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

Month: September, 2012

China should make us rethink our assumptions about democracy, effective government, and the will of the people

There is a section in one of my favorite books, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, where the idea of voting and democracy is being explained to villagers in the Belgian Congo in the run-up to the first elections there following independence from Belgium. The villagers are confused: how could it be possible that someone could win with only 51% of the vote? Shouldn’t everyone get together and discuss it, and arrive at a consensus? Doesn’t democracy mean that the opinions of almost half the population could be ignored completely?

This very reasonable response on the part of the villagers was eye-opening for me: for them, the problem with Western-style, majority rules, one person-one vote democracy is that it was not good enough at achieving the fundamental goal of democracy, namely a government that represents (and is responsive to) the will and the interests of the people – something they already had at the level of their village.

Of course, the challenges of governing a village – where a consensus can feasibly be reached – are quite different from those involved in governing a large, diverse nation. It brings to mind Winston Churchill’s famous saying, that democracy is the worst form of government in the world – except for all the others. But more importantly, it should encourage us to question whether Winston Churchill’s saying is still right, or will always be right.

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Dangerous free speech and moral responsibility

This hilariously shocking image from The Onion got me thinking about the moral issues surrounding free speech and its consequences. (For anyone unfamiliar with the back story, an offensive anti-muslim video made in the US, with sexual depictions of Mohammed, set off riots and protests around the muslim world. These protests resulted in the deaths of at least 4 people, including the US ambassador to Libya, who had played a large role in encouraging a transition to democracy there.)

There are essentially two points of view that have been expressed on this by people in the West. The first point of view (essentially Obama’s) is that, while the video is offensive, it should be protected as free speech, and the deaths are the fault of the rioters. The second point of view (Romney’s) is the same, without mention of the fact that the video is offensive. I disagree with both these opinions: while I feel the rioters are responsible for the deaths, I feel those who made and publicized the video knowing its likely consequences are equally responsible, and I do not feel the video should be protected speech. This may seem shocking to most of my readers, who are largely westerners accustomed to thinking of free speech as an absolute good. Hear me out, and then disagree in the comments section if you want.

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Michael Lewis explains why I like Obama

Michael Lewis just had a great profile of Obama in Vanity Fair. It’s a bit long but worth the read, and it’s important in three ways:

1) Obama is bold

Obama has a reputation of having let events shape his presidency rather than having shaping events himself. In contrast, this profile details how he made the decision to invade Libya when none of his advisors wanted to even present that as an option. The options presented were to do nothing or to impose a no-fly zone, which would have been just for show (since Qaddafi wasn’t using air power). Over the objections of his top advisors, he had a plan for an effective intervention drawn up, figured out how to get it through the UN and achieve it with the international community, and went forward with it. These are not the actions of someone who is letting events shape him.

2) Obama’s failures are more due to the system than to him

The article mentions briefly how, due to changes in the political system and media, a president has a lot less power now than, say, 40 years ago. I have been thinking about this for a while: the use of the filibuster, increased partisanship, 24-hour sensationalized news coverage, and a closely divided electorate mean that the president has relatively little scope to achieve anything. I think this is why Obama is perceived as letting events shape him rather than the other way around. Clearly the system is harder to manipulate than it used to be, but I have also wondered how much he might be at fault as well. Could a more skillful politician have done systematically better? The subtext of this article makes the case that no, it is unlikely a more forceful personality could have done more. In part this is because it shows Obama as forceful when appropriate (as in his decision on Libya).

This does not mean there is nothing Obama could have done differently to get a better outcome. It’s easy with hindsight to find such things. Some of them maybe should have been better anticipated. But lack of forcefulness and resolve does not seem to be the reason for such failures.

3) Obama thinks in probabilities, not black-and-white

Obama explicitly mentions that every decision he makes has a probability of failure: the easy decisions have already been made by someone else. He is comfortable living in a world of shades of grey, but explicitly notes that the public requires things to be explained in black-and-white. Yay! He is so clear here about one of my favorite themes: the need to think in terms of probabilities and uncertainty, and the fact that our brains don’t seem to be built for this. So few people are good at understanding probabilities and uncertainty intuitively. I’m now convinced Obama is one of them.

Modern government is a form of technology



Once upon a time, if you wanted to cut down a tree, you used an axe. An axe was a simple piece of wood with a metal head that could be made by any blacksmith (I presume). Now, an individual wishing to cut down a tree would probably use a chainsaw. A chainsaw cannot be made by a blacksmith – it involves relatively sophisticated engineering and centralized, mechanized production. There is not a chainsaw factory in every small town – this would be impractical – so the use of chainsaws as improved tree-cutting technology implies a modern society, with an educational infrastructure to train engineers, a transportation infrastructure to move goods around, and so forth. Recently, I even saw a specialized backhoe which can cut down, de-branch, and chop up a tree in about 30 seconds using a saw attached to the scoop – this requires even more sophistication than the chainsaw. Such a backhoe is a useful tool for cutting down forests to make highways to transport more goods, all at a feasible price…

This is an obvious example of technology and how it both requires and creates changes in society. Another example is a digital camera: 50 years ago, cameras were both simple and expensive. If your camera broke, you took it to a local repair shop. Now, it’s cheaper to buy a new one than to fix your old one, even for a very minor problem. This is because production costs have come down even as the technological sophistication of the machine has increased dramatically. So in your town you are unlikely to find a camera repairman or a blacksmith.

Modern government is like digital cameras and chainsaw backhoes. When the US was founded around 1800, there was no FDA to furnish government food inspectors. There was no FAA to regulate air transportation. There was no NIH to fund cancer research. There was no cadre of government economists working for the CBO and the GAO and the Fed and the Treasury estimating long-term financial and population projections under hundreds of different scenarios. In fact, there wasn’t much need for the federal government at all, seeing as how everyone could more-or-less remain in their small towns relying on their blacksmith for an axe, their miller for the grain, and so forth.

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Update: Quebec elections

Yesterday Quebec held its provincial elections. The Parti Quebecois won with 54 seats, followed by the Liberals with 50 seats, the CAQ with 19 seats, and Quebec Solidaire with 2 seats. For an explanation of what this means, see my last post. I’m a bit surprised by the strong showing for the Liberals, despite polls that suggested they might finish in third place. The Parti Quebecois has a minority government. Unlike in many European countries, there are unlikely to be alliances among parties to form a governing coalition – the PQ will govern with less than a majority of votes (63 would be needed). This means the government may be unstable, and new elections might be held in the next year or two. It also means that the governing party can’t pass it’s most extreme policies.