Statistically informed ideas on how to make the world work better.

Month: March, 2012

Insight: We are already mandated to eat vegetables!


In oral arguments at the US Supreme Court for Obamacare this week, Justice Antonin Scalia famously asked what mandate would be next: that we eat our broccoli? Certainly this provocative question will raise the hackles of anyone who has the least aversion to government interference in our personal lives. But it’s based on a false premise: the US already has government mandates to eat vegetables, most notably corn.

How so?, you ask… Well, US subsidies for corn production are well known. This drives down the price of corn relative to other food, and as the average price of food drops, so does the cost of living. As the cost of living drops, the increase in wages drops or grows more slowly as well (employers will not need to pay as much to attract good employees). This makes all food that is not corn cost a larger percent of the average person’s income. So it is, effectively, a penalty for not eating corn, implemented by the government. You can call it a subsidy, or a penalty, or a tax, or a mandate. It amounts to the same thing. And it’s much worse for our health than a broccoli mandate or Obamacare.

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Idea: How to design a nearly perfect electronic voting system

This idea’s been bouncing around in my head since not long after the 2000 Florida election fiasco. A simple solution to allow fair, non-manipulable vote counting, easy to use, and easy to audit.

The problem: Existing voting systems have problems, as witnessed in Florida. All paper systems have problems with unclear choices, legibility, and so forth. Most existing or proposed electronic systems (at least those I know of) raise fears of tampering by those who design or program the machines. Also, it takes a long time for votes to get counted, there are often discrepancies and a need for recounts, which can be laborious, or, in the case of machines, impossible…

The idea: Use two different electronic machines made by different manufacturers, and print the results to create a paper trail. The voter goes to Machine 1, chooses her candidates and issues, sees a summary screen telling her who she’s chosen, prints two copies of her vote out (including an identifying bar code), deposits one in a ballot box, and takes the other home with her to keep or destroy as she sees fit. The votes in the ballot box then get scanned into a second computer, and the two tallies from the two computers are compared at the end of the day (neither machine should be connected to the internet or any centralized network). They should match exactly; if they don’t, it should be straightforward to identify which ballots are causing the discrepancy and find the paper copy. The results can be posted online by barcode number (no individually identifying info), allowing the voter to check and make sure her vote got properly counted. If it didn’t, she can show up in person with her hard copy.

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…to my new blog!

This is a forum for me to write down my assorted thoughts on politics, culture, society, policy, science, and so forth – the same stuff that I regularly enjoy conversing with so many of you about. My hope is that many of you will read and comment on these, and that this blog will start off as a forum for discussion among friends. I also hope that you will share my posts with others when you feel it appropriate, so that any particular novel insights generated will make it into the wider world.

Posts will generally take one of two formats: “insights” (e.g., why the US senate is so dysfunctional) and “ideas” (e.g. how we could structure the US senate so it would be moderately less dysfunctional). In both cases, I will try to only post things that, to my knowledge, are not already widely discussed, and thus have some potential to bring novelty to our social discourse. However, I will not take much time to research my posts (if I did, I’d never get around to publishing anything), so I risk being off base on some of my facts once in a while – please correct me!

Looking forward to spirited discussions with all of you!