Sunday, February 21, 2016

Are People Still Not Realizing How Different The US 2016 Election Is?

At the time that I am writing this, Donald Trump is looking to be the clear leader as the Republican candidate for the general election, while on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are still competing strongly for the lead. The general opinion seems to be that a lot of Democrats want Bernie Sanders, but feel that Hillary Clinton is the only one of the two who has a real chance of winning a general election.

This situation will probably largely sort itself out in a little over a week with the Super Tuesday elections, when we'll see if the Bernie Sanders idealists win out, or the Hillary Clinton "she knows how to play the game" / "it's time for a female president" crowd do.

I've been a Sanders supporter from the start, and I've found it interesting and amusing to watch the mental contortions of people during this election cycle, both on the Democratic and Republican sides, as they've constantly had their beliefs on how elections work be challenged, and then struggle to make sense of what they're seeing and make meaningful predictions for the future.

Go back about 8 or 9 months when candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump announced their intention to run for president. So many people were constantly saying that these were unelectable candidates, they weren't serious candidates, that it was a waste of time to pay attention to them.

I watched with disappointment as people like Bill Maher would say things like (paraphrasing) "I love Bernie Sanders, but he'll never be president", and then with amusement recently as he now endorses Sanders and criticizes all of those people who won't take him seriously as a candidate!

The right wing media has tried so desperately to make Donald Trump go away, and he just won't go away. He's a mostly self-funded billionaire candidate, and he can afford to stick around as long as he wants. He doesn't need to pander to the media, he knows how to manipulate the media, and they're completely unprepared for dealing with this.

Back in August, I wrote a blog post about how we're at a point where needing lots of money to pander to big media is no longer necessary for a candidate to get noticed. It's now Facebook, Twitter and Google that are largely determining what news people are seeing, and that's why Bernie Sanders became a viable candidate. His supporters have made him go viral despite all the money being thrown at the media in support of Hillary Clinton.

So here's the interesting thing: for all of the people who insisted that Trump and Sanders couldn't possibly become serious contenders for the presidency, you were wrong. Whatever your intuitions or arguments were, they've already been proven to be invalid in this election cycle to some degree. Given this information, do you now keep making predictions based on your previous intuitions, or do you step back and admit that if you were so wrong in your predictions about the election up to now, then maybe your future predictions are going to be just as unreliable?

For all of the people insisting that Bernie Sanders can't possibly win a general election, you may of course be totally right. But if you also insisted that he couldn't even get to this level of popularity, then you already have good evidence that you don't understand this election cycle. Having your predictions proven wrong and then being convinced your new predictions will be right is simply not being willing to adjust your views to new evidence.

Basically, if you were previously saying that there couldn't possibly be a Sanders vs Trump general election, then you should probably shut up about whether Sanders can win a general election. And if your main reason for preferring Clinton over Sanders is because you think only she has a chance at winning, then please, have the intellectual integrity to step back, notice just how wrong your and most other peoples intuitions have been about this election, and stop continuing to make bad predictions that will lead to bad decisions.

There is actually a real chance at a US election where people can vote for an idealistic candidate who genuinely wants to change things rather than just seeking power. He may not succeed with the things he wants to achieve, but the US political system is desperately in need of a shake up, and a shake up towards idealism rather than cynicism. People's confidence in anything useful actually getting done is at an all time low, and voting in more of the same type of people is probably just going to get more of the same type of results.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Why Liquid Democracy is a Terrible Idea

If this was democracy it would be terrible.

In recent years the concept of liquid democracy, aka delegative democracy, has become popular, and I've heard it advocated by a lot of smart people. The basic concept is that, rather than electing a single individual as the representative of your community to act on your behalf on all matters, you can choose individuals to vote on your behalf on specific areas of governance. In other words, if someone is recognized as a particular authority on some area of legislation, people will delegate their vote to that person on those issues. The hope is that votes on particular legislation will be made more intelligently and with less party politics, corruption and other issues undermining the whole system.

Like many things, I think this is an idea that sounds great in theory but is probably terrible in practice (or at best, just as bad as representational democracy). I think it is mistaken in much the same ways that people in the 90s gushed about how the internet would level playing fields and give a voice to everyone, and how the wisdom of the crowds would make all the important news and information rise to the top, rather than the advertising driven, clickbait, mob virality ecosystem ruled by large corporations such as Google and Facebook that we actually ended up with.

If you see elected representatives as simply there to stand as a proxy for the people who elected them, a simple sum of what each of those people would have voted for on a particular issue, then it's easy to see why people might consider them an unnecessary burden. But elected representatives aren't just opinion accumulators. Their job (at least when they actually do it properly!) is to spend the time to understand issues and vote on behalf of the people who elected them. Individual citizens don't have the time to have deep understanding of all of the issues that are part of running a society. It's good to have some awareness of issues so you can better judge if your representative is doing a good job, but the point is to pick someone who you trust to act on your behalf and spend the time you don't have to hopefully make better decisions.

Now, given this, it would seem like liquid democracy might give better results. The main problem is that most people are lazy, uninformed, and unwilling to spend much time.

For liquid democracy to work, it requires people to typically pick a greater number of delegates. Some people will take the time and effort to do that, of course, but most people probably wont. They will pick one or a very small number of people. And how will they decide? Rather than any kind of nuanced investigation, they'll just tend to go with whomever their peers go with.

So let's consider a particular area that is contentious, like reproductive rights. Do you think that most Americans will delegate their vote on these issues to scientists? Or do you think they think the relevant authorities on these issues are rather their pastors and priests? And how progressive will those results end up?

Or how about climate change. How many people will delegate to respected climate scientists, and how many will delegate to that "maverick" climate scientist that Fox News told them to delegate to?

The problem with delegating to authorities is that most people don't have a clue who the authorities are! They take their cues from biased news organizations, their religious leaders, and whatever shows up in their Twitter/Facebook feed, so these are the actual authorities they're effectively delegating to. And the result would be shit.

Liquid democracy considers its agility to be a virtue, but in a lot of ways, the relative slowness of our current systems can actually be useful. Having people in power for a certain length of time allows them to actually get things done without constantly worrying about having their "authority" revoked, which is considered a feature of liquid democracy. If there's anything we should have learned from social media in the present, it's just how quickly stupid shit can become viral and huge numbers of people get obsessed with it, and then just as quickly disappear and the next viral thing becomes the most important thing ever. Having a system that can smooth out these opinion spikes as people jump on different bandwagons is becoming increasingly important, and liquid democracy seems particularly fragile to it.

Perhaps I've just become very cynical. Where some people see citizen journalism and an internet where every voice can be heard, I see clickbait, virality of articles that arouse anger and outrage, and no one wanting to pay for real journalism. Where some people see the sharing economy and apps that empower people, I see corporations exploiting people and avoiding regulations and legal obligations. And where some people see the empowerment of individuals to play a greater role in the democratic process, I see a small number of individuals taking the time and effort to do it right, and the majority making terrible delegation decisions that result in an even worse system than what we currently have.

Are Fines Unjust?

Even a $10,000 fine is cheap for a millionaire
In society we generally consider several different types of punishment acceptable for different crimes. We have (in some places) the death penalty, imprisonment, community service, and monetary fines as the most common types. All of these are intended to serve one or more of the following purposes:
  • Keep high risk people from being able to re-offend (imprisonment, death penalty)
  • Have some kind of cost to the offender so they are less likely to do it again, and to deter potential offenders (all types)
  • Provide a feeling of justice being served to the victims (all types)
  • Provide rehabilitation to the offender to reduce chances of re-offending (imprisonment)
  • Raise revenues for the police and the state in general (fines, community service in an indirect way)
Fines are used very frequently as a punishment for non-violent crimes and in particular, crimes that are often committed by "regular" people: speeding, parking violations, minor property damage.

What I want to argue here is that monetary fines are an unjust form of punishment and that we should consider replacing them in all cases with community service, imprisonment, or something similar.

Resource Deprivation

Monetary fines differ from the other forms of punishment in one significant way: all of the other punishments effectively deprive the offender of time. You take a certain amount of time and force the offender to do something they don't want to do with that time: some sort of community service, sit in a jail cell. And what is significant about that is that everyone, rich or poor, has (roughly speaking) the same amount of it, and can't create more.

A billionaire can have orders of magnitude more money than a homeless person, but even paying for all the best medical services money can buy, can't really get more than a few years of extra time. And time lost can't be replaced. The opportunities that are missed are often missed for good because time keeps moving forward and can't be re-experienced.

So a punishment that involves time deprivation is much more likely to be an equal deterrent to all people than one that involves monetary deprivation. A $500 fine for illegal parking isn't going to deter a millionaire in a rush anywhere near as much as a minimum wage worker, but 40 hours of community service will.

Equal Punishment

Some countries, such as Finland, use a model for some fines that is based on the income of the offender, rather than having an absolute value to the fine. This is definitely an improvement, since it means a rich person will get a proportionately greater fine, but it still doesn't solve the problem. After all, a millionaire can typically get by losing, say, 10% of their income better than a person who is struggling to make ends meet. The simple fact is that even if you hit a wealthy person with a proportionately larger fine than a poorer person, it's never going to affect them in the same way.

I suspect that the very reason fines exist for many of the (non-violent) crimes that a rich person is likely to commit is because the rich and powerful push for it. Monetary fines just become a cost of doing business. To a rich person, an illegal parking fine is just an expensive parking space. A speeding ticket is an "express lane" fee. Even when we look at the crimes committed by investment banks over the last decade, tens of billions of dollars have been paid in fines but generally no jail time or even admitting guilt by any of the parties. The fines are literally just treated like an extra tax for their line of business.

Time based penalties change all of this. It equalizes the punishment and costs something that is precious to everyone. And when it comes in the form of community service, it also allows things to get done that are often hard for local government to justify when they have to explicitly pay for them. It effectively serves as a form of cheap labour, so it's like revenue raising, except that it's done directly in the form of labour, so there's no opportunity for monetary revenues to be siphoned off inappropriately by government departments.

Perverse Incentives

The other very useful feature of time based punishments is that it removes the perverse incentives that monetary punishments create for law enforcement. When the police can directly generate revenues via fines, then there is an incentive to allocate more resources to the types of policing that generate revenue, rather than the policing that is most needed by the community. There are plenty of stories of police being given quotas for things like speeding fines, and this sort of situation is unlikely to result in the best outcomes for the community.

Of course, police services are often underfunded, so it's not surprising that they will overpolice in ways that generate revenue. But it will also be the case that when it's known that the police have this revenue source available, they are also less likely to receive direct funding in government budgets, which creates a vicious cycle. So they will also probably be better off to have this revenue source closed off, so the government has to accept that it must directly provide 100% of the funding, and the police can get back to doing what's best for the community.