Friday, November 25, 2016

Does Your Vote Count?

I recently saw an episode of "Adam Ruins Everything"* discussing whether individual votes count. Now, in part, this was the usual post election nonsense trying to denigrate the electoral college as an "antidemocratic anachronism" and all the other common complaints, but in another sense, it was an effort to argue that, despite the common claim "every vote counts", to argue individual votes do not make a difference. And, I suppose if one is predisposed to seeing elections in the terms used by the show, it makes sense, but as I hope to show, the assumptions sued in the arguments by this show (and elsewhere) are just not right.

Now, what does it mean for your vote to "count"? Sadly, it seems in our modern, narcissistic age, this has often come to mean, "could my single vote sway an election?" And, to prove this is not the case, all those arguing against the importance of voting need do is show how infrequently the margin of victory is more than one. Fortunately, that silliness is not yet a majority position, so more often we see two other arguments. First, the argument that, despite winning the popular vote, various people lost the electoral college, thus somehow claiming to demonstrate individual votes don't count. Or else the argument will be made that various states have always gone to this or that party, or that incumbents win with such and such a percentage, and thus individual votes don't count.

However, all of those claims are nonsense.

Let us first look at the electoral college. Some sports have rules establishing rankings and playoff positions where rank is based not just on wins and losses, but on points scored. In such situations, it is completely possible for the top ranked team to have fewer wins than a lower ranked team, yet do we then claim it does not matter how anyone played in those games? Of course not! Similarly, though the electoral college means winning the popular vote does not equal presidential victory, it still depends on individual votes to assign those electoral votes, and thus, every vote still counts, even if the results of popular vote and electoral vote differ.

The second argument is equally foolish. First, because even if a given side wins more frequently, those times when they do lose, were there fewer opposition votes, those defeats may not have taken place. Second, and more significantly, even if X always loses, if Y wins by a small margin, it gives Y less certainty in the exercise of power than were Y to win by a larger one. Some dismiss this argument, as they think politicians routinely disregard this factor, but it is not so. If I win by 80% of the vote, I am comfortable I can lose a large segment of my support and still secure reelection (or election for my successor). On the other hand, if I win by only a few percentage points, I am well aware I am living on borrowed time and need to take into account not just my base, but those who opposed me, since I may need to pick up a few new voters to be reelected. Thus, even if you side always loses in a given election, say for your state's senators, your vote can still effect how that senator will govern.

A somewhat more sophisticated final argument, though no less foolish, is founded on the electoral college once again. (And is part and parcel of the many efforts to eliminate this most visible remnant of federalism**) This argument is that, thanks to differing numbers of voters determining the assignment of individual electors (states with 3 electors having fewer voters per elector than the largest states, for example), shows that individual votes don't have the same value. Now, first of all, this in no way shows individual votes "don't matter",  just that in one limited sense votes count differently. On the other hand, by completely failing to understand the purpose of the electoral college, and the whole idea of federalism, this argument makes itself complete nonsense. Of course individual votes may have differing effects on electoral representation, that is inherent in using electors, not popular vote. Does that make the election invalid? Nonsense!

Allow me to offer a counter example. If you live in Baltimore City, there are hundreds of thousands of voters deciding local issues, and thus your vote is only a tiny voice. if you live in a much less populous county, your county might have 10s of thousands of voters, making your voice count ten times more. Or, in laws that are decided in townships, where there are only hundreds of voters, your voice counts thousands of times more. Does that mean the votes are invalid, since township voters are more powerful than city voters in local affairs?

Well, the electoral college is much the same. Electors are assigned by state, and each state is assured at least three electors. So, in states with a small number of citizens, the votes will count for more electoral representation than in larger states. The same is true in all state matters. But does that in any way make the presidential elections based on those state votes invalid? Of course not.

So, yes, your vote does count. Is it likely to be the single deciding vote? Not unless you are discussing a family decision where to eat or what the vacation should be this year. It is rare even for small local elections to be decided by a single vote. On the other hand, your vote can be one of those hundreds or thousands that do decide the election, and, even if it is not you alone deciding, you are still part of that decision. And so, in any sense that I can that is meaningful, yes individual votes count.

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* This show is something of a mixed bag, some of the statements are correct, some are judgment calls, and some seem rather dubious or exaggerated. Like many "fact check" sites (eg PolitiFact or Snopes) it seems best at cut and dried purely factual issues and seems to falter whenever there are multiple opinions or judgment calls to be made. Unlike PolitiFact that tends to break left whenever there is uncertainty, Adam seems to favor the "revisionist" or contrarian position whenever there is wiggle room. In addition, even on facts, there is a degree of cherry picking and exaggeration. Thus, I have a feeling, I will be mentioning this show again. (The show also seems to have not learned the Snopes lesson of admitting when things are unclear. Snopes wins a lot of points from me for admitting when something is impossible to decide with certainty, while Adam and others seem to favor a singular answer, even when it is difficult to support choosing one over others.)

**  Federalism seems to be one of the most maligned beliefs we have left. As I argue in "The Myths and Realities of Strict Construction" and "The Civil War". Then again, I believe it is also one of the most direct means of restoring limited government as well. (Cf "Minimal Reforms")


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Boy Who Cried Wolf

The true believers in Trump have adopted a new strategy. Whenever there is an accusation, from pandering to the alt-right, to Bannon's beliefs, to Trump's ties to Russia, the defense is "it's biased media", and, sadly because the right has become far too comfortable using "media bias" as an all purpose argument against any news report, some are accepting it.

But that is not the reason I wrote this blog post. Instead, I am writing to talk about two other common arguments, made not by Trump supporters, but by more conventional conservatives, that help support this foolish argument.

First, there is the very silly idea that "if it upsets liberals, it must be good." I have seen this used any number of times to justify a Trump decision. "I don't know the guy he is appointing, but if it upsets liberals..." The problem here is, liberals are not 100% wrong on everything, they are also humans and have feelings and beliefs they share with the rest of us. For example, a proclamation ordering the execution of every black person, or of all under 18 years old would upset liberals, but would be bad for everyone as well. Or, to be less dramatic, appointing David Duke to the cabinet would upset liberals, but would still be a bad thing. In short, just upsetting liberals is not enough, a decision needs to be good as well.

The second argument is probably the more serious, as it is used to deflect a lot of legitimate criticism of Trump, and also happens to bolster his fans' "biased media" argument. This is the claim that the media has "played the race card" too often. And, to a degree, this may be a valid argument. Some on the left, and in the media, seem to buy the old saw that there is some affinity between conservatism and Nazis, or else accept the Democrat premise that somehow conservatism means closet racism. It is a belief that has been disappearing slowly in recent years, but it still made the rounds from time to time, and thus, there has been a tendency to exaggerate the role of racism in conservative policy. For example, opposition to welfare* was often argued to be founded on racism, while in most cases it was actually based on purely economic and political beliefs. So, yes, the media has made excessive allegations of racism.

On the other hand, that does not mean every such allegation is false. In "The Boy Who Cried Wolf", he may have lied, but remember, in the end, the wolf did eat him. He told the truth in one case. Similarly, the press may exaggerate their charges of racism, but that does not mean every such charge is without foundation. Thus, do not allow the past history to blind you to real problems with Bannon, or some of Trump's other followers. Not every allegation is unfounded, and not every story told by the press is a lie. Do not allow the Trump supporters to use the conservatives' lazy habit of dismissing media out of hand to immunize Trump from criticism.

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* I have never understood this. if I were to say blacks received more welfare than whites, I would be accused of racism. But if a liberal says I want to get rid of welfare out of racism, because more blacks than whites receive it, it is not. I am sometimes puzzled at the ability of people to hold completely contradictory beliefs.

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POSTSCRIPT

I fear my footnote may lead to a mistaken impression. I am not saying that I claim more blacks receive welfare than whites; in absolute numbers, clearly whites are the largest group of recipients. As percentages relative to percentages of population, those numbers are different, but that is neither here nor there. My point is, claims of blacks benefiting disproportionately from welfare are dismissed as racism, but claims associating ending welfare with racism are not. They seem mutually contradictory positions, yet are often held by the same person.


Saturday, November 19, 2016

Let Us Be Honest

It has long been a claim of conservatives arguing against charges of racism that "the KKK was Democrat". And, apparently building on this throw away claim, inspired by Dinesh D'Souza's recent film, the claim has now arisen that Democrats have always been the party of racism, all the way back. Now, in a sense, I suppose one could make this claim, but it is based upon very dubious historical approaches, and, even if it were true, it really means nothing. After all, what does it tell us about modern Democrats that various members were once segregationists? (For that matter a number of Dixiecrats are now Republicans, does that prove the GOP is racist?) However, before going into the reasons why this claim is meaningless, as someone who once wanted to teach history, let me point out why this historical claim is so absurd*.

First, let us look at the reality of antebellum politics. By the early 1800s, the US party system had settled into a fairly stable two party system. The Democrats were the party of small, decentralized government an state sovereignty. By extension it was opposed to central banking, protective tariffs and trade regulation. And, since slavery was allowed by some states and not others, it also appealed to slave states. On the other hand, the Whigs (and later Republicans) were the party of centralized, powerful government. It also was the party of soft money, of protectionists, of trade subsidies, and, because the Democrats were the party of the south, it became the abolitionist party.

However, this does not tell the whole story. The western Democrats and their small northeastern contingent often contained abolitionist elements. Thus, it is a bit absurd to claim the Democrats were the party of slavery. Yes, the slave owners were almost entirely Democrats, but not all Democrats were pro-slavery.  Also, if we look at the northeastern Whigs and Republicans, the party contained a fair number of merchants who traded in slaves (to the degree it was allowed), and others who either supported slaver, were ambivalent about the issue, or thought the freeing of slaves not worth the cost**, so obviously it was not a consistent moral principle for everyone. Slavery, in truth, cut across party lines. It was why there were a number of races where third parties made a fair showing, or a single party ran more than one candidate. Slavery was an issue which cut across party lines.

Now, let us look at the post-war era. Here is where the claim "the KKK was Democrat" comes into play. Granted, the KKK was Democrat, but that was largely because it was southern. Most KKK members in the south were Democrat. So were most teachers, most ministers, most chefs, most cotton growers, most poor people, most everyone. The south remained solidly Democrat until the 1980s or thereabout. So it only makes sense a southern movement (be it the KKK or Dixiecrats) would be Democrat. It is akin to looking at Nazis and blaming it on Lutheranism. Of course all Nazis were German, and Germans were predominantly Lutheran.

Nor is the post-war Republican party very appealing. Ever wonder why Irish, Italians, Jews and other are historically Democrat? It was because the Republicans had a strong nativist wing that opposed not only immigrants, such as those mentioned, but also had a lot of hostility toward Catholics and other non-Protestant groups. And, though the KKK is most famous for racism, there were also a number of smaller, less famous groups in the northeast and west opposed to the integration of newly freed blacks, and in the northeast, of necessity, they were predominantly Republican.

I could go on and explain the party shift, how the Democrats went from small government to populism to liberalism and so on, or how the Republicans stopped being the party of protectionism, nativism and big government (until recently, anyway)***, but that does not address the question of race. A point I think I have explained well enough. Yes, by being small government, Democrats appealed to slave owners, on the other hand, by being willing to force states to "do the right thing", the Republicans became abolitionists (and also prohibitionist, moral reformers and trust busters later). But that does not make the Democrats the "party of racism" any more than the nativist, anti-Catholic history makes Republicans the "party of intolerance".

And, in the long run, none of it should matter anyway. I offered up all the preceding as I cannot stand bad history, but the truth is, even if the Democrats had an unbroken history of racism, it says nothing of modern Democrats. Does the current Republican party represent the protectionist view of the 19th century? Or the Democrat the free market views of the same period? No, what matters are the actions and beliefs of the present party, and calling them "historically racist", referring to past actions, but not the present members, is largely meaningless. History can sometimes help understand where ideas originated, but they do not prove the present party will inevitably act in certain ways.

Well, I have done my good deed for the day, debunking a myth of a party with which I disagree. But, since I can't stand bad history or absurd claims, I could not do otherwise.

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* I discussed this to some extent in "Noble Goals".

** Recall there were draft riots in New York City , Boston and elsewhere, so obviously there were a fair number of northerners who felt freeing slaves was not worth the cost of the war. (I would include Baltimore, which earned the nickname "mobtown" in this era, but Maryland was a slave state, and Democrat, so it does not prove much.)

*** See "The Trump Plan", "The Problem With the Big Tent", "What Does Not Kill You..." and "Trump, Obama, Cults and Authoritarianism".

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POSTSCRIPT

For those curious about my view on the history of the parties in the US, see "A Timeline Part One" ,"A Timeline Part Two", "A Timeline Part Three", "The Political Spectrum", "Mistaken Perceptions of the Industrial Age", "Four Elections", "A Passing Thought", "The Best Historical Example", "Ordered Liberty and Our Modern Mindset", "Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution" and "Rethinking the Scopes Trial".

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sick of Godwin's Law

I do not know if I am alone in this, but I am sick to death of hearing about "Godwin's Law". First of all, because it is nothing of the kind, not being a law by any measure. Second, because it is so often misused. (The supposed "law" states that the longer an internet debate continues, the more likely one side will be compared to Hitler, nothing more.) And third, because it is so often used to cut off valid points by those who think they are being clever.

I will grant, Hitler has often been over used as a rhetorical device. Atheists and Christians both claim he represents their opposite numbers. Politicians on the left love to claim he is the exemplar par excellence of conservatism run amok. And Conservatives love to point to him as a proponent of gun control. And so on. Yes, Hitler and Nazis have been over used. But that does not mean there is never a time when a comparison is valid.

And yet, that is how invocations of "Godwin's Law" are inevitably used. The snarky law itself is bad enough, but in common parlance, whenever it is mentioned, it is almost inevitably implied that the one who mentioned Hitler or Nazis has somehow lost the argument simply by making the comparison, or, at the very least, that, by being the product of "an inevitable law" the comparison is somehow invalid or out of bounds.

All of which is nonsense.

For example, recently I have been on a number of discussion boards where Trump's promise to "immediately" deport 2 to 3 million illegal aliens were discussed. In pointing out the fact that he is underestimating the logical difficulties, I frequently pointed out that, despite having no concern for rights, or even safety, of those being moved, it took the Nazis several years to identify and move only 6 to 7 million. Now, so far, I have avoided hearing mentioning of Godwin's law, but I still felt the lash of  few who seem to assume any Nazi comparison is somehow invalid.

And yet, in this case, it seems perfectly apropos. Excluding Pol Pot, as his circumstances were quite different*, the Nazis are the only other group who had experience in recent times of moving comparable numbers of unwilling people mixed into, and difficult to identify and separate from, the general populace, and thus the comparison, even if it carries unfortunate emotional connotations, seems perfectly valid. If a brutal dictatorship, unconcerned with human rights and safety, took years, how can we expect to move half as many people in days? Yes, it is unfortunate the mention of Nazis brings unwanted emotional connotations to the argument**, but it is the best comparison I have.

And that is my principle objection to Godwin's law. Well, that and the fact that is far too much a relic of the age of the snarky internet know-it-all (cf "The Era of the Cocky Know It All"). But other than embodying an age where "one upping" others is seen as the highest goal, it simply does not help debate. Instead, by placing certain topics in a suspect category it actually makes some debates more difficult. And thus, I would suggest, though probably intended as a remedy to rhetorical excesses, it actually makes debates less honest, rather than more. And thus, I am sick and tired of it.

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* Pol Pot effectively moved the entire urban population. This is a much easier task, as there is no requirement to identify and separate the target group. Also, he did not gather the population but dispersed it, which is also a different and easier task. Finally, he was operating under much different conditions than one would find in the US, and thus I think provides a poor analogy. So, though another example of mass movement of populace, it is not comparable.

** I am sure there are others who argue those connotations are unavoidable if you are going to forcibly remove huge numbers of people, and I am sure such comparisons will inevitably be made, but my only purpose was to highlight the logistical nightmare it represents.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Opposing Sides, Uniformity of Views

I had an interesting experience recently. While riding in the car with my mother, who I have previously described as politically liberal, if not entirely conventional in her beliefs, the discussion turned to the current election. It struck me as particularly interesting when my mother began to speak about third party votes. In her mind, she thought the third party voters were a problem, because, so she said, they were mostly those who would never vote for Trump, but who could not vote for Hillary, and thus, by voting third party, they risked letting Trump win.

What makes this interesting, is it is the opposite of what I have been hearing for a long time on conservative sites, where conventional wisdom is that Democrats always close ranks, and thus present a unified front, while conservatives are divided, and third party votes are mostly taken from Trump's side, making it easier for Hillary to win.

All of which reinforces something I have been noticing for a long time, that those who identify with one side of the political debate or the other tend to have unrealistic, but oddly similar, views of their opposite numbers. Both seem to think the other side is united, while theirs is divided. Both think the other side is unthinking in its support of candidates. Both think the other side is unprincipled and will do whatever it takes to win. And both think the other side is ideologically unified and extreme, while theirs is vacillating and inconsistent.

Now, I am not speaking here about the politicians, or the party leadership, we can debate the relative merits of those another time. Nor am I discussing ideology as such*. What I am discussing here is the rank and file, great masses of conservatives and liberals, and their general behavior. And it amuses me to think that both groups see one another in such similar ways.

And it is informative to see that each group is deluded about the other, and in the same ways. Neither side is any more unified than the other, nor do the rank and file seem an more or less prone to unprincipled behavior. Admittedly, differences in beliefs do make for differences in those principles, but within those limits, it seems both are about equally principled in terms of the rank and file.

I mention all of this because I want to destroy one of the most harmful illusions that have sprung up in modern times, that being the belief that the opposite side in political disputes is somehow completely alien, completely unprincipled and completely unlike us. (See "The Futility of Blame", "Technophobes and Conservatives -- The Risk of Assumptions", "In Defense of Civil Debate", "Both Sides Now") This is dangerous for two reasons.

First, as I mentioned before, believing the other side to be not just mistaken but actually evil, leads us to believe they are also beyond redemption. If the other side is confused or misled, they can be persuaded, and we will spend time to win them over. If they are evil, then we will not. And, as we have seen, a lot of modern contests do seem to shy away from trying to persuade the other side, spending almost all effort on either winning over a small handful of independents, or, more often, simply maximizing turnout. And these are valid goals, but we must not forget that, in the long run, we can also gain votes by changing minds, and, once we give up the illusion of our opposite numbers being evil, we can spend some effort on this worthwhile goal.

The second mistaken belief, and worse, as we have seen this election season, is the way that belief in an immoral, unprincipled and corrupt opposition leads some to suggest we must behave in the same way. Thanks to this belief, we see many suggesting we should give up our principles, forget our ethics and do whatever it takes to win regardless of consequences. Forgotten is the fact that in so doing, we simply end up electing unprincipled representatives who do not share our beliefs, which seems pretty far from victory, but, thanks to the belief our rivals are doing the same, some are willing to do so, regardless of the cost. (See "The Trouble With Tough Talk", "Look Out It's the End Times!", "Odds and Ends", "Trump, Obama, Cults and Authoritarianism")

And thus, though it goes contrary to many popular ideas in recent days, I want to emphasize again and again that, whatever the politicians may believe, most rank and file liberals are not much different from us, share many of our goals in broad outline, and are open to persuasion, and forgetting this can have disastrous consequences.

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* I believe that liberalism, in general, is founded on a number of arrogant assumptions. This does not mean the vast majority of liberals are aware of that arrogance. In fact, most likely accept the basic premise that their beliefs are based on compassion and similar motives. But when one looks at the basis of those beliefs, there is definitely an arrogant set of beliefs underlying them. (Cf "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences", "Right Thinking and the All Encompassing State", "Ideological Entanglement", "Intellect and Politics") On the other hand, conservatives are a more mixed bag, both because the term is used in such confused ways (cf "The Problem With the Big Tent", "What Does Not Kill You...", "No More Double Standards") but also because the motives for endorsing those beliefs vary from a philosophical commitment to freedom, a belief in tradition or various religious views. To a degree, those reasons for believing correspond with the variety of conservatism one embraces, but not always, there is quite a bit of overlap between them all. Still, as I said, we are here discussing general practices, not overall philosophy.