The Electoral College: Why You Should Vote Third Party

Voting Power

Robin Hanson proposes a voting thought experiment:

Imagine that polls stayed open for a month before the election deadline, and that a random one percent of voters were upgraded to “super-voters,” who can privately vote up to twenty times, as long as they wait at least an hour between votes. When a super-voter votes all twenty times, their votes are doubled, and counted as forty votes. “Privately” means no one else ever knows that this person was a super-voter.

Having two votes is twice the power of a normal vote, and gives you twice the ability to choose a winner. In this scenario, if super-voters wanted to maximize their ability to change the outcome they would unquestionably vote twenty times. Yet Hanson suggests most people wouldn’t vote twenty times. I would suggest another way to imagine the thought experiment: given the ability to pay to be part of this one percent, how much would you pay to be a super voter? I’d bet the price would incredibly low. Why? Because even these “super-voters” have no ability to influence the outcome of elections.

At least for federal elections. In 2012, the closest state in the presidential election by percentage was Florida with Obama ahead by only 0.88% (Click on % or votes to sort respectively).

State Obama Victory Margin (%) Obama Victory Margin (votes) Electoral Votes
Colorado  5.36  137,858 9
Florida 0.88 74,309 29
Georgia  -7.82  -304,861 16
Maine, 2nd  8.56  28,783 1
Montana  -13.65  -66,089 3
Nebraska, 1st -16.64 -43,939 1
Nebraska, 2nd -7.17 -19,087 1
Nevada  6.68  57,806 6
New Hampshire  5.58  39,643 4
North Carolina -2.04 -92,004 15
Ohio 2.98 166,277 18
Virginia 3.88 149,298 13

Several states or districts were actually closer in absolute victory margin than Florida, but not in percentage. Suppose that Romney had won Florida instead of Obama.  This would have required an additional 74,000 people to vote for Romney or 74,000 Obama supporters to stay home, or half that number to switch from Obama to Romney.  This isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but your puny 40 votes from Robin Hanson’s thought experiment would be worthless.  Even if you could get Hanson to give you 74,310 votes instead of 40, all it would do would change Romney’s electoral votes total from 206 to 235, not nearly enough to win the presidency.

In fact, if you could strategically place votes, the least amount of votes you’d need to add to flip the outcome from Obama to Romney would be:

  • 74,310 votes in Florida for 29 electoral votes
  • 166,278 votes in Ohio for 18 electoral votes
  • 149,299 votes in Virginia for 13 electoral votes
  • 39,644 votes in New Hampshire for 4 electoral votes

That would get Romney to 270 electoral votes, winning 4 states by a single vote each, and requiring 429,531 votes in exactly the right places. So how much should you pay to get 40 votes in the 2012 election? $0, because 40 votes could literally do nothing to change the outcome.

Where Votes Matter

Needless to say, your single vote in a single state is even less valuable than 40 votes. There are some mitigating circumstances which would give your federal vote the chance at importance: you don’t know how close the election will be in your state and you don’t know which state will be the decisive one.  But even this is only somewhat true; even though the 2016 election is months away, we are pretty sure that the most important states are Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina.  FiveThirtyEight does this by ordering all states on a scale of most likely to least likely to vote for a candidate; the state that pushes each candidate over 270 electoral votes is the decisive state. New Hampshire and Nevada are located near the others, but because they are worth fewer votes, they are not as likely to decide the election.

The problem for Romney in 2012 was that Florida was the closest state, yet his “tipping point” state was probably Colorado (or New Hampshire like we calculated earlier).  People in Colorado actually had the decisive votes, yet their state was not competitive, so the election was largely over weeks before it actually happened.

This year, although there is still time, Trump is not competitive because he is losing badly in all the states mentioned above; he’s currently behind in not just Virginia and New Hampshire, but Ohio, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Iowa, and even Georgia. If Trump is in danger of losing Arizona even a few weeks before election day (recent polls have him ahead by only 2 percentage points), then the election will be over early.

Of course, things will change, and I suspect Trump will begin to lead again in North Carolina and Georgia. But to have a chance to be president, he’ll have to be competitive in Florida, Ohio, and likely Pennsylvania. If he’s not, he’ll end up like Romney with most votes cast on election day just fulfilling an already known outcome.

But irrespective of Trump’s competitiveness and barring unprecedented circumstances, if you don’t live in those mentioned states, your vote will be worthless regardless of what happens between now and election day. That’s an impressive fact. The purpose of the electoral college was to add a layer of indirection between pure populism and the presidency, but all it has succeeded in doing in make some states matter and others not matter at all.

Should You Vote At All?

There’s no getting around this question given how useless your vote is. The bottom line is that when it comes to presidential elections and pure cost-benefits discussion, if you don’t live in a swing state and your time is even marginally valuable to you, you should not waste time voting for president. People talking about your civic duty to vote convey a nice idea, but there’s no denying the electoral math.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vote at all! The US is somewhat democracy obsessed, and there are usually very important other races to vote for. Senate and House races are often not very close, so you’ll have to check to see if your own local elections are projected to be close (the Cook Political ratings for House, Senate, and Governor are good places to start), but local elections and direct ballot referendums are much more likely to be competitive and will often affect voters’ lives more directly than federal elections. Of course, these also require a bit more research than presidential elections where information is plentiful.

The other point is that voting is fun. Americans love voting, because it feels like you’re involved in something bigger. Even if, mathematically, you’re not part of something at the federal level, you have the ability to make impacts on your local area.

Should You Vote For A Third Party?

We’ve already discussed that your presidential vote is worthless if you don’t live in a swing state (assuming they have any value at all). However, given that people can still find good reasons to vote in local elections, a local voter will already be in a position to cast a vote for president. The marginal cost of voting for president will be a matter of seconds. Given that, should you vote for a third party?

If you don’t live in a swing state, the answer is obviously yes. Of course, this assumes you actually prefer a third party to the normal Republican and Democrat choices. I don’t think this is too hard, and you can fill out surveys like isidewith.com and see what other political choices are available. Especially this year, there are plenty of people on the left disappointed with Hillary Clinton’s lack of integrity and hawkish foreign policy. And on the right, there are plenty people who would rather not vote for Donald Trump for any of several thousand reasons. If you don’t live in Florida/Pennsylvania/Ohio/North Carolina/Virginia, then there is no reason not to vote for a third party, as the outcome of non-swing states is already decided. If the outcome for any non-swing state is in danger, then the election is a landslide victory anyway (i.e. if Georgia is competitive, Hillary already won, so vote your conscience).

There’s also good reason to vote for a third party you like rather than leave that part of the ballot blank; Republicans and Democrats have been making it difficult for third parties to get onto the ballot for decades. The latest idea of the NeverTrump Republicans is to draft Evan McMullin to run for president. Well guess what? People won’t be able to vote for him in most states because of how difficult Republicans and Democrats have made it to get on the ballot.  But people who vote for third parties in November will be directly helping those parties surpass ballot access requirements for the next election cycle.  Many states allow automatic ballot access for the next election cycle if a party receives 3-5% of the vote in an election, depending on the state.

Should You Vote For A Third Party In A Swing State?

If you do live in a swing state, chances are you should vote for third party anyway! Most elections become less uncertain as we get closer to election day, and the chances of your swing state being both competitive and the decisive state are very low. In the last 10 elections, 2012, 2008, 1996, 1992, 1988, 1984, and 1980 were not particularly competitive. It actually didn’t matter who you voted for in these elections.  In 2004, John Kerry needed over 100,000 additional voters (out of almost 5.6 million cast) in Ohio to win, and while in retrospect that’s a fair margin, it was within the margin of error for polls. It seems that most knew Ohio would be the big battleground state.  But even if you combine all third party voters in Ohio, there’s not nearly enough to cover the margin. We could say that over 100,000 Bush supporters in Ohio could have voted for a third party without changing the outcome of the election. That’s a lot of people. In 1976, Ford only needed about 50,000 votes in Wisconsin and Ohio and he would have gotten 4 more years. It turns out that there were a substantial amount of third party votes for Eugene McCarthy, but it’s unlikely McCarthy voters were about to side with Ford over Carter.  It seems we could say about 50,000 additional third party votes could have been cast in Ohio and Wisconsin instead of being cast for Carter.

Now the most famous case of third party votes changing an election is Florida in 2000. Here Bush beat Gore by around 500 or so votes, while Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, received almost 100,000 votes. We should not discount Nader supporters; they knew they had the option to support Al Gore if they wanted to. They decided they’d rather vote for Nader, which is certainly their prerogative. The question should be, if they had a choice, would 500 more Florida Nader supporters have favored Al Gore being president over George W. Bush? If so, the the Green Party caused the president to be someone Green Party supporters did not prefer. It’s also likely quite a few more than 500 Nader supporters would have wanted a Gore presidency over a Bush presidency with Nader being a far left-of-center candidate.

But we have to emphasize that the 2000 Florida situation is simply unlikely; most elections are not close, and even when they are, hundreds of thousands of voters are needed to change the outcome, not 500.  If there is a chance of a swing state being the decisive state, and you happen to live in that state, and you have strong preferences between the two major party candidates, you could make an argument that you should vote for a major party over a third party, but that’s the only situation where there’s even an argument.

Another way I put it on facebook when discussing this year’s election with someone who opposed Trump:

“If Johnson voters would otherwise vote for Clinton, and if those voters live in a swing state, and if the election is close enough where 1 or 2 states could decide the election, and if Clinton were to lose by a margin smaller than the amount of Johnson voters who would vote for her, then a vote for Johnson is a vote that could cost Clinton the election. But it’s still not quite as bad as a vote for Trump.”

Remember, this is the only criteria for why you should vote for a Republican or Democratic presidential candidate. Even if you like them more than third party candidates, if it’s not a swing in a decisive election, it’s irrelevant that you vote for those candidates. The additional margin of victory changes nothing for them, and they already have ballot access.

The American electoral college was built to choose a president among many different candidates. Thus, in most states, you can vote for your ideal candidate without issue. The concept of “wasting” a vote on a third party makes no sense in most contexts because the electoral college will ensure that your vote is a “waste” already. If the election were a direct popular vote, voting for a third party would be a bigger issue (an issue that could be solved easily via instant runoff voting). But we don’t have that system. Anyone who claims that voting for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein is a “wasted vote” is just announcing that they prefer a main party candidate to a third party candidate. Trying to guilt voters who disagree with them to switch sides without convincing them why their candidate is actually better is an excellent political strategy. But as demonstrated here, there is no logic behind this reasoning beyond “I want my team to get more votes”. If their team isn’t worthy of getting your vote, don’t give it to them.


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Thanks to Stuart Langridge for his tips on making sortable html tables. 

Picture credit: Gary Johnson by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Narrow Your Gun Debates

On firearms, I’m open to robust gun ownership, but I’m not sold on anything. Like most of my positions, my default is to favor the ability of individuals to operate without restrictions, but I’m by no means a gun purist, to the dismay of many more intense libertarians I know. If there were more stringent regulations on firearms purchases, it wouldn’t be something I cared strongly about.

Nonetheless, many people do feel strongly about gun ownership in the United States, and I wonder if this is a position where efficient advocacy could help us understand whether those feelings are warranted. Unfortunately, gun ownership and gun control are complex issues with many different parts. Continue reading Narrow Your Gun Debates

Rawlsian Rebuttal to Inequality Concerns

This was stolen from a comment on this week’s EconTalk with Richard Epstein.

The concept of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer is oft-repeated, although according to my Google results, many of the top hits are articles disproving it. Despite this, sources from the Washington Post to Gawker to Thomas Piketty have talked about inequality and its negative consequences.

On EconTalk Russ Roberts stated the following:

I want to create a Rawlsian veil of ignorance…where we’re going to imagine different states of the world, but you don’t know where you’re going to be in those different states.

First state of the world is 1900. You might end up being a rich person or a poor person. The next state of the world is 2016.  Again, you might end up being a rich person or a poor person. I think most people alive today…would prefer to have a random shot at a 2016 life than even actually to be in the upper 10% or 5% in 1900.

This is a fascinating application of the Rawlsian veil of ignorance, an excellent moral and political philosophy tool. As Russ states, under a veil of ignorance, we take a society and imagine that we could be randomly assigned the life of anyone in that society. Usually this is used comparatively to accept or reject certain layouts of society.  For example, I’ve personally heard economists discussing surveys based on the Rawlsian veil of ignorance where most citizens would choose to live in a more equal society than they think they live in.  Interestingly, most people underestimate the level of inequality in most western countries compared to the actual level of inequality, and would choose societies more equal than what they estimate society to be. The implication is that people’s own revealed preferences when they put themselves in the position of an outsider is to advocate for more income redistribution.

However, there are some links between economic growth and inequality; it may be hard to have one without the other.  If that’s the case, an important question to ask is whether you’d want to be in a poorer economy with low inequality or a richer economy with high inequality. Russ’ thought experiment does this pretty well. It’s also worth comparing today’s economy with the 1970s or 80s. Would you choose to be randomly placed in more equal 1980 or less equal 2016?  Today cars are safer, communication is better, food costs less and more varieties are available, and life is better in immeasurable ways.

What if you were guaranteed to be in the top 50% of the world in 1980? What if you were guaranteed to be in the top 50% of the US in 1980? What level of wealth would you need to guarantee before you stopped risking being a poor person today?  It’s an interesting question, and uses our own intuition to counter the notion of the “rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer”.

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Abortion is way more complicated than you think it is.

Disclaimer: I am a man, and this article is written with respect to the development of my understanding of the issue While both men and women can and should have a say in such a philosophical debate, a woman will probably have given more thought to a matter that directly affects her.

I am neither “Pro-choice” nor “Pro-life”. A year ago, after changing my opinion on the matter for a fourth time, I realized that the issue was so complex such that I didn’t know enough to defend a particular opinion. From my experiences, I don’t think there are many people who do. Yet, reasoned discussion is stonewalled by the adamant insistence on the most basic and simple reasoning of each perspective.

Most libertarians can identify that the key arguments surrounding abortion are based in conflict between two human rights: the right of life and the right to one’s body. This conflict is not elucidated by objective science, but by subjective philosophy. If a fetus or embryo is a life, then ending it could be morally wrong, but if not, then restricting a woman’s control over its viability could be morally wrong.

However, abortion goes beyond these foundation arguments. Some assert that even if a fetus is alive,  it is similar to someone on a life support system, only the support system requires another’s body. Many would agree that being obligated to lend your body to a sick person is wrong; however, the fact that a fetus is brought into existence in this situation presents a possible exception. If a child were born in such a way that it was connected to other being, and needed to be so to continue life, would severing the connection not be an act of killing?

On the other hand, a “Pro-life” objection to the traditional “Pro-choice” argument asserts that even if a fetus is not a life,  terminating its development into a life is immoral. One argument for this, presented by philosopher Don Marquis, asserts that ultimately, killing a person is wrong because it deprives them of a future, and abortion is wrong on the same grounds. However, this has been countered by questioning if, by the same logic, a killing a sperm or egg would be wrong as well.Abortion Flowchart2

These arguments, presented simply in this flowchart, only scrape the surface of the complex issue of abortion. They all have their own rebuttals and counter-rebuttals, and they don’t even begin to address utilitarian arguments or exceptions for rape, incest, or the mother’s life. However, by presenting some of the complexities, I believe I have illustrated the complexity of issues to be considered before being able to justifiably claim oneself as “Pro-choice” or “Pro-life”

Efficient Advocacy

It’s incredible how simple and yet revolutionary the principles are behind effective altruism as well as the ideas behind GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project; if you want to help people, don’t just donate to a charity that is looking to cure a rare disease, donate in a way that can do the maximum amount of “good” per dollar.  That often means donating to a problem that affects many people, that has known, measurable, positive solutions, and that has lots of room for additional resources to combat the problem.   If you don’t know about those organizations, you should definitely check them out.

Of course, there is an obvious elephant in the room when it comes to effective altruism: politics is complex, unscientific, and unpopular. In fact, GiveWell largely sidesteps the political sphere, ignoring a big swath of human activity which has tremendous impacts on society.  Of course, they have good reason to do this; it allows them to focus on doing good things without harming anyone’s tribal identities or alienating their donor base. Moreover, it’s hard to get good unbiased data on what political policies would actually provide benefits; if there was, politics wouldn’t be so divisive.

However, I don’t have a donor base, and I have slightly different feelings on which policies would be most effective than the average American or even the average effective altruist.  I wanted to see what would happen if we could assume away some of the unknowns about political policy.  Let’s assume that the postlibertarian philosophy this blog espouses is correct: markets are pretty good at allocating resources efficiently, government policy can help address some economic areas where markets might not work (inequality, externalities), giving the state power is generally a bad thing and must be justified, and individuals should have robust protections from their government. We aren’t assuming away the current political landscape of the US, we’re just assuming we’re right.

So what would a libertarian trying to maximize efficiency in advocacy do? Do you try and emulate the Koch brothers and create or fund political organizations that change policy outcomes? Do you focus on viable candidates? How much do you accept the political process as given? Do you focus on political reforms (proportional representation), education (IHS, Economics of Library and Liberty), or do you try to work on making your own rules (crypto, seasteading, space exploration)? Let’s leave those hard questions for another time, and focus on perhaps the most mainstream approach to politics: how should you prioritize the importance of various political issues? People usually have specific issues they care about that determine which candidate they’d like to back, and the Open Philanthropy Project even has a U.S. policies page.   But which issues are actually the most important? Continue reading Efficient Advocacy

Links 2016-5-30

Gary Johnson selected former Republican Massachusetts Governor William Weld  to be his running mate. This was pretty surprising for Libertarians considering Weld isn’t really a well-known libertarian guy.  Obviously, the Johnson campaign hoped not to repeat the failings of Jim Gray who was essentially unknown to the national media. During the Libertarian Party convention this weekend, the delegates selected both Gary Johnson and Bill Weld opting for pragmatism rather than party purity.  This is some election year when the libertarians are more reasonable than the Republicans and Democrats.

With 2 former Republican governors on the ticket, the Libertarian Party is now poised to be a real third party alternative. This could be a huge year for them, even if they don’t win. Remember, from our archives, if you reach 5% of the popular vote in a presidential election, you are entitled to real money in the next cycle (the irony of Libertarians accepting Federal handouts not withstanding).

Nicholas Kristof has a follow up to his column “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance” where he condemned the intolerance of progressives especially in the university. Apparently, the left universally scoffed at the thought of tolerating conservatives…which essentially confirmed his point.

The EFF is shutting down their canary watch program after a year. I have previously discussed the importance and usefulness of warrant canaries. It seems the EFF has decided it isn’t worth the effort to keep track of all the notices because they seem to change too much from post to post.  These aren’t bad reasons, but it is a little concerning. It seems likely that you’ll just have to stick to the default that any website you visit has received national security letters asking for information.

Jason Brennan at Bleeding Heart Libertarians on the difference between Ignorance, Misinformation, and Irrationality in democracies.  Essentially ignorance isn’t exactly the problem in democracies, since if everyone is equally ignorant, then the non-ignorant people will be able to make rational decisions; there is no bias for the ignorant people since they have no opinion. Misinformation can be a problem though, if most people are misinformed, they will make poor decisions. But even if people are misinformed, having a deliberative discussion will help as rational logic should triumph. But irrationality is a serious problem, since even discussions would just spread more misinformation. This relates to the thesis of Bryan Caplan’s book The Myth of the Rational Voter (Wikipedia, full text for free).  I look forward to reading Brennan’s new book, iconoclastically titled Against Democracy.

Tangentially related: John Oliver has a segment on the flaws of the primary system. Unfortunately, he sort of glosses over the assumption that they need to be more democratic, but do they? He says this time we “got lucky” in that the candidates with the most votes were the ones actually chosen, but we need to change things in the future. I disagree; the candidates we did choose are awful. If the system is working now, making it work better won’t help anything. Check out my previous post for more on this, and forward it to John Oliver if you get a chance. Better than reforming the primary system, let’s try making more parties more viable with some proportional representation in the House of Representatives!

Why Bernie doesn’t quit: Polisci 101 analysis of Bernie Sanders’ intentions. Basically, he wants to stop Hillary from turning towards the center, since he wants the Democratic party to be very a progressive Social Democrat party. This is also the reason that anyone who’s not a Social Democrat wants Bernie out of the race.

Ilya Shapiro at the Cato Institute, who knows his stuff pretty well, called Donald Trump’s list for replacing Justice Scalia’s SCOTUS seat “exceptional”. This is good news in that a Trump presidency would at least have this going for it. I don’t know if all this would make him a better choice than Clinton, but it is a big deal, at least to me.  Doubtful if this alone would be enough to unite all Republicans around him.

Nick Gillespie has two solid blog posts. One is a great overview of a recent Foreign Relations Committee Hearing and the constrasting views of Marco Rubio and Rand Paul.  Paul, we should note, won his primary to stand for reelection for his Kentucky Senate seat. This should largely guarantee his victory (PredictIt doesn’t have a market yet but PredictWise has it at 90% Republican).  The other post discusses how Obama’s new overtime regulations are going to harm workers by reducing hours, workers, or both.

Meta-blog post. Do you need more economics blogs? Here is a giant list of them. They’re vaguely ordered by popularity, and you shouldn’t just dismiss it because Paul Krugman is first; there’s a lot of good blogs I didn’t know about.

Dylan Matthews at Vox makes the case for getting rid of the TSA. Doesn’t even mention the financial cost savings (their budget is $8 billion, and cost of time is at least that).

Scott Sumner on the problems with government policy responses to crises. Scott also did a much better job predicting the economy than the Fed. Takeaway: please, please institute prediction markets for the basic macroeconomic indicators.

Cool YouTube video on computational complexity and the P vs NP problem.

Short summary of one of the best essays on markets: Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society”.

What are the components of airline ticket prices? Great YouTube video explanation.

All the Scott Alexander: Apparently good kindergarden teachers have massive effects on income decades later, but no lasting effect on test scores. There really bizarre studies and all I can tell is that education research is hard.

As part of his ongoing philosophy of niceness and tolerance in society, and relating to my post on tolerance, Scott discusses more on tolerance and coordinated vs uncoordinated meanness.

Scott also has a great post on his experience in the Irish health system, related to the UK junior doctors’ strike.  There are serious barriers to entry to the US medical system because the benefits are so high if you become a doctor. In UK, this is not true, since the state regulates how much doctors can make, so of course many doctors are leaving the UK and Ireland for places where the pay is less regulated. Scott says he’s not sure how to solve labor disputes, but if you have a freer market in hiring and payment, you don’t end up having labor disputes. The American system has problems as well, and if the barriers to entry could be reduced

And finally: Scott Alexander’s review of Albion’s Seed, and his analysis of the importance of culture in determining beliefs.

Apparently non-technical people don’t know this, but Craig Wright isn’t Satoshi Nakamoto. He had an “exclusive” interview with several media outlets discussing how he was really the inventor of Bitcoin. But if you read the story pretty quickly, you notice he doesn’t provide a signature with Satoshi’s private key (the reddit and Hacker News threads found he stole a signature from a transaction in one of the early blocks), and he doesn’t move any of Satoshi’s money to a publicly declared account. Those are very easy ways to prove he is Satoshi Nakamoto, and he didn’t do them, instead relying on some weird demonstration directly to a journalist. I would have guessed most people would have figured he was lying (he has a weird history as well), especially because Satoshi Nakamoto has gone to great lengths to protect his identity, and this guy is clearly trying to get attention. But several news outlets printed it as true. Gavin Andresen, the lead developer of Bitcoin, has declared that he has seen proof, but he hasn’t told us what the proof is.  But you shouldn’t need a really famous person to vouch for someone’s identity, that’s the whole point of Bitcoin; decentralized proof is easy and clear.

From Ars Technica: Death by GPS.

Bryan Caplan on global warming cost-benefit analyses.

The Fourth Amendment apparently no longer applies to the federal government. The FBI can access any data gathered from general warrants issued under the FISA court to the NSA, which is only supposed to be targeting foreign nationals, but which we know just grabs all data a company has.

Marginal Revolution discusses the issue of public bathrooms in context on North Carolina’s recent law.

Oracle v Google is Everything that’s Wrong with Copyright

This week, the Oracle v Google trial came to a close, with a jury finding that Google’s use of Oracle’s Java API names was fair use.  This is, of course, not the end, as Oracle has vowed to appeal the decision.

The outcome is monumental, but only because the courts have previously erred significantly and ruled that APIs are copyrightable at all.  The Supreme Court had refused certiori to examine that ruling of an Appellate court, which in turn was a reversal of a District court decision (EFF has all the details).  Interestingly, this most recent case was heard under the original judge, so it’s quite possible the Appellate Court will reverse again.  I think it’s crazy to suggest that API names are even copyrightable, but given that they’ve been ruled as such, I can’t see how use of APIs isn’t fair use.

Google didn’t copy Oracle’s code; they rewrote it themselves, but used the same name for the code functions, and then packaged it into a much better product than anything Oracle had created.  And it’s not like this negatively impacted Java’s market viability (contrary to what Oracle claims); Android likely saved Java from becoming a defunct language used only in big enterprise environments.  Younger aspiring developers want to program in languages for apps and new web technologies like Ruby, Node, Swift, and even Python. But the only new reason to know Java is because Android exists; if Android had picked Python, that’s what everyone would be learning to make Android apps. It’s ridiculous.

But more fundamentally, the use of API names can’t be restricted! That defeats the whole purpose of having them! Sure, Twitter has the right to restrict the calling of functions on their servers through their APIs, but the actual name of the REST calls isn’t theirs forever now. Steve and Leo on Security Now said it very well about APIs:

It’s driving a car. If we didn’t have a single uniform car/driver interface, meaning brake and accelerator, and this is how the steering wheel works, it would be a disaster. And as I thought about this more, I realized that this notion of standards is what this comes down to. And standards are such a part of our life that it’s even – it’s almost hard to appreciate the degree to which we depend upon them. I mean, think about even threads, you know, nuts and bolts with standard threading. If everyone just made up their own, so that screws were not interchangeable, it would just be a catastrophe.

I would go even further; a steering wheel is a patentable invention that other car companies would have to pay to use…but calling it a “steering wheel” isn’t something you can restrict. Doing so would be a blatant misuse of copyright and horrific reduction in free speech. Steven Gibson continued:

And, I mean, so I guess my real complaint is that Oracle has historically benefited from the spread and the use of Java. And so because they allowed that to happen, it’s done as well as it has. And suddenly now Google has capitalized on it, and they’re wanting to take their marbles back and to say – or basically, essentially, this is a $9.3 billion lawsuit. So they’re saying we want some of the revenue which Google is obtaining as a consequence of doing a far better job in commercializing and leveraging Java for profit than we ever could. Because all we’re doing is telling everyone to get Java out of their computers…

…The BIOS is another perfect example. The fact that IBM gave us an interface called the Basic I/O System allowed all kinds of programs to be written without regard for whether it was, for example, a color graphic display or a monochrome graphic display. They were completely different. They occupied different hardware regions. Yet the BIOS hid those differences so that a program didn’t have to worry about what type of hardware you had. And that was an API, a standard. But just in general this kind of standardization, you can sort of imagine sort of a Mad Max post-cataclysm world where you no longer have standards, and everyone’s thing is just made from scratch, and they’re not – nothing’s interoperable. And it would just be a bizarre place.

And I think one of the major things that the Industrial Revolution did was it taught us the power of interoperability. And here Oracle is trying to say, yeah, we’re going to get a toll for you using something that we purchased and never figured out how to use. 

I’ve said it in the past, and I’ll keep saying it: the purpose of all intellectual property law is not to help the owners of intellectual property, but rather to promote creativity and new works.  Ruling that API names are copyrightable does literally nothing to promote interoperability or improve technology; it only makes it harder to improve the world. Getting this fair use ruling is better than nothing, but it should never have come to this.


Photo credit: Android Lineup by Rob Bulmahn, licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

Your Candidate Sucks: Democracy Troubles

Now that we basically have our two major candidates, let’s do a retrospective look at some of the political candidates our system was able to produce, reject, or approve over this election cycle.  Let’s start with Republicans.

In early 2015, the prevailing wisdom was that Hillary Clinton was going to be the Democratic nominee.  She looked like a strong candidate but one with a low ceiling; she had great name recognition and experience, but also was (and is) tied to the Obama administration, especially its foreign policy. I’d argue she’s appeared even weaker over the course of the primaries than she did in 2015 as big swaths of Democrats have shown hesitation to embrace her candidacy. Given this situation, Republicans should have been able to come up with candidates that played well against Hillary; what they got is someone who (as of May 2016), isn’t very competitive. If only there had been someone else to pick from!

Wikipedia counts 17 Republican candidates. We won’t spend lots of time on all of them, but it’s worth seeing some of the candidates that were rejected. Continue reading Your Candidate Sucks: Democracy Troubles

Model-Breaking Observations in the Senate

It’s rare when an idea, or piece of evidence, comes along that is so impressive, it forces you to rethink your entire model of the world. The recently released Feinstein-Burr encryption bill has done just that.

It has been described as “technically illiterate”, “chilling”, “ridiculous”, “scary”, and “dangerous“.  Not only are the issues with the bill fairly obvious to anyone with a cursory understanding of encryption, the problems are of such magnitude that it thwarts any attempt to understand the Senators’ actions.  Let’s look at the effects of the hypothetical law.

The biggest issue is that this bill will significantly damage the United States’ national security. We live in a highly insecure world where cyberattacks, both foreign and domestic, are omnipresent. The Feinstein-Burr bill would fundamentally reduce the security of all technology infrastructure in the country. Jonathan Zdziarski in a blog linked above, gives some details:

Due to the backdooring of encryption that this legislation implies, American electronics will be dangerously unsafe compared to foreign versions of the same product. Diplomats, CEOs, scientists, researchers, politicians, and government employees are just a few of the people whose data will be targeted by foreign governments and hackers both while traveling, but also whenever they’re connected to a network.

That’s awful, and even if you have the most America-first, protect-American-lives mentality, weakening American encryption is the worst thing you could do; it literally endangers American lives.

I think there’s also a strong case to be made that this will do very little to combat terrorism. Unbreakable, strong encryption is widely available on the internet for free, forever; if bad people want to use it, they will.  Moreover, terrorism, as awful as it is, is relatively rare; Americans are about a 1000x more likely to die non-terrorism related homicide. And many more “common” homicides occur due to heat-of-the-moment arguments, which means there would be no encrypted messages detailing conspiracies. All this bill does is remove the ability of average, non-technically inclined Americans to secure their data.

And the people whose data will be most at risk will be those consumers who are less educated or less technically adept. Better informed consumers might have the ability to install foreign encryption software on their phone to keep their data safe, but most uninformed consumers just use default settings.  Thus, criminals who try and commit identity theft will greatly benefit from this legislation; they wouldn’t usually bother targeting knowledgeable users anyway, and with security stripped away from phones, it will be much easier to steal data from susceptible users. The people most in need of help to protect their data will be disproportionately harmed by this legislation.

On the other hand, most companies are not uniformed users. They have IT departments who understand the value of encrypting their data, and they will continue to purchase strong security software, even if it is no longer sold in the United States.  Foreign produced software works just as well.  Banning strong encryption will debilitate the American technology sector, one of the biggest and most important parts of the economy.   This will cost Americans jobs and diminish America’s influence on the future of the world, as technological innovation moves overseas.  But this isn’t just bad for Americans; it’s not easy to simply move an entire company or product overseas. There are huge capital investments these companies have made that will not be available in other countries immediately, if ever, and this will set back the global technology industry billions if not trillions of dollars.

So this really begs the question of why Senators Dianne Feinstein and Richard Burr introduced this bill; given their stated obsession with national security, and given the horrific effect this bill would have on American national security, there’s no good way to resolve their stated beliefs with their actions. Here are a couple theories to explain their behavior, and some discussion as to why each respective theory is unsatisfying.

The Senators are actually foreign spies purposefully trying to weaken American national security.  Obviously, if this theory is true, it’s self-evidently very bad that our elected officials not only don’t represent us, but actually represent foreign governments likely trying to harm Americans. Sure it’s quite unlikely since it’s very difficult to become a U.S. Senator at all, and no spy agency would send agents in with a plan to become a U.S. Senator.  Whether they were turned into foreign agents after being elected, I really can only speculate. But it strikes me as improbable. Nonetheless, it is true that this legislation is exactly what foreign security agencies would want to introduce to make the United States more vulnerable.  I was curious, so I checked the constitutional definition of treason as well as the Espionage Act, but it seems that you need to literally give secrets to other people, not just make it easier for them to obtain. But there is that one case where a high ranking official is in trouble for storing documents insecurely…

They’re power hungry politicians. The idea of the Senators being foreign spies is bit far-fetched.  But what know for sure is that they are politicians, which means they chose a career path that would give them more power to change things. Maybe Burr and Feinstein are sick of technology companies telling the FBI that they can’t assist their investigations, and they wanted to put them in their place.  If this theory is true, it’s pretty self-evidently evil; people in power using their power indiscriminately to harm citizens is the exact problem Thomas Jefferson identified in the Declaration of Independence.  Of course, it’s not usually a big problem, because James Madison helped construct a whole host of ways to check the power of government. Of course, the most important check for our situation is that senators are voted in by the people. So as long as people know about this dumb bill, they’ll kick these guys out…right?

Hanlon’s Razor (origin disputed) states that one should “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”  This theory would mean that two sitting, highly experienced U.S. Senators are too stupid to realize the ill effects this will have on national  and economic security.  Obviously, congress has to make laws in areas that its members are not always familiar with…but Burr and Feinstein are the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Intelligence Committee. If anyone knows about intelligence, they do. And Feinstein is even on the Judiciary Subcomittee on Technology, Privacy, and the Law! If even these people are too stupid to understand what the effects of their own policies are, we might as well stop sending representatives to a legislature at all and just have run-of-the-mill uneducated voters pass everything directly through referendum. Sure, they’d have no idea what they’re doing, but apparently neither do Senators!

What I think is most likely, and most terrifying, is that American Democracy incentivizes members of Congress to make bad policy if it’s politically beneficial. With all the aides and staff Senators have, plus the amount of pressure they receive from outside groups, it seems unlikely they never heard about the bad effects of the bill. Yet, they did it anyway. Given they don’t work for law enforcement, there is no Frank Underwood endgame for passing this bill; banning encryption doesn’t directly allow Burr and Feinstein to look at their political enemies’ phones (…probably), just criminals and the police.  So then maybe their incentive was to appear tough on crime and terrorism, consequences be damned. Richard Burr is in a reelection year in North Carolina, so let’s look at the effect this horrible bill has had on his chances to win according to Predictit.org:

Primary was in mid-March, bill introduced in early April
Primary was in mid-March, bill introduced in early April

As you can see, the bill had very little effect on his perceived chances. Now, it could be that voters have already factored in Senator Burr’s position on destroying defending American national security, and he needed to introduce this legislation to maintain his position. But it looks identical to a situation where North Carolina voters couldn’t care less about Senator Burr’s position on encryption, and his introduction of legislation consequently had no effect on his reelection chances. If it’s the former, then we are in serious trouble because our legislative representatives are incentivized to make horrible policies because voters aren’t well informed.  If it’s the latter, then we have to dismiss this explanation and go back to one of the other three.

Whatever the explanation is, it reflects poorly on how the government constructs policy, and it reflects poorly on American Democracy. Moreover, assuming any of those discussed theories are true, they imply massive issues that will be difficult or impossible to solve.  Reforming democracy as many progressives would like, through campaign finance, wouldn’t even address any of these issues; it is the technology corporations and privacy NGOs which have been advocating for more privacy and making unbreakable encryption more accessible, while law enforcement and other government agencies have been advocating for less security.  But as far as I can tell, even they haven’t demanded anything like this bill.  Thus,  more campaign spending by private groups would help, not hinder good policy.

No matter how you look at it, this bill indicates a big failure for democratic government and illustrates the dangers discretionary state power.


Photo credit: Caïn venant de tuer son frère Abel, by Henry Vidal in Tuileries Garden in Paris, France, photo by Alex E. Proimos, licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

Should Tesla charge more for their cars?

Tesla Motors announced their newest car, the Model 3, is now available for pre-order.  It’s always been Tesla’s stated purpose to bring down the cost of electric vehicle dramatically, by first charging people for high end cars, and using those profits to innovate the cost of cars down to affordable levels for the general public. It’s an admirable goal that combines the best intentions with good incentives, using idealism to drive profits.

Tesla has, confusingly, sold 3 models of cars prior to the Model 3: the early Tesla Roadster (all over $109k price), the ultra-luxury sedan Model S (starting price at $76k, but most sell at over $100k), and the newer Model X SUV (about $5000 more than the Model S).  Few Model X’s have been shipped, and only about 2500 Tesla Roadsters were ever built. The vast majority of Tesla’s automobiles have been Model S’s between 2012-2016. In that 4 year span, roughly 107,000 cars have been sold worldwide, with about 63,000 in the United States.

In the past couple weeks, Tesla has received 325,000 almost 400,000 Model 3 pre-orders.

Making matters worse, Tesla has said they expect to start shipping at the end of 2017. Some analysts say that Tesla will ship about 12,000 cars in 2017 and another 60,000 in 2018.  But this might be optimistic, since Tesla was supposed to start building the Model X last year, but only got a couple hundred out the factory before January.

Tesla will get better at manufacturing, but they are not ready to switch from the high end market to the mass market (or as mass market as a $35,000 base model). The Tesla “master plan” is not ready to attack this level of the market yet, but that’s not to say it isn’t successful in other ways; as Ben Thompson wrote: “The real payoff of Musk’s ‘Master Plan’ is the fact that Tesla means something.”  In fact it means so much that the demand for a $35k Tesla in 2017 is something like 10x predicted supply! Tesla should take advantage of this.

The obvious economic answer to quantity demanded outstripping quantity supplied is to raise the price.  Scaling Tesla’s manufacturing output to new heights is not going to be easy, but it will be easier with additional resources. And Tesla could use some additional resources (they lost about $300 million in 2014). Right now, people will be waiting around for their cars for years. Why not take some more from people who want a car sooner, so that more innovation can be done to help the people on the back-end?  That’s Tesla’s whole plan anyway.  Creating an affordable family car that you can only make 50,000 of every year doesn’t help many families!

Now, of course, it’s true that some of the appeal of Tesla is that they are trying to transform the auto industry, and if they charge more for the Model 3, one could argue they aren’t as transformational as they claim.  But I’d counter with Thompson’s comparison to Apple, in that the Tesla brand itself is drenched in cool. Tesla’s brand is quite valuable, and the best way to help humanity with that brand is to push harder for innovation.

An awesome, widely available $35,000 electric car will come, but for now, Tesla has the opportunity to marshal more resources to build a better future; it would be silly to not take advantage of that.


Photo Credit: “Candy Red Tesla Model 3”, is a derivative of this photo by Steve Jurvetson, used under CC BY 2.0. “Candy” is licensed under CC BY 2.0 by Mariordo.