Links 2016-10-12

I’ve added Andrew Gelman’s blog to the blogroll. Really great blog on statistical analysis. I also moved the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project to the Libertarian Web Directory under Issue Organizations instead of in the blogroll.

Comment on Slate Star Codex about evolutionary complexity and politics. There’s a limit to how much useful information we can get from elections, and building more complex institutions on such little information may be dangerous.

John Cochrane on Basic Income and its benefits, along with its large political problems.

So the DEA has taken the massive failure of the War on Drugs and decided the lesson to draw was to add another drug to Schedule 1, the most prohibited category (and more tightly controlled than cocaine). Kratom, a drug used for opioid withdrawal treatment has been added to the list. The 15 deaths cited by the DEA over the last 2 years are sure to bump up as users’ legal alternative to illegal opioids is removed.

Classic example of regulation making it more difficult for simple economic transactions. This manifests in higher prices for compliance which ends up hurting the poor disproportionately. Seattle used to be the leading place for “micro-housing”, but it’s being regulated out of existence to the tune of hundreds of affordable dwellings a year.

The ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International are launching a campaign to pardon Edward Snowden. I’ve gone on the record predicting that the Obama administration will not pardon Snowden, but I hope I’m wrong. Also, watch this excellent Reason TV interview with the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Gary Johnson: WIRED should have endorsed me for president.

Related: Donald Trump has received no major newspaper endorsements, and many newspapers who have endorsed Republicans for decades, even centuries, are either endorsing Clinton, Johnson, or simply endorsing anyone but Trump. Some newspapers who don’t usually endorse anyone are doing so, such as the Atlantic, USA Today, and actually WIRED had never issued an endorsement. A redditor collected all the information into a nice post.

I’m not a Ross Douthat fan, but I do like this column. There’s a real sense of being surrounded that non-progressives feel. And when surrounded with no hope of making it out alive, soldiers fight to the death because they have nothing to lose. Not a great situation.

Heard through Alex Tabbarok at Marginal Revolution: apparently an author at the Telegraph isn’t happy about Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to eradicate all disease. She’s apparently afraid of the impacts of overpopulation. And she published it. In a real newspaper. So if you’re not optimizing for the “most good” in the world or most “human happiness”, what exactly are you optimizing for? If the author is so concerned about human population, does that mean she’s generally pro-war? Is she pro-Ebola? Anti-CDC? What are her feelings on ISIS? Does she have suicidal thoughts? I just have so many questions.

Seen through Slate Star Codex, the Brookings Institution has a report on charter schools in Massachusetts: “There is a deep well of rigorous, relevant research on the performance of charter schools in Massachusetts…This research shows that charter schools in the urban areas of Massachusetts have large, positive effects on educational outcomes. The effects are particularly large for disadvantaged students, English learners, special education students, and children who enter charters with low test scores. In marked contrast, we find that the effects of charters in the suburbs and rural areas of Massachusetts are not positive.” I’d guess this is because in the suburbs, the schools are already pretty good and must compete with expensive private schools anyway.

Forget moving to New Hampshire, the new mayor of Johannesburg is a self-proclaimed libertarian.

Why are American airports so crappy compared to international ones? Well it’s partially because most American airports cater to domestic flights and are not international travel hubs. Airports that focus on similar levels of domestic travel resemble LAX more than Dubai, LaGuardia more than Singapore.

Scott Sumner asks some interesting questions about a possible decline in materialism and how it relates to GDP growth and measurement. If everything you want to do can be done online, can you measure that economic improvement?

Jacob Levy at Bleeding Heart Libertarians writes that if you look at the polling numbers, Johnson doesn’t draw more from Clinton, and having him on the ticket actually helps her.

Obviously this election cycle has been particularly divisive and nasty. But did you know there are people working on fixing this? Check out the National Institute for Civil Discourse’s Standards of Conducts for Debates. Can you imagine if the political debates were actually like this? I might even want to watch them.

Megan McArdle on How to End the Death Penalty for Good. There’s an interesting point about how abortion laws were on the decline and probably would have quietly died except for the Supreme Court stepping in and making the decision themselves. This galvanized social conservatives into organizing themselves and mobilizing to protect their interests against perceived undemocratic justices. I’m not sure how accurate that is, but it’s certainly true that “judicial activism” has been reviled by the American Right for a while now.

A good rundown by Reason of their staffers and many prominent libertarians on who they will be voting for. Dave Barry’s response is by far my favorite.

There is a storm brewing in the Libertarian Party. Gary Johnson will likely meet the 5% threshold set by the FEC on who qualifies as a minor party. That means the LP will be eligible to get taxpayer provided funding for its candidate in 2020. There are two problem. One is that Libertarians are fundamentally opposed to this practice, and taking the money would make them look like hypocrites. The other is that neither party seems to take matching funds anymore as it also puts a cap on how much you can raise. That cap scales, so the cap itself may limit the LP in the 2020 election. 

Postlibertaian throwback: World Wars Per Century. Only since 2014 have we been living in an age where only a single world war was started in the preceding 100 years.

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Third Party Voting Still Makes Sense

Slate Star Codex has a well-argued post asking conservatives to vote for Clinton in swing states or voting for Clinton or Johnson in non-swing states. If you are interested in Trump vs Clinton arguments, I recommend reading it.

I find some of Scott’s arguments more compelling than others, especially his point on variance, a similar argument I made in my Trump piece. Trump is a completely unknown factor; he could allow his advisers to make most policy or he could take complete control and make policy himself. On the campaign trail he has been quite capricious, changing his mind on every issue. Hillary Clinton is a known entity, and what we know about her is pretty bad (I’ll get into policy in a different post), but the worst Trump presidency is absolutely more terrible than the worst Clinton presidency. Given the House is likely to remain in Republican control, I’m also willing to bet that the House will oppose most of Clinton’s policies, meaning she’ll be less able to implement drastic policy changes. Whether and to what extent the House will stop Trump from implementing bad policy is another unknown. Whether you vote for Clinton or Trump could come down to the level of risk you are willing to take.

I’d say I’m somewhat risk averse, and Scott identifies similarly. The world today is healthier, wealthier, less corrupt, more democratic, and more free than ever before in human history, so totally dismantling institutions is quite a risky endeavor. However, if you support Trump because you aren’t risk averse, then you shouldn’t be worried about voting for a third party anyway, and I’ve already made a long case as to why Gary Johnson deserves your vote over Trump.

However, I’d like to point out that even in swing states, voting for a major candidate (like Clinton) may not be as appealing as it sounds. I pointed out previously that the chance of your vote making a difference, even in a swing state, is incredibly low. Scott brings up that the federal budget is so large even if the president only has control over some discretionary spending, and even if one candidate is only marginally better at allocating the budget to important things, the difference in payoff is in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Thus, the expected value of voting in a swing state with a one in 10 million chance to determine the outcome is still hundreds of thousands of dollars.

However, while the worst of Trump is definitely worse than the worst of Clinton, the expected value of the Trump budget may be very similar to the expected value of a Clinton budget, especially for someone whose political outlook is similar to that of this blog, it’s just that the expected value of Trump’s budget has a much higher standard deviation. Additionally, as of early October, markets don’t have this election as particularly competitive. There is plenty of time for that to change, but if the election were held today, even voting in Florida would likely not be a “swing state” in the normal sense. Moreover, the vast majority of people do not live in swing states. According to the 538’s latest forecasts, there’s about a 50% chance of the “tipping-point state” (the state which provides the 270th electoral vote) being either Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, or North Carolina. Florida is the most likely at around 17%. Most voters do not live in these states, and while I think even people casting ballots in them could probably vote for a third party without affecting the outcome, everyone voting outside of those states will have no impact on the election.

Finally, the benefits of voting for a third party remain: ballot access is a serious problem and there will never be viable third party candidates if it’s impossible to get on the ballot. This year would have been a wonderful year to have an alternative right-of-center party for Never Trumpers to move to, but there’s just no way for a candidate to get on the ballot in most states late in the process. Additionally, if any third party hits 5% of the national vote (Gary Johnson is the only candidate close to this), their party qualifies for federal funding in the next election. Votes for a third party this year set the groundwork for more parties in the next election cycle which can affect much more than presidential elections. Votes for the main parties are completely wasted in non-swing states, and even in competitive states, the chances of affecting change with the two parties is incredibly low.

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The Age of Em


I recently had the opportunity to see George Mason Professor Robin Hanson talk about his book, The Age of Em. I also was able to work my way into having a long conversation with him after his presentation.

For those who don’t know, it’s perhaps the strangest book you’ve ever heard of. Hanson looks to project forward in time when the technology exists to easily upload human brains into computer simulations. These “emulated” brains will have certain characteristics from residing in computer hardware: they can make copies of themselves, save versions of themselves for later, or delete versions of themselves. They will even be able to run faster or slower than normal human brains depending on what hardware they are running on. Hanson spends the book working through the implications of this new society. And there are a lot of fascinating insights.

Hanson discusses the pure physics of this world, as suddenly speed of light delays in communication mean a lot; if an em is running at a million times human speed, then a bad ping of 50 ms is equivalent to over 12 hours for a message to get sent today. This leads to very close physical locations of ems, which concentrates them in large cities. Their economy also grows much faster than ours due to the rapid speed at which their brains are thinking, although they may be physically restrained by how quickly the physical manufacturing of their hardware can occur. The economy also quickly moves to subsistence wages, as even the most productive members of society can have their brains copied as many times as needed to fill all roles. Elon Musk is no longer a one of kind genius, and in fact anyone who cannot compete with an Elon Musk version in their job would likely be cast aside. For a more detailed summary and examples of bizarre ideas, I recommend Part III of Scott Alexander’s post on the book.


In that blog post, Scott goes on to discuss in Part IV the problem of value drift. Hanson does a good job pointing out that past human societies would not have approved of what we now consider acceptable. In some areas, the change in values in stunning. Merely 10 years ago, many had reservations about gay marriage. Merely 50 years ago, many Americans had serious reservations about interracial marriage.  On the scale of humans’ existence as a species, the amount of time we have accepted that people have the right to worship their own religion is minuscule. The section of human history where subsistence existence was not the only option is likewise small. Professor Hanson told our group that by far the most common reaction to his painting of the future was rejection.

I even asked him specifically about it: Hanson had stated several times that it was not his job or intention to make us like or hate this future, only to know about it. I pointed out that many AI researchers were very concerned about the safety of artificial intelligence and what it might do if it hits an intelligence explosion. To me, there seems to be little difference between the AI intelligence explosion and the Em economy explosion. Both would be human creations, making decisions and changing their values rapidly, at a pace that leaves most “normal” traditional physical humans behind. If many of the smartest people studying AI think that we should do a lot of work to make sure AI values line up with our own, shouldn’t we do the same thing with Ems? Hanson’s answer was basically that if we want to control the value systems of our descendants thousands of mental years in the future, well good luck with that.

Scott in Part IV of his review demonstrates the problem with just allowing this value drift to happen. Hanson calls the era we live in the “dream time” since it’s evolutionarily unusual for any species to be wealthy enough to have any values beyond “survive and reproduce”. For most of human history, there wasn’t much ability to build cities or share knowledge because too many resources were focused on survival. Today, we have become so productive and intelligent that humans have elevated Earth’s carrying capacity high above the amount of people we have. We don’t have to spend all our resources on survival and so we can come up with interesting philosophical ideas about morality and what the meaning of life is. We’ve also harnessed this evolutionary competitiveness to fuel our market economy where the determiner of what survives isn’t nature, but human desires. Unfortunately when you switch to the Age of Em, suddenly the most productive part of the economy is plunged back into a Malthusian trap with all resources going to keep the Ems alive. Fulfilling human wants may be what drives the economy, but if there are other pressures on Ems, they will be willing to sacrifice any values they have to keep themselves alive and competitive. If the economy gives up on fulfilling human demand, I wouldn’t call that a drift in values, I’d call that an absence of values.

If we live in the dream time, then we live in a unique situation where only we can comprehend and formulate higher morality and philosophical purpose. I think we should take advantage of that if we can.


Hanson’s observations given his assumption that the Age of Em will happen are excellent, considering he is predicting far into the future. It’s likely things won’t work out exactly this way, as perhaps a single company will have a patent on brain scanning for a decade before the market really liberalizes; this could seriously delay the rapid economic growth Hanson sees. He acknowledges this, and keeps his book more of a prediction of what will happen if we don’t oppose this change. I’m not sure how far Hanson believes that regulation/intellectual property will not be able to thwart the age of em, but it seems that he’s more confident it will not be stopped than that it will be. This may be an economist mistake where regulation is sort of assumed away as the realm of political science. It’s not unprecedented that weird inefficient institutions would last far into the future. Intellectual property in the digital age is really weird, all things considered. Software patents especially seem like a way to patent pure logic. But there are others: banking being done with paper checks, daylight savings time, the existence of pennies, and, of course, Arby’s. There are also plenty of examples of new technologies that have evolved much faster than regulation, like supplements, e-commerce, and ride-sharing. It remains to be seen what brain emulations will be.

There is also the possibility that emulated brains won’t be the next big shift in human society. Hanson argues that this shift will rival that of the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution. This makes a lot of sense if brain emulation is indeed the next big change. Eliezer Yudkowsky (and Scott) think this is incorrect and artificial intelligence will beat it. This seems like a real possibility. Scott points out that we often come up with technological equivalents of human biology far before actually emulating biology. This is mostly because biology has accidentally figured things out via evolution and thus it is often needlessly complicated. For example, aircraft usually fly via fixed wing aerodynamics, not by flapping. It seems likely that we will reach human level problem solving via software rather than via brain scanning. Even if we don’t, it seems likely that software could quickly optimize a simulation based on a preliminary brain scan that was too rough to get a proper brain emulation into hardware. But software assisted reconstruction could start experimenting with neuron simulation and create a software assisted brain emulation that is better designed and more specialized than any human brain emulation.

It also seems possible that other things could happen first that change human history, like very expensive climate change, a crippling pandemic (anti-biotic resistance), genetic and epigenetic engineering  and of course some technological revolution we haven’t even imagined (the unknown). Certainly if we assume continued economic growth, either brain emulation, artificial intelligence, or genetic engineering seem like likely candidates to transform humanity. Hanson thinks AI research is really overrated (he used to be an AI researcher) and isn’t progressing very fast. But he was an AI researcher about 25 years ago and we’ve seen some pretty impressive improvements in machine learning and natural language processing since then. We’ve also seen some improvement in brain emulation technology as well to be fair. Genetic engineering was hailed as the next revolution in the 1990s, but has floundered ever since. Last year though, the use of CRISPR in genome engineering has dramatically increased the feasibility of actually picking and choosing specific genes. Any of these could drastically change human society. Perhaps any genetic improvements would be overshadowed by brain emulation or AI. I guess it depends on the importance of the physical world vs the digital one.

Of course, not all changes could be from improved technology. There’s a significant risk of a global multi-drug resistant pandemic. Our overuse of antibiotics, the difficulty in making everyone stop overusing them, and our highly integrated world means we’ve created an excellent scenario for a superbug to appear and spread. Anything resembling the 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic could be devastating to the world population and to economic growth. Climate change poses a similar risk to both life and the economy. If either of these were to happen, it could significantly deter the Age of Em from occurring or at least delay it, along with a lot of the progress of our civilization. And that’s not even mentioning additional freak natural disasters like coronal mass ejections.

Overall, predictions are very difficult and if I had to bet, I’d bet that the next big change in human civilization won’t be emulated brains. A good competitor is definitely artificial superintelligence, but when you add in genetic engineering, natural disasters, drug resistant bacterial epidemics, and so on, you have to take the field over brain emulations.

Nonetheless, this book really does make you think about the world in a different way with a perspective both more global and more forward looking. It even makes you question what it means to be human. The ins and outs of the 2016 election really fade away (despite my continued interest and blogging). Political squabbling doesn’t compare to the historical trends of human civilization and the dawn of transhumanism.

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First They Came For The Data Analysts, And I Did Not Speak Out…

Data storage is cheap, and odds are good that any information you store today – if you care just a little about preserving it – can last well beyond your own lifespan. If you’re an intelligence agency and you’re collecting all of the surveillance information you possibly can, the easiest part of your job is probably siloing it so that you’ll have it for hundreds of years. If you’ve got any kind of budget for it, it’s easy to hold on to data practically indefinitely. So, if you’re the subject of surveillance by any of that sort of intelligence agency, all sorts of information collected about you may exist in intelligence silos for decades to come, probably long after you’ve forgotten it. That information exists, for practical purposes, effectively forever.

Suppose that your nation’s intelligence agency decides to collect information in bulk on every citizen it can, including you, and you judge that they are responsible and deserving of your trust, so you don’t mind that they are gathering this information about you and storing it indefinitely. Suppose that they actually are deserving of your trust, and the potentially massive amount of information that they collect and silo about you (and everyone else) is never abused, or even seen by a human analyst. Instead it sits in some massive underground data center, occasionally browsed through by algorithms combing for actual, specific security threats.

Trustworthy governments seem to be pretty stable governments, which is fortunate for people lucky enough to be governed by them. Year after year, there is a very high likelihood that the government will still be pretty great. But that likelihood can never be 100%, which is unfortunate because when you have a non-zero likelihood of something happening and you then compound it over a time scale like “effectively forever”, that puts you in uncomfortable territory. It’s hard to anticipate what sort of threats might exist five years from now, and harder to anticipate what might happen in 20. You have no idea what sort of world you’ll live in 40 years from now, but there are good odds that the extensive information siloed away today will still be around.

When I read Scott Alexander’s review of Manufacturing Consent, it was apparent that throughout the 20th century and clear into the present day, places that were stable at one point in time become unstable, and death squads followed shortly after. The Khmer Rouge killed about 25% of the population of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. 1975 is too close to the present to comfortably say that we exist in a modern world where we don’t have to worry about genocide and mass-murdering states.

We have no idea what the mass-murderers of the distant future will care about. Many of them will probably have fairly commonplace criteria for the groups they want to purge based on such things as race, religion, cultural heritage, sexual orientation, and so on. But some will devise criteria we can’t even begin to imagine. In the middle of the 19th century, only a tiny minority of people had even heard of communism, but a generation or so later that doctrine caused the death of millions of people in camps, wars, purges, and famines. Perhaps we’ve exhausted the space of ideologies that are willing to kill entire categories of people, and maybe we’ve identified all of the categories of people that you can identify and decide to purge.  But are you willing to bet money, much less your life, on the prediction that you won’t belong to some future class of deplorables?

In some of the purges of history, people had a chance to pretend not to be one of the undesirables. There’s no obvious sign that a Pear Party-affiliated death squad can use to identify a member of the Pineapple Party when the Pineapple Party government is toppled, so long as the Pineapplists know that they’re being targeted by Pear partisans and now is the time to scrape off their Pineapple Party ’88 bumper stickers. High-profile Pineapplists have no option but to flee the country, but the average member can try to lay low through the ensuing sectarian violence. That’s how it used to be, at least. But today people can scroll back 5 years in your Facebook profile and see that you were posting pro-Pineapple links then that you’ve since forgotten.

But open support of the Pineapple Party is too obvious. The undesirables of the future may have enough foresight to cover their tracks when it comes to clear-cut evidence like that. But, returning to the trustworthy intelligence agency we’ve mandated with finding people who want to harm us but also don’t want to be found, there are other ways to filter people. Machine learning and big data analysis are mixed bags. If you really, really need them to preemptively identify people who are about to commit atrocities, you’re probably going to be let down. It’s hard to sift through immense streams of data to find people who don’t want to be found. Not impossible, but machine learning isn’t a magic wand. That said, people are impressed with machine learning for a reason. Sometimes it pulls a surprising amount of signal out of what was previously only noise. And we are, today, the worst at discerning signal from noise that we will ever be. Progress in computational statistics could hit a wall next year, and then we can all temper our paranoia about targeted advertisements predicting our deepest, darkest secrets and embarrassing us with extremely specific ad pitches when our friends are looking over our shoulders. Maybe.

But perhaps it’s possible, if you’re patient and have gigantic piles of data lying around, to combine text analysis, social graph information, and decades-old Foursquare check-ins in order to identify closeted Pineapple Party members. And maybe it requires a small army of statisticians and programmers to do so, so you’re really not worried when the first paper is published that shows that researchers were able to identify supporters of Pineapplism with 65% accuracy. But then maybe another five years goes by and the work that previously took that small army of researchers months to do is now available as an R package that anyone with a laptop and knowledge of Statistics 101 can download and use. And that is the point where having gigantic piles of data siloed for a practically infinite amount of time becomes a scary liability.

The scenario where Pearists topple the government, swarm into the intelligence agency’s really big data center, and then know exactly where to go to round up undesirables might be fairly unlikely on its own. But there’s actually a much larger number of less-obvious opportunities for would-be Pearist mass-murderers. But maybe someone finds a decades-old flaw in a previously trusted security protocol and Pear-affiliated hackers breach the silo. Maybe they get information from the giant surveillance silo of a country that, now that we think of it, no one should have sold all of that surveillance software to. Maybe the intelligence agency has a Pearist mole. Maybe the whole intelligence apparatus is Pear-leaning the whole time. Maybe a sizeable majority of the country elects a Pearist demagogue that promises to round up Pineapplists and put them in camps. This sort of thing isn’t behind us.

The data silo is a threat to everyone. In the long run, we can’t anticipate who will have access to it. We can’t anticipate what new category will define the undesirables of the future. And those unknowing future undesirables don’t know what presently-inconspicuous evidence is being filed away in the silo now to resurface decades in the future. But the trend, as it exists, points to a future where large caches of personal data are a liability because future off-the-shelf machine learning tools may be as easy to use and overpowered relative to machine learning’s bleeding edge today as our smartphones are compared to the Apollo Guidance Computer. The wide availability of information on the open internet might itself be dangerous looked at through this lens. But if your public tweets are like dry leaves accumulating in your yard and increasing the risk of a dangerous data-fueled-pogrom wildfire, then mass surveillance silos are like giant rusty storage tanks next to your house that intelligence agencies are pumping full of high-octane petroleum as fast as they can.

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Picture credit: Wikimedia Foundation Servers by Wikipedia user Victor Grigas, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

If Johnson Can’t, No One Will

We’ve already discussed the huge problems this election cycle has revealed in our primary system. Everyone is also mostly aware of the two party system and the issues it causes; no one wants to “waste” their vote despite votes for third parties having more mathematical impact than votes for main parties.

When you stop to think about it, the overwhelming force of the two main parties is almost inconceivable: the Republicans and Democrats have been the main parties since 1856, that’s four times the length of time of the current most senior senator, Patrick Leahy, who took office in 1975. Imagine trying to win any election against Senator Leahy, who has been reelected six times already, and has connections to virtually all important constituencies and interests. His last election in 2010 he won 64% to 31%., and there’s essentially no chance he will lose an election until his retirement. Now imagine an institution that hasn’t just been around since 1975, but four times longer. It knows not only how to deal with personnel turnover, it has entire pools of talent for staffing, research, management, and outreach. It knows not only how to advertise its political message, it has adapted and changed its message to 160 years of changing American political values. And then you realize that’s just the Republican Party and the Democratic Party is about 30 years older.

So we get it, the two parties are very powerful. But this election cycle, we are getting a full display of just how solidly these institutions own us. Televised presidential debates began in 1960 and were run by the League of Women Voters until 1988. At that time, the League quit hosting the debates in protest, releasing a statement saying they did not want to “perpetuate a fraud on the American people”. This is a direct quote:

Neuman said that the campaigns presented the League with their debate agreement on September 28, two weeks before the scheduled debate. The campaigns’ agreement was negotiated “behind closed doors” and was presented to the League as “a done deal,” she said, its 16 pages of conditions not subject to negotiation.

Most objectionable to the League, Neuman said, were conditions in the agreement that gave the campaigns unprecedented control over the proceedings. Neuman called “outrageous” the campaigns’ demands that they control the selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press and other issues.

Pretty damning. Since 1988, the debates have been run by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonprofit corporation controlled by the Republican and Democratic parties. Apart from deciding the debate formats, questions, and so on, they also decide who gets into the debates. They have made the polling requirements 15%  prior to getting into the debates. Naturally, since this a decision done by the Republican and Democratic parties, there have been no third party candidates that have gotten into the debates. Ross Perot was able to get in, but since his party didn’t survive him, I am not inclined to call it a party. In fact, up until this year, we only had empirical evidence that you could get into the debates as a billionaire. Really democratic.

Of course this year we have the most unpopular candidates since we started opinion polls, and for good reason. Trump is incompetent, misinformed, capricious, and authoritarian. Clinton has been embroiled in scandals, has made bad policy decisions in the past, and has such a tight hold of the Democratic party that the prospect of her political machine controlling the federal government should give everyone pause. This week it’s even come out that her health is at least vaguely worrisome. It just so happens that this same year the Libertarian Party has nominated a ticket with two former two-term moderate Republican governors from blue states. They have more executive political experience than the two major party candidates combined, and a majority of Americans want them in the debates. So if there is a year where a third party should obviously be included, this is it. But as of right now, Gary Johnson and Bill Weld won’t be allowed in.

Our primary system is pretty broken. Congressional approval ratings are extraordinarily low. Federal budgets have barely been approved the last few years. But if we allow Gary Johnson to be excluded from these debates, we have resigned ourselves to living with these two parties, and all the trouble they cause, forever. We are stating that the only people we allow to run for president are members of these ancient outdated institutions or billionaires. We are agreeing that change will only happen if it occurs through two organizations whose entire existence is based upon extending their own political power by winning political office.

I’m not saying that the Johnson / Weld ticket has to win the election, or even that they should win a single state; but if we can’t allow our political parties to be publicly challenged in a debate forum, to suffer even the slightest bit of criticism to keep them in line, then what kind of democracy can we claim to live in? What kind of power does your vote have when your only two choices are extraordinarily unpopular candidates selected by the least moderate elements of each party and all other voices are silenced?

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Photo credit: Ben Grey, licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0.

Links 2016-9-7

Living in the Age of Outrage. Maybe we’ve surpassed the point at which additional connectivity and interaction will continue to benefit the human brain.

The NSA spying on us is now officially putting us all at risk. Written by Bruce Schneier whose blog you can find in the sidebar.

Cool post on taking back the word “neoliberal”. More from a British perspective than American, but same idea I think as this blog and neoclassical liberalism.

Duke Professor Michael Munger (blog linked in the sidebar) gave a short talk about different healthcare systems, and some of the problems in the American set up.

An interesting healthcare idea mentioned in the last link, and discussed at length in this Cato paper. An idea I had previously thought about what having insurance cover increasing progressive percentages of healthcare costs as your costs went up. This is essentially like a high deductible plan, but perhaps you pay for 100% of your first $1000 healthcare costs, 50% of your second $1000, 25% of the next $2000, and so on. However, high deductibles don’t really work for low income individuals. Instead, this paper proposes that for very expensive procedures, the insurance company would pay the patient an amount to forego the procedure. If it’s just something they are considering, they will just take the money. If it’s really required, they’ll go through with it. It’s true that more low income individuals will forego the procedure, but if we argue that shouldn’t be allowed, we are arguing they shouldn’t be allowed to get free money. Not very ethical.

Paid parental leave isn’t a free lunch. Author is a blogger at EconLog, linked in the sidebar.

Interesting point by Bryan Caplan on a “reverse Animal Farm” situation. In the Soviet Union, Pravda would talk about how much better things were while things were actually awful; today, the media focuses on how terrible things are despite us being in an unparalleled era of peace and prosperity. Weirder still, Pravda was a propaganda outlet, but our media is competitive meaning that they are spouting what we want to hear. Of course, that also explains lots of overly emotional happy stories of dogs being rescued or clickbait listicles, so it’s not all doom and gloom as Caplan says.

The reasonableness of radicalism. An good read from that makes you think about the historical context of various beliefs. By historical standards people today are radical democrats, radical egalitarians, and radical libertarians. Therefore, we can justify beliefs thought radical today by asserting future societies would find those beliefs obvious. Of course, the author largely ignores that we could guess the wrong direction the world moves in; many left-wing intellectuals (and others) in the early 20th century thought it was obvious that communism or at least socialism was the future. They believed their support of overthrowing the bourgeoisie was the right way to approach things. Communists today are a bit wacky. Perhaps it would be safer to just argue for incremental changes in the right direction.

When you change the world and no one notices. Apparently it took about five years for the anyone to notice the Wright Brothers had already invented fixed-wing flight. Someone even predicated flight was a long way off a year after the Wright Brothers had flown at Kitty Hawk.

Last week had an excellent episode of The Fifth Column (podcast website). I recommend skipping the first 20 minutes unless you’re really interested in the Colin Kaepernick debate. Michael Moynihan makes a great point which is that Donald Trump is a pussy. He did talk about the border wall with Mexico’s president, but when asked about it, he said they didn’t discuss it. Then later when he was safely back in Arizona, then he said Mexico would definitely pay for the wall. But when actually in Mexico, he chickened out and avoided the subject. It’s remarkably politician-like and unpresidential. The whole rest of the episode though is great.

In the quest to get more people to know about Gary Johnson, has an amazing video from “dead Abe Lincoln” to let people know they can use the website to find another voter who would otherwise vote for the “other candidate”, and together they can both vote for Gary Johnson like they want to without the risk of accidentally helping to elect the person they hate more.

Comment on Reddit.

Against Trump

In my last post, I made the case for why voting for a main party was far more likely to be a wasted vote than a vote for third party.  I made this argument on the basis of the presidential voting system itself, regardless of any voter’s actual policy preferences.

Nonetheless, if you think Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump have the best policies or ideology, at best my argument should make you indifferent between voting for one of those candidates or leaving it blank (I advocated that one should still vote because of the often overlooked importance of local elections). If you prefer Donald Trump, this post will be my argument for why you shouldn’t. This is not an endorsement of Hillary Clinton, and I hope to write a post against her candidacy next. But there is a third option. I’ve already laid out the case for why it is more practical to vote for a third party rather than waste your vote on the Democrats and Republicans, but this post will show why you should prefer Gary Johnson’s moderate-limited-government-libertarianism to Trump.

Trump: The Troll

The most basic foundation of Trump’s appeal is his fervent opposition to the cultural left, especially the social justice movement and political correctness. In some sense, it doesn’t matter what he says; because he has said ridiculous and outrageous things, he has provided a “safe space” for people who can’t stand the recent domination, real or perceived, of left-wing outrage politics. The cultural left has created a tough situation for their opponents: if you don’t agree with them, they label you as a misogynist, fascist, and white supremacist. The alt-right was a fairly typical human response: they took the insults as a badge of honor.

So what has the left done about Donald Trump? A pretty common response (New York Times, Huffington Post, Vox) is to call him racist! Take a look at these accusations from that Huffington Post article:

  • He attacked Muslim Gold Star parents Khizr Khan and Ghazala Khan. His attack didn’t address their criticism, but suggested Mrs. Khan didn’t speak because of her religion.
  • The Justice Department sued his company in 1973 for not renting to black applicants, and there are stories from employees alleging that he was racist
  • He didn’t condemn David Duke’s support until the next day
  • He questions whether Obama was born in the US
  • He tweeted a picture of him eating a taco bowl to show he loves Hispanics
  • He condoned the attack by his supporters of a Black Lives Matter heckler at a campaign event
  • He claimed Judge Gonzalo Curiel was biased because of his Mexican heritage (Curiel was born in Boston).

These are all awful, insensitive, and moronic actions, but calling them racist or Trump a racist for doing them tries to equate Trump to the level of the KKK. If Trump is fundamentally appealing because he doesn’t back down from outrage tactics, and his supporters are tired of the left screaming that every deviation from progressive orthodoxy is white supremacy, then calling Trump racist is the worst thing you can do. And honestly on many of these issues, Trump is professionally trolling, going just over the line on what is acceptable to draw the outrage.

For example, Trump says he responded to the Khans because they criticized him first, which is true. His response was characterized by an attack on Ghazala Khan and an assumption about her actions due to her faith. This isn’t directly saying that Muslims are inferior, even though there is an implication. But if we just call this out as being “racist”, we really lose out on our argument demonstrating just how awful this episode was for Trump. In fact, Trump supporters can point out that many Islamic countries treat their women poorly and so this is worth questioning. By doing this, we let Trump deflect just how abysmally he managed that political catastrophe; instead, we should be discussing that Trump had no actual response to Khan’s accusations of his unconstitutional policies, and instead had to resort to unfounded assumptions and speculation. He would rather make up things about a family whose son died serving this country because he felt insulted than suck it up and avoid any more fallout. The sheer political incompetence is unspeakable, and the unconstitutionality of many of Trump’s policies remain unanswered.

Many other examples I listed also let Trump get away with absurd positions by jumping immediately to racism. His run-in with the Justice Department is important, but was also over 40 years ago. Was it his fault or his company’s, and does he still have those opinions? The idea of a government agency forcing him into a settlement on allegations of racism is also exactly the conspiracy narrative Trump wants. It seems likely he knows who David Duke is, but I’ve continually overestimated Trump’s abilities in other areas. And just having terrible people endorse you doesn’t automatically make you a bad person too. Trump likely supported the story Obama was born in Kenya because Obama’s father was originally a Kenyan national. It seems pretty easy for Trump supporters to argue he would have demanded a birth certificate of any person whose parentage was outside the US. Calling this racist really lets Trump change the subject to how PC culture is bad, when really we should be focusing on how much of an idiot you have to be to waste so much political capital on a conspiracy theory that was obviously wrong. There were plenty of grounds to criticize Obama’s policies, yet Trump decided to focus on discrediting his legitimacy through a conspiracy theory rather than actual ideas.

Calling it racist when Trump condoned an attack on a protester at his event is sort of the epitome of political correctness gone wrong: it implies that as long he condones violence against protesters of all races at his campaign events, it’s ok. The problem is not the race of the victim, the problem is that he’s condoning violence against people who disagree with him.  His statement against Judge Gonzalo Curiel is almost blatantly racist, as even Paul Ryan states, yet Trump could have easily cited Sonia Sotomayer’s “wise Latina” quote as evidence for why he believed a judge’s ethnicity could influence their opinions. If we get outraged about this, we fuel the perception that social justice not only has a monopoly on outrage politics, but that when the exact ideas that are promoted by the left are used by the right/conservatives/whatever-Trump-supporters-are, only they are attacked. It seems to be targeting of tribes, not even of ideas.

And that’s the point. Trump engages in a motte-and-bailey doctrine where he says things that obviously imply bigotry or outright harming non-Americans, but then if you call him on it, he deflects or calls it a joke. This is an annoying tribalistic tactic (often employed by social justice warriors and also Ann Coulter) where a group will make a ridiculous claim, but really support a weaker version of that claim (see part IV here). As Scott Alexander says, social justice warriors seem to imply ridiculous things like “men can’t be part of a discussion on gender”, but when challenged, they state more defensible positions like “men shouldn’t interject into safe spaces for women”.  Trump says some Mexicans coming over the border are rapists, with the implication being that the average illegal immigrant is a violent criminal. But if you call him on it, he’ll say that he also said “many of them are good people!” which is technically true. He also didn’t say 2nd amendment supporters should shoot Hillary Clinton, but he left it open.

Trump is in part successful (and especially appealing to the alt-right) because he meets social justice warriors with their own methods, and it’s hard to pin him down on anything because his entire presidential run is a giant troll. Of course, I really dislike many of the tactics of the social justice movement and the outrage tactics of internet culture wars. I’ve gone on the record about why I think their ideas and methods are bad. I understand the appeal of fighting fire with fire. But it won’t solve our problems. All of the criticisms aimed at the social justice movement still apply to Trump. We should be trying to elevate our society and discussions, not give in to the temptation to debase them. Collectivism is evil in all its forms, left-wing, right-wing, and bi-partisan.

Many Trump supporters have bought into his campaign as the only way to fight the social justice left. They are wrong on many levels; trolling can’t beat trolling, flip-flopping and incompetence can’t beat Hillary’s political machine, protectionism can’t beat markets, and nationalism and authoritarianism can’t beat freedom. In fact, by allowing Hillary Clinton, one of the weakest presidential candidates in recent history, to continue to dominate this election, Trump has handed the left one of their biggest political victories and squelched one of the biggest opportunities for American conservatives.

And Trump is not the only way to fight back against the worst methods and ideas of blue tribalism. One can oppose collectivism without sacrificing principles or lowering the level of dialogue. As I go through the following deep flaws that Trump has, keep in mind that Gary Johnson has none of them.

The Unknown

What does Trump actually believe? It’s almost impossible to know. These are just the positions I could find so far. I don’t think this list is comprehensive, but I want it recorded somewhere. Many of these are from this ABC news post, this CNN article, and this extensive NBC news article if they’re not otherwise cited.

  • He used to think pretty highly of Hillary Clinton and even invited the Clintons to his wedding, and now apparently thinks they are terrible.
  • Trump declared that he thought Obama was the founder of ISIS, and when pressed on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, he doubled down. Then after a full day of focusing on this point, he abruptly tweeted that it was sarcasm.
  • Trump was going to self-fund his campaign and not fund raise. But he’s gone back on that promise and is now taking money from whomever will give it to him. He was so short on money, he hadn’t even bought TV ads until the last week of August.
  • Trump started out ok with taking Syrian refugees, and then reversed his position and now wants to send them back.
  • Trump initially stated that Japan and South Korea should defend themselves, including with nuclear weapons. Now he says that’s preposterous and he never said that. How do you suffer amnesia about advocating the biggest change in US nuclear policy in history?
  • Trump has relentlessly hammered Clinton for supporting the Iraq War in 2003. It turns out in 2002, he backed the Iraq War too. Also, when asked about Mike Pence’s support of the war, he said it didn’t matter to him. But it still matters that Clinton backed it.
  • Trump made headlines stating he wanted to be a “neutral guy” in the Israel-Palestine conference (a big change from US policy which has held a strong alliance with Israel), and then said Israel was being treated like a second-class citizen later on.
  • Trump has also called the Libyan intervention a total disaster, but he in fact backed this intervention as well. When shown a video of his previous support, he acknowledges it and says he only wanted a “surgical” strike.
  • Trump was originally pro-choice and is now pro-life and even advocated that there should be “punishment” for women who get abortions. Admittedly in that interview, Chris Matthews did a good job of cornering Trump and not letting him get away with dodging the question, so maybe Trump doesn’t actually believe that. But that’s my point: we have no idea what this guy is going to do.
  • Trump advocated the use of torture especially against ISIS and suspected terrorists. When dozens of military advisers pointed out he would effectively be telling people to commit illegal acts, he stated “if I say do it, they’re gonna do it.” The next day Trump said he would be bound by laws just like any president, and then proceeded to call for waterboarding and torture in subsequent speeches.
  • Like abortion, Trump used to have a very different view on gun laws and actually supported an assault weapons ban. Now he’s a strong 2nd amendment supporter. Except in classrooms. Unless it’s a teacher in a classroom. What?
  • Trump was against raising the minimum wage, then for it, then said he wanted to leave it to the states, now says it should be over $10 and left to the states.
  • Trump has been for a single-payer system in the past and has praised Canada’s and Scotland’s system. But he hates Obamacare. But maybe he still likes the mandate. But he doesn’t know what he’d replace it with. His current website’s plan is a pretty good free market approach, but what would he actually pursue?
  • Trump was going to increase taxes on the rich, then said he would cut everyone’s taxes by huge amounts in an online proposal (that this blog looked at), then reduced the amount he would cut, and now it’s a pretty standard small income tax cut with an additional tax break for childcare
  • Trump seems to have called for a renegotiating of U.S. public debt similar to a debt restructuring for an insolvent firm. He seemed to have no idea that U.S. treasuries are so cheap to borrow with because they are never defaulted on. He even indicated that the U.S. can always print more money. Then he seemed to walk it back and say he wouldn’t renegotiate the American debt.
  • Last December Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” In May, this changed to a “suggestion”. Then he added the idea of banning people from places with a “history of terrorism”, then added there would be “extreme vetting” (so not an outright ban?). Trump and his people also added that there had been “no change” in their policy since December.
  • Trump has stated that he would deport 11 million people currently residing in the US illegally. This is significantly larger than the current population of New York City. Then he said he would deport them all, but bring back the “good ones” legally. Buzzfeed even reported that Trump stated off-the-record that deporting all 11 million is just a starting point for negotiations. Just a couple week’s ago, Trump seemed to abandon deportations altogether. Now it seems they are in full force again.

I should also note that Trump said he would call Bill Gates and get him to shut down the internet if need be. I didn’t list that here because I don’t think he ever repudiated that position so it’s not a “flip-flop”.  Trump also suggested Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination. Even on Trump’s most common talking point, his “wall” on the border with Mexico is obviously not true because, as John Oliver points out, it will cost far more than Trump says it will, and there is no way we can force Mexico to pay for it. Adding a tariff on Mexican imports does not force Mexico to pay for anything, it forces American consumers to fund the wall.

This is related to questions of Trump’s temperament; it appears that on many of these interviews, Trump has either never thought about the issue presented to him, lied about his position last time so he can’t remember what his position was, or just honestly changes his position because he’s not smart enough to have foreseen the objection, but wants to appear knowledgeable and so says that was his position the whole time.  The bottom line is that on virtually every issue, even the core issues he’s maintained, we have no idea what he will do.  On top of all this, Trump is capricious and easily offended. He has consistently filed lawsuits against press organizations that have criticized him, regardless of their ineffectiveness and potential attack on free speech. Do we want someone who has no principles, who has no idea where he stands on issues, and can be easily manipulated by his political enemies (“I don’t have thin skin”) to be in charge of our country’s national defense? The Supreme Court is an important issue in this election, but what makes us think we can trust Trump to actually pick from among the names he has mentioned before when he has changed his mind on everything else?

On many issues, he has taken positions not just worse than Gary Johnson or Hillary Clinton, but positions worse than any president in history. Will these be the positions he takes or will they change? Will any of his positions that sound reasonable stick around once he is president? We don’t know.

The Incompetence

Trump has a record of questionable business acumen as well as straight-up fraud. He certainly has done well in the real estate market, but in other ventures he’s been mostly a flop.  He has also widely exaggerated his net worth by constantly trying to tout his own brand. And, by admission of its own employees, Trump University had no interest in teaching any of its customers, only in selling them the most expensive seminars it could.

His political campaign has also been questionable. We will get to policy in the next section, but for now let’s just talk about Trump’s job as a politician, which is to get people to vote for you.  As I noted in May, Trump was one of the worst candidates the Republicans have had as far as political appeal.  He won the Republican presidential primary with only 45% of the vote. By itself, a number that low isn’t unprecedented, but when combined with the fact that most of his primary opponents have decided against endorsing him, he was one of the least liked Republican candidates among Republicans in recent memory.  He’s also only averaged above 40% in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average and above 44% in RealClearPolitics’ average for a couple weeks in July. He has never really pivoted to the general electorate. Trump has had several changes in his campaign management due to apparent incompetence. He will be the first presidential candidate since Nixon to not release his tax returns, and he has just started airing TV ads. That’s correct, Gary Johnson was outspending Trump on TV time until September.

Trump’s response to his abysmal appeal has been to suggest that all polls that don’t show him winning are rigged. In fact, Politico even published a column entitled “What if Trump doesn’t accept defeat?”  As already mentioned in this piece, he got into a very public spat with the parents of a Gold Star soldier who had given his life in 2004. He also said that “there must be some form of punishment” for women who get abortions, and then Ben Carson said that Trump wasn’t expecting that question. Trump wasn’t prepared for a question about abortion in a political event while running for President? You cannot be serious.

What is Trump’s plan in office when foreign heads of state ask him obvious questions he should know the answer to? What is he going to do when people don’t automatically like what he has to say? He has failed in essentially every venture that wasn’t real estate or a reality TV show. The inability to make changes for a better long-term strategy combined with the need to retaliate over every perceived insult disqualify Trump from being Commander-in-Chief.

The Policy

As I’ve stated, it’s hard to nail down what Trump believes on anything.  It often appears like he has never thought about policies or the implications of policies until objections are brought up to him.

One aspect that had been central to Trump was a hardline stance on immigration and deporting illegal immigrants. As of a couple weeks ago, he appears to have flipped on that and now flipped back, but his website still has language that appears to indicate serious criminal charges for anyone living here illegally. Even if Trump has become less focused on deportations, his immigration policy comes with absolutely massive costs, both fiscal and legal. As noted by John Oliver, his “wall” on the Mexican border will likely cost several times as much as he’s claimed, not to mention the hidden costs of wasting construction time and resources on building a concrete wall literally in the middle of nowhere.  If this project ever does happen (which it won’t), it will cause the cost of construction and related services to go up as resources are pulled into a giant wasteful wall. Moreover, as Trump’s website acknowledges, most illegal immigrants don’t sneak over the border; they cross with legal visas and overstay them, and so this wall will do almost nothing to stop illegal immigration.

There are also effects on American citizens as well who are forced to deal with questionably constitutional Border Patrol stops where people are pulled over with no reasonable suspicion or probable cause. Trump has also focused on crime caused by illegal immigrants, despite the fact that crime rates are much lower among this segment of the population than among American citizens. Terrorism, as noted by this blog, is so unlikely that the threat of terrorism via immigration is not even worth addressing.

Moreover, there is a self-evident free market argument for immigration; if the economy would work more efficiently without immigrants, they wouldn’t be coming. Specifically in the United States, immigration helps to expand our workforce while European economies shudder under high levels of retirees and low birthrates.  The OECD has also found that because immigrants come to work, they are productive enough to pay more in taxes than benefits they get out. Trump’s arguments for making H1-B visas harder to give out and more expensive just creates an incentive to ship jobs overseas rather than keep them here. Overall, it seems better for Americans (and likely the global economy) to keep immigrants coming here than to ship the jobs overseas.

There is certainly an argument that we haven’t seen this level of immigration in the United States in a while, even on a percentage scale. Immigrants now make up 13% of the population, but that’s still less than was common during the late 19th century. There’s also the true point that most immigration prior to the ending of national origin quotas in 1965 was from Europe.  Yet, since this is essentially a cultural and not an economic argument, at best this still argues that we should have open immigration–just from some countries and not others. It also doesn’t offer resistance to other forms of open immigration, such as for advanced degree holders (especially graduates of American universities).

We also have to acknowledge that there really are serious obstacles for potential immigrants right now…which has only resulted in illegal immigration. Trump acknowledges the economic burden of an over-regulated economy, but then proposes tons of new regulations on immigration. Using the state to pick winners and losers in the economy is a dangerous thing to do.

Trade is the other area Trump has been most outspoken on. Here, unlike immigration, there is no cultural argument, there is only economics. And it’s clear that when it comes to trade economics, Trump has no idea what he’s talking about. He would add tariffs to goods, making them more expensive for average Americans and cutting into middle-class purchasing power. He would start trade wars with China, and attempt to reverse foreign governments subsidizing their own exports which directly deposits foreign tax revenues into the pockets of American consumers. The protectionism he advocates is essentially an argument for the global economy to leave the US behind and to ensure that new technology and innovation is happening elsewhere while our economy stagnates and our lack of dynamism and competition gets even worse.

Why is Trump suggesting this? Bryan Caplan points out in The Myth of the Rational Voter that voters are subject to many biases, most of which you can find in Trump’s policies. This includes, among others, an anti-market bias and an anti-foreign bias, where voters tend to underestimate the benefits of market systems as well as underestimate the benefits of interacting with foreigners. But despite these biases, free trade is immensely good for the economy. Tariffs being some of the most regressive taxes we have, freer trade is also a big tax break for poor Americans relative to the rich.  Trade, along with immigration, is one of the best areas in which American policy can directly improve the world.

The Authoritarianism

Let’s take a quick history detour: in 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the DNC’s Headquarters in the Watergate Complex. They had been sent by the Nixon reelection committee, and the Nixon administration immediately sought to cover up their involvement. Nixon actually ordered the CIA to block the FBI’s investigation into the burglary, claiming national security issues.  The administration hoped that would prevent any further prying, but as more details came out, a Senate select committee was established in February 1973 to investigate a possible cover-up, and a special independent investigator was appointed by the attorney general.

When a Senate hearing uncovered that there were tapes of all Oval Office conversations, the Senate and special prosecutor subpoenaed the tapes, which Nixon refused to turn over, citing executive privilege. When the prosecutor persisted, Nixon actually ordered the attorney general to fire him, and the attorney general resigned in protest. Solicitor General Robert Bork eventually complied, but under political pressure, Nixon appointed a new special prosecutor. Edited transcripts were released in early 1974, which showed Nixon in a poor light, although they did not fully incriminate him. The new special prosecutor subpoenaed specific tapes which Nixon again refused to turn over. The case went to the Supreme Court which ruled unanimously that Nixon had no unqualified privilege of immunity from investigation, and that he had to turn over the tapes. Nixon did. They revealed clear wrongdoing on his part, and the House Judiciary committee recommended impeachment on several counts. Knowing he would soon be impeached and likely removed by the Senate, Nixon resigned.

There was a backlash against the office of the presidency after Nixon, but we have fully reversed that trend today. The Bush and Obama administrations have undertaken naked power grabs that have helped create an imperial presidency beyond anything Nixon ever dreamed of. Many libertarians have been warning about these massive power expansions for years. Now in the face of the Trump administration, we’ve created all the tools a tyrant would need to run amok.

As Conor Friedersdorf notes in The Atlantic:

  • The president can order American citizens killed in secret.
  • The president can detain prisoners indefinitely without charges or trial.
  • The president can order drone strikes at will in countries against which no war has been declared.
  • The president can start a torture program with impunity.
  • The president can conduct warrantless surveillance on tens of millions of Americans.

To that I would also add that if deemed a troublemaker, the government has plenty of options to attack you without disappearing you. We know at least the DEA and IRS have used NSA information gained through mass surveillance of Americans, and then obscured this source by finding another stated reason to stop a suspect. The enormous amount of statutes on the books means it’s almost certain average people break laws every single day, and so these law enforcement agencies can always find probable cause to arrest you. Then they can stack up charges to force a plea deal, all at the discretion of prosecutors.  As it stands right now, there’s a strong case that the criminal justice system is biased, slow, and unfair, and that it deprives individuals of their rights. But now imagine Trump in charge of the DEA, FBI, intelligence services, and the military.

Trump administration could be even worse than Nixon; given Trump’s continual flip-flopping, his trolling, his total unpreparedness for obvious challenges, and his terrible policy ideas, we don’t actually know if Trump understands how government works. Many of his fantastical policy ideas on his website go beyond the usual politicians’ wishlists; it’s unclear whether he would even try to sell his agenda to Congress, or just try to implement it with executive authority, or indeed if he would understand the difference.

For example, nestled in his immigration policy is a call to end birthright citizenship. Does Trump acknowledge what that would require? As Rand Paul has noted, the 1898 case US v Wong Kim Ark declared that children of legal immigrants were automatically citizens. It seems that Trump wants to overturn this case, which would require a constitutional amendment. It’s possible Trump wants only to stop birthright citizenship of illegal immigrants (he keeps changing his positions on everything), but does he want to do this with a law, or a legal battle? Does he realize that the president can’t pass laws unilaterally? It’s also worth wondering what Trump believes he can actually do on abortion. We’ve already discussed his bewildering stance that women should be punished for getting an abortion, a position basically no one else has ever advocated for. But does he realize that he would need to pass a constitutional amendment to achieve that goal?

Another example, he declared on a debate stage that if he told the military to commit war crimes they would do it. That’s not only against US law, that’s against international law. If he thinks that he can do things as president that are already illegal, what makes us think he would be waiting for Congress to do anything? How about shutting down parts of the internet? In Trump’s own words: “Somebody will say, ‘Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people.” How about banning people based on their religion? Do we think Trump will wait for Congressional approval of obviously unconstitutional ideas? Or will he just order that they be done without thinking, just like everything else in his campaign?

The ACLU has released a 27 page memo on things Trump has said that are blatantly unconstitutional. It makes an excellent legal case against Trump’s ban on Muslims entering the country as well as his mass deportation of illegal immigrants. The magnitude of individual rights violations from deportations specifically would be staggering, as there is no way to arrest millions of immigrants without also arresting regular American citizens and legal residents as there is no way to tell them apart. Arrests would have to be done without probable cause and largely based on racial profiling with likely hundreds of thousands of law abiding people caught up in the dragnet. The police state necessary to accomplish such an action is likely beyond even the secret police organizations of former communist nations.

The ACLU memo also makes an important point concerning Trump’s promise to “open up the libel laws”: there are no federal libel statutes. What exactly Trump would do were he to be president and then find out that there are only state libel laws, I have no clue. But imagine the powers of the Justice Department in the hands of someone who has a history of abusing eminent domain and using the power of the justice system to silence critics. He has already blacklisted media outlets he doesn’t like and banned them from his campaign events. As Damon Root of Reason notes: “Just like a crybaby advocate of political correctness, Trump wants to hollow out the First Amendment in order to make a ‘safe space’ for himself.”

It’s not hard to see the abuses of the Nixon administration repeated under a hypothetical Trump one. But in 1974, when Nixon lost his appeal to the Supreme Court, he still turned over the tapes. I don’t know if we realize how vulnerable our constitution was in this moment. Constitutional power is not something physical; as Abraham Lincoln proved, the Supreme Court has no enforcement arm. In retrospect, if Nixon had just wanted to maximize his political power, it seems that his best plan would have been to not release the tapes and accept whatever political fallout that was. Maybe he would have been forced to resign, maybe not, but he only risked being in the same situation that actually happened. Trump has arguably already promised to do more unconstitutional things than Nixon ever did, and he’s less popular than Nixon ever was before Watergate. If in a similar situation, would Trump comply with the Supreme Court? With Congress? He’s already calling the election rigged before it’s even happened, and he doesn’t seem to believe polls that report him far behind Clinton (which he is). If he found himself thwarted by the other branches of government, would Trump allow the rule of law to occur, or subvert it using his executive authority? Would he even care that his actions were unpopular given how unpopular he already is?

Most of the problems in this section also apply to Hillary Clinton, and it is likely she would continue to abuse government power just like the Bush and Obama administrations. But while Trump may be running against Hillary, I’ve already made the case that your only decision in voting is whether to waste your vote on a main party, or help get a third party better ballot access. Gary Johnson specifically has been an outspoken critic of the advances of government power and the growing authoritarianism centralized in the presidency. If you want to stand against the increasing authoritarianism of the federal government, there is no way to justify voting for Trump over Gary Johnson.

Trump has many problems as a candidate: he is inconsistent, incompetent, and he reduces our ability to have real discussions. His policies are bad, but his authoritarian threats should give us the greatest pause. Would you vote for Richard Nixon today if Nixon told you he was going to abuse executive authority to preserver his own power? If he continuously attacked free speech and criticism, if he promised to arrest millions of people living in the US, do you think voting for him would be a good idea? Well, it’s not a hypothetical, all of these policies are literal quotations from Trump himself. You shouldn’t vote for Nixon, and you shouldn’t vote for Trump.

Comment on reddit.

Picture credit: Gage Skidmore, modified by (grayscale), licensed under BY-SA-2.0.

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 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.


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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