Democracy and Political Ignorance – Summary review

I finished reading Ilya Somin’s provocative book (henceforth Political Ignorance) over my summer vacation, and I think I want to write quite a bit about it so this will get spread across several blog posts.

Yes, readers concerned with the democratic process and constitutional design should read this book. It provides clear evidence that by whatever process you think democracy arrives at good governance of society, our current electorate is so woefully ignorant that it cannot be working properly. Further, this situation will be incredibly difficult to fix. While that might sound quite depressing, the author surveys many suggestions for trying and agrees that trying is necessary. Our basic government structure of federalism offers hope that experiments will have room to be tried, and successful experiments replicated.

No, readers should not be swayed in their decision by the subtitle, “Why smaller government is smarter”. Whether you agree with the sentiment or not, arguments about the ‘size’ of government make up a relatively small part of the book’s content. Political Ignorance does not make a serious attempt to address the question.

Somin presents the problem in chapter 1, with a review of recent surveys of voter knowledge from US federal elections, both Presidential and mid-term. Whether you look at all adults, registered, or likely voters, the results are appalling. Easily 25% of the country just has no fucking clue, just no clue at all about headline issues facing the country that their vote might affect. A key finding, repeated later in chapter 4, is that swing voters are the most ignorant of all.

Let that sink in – our elections are being decided by the dumbest of the dumb.

If I had any wishes for chapter 1, I would wish for a longer baseline of data and breakdown between factual knowledge of the issues vs. a knowledge of the system.

Chapter 2 examines four different theories of democratic governance, each of which seems to hold voters to a different standard of knowledge about the issues. “Responsive government” assumes democracy is a ‘throw the bums out’, reactive process. Old leaders are punished for large failures such as losing wars or causing famines, and replaced with new leaders. This is certainly a step up from monarchy or other forms of dictatorship, but suffers from many emotional biases and information deficits. What leader or policy was responsible for the problem? Can Chris Christie be blamed for shark attacks driving down tourism on the Jersey Shore? (Answer: yes.)

Burkean trusteeship holds that voters are actually selecting trustees for the work of governing society, and as such the important part of the process is choosing the person for an elected office according to their qualities of education, personality, moral compass, etc. Here again, we find that voters know very little about the people they are electing. Think birtherism for an example.

Issue-driven majoritarianism simply asks if a candidate is siding with the majority on specific issues. In this view, reflecting the majority desire is more important for democracy than any attempt to lead the entire nation. However, the likelihood that a poll-following politician will be elected is confounded by the ignorance of voters on the issues, who holds what position, and who is relatively closer to the majority view.

Finally, deliberative democracy assumes that voters are researching and discussing the facts, the proposed policies, and the likely outcomes in an informed and conscientious manner before stepping into the voting booth, and exercising their franchise with the solemnity deserving of the act. Obviously, this is not happening. Exchanging Facebook memes with your friends does not count as deliberative democracy.

While this survey of process theories is not exhaustive, it does show the span of levels of knowledge that different theories can assume. Even the most lenient, reactive model won’t work if voters don’t know who to blame for what. However, we can take some small comfort from work on the evolution of cooperation, such as Axelrod. In this research we can see that the best strategy for the Iterated Prisoners Dilemma is Tit-for-tat, the reactive model. If we view government as a long IPD held between the class of politicians that run for office and the class of voters that elect them, then there is small hope that over long periods of time the system can evolve to stable payoffs. Is this ‘perfect’? No. Is it better than revolution? Yes.

Hello Darkness, my old friend

In chapter 3, Somin introduces the idea of rational ignorance. Since everyone is working with scarce resources of money, time, and energy, it is necessary to choose where to invest those resources. For most voters, becoming politically knowledgeable is not the best use of their resources.

If we compare voting to other selection processes such as jury voting, product buying, and choosing where to live it is easy to see a proportional relationship between personal motivation and acquiring knowledge. If we value the outcome of the decision more, we will be more likely to devote the resources necessary to acquiring the knowledge to better make the decision.

From this perspective we can see that modern American voters just don’t think the act of voting will change very much in their lives. Voters that are choosing freedom or slavery, monarchy or communism, have a lot at stake, and consequently political discussion dominates the public square in a more informed manner than when thinking about Medicare Part D.

If this ignorance is rational, Americans have a pretty good thing going and they doubt that any one election can change that very much. Most of the time, they are right. But there is a ‘long tail’ of times they are wrong, and being wrong in those decisions means being catastrophically wrong. The price of freedom is eternal resource allocation at higher than rational levels.

What can be done about this situation? Americans are so fat and happy, the system has worked so well for the majority, that we have fallen into a post-Thanksgiving-dinner coma. If only we cared as much about politics as we do about college football, we might wake up!

Chapter 4 looks at some workarounds to ignorance. Maybe we are smarter than we seem at first glance, or have the answers hidden up our sleeve. If we can be more informed for a lower cost, that would be a good thing. Some of the strategies that are looked at include political parties, opinion leaders, knowledge from ordinary life and retrospective voting. Sadly, none of these are theoretical possibilities that have not been tried. The existing data showing extreme political ignorance already has all of these strategies and more already baked into the result. Shortcuts will not help us.

I’m going to save Chapter 5 for a separate post. Foot voting is obviously a pet enthusiasm of the author’s. Chapter 6 looks at the concept of judicial review with respect to political ignorance. This has the feel of a separate essay, and can safely be skipped if legal theory is not your thing.

Chapter 7 asks if voters can be made smarter somehow. Again a range of possibilities are examined, including shrinking the franchise to the well-informed through tests. This chapter can help dispel the depression brought on by constant drumbeat of negative results from the previous chapters. There is hope, because these and other strategies are just starting to be tried.

Political Ignorance has two punchlines. We can reduce the dangers of political ignorance by limiting and decentralizing the role of government in society, and democratic control of government works best when there is less government to control. I can understand why Professor Somin has buried these thesis statements at the end of the book, rather than presenting them at the beginning. This book, as valuable as it is, does very little to prove either statement. Again, more on this in another post.

Bottom line – this book is an important survey of a difficult topic. It will reward your scarce resource allocation! Buy it, read it, talk about it.


Democracy and Political Ignorance

I’m in the process of reading a fascinating book on the political process, and the lack of rationality in democracies. The book is Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter, by Ilya Somin. While the American experiment in democratic government has always recognized the dangers of mob rule and populist manipulation, our understanding of these issues has sharpened in recent years as political scientists dissect the issues of education, influence, class, gender, and race on voting – the core act of creating a government.

For many Americans, there is no more apt time than now to be thinking about these issues. Well, perhaps two years ago would have been more apt.

I can tell you in advance that I find the subtitle provocative. I don’t ‘believe’ in small government or big government, I want a right-sized government for its expected function. “Smaller” government can be like “thinner” for an anorexic – you can always be thinner.

Nor is smaller government fully compatible with limited or decentralized government, other qualities that the book (and its author) advocates. The experience of the capital market is that there really is such a thing as ‘economies of scale.’ If you want make organizations smaller for the same set of functions, merge them and fire the middle management, that is the lesson of corporate raiders, outsourcers, and shared service centers.

It’s great to read a well-written book on an important topic, and even better if you don’t agree with the author 100%. I’m looking forward to sharing more of those disagreements here.

Putin’s Inaugural gift

Aleppo.  Put a big red bow on a burning city.

It would be better (for Putin) that Donald Trump not be asked to do anything about Syria. It would be better (for Putin) if images of human suffering and massacre had safely moved off the front pages by Inauguration Day.

Of course, Donald Trump is not (yet) in the same category as Bashar Assad or Viktor Yanukovych, the deposed Ukrainian puppet that Paul Manafort used to work for. That will come after the Russian Navy has docking rights in Newport News.

It was threats to the Russian Navy’s bases in Crimea and Syria that moved Putin to action. Aleppo might not be burning if Latakia and Tartus had not been threatened. But now that the Russians have been forced to move, it is better (for Putin) if this act of the play be finished quickly.

Don’t Share This

Here are two posts I saw yesterday from Facebook friends that I know from past experience are willing to repost stuff. Read these and note the similarities. The use of emotional, but vague, pulls at the heart. The very specific request to copy and paste, not share.
This is someone test-marketing how to get around Facebook’s control of the ‘share’ button. If you know your A-B marketing theory you can see the different things being tested in these messages. Cancer/addiction, defiant/helpful, “Y’all”/Amen, computer/smartphone – getting someone to do something ‘hard’ like copy and paste requires a different stimulus in different people.

Whoever is doing this already knows the networks of people that might comply. Reading public posts they can see how fast the message spreads, and though whom. This is a new network of high-compliance people.

The next message might use addiction as the metaphor instead of the subject (We need to end our addiction to foreign intervention/government debt/Amazon Prime.) in messages targeted at those people who complied with the ‘addiction’ version. Trump’s digital team said they were testing messages in this way on Facebook in hundreds of thousands of variants.

Who might be responsible? Yes, it could be the Russians. It could be American political influencers. It could even be, if this were a movie, Facebook itself, testing how likely it was that their control of message dissemination was working. We will probably never know.

Bottom line – all memes are mental viruses. They spread because you give them mental space and they take over your voice. These messages ask you to copy and paste, under no circumstance should you comply. It makes you a rat in someone’s experiment. Don’t “like and share if you agree” either.

Whether it is fake news or just marketing spam, what you share on Facebook is like sex with thousands of people. Get those mental condoms ready.

The examples

Done. Well y’all, I’m gonna say bye-bye to some of you.. Now I’m watching the ones who will have the time to read this post until the end. This is a little test, just to see who reads and who shares without reading! If you have read everything, select “like” so i can put a thank u on ur profile! I know that 97% of you won’t broadcast this, but my friends will be the 3% that do.
Please, in honor of someone who died, or is fighting cancer, or even had cancer, copy an paste
Everyone says: ” If you need anything, don’t hesitate, I’ll be there for you “… so I’m going to make a bet, without being pessimistic, I wish ” my friends ” put this on your wall. You just have to copy (not share)!!! I want to know who I can count on… and I’m sure it will be less than 25. Write “done” in comments when you do!
In honor of too many Cancer patients, survivors, and those I love that didn’t.
I’m not saying bye-bye, just honoring cancer fighters!


Today more than ever, I want the healing of addiction!! There’s a personal reason for asking everyone to put this message on their status for at least 1 hour. I know who’ll do it! Think of someone you love who has had an addiction or who is trying to fight this evil. I hope to see this on the status of all my friends. Don’t share, but copy and paste!! Hold your finger text and it will highlight, select copy, then paste it on to your own wall.
The pain hurts more than just the addict, we hate the disease not the person!!
Amen ♡


A former boss of mine once said that the worst word to find in the Management’s Discussion and Analysis section of a financial report is ‘unexpected’.

It appears that Donald Trump’s victory is the result of peeling off a longstanding part of the Democratic Party coalition and adding it to the existing Republican Party coalition. The Midwestern white working class has shifted into the GOP column.It will probably stay here for quite some time.

Very much will depend on how Trump governs. In business terms, Trump has done so-so with ‘going concerns’ – existing companies on a solid footing, such as the apartment empire he inherited from his father. His hubristic expansions have been the source of his multiple bankruptcies. In this sense, the US is a going concern, and what happens to it depends on what Trump decides to change.

Trump will need to staff his administration and it is not clear today whether the burn-it-down crowd will triumph over the manifest opportunities for self-aggrandizement. Why kill a cabinet position when you can put your friend in charge? Much of the fear on the right has been that Trump has no roots in conservatism, and will be willing to go with the status quo in DC.

For example, will Trump repeal Obamacare? The GOP-controlled Congress has not been able to put even symbolic bills on the President’s desk for veto, so can they do better now? I expect Trump wants something that can be called Trumpcare, and what that will be is anyone’s guess.

Globally, the burden of Trump will fall on the poor if the US retreats from any meaningful action on climate change. It will fall on the already miserable Middle East if Trump tries Bush-era aggression or plays into the culture-war rhetoric of ISIS. It will fall on the people of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact as Putin is given a free hand to reassemble an empire.

Don’t worry is does get worse. The mid-term election is usually a reaction against the President, but 2018 is going to be a hard year for Democrats in the Senate, and no particular hope for swinging a lot of gerrymandered House districts. Trump will have a full four years of a Republican Congress. The only bright spot there is the coming civil war in the House.

Supreme Court? McConnell’s bet pays off. Trump gets at least one pick, Obama’s last one. I expect Harriet Miers quality choices from a man that has reveled in manipulating the legal system his entire life.

Machinists in Waukegan, no soup for you. Your job is not coming back. But is was a convenient thing for a billionaire to say, wasn’t it?


Trump and the next conservatism

In a recent Vox interview and American Conservative book review, conservative intellectual Samuel Goldwyn shares a bleak view of where American conservatism is going – trying to run up the down escalator of demography. The basic claims of Reaganite conservatism to care about small government, robust international intervention to spread American ideals, and preserving traditional moral schemas have failed to deliver. The last Bush administration delivered America into a profound financial crisis and two terrible wars.

What will replace “movement conservatism”? What is conservatism? While Goldman prefers a negative definition (the greatest political good is not liberty), he does refer to another conservative intellectual, Paul Gottfried. Gottfried has wrestled hard with this question and has a better, more positive answer. If the Left is all about equality, then the Right is all about the affirmation of authority, tradition, and identity.

Three affirmations

Affirmation of identity does line up well with the new Trumpian voice given to white nationalism. So let’s check that off as a clear part of the next conservatism.

Affirmation of tradition certainly lines up with supporting any kind of Christian viewpoint of America, whether shining city on a hill or Puritan Salem. So let’s expect conservatism to stick close to the core cultural center of Western tradition, the Church.

Affirmation of authority is trickier, but I expect that it will mean accepting the place of the state in life. In the days of kings, affirmation of authority meant affirming the royal right to rule. The ideal of small government is really irrelevant to this core conservative concept. In this sense, buying into  the use of government previously called ‘big’ or ‘interventionist’ can be welcomed into the next conservative platform.

So that is the next conservatism. American exceptionalism, Christian exceptionalism and friendly to government intervention. If the messaging could drop the racism and anti-urbanism of current conservatism, it could be very successful.

It never will, of course. This is basically the GOP Autopsy Report after Romney’s loss in 2012 plus throwing Grover Norquist under the bus. Nuanced acceptance of diversity and government are “can’t get there from here” positions. Sad!


The French way

Sorry, this article is not free to read. Basically, it says French banks are taking advantage of a difference in regulation to become dominant players in the US Treasury repo market. (The data behind the article was sourced from the OFR, my employer.) Dominant, that is, until quarter-end window dressing forces them out.
US banks have to report balance sheets every day, while the French banks only report quarterly. So the French banks play big in the repo market until the last day of the quarter, when they close out all the trades and pretend everything is fine and no, there is no gambling in this establishment.
Not that repo is gambling, it is the exact opposite – about the safest thing you could do with money. Safe, that is, until your counterparty evaporates every 90 days, or has come to rely on repo and then very inconveniently can’t access the repo market because it is quarter-end. Liquidity squeezes can take many forms.
Aligning regulatory regimes across the globe is absolutely necessary in a global capital market. Post-crisis regulatory reform still has far to go, even as people start to forget what all the shouting was about in 2008 (so long ago!) and why can’t I gamble with other people’s retirement funds?