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Posts Tagged ‘voting

“There’s no idea in economics more beautiful than Arrow’s impossibility theorem”*…

Tim Harford unpack’s Kenneth Arrow‘s Impossibility Theorem (which feels a bit like a socio-economic “Monty Hall Problem“) and considers it’s implications…

… if any group of voters gets to decide one thing, that group gets to decide everything, and we prove that any group of decisive voters can be pared down until there’s only one person in it. That person is the dictator. Our perfect constitution is in tatters.

That’s Arrow’s impossibility theorem. But what does it really tell us? One lesson is to abandon the search for a perfect voting system. Another is to question his requirements for a good constitution, and to look for alternatives. For example, we could have a system that allows people to register the strength of their feeling. What about the person who has a mild preference for profiteroles over ice cream but who loathes cheese? In Arrow’s constitution there’s no room for strong or weak desires, only for a ranking of outcomes. Maybe that’s the problem.

Arrow’s impossibility theorem is usually described as being about the flaws in voting systems. But there’s a deeper lesson under its surface. Voting systems are supposed to reveal what societies really want. But can a society really want anything coherent at all? Arrow’s theorem drives a stake through the heart of the very idea. People might have coherent preferences, but societies cannot…

On choice, law, and the paradox at the heart of voting: “Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem,” from @TimHarford in @WhyInteresting. Eminently worth reading in full.

* Tim Harford

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As we contemplate collective choice, we might send grateful birthday greetings to the man who “wrote the book” on perspective, Leon Battista Alberti; he was born on this date in 1404.  The archetypical Renaissance humanist polymath, Alberti was an author, artist, architect, poet, priest, linguist, philosopher, cartographer, and cryptographer.  He collaborated with Toscanelli on the maps used by Columbus on his first voyage, and he published the the first book on cryptography that contained a frequency table.

But he is surely best remembered as the author of the first general treatise– Della Pictura (1434)– on the the laws of perspective, which built on and extended Brunelleschi’s work to describe the approach and technique that established the science of projective geometry… and fueled the progress of painting, sculpture, and architecture from the Greek- and Arabic-influenced formalism of the High Middle Ages to the more naturalistic (and Latinate) styles of Renaissance.

from Della Pictura

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“Suffrage is the pivotal right”*…

… but how we vote matters. We tend to take the electoral system in which we exercise our franchise for granted. Perhaps we should think more broadly. Why Is This Interesting? explains how Venice selected its Doges, and ponders the questions that raises for our own elections…

The way societies make decisions is important. There is a growing understanding that different systems can lead to quite different outcomes. Ireland rejected the British first-past-the-post system after independence and adopted the single transferable vote in 1921. New York City started using ranked-choice voting this summer, with some hiccups. Other countries have moved to full proportional representation where seats are allocated to parties more or less based on national vote share.

There’s also the question of the best level of representation. Should city councils be elected at-large for the whole city (like in Cambridge, Mass.) or in single-member districts, and how would that affect outcomes such as diversity and zoning? Perhaps some decisions should be taken away from the city council, and either moved down to the neighborhood level or up to the regional level? And should some decisions, such as monetary policy, be taken out of democratic control altogether and left to technocrats?

Using sortition to choose government officials, as Venice and Ancient Athens did, is a niche idea these days, but in common-law countries, juries deciding legal cases are (supposed to be) chosen randomly from the population. Nobel laureate Daniel McFadden wants to use “economic juries” of randomly selected people to decide on big public projects, arguing that this can better reflect public opinion than a referendum.

Since these political design choices affect policy outcomes, it would be naive to think this is only about high-minded notions of the “quality” of decisions. But that doesn’t make the question of how societies should make decisions any less interesting.

What’s the best way to hold elections? On Venice, decisions, and policy outcomes: “The Dogal Elections Edition,” from Why is This Interesting? (@WhyInteresting) Eminently worth reading in full.

[Image above: source]

* Susan B. Anthony

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As we ponder the practice of polling, we we might recall that it was on this date in 1620 that 41 adult male colonists recently arrived in what we now call Massachusetts, including two indentured servants, signed the Mayflower Compact (although it wasn’t called that at the time). Though they intended to reach the Colony of Virginia, storms had forced The Mayflower and its pilgrim passengers to anchor at the hook of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. It was unwise to continue with provisions running short. This inspired some of the non-Puritan passengers (whom the Puritans referred to as ‘Strangers’) to proclaim that they “would use their own liberty; for none had power to command them” since they would not be settling in the agreed-upon Virginia territory. To prevent this, the Pilgrims determined to establish their own government, while still affirming their allegiance to the Crown of England. Thus, the Mayflower Compact was based simultaneously upon a majoritarian model and the settlers’ allegiance to the king. It was in essence a social contract in which the settlers consented to follow the community’s rules and regulations for the sake of order and survival– the first (colonial) document to establish self-government in the New World.

Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 1899

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“Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less”*…

This Little Book Contains Every Reason Why Women Should Not Vote (New York: National Woman Suffrage Publishing Co., 1917)

At the time of the 2016 US presidential election, stationery shops did a brisk trade in entirely blank books, with covers bearing such titles as The Wit and Wisdom of Donald Trump and Why Trump Deserves Trust, Respect and Admiration. A year later Michael J. Knowles topped the Amazon charts with his Reasons to Vote for Democrats, comprising 200 blank pages. It’s an old joke, as this precursor from 1880 shows, and this one from the same year. One of the finest examples of the genre, and at a welcome remove from the petty political-point-scoring mood of many others, is this tiny publication from circa 1917.

Despite its novelty angle, this little book from the National Woman Suffrage Publishing Company (the publishing arm of the National Woman Suffrage Association) was born from a very serious place: the struggle to gain women the right to vote in the United States. The N. W. S. A. published a range of agitprop, not just comedy items. Virginia Commonwealth University has a collection of texts from the New York-based organisation, including the Headquarters News Letter, an A-B-C of Organization, a guide to fundraising, and information brochures on the proposed changes to the Constitution. There are leaflets targeting specific audiences too: teachers, farmers’ wives, Catholics, Southern white women concerned about “the Negro Vote”. More general-audience books, such as Why Women Should Not Vote also found their way to specific targets. A copy was left on the desk of anti-women’s suffrage Rep. Sherman Berry who decried it as “another sample of … the detestable and cheap politics practiced in this State. Gentlemen, that little book carries no more weight with it than does the picketing of the White House in this time of crisis and peril to this nation and the heckling of our President….”

Two years on from the publication of the book (and presumably to Berry’s dismay) the legislative battle for women’s suffrage was won in 1919, with ratification of the 19th Amendment from the required number of states following in 1920: it was prohibited to deny citizens the right to vote on the basis of sex. It was a huge victory, but not the end of the struggle…

All the books pages are blank

Agitprop at it’s best: “Why Women Should Not Vote (1917)

* “It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union… Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.” – Susan B. Anthony

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As we remember that politics is supposed to be about people, we might recall that it was on this date in 1938 that a young Swiss chemist at Sandoz, Albert Hofmann, while researching the medicinal plant squill and the fungus ergot in a search for compounds useful in pharmaceuticals, first synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).  As it wasn’t immediately promising, he put it aside.  But he revisited his formulation several years later, on April 16, 1943; handling it, he accidentally absorbed a bit through his fingertips and realized that the compound had psychoactive effects.  Three days later, on April 19, 1943 (a date now known as “Bicycle Day”) Hofmann intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of LSD, then rode home on a bike– a journey that became, pun intended, the first intentional acid trip.  (This is not to be confused with the UN’s World Bicycle Day.)

Hofmann was also the first person to isolate, synthesize, and name the principal psychedelic mushroom compounds psilocybin and psilocin.

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“We all know that an angry electorate is a voting electorate”*…

Further to yesterday’s post

The final vote tallies still aren’t known, but the media verdict of this presidential election is in: it’s 2016 all over again. Four years ago, in the hours after Donald Trump declared victory on the strength of 306 Electoral College votes and the ballots of nearly sixty-three million Americans, I wrote a column about the failures of the press throughout that campaign, and declared that “journalism’s moment of reckoning” had arrived. “Reporters’ eagerness first to ridicule Trump and his supporters, then to dismiss them, and finally to actively lobby and argue for their defeat have led us to a moment when the entire journalistic enterprise needs to be rethought and rebuilt,” I wrote then.

It is astonishing, today, how little we seem to have learned since. Once again, opinion polls were overhyped and under-scrutinized. Some of them were also wildly off—and, though that’s different from 2016, when the polls were largely accurate but widely misunderstood, it doesn’t let media organizations off the hook for their treatment of the numbers. Newsrooms leaned too heavily on polls as a substitute for on-the-ground reporting, and they were led astray. Journalists spent too much time talking to each other on Twitter, inhabiting an alternate algorithmic reality that bore little resemblance to the life of the country. And major media institutions made it all but impossible to envision that, despite the wealth of reporting on the president’s lies and his racism and his circus—nearly half the country remains beholden to the man and his beliefs. “We can’t go back to assuming, just because we think Donald Trump is an outlier, that he is not connecting to a lot of American people in ways that, frankly, a lot of us cannot understand,” Claire McCaskill, a former Missouri senator, said Wednesday morning on MSNBC. The feeling of déjà vu, and of lost journalistic opportunity, is inescapable…

Kyle Pope (@kylepope), editor of the Columbia Journalism Review on lessons unlearned: “What the polls show, and the press missed, again.”

On the problem(s) with polls, pair with “Of course Trump’s voters lie to pollsters. You call us all racists” (with an eye to the phenomenon it addresses– and the questions raised by the rationale it offers…)

For one (very compelling) account of why Pope’s project matters, see Fintan O’Toole’s “Democracy’s Afterlife.” (For more, see also Ron Brownstein, Roxane Gay, and George Packer on the same family of issues… there are lots of diagnoses abroad in the infosphere at the moment; these are among the best your correspondent has found.)

And for a resonant but different take on the necessary role of “honest journalism” going forward, see also Jay Rosen’s “America’s Press and the Asymmetric War for Truth.”

* Donna Brazile

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As we look more deeply, we might recall that it was on this date (18 Brumaire in the French Republican Calendar) in 1799 that thirty-year-old Corsican General Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the Directory in France and established the Consulate, ending the power of the revolutionary oligarchy and creating himself as First Consul… or dictator.

Napoleon in the Coup de 18 Brumaire (detail of an oleo by Bouchot)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 9, 2020 at 1:01 am

“What might once have been called advertising must now be understood as continuous behavior modification on a titanic scale, but without informed consent”*…

Illustration by Anders Nilsen

“Which category have they put you in?”

This sinister question—at least, it was meant to sound sinister—headlined the advertising copy for The 480, a 1964 novel by Eugene Burdick. His previous best sellers, The Ugly American and Fail-Safe, had caused sensations in political circles, and the new one promised to do the same. Its jacket featured the image of a punched card. The title referred to 480 categories of voter, defined by region, religion, age, and other demographic characteristics, such as “Midwestern, rural, Protestant, lower income, female.” Many readers recoiled from the notion of being sorted into one of these boxes. The New York Times’s reviewer called The 480 a “shock novel” and found it implausible.

What was so shocking? What was implausible? The idea that a company might use computer technology and behavioral science to gather and crunch data on American citizens, with the nefarious goal of influencing a presidential election.

In the 1950s and 1960s this seemed like science fiction. Actually, The 480 was a thinly disguised roman à clef, based on a real-life company called Simulmatics, which had secretly worked for the 1960 campaign of John F. Kennedy. Burdick had been a political operative himself and knew the Simulmatics founders well. The company’s confidential reports and memoranda went straight into his prose. And the 480 categories—listed in an appendix to the novel—were the real Simulmatics voter types, the creation of what one of its founders called “a kind of Manhattan Project gamble in politics.”

Simulmatics was founded in 1959 and lasted eleven years. Jill Lepore mentioned its involvement in the Kennedy campaign in These Truths (2018), her monumental history of the United States; she was already on the trail of the story she tells in her new book, If Then. Lepore is a brilliant and prolific historian with an eye for unusual and revealing stories, and this one is a remarkable saga, sometimes comical, sometimes ominous: a “shadow history of the 1960s,” as she writes, because Simulmatics stumbled through the decade as a bit player, onstage for the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the Great Society, the riots and protests. It began with grand ambitions to invent a new kind of predictive behavioral science, in a research environment increasingly tied to a rising defense establishment amid the anxiety of the cold war. It ended ignominiously, in embarrassment and bankruptcy.

Irving Kristol, the future architect of neoconservativism, dismissed Simulmatics in 1964 as “a struggling little company which, despite the fact that it worked on a few problems for the Kennedy organization in 1960, has since had a difficult time making ends meet,” and he wasn’t wrong. Today it is almost completely forgotten. Yet Lepore finds in it a plausible untold origin story for our current panopticon: a world of constant surveillance, if not by the state then by megacorporations that make vast fortunes by predicting and manipulating our behavior—including, most insidiously, our behavior as voters…

The ever-illuminating James Gleick (@JamesGleick) unpacks the remarkable Jill Lepore‘s new history, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future: “Simulating Democracy.”

See also: this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek, and for historical perspective, “Age of Invention: The Tools of Absolutism.”

* Jaron Lanier (see, e.g., here and here)

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As we think about the targets painted on our chests, we might recall that it was on this date in 2011 that Facebook introduced the Timeline as the design of a user’s main Facebook page.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

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