If Clueless People Shouldn’t Vote, Then Should Damon Linker?

Damon Linker has a piece at The Week arguing against compulsory voting. If you’ve ever read a college newspaper, there is no reason to read Linker’s take on the matter because you’ve already seen it before. Nonetheless, I found this bit pretty funny in light of Linker’s own failings:

We all know that some people are more capable than others of recognizing excellence, even if we also recognize, once again, that there’s no uncontentious way to definitively determine who the more capable people are. The closest we can get to making such a determination may be using the decision to vote as a proxy for relative political wisdom.

If you can’t be bothered to vote, you probably aren’t paying attention; and if you aren’t paying attention, we’ll probably all be better off if you keep not bothering.

What I find so amusing about this quote is that Linker regularly writes things that reveal him to be totally clueless about basic fiscal policy matters. His ignorance is especially fascinating to watch because he is deep into his 40s, has been closely following and writing about politics for decades, and the economic policy topics he bungles have been the most written about economic topics for seven consecutive years. Yet, even he doesn’t understand them.

Public Finance 101

The latest example of his incomprehension came in the first week of February. He wrote a column claiming Krugman’s continued call for fiscal and monetary stimulus was contradictory:

For years Krugman justified massive spending with no concern for its long-term fiscal impact as an emergency measure demanded by high unemployment, anemic growth, and other after-effects of a “once-in-three-generations financial crisis.” We needed to do whatever it took to get the economy moving again, he argued; the fiscal mess could be cleaned up later, once we regained our economic footing. Until then, it would be “craven and irresponsible,” a sign of “intellectual laziness and a lack of moral courage,” to place concern for long-term problems like the budget deficit and national debt ahead of spending our way out of an economic sinkhole that was hurting tens of millions of Americans.

But what about now?

The unemployment rate is firmly below 6 percent. Growth is humming along at a decent clip. Based on the logic of Krugman’s arguments — which have always conceded that the deficit and debt, and our ability to fund entitlements, are genuine problems, just ones that couldn’t be addressed during the current crisis — one might conclude that now is the time to back off on the deficit spending, to try to bring the budget into balance, in part to assure that we’ll be well placed to spend liberally when the next recession hits.

Of course, wise people know that Linker’s argument is not only wrong, but also misses the entire argumentative terrain. Krugman’s view, whether you agree with it or not, is pretty basic. He thinks that the federal government should engage in stimulus (and certainly avoid austerity) until the economy is operating at capacity. Right now, most economists (right and left) do not believe the economy is operating at capacity. Indicators of labor market slack abound. Thus, Krugman continues his pro-stimulus position.

You could disagree with Krugman on all sorts of fronts. You could say that fiscal stimulus doesn’t work. You could argue that we are already at capacity, that pushing unemployment down further would set off accelerating inflation. You could argue that, although fiscal policy would work and we are not at capacity, deficit-financed stimulus would be net harmful, especially in the medium-run and long-run, because it would push our already-high debt level over a growth-destroying tipping point. These are all arguments out there in the world. But Linker doesn’t reach for any of these and gives no indicator that he even understands that they exist or what their relative strengths and weaknesses are.

So, not only does Linker wrongly accuse Krugman of inconsistency, but his overall post shows that he is flying blind on the entire topic, which again has been the biggest economic policy topic for seven straight years.

What’s more, when I confronted Linker about his mistakes on Twitter, he revealed even deeper confusions about the basics of public finance. Apparently fresh off of reading a Washington Post editorial, he confidently proclaimed that the US can’t run deficits forever. Those who have ever paid an iota of attention to this subject knows that it absolutely can run deficits forever, provided the deficits increase the debt level at a rate equal to or less than the rate of GDP growth. In fact, debt levels themselves are broadly irrelevant: what people care about (investors, economists, etc.) is the debt-to-GDP ratio. This is not an exotic view. It’s absolutely standard. Yet, when I informed him of it, he confidently reasserted his wrong understanding.

Should Linker Vote?

By Linker’s account, it seems he should be disqualified from voting. Outside of rehashing the texts he read in his undergraduate Letters program, it’s actually not clear what wisdom he has about any part of the US political system. He certainly fashions himself a learned man of politics, and in the uncompetitive and cloistered world of 1990s magazine writing he was even able to convince others of it at one point. But he simply isn’t. He has no subject-matter expertise on a lot of the things he thinks he does and his opinions are often so bad that they border on funny.

Although Linker would disqualify himself from voting on account of his widespread ignorance, I personally would not. And this really gets at the meat of where Linker goes so wrong.

You see, it doesn’t matter that Linker doesn’t know anything about very basic policy topics. What matters is that he can broadly identify the party that will push the things he’s interested in and then identify whoever happens to be running under that party on the ballot and pull the lever. From there, that party has its own system of experts and wonks that should allow them to deliver, provided they wind up in a position to do so.

Are you big into economic policies that deliver for the poor and working classes? In much of Europe, that means you vote for the party that says “labor,” “social democratic,” or “socialist” in the name. In the US, that usually means you have no real option, but you vote for the Democrats because at least they aren’t the Republicans. Are you big into ethno-nationalism? Vote for the party that’s always going on about how immigration is super bad. You got options in nearly every European country, and they appear to be getting more popular by the day. In the US, that’s the Republicans. Are you super into environmental stuff? Look for “green” in the name. You mostly mad about gay marriage and abortion and whatnot? Usually, you can’t go wrong with a Christian Democratic party, or in the US stick with the Republicans.

You see how easy that is? You just need to sort of know what you are into and be able to figure out which party is also into that, and then you vote for them. Even if you’re like Linker and kind of stupid, you can still often pick the team that’s on your side of things. And so just as it doesn’t harm the body politic when Linker votes, it won’t harm it if everyone else votes too.

Instant Runoff Voting and Strategic Voting

Wikipedia defines the spoiler effect thusly:

The spoiler effect is the effect of vote splitting between candidates … with similar ideologies. One spoiler candidate’s presence in the election draws votes from a major candidate with similar politics thereby causing a strong opponent of both or several to win. The minor candidate causing this effect is referred to as a spoiler.

For example, suppose a Democrat is running against a Republican. The Democrat has 51% support while the Republican has 49% support. Then, a Green Party candidate enters. The new distribution of support is Green – 3%, Democrat – 48%, and Republican – 49%. Because the Green is seen as splitting vote with the Democrat, it is seen as spoiling the election, and causing the Republican that actually has minority support (in a head-to-head match with the Democrat) to win.

To avoid this spoiler effect, voters are forced to engage in strategic voting. This means that people who prefer the Green might vote for the Democrat instead, solely to ensure that the Republican loses. This spoiler-effect-driven impetus to strategically vote makes it such that many people can’t vote for who they actually want to win without sabotaging their own interests.

Often, people claim that Instant Runoff Voting solves this problem.

In IRV, voters rank the candidates in order of preference (giving a “1” to their most preferred candidate, a “2” to their second most preferred candidate, and so on). When votes are tabulated, voters’ first preferences are counted up. If, after this initial count, a candidate has a majority of support, the election is over and that candidate has won. If no candidate has a majority of support, then the candidate with the lowest level of support is eliminated, and the second preferences of the voters who ranked the eliminated candidate first are counted. This process of eliminating candidates and recounting the overall vote with voters’ second (and even third, fourth, and fifth) preferences is repeated until someone has a majority.

FairVote explains the rationale for why this is supposed to solve the strategic voting problem:

Because instant runoff voting (IRV) is designed to secure a majority victory, it assures that the so-called “spoiler effect” will not result in undemocratic outcomes. IRV affords voters more choices and promotes broader participation by accommodating multiple candidates in single seat races. Voters may support their favorite candidate without fear of splitting a base of support or swinging the election to their least favorite candidate. Thus it solves the problem of choosing between the “lesser of two evils” and encourages greater participation from voters and candidates, while fostering cooperative campaigns built on a more robust discussion of issues.

But this analysis only holds when the so-called spoiler candidate has a low level of support. Returning to the hypothetical three-way election above, it would likely be the case that IRV would play out so that the Green is eliminated after round one, and then the Green voters’ second preferences would all be Democrat, delivering a Democratic victory by a margin of 51% to 49%.

However, suppose the election margins are somewhat different. Suppose that voters’ first preferences line up such that the Green has 33% support, the Democrat has 32% support and the Republican has 35% support. Under IRV, the Democrat is eliminated and voters who ranked the Democrat first have their second preferences counted. But what are those second preferences? It’s conceivable that the voters are split, with 16% ranking the Green as their second preference and 16% ranking the Republican their second preference. This would mean that, at the second count, the Republican wins over the Green by a margin of 51% to 49%.

You might think this isn’t a problem. After all, the Republicans won a majority of votes. But changing the scenario a little reveals the issue. Suppose that the first preferences lined up this way instead: Green 32%, Democrat 33%, Republican 35%. In this case, the Green candidate is eliminated on the first count, and its voters second preferences are counted. Presumably the vast majority of the Green voters ranked the Democrat second. For our purposes here, let’s assume all of the Green voters ranked the Democrat second. This would mean that, on second count, the Democrat wins in a landslide by a margin of 65% to 35%.

So, as you can see, the election outcome swings dramatically based on which candidate gets eliminated first, which is determined by as little as 1% of the electorate choosing whether to rank the Democrat or Green first. If the Democrat gets eliminated first, the Republican wins. If the Green gets eliminated first, the Democrat wins.

The net effect of all of this is that you still have to strategically vote under IRV. When your candidate has a very low level of support, it doesn’t particularly matter. But once you’ve built your candidate up to the point where it might actually be competitive, you are then forced to abandon that candidate when choosing your first preference. Not abandoning the candidate at that moment risks the possibility that your second preferred candidate (here the Democrat) will get eliminated first and that this order of elimination will cause your third preferred candidate to win. That is, you once again find yourself risking the spoiler effect if you don’t strategically vote against your preferred candidate.

Edit: Rob Richie of FairVote wrote in to note that although this sort of thing is possible, it doesn’t happen that often.

Despite Election, American People Hold Same Views As Before

Election punditry is not good. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s bad. While poll aggregators and election modeling mercifully cleared out a lot of the junk prognosticating, still with us is the post-election autopsies telling us what it all means.

Those who provide autopsies of the purely game-focused sort are interesting and worth reading. Those who provide autopsies that go on to grandly theorize about the great American shift in this or that direction, or how the American people were moved by this or that appeal or idea, on the other hand, are unbearable.

There is a lot of that kind of analysis floating about right now. David Brooks has perhaps the funniest iteration of it over at the New York Times, where he claims:

Republicans didn’t establish this dominant position because they are unrepresentative outsiders. They did it because they have deep roots in four of the dominant institutions of American society: the business community, the military, the church and civic organizations.

I pick on Brooks here, but he’s hardly the only one doing this.

There is an obvious problem with moving from election results to discussions of the American people more broadly, which is that most people don’t vote. This is easily forgotten because all of the figures that fly by you in the election punditry bubble relate to votes or polls of likely voters. If you want to know how American adults in general are feeling about Democrats and Republicans, the answer lies, not in election tallies or likely voter polling, but in polls of American adults in general.

Pew has conducted such a poll in the waning days of the last three elections, which has produced the following Democratic/Republican breakdowns:

  1. 2010: D – 50%, R – 39%
  2. 2012: D – 51%, R – 39%
  3. 2014: D – 50%, R – 37%

If you read the election pundits, you get the sense that there have been huge swings and sea-changes that tell us a lot about Americans in this country. But the reality has just been a total flat line. Elections haven’t churned out the same result each time because the electorate has been different in each election, but that’s about the game not shifts among the American people.

Now in some sort of idealized representative democracy, you’d just have a proportionally-representative parliament that allocated seats like this essentially. We don’t have such a democracy. This means that the operative electoral question in most years is not how Americans have or haven’t changed, but how representative or unrepresentative the voters and seat-allocation system will be.