Stop telling people they need to vote. Tell them they need to cast informed votes.

Feb 11 JDN 2458161

I just spent last week’s post imploring you to defend the norms of democracy. This week, I want to talk about a norm of democracy that I actually think needs an adjustment.

Right now, there is a very strong norm that simply says: VOTE.

“It is our civic duty to vote.” “You are unpatriotic if you don’t vote.” “Voting is a moral obligation.” Etc.

The goal here is laudable: We want people to express the altruistic motivation that will drive them to escape the so-called Downs Paradox and actually go vote to make democracy work.

But the norm is missing something quite important. It’s not actually such a great thing if everyone just goes out and votes, because most people are seriously, disturbingly uninformed about politics.

The norm shouldn’t be that you must vote. The norm should be that you must cast an informed vote.

Best if you vote informed, but if you won’t get informed, then better if you don’t vote at all. Adding random noise or bias toward physical attractiveness and height does not improve electoral outcomes.

How uninformed are voters?

Most voters don’t understand even basic facts about the federal budget, like the fact that Medicare and Social Security spending are more than defense spending, or the fact that federal aid and earmarks are tiny portions of the budget. A couple years ago I had to debunk a meme that was claiming that we spend a vastly larger portion of the budget on defense than we actually do.

It gets worse: Only a quarter of Americans can even name all three branches of government. Almost half couldn’t identify the Bill of Rights. We literally required them to learn this in high school. By law they were supposed to know this.

But of course I’m not one of the ignorant ones, right? In a classic case of Dunning-Kruger Effect, nobody ever thinks they are. When asked to predict if they would pass the civics exam required to obtain citizenship, 89% of voters surveyed predicted they would. When they took it, only 17% actually passed it. (For the record, I took it and got a perfect score. You can try it yourself here.)

More informed voters already tend to be more politically engaged. But they are almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, which means (especially with the way the Electoral College works) that elections are primarily determined by low-information voters. Low-information voters were decisive for Trump in a way that is unprecedented for as far back as we have data on voter knowledge (which, sadly, is not all that far back).

To be fair, more information is no panacea; humans are very good at rationalizing beliefs that they hold for tribal reasons. People who follow political news heavily typically have more distorted views on some political issues, because they only hear one side and they think they know but they don’t. To truly be more informed voters we must seek out information from reliable, nonpartisan sources, and listen to a variety of sources with differing views. Get your ideas about climate change from NPR or the IPCC, not from Huffington Post—and certainly not from Fox News. But still, maybe it’s worth reading National Review or Reason on occasion. Even when they are usually wrong, it is good for you to expose yourself to views from the other side—because sometimes they can be right. (Reason recently published an excellent article on the huge waste of government funds on building stadiums, for example, and National Review made some really good points against the New Mexico proposal to mandate college applications for high school graduates.)

And of course even those of us who are well-informed obviously have lots of other things we don’t know. Given my expertise in economics and my level of political engagement, I probably know more about politics than 99% of American voters; but I still can’t name more than a handful of members of Congress or really any state legislators aside from the ones who ran for my own district. I can’t even off the top of my head recall who heads the Orange County Water District, even though they literally decide whether I get to drink and take a shower. I’m not asking voters to know everything there is to know about politics, as no human being could possibly do such a thing. I’m merely asking that they know enough basic information to make an informed decision about who to vote for.

Moreover, I think this is a unique time in history where changing this norm has really become viable. We are living in a golden age of information access—almost literally anything you could care to know about politics, you could find in a few minutes of Google searching. I didn’t know who ran my water district, but I looked it up, and I do now: apparently Stephen R. Sheldon. I can’t name that many members of Congress, but I don’t vote for that many members of Congress, and I do carefully research each candidate running in my district when it comes time to vote. (In the next California state legislature election, Mimi Walters has got to go—she has consistently failed to stand against Trump, choosing her party over her constituency.)

This means that if you are uninformed about politics and yet still vote, you chose to do that. You aren’t living in a world where it’s extremely expensive or time-consuming to learn about politics. It is spectacularly easy to learn about politics if you actually want to; if you didn’t learn, it was because you chose not to learn. And if even this tiny cost is too much for you, then how about this? If you don’t have time to get informed, you don’t have time to vote.

Voting electronically would also help with this. People could, in the privacy of their own homes, look up information on candidates while their ballots are right there in front of them. While mail-in voter fraud actually does exist (unlike in-person voter fraud, which basically doesn’t), there are safeguards already in widespread use in Internet-based commerce that we could institute on electronic voting to provide sufficient protection. Basically, all we need to do is public-key signing: issue every voter a private key to sign their votes, which are then decrypted at the county office using a database of public keys. If public keys were stolen, that could compromise secret-ballot anonymity, but it would not allow anyone to actually change votes. Voters could come in person to collect their private keys when they register to vote, at their convenience weeks or months before the election. Of course, we’d have to make it user-friendly enough that people who aren’t very good with computers would understand the system. We could always leave open the option of in-person voting for anyone who prefers that.

Of course, establishing this norm would most likely reduce voter turnout, even if it did successfully increase voter knowledge. But we don’t actually need everyone to vote. We need everyone’s interests accurately represented. If you aren’t willing to get informed, then casting your vote isn’t representing your interests anyway, so why bother?

This is a battle for the soul of America

July 9, JDN 2457944

At the time of writing, I just got back from a protest march against President Trump in Santa Ana (the featured photo is one I took at the march). I had intended to go to the much larger sister protest in Los Angeles, but the logistics were too daunting. On the upside, presumably the marginal impact of my attendance was higher at the smaller event.

Protest marches are not a common pastime of mine; I am much more of an ivory-tower policy wonk than a boots-on-the-ground political activist. The way that other people seem to be allergic to statistics, I am allergic to a lack of statistics when broad claims are made with minimal evidence. Even when I basically agree with everything being said, I still feel vaguely uncomfortable marching and chanting in unison (and constantly reminded of that scene from Life of Brian). But I made an exception for this one, because Trump represents a threat to the soul of American democracy.

We have had bad leaders many times before—even awful leaders, even leaders whose bad decisions resulted in the needless deaths of thousands. But not since the end of the Civil War have we had leaders who so directly threatened the core institutions of America itself.

We must keep reminding ourselves: This is not normal. This is not normal! Donald Trump’s casual corruption, overwhelming narcissism, authoritarianism, greed, and utter incompetence (not to mention his taste in decor) make him more like Idi Amin or Hugo Chavez than like George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. (Even the comparison with Vladimir Putin would be too flattering to Trump; Putin at least is competent.) He has personally publicly insulted over 300 people, places, and things—and counting.

Trump lies almost constantly, surrounds himself with family members and sycophants, refuses to listen to intelligence briefings, and personally demeans and even threatens journalists who criticize him. Every day it seems like there is a new scandal, more outrageous than the last; and after so long, this almost seems like a strategy. Every day he finds some new way to offend and undermine the basic norms of our society, and eventually he hopes to wear us down until we give up fighting.

It is certainly an exaggeration, and perhaps a dangerous one, to say that Donald Trump is the next Adolf Hitler. But there are important historical parallels between the rise of Trump and the rise of many other populist authoritarian demagogues. He casually violates democratic norms of civility, honesty, and transparency, and incentivizes the rest of us to do the same—a temptation we must resist. Political scientists and economists are now issuing public warnings that our democratic institutions are not as strong as we may think (though, to be fair, others argue that they are indeed strong enough).

It was an agonizingly close Presidential election. Even the tiniest differences could have flipped enough states to change the outcome. If we’d had a better voting system, it would not have happened; a simple plurality vote would have elected Hillary Clinton, and as I argued in a previous post, range voting would probably have chosen Bernie Sanders. Therefore, we must not take this result as a complete indictment of American society or a complete failure of American democracy. But let it shake us out of our complacency; democracy is only as strong as the will of its citizens to defend it.

How to change the world

JDN 2457166 EDT 17:53.

I just got back from watching Tomorrowland, which is oddly appropriate since I had already planned this topic in advance. How do we, as they say in the film, “fix the world”?

I can’t find it at the moment, but I vaguely remember some radio segment on which a couple of neoclassical economists were interviewed and asked what sort of career can change the world, and they answered something like, “Go into finance, make a lot of money, and then donate it to charity.”

In a slightly more nuanced form this strategy is called earning to give, and frankly I think it’s pretty awful. Most of the damage that is done to the world is done in the name of maximizing profits, and basically what you end up doing is stealing people’s money and then claiming you are a great altruist for giving some of it back. I guess if you can make enormous amounts of money doing something that isn’t inherently bad and then donate that—like what Bill Gates did—it seems better. But realistically your potential income is probably not actually raised that much by working in finance, sales, or oil production; you could have made the same income as a college professor or a software engineer and not be actively stripping the world of its prosperity. If we actually had the sort of ideal policies that would internalize all externalities, this dilemma wouldn’t arise; but we’re nowhere near that, and if we did have that system, the only billionaires would be Nobel laureate scientists. Albert Einstein was a million times more productive than the average person. Steve Jobs was just a million times luckier. Even then, there is the very serious question of whether it makes sense to give all the fruits of genius to the geniuses themselves, who very quickly find they have all they need while others starve. It was certainly Jonas Salk’s view that his work should only profit him modestly and its benefits should be shared with as many people as possible. So really, in an ideal world there might be no billionaires at all.

Here I would like to present an alternative. If you are an intelligent, hard-working person with a lot of talent and the dream of changing the world, what should you be doing with your time? I’ve given this a great deal of thought in planning my own life, and here are the criteria I came up with:

  1. You must be willing and able to commit to doing it despite great obstacles. This is another reason why earning to give doesn’t actually make sense; your heart (or rather, limbic system) won’t be in it. You’ll be miserable, you’ll become discouraged and demoralized by obstacles, and others will surpass you. In principle Wall Street quantitative analysts who make $10 million a year could donate 90% to UNICEF, but they don’t, and you know why? Because the kind of person who is willing and able to exploit and backstab their way to that position is the kind of person who doesn’t give money to UNICEF.
  2. There must be important tasks to be achieved in that discipline. This one is relatively easy to satisfy; I’ll give you a list in a moment of things that could be contributed by a wide variety of fields. Still, it does place some limitations: For one, it rules out the simplest form of earning to give (a more nuanced form might cause you to choose quantum physics over social work because it pays better and is just as productive—but you’re not simply maximizing income to donate). For another, it rules out routine, ordinary jobs that the world needs but don’t make significant breakthroughs. The world needs truck drivers (until robot trucks take off), but there will never be a great world-changing truck driver, because even the world’s greatest truck driver can only carry so much stuff so fast. There are no world-famous secretaries or plumbers. People like to say that these sorts of jobs “change the world in their own way”, which is a nice sentiment, but ultimately it just doesn’t get things done. We didn’t lift ourselves into the Industrial Age by people being really fantastic blacksmiths; we did it by inventing machines that make blacksmiths obsolete. We didn’t rise to the Information Age by people being really good slide-rule calculators; we did it by inventing computers that work a million times as fast as any slide-rule. Maybe not everyone can have this kind of grand world-changing impact; and I certainly agree that you shouldn’t have to in order to live a good life in peace and happiness. But if that’s what you’re hoping to do with your life, there are certain professions that give you a chance of doing so—and certain professions that don’t.
  3. The important tasks must be currently underinvested. There are a lot of very big problems that many people are already working on. If you work on the problems that are trendy, the ones everyone is talking about, your marginal contribution may be very small. On the other hand, you can’t just pick problems at random; many problems are not invested in precisely because they aren’t that important. You need to find problems people aren’t working on but should be—problems that should be the focus of our attention but for one reason or another get ignored. A good example here is to work on pancreatic cancer instead of breast cancer; breast cancer research is drowning in money and really doesn’t need any more; pancreatic cancer kills 2/3 as many people but receives less than 1/6 as much funding. If you want to do cancer research, you should probably be doing pancreatic cancer.
  4. You must have something about you that gives you a comparative—and preferably, absolute—advantage in that field. This is the hardest one to achieve, and it is in fact the reason why most people can’t make world-changing breakthroughs. It is in fact so hard to achieve that it’s difficult to even say you have until you’ve already done something world-changing. You must have something special about you that lets you achieve what others have failed. You must be one of the best in the world. Even as you stand on the shoulders of giants, you must see further—for millions of others stand on those same shoulders and see nothing. If you believe that you have what it takes, you will be called arrogant and naïve; and in many cases you will be. But in a few cases—maybe 1 in 100, maybe even 1 in 1000, you’ll actually be right. Not everyone who believes they can change the world does so, but everyone who changes the world believed they could.

Now, what sort of careers might satisfy all these requirements?

Well, basically any kind of scientific research:

Mathematicians could work on network theory, or nonlinear dynamics (the first step: separating “nonlinear dynamics” into the dozen or so subfields it should actually comprise—as has been remarked, “nonlinear” is a bit like “non-elephant”), or data processing algorithms for our ever-growing morasses of unprocessed computer data.

Physicists could be working on fusion power, or ways to neutralize radioactive waste, or fundamental physics that could one day unlock technologies as exotic as teleportation and faster-than-light travel. They could work on quantum encryption and quantum computing. Or if those are still too applied for your taste, you could work in cosmology and seek to answer some of the deepest, most fundamental questions in human existence.

Chemists could be working on stronger or cheaper materials for infrastructure—the extreme example being space elevators—or technologies to clean up landfills and oceanic pollution. They could work on improved batteries for solar and wind power, or nanotechnology to revolutionize manufacturing.

Biologists could work on any number of diseases, from cancer and diabetes to malaria and antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis. They could work on stem-cell research and regenerative medicine, or genetic engineering and body enhancement, or on gerontology and age reversal. Biology is a field with so many important unsolved problems that if you have the stomach for it and the interest in some biological problem, you can’t really go wrong.

Electrical engineers can obviously work on improving the power and performance of computer systems, though I think over the last 20 years or so the marginal benefits of that kind of research have begun to wane. Efforts might be better spent in cybernetics, control systems, or network theory, where considerably more is left uncharted; or in artificial intelligence, where computing power is only the first step.

Mechanical engineers could work on making vehicles safer and cheaper, or building reusable spacecraft, or designing self-constructing or self-repairing infrastructure. They could work on 3D printing and just-in-time manufacturing, scaling it up for whole factories and down for home appliances.

Aerospace engineers could link the world with hypersonic travel, build satellites to provide Internet service to the farthest reaches of the globe, or create interplanetary rockets to colonize Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. They could mine asteroids and make previously rare metals ubiquitous. They could build aerial drones for delivery of goods and revolutionize logistics.

Agronomists could work on sustainable farming methods (hint: stop farming meat), invent new strains of crops that are hardier against pests, more nutritious, or higher-yielding; on the other hand a lot of this is already being done, so maybe it’s time to think outside the box and consider what we might do to make our food system more robust against climate change or other catastrophes.

Ecologists will obviously be working on predicting and mitigating the effects of global climate change, but there are a wide variety of ways of doing so. You could focus on ocean acidification, or on desertification, or on fishery depletion, or on carbon emissions. You could work on getting the climate models so precise that they become completely undeniable to anyone but the most dogmatically opposed. You could focus on endangered species and habitat disruption. Ecology is in general so underfunded and undersupported that basically anything you could do in ecology would be beneficial.

Neuroscientists have plenty of things to do as well: Understanding vision, memory, motor control, facial recognition, emotion, decision-making and so on. But one topic in particular is lacking in researchers, and that is the fundamental Hard Problem of consciousness. This one is going to be an uphill battle, and will require a special level of tenacity and perseverance. The problem is so poorly understood it’s difficult to even state clearly, let alone solve. But if you could do it—if you could even make a significant step toward it—it could literally be the greatest achievement in the history of humanity. It is one of the fundamental questions of our existence, the very thing that separates us from inanimate matter, the very thing that makes questions possible in the first place. Understand consciousness and you understand the very thing that makes us human. That achievement is so enormous that it seems almost petty to point out that the revolutionary effects of artificial intelligence would also fall into your lap.

The arts and humanities also have a great deal to contribute, and are woefully underappreciated.

Artists, authors, and musicians all have the potential to make us rethink our place in the world, reconsider and reimagine what we believe and strive for. If physics and engineering can make us better at winning wars, art and literature and remind us why we should never fight them in the first place. The greatest works of art can remind us of our shared humanity, link us all together in a grander civilization that transcends the petty boundaries of culture, geography, or religion. Art can also be timeless in a way nothing else can; most of Aristotle’s science is long-since refuted, but even the Great Pyramid thousands of years before him continues to awe us. (Aristotle is about equidistant chronologically between us and the Great Pyramid.)

Philosophers may not seem like they have much to add—and to be fair, a great deal of what goes on today in metaethics and epistemology doesn’t add much to civilization—but in fact it was Enlightenment philosophy that brought us democracy, the scientific method, and market economics. Today there are still major unsolved problems in ethics—particularly bioethics—that are in need of philosophical research. Technologies like nanotechnology and genetic engineering offer us the promise of enormous benefits, but also the risk of enormous harms; we need philosophers to help us decide how to use these technologies to make our lives better instead of worse. We need to know where to draw the lines between life and death, between justice and cruelty. Literally nothing could be more important than knowing right from wrong.

Now that I have sung the praises of the natural sciences and the humanities, let me now explain why I am a social scientist, and why you probably should be as well.

Psychologists and cognitive scientists obviously have a great deal to give us in the study of mental illness, but they may actually have more to contribute in the study of mental health—in understanding not just what makes us depressed or schizophrenic, but what makes us happy or intelligent. The 21st century may not simply see the end of mental illness, but the rise of a new level of mental prosperity, where being happy, focused, and motivated are matters of course. The revolution that biology has brought to our lives may pale in comparison to the revolution that psychology will bring. On the more social side of things, psychology may allow us to understand nationalism, sectarianism, and the tribal instinct in general, and allow us to finally learn to undermine fanaticism, encourage critical thought, and make people more rational. The benefits of this are almost impossible to overstate: It is our own limited, broken, 90%-or-so heuristic rationality that has brought us from simians to Shakespeare, from gorillas to Godel. To raise that figure to 95% or 99% or 99.9% could be as revolutionary as was whatever evolutionary change first brought us out of the savannah as Australopithecus africanus.

Sociologists and anthropologists will also have a great deal to contribute to this process, as they approach the tribal instinct from the top down. They may be able to tell us how nations are formed and undermined, why some cultures assimilate and others collide. They can work to understand combat bigotry in all its forms, racism, sexism, ethnocentrism. These could be the fields that finally end war, by understanding and correcting the imbalances in human societies that give rise to violent conflict.

Political scientists and public policy researchers can allow us to understand and restructure governments, undermining corruption, reducing inequality, making voting systems more expressive and more transparent. They can search for the keystones of different political systems, finding the weaknesses in democracy to shore up and the weaknesses in autocracy to exploit. They can work toward a true international government, representative of all the world’s people and with the authority and capability to enforce global peace. If the sociologists don’t end war and genocide, perhaps the political scientists can—or more likely they can do it together.

And then, at last, we come to economists. While I certainly work with a lot of ideas from psychology, sociology, and political science, I primarily consider myself an economist. Why is that? Why do I think the most important problems for me—and perhaps everyone—to be working on are fundamentally economic?

Because, above all, economics is broken. The other social sciences are basically on the right track; their theories are still very limited, their models are not very precise, and there are decades of work left to be done, but the core principles upon which they operate are correct. Economics is the field to work in because of criterion 3: Almost all the important problems in economics are underinvested.

Macroeconomics is where we are doing relatively well, and yet the Keynesian models that allowed us to reduce the damage of the Second Depression nonetheless had no power to predict its arrival. While inflation has been at least somewhat tamed, the far worse problem of unemployment has not been resolved or even really understood.

When we get to microeconomics, the neoclassical models are totally defective. Their core assumptions of total rationality and total selfishness are embarrassingly wrong. We have no idea what controls assets prices, or decides credit constraints, or motivates investment decisions. Our models of how people respond to risk are all wrong. We have no formal account of altruism or its limitations. As manufacturing is increasingly automated and work shifts into services, most economic models make no distinction between the two sectors. While finance takes over more and more of our society’s wealth, most formal models of the economy don’t even include a financial sector.

Economic forecasting is no better than chance. The most widely-used asset-pricing model, CAPM, fails completely in empirical tests; its defenders concede this and then have the audacity to declare that it doesn’t matter because the mathematics works. The Black-Scholes derivative-pricing model that caused the Second Depression could easily have been predicted to do so, because it contains a term that assumes normal distributions when we know for a fact that financial markets are fat-tailed; simply put, it claims certain events will never happen that actually occur several times a year.

Worst of all, economics is the field that people listen to. When a psychologist or sociologist says something on television, people say that it sounds interesting and basically ignore it. When an economist says something on television, national policies are shifted accordingly. Austerity exists as national policy in part due to a spreadsheet error by two famous economists.

Keynes already knew this in 1936: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

Meanwhile, the problems that economics deals with have a direct influence on the lives of millions of people. Bad economics gives us recessions and depressions; it cripples our industries and siphons off wealth to an increasingly corrupt elite. Bad economics literally starves people: It is because of bad economics that there is still such a thing as world hunger. We have enough food, we have the technology to distribute it—but we don’t have the economic policy to lift people out of poverty so that they can afford to buy it. Bad economics is why we don’t have the funding to cure diabetes or colonize Mars (but we have the funding for oil fracking and aircraft carriers, don’t we?). All of that other scientific research that needs done probably could be done, if the resources of our society were properly distributed and utilized.

This combination of both overwhelming influence, overwhelming importance and overwhelming error makes economics the low-hanging fruit; you don’t even have to be particularly brilliant to have better ideas than most economists (though no doubt it helps if you are). Economics is where we have a whole bunch of important questions that are unanswered—or the answers we have are wrong. (As Will Rogers said, “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.”)

Thus, rather than tell you go into finance and earn to give, those economists could simply have said: “You should become an economist. You could hardly do worse than we have.”