What is Postlibertarianism? v1.0

When I started blogging here about 18 months ago, I knew that I was having trouble identifying myself as exactly “libertarian”, despite that being my primary blogging perspective for years before that. I’ve mapped out important parts of this “new” position in previous posts, but now I think it would make sense to put everything in one place. Continue reading What is Postlibertarianism? v1.0

Trump, Democracy, and Power

I’m working on a post about the political implications of Trump’s victory, but for now, let’s look at what Trump’s win tells us about democracy and government legitimacy.

I’ve seen some people on the left trying to reach out and understand the concerns of Trump voters. This is absolutely welcome, and in a future post I will talk about which of those concerns make sense, and which don’t. However, if you’re only considering other points of view because you lost an election, you may be thinking about politics and government all wrong. The goal of government policy shouldn’t be to cater to the whims and desires of the people who voted and supported the winning coalition, while crushing the unbelievers under a savage reign of public shaming and thought crime. Unfortunately, it feels like much of the social justice left adopted this mentality, and so we now might be forced under a right-wing government that has countered by taking this same governing strategy to heart. Policy should be about creating the best outcomes we can, which I think largely results from allowing individuals to make as many of their own decisions as possible with minimal government interference. That means allowing for a broad range of activities and types of commerce to occur, but it also means opposing expansion of government power.

Of course, the best way to do that right now is to point out that political victory doesn’t mean Trump supporters have any good ideas about improving the country, or even their own situations. The expansion of government action and government power Trump has promised are still terrible regardless of any democratic outcome.

I’m aware this is harsh, and it’s part of what Trump voters are complaining about when they say coastal elites are ignoring them, but I’m not (and have never) dismissed their concerns as racism and xenophobia; I tried to look at Trump’s policies themselves. The problem is that Trump never met me or anyone else on policy grounds. He has few ideas, and the ones he does have are pretty crappy. Against Trump acknowledged the left had done plenty of bad things, but Trump promised things at least as bad.

Moreover, the left (and maybe even the right) shouldn’t be saying “I live in a democracy, so apparently Trump’s ideas are legitimate because he won an election”. They should be saying “Maybe democracy is dangerous if it legitimizes tyranny, and maybe we should limit the power of the state to reduce the risks democracy poses”. In fact, they probably should have been saying this for the last eight years.

Being skeptical of democracy isn’t so bad. Democracies don’t always come to good solutions to problems. Supposing a majority of voters have elected one candidate over another, it’s several steps of logic to then say that a single rejection of one candidate in an election of dozens of issues then constitutes that the winning candidate’s stance on a particular issues is (A) popular and (B) effective. Add in that Trump did not actually win the popular vote, and, the fact that Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem states that there is no knowable community preference on any issue which had 3 or more possible stances to choose from.  And even if voters could all agree on a single popular issues, there’s no reason their favorite policy would actually work.

What I’m trying to say is that despite whatever concerns Trump voters have, what matters are the actions he takes. The problem is that the last two administrations have massively expanded the executive power of the president and increased regulatory involvement in many areas of the economy. The Department of Defense has compiled a massive database and is spying on American citizens and foreign nationals without warrants. That data is shared with federal law enforcement agencies again without oversight. The president has the power to strip you of your rights and hold you indefinitely if you are investigated in connection to terrorism. He even apparently has the ability to kill you without a trial. Trump has promised further abuses of power, including deportations of millions of people that cannot be done without racial profiling and gross abuses of due process. 

Maybe Trump won’t seize executive authority or scoff at the Constitution at all, and 90% of his campaign promises will turn out to be hyperbole. But I doubt it. Maybe he’ll try to accomplish things and be thwarted by checks from the other branches of government and the Constitution like Madison imagined. I maintain that what matters is policy, and if his policies are not that bad, I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong. But the fact that many are worried anyway indicates that we all understand to some extent or another that we have created an imperial presidency. It’s concerning that over 60 million people voted for a stated authoritarian who has advocated war crimes including killing of terrorists’ families; it’s also concerning that almost 61 million voted for someone who advocated a war in Libya without Congressional approval, who supported and continues to support warrantless spying on Americans, and condoned drone attacks that actually killed families of terrorists. The fact that 60 million votes is enough to make us fear for our rights means our troubles started a long time ago.

Yes, Trump’s presidency will likely be worse than anything we’ve ever seen, but as a state skeptic, it’s helpful when a politician just comes out and says how horrible they are rather than everyone pretending that the Obama and Bush imperial presidencies were normal and acceptable uses of executive authority. It makes the case against state power much more straightforward. Progressives need to realize is that Trump is worse only as a matter of degree; this blog post would have been written had Hillary won on Tuesday, it just wouldn’t have had a president-elect that cared so little about his reputation.

 


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Against Hillary: Government Power and Criminal Justice

This is the fifth and final post in my series opposing Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. See the introduction in Part 1 here. Read my opposition to Trump here. Read why you should mathematically vote for a third party here.

Government Power and Criminal Justice

I could go on critiquing many more topics where progressives and libertarians disagree. I’m not sure that would help, so I’ll conclude with this broad section on government power. The fundamental problem we should all have with Hillary Clinton is that she trusts the government to fix every problem we face. But the government has no competition, is slow to change, is slow to respond, and wields a massive police state. Moreover, she also seems to believe government officials should always be trusted to act in the public interest. This seems to govern her position on her mishandling classified information, on her foreign interventions and wars, on healthcare, on government spending, on our right to know that our government is spying on us, and even on the right for people to publish books and movies critical of candidates near elections.

Let’s go back to some points I made in my Against Trump post. As noted by Conor Friedersdorf, the powers of the president apparently include ordering the execution of American citizens with drone strikes (something it seems Hillary Clinton implicitly approved of), detaining Americans suspected of terrorism indefinitely, and spying on millions of Americans with unconstitutional general warrants. Quoting me from the Trump piece:

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.

I later compare Trump to Nixon. My intention was to show that bad presidents have existed and they did terrible damage. Of course, Nixon and Trump in reality have little in common; Nixon was an unlikeable, calculating, politically successful military interventionist who also expanded the size and scope of the regulatory state and federal government while using his power to cover up his aggressive use of the state to fight his political rivals. In other words, he was literally Hillary Clinton in 2016. Imagine putting Richard Nixon in charge of the government today where he would have access to unprecendented surveillance, secret courts, and undeclared wars. This is what we face in a Clinton presidency.

One of the biggest issues in 2016 has been the way police interact with citizens, especially people of color. The trust Hillary Clinton has in the state is simply incompatible with the reality of police abuses. Libertarians, on the other hand, have been talking about police abuse for quite some time. Some of those ideas have been adopted by Clinton including an opposition to mandatory minimums, a prioritization of violent crime over drug crimes, and better police accountability. But Clinton’s positions are mixed at best: harsher sentences in the 90s that helped create the massive prison population we see today weren’t just introduced for drug possession, but also firearm possession. Clinton hasn’t discussed liberalization of firearm ownership, and in fact has called for the suspension of 2nd amendment rights for people placed on the unaccountable and discriminatory terrorist watch list. Her support for the Patriot Act and NSA spying doesn’t really imply a worldview that wants to reduce the police powers of the state. Indeed, her stances in all sorts of areas from undeclared wars to videogames reflect a fundamental belief in civilian deference to state power. Yet as countless examples have shown, including Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and more, deferring to a powerful police state allows harm to come to innocents.

The more power the state has, the more likely there will be confrontations between actors of the state and citizens, and confrontations where there is a power imbalance leads to abuses. Even if we could end racism today, we would not be solving the problem; police that still abuse their power, just against people of all races equally are still immoral. Whether it’s the justice system broadly, government surveillance, regulatory powers, or foreign interventions Hillary Clinton does not offer a fundamental change from simply trusting in the state to fix the problem. Our military has been involved in trillion dollar middle eastern wars over the past 16 years. The justice system is so broken that prosecutors can force 95% of defendants to accept plea bargains. We are outraged at the power the police are wielding without oversight. Yet we are making the problem worse by putting a reincarnation of Richard Nixon into the White House, after she has already brazenly broken the law and gotten away with it. This is simply the wrong answer.


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Against Hillary: Fiscal Policy and Taxation

This is the fourth post in my series opposing Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. See the introduction in Part 1 here. Read my opposition to Trump here. Read why you should mathematically vote for a third party here.

Taxation

I won’t spend a huge amount of time on this section because there’s another fundamental ideological argument here, but I want to emphasize a few key points. One is that government taxation and spending is inherently distortionary in an economic sense. Therefore, we should be biased against government policies that transfer money unless we can definitively show the benefits are significantly larger than the costs. Relatedly, the tax code should be as simple and as non-distortionary as possible. Gary Johnson has a pretty good idea here on replacing the income tax with a similarly progressive consumption tax. Similar tax holes would likely be carved out over time, but throwing out the current system in favor of one that does not discourage income earning, but only spending, would have some clear benefits. This idea is popular among libertarians, progressives, and even Bill Gates. It is not a perfect plan, especially when taking into account transition costs, but the current tax code does not have much going for it: it’s complex and creates bad incentives everywhere. Needless to say, Donald Trump’s fiscal policy may not raise taxes, but excessive government borrowing can have big costs as well, and at some point in the future distortionary taxes will need to pay for all of Trump’s out of control spending ideas.

Spending

The second point is that if we assume luck is an inherent part of wealth, then using government as a form of social insurance is pretty reasonable, even from a libertarian standpoint. But most government spending is not focused on giving money to the poor. A huge chunk is spent on the elderly in the form of social security and medicare, even though many are solidly middle class. Taxes for the programs are also fairly regressive. Other major spending categories are overseas military operations, defense spending generally, veterans spending (which we will see more of if Hillary is elected), and interest on the national debt. Together these make up a lot more than 60% of the federal budget. And that’s not even going into the costs of the war on drugs, corporate subsidies, and so on, which are a bit harder to calculate, but are nonetheless real costs which are not remotely focused on helping the poor. The problem is that Hillary isn’t really talking about reforming these areas. If anything, she’s talked about expanding them and introducing new spending areas. Again, this isn’t even mentioning the unknown costs of her future foreign policy blunders.

Free college tuition is really the most egregious. We already live in a world where college graduates are forced to take jobs that they are overqualified for. The reason is partially because government already offers huge subsidies for college tuition; as a result, colleges have little price competition. They just increase the prices, and the state just keeps paying it. Increasing the amount of subsidies in order to fix a high price doesn’t work for tulips (seriously, read it), and it doesn’t work for college. Spending lots of money to educate someone on a subject that is not in demand, whether it’s a B.A. in psychology or skills in coding fortran, is very expensive to society. That cost should be born out by the person learning the skill with no market, not by society. Incentives would then push people to either learn skills that are in demand (so they can pay back the cost of education), or to forego college and begin earning immediately without huge upfront costs. Both of these would be better for society at large. Yes, we should help those with little wealth with government support, but those receiving help should ultimately decide what to do with additional funds that will best help them. The government should not interfere with the relative opportunity cost faced by prospective applicants to college. Reducing, not increasing college subsidies is the only way to control the rising cost of college and fix the overqualification and saturation of college degrees in the job marketplace.

Finally, paying for this with higher taxes on the wealthy is a bit wishful. Firstly, the arithmetic doesn’t quite add up; the New York Times estimates higher taxes would raise only $100 billion to $200 billion depending on how broad and steep the tax increases are. This isn’t enough to cover current annual payments on the national debt. It would likely cover public college tuition today, before additional cost growth and the large influx of students that free tuition would bring. There wouldn’t be much room for a new war in Syria or an expansion of social security. Secondly, federal tax revenues have basically never exceeded 20% of GDP. It’s not that higher taxes wouldn’t raise revenue; they just wouldn’t beyond a certain level. A Clinton presidency would not be as fiscally irresponsible as a Trump presidency, but it is a bit worrisome considering the returns of this spending seem to be to get middle class votes more than to help the poor.


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Against Hillary: Foreign Policy and Trade

This is the second post in my series opposing Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. See the introduction in Part 1 here. Read my opposition to Trump here. Read why you should mathematically vote for a third party here.

Foreign Policy

Media coverage might make you think that Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson’s weakest point in comparison to Hillary Clinton is foreign policy. On the contrary, foreign policy is by far the the most important policy reason voters should reject Hillary Clinton, especially in favor of Johnson. News stories might seem to indicate that Johnson knows nothing about foreign policy, but in fact he has an excellent nuanced approach to foreign affairs. Libertarians have a reputation for isolationism, and indeed an important part of Johnson’s policy is a reduction in American military involvement in the middle east. But he is still a proponent of American diplomacy and defending American obligations in NATO. He’s also the only proponent of free trade in this election, a policy which has systematically broken down geopolitical opponents by integrating their economies into global markets and intertwining their economic success with ours. Let’s contrast this with Hillary Clinton’s policies.

The American consensus on the 2003 Iraq War is certainly negative, and I’d go as far as to say that most agree it was a mistake, especially on the left. Hillary Clinton voted to support that war, but so did many politicians on both sides of the aisle (including 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry). Of course, even some blame for a war that had several hundred thousand deaths of civilians and combatants is pretty awful. 4,507 Americans died in the Iraq war. This is significantly higher than the amount of people who died in the September 11th attacks. These are real people that likely would be alive today if not for the actions of American politicians. Yes, Hillary Clinton was not the only person who voted for this war, so perhaps she is only responsible for a fraction of this mistake. But is it that great to be responsible for the deaths of only 100 Americans who died for a mistake? What about the thousands of Iraqi Security Forces who died in the insurgency? What about the estimated five million Iraqi orphans caused by the war, or the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who died?

In 2004, Hillary said she had no regrets her Iraq War vote. In 2008, she didn’t want to be flip-flopping and so did not apologize, but she nonetheless lost the nomination to Obama, with the Iraq War support being one of several factors. In her 2014 book, she finally admitted that she regrets her vote backing the Iraq War. Yet, as The Atlantic points out, she was quite sincere in her vote in 2002; this was not simply a political ploy to look strong on national security. And if indeed she has had a change of heart, one would think she would treat future policy decisions differently.

In 2011 as Secretary of State, she faced another policy decision in Libya…and again decided to push for intervention. During a Democratic primary debate a year ago when asked about the intervention, Hillary Clinton began her defense of American involvement in Libya by labeling it as “smart power at its best”. Connor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic harshly criticized Clinton’s full answer stating that her upbeat portrayal of Libya was:

…about as misleading as summarizing the Iraq War by saying that the Iraqis had a terrible leader; they had a free election after the war; and they voted for moderates. It elides massive suffering and security threats that have occurred in postwar Libya.

Also worth noting, as Friedersdorf points out, this war was not declared, and not only violated the War Powers Resolution, but went against the expressed opposition of a Libya intervention Congressional vote. Moreover, the New York Times discusses in-depth how Obama was hesitant to get involved in Libya until Clinton convinced him it was a worthwhile endeavor. This is her war, and it left Libya a failed state.

Clinton’s support of military interventions in the middle east should be very concerning to everyone. Essentially all military interventions she has supported in the middle east have been failures: Libya is most prominently hers; she voted to go to war in Iraq which was a foreign policy disaster; she also supported the Afghanistan surge in 2009 and drone bombing in Pakistan during the first Obama term. Seven years after the surge in Afghanistan, there are still thousands of American soldiers and several times that many contractors in Afghanistan today. The Pakistan drone strikes have been severely criticized, with estimates of civilian casualties varying between 250 to over 900 civilians killed.

Of course, the US hasn’t really had a successful military intervention in the middle east since the Gulf War. Yet Hillary Clinton has continued to favor aggressive hawkish interventions. Her widely touted “experience” during her husband’s administration, as a Senator, and as a member of the Obama administration seems to have created systemic bias towards intervention in her approach to foreign affairs. In the Times piece, Clinton adviser Anne-Marie Slaughter states:

“Mrs. Clinton repeatedly speaks of wanting to be ‘caught trying.’ In other words, she would rather be criticized for what she has done than for having done nothing at all.”

This may sound noble, but it should disturb anyone considering voting for Clinton. The implication that “trying” is always better than “not trying” ignores the possibility that American policy could ever accidentally cause bad outcomes. This isn’t just possible, it’s quite likely, as demonstrated specifically by Iraq and Libya. Now Clinton is proposing additional intervention in Syria, beyond what the Obama administration has pursued. This includes no-fly zones and troops on the ground to create safe zones for refugees.

You might say that Syria is different from Iraq in that the situation literally couldn’t be worse, so perhaps intervention only risks improving one of the bloodiest wars in the last decade. Yet no-fly zones would demand a confrontation with Russia (they are the ones flying the planes) and would require the US to shoot down Russian military aircraft. This is escalation, and thus it’s quite easy for imprecise or incorrect policy to actually make Syria become even worse under Clinton’s policy. A Johnson/libertarian hands-off approach has inherently less risk because there would be no soldiers involved and little to no risk of escalation with Russia. Johnson has specifically advocated working with Russia, which is also basically the policy the Obama administration is taking. Nonetheless, we should acknowledge this approach has done little to end the war in Syria.

But if anything, that’s another point to Johnson: if Clinton’s ideas are so great, it seems that the Obama administration would have already implemented them and succeeded. The implication then is that Clinton differs significantly from Obama in Syria policy. Specifically, she is willing to commit more than pure air support. This sounds suspiciously like a traditional middle eastern military intervention championed by neoconservatives/right-wing hawks. Johnson’s Syria policy is suspiciously similar to Obama’s. So the question is why would Democrats and progressives side with Clinton when the Clinton vs Johnson policies are really right-wing vs Obama Syria policies. It seems siding with Clinton over Johnson in this area means abandoning the left’s positions, including that of the sitting Democratic president.

Moreover, for Clinton’s policies to succeed, she would need to win a middle eastern conflict by building a coalition among international actors who are geopolitically opposed. This war would need to be won against both a strong dictator and a large insurgency, the latter being something the United States has failed at essentially every time in the middle east. These plans are unreasonable, unprecedented, and unlikely to work.

Voting to approve of Clinton’s continual push for war and intervention is to agree not to hold her responsible for her repeated foreign policy mistakes which have lost countless lives. It’s to agree that we can afford to spend another several hundred billion dollars on another middle east intervention. It’s to put faith in a person who has learned nothing, who is hoping her intentions in solving the Syrian conflict will overcome the reality of the middle eastern politics.

Free Trade

Trade is next due to its role in the dynamics of geopolitical relationships. Again, despite the consensus that foreign relations is Hillary’s strong point, this is the second foreign policy area where she is on the wrong side. When it comes to trade, economists are in astounding agreement that free trade is a good thing. The benefits of freer international markets are clear and the results are all around us; today we have global supply chains that reduce the cost and increase the availability of goods of all types. Integration of developing economies has raised the productivity of the global poor and allowed for sustainable, incentivized growth to pull literally billions out of poverty, a feat which government and charities have never come close. The burden is on free trade opponents to explain their position, and in this election, those opponents are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Gary Johnson is the only candidate running this year who is on the right side of perhaps the most important issue when it comes to the degree and number of people helped.

Hillary Clinton may say in private that she supports free trade, but at best then we are hoping she is lying publicly. Unfortunately, whatever political calculations she is making may not necessarily change after election day. At the very least, it seems reasonable to suggest free trade will not be a top priority of the Clinton administration given she is running as far as possible from the TPP. As an aside, the TPP itself has many non-free trade components, including extensive increases in intellectual property protections. But our president should be someone who makes the case to the American people and the to the world of the benefits of trade, cooperation, and commercial interaction (I can’t believe I’m defending Obama). The current presidential administration has created many bad policies, but in foreign affairs, both in war and trade, Clinton is somehow huge steps backwards from where we are today.


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Against Hillary: The Rule of Law

This post is the latest in a series this year covering the 2016 election. In May, I took a look at all candidates that had run for the Democratic and Republican nominations and noted that most were flawed. I restricted much of my analysis to the candidates’ political electability, regardless of my agreement with their ideology. Obviously much of that post focused on the failures of the Republican Party to nominate someone better than Trump, but I noted that already Hillary Clinton was demonstrating some serious popularity issues. In fact, I’m pretty sure her vulnerability (and high likelihood of being the Democratic nominee) was the primary reason for so many Republicans entering the race. That notion has proven correct as the Huffington Post favorability ratings put Hillary at 43% favorable / 54% unfavorable. In comparison at this time of the race, Mitt Romney was about 46% favorable / 48% unfavorable and Obama was 45% favorable / 50% unfavorable. Against an average Republican presidential candidate, I’d bet she’d be losing badly.

But she’s not facing an average Republican, she’s facing Donald Trump, perhaps the worst major party candidate in memory. I’ve gone into extensive detail about the problems with a Trump presidency, and I’ve recommended voting for Gary Johnson (twice), or any third party, if the election isn’t close or you don’t live in a swing state. I define swing state very narrowly as states with a serious chance of their outcome determining the outcome of the election. Indeed, with only a week to go, betting markets have Clinton at over 70% chance to win the election.

However, even if my mathematical arguments make sense to you, if you are a self-identified Democrat or progressive, you might still prefer voting for a mainstream Democrat like Hillary Clinton rather than a third party just because she seems to fit your ideology better; sure, your vote likely won’t count, but perhaps you just don’t see much appeal in the third parties anyway so you might as well state your preference for a candidate you like. This post, at the very least, will lay out the case for why a Clinton presidency would be mediocre, and at best this post will persuade you to vote for Gary Johnson over Hillary Clinton. Again, this implies that there is no real chance of having a decisive vote.

Indeed, it is overwhelmingly likely that Hillary Clinton will be the 45th president of the United States no matter how you vote. While it is nice that Donald Trump will not be president, we must remember that Hillary Clinton’s victory is simply the final act in an election where our political system utterly failed.

One of the reasons I wanted to write Against Trump first was that there are so many faults you can have with Trump without encountering any Fundamental Ideological Disagreements. By Fundamental Ideological Disagreements, I mean that sometimes you encounter people where you don’t have anything close to the same goals in mind due to virtually irreconcilable ideology. A classic example of irreconcilable differences is abortion: some people believe that life begins at conception, and some people believe a fetus only gains rights once it is viable outside the womb. You can’t really get to one place from the other since each has fundamental ideological assumptions about whether an unborn fetus has rights.

Fundamental Ideological Disagreements are part of the reason I favor consequentialism; if we can at least agree on what our goals are, now it’s theoretically just an empirical disagreement on the best way to get there. With Trump, there’s a lot to dislike without considering ideology: he trolls, he flip-flops, he’s unintelligent and incompetent. Regardless of whether we agree with what a perfectly competent Trump would do, it’s apparent, through stupidity or flip-flopping, many of his promises are empty.

Hillary Clinton is not nearly as unknown. She’s done her own share of flip-flopping, but we generally know where she stands on big issues: she favors American military intervention, she favors government involvement and expansion of an expensive welfare state, she favors a regulated economy with higher taxes on the wealthy, and she favors curtailing individual liberties in the name of national security, redistribution, and social justice. To oppose Clinton is to confront these ideological differences which may be impossible to change in a blog post. But there are some critiques that virtually everyone can agree are quite concerning.

The Rule of Law

The biggest issue is the double standard of the law as applied to Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified information with her private email server. FBI Director James Comey indicated that because there was no intentional mishandling of information, any case against Clinton would fail despite clear violations of the law. Yet, as Glenn Greenwald points out, this is not how low-level government employees who accidentally mishandle classified information are normally treated. In fact, according to Greenwald, the Obama administration has prosecuted “more individuals under the Espionage Act of 1917 for improperly handling classified information than all previous administrations combined.”

This includes some crazy examples Greenwald lists:

NSA whistleblower Tom Drake, for instance, faced years in prison, and ultimately had his career destroyed, based on the Obama DOJ’s claims that he “mishandled” classified information (it included information that was not formally classified at the time but was retroactively decreed to be such). Less than two weeks ago, “a Naval reservist was convicted and sentenced for mishandling classified military materials” despite no “evidence he intended to distribute them.” Last year, a Naval officer was convicted of mishandling classified information also in the absence of any intent to distribute it.

The idea that the FBI couldn’t get a case together when Clinton insecurely stored documents far more sensitive than those mishandled by low level government workers is absurd. Of course, I’m not suggesting that Clinton necessarily did something immoral; it’s also true that the American government vastly over-classifies everything and is far too zealous about prosecuting people who mishandle information. So called “classified” documents may be classified simply because bureaucrats are playing it safe and covering everything as broadly as possible to avoid any problems. They may even be classified when national security is not in danger but rather because it is simply politically expedient to do so.

But it’s clear that Clinton broke the law and was not prosecuted due to who she is. It’s also true that she repeatedly lied (or didn’t know) about breaking these laws. The stories about her include brazen lifting of NSA classified intelligence sent to unsecured email servers simply because she didn’t want to access email like a regular employee. Against a real opponent, this would be damning.

Moreover, as Scott Shackford at Reason points out, Hillary herself has specifically criticized people who released classified information, even if that information significantly changed the national debate on a topic and led to courts ruling programs unconstitutional:

We’re also talking about a woman who thinks Edward Snowden didn’t go through “proper channels” before leaking information about mass domestic surveillance to the public and should face legal consequences, though the whistleblowing channels she refers to probably wouldn’t have applied in Snowden’s situation. Despite deliberately not managing communications appropriately to make sure everything goes through “proper channels” with correct level of security, she wants to be treated differently.

Again, given Hillary will likely be the president anyway, there are plenty of alternative candidates who have never mishandled classified information that voters can and should cast their ballot for. Voting to state you disapprove of a president using this double standard seems like a worthy undertaking in its own right. At the very least, it is hugely troubling that the likely-president has already avoided the law due to political stature. The fact that our political system gave us a choice between an unpopular, incompetent, flip-flopping authoritarian and someone who couldn’t even follow the laws on classified information as a cabinet secretary is a huge indictment on the system. And any system that allows a president to win when they’ve already demonstrated the law doesn’t apply to them is dangerous. A vote for Hillary is an approval of that system.


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Picture Credit: Marc Nozell, Hillary Clinton in Nashua, NH licensed under CC-BY-2.0

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 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

Links 2016-03-24

Scott Alexander has a new post on happiness and economic growth. There must be a name for this paradox, because it’s blindingly obvious if you think about it: Right now, compare your life to the life of 100 years ago, given your current standing in society. Your life right now is way better, you have time to spend on internet learning and debating about ideas in ways you couldn’t dream of 100 years ago. You have better food choices, longer life expectancy, better pop culture, more stimulating interests, far easier communication with distant relatives, and so on. And yet, the exact same thing will be said about our lives compared to the lives of those who live 100 years in the future. Sure, those lives will be better, but I don’t know how much that bothers us today unless we really think about it. Most people are pretty excited to live today at the frontier of human knowledge, and we don’t see it as a loss that we don’t have cheap self-driving cars and instant delivery groceries for low cost.

But yet, when you do think about it, we hate sitting in traffic or having to go to the store to pick something up, and we wish we had technologies that could get rid of those inconveniences. Yet, I bet people in the future will just have other errands they hate doing just like we hate sitting in traffic. But they will be inconveniences for future people who are tolerating them so that they can do even more awesome things that we can’t imagine, just like people 100 years didn’t sit in traffic because they didn’t own cars at all.

It’s very confusing. On a personal scale, obviously it would be ridiculous to complain about your current standing, because future technologies haven’t been invented yet. So of course everyone is pretty satisfied with what technology level they live in. Yet, our lives are obviously better for having these technologies. How do we reconcile this?

In the last month, I’ve often thought that the closest president we’ve had to Donald Trump is Andrew Jackson; Trump is a loud-mouthed, populist who falls outside of the mainstream party system, yet has significant support from non-elites and were despised by the elites themselves.  This is also the perfect description for Andrew Jackson, who was so successful in this movement, he founded the Democratic Party. David Friedman comes to the same conclusion via a different route.

That last link caused me to run into a real problem with Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson grammatically. One subject is dead and one is alive, so what is the proper verb tense to use? Stack Exchange suggested this, which is honestly kind of lame.

Scott Sumner discusses socialism and France. He makes a short argument that France sounds like a pretty good model country for modern socialism: high amount of skilled civil servants, broad support for socialist policies, a willing government to implement them, and a modern, developed economy.  Yet, Bernie Sanders supporters often reach for the Nordic countries rather than France as the big-welfare state (“socialist”) ideal.  Why is French socialist policy somewhat of a political flop, while Nordic countries are idealized? And would a Bernie-America look like Denmark or maybe better, or perhaps more like France, or even worse? Given the size and diversity of America’s population and economy, France seems closer than Denmark, although both are closer to each other than the US. The only socialistic countries of comparable size seem to be the China and the Soviet Union which have forms of socialism even Bernie Sanders would abhor. Mostly.

Do you have no friends? Never fear, it’s because really, really smart people are better off with few friends.

Bryan Caplan’s model of the Right and Left, and how it’s oddly doing well this election cycle.

Overcoming Bias discusses the cost and benefits of voting. How much would you pay to have your vote count more? His conclusion is that we don’t vote to change the outcome of the election.

Surprise! NSA data will soon be used for routine policing! Coverage from the New York Times, and the Massachusetts ACLU as well.

Bryan Caplan also has a good discussion of libertarian critiques of welfare.  Matt Zwolinski has a good counter post. I like the idea of bleeding heart libertarianism, or market liberalism or whatever, so I think Caplan’s critiques are pointed at exactly what I believe, which is excellent! You always want to have your beliefs critiqued by smart people. I think Caplan is right on many of his points, but I feel like my views are more politically practical. Voters obviously want some form of welfare for the poor, and at least that part could be done more efficiently with my ideas.

This is a good write up on the decentralized crypto-currency-ish entity Ethereum; Reason also did a recent video on it.   Very soon I’ll be able to explain to people what it actually does. Right after I’ve figured out how to install it.  If you want to learn about it without me, here is Ethereum’s website.

Fact checking Trump on trade. Why do we talk about trade deficits? I have no idea why they matter.  Is it a problem if I buy a phone from Apple and I live in New York instead of California? Is there now a trade deficit between New York and California since I sent money out of my local community? No, nobody cares. And for the US, it’s even less relevant, since those dollars that US citizens spent have to come back to the US to be redeemed for goods and services. It would be like if I paid for my iPhone in New York dollars that had to come back to New York. I’m a free trade proponent, but I’m not deaf to some concerns people might have about trade, but this is one of the worst anti-free trade arguments you could make.

Voting Rights Schmoting Rights

I.

“If you don’t feel like voting, don’t bother. It won’t matter. The statistical odds of your vote making any difference at all are infinitesimal.” These are the words of Megan McArdle in a sad, but amusing, piece telling you not to vote. And she’s right: your vote, at least in federal elections, is pretty worthless. Even in smaller House elections, over 80% of incumbents win.

But she’s not the only person that’s been talking about voting recently. The Left has been quite upset over new voter ID laws being implemented around the country. John Oliver even did a long segment on it.

I like John Oliver as a political commentator (and in Community). His sharp wit combines biting commentary with excellent humor, and the format of his show allows a deep dive on interesting issues. I try to watch as many of those segments as possible (they are available for free on YouTube) despite the vast differences in the way he and I view the world.  Oliver’s analysis provides great starting points for discussion, and he helps me understand many critiques of issues that I would never have thought of.

While I don’t really disagree with him on the basic issue of voter ID laws, I feel like he’s missed the more profound problem about American democracy: voting is just a gimmick.

How can this be? Voting is a fundamental right!  America was founded as a grand experiment in democracy! Yes, voting is very important to Americans, but why?  In fact, what is a voting right? Continue reading Voting Rights Schmoting Rights