Inflated Bubbles

What makes people who hold an extreme opinion think that they represent the majority?

[After 3,000 words on statistics, I deserve a condescending politics / culture war post. I have put these posts under the “hedgehog alert” category because if that’s not your cup of bitter acid rain, you should enjoy this hedgehog instead.]

hedgehog flowers.jpg


Minority Retort

I made a claim in Climbing the Horseshoe that even Sarah Constantin misunderstood, which means that I wrote it poorly. I’ll try to spell it out again, and set it apart from other arguments.

My point was that it’s important to recognize when you’re holding an unpopular opinion and to change your tactics accordingly. Even if normatively you are right and everyone is wrong, instrumentally you should pursue your goals one way if 5% share your goals and worldview and another way if 80% do. For example, shaming others and calling them names (e.g. bigot or traitor) works (sometimes) if you’re part of the majority and doesn’t work if you’re part of the fringe.

Even if your entire social circle shares your views, you have to be cognizant of the amount of support your position has in the broad public. It’s not quite what outside view is, but it requires a similar mental process of stepping outside your immediate surroundings. Here are a couple of examples from my own life:

  1. I’m an atheist, and many of my friends are atheist, but I realize that on a national scale atheists are a tiny minority (~4%). If I want to promote atheism, I should be able to tell the difference between ardent religious zealots and the median American who believes in God and goes to church every other week but isn’t a talking snake-ist. When I talk with the latter about atheism, I politely explain for example how an atheist can share the intuition that murder is wrong with a holy book. I don’t tell anyone who believes in a deity that they’re a deluded fanatic.
  2. I’m a left-libertarian, and I engage intellectually with many left libertarians. For example, I think that regardless of how much welfare we have raising the minimum wage will hurt the poor because it dminishesthe employability of the 102 million adult Americans who don’t have a job and increases the prices they pay. I also think that regardless of where the minimum wage is, we should have more unconditional welfare to help the poor (whether food stamps or basic income). And yet, I’m aware that “abolish the minimum wage but raise taxes to implement basic income” is an extreme position. When I talk to liberals about the minimum wage or to conservatives about welfare I try to gently convince them with stats and numbers, I don’t call them heartless monsters who hate the poor.
  3. On the other hand, homophobia has finally become a minority position and it’s not counterproductive to shame homophobes.

This seems like common sense to me – you fight differently when you’re outnumbered than when you’re dominating. I thought it would be obvious for example to Jamelle Bouie that calling the NY Times racist for encouraging dialogue with Trump voters is a minority opinion.

It may not have been obvious at all.


No True Liberal

A Facebook friend of mine shared the NY Times op-ed “Liberal Zionism in the Age of Trump“.

Consider Hillary Clinton’s words from the second presidential debate: “It is important for us as a policy not to say, as Donald has said, we’re going to ban people based on a religion.” […] Here Clinton establishes a minimum standard of liberal decency that few American Jews would be inclined to deny. […] Yet insofar as Israel is concerned, every liberal Zionist has not just tolerated the denial of this minimum liberal standard, but avowed this denial as core to their innermost convictions. Whereas liberalism depends on the idea that states must remain neutral on matters of religion and race, Zionism consists in the idea that the State of Israel is not Israeli, but Jewish.

[…]

Palestinians in fact do not demand a “right of return” to their pre-1967 homes, but to their pre-1948 homes. In other words, the issue isn’t the occupation, which many liberal Zionists agree is a crime, but Zionism itself. Opposition to the Palestinians’ “right of return” is a matter of consensus among left and right Zionists because also liberal Zionists insist that Israel has the right to ensure that Jews constitute the ethnic majority in their country.
[…]
The following years promise to present American Jewry with a decision that they have much preferred to avoid. Hold fast to their liberal tradition, as the only way to secure human, citizen and Jewish rights; or embrace the principles driving Zionism.

The article explicitly states that opposing the right of Palestinians to move to Israel proper (right of return) is beneath a minimum standard of liberal decency, and thus Zionism is incompatible with liberalism. I commented that regardless of your normative opinion on Zionism, the right of return, as a matter of fact, has very little support among Jews. The article itself agrees that this is a consensus. Israel has 4 million more Jewish citizens than Muslim citizens, allowing 5 million Palestinian refugees to immigrate will immediately end Jewish majority in Israel and the character of the country as we know it. Even if one thinks that it’s the moral thing to do, it’s a very unpopular opinion among Jews, on par with the percentage of Americans who would be in favor of allowing 300 million Muslim immigrants into the US.

I wrote that if you present Jews with the dilemma of accepting the right of return or not being a “liberal”, this sort of “liberalism” will not attract many Jews. This is the immediate response I got:

glinoah 1.png

So far, nothing out of the ordinary. The argument I make requires separating normative claims and factual claims which is an unusual and difficult exercise. It’s predictable that at least one person will try to insult me out of the conversation instead of trying to address the argument itself.

Then came the first warning sign:

glinoah-2

This absurd accusation that rationalists are sympathetic to Trump is from the friend who originally defended me. The meme that the sun is a hummingbird is based on zero evidence. The meme that rationalists like Trump is based on negative evidence.

Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote at length about how Trump is terrible.

Scott Alexander wrote at length about how Trump is terrible.

Julia Galef, Rob Wiblin and other prominent Effective Altruists debated back in the spring whether donating to Clinton’s campaign may be better than saving kids from malaria. Yes, many rationalists admire Peter Thiel. They were all pretty confused when Thiel endorsed Trump.

Truth seeking, charity and concern for the future of humanity are anathema to Donald Trump. He’s the rationalist Antichrist. So how could anyone believe that rationalists are sympathetic to Trump?

glinoah-3

I’m not sure what to do when people straight up tell me I’m lying. I assumed they’re just confused by the math, so I explained the math: let’s imagine again that we put all Americans on a single axis from least liberal (1st percentile) to most liberal as defined by current political affiliation (100th percentile). The 50th percentile American barely chose Trump over Clinton, and I imagine that I’m about as far to the left of the marginal Trump voter as I am to the right of a 90th percentile leftist. Thus, 70th percentile liberal.

But people were not in the mood to do math.

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Hey, math is hard, I get it.


Inflated Bubbles

Why did these liberals react so venomously to the suggestion that I’m more liberal than the average American? Why do they think that rationalists, a group of strange but certainly left-of-center people, are enemies of liberalism?

My first hypothesis was that they’re trying to make their ideas unpopular on purpose, by insulting and bullying outsiders who try to engage with them. Collectively this makes “liberalism” lose, but individually they gain status by signalling the extremity of their faith in the true cause. I wondered if Mr. Bouie doesn’t mind that his tactics are counterproductive to fighting racism, I would wager that Slate‘s ratings are higher with Trump in office than they would have been had Clinton won.

I realized that this is too cynical. Organizations never solve the problem they were created to solve (as that would put the organization out of work), but it’s hard for people to be so explicitly hypocritical. It’s easier to convince others that you’re a fighter for liberalism / against racism if you actually believe this as well. I had to admit that these people really believed that they are helping the spread of liberalism as they see it.

My second hypothesis is this:

Theory of inflated bubbles – When your ideological bubble becomes small and tight enough, you start thinking that almost everyone outside the bubble agrees with you. In your mind, your bubble has inflated to encompass the entire world.

I work hard to make holes in the bubbles I live in. I have neoreactionary friends, Marxist friends, anti-Semitic friends and apparently a friend who thinks that rationalists are villainous freaks. I engage all the time with people who strongly disagree with me, I know that they’re out there in great numbers.

But once you slide down the horseshoe into extremism and attack anyone who disagrees with you, the heretics to your worldview evaporate out of your bubble. If you live in a very liberal city (these three guys are from D.C., New York and Silicon Valley), consume very liberal media, and tell everyone who isn’t very liberal to choke on a dick, your entire world becomes exclusively made up of very liberal people. All perspective is lost. Availability bias and confirmation bias will then work tirelessly to convince you that those who disagree with you are an extremist fringe minority.

If  you think that the NY Times or Bay Area rationalists are terribly bigoted, you will start thinking that the NY Times and the rationalists are part of the conservative minority even thought they’re both more liberal than the vast majority of the United States. No one can handle the cognitive dissonance of imagining that they live in a world that is 90% monster.

This is a self-reinforcing phenomenon: you think that those who disagree with you are a small minority and thus their views are extreme, and if their views are extreme they must be a  small minority.

This explains why so many leftists blame this election on the alt-right (who are a tiny minority on the right that most Trump voters don’t care about) and rightists blamed Obama on groups like liberal university professors (who are a tiny minority on the left that most Obama voters don’t care about). They believe that anyone who voted against them is part of a small cult that somehow got lucky. How can merely losing an election convince anyone that they’re a minority when three of the fiercest biases a brain can employ work to convince them otherwise?


This is a half-baked hypothesis. I don’t know how likely it is to be true (that many extremists think the majority agrees with them) and how to precisely define the phenomenon. It’s not charitable and it’s not scientific and it’s very condescending. But, it really makes a lot of what I’ve been seeing since the election make a lot more sense.

The only question that remains is: what crazy ideas do hold that I deludedly think most people agree with? I hope it’s not my faith that every human has the capacity for reason and kindness.

For Whom the Bell Shifts?

Applying the central limit theorem to figure out who votes for Trump and Bernie.

I came up with this idea originally as an intro to the next dating post, but I think it’s neat enough to deserve it’s own post. Besides, this post talk about with Trump and the next post about radical feminism. I got worried that having both in the same essay will cause the entire blog to spontaneously self-combust.


Once upon a time, my Facebook feed was a pleasant enough collection of baby pics, joke links, humblebraggy travel photos and emojied birthday wishes. It was all so innocent and serene. Now my Facebook feed has turned into Trump-Trump-Bernie-Trump-birthday-Trump-Trump. A Trumpost starts with a story or a video comparing Trump, unfavorably, to either Hitler, Mussolini, or Asmodeus, Lord of Torment and King of the Nine Hells. Next comes some general wailing and gnashing of teeth about the future of democracy in America. Finally an angry repudiation of Trump’s electorate. That electorate is regarded as some alien race, a group that is fundamentally apart from all right-thinking Americans in either their extreme gullibility or their sinister malevolence.

asmodeus
Composite image of Donald Trump culled from my Facebook feed

Per my philosophy of democratic passivism I don’t engage in the object level debates about political candidates, but the latter point got me thinking. It seems that my (mostly cosmopolitan and liberal) friends in NYC picture the support for Trump’s immigration and foreign policies is distributed like this:

Bellcurves 1 Bimodal.png
Vertical axis is density, or the number of people holding each opinion

They see a large group of people (themselves) around the consensus position on foreigners with a minority of Trumpers forming a clearly distinct group.

Without knowing anything about the actual attitudes of Americans on these issues, I can reject the above picture based on a purely mathematical reason: the central limit theorem. The CLT states that under reasonable assumptions, if you take a bunch of random variables their average or sum will be distributed like a normal bell curve. And if you look at the distribution of any trait that’s made up of many components (as long as they aren’t perfectly correlated), you’ll get something that looks like a bell curve as well – at the very least the distribution will be roughly symmetrical and with a single peak in the middle. That’s because we can see the trait as the sum or the average of each component’s influence

The canonical example of a normal distribution is human height, which is a single variable made up of a lot of components: 400 different genes, at least dozens of nutrients and environmental effects. It’s very improbable that someone will have the “tall” or “short” version of every single component, these are the very rare outliers. If you got 250 “tall” alleles out of 400 and good nutrition you’ll be a bit taller than average, if you got 100 maybe you’ll be shorter, most people would be around the average.

tallest shortest
Most people are distributed somewhere between these two.

The same should work for your attitude about foreigners. It’s influenced by dozens of factors: your education, your job, your social circle, whether you’ve traveled the world, whether you happen to like a country’s cuisine etc. The most likely model is that xenophobia, like most other things, is distributed on a bell curve with few outliers and most people in the middle. So what does that model have to say about Trump being so popular? Does it mean that most Americans secretly hate Mexicans, Chinese and Muslims with a passion equal to Trump’s?  Not necessarily.


Speaking of the Chinese again, you may remember that the number of outliers on a bell curve is driven mostly by shifts in the average. If Trump is 3 standard deviations more xenophobic than the average American, only 1 out of 740 Americans are as extreme as he is, that’s a tiny fraction. However, if the average American moves just 1 standard deviation in Trump’s direction, now he’s only 2 SD out with 1 in 44 Americans at his level (2.3%).Bellcurves 2 Unimodal

Trump wouldn’t just get votes from people who are as radical as he is. He should get support from anyone who is closer to his position than the current American political consensus on immigration. If the average American voter (dashed black line) is 1 SD more xenophobic than the consensus (dashed blue line) and Trump is 2 SD on the other side. That means that everyone who’s a mere 0.5 standard deviations to the left of the median voter will be closer to Trump than to the prevailing politics. In a normal distribution, you’ll find 31% of the people to the left of the -0.5 SD line, that’s the red area of Trump supporters on the chart. Coincidentally, that’s about Trump’s current share of the voters. That’s the magic of shifting curves and averages: you only need 2% of people holding your exact position to get 31% of the vote!

It’s important to notice that the vast majority of Trump’s supporters are less xenophobic than he is: most of the red area is close to the “Trump swing line” (the black dotted line on the chart) than to the extreme left. They just lean slightly more towards Trump than towards current policies, or the policies of his opponents.

Most importantly, bell curves let you discover where median is from comparing the relative size of outliers. The mirror image of Trump on the other side of the political consensus is the Open Borders movement. They present a clear case based on moral imperatives and economic research that shows that free immigration could make the entire world twice as rich. They are also a fringe group with a tiny number of adherents, compared to the millions of Trumpers. When the average moves a little bit one way, the number of outliers in that direction grows and the number in the other extreme collapses.

The disparity between Trump and Open Borders tells me that the average American is slightly closer to Trump, slightly more uncomfortable with immigration, more suspicious of foreign competitors and more hawkish on terrorism. Maybe she’s not in favor of banning all Muslims entering the US, but she wouldn’t mind if the Air Force sent a couple of drones Agrabah’s way.

Agrabah.png
Can you spot all the terrorists in this picture?

Paradoxically, even though most Americans are closer to Trump than to Open Borders, Trump faces all of the vitriol because the number of his adherents swells. No one wastes their time arguing against an unpopular niche position.


Looking at another political dimension, we can learn about the average Americans’ positions on the left-right economics scale from the relative number of adherents to socialism and libertarianism:

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Bernie’s popularity relative to Rand Paul doesn’t mean that everyone’s a socialist, just the the average American shifted to the (economical and chart-wise) left relative to the current political status quo: slightly in favor of higher taxes, more redistribution and stricter market regulation than the prevailing policies. A hint of that came a few years prior, when the occupy movement occupied it’s moment in the sun. It didn’t sweep up the entire nation, but there’s a noticeable lack of popular organizations pushing in the opposite direction.

The best evidence for the “single curve shifting” model is when you see the three things happening together: the average moves one way, outliers that way grow and outliers the other way diminish. That’s the way it happens with religion and secularization: the number of the religiously unaffiliated and atheists (outliers in the direction of the trend) grows, the number of people who are very religious falls (outliers in the opposite direction) and the average American becomes less religious. As an example indicator, the median American switched from opposing to supporting gay marriage in a few years.

I am not passing value judgments on either of these trends, although as a foreign-born rationalist with an MBA you can guess where tribal allegiances pull me on questions of immigration, religion and socialism. Here I am merely anthropologist, looking for a useful model to understand what goes one in the hearts and minds of the people around me.


 

what women want

I don’t mean to imply that every single social process can be reduced a bell curve shifting, and this model is often too simplistic to make accurate quantitative predictions. The strong point of this model is parsimony: it makes very few assumptions (that the phenomenon consists of many components that aren’t too strongly correlated and neither of which is dominant) and it estimates a single parameter: the population average. If you have complex data that contradicts this simple model you shouldn’t hesitate to reject it, but until you do a shifting curve is a good place to start.

The power of this model is in letting you estimate where the median of a distribution is from the relative population of outliers and vice versa. If you tell me that the average weight of Americans increased (middle) I’ll predict that obesity rate has also gone up (outlier). If you tell me that obesity rates have gone I’ll assume it’s because the entire population has gotten fatter and not just a few overweight people who have crossed the line.

With the bell curve in mind, I am looking to solve the eternal question men have struggled with since time immemorial: What do women want? What are women worried about or excited about when dating? How does the median woman in my broader social circle feel about gender relationships in general? You can ask ten women and get eleven answers, and you wouldn’t know where each one lies on the distribution. So, we’re going to apply the Trump trick: look at outliers to estimate where the median opinion differs from the perceived consensus. In other words, in the next post we’ll see what we can learn from this:

Bellcurves Feminism

 

Vote Against

An evil spell is making everybody you know ignorant, hateful and irrational. Can you break it?

You can’t lose if you don’t play

Economists have long been puzzled by the phenomenon of people participating in lotteries. The numbers clearly show that lotteries are irrational and a waste of hope, but since even educated people often have a poor grasp of statistics that could be the culprit. A common delusion among gamblers is that that they “cracked the code” of predicting the outcome of lotteries, despite the inherent opacity and unpredictability of the results.

The government promotes lotteries under a narrative of ‘social benefit’; it’s clear that the benefits accrue solely to the government itself. Still, many people lean on that excuse to justify playing. Remarkably, people who play the lottery will often use social pressure to encourage their friends to join, despite the fact that each additional player on the margin reduces the effectiveness of the other tickets. Aside from that, lotteries are also notorious for sowing discord among friends, even within families!

I apologize for the typos. I wrote “playing the lottery” by accident, I meant to write “voting”.

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Take a deep breath

Did you just seriously compare lotteries to voting?

Yes, and it’s a little unfair. Lotteries aren’t so bad, and people aren’t as delusional about them.

Why are we doing this strange Q&A format then?

Instead of a single story, this post will present several arguments and responses to counterarguments. This format makes it easier to follow.

Can I dismiss this entire post if I disagree with a single argument?

You may be tempted to do so if you immediately rejected my premise on an emotional level and you’ll gladly take any excuse to dismiss it without thinking about it seriously. I’d advise you to stick through it and focus on those arguments that you think have merit. A lot of people have never seen even a single good argument against voting in general elections in a democratic country. Even if I don’t convince you to forego voting you’ll still come out wiser.

What’s the point if I don’t change my mind?

The very last section of this post will present VAVA, an exciting new development in democracy technology from the Putanumonit labs. Even if you disagree with every single point in this post and remain convinced of the paramount importance of voting, VAVA is an alternative that you may be happy to embrace.

Are you saying that democracy is bad?

No! I mostly agree with Churchill on this one. I’m making a personal/marginal argument, not a national/universal one: as long as millions of your compatriots vote (and they always will), your personal choice to vote has precisely zero impact on national outcomes and a negative impact on personal outcomes.

Do you claim to present a balanced debate?

No, I will only argue against voting. The case for voting is already pressed by your friends, your school, your government, your national media and your Facebook, so I’m OK with presenting just one side.

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What if I’m not American?

This post will use the US almost exclusively as an example because it’s the country I’m familiar with. Each reader can do a better job than I could of translating the arguments to the language and numbers of their own national political system. The conclusion doesn’t change.

Very roughly, the basic equation is:

Chance to decide election * Expected benefit of election = Benefit of voting

The chance to decide an election falls linearly with population (explanation below) and the expected benefit grows linearly, so the benefits of voting don’t really depend on population.

If you live in a country  where it is already common knowledge that voting is a sham, please enjoy this post as an opportunity to laugh at Westerners and our delusions.


The odds be never in your favor

What are odds of my vote affecting the elections?

According to superstar sages of statistics Nate Silver and Andrew Gelman, in the US it’s about 1 in 10,000,000. This is not a pessimistic estimate either: Gelman is known for repeatedly arguing in defense of voting and in fact I will dedicate a lot of this essay to dispelling Gelman’s own reasoning.

Just how bad is 1 in 10 million?

It’s about as likely as dying from “misusing a right-handed product as a left handed person“, being struck by lightning this month and ironically, it’s exactly your odds of becoming a US president if you’re US-born. If you are willing to gamble for a miniscule chance of affecting national policy, doesn’t running for office yourself make more sense?

What if I know I’m in a swing state that’s split exactly 50-50?

The problem with this argument is that you can never know that your state is split exactly down the middle, and even a small deviation from a perfect split brings the chances of your vote mattering down to practically 0.

Assuming a simple random model of voter turnout, in a state of 10 million people even a 49.9%-50.1% split in the underlying electorate makes the chance of the actual vote turning out 50.0%-50.0% microscopic. This is a consequence of the law of large numbers: over many trials (votes) the results will adhere closely to the underlying average. The most you can tell about the underlying electorate is by looking at polls, and these have an error margin of 3%-5%. Since polls have consistent biases (e.g. only polling people with phone numbers), even aggregating a bunch of polls together can’t get you closer than 1%-2% to the actual distribution. Remember the closest presidential election in Western history? The polls showed Gore leading Bush by 4% in Florida a week before the vote.

Even if all the polls in your state show an exact 50-50 split, the most optimistic case is that the real split is somewhere between 49% and 51% and you can never tell exactly where you are within that range. If the real percentage voting for your candidate is 49.32% your vote doesn’t matter. If it’s 49.89% your vote doesn’t matter. If it’s 50.16%…

election_swing

Even in the tightest range the polls can give you there’s a tiny chance that you’re even in the tiny area where your vote has a non-astronomical chance of mattering. Seriously, you should run for office instead.

But if everyone followed your argument, nobody would vote and your argument would fail.

I’m only including this silly objection because I actually heard it from other people. Not voting isn’t a Kantian imperative, it’s advice for the smart readers of this blog. If you live in a state of 10 million people but the new season of House of Cards just dropped on election day and all but a few hundred people are stuck home binge watching it, then go ahead and vote!

If Gelman calculated that 1 in 10 million himself, why does he still defend voting as rational?

“Why” is a very interesting question. Here’s the man himself:

I’ll be voting in New York, where my vote has almost zero chance of making a difference, so why do I do it? Not for instrumentally rational reasons. I do it for the usual reasons of civic duty, supporting the legitimacy of the electoral process, etc. […]  I’m not saying that all voting or even most voting is rational but that voting can be rational in many important settings.

Andrew Gelman is a world class expert, I think that he writes the best current blog about statistics and I bought his book too. When an intelligent expert starts from a genuinely open question, he is more likely than others to reach the correct answer. But when the expert starts from a fixed conclusion, his expertise makes it all the easier to rationalize the conclusion and come up with arguments to support it, regardless of what it actually is.

Gelman knows he’s very rational, and he also knows that he votes, so just saying “I vote because it’s fun but not rational” isn’t wholly satisfying. To address this mild dissonance, it’s very tempting to come up with a story of how maybe sometimes it is rational to vote, and Oh-you-never-know.

I voted when I was 19, and then again when I was 23. Then I thought about it and did some math and looked around and decided that I’ll stop voting. I know that my arguments against voting at least convinced me, I don’t know if Gelman’s arguments ever convinced a single person.

So what is Gelman’s argument?

He’s suddenly pivoting away from rational self-interest and making the case that voting is actually an act of charity:

Consider the upcoming presidential race.
The two candidates have significantly different
policies, and it seems plausible that the
average benefit to the citizenry is $1000 or
more per citizen to have the better candidate
win […] 

In New Mexico, the chance that a single
vote is decisive is roughly 1 in 6 million. Perhaps
that seems slim, but if you consider the
300 million people who would benefit from a
better choice, voting on the better candidate is
equivalent to giving roughly $50,000 to charity
(i.e., to others). In Colorado the value is
$30,000 per vote, as seen in the table […]

Likewise, there is little reason to vote if one
infers from the fact that the election is close,
that there is little net expected benefit to society
from one candidate over the other. However,
for the policy wonk who thinks he knows
better—and, really, don’t we all—voting can
make a lot of sense.

His argument is that if you know that one candidate is objectively  better for everybody (i.e. like giving everyone in the country $1000), voting pays off. I’ll argue that no candidate is, and even if there was we wouldn’t know it.


I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing

Socrates.jpg

Forget Socrates for a moment, did you just call me ignorant?

True, I know absolutely nothing about you, dear hypothetical-reader-whose-thoughts-I-am-actually-writing-myself. Let me explain to you why I, Jacob, know only that I know nothing.

One of my biggest “A ha!” moments in apprehending rationality is internalizing that bias research is about me, not other people. When scientist talk about the halo effect it means that I, Jacob, am more likely to vote for the taller and better looking candidate even when I know the objective facts. When they talk about confirmation bias it means that I, Jacob, am going to ignore any negative aspects of my preferred policy/candidate and any positive aspects of the opposition.

And when scientists say that people aren’t smart enough for democracy, I agree: I am nowhere smart enough. No one is.

But Jacob, you read [insert favorite newspaper] and watch [insert favorite news channel]!

Unfortunately the goal of [TV channel] to get ratings, not to uncover objective truths, let alone make accurate predictions. Even if political channels tried to be accurate, it would be very hard to judge them. Is anyone going to remember what TV pundits predicted about the effects of minimum wage on employment 5 years from now?

Let’s look at a much simpler world: business news. Channels like CNBC and Bloomberg do make predictions all the time, these predictions are quickly testable (i.e. the stock goes up or down) and they don’t gain from distorting factual truths. A few months ago all the business papers and TV channels were intensely covering Twitter’s CEO search. Twitter is a simple company of 3,900 employees, it’s financial and operational information is public, and its CEO has a single mission: increase share price. Surely an educated person watching CNBC can easily predict the effect of each CEO candidate on Twitter’s share price and make a gajillion dollars! And yet, no one does.

The American government is unfathomably complex, employs 22 million citizens and impacts 300 million others, the president is judged by a thousand different measures and knows thousands of things the public doesn’t. Thinking that I can predict which candidate is objectively better for America when I can’t begin to do the same for Twitter is simply delusional.

totweet.png

Twitter is only unpredictable relative to efficient markets, the collective wisdom prices it correctly.

That’s precisely my point. Efficient markets mean that the correct share price in light of all available information is the current price, and the current price is the one at which an equal number of people want to buy and sell the stock.

In other words, It’s not possible to be smarter than the share price for which 50% of investors “vote” that is should be lower (by trying to sell the stock) and 50% “vote” that it should be higher (by trying to buy the stock). So if 50% of the population say that Candidate Red is better and 50% say that Nominee Blue is better, you can’t know which one is actually better.

Here’s how the equilibrium is achieved: there are about 200 million people who are eligible to be president of the US. Some would be great presidents, the vast majority would suck as president and a few would be apocalyptic. Mysterious machinations beyond your ken reduce that number from 200 million to a couple dozen who would do about equally well as presidents (compared to the variance in presidential ability in the general population), and then more processes that you hear about but aren’t really involved with reduce that number to 2 or 3. 2 out of 200,000,000! By election day, the process of narrowing down the variance in the quality of presidential candidates has 99.9999% already taken place. Even where quality isn’t objective there’s an inevitable pressure on each candidate to squeeze in tight to the median voter anyway until most of their positions converge (but whatever small differences remain are amplified by the media).

Look, someone posted an article by [insert favorite pundit] on Facebook.

It has been shown time and again that pundits don’t know more than anyone, and they’re only selling you what you want to hear because you only listen to those you already agree with. You are living in an unavoidable filter bubble.

39% of Americans are in favor of banning gay marriage, that’s 120 million people! Yet among the hundreds of people in my broad social circle (university, work, friends, sports, family) I have heard exactly one person express that opinion openly. Dozens of my Facebook friends lament daily about the horror of the millions of Donald Trump’s supporters and yet neither they nor I know of a single one!

I actually make some effort to avoid the bubble. I have about 15 Facebook friends whom I keep only because they share political opinions that are loathsome to me, including a couple that post hateful things about my ethnicity and nationality, just to know what they think. And despite this effort, I am still cut off from the voices of half the country I live in. I can claim to be educated, but I can’t remotely claim to be objective. And I certainly can’t claim to be tolerant.

What if you ignore the people and parties and impersonally look at the actual policy proposals?

Not only will I not know which policies are better (cf. Twitter), I don’t even know which will get implemented! Tracking shows that Obama fulfilled only 45% of his campaign promises, and I’m sure that the hit rate is no better or worse for other presidents. Obama famously promised to pull all soldiers out of Afghanistan and didn’t, what does that tell me? It tells me that it must be the obviously correct decision! The president has information that I will never see, expert advisors that I will never hear from and the experience to decide such matters. For these decisions, no matter who the president is I have to assume that he makes a more informed decision than I could in my armchair. If went against his prior promise at cost to himself, that means that his reasons must be even sounder and the decision even more obvious!

What about the promises that got fulfilled? A majority of them are ones with broad bipartisan support – but those would have happened no matter who’s in charge because they have broad support.

Some policies are controversial:  Obama will be remembered for his management of the economic recovery, the Iran deal and the Affordable Care Act. Three years after the latter was implemented, public opinion of ACA is still almost perfectly split with a slight majority of people opposing it. The same is true for the recovery and the Iran deal. ACA (Obamacare) is a clear cut policy with immediate and personal impact and people can’t agree if it was good or bad three years after it happened. Does anyone still think it’s reasonable to predict which controversial policies will benefit the country in advance?


Politics considered harmful

OK, forget figuring out policies that are objectively good for everybody. What about value issues, like abortion? Surely your values are just and kind while these nasty  [baby killers / religious zealots] are evil?

No, my enemies aren’t evil. People probably tumble into their stance on abortion as a result of the social environment they grew up in and not as a result of years of moral contemplation, but their position seems as just and kind to them as their opponents’ does. I can empathize with the anguish of honestly believing that babies with immortal souls are being murdered every day with the blessing of your own government. I can empathize with the horror of knowing that an unwanted child is growing inside you that your government will force you to carry to term and devote 18 years to raising. Maybe one is worse than the other, but both are really really horrible. Whom I can’t sympathize with are people dismissing their opponents as evil mutants, isn’t lack of empathy itself the source of all evil?

I’m not arguing for moral relativism. Even if abortions were all I cared about, I could just volunteer at Planned Parenthood or volunteer to stand outside an abortion clinic with picket signs for the hour it took me to vote, guaranteeing a much bigger positive impact in the direction I want. Voting, like sharing on Facebook, is a moral sinkhole: it makes you feel that you’ve done your good deed for the day and significantly lowers your motivation to actually do something good.

Opinion change on a national scale too, and when they do they carry policy regardless of who’s in office. 10 years ago 60% of Americans were against gay marriage, now 60% are in favor. This was caused by advocacy, exposure and by the simple process of old people dying off and younger people growing up more accepting of LGBTQ. At 60-40 and rising, national gay marriage was inevitable whether by state or by court. The “losing side” doesn’t feel like as much that they were unfairly cheated since the tide so clearly turned against them. Had the president tried to amend the constitution for gay marriage when the public was 50-50, it would have resulted in a riotous shitstorm instead of relatively peaceful acceptance.

The worst topics for “value voting” are those that split the electorate 50-50 and in which partisanship is reinforced by ignorance. Imagine that tomorrow a major paper writes that dogs kill 32 Americans a year and a national debate starts on dog ownership. Some people want to ban pit bulls and rottweilers, or all dogs above 50 pounds, or require background checks of people buying dogs. On the other side people argue that deer kill more people than poodles, that Finland has a higher average dog weight and less bite fatalities, and that if you’re not required to be licensed to own a lethal toaster you shouldn’t be to own a dog.

killer

The bottom line is that nobody see the entire picture about dogs, everyone thinks they know something different, and everyone talks past each other. Some people deeply love dogs, and some people are deeply afraid of dogs, and each side is using politics to bully their opponents.

The dog metaphor is shamelessly stolen from this brilliant piece by Popehat and yes, attitudes on “dogs” are 50-50 in the USA.

The original argument was that voting is irrational if you’re doing it for selfish reasons, but the tiny odds are multiplied if you consider it as charity. If you want to vote to enforce a value or norm that half of your compatriots oppose, you’re being ineffectively selfish and an asshole to half your country. Charity shouldn’t be politics, and politics isn’t charity.

Fine, I’ll be selfish then. What’s the personal harm in voting?

You are likelier to die in a car crash.

Seriously.

Politicization leads to stupidity, stupidity leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.

Politics is the mind killer. We evolved in an environment in which politics were a contest of force to decide life and death, not an enlightened debate. It takes a lot of remove to be able to discuss political issues at least somewhat reasonably and dispassionately. Once you’ve sacrificed your own time to vote, you are no longer at a remove. You have enlisted in an army, you gave up objectiveness, and you primed your brain to cultivate a blind hate of people who are otherwise your friends and neighbors.

I have seen a close and friendly class in my American university torn apart by the 2012 election. I have seen otherwise cordial and intelligent people unfriend and break contact with dozens of classmates over Obama and Romney. Is the personal impact of either of those dudes taking office really worse than losing 50 friends?

obama romney erb

You know how I tolerate all those obnoxious political posts on my Facebook wall? By repeating the simple mantra: no one cares what I think, and no one cares what they think either. I immediately feel a surge of warm, Zen like calm. Can you imagine how wonderful your life could be if political arguments made you peacefully contented instead of angry?

I think of politics like I do of weather. Maybe I prefer a sunny day and I don’t like rain, but rain doesn’t cause my blood to boil – I just grab an umbrella. Think how much worse each rainy day would be for a person who doesn’t see it as part of nature but as a result of an evil conspiracy of rain-worshippers. Imagine if you couldn’t be friends with people who liked clouds, and were engaged in endless debates on the merits of various policies of atmosphere humidity. If I find the rain intolerable I can probably move to a sunnier place, but shouting at the clouds will leave me enraged, bitter and just as wet as everyone else.

But if you don’t vote you can’t complain!

Of course I can! Everyone is free to complain! I can complain about the rain as well, and with precisely equal results to complaining about politics. Honestly, I wish I actually wasn’t allowed to complain. Gratitude increases happiness and grievance causes stress, especially grievances about things beyond our control. If I really couldn’t complain about politics it would be a feature of not voting, not a bug.


VAVA

Tomorrow is the midterm elections. It’s very important, so don’t forget to head down to your local polling place and cancel out your dad’s vote. 

– Seth Meyers

Thank you for sticking with me through 4,000 words, dear reader, especially if you violently disagreed with everything I wrote so far. If you don’t believe the statistics of a vote mattering, if you think that Twitter and America are easy to understand and if you know that your values are the pinnacle of moral progress, I’m glad you’re still here. I don’t know if I changed any minds, perhaps only offered some comfort to those who believe in voting but just couldn’t find the time to get around to it last November. Here’s an idea we can all embrace regardless of our attitudes about politics or meta-politics, inspired by Seth Meyers and particle physics: the Vote Anti-Vote Annihilation principle, or VAVA.

You have a friend, or a relative, maybe it’s your roommate. Decent person by all accounts, but you just can’t get over their politics: they just naturally gravitate to the candidate you least want to see elected, who has the exactly wrong stand on every issue. Election week is a dangerous time to spend with them: while you’ve usually learned to avoid any conversation that might veer into politics, it’s harder to do the same as voting day nears.

The solution is simple. Come election day you make a pact with your buddy: instead of voting you’ll both spend the day bowling together. As long as you can both credibly threaten to vote for the other’s hated candidate otherwise, the political impact of cancelling each other’s vote is the same as if both of you voted. The total voting turnout will be lower, but that’s actually a positive: maybe seeing a low turnout will spur someone to run for office who isn’t part of the usual old band of nincompoops. Just think of the upside: you saved time, had fun, and most importantly you leveraged election day to bring you and your friend closer together instead of driving a wedge in your relationship. VAVA professionals will utilize this powerful tool on election day to rekindle marital bliss and reconnect with recalcitrant parents or children.

bowling11-750050

Politicians, aides, pundits, activists, journalists, lobbyists: these people affect politics and benefit from it. Leave it to them. Next election day you can break the ritual, grab your friend and give me a call – I vote for bowling.


 

Exhausted from this post, Putanumonit is going on a two week vacation to a faraway land where he will not have to hear about Donald Trump. We’ll be back with something less controversial in mid-January.