Confirmation Bias and Democratic Outrage

This is the sort of annoying my-party-is-pure-as-the-driven-snow their-party-stinks-of-sulfur attitude that I was complaining about below.
Lindsay bitches about GOP voter suppression in Ohio. I don't believe I remember her complaining (correct me if I'm wrong) about DNC voter suppression (successful or not) in every state in which they tried to cripple democracy by sueing Nader off the ballot. (If I ever hear high-toned democracy rhetoric from Larry Tribe, I'll throw up a little in my mouth.) Second, Lindsay simply assumes that stationing people in polling places to challenge fraudulent voters from voting is an ploy to suppress Democratic votes. But why not assume instead, or in addition, that the huge Democratic voter-registration drives really were riddled with malfeasance. Indeed, I assume both. The Democrats have been signing up dead people, felons and non-citizens in an attempt to steal the vote. The Republicans want to stop Democrats from stealing the vote, and so want to guard against dead and illegal voters, and, as a bonus, to suppress the legitimate Democratic vote–in an attempt to steal the vote.

Now, I want to emphasize that I don't think any of these shenanigans even approaches the seriousness of the DNC's effort to make it impossible for American citizens to vote for a candidate who represents their views.

Scaring Ourselves to Debt

Via Gene Healy, this Regulation article by John C. Mueller, “A False Sense of Insecurity,” is one of the most important and enlightening things I've read in months, although it has a rather simple point. Mueller's point is that all things considered terrorism is not an enormous threat, and we should just calm down and get a grip.

Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts.

Mueller goes on to argue persuasively that we are in grip of a very costly and very likely unproductive hysteria about terrorist threats.

Mueller's view needs to be disseminated:

* Assessed in broad but reasonable context, terrorism generally does not do much damage.

* The costs of terrorism very often are the result of hasty, ill-considered, and overwrought reactions.

A sensible policy approach to the problem might be to stress that any damage terrorists are able to accomplish likely can be absorbed, however grimly. While judicious protective and policing measures are sensible, extensive fear and anxiety over what may at base prove to be a rather limited problem are misplaced, unjustified, and counterproductive.

This is right. And people won't like it.

I remember getting into a spat with an ex-girlfriend about the Beltway Sniper at the time of his (their) reign of terror. She was nervous about going shopping in Northern Virginia. I told her that given the population of the area, and the range over which the sniper was sniping, her chances of being shot were many many times smaller than her chances of dying in a car accident on her way the store. She denounced me for my rationalistic insensitivity to her fear. Such is the nature of our problem.

The Sanctity of Democracy = Black People in Florida Able to Conveniently Vote for John Kerry

The left likes to wax elegaic about the “sanctity of democracy” and the “integrity of the democratic process,” especially when Republican schemes to supress the minority vote are afoot. Yet, in terms of the sanctity of democracy, the Democrat's concerted assasination of the Nader campaign is no better than stationing a Klansman, an INS officer, and and a dozen Nazi alsatians at the door of each polling place.

But I've yet to encounter anyone on the mainstream left who is even a skoche guilty about this utter travesty of democracy. Fuckers. The notion that Nader votes belong to the Democrats is so obnoxiously offensive that I can only wish that Nader voters who, thanks to the Democrats, are unable to find Nader on their ballot, vote instead for Michael Badnarik, constitutional scholar, and champion of the people. Or, to put a fine “fuck you” on it, George W. Bush.

Where's Team America when you need them?

I happen to be watching The Insider, which is, apparently, an organ of the John Kerry for President campaign. It's one long blowjob. We've got Brad Pitt's “passionate stump speech” at the University of Missouri; fawning Edwards interview in Iowa; heroic clips from Going Upriver; Christopher Reeves hot wife; inside a Kerry campaign bus with Chris Heinz. Words from Bush supporters? Yup. Laura Bush saying that John Edwards is “pretty cute!” Check out the Edwards family photo album on the homepage. Sinclair ain't got nothin' on this!

Irrational People, Efficient Markets; More Libertarian Paternalism

I think Bainbridge's article on efficient markets vs. behavorialism is good. Now, because of my fairly Hayekian/Coasian sensibility, I can't buy the ECMH in it's strict formulation. Indeed, I agree with most behavioralist findings, although I often disagree with behavioralists about the upshot of those findings. Now, I do find it intriguing that Thaler puts his money in index funds, just like you would if you thought the ECMH was true. And it is what I would do if I wasn't so poor I had to beg for money on my blog. Indeed, it looks like the ECMH does a good job of approximating the real world (or the other way around), despite the falsity of a number of its underlying assumptions. So how does it do this? Well, in the gap between idealized behavioral assumptions and actual approximately efficient markets is entrepreneurship. There are folks and firms out there gathering intelligence, keeping their eyes open, trying to cash in on ephemeral assymetries in information, and thereby moving prices to what they ought to be.

The interesting thing about efficiency-enabling entrepreneurship is that it is NOT a built-in assumption of the theory. There are institutional antecedents — legal, moral, cultural — to an effective climate of intelligent, creative proift-seeking. So, despite the fact that Thaler is right about the quirks and foibles of human decision-making, our institutions, both formal and informal, are good enough to induce behavior that reasonably approximates neo-classical efficiency, making it right for Thaler to invest as if the ECMH were true.

The way I see it, the interesting questions are the questions about the way various institutional structures, formal and informal, facilitate efficiency-approximating behavior. We know way too little about this. And here's a connection to so-called “libertarian paternalism,” discussed below. Will Baude says he liked the Sunstein/Thaler paper. I didn't dislike it, exactly. But, like Klein, I found the idea of libertarian paternalism needlessly confusing (and perhaps even willfully and strategically confusing). The interesting thing about framing effects, cognitive biases, and so forth, is that boundedly rational agents like us are not necessarily indifferent between formally equivalent institutional designs. So, if this is true, its pretty obvious that insofar as we're picking institutional designs (as often we must) we should pick the ones under which we're more likely, given our psychological constitution, to satisfy some normative standard, whether it be efficiency, public health, or whatever. Great. Are S & T saying anything more interesting than that, true though it may be? But according to S&T's idiosyncratic usage James Madison is among history's great paternalists. Yet I don't think that's why we call him a founding “father.”

Munger Blogs

I just discovered that my pal, Duke Poli Sci chair, and Social Change Workshop faculty member Mike Munger has a blog. He appears to be doing a fantastic job as the voice of reason in Duke's l'affaire de Kurian, which David Bernstein is heated up about over at the VC.

Check it out(I'm pretty sure that's a photo of Buchanan & Tullock in his header). Mike is wickedly smart, thinks he's real funny, and is a mensch of a good-ol-boy.

Electoral Correctness

Chris Betram offers a meditation on the downside of Condorcet, which Will Baude calls “disturbing,” and I guess it might be if you had inflated expectations for democracy. Funny thing about Condorcet talk, though, is the notion that there is something like a “correct” answer to the presidential election.

The probability that each voter will give the correct answer, essential to the formula, obviously requires the existence of a correct answer. Now it is conceivable that there may be some correct answer, relative to some broadly accepted standard of evaluation, on the question of which of two competing policies is better. And so perhaps there is a correct answer on the question of which of two competing packages of policies is correct. We might then think of each candidate as representing a package, and that the correct answer to the election amounts to choosing the guy who represents the correct policy package.

But there are complications. Candidates lie. Candidates sometimes don't have an articulated policy on this or that issue, and often they avoid articulating one. Historical contingencies (e.g., 9/11) can cause an unpredictable but fundamental shift in policy. Etc. And those are just some of the problems about knowing what a candidate actually stands for, or would likely do in office. There is also the reasonable idea that political values are plural and incommensurable, and so there just may be no such thing as the correct answer in certain cases.

With candidates as close together in policy as Bush and Kerry, I think it is in principle impossible to pin a probability on answers to the question of who will leave us better off overall. Unintended consequence are usually unintended because unforseen, and they are often unforseen because unforeseeable. The way policies interact with a dynamic economy, technological innovation, cultural change, and so forth, makes it such that democratic choices tend to be choices under conditions of uncertainty (where it is impossible to sensibily assign probabilities) and not risk. We either get lucky with our leaders or we don't. So, it's not clear what, if anything, the Condercet Theorem could have to do with the election.

Now, that said, I happen to know that the correct answer to the election is, naturally, Michael Badnarik. And Badnarik's infinitesimal electoral returns will be just about what we'd expect given the Condorcet theorem, and a realistic assumption of voter competence.