the total
>popular vote by a percentage considerably higher than Gore's
>margin over Bush, because Labor's votes were disproportionately
>concentrated in a smaller number of urban districts. And
>Churchill returned to power in 1951 for the same reason --
>despite the fact that Clement Atlee's Labor Party got slightly
>more votes nationwide. Any parliamentary democracy with
>electors chosen by geographical districts runs such risks.

Those are utterly different. In the US electoral college every state
gets 2 electors. Those 100 extra electors (2 electors per state x
50 states = 100 electors) are not apportioned according to population
at all. If those 100 extra electors didn't exist, then Gore
definitely would've gotten a majority of the electoral votes.
Ignoring election irregularities, Bush won because of a very
gerrymandered electoral system. None of the elections you gave as
examples even approach such gerrymandering.

Posted by: Dan the Man on September 15, 2003 09:51 AM

In response to C.J.Colucci...

...you go into the voting booth and vote for the candidate of the Party you most want to form the government, or against the candidate of the Party you most want _not_ to form the government (by voting for the the person who can best keep them out in your particular district).

How much an individual representative comes into the calculation depends very much on the electoral system involved. Here in .uk that's 'hardly at all' as we're still using the archaic first past the post system for Westminster elections (i.e. pretty much the same voting system as for the House of Representatives but with a lot less gerrymandering).

It only really becomes a factor in 'live boy or dead girl' type situations. In .uk that tends to criminal convictions for perjury, or heavy involvement with brown envelopes stuffed with cash.

Well known incumbents get a bit of a boost, as they tend to be standing in the safer districts for their party anyway, and draw more party loyalists out to vote for them because of their high profile.

Also we don't have your deeply alien pre-election election 'Primary' things. What's up with that anyway?

In countries with open list systems, or systems with multimember districts, where you get to choose between or rank candidates within the same party on your ballot, who the candidates is probably becomes more important. Someone else who's elections use those sort of systems will have to chime in on that tho'.

The party leader only counts in so much as he/she affects the standing of their Party as a whole. So you can have the Prime Minister utterly loathed whilst their party still wins landslide majorities in parliament at election time.

Approval ratings of individual politicians are not very significant. Ignore any news stories that try to make a big thing out of them. It's not relevant. Party standings are the key.

In the, wildly unlikely, event that a party wins a majority of seats in parliament but their leader loses his or her particular seat -- think of this as equivalent to a modern era Dem candidate winning the Presidency but somehow failing to carry Massachusetts' electoral college votes whilst doing so -- then a senior figure in the winning party who did win their seat would be asked to form a government. Who exactly that would be in .uk depends on the rules/murky arrangements of the individual party in question or, at last resort. the iron whim of the Queen if they can't sort it out between themselves.

However here we stray into the sorts of nightmare situations that that cause constitutional Monarchs to wake up at night in cold sweats, screaming...

Posted by: SKapusniak on September 15, 2003 11:29 AM

SKapusniak:
Thanks.
CJ

Posted by: C.J. Colucci on September 15, 2003 11:33 AM

What lingered in my mind, when Alice and Humpty Dumpty discuss words, is Humpty Dumpty's reply: "The question is, who's to be master. That's all."

Posted by: John Isbell on September 15, 2003 12:19 PM

You commit a disservice in teaching the ten-year old that the electoral college "makes no sense". In fact, the dispersal of power that it enforces prevented the country from becoming an imporverished countryside paying tribute to an urban core that collects ever-more power to itself, or (more likely) breaking up as the periphery sought to prevent such an eventuality. In short, the EC (along with equal representation in the Senate) is the key clause in the constitution that makes a continental republic possible...

Posted by: jimbo on September 15, 2003 01:07 PM

Jimbo -- to put it rudely but entirely accurately -- has lost his mind. Why should the "one-man one-vote" rule give urban Americans disproportionate power over rural ones? The system as it now exists gives rural Americans such power over urban ones instead (as it also did in state governments until the US Supreme Court required the one man-one vote rule there in 1964 -- a move that absolutely no one wants reversed now).

By the way, read Robert Dahl's 2002 "How Democratic is the American Constitution?" to find out how we ended up with our current Senate system. It had nothing at all to do with theoretical arguments as to what was Good for Ameica -- Madison and Hamilton both furiously denounced the idea as undemocratic. It was passed only because the small states' delegations explicitly threatened that unless it was passed, they would ally with Britain in a new war against the US! To quote delegate Gunning Bedford of Delaware: unless the Senate was tilted toward the small states, they "will find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice." Afterwards -- when Madison, Hamilton and Jay were forced to put out the Federalist Papers on why the Constitution should be ratified -- their only mention of this decision is in Number 62, where Madison actually apologizes for it, repeats that the argument for it is nonsense, and says that a flawed Constitution is better than none.

It also distorts the Electoral College, of course -- but much less seriously; of the three presidential elections so far where the College has installed the loser as the "winner", 2000 is the only one where its small-state bias was the cause. (But then, 2000 is also the only Presidential election in US history that was swung by a third-party candidate -- unless you count 1860, when Lincoln won only because the Democratic Party split in two over slavery.)

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw on September 15, 2003 01:32 PM

People need to remember that in deciding the best means to elect representatives, that proportionality is not the sole criteria, and may not even be #1.

Decisiveness is also an important feature, or does anyone suggest we should have a scheme like the Italians use to have with governments unable to govern for more than a year? Or worse have close elections which can be perpetually contested - the 1960 election is one that immediately comes to mind?

And what about accountability - holding one person responsible for their voting record and being able to throw him out of office for it? Proportional representation systems are often notorious in failing in this regard.

Posted by: Chris Durnell on September 15, 2003 02:34 PM

People need to remember that in deciding the best means to elect representatives, that proportionality is not the sole criteria, and may not even be #1.

Decisiveness is also an important feature, or does anyone suggest we should have a scheme like the Italians use to have with governments unable to govern for more than a year? Or worse have close elections which can be perpetually contested - the 1960 election is one that immediately comes to mind?

And what about accountability - holding one person responsible for their voting record and being able to throw him out of office for it? Proportional representation systems are often notorious in failing in this regard.

Posted by: Chris Durnell on September 15, 2003 02:36 PM

People need to remember that in deciding the best means to elect representatives, that proportionality is not the sole criteria, and may not even be #1.

Decisiveness is also an important feature, or does anyone suggest we should have a scheme like the Italians use to have with governments unable to govern for more than a year? Or worse have close elections which can be perpetually contested - the 1960 election is one that immediately comes to mind?

And what about accountability - holding one person responsible for their voting record and being able to throw him out of office for it? Proportional representation systems are often notorious in failing in this regard.

Posted by: Chris Durnell on September 15, 2003 02:36 PM

Mr. Moomaw asserts that I have lost my mind. This makes the entirely unwarrented assumption that I ever had it...

Be that as it may, you make my point for me: "It was passed only because the small states' delegations explicitly threatened that unless it was passed, they would ally with Britain in a new war against the US!"

In short, smaller states were not about to see themsleves submerged in a polity in which they had no voice. If, by some chance, such a thing had initially passed, they would have withdrawn from it (by force if necessary) when it became clear the consequences of their membership. The undemocratic nature of the system is the price that must be paid in order to maintain a continent-scale republic. If you think the price is too high, fine - but then you need passports to go from New York to Virginia, because there's no other way to do it. (Unless, of course, you want to chuck democracy entirely, the way the elites have done in the EC...)

Oh, and I don't know about Madison, but the idea that Hamilton, (whose own ideas called for a hereditary monarch and appointed State governors) would have decried the "undemocratic" nature of the EC seems unlikely, to say the least...

Posted by: jimbo on September 15, 2003 02:51 PM

Note: I seem to be unclear in my abreviations: the first use of "EC", above, is for the European Community, while the second is for the Electoral College...

Posted by: jimbo on September 15, 2003 02:55 PM

"Oh, and I don't know about Madison, but the idea that Hamilton, (whose own ideas called for a hereditary monarch and appointed State governors) would have decried the 'undemocratic' nature of the EC seems unlikely, to say the least..."

OK, Jimbo, here's the quote (from Hamilton's speech to the Convention): "As states are a collection of individual men, which ought we to respect most the rights of the people composing them, or of the artificial begins resulting from the composition? Nothing could be more preposterous or absurd than to sacrifice the former to the latter. It has been said that if the smaller states renounce their equality, they renounce at the same time their liberty. The truth is it is a contest for power, not for liberty. Will the men composing the small states be less free than those composing the larger?"

Looks pretty definitive to me. (It should also be remembered that the "anti-democratic" Hamilton was a ferocious opponent of slavery, and played a key role in getting it outlawed in New York State.)

According to Dahl, Madison was even more vehement on the subject -- and consider his own sour comments on the subject in Federalist #62: "A government founded on principles more consonant to the wishes of the larger states is not likely to be obtained from the smaller states. The only option, then, for the former, lies between the proposed government and a government still more objectionable. Under this alternative, the advice of prudence must be to embrace the lesser evil...[T]he peculiar defense which [a non-proportionate Senate] involves in favor of the smaller states would be more rational, if any interests common to them, and distinct from those of the other states, would otherwise be exposed to peculiar danger. But as the larger states will always be able, by their power over the supplies, to defeat unreasonable exertions of this prerogative of the lesser states, and as the facility and excess of law-making seem to be the diseases to which our governments are most liable, it is not impossible that this part of the Constitution may be more convenient in practice than it appears in contemplation." Now, THERE'S an endorsement for you.

Madison and Hamilton seem to agree with you that the smaller states had militarily blackmailed the larger ones into accepting an outrageously undemocratic aspect to the US government -- just as the slaveholding states blackmailed the free states the same way. But if the Convention had rejected a non-proportionate Senate, a US formed just of the more populous states would certainly have been stronger than a US formed just of the non-slave states -- and just might have been able to bluff the smaller states into accepting a genuinely democratic Senate after all. (When Rhode Island delayed interminably on ratifying the Constitution, President Washington finally threatened to declare it an independent nation and blockade its ports -- after which it hastily ratified it.) Personally, if the less populous states today actually respond to a proposal to make the Senate fair by threatening to secede, I say let 'em go and good riddance. Or, if there is a war, it should be remembered that the states currently underrepresented in the Senate contain almost 3/4 of the American people...

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw on September 15, 2003 05:53 PM

Typo time for me. Hamilton's first sentence was really: "As states are a collection of individual men, which ought we to respect most -- the rights of the people composing them, or of the artificial beings resulting from the composition?"

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw on September 15, 2003 05:55 PM

Again, we're talking at cross purposes: I am not saying that the undemocratic nature of the electoral college or the senate is right or good - I am saying that it is the price to be paid for a continental scale republic. Maybe you can make the case that a (very) loose federation of independent city-states might have been a better way to go, and maybe I'd even agree with you - but that doesn't alter the fact that small, thinly populated states (absent, as I said, a Euro-style elite that is determined to do whatever it feels is the Best Way regardless of the feelings of the local population) are not going to enter into a political arangement that results in them being utterly dominated by distant strangers.

And then there's the part of #62 which recalls the arguments of #10:

"Another advantage accruing from this ingredient in the constitution of the Senate is, the additional impediment it must prove against improper acts of legislation. No law or resolution can now be passed without the concurrence, first, of a majority of the people, and then, of a majority of the States. It must be acknowledged that this complicated check on legislation may in some instances be injurious as well as beneficial; and that the peculiar defense which it involves in favor of the smaller States, would be more rational, if any interests common to them, and distinct from those of the other States, would otherwise be exposed to peculiar danger. But as the larger States will always be able, by their power over the supplies, to defeat unreasonable exertions of this prerogative of the lesser States, and as the faculty and excess of law-making seem to be the diseases to which our governments are most liable, it is not impossible that this part of the Constitution may be more convenient in practice than it appears to many in contemplation. "

In other words, balance: the watchword of the framers. Small against large, State against Federal, Executive against congress. Yes, I know it's the simplistic fairy tale we were taught in grade school, but the older I get the more sense it seems to make...

Posted by: jimbo on September 15, 2003 09:27 PM

In that passage Madison (sort of) defended the Senate's misapprortionment -- solely by using the defense that that government is best which governs least.

According to Dahl, Madison himself had more and more doubts about this -- and about his youthful obsession with checks and balances -- as he got older. But in any case, since the Industrial Age began -- with all the stupefying technological, economic and military complexisty that has now grown in all human societies -- it is obvious that now that government is most definitely NOT best that governs least. That government is best that governs most nimbly: that can pass laws fast to deal with suden and dramatic changes in the nature of society, the economy and the world balance of power, or repeal a law fast if it turns out not to work well. And with that, the last pathetic figleaf Madison and Hamilton tried to devise to defend -- as tolerable, although no better -- a Constitutional provision that they personally detested is gone.

State governments have resorted to the Horror of Equal Representation for four decades now, and there is not one trace of evidence that it has caused any state to disintegrate. Nor does anyone -- including the National Review writers who howled at the Moon over Baker vs. Carr in 1962 -- utter a peep about any need to repeal it.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw on September 15, 2003 10:40 PM
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