Friday, July 25, 2008

I'd Like A Quick Word...

Nothing huge today. Just some short thoughts on various goings-on and about things I have been mulling over as of late.

Oh, if you'll notice, I (slightly) changed the layout here, adding a blogroll and some links. Take a look there. You might find something of interest (or even your own site). If you read this space, and want me to link to you, just let me know.

Now, the scattershot musings:

  • This is one of the best written and funniest pieces on Barack Obama's image and media coverage that I have read recently.
  • I sincerely hope that this bill dies in the House or is killed by a veto. I promised no diatribe on this subject, but I will point out that if you eliminate or limit speculators, you give more control of energy prices to powers like OPEC. With a government-backed cartel like OPEC, prices only go up (among other really bad consequences).
  • Why does our society have such strange views on friendship? In the hierarchy of interpersonal relationships, why can't friendships be as deep/meaningful as marriages seem to be? I get the feeling (being familiar with the scholarship) that this was not always the case.
  • I have recently gotten back in touch with the work of Carl Sagan. I read The Dragons of Eden when I was in high school, but not much more. I saw Cosmos for the first time and was utterly enthralled. If there is a person who can explain scientific principles with more passion or simplicity, I don't know them. Click here for the introduction to Cosmos. Click here for him reading from his book Pale Blue Dot. You'll be hooked.

That's about all for now. Have a good weekend and remember, in the words of Carl Sagan that "we are all made of star stuff."

Friday, July 18, 2008

Sailing The Seas Of Smiles

First off, Dad, I answered your comment to the post below. I hope I didn't sound like a dumbass. I know I did.

Secondly, after the rather weighty posts of late, I figured I'd clue you good people into something really funny.

If you have not done so, you need to go right now and watch the hilarious Internet series Yacht Rock.

Click here for the homepage of YR. Click here for the dramatic final episode, which involves Jimmy Buffett's diabolical plot to kidnap Kenny Loggins and how Michael McDonald and James Ingraham save the day. "Ya Mo Be There?" You bet.

Basically, it is a series that explains the origins (?) of some of the smoothest music ever written. Main characters include Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen (Steely Dan) and more.

You will witness the birth of yacht rock (click here for a definition), the battle between Loggins/McDonald and Hall and Oates for yacht rock supremacy, the notion of yacht rap, Jetrho Tull (not yacht rock) and his magic fairy flute, the violent confrontation between The Eagles and Steely Dan and Kenny Loggins being lured to the dark side with promises of movie theme stardom (really, if you think about it, Loggins wrote just about every movie theme song from 1981 to about 1990).

You will also hear the sounds of smoothness and get carried away on the tide of warm, sunny musical perfection. For a good yacht rock playlist, click here.

So, dear readers, set sail for smooth music and I'll see you at the marina.

Have your doubts? That's what a fool believes.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Why Do People Vote (Or Not)? Part 2: Short Answer Portion

Well, it seems by the lack of comments and visits (thanks, stalking tools) that the idea of rational/irrational voters and the desire to vote was not as interesting to all of you as it is to me.

In that cause, I will make my statements short and provide you with links if you want to do some digging yourself.

Your Vote Does Not Matter: Strike One For Voting
It is a simple exercise in mathematics, which was done here by the very entertaining economist Steve Landsburg. He concludes, after comparing the odds in the lottery to those of your vote deciding the election, that (to give one example) you would have a better chance of winning the Powerball jackpot 7,400 times in a row than casting the deciding vote in the state of New York.

Pretty dismal, no?

So, if people are voting because they think their individual vote will decide the election, they either don't understand probability or choose to ignore it. So why do they go on?

Rational Ignorance: Strike Two For Voting
O.K., so you understand that your vote might not decide the election and, because of secret ballots, you wouldn't know that it was your vote anyway.

Are there any other reasons that arise from the long odds that should keep you away from the polls?

Yes, and that is where rational ingnorance comes into play. Read here for a more complete definition, but basically it boils down to the idea that because your odds are so long and becoming informed about the candidates and issues is costly in terms of time, effort and money, it is not worth it for you to be informed or care at all.

What personal benefit do you get from voting for one candidate over another? It is plain to see that one of the benefits is not the great chance that your vote will be decisive. There is a benefit that I can see one gaining by voting, but I think we'll close on that point.

Strike Three For Voting: Idiots In Large Groups
So, you understand that it is the best choice for you to remain ingorant on the issues, candidates and spend the time you would have invested in the election in doing something else...or do you?

Will, you ask, what if everyone thought like you and didn't vote? Wouldn't democracy collapse? No, because of the simple reason that most people don't think like me and still vote in the millions.

This raises the issues of group decision making and public choice theory. A detailed discussion of these ideas may be beyond the scope of this post, but a few remarks are in order. According to theories like Kenneth Arrow's "impossibility theorem," it is impossible in any system short of dictatorship to translate the choices of individuals into group preferences that meet even basic criteria for fairness. This, as mentioned above, relates to the larger field of public choice theory, wherein scholars have debated how this translation of personal choices into group decisions is to be structured to best reflect an overall preference. Most have said, however, that this is somewhere between difficult and virtually impossible.

Irrational Voters: Why Democracy Often Fails?
Allright, so, maybe, just maybe, people aren't voting for rational reasons. They are not seeking to maximize their payoffs and minimize their costs at all times and there are other reasons for voting. This has to be it, right?

Well, maybe. The work of Bryan Caplan, mainly in his new book, argues that rational ignorance does not give the whole picture. He asserts that voters are irrational rather than ignorant. He does this on the notion that while mistaken notions about some things in life (health, for example) are high cost, mistaken notions about economic and political issues are rather small in comparison. If I underestimate the high cost of juggling chainsaws, I will end up dead. If I understimate the cost of, say, immigration reform, what happens to me? Caplan argues (and fairly convincingly) that the same thing would probably happen if I knew nothing or if I understood the whole issue.

Which brings me to my final point...

Voting's Last Stand?
I had to think of something to say in favor of voting, if for no other reason than it seems that people are not going to stop doing it anytime soon.

This is an idea that has occured to me in the past, and it seems I'm not alone. Hey, if a really smart guy like Steve Levitt and I came up with similar ideas, well, perhaps I am not as big a moron as I sometimes claim.

The reason that I (and more eloquently Levitt) think people vote relates to seeking a benefit, but not the sort as described above. People vote simply so that others in their neighborhoods can see them voting and be seen themselves. It seems to be an issue of one's social image locally and a low-cost way to show one's dedication to the system that is supported by the act of voting. People, in other words, vote not approve or disapprove of a candidate or issue - they do it to seek approval for their behavior from their peers.

Now, I realize that there are critiques of voting from other standpoints, critiques that I think are quite interesting. Many of them come down to the point that voting is an act of acquiescence to a system that is in profound need of change. By not voting, one expresses their displeasure with the system and their desire to change it. This, for me, does not alter the fact that voting is a way of showing your personal preferences. It simply argues that your preference is for a different system alltogether.

In closing, I realize that there are a lot of open issues above, and a discussion of them could go in many different directions. I love talking about this stuff (as has become painfully obvious in this "short" post. Just let me know and we'll walk that rhetorical road together.

If not, well, I guess you have made your preferences clear to me on ONE score...

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Why Do People Vote (Or Not)? Part 1: Definitions

It came up in the comments and discussion on my last post (and I indeed mentioned it) and I thought that a discussion of this topic would be fruitful for all.

(I realize that I didn't address the topic of Europe's readiness for a more ethnically diverse leadership. If you want me to do this, I will. I will say, though, that European societies have generally had limited success when it comes to integrating minority populations into their political systems.)

The topic that I want to address is expressed in the title to this post. It is a question that needs to be asked as we approach an election, already billed by some in the mainstream media as the most important in America's recent history.

What factors influence people's decisions in the voting booth? What do people figure they gain (or lose) by voting (or not)? Do people always vote for their sincere preference? If not, why not? Is voting rational? If not, why do people persist in doing it? If voting isn't rational and people shouldn't do it, is democracy just a cruel deception? Does voting represent a tacit assent of this fundamentally flawed system? If so, what should replace it?

It is to these questions that I will turn in a post (hopefully later this week).

First, though, perhaps some definitions and explanations are in order for those of you who are educated, but not familiar with the intricacies of voting theory, electoral systems and how voter behavior is studied.

Our Electoral System

In the United States, we use what is known as a simple plurality voting system. It is often also referred to as "first-past-the-post" (FPTP). What this means is that in any given race, the voter is allowed to pick only one candidate for each contested position no matter how many candidates are running. Having done this, the votes are counted and the candidate with the most (the plurality) wins. As we all know, the U.S. presidential election is done in a two-stage system whereby the voters are actually voting for delegates who will vote for the candidates in the electoral college. The efficacy and fairness of this system is a discussion for another time.

This will have a bearing on the further discussion of how people make choices when voting and also the choice of whether to bother showing up on election day. It also (via an idea known as Duverger's Law) suggests why we (and most other countries that use FPTP) end up with a political landscape dominated by two major parties to the exclusion of others.

What do I think of this system? Let's just say that I think it has its advantages, but the disadvantages may outweigh them in the long run.

Rational Voter: Useful Concept or Oxymoron?

In having the discussion that we will have about how people form their voting preferences, we need to be clear about how we define "rational." How I will use it (and, in many ways, criticize it) is not perhaps the way you understand it.

In this case, rational is taken to mean the condition where a person always seeks to maximize benefits and minimize costs. Rationality means that, in any given situation, a person will understand the options before them, understand the payoffs and costs related to these options and, having this information, will always make the decision that leave them with the best possible outcome.

This picture of a person as a self-interested, informed, strategic actor emerges from a branch of thought in the social sciences known as rational choice theory. Now, whether people are actually like this even some of the time will be part of our later discussion. I suspect, however, that there is some considerable truth to be gained from the idea of the rational voter, but ultimately it falls short of explaining the whole of voter behavior.

Why Should You Care?

I think the answer to this should be perfectly clear. I, for one, cannot help but constantly wonder why I do the things that I do and why others do the same (or not). Voting is one of these things. We are brought up from a very young age to believe that voting is our civic duty and that we must do it to have one's opinion on public affairs be meaningful. This relates to another term used by social scientists, political socialization.

I cannot help but wonder: why is this so? Is it because democracy needs the participation of the citizens? If not, why do it at all if your one vote is very unlikely to make a difference in an election? Is voting itself merely giving assent to a system that needs this sort of validation to continue? Do we really, despite our different choices of candidates, by voting merely give credence to a political system that is not what it seems (democratic)?

These are critical questions at any time, but they come to the fore during an election season where the supposedly rational voter is being barraged with images and propaganda designed to influence the decision-making process. My goal is to try and wade through some of this and get to the heart of the issue of why people vote and why does it matter.

Stay tuned; more to come on this later in the week.