Sunday, March 18, 2018

On Voting

I don't particularly ever wish to go viral, nor any idea or suggestion of mine to go viral. Namely because I do not view myself as qualified to generate a sufficiently considered idea to have its upside sufficiently outweigh its unintended consequences.

But if there were one idea I could come close to wishing would catch on it's this decision rule: 'vote for the candidate who spent the least on their campaign.'

Before I elaborate... build a case for why I'd want this idea to catch on, there's some obvious caveats and qualifications - namely that you might have a case where you have an establishment corrupt person and a truly horrific independent who couldn't get funding because their platform is essentially 'I feel like Hitler never had a bad idea' or something, in which case a voters primary duty - to vote for the lesser evil - should supersede the simple vote for who spends the least. Beyond not being so hard and fast to exempt one's ethical duties, this decision rule is very much a limited 'take back democracy' campaign that would not run indefinitely. If it got widespread enough and thus candidates were incentivized into a 'race to the bottom' on campaign spending, then at some point regrettably you might actually have to look at, and weigh up policy again to decide how to vote. Perhaps the nominal end point would be when a Democratic government actually passes campaign finance reform legislation in favor of public interest.

Anyway, here's why I'd ostensibly like this idea to catch on.

1. It is underpinned by something that should be verified, and I believe, has been verified through analysis of at least the United States electoral process. But the finding I believe was that the best predictor of policy is actually not campaign promises or even party ideology but campaign contributions.
I would expect this to be the case, just through pure reasoning. Chomsky does better reasoning than I can, and furthermore actually reads up on this shit, but the picture gets scattered across a bunch of sources, so please accept (but still apply critical thinking) my shitty synthesis.
Basically there's a threshold at which campaigning for public office gets so expensive that you lose your democracy - you move from 1 person 1 vote, to 1 dollar 1 vote. An unfinanced candidate simply cannot win office. If a candidate finances themselves through small contributions from many people, and campaign donations are a better prediction of the policy outcomes than campaign promises by candidates, then in effect the *real* election is the fundraising campaign - and that's best case. Inflate campaign costs out of the reach of small contributions and you have disproportionate representation for those who make greater donations.
The wealthiest people are legal people aka corporations, and corporations are almost exclusively tyrannical in structure. There is in principle not much difference between your preferred candidate accepting 'donations' from a dictator like Kim Jong Un, and a corporate executive. They are both tyrants that preside over a domain that can have conflicting interests to the public at large.
Rationally you would expect campaign 'contribution' or 'donation' to be a euphamism for 'investment' in that given a CEO can also just plain vote, their incentive to move from 1 person 1 vote to 1 dollar 1 vote is to get disproportionate representation. This can even work when they donate the same amount to both candidates, because the candidate is faced with the dilemma of refusing the donation and thus accepting a disadvantage. Hence on some issues it's possible to get no representation from either candidate.
The other point that bears emphasis is that campaign contributions being a better predictor of policy than campaign promises. If a tyrant desires a piece of policy that is universally unpopular - say reducing the minimum wage - then their interest is in having the candidate that represents them get elected, not to convince the public that the policy is a good idea. They can come to a private understanding of the conditions of the donation, and then have the candidate campaign on entirely unrelated issues. eg. you might vote for the 'Marriage Equality' candidate platform because you care about equal rights and their donors are indifferent, but the same candidates intention to deregulate minimum wage is never really featured in their campaigning.
So the rationale becomes pretty basic, the less campaign expenditure, the less compromised your candidate is, the more representative your vote is likely to be.

2. It's simple! The decision rule requires no education beyond being able to identify which of two integers  is the lower number. Someone can adopt the rule with no need to educate themselves into critical thinking, economic theory or even civics. Much like a managed index fund is for many the best way to invest in shares because one simply owns the whole market, needs to know nothing about finance, pays lower fees and achieves higher returns than most managed funds, a voter who uses this simple decision rule doesn't need to pay attention and process any information apart from who spent the least. A simple, objectively verifiable fact.
Democracy is a popular, egalitarian ideal and that means a decision rule needs to be simple, to be applicable at the lowest common denominator of analytical ability and like an economic model produce a better outcome across the population, not necessarily in every discrete case.
While the benefits of using a simple rule are to me clear, the adoption of such a simple solution I realize is wildly optimistic, given that most people are not empirical and sadly persist in the conceit they are smarter than they have already demonstrated themselves to be. There is a wealth of data to indicate that low-cost index funds have outperformed the vast majority of fund managers for years, but lay people still persist in paying high fees to numerous managers who routinely under perform the market - thus I expect most people will still think themselves up to the task of analyzing minute chunks of second hand information as to a candidates policy platform to determine how to vote in their own best interest.
You could have already thought that this rule would have meant Trump over Clinton, given that Trump spent less on his campaign, but you'd be wrong. It would mean Sanders over Trump which is actually incorrect again, because for the office of president it would be Johnson over Trump and Sanders (and I don't know which of the million republican primary candidates was the poorest, but it probably would not have been Trump).
The outcome of any one election is not the point of the decision rule though, although it could produce better outcomes for the public at large, the real beauty is in the incentive it provides. Namely if this was how voters voted, it would incentivise candidates to not take campaign contributions. Both Trump and Obama won their primaries and fans largely because they weren't taking large ticket donations. Then the tragedy (particularly for the Obama campaign) they welcomed with open arms the compromising money in the Presidential campaign because the donations tend to follow votes and not the other way round. Another way of thinking about that is that your preferred candidate gets privatized by virtue of being likely to represent their constituents.
It would free candidates from the obligation towards donors and free them from the donor treadmill - a public office holder after the fact of the election cannot bite the hand that feeds them, because they have to consider their re-election, career, retirement and the future of their party.
If en masse, having your campaign budget expand becomes a liability to you getting elected then candidates obligations move from fulfilling the promises on which they were financed, to fulfilling the promises on which they were elected.

3. There's also a potential for much needed reform in Journalism. If campaign contributions are better at predicting policy outcomes than campaign policy platforms, then journalistic coverage of politics needs to be focused on the fundraising rather than the campaigning if they are true to their mission of informing the general public.
Adopt this simple decision rule and suddenly the only information voters care about aren't the talking heads promising policies they apparantly have no intention of fulfilling, but who is spending what and where that money is coming from.
The United States is well set up, because they have to declare donations and it's all a matter of public record. My own country Australia under the Westminster System, I believe has a less admirable legislation as regards disclosing donations - but it should be noted that the press in the US does an abysmal job of covering and disseminating this most crucial information to the public at large.
Even in a country like Australia though, the necessary information is available to cover the expenditure on campaigns by proxy - media monitoring is already in place to estimate advertising costs based on the numeracy and frequency of ads on broadcast mediums and online. Organisations like Getup! even have the infrastructure in place to distribute 'How to vote' cards that just list candidate by campaign expenditure.

4. It's a massive massive massive time saver. Think about it, when someone says 'Have you heard about what Dutton said on Q & A last night' you can say 'I don't care.' There's only one thing you need to know, so you can skip all the mental taxation of trying to determine whose policy reflects your best interests, especially if the proposed policy is not that predictive of actual policy.
It's fucking SIMPLE! I can't emphasize this point enough, there is just so much fucking pure white noise in public discourse picking over the minutiae of candidates policy and history and all this shit in what is a tragically optimistic overestimation of the influence of discourse and our ability to disseminate our best ideas. Here is something where you can just say 'vote for the candidate who spends the least money and if enough people do THAT then they'll learn to stop taking money.'
Take just one example as an illustration. Just one.
Should you vote for a candidate that supports Capital Improved Value basis for land tax or Site Value? If you don't immediately know, then here's what you need to know - Capital Improved Value basically means the better condition the structures sitting on your land are in, the more land tax you have to pay, whereas if you were to demolish any structures then you would get a reduction in your tax obligation. CIV based land tax favors land banking and speculation, whereas Site value encourages development and optimal usage of the property. Land banking artificially reduces the supply of housing, thus putting upward pressure on land prices, hence CIV is pushed for by Real Estate lobby groups and land bankers, it allows development estates to drip feed supply of new housing as well on the outskirts while reducing the amount of funding local councils receive...
blah blah blah, there's more I could extrapolate on, the thing is with the decision rule you don't actually need to know any of this shit. It means you will probably vote for the candidate that received less money from any Real Estate, Property Development or Land Banking lobby groups.

5. Worst case: The next election we wind up electing a chaotic mess of independents, all grossly under-qualified with very narrow domains they actually care about (one may have campaigned on the single issue of raising Highway Speed limits, another on being Anti-Duck Hunting) but the game as it stands, is broken. An incoherent government would have to come together to compromise and actually think through problems as shit arises and they would have no reciprocal obligation to do anything for any group beyond the interests of their constituent voters.
Historically in Australia, minority governments (like most recently the Gillard Government) have been much more effective than majority governments in passing legislation because they are forced to negotiate and compromise.
The monsters on both sides are the ones running slick campaigns and then quite transparently not representing the people who voted for them.
Yes, there's some chance that en masse we elect a dysfunctional incoherent mob of unqualified independents who send us back to the pols early, and then there's a chance the 2 party systems of the world pull off a 'we told you so, it's one of us or nobody!' but if you hold fast to your resolve, eventually under game theory the competent parties will have to adapt their game to representing voters rather than donors.

I really can't believe how I managed to write so many words over something so simple, I doubt this decision rule is an original idea on my part, and really it becomes similar to government by lottery which I am not adverse to and that certainly wasn't my idea. I just hear this kind of no-analytical-abilities-required solutions rarely, if ever, discussed for all the lengthy discussion of our broken democracies.

So I guess, if you want my vote don't take any more fucking money than needed to register.

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