Thursday, September 25, 2008

Jason asks how much your vote is worth

Okay, first off this is not a political post, because this is not a political blog.  For the duration of this post, I don't have an opinion on who should win any race in this election.  In fact, this post would be just as relevant in a non-election year.

This is a post that muses about fucking with our voting system.  Which is fine, since we already have what political scientists agree is pretty much the worst voting system possible.

First, a confession.  The only blog I actually read on a regular basis is the one written by Scott Adams of Dilbert fame.  I don't always (or even often) agree with him (for the record, his taste in movies sucks), but I find his writing excellent and I appreciate his novel ways of thinking about things (his "philoso-tainment").  I think his recent survey of economists is quite possibly the best unreported (or under-reported) stories of this election cycle (for the record, I think the big surprise isn't that economists rarely cross party lines, it's that so many were Democrats--but that could be self-selection, Democrat economists are more eager to answer a survey on the election).  In a recent post, he theorized that to bail out the economy, we'd need to tax the rich more, because that's where the money is.  He further philoso-tained that it would be easier to pass this extra tax on the very rich if you gave them something tangible for it, like say an extra vote:
Suppose the next President made the following pitch. "This is a once-in-a-century cash crisis. To get us through, we are going to tax the rich heavily for the next ten years. In return, the rich will each get two votes in every election."  

Now remember that the spoonful of sugar can be more psychological than economical. A double vote is the one sort of thing a rich person can't already buy. And it wouldn't have much impact on democracy because there aren't that many rich people. Everyone gets something. The poor get money, the rich get slightly more influence.
He then goes on to suggest other things, and for the record he specifically listed these as bad examples (which I took to mean that they're appealing on the surface, but practically would never work).

But I got stuck on this "higher taxes" for "extra votes" idea, and took it in a different direction.  How about allow everyone the opportunity to buy the right to an extra vote?  There would be some rules--you can only buy one extra vote, you can't buy a vote as a gift (to keep the ultra-rich from buying extra votes for poor people who would vote the way they want), etc.  Now I must stress that right off the bat I don't think it would work because abuse would be too rampant.  But to explain why I love this idea so much, I have to relate the following joke:
An economist goes to his polling place to vote.  When he arrives, he sees a fellow economist in line.
Economist 1: What are you doing here?
Economist 2: My wife made me go.
Economist 1: Me too....  Say, I won't tell anyone if you won't, right?
Okay, this is allegedly hilarious to economists, and the reason is that voting--economically speaking--is worthless.  Your vote is such a minuscule part of the total, and the costs are much higher.  You have to spend time, maybe money on gas to get to the polls.  Even if you vote absentee you have to spend money on a stamp.  And if you're in a crowded swing state, you might have to stand in line for hours--both painful and unproductive hours--just to vote.

You can point to Florida in 2000 and show how just a few votes can make the difference.  But I'd have to counter that Florida actually shows the exact opposite argument.  First, even in a historically close election, the "margin of victory" was more than one vote--so no single person's vote made the difference.  Second, with all the changing totals that vote was obviously determined not by the vote count, but by the counting errors!  Third, I recall a big deal being made about the punch card ballots having higher error rates than optical scan ballots or mechanical counters or various other voting machines.  But in all the numbers that were thrown around (and I don't recall, and can't find them easily on the Internet), the one thing I noticed (and no one on TV commented on) was that the machines with the lowest error rates still had an error rate higher than the "margin of victory".  I.e., no matter what machines they used, Florida in 2000 was a tie!  And the problem in Florida wasn't hanging chads or confusing ballots, it's that voting in the US doesn't know how to handle a tie (which is ironic, since the Electoral College could take care of that easily).

Anyway, I got a little off track.  But hopefully you can see why the idea of selling the ultra-rich the privilege of an extra vote has such a beautiful, almost poetic beauty to it.  Raise money for the budget by selling--for an exorbitant price--something that's absolutely worthless.

But that got me thinking.  Is an exorbitant price--one that only a few could pay--really the best idea?  Especially if you make the price high enough that the only one who could pay would realize that the "prize" is useless.  So, thinking purely in terms of raising the most money (which would ease the tax burden on everyone else), what is the ideal price to charge for an extra vote?  

As an aside, my gut instinct tells me that this wouldn't affect the results of an election.  A really exclusive price might only skew to CEO's (i.e., Republicans), but there would be too few to change the results.  A lower price might include movies stars (i.e., Democrats), but they're also very few.  A price of, say $1,000 would allow most but the truly impoverished to at least scrape together the money if they really wanted a second vote.  I think that would be a pretty even mix of Democrats and Republicans, as well as lots of third party nuts (who, given their more idealistic less rational bent, might be more inclined to pay for a second vote.  That might be the real electoral effect).  Maybe discarding the poor skews too Republican.  If that's the case, maybe instead of 2 votes, you get 1.666 votes.  That ought to scare some bible-thumpers away, and maybe balance the effect.  More importantly, I don't care.  I know this could never be implemented, so instead I'm wondering what would the right price be to maximize revenue?

There are apparently 449 US billionaires, so if the price were $1B, that's an upper bound on how many votes would be sold.  Of course, just because you're a billionaire, it doesn't mean you can drop $1B on a meaningless vote.  In the list of 100 wealthiest people, I count 32 Americans, ending with George Soros at $9.0B.  It seems unreasonable for anyone to spend more than 10% of their net worth on a single vote.  So reasonably we couldn't even expect 30 votes sold (or more importantly, $30B for our budget.  Given that the deficit is around $400B, this is significant but not that huge).  There are 4 American--Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Sheldon Aldeson, and Larry Ellison--with a net worth greater than $25B, and so could reasonably be able to drop $1B without feeling too much pain.  That's not much, let's lower the price.

Estimates of millionaires in the U.S. hover around 9 million or so (households, not people).  Many have the majority of wealth in home equity, so it's not a liquid asset they could spend on an extra vote (or an extra 0.666 vote).  Certainly the 449 billionaires I mentioned earlier should be able to waste $1M.  Maybe of the 9 million millionaires, 1 million of them have $1M in cash burning a hole in their pocket.  More importantly, if there are at least 4,000 who are willing to buy, that's better than the $1B price.  In fact, if 400,000 of the 9 million can be convinced to buy a vote, that takes care of the deficit, and it doesn't seem that impossible.  Let's lower the price more.

At $1000, nearly everyone but those living in poverty could scrape together the price of a vote.  According to the census, there 12.5% of the population was living in poverty in the U. S. in 2007.  In 2004, there were about 120 million votes cast for President, and that was a historic high.  We can assume that would be the amount in a reasonable high turnout election.  So if 12.5% of those voters couldn't afford a $1000 vote, that leaves 105 million who could.  Let's round down to 100 million.  Maybe half of them could easily be convinced to buy a vote (I think it would actually be higher, but rationally it should be much less).  That's 50M x $1,000 = $50B.  The same as convincing just 50,000 super-rich to pay $1M.  Interesting. far I'm not reaching an answer, but I am learning a lot of interesting facts about income disparity in the U. S.  And as much as we all care about quintile disparity, that's not the point.

I don't know the answer, but here's a couple of questions for you:
  1. How much would you spend for the privilege to double your vote (or multiply it by 1.666)?  Hint: I'd pay less than diddly-squat.
  2. If this policy were implemented, and you were in charge of setting the price, where would you set it?  Hint: I'd set it at >$1M.  Not that I think it'd maximize revenue, but I'd like to sucker the super-rich.
Now through all this, I've maintained that my vote is absolutely worthless.  I really, really do believe this.  Please note, that doesn't mean I don't believe in The Vote--it's a great thing en masse, but just not individually.  But if it weren't illegal, I'd auction off my vote on Ebay with no minimum.

But it's illegal to sell your vote, so instead I'll announce another convoluted and pointless Jason Watches Movies contest!  

A sample of what's on the ballot in my county is here.  Not everything listed will be on my ballot.  I'm in U. S. Congressional District 13.  I'm in State Senate district 10 (not up for election in this cycle).  I'm in State Assembly District 20.  I live in the city of Fremont.  So from there you can figure out what's on my ballot.

Somewhere in this post I've hidden an intentionally racist reference.  The first person who finds it and identifies it in the comments is allowed to choose one element on my ballot.  It can be President down to school board member, or it could be any of the state or local propositions.  You tell me how to vote on this one item, and I absolutely promise I will vote the way you tell me to.  Good luck!


baceman007 said...

Although I have great respect for you Jason I have to admit that I am a bit annoyed by this notion of giving rich people and extra vote as an incentive to pay taxes..... Why do we care so much about kissing rich people's asses? They have more money, so they should be happy that that brings them more influence, etc. They should not get an extra vote, or any extra ass kissing, because they have it better (at least from a financial standpoint). We treat the rich like 5 year old children, and worry about how they feel, too often, even when they're flushing our country down the toilet, sending jobs over seas, their companies are not paying taxes, or at least at the state level in places like Alabama, not really paying even close to the same percentage of taxes as the poor. It's time to stop bending over for these guys who, when we do take care of them, usually use their money to build their investments over seas. I have a better idea, how about they get the same number of votes as everyone else, since we all deserve to be treated the same when it comes to our government, and have them pay taxes again and if they don't like it we tell them to suck our balls. Rich people have more money. Paying taxes isn't as hard for them. Annoying maybe, but not hard. If they get mad and throw temper tantrums, and ship jobs over seas, we don't import their products. I mean hell from a humanitarian standpoint we probably shouldn't be trading with half of the countries that most most of our computer companies, for example, have their products manufactured in. If they get really out of hand, and underpay us, take away our benefits, or any of the other cost savings things we've been putting up with since Nixon, we take to the streets, go on strike, etc. This is the only system that works, no action ends up with the results that we have now. Sure people need their pay checks, and are afraid to strike, but we're getting pretty close to having nothing anyway if we keep letting things go on as they are. Add to that at will employment policies, a lack of unions, and fewer jobs, with less pay or the same pay as prices rise, and certainly less vacation time and more time at work and it's hard to see how the rich should not be paying more taxes. They have the highest output at the lowest cost that they've had in decades. The truth is that companies get a good deal out of labor in America, they've just become so greedy that they can't see it anymore. So you know what, fuck rich people. Tell them to pay their taxes regardless of if we give them a hairy tea-bag in the form of an extra vote.
As far as the vote goes, and politics in general, we need to eliminate the electoral college. It serves no good purpose, and only allows people to point at it and go, "huh, I guess my vote really doesn't count in the end." Second lobbying should be illegal. Sure people should be able to have opinions, but this has really gotten out of hand. People that are paid to push the opinions of other people onto corrupt politicians. I can't think of many more corrupt uses of money that have a direct impact in Washington. Maybe hookers are still more effective..... Third, we need to stop feeling bad for rich people and shit in their soup when they start to cry a river about having to pay a fair wage to the best workers on the planet, Americans. So yeah, thanks to this stupid system, where certain people can't even afford to get out of work to vote, and some states have only 1 day voting during normal working hours, I think the rich people already have many extra votes than the poor just through circumstances. When you look at it that way you realize that the elderly and the very wealthy are the only people who can definitely vote in all states on election day. Few states do what the state of Indiana does and allow votes spread over many days. The argument to this is the absentee ballot, but this is only used, in most cases, on an "as needed" basis. Like during a recount. I still can't believe that we don't have internet voting. I mean look at how unreliable, tamper-rific, and expensive electronic voting machines, voting machines, and ballots are. They're are more secure ways for people to do it from home. I think this is not done because of a combination of fear, mostly from the elderly, about computers in general, a lack of understanding, along the same lines, and the fact that our current voting system is easy to rig and corrupt, on top of being inaccessible by Americans that you may not want to spend the money to campaign to. You know people that may be at work on election day. You know the middle class and poor people that you want to over tax so rich people don't pout, cry, stamp their feet, and threaten to go over seas like babies and say things like, "Wah, I'm going to my cottage in the Cayman islands if you don't let me make 11 year old children play with acid, become disfigured, and develop respiratory problems in 3rd world countries so I can rebuild batteries at a slightly lower price." Those guys should be stripped of their citizenship for being monsters, and sent to a prison colony in the most backward place on earth (Texas), not given an extra vote. Oh and by the way someone else opened a Minister of Common Sense site, they call it "The Minister of Common Sense". So thanks for stealing my idea, if I were apple I'd iSue you for that.... j/k but still that's lame, but technically my URL is so I guess even though my page says Minister of Common Sense I should have used it as the URL too and not just an Alias. Oh well, I still have the best blog on the web, next to yours of course.

baceman007 said...

Oh and by the way that little thing about 3rd party votes being less rational... Tell me what is more rational, voting for 2 candidates from 2 parties that hardly differ in their opinions in the ned, and are totally corrupt, or voting for a 3rd party candidate that you actually believe in? Anyway, I'm working hard on finding that intentional comment. Hope you like Bob Barr this election :).

baceman007 said...

Ok Jason, I think I found it. The Spoonful of Sugar comment. In general is tied to the Disney corporation who, at least from Walt's standpoint when he was around, wasn't too fond of the old Star of David. Still sugar in general, aka William Douglas, the sugar trade, slavery in relation to the crop, and sugar exportation was often linked to racism and a symbol of it. Anyway, I read the post 3 times and that's why I came up with. I may be totally wrong, but I'm not racist so picking out little racist stuff is hard for me. Again, as I've said before, I'm disappointed in everyone from every walk of life equally.

puppymeat said...

That's some good ranting there, Baceman! But I think you misunderstood a few of my points (which, in fairness, I threw in to rile people up without enough explanation).

First, it was Scott Adams, not I, who suggested (facetiously) that we give the rich an extra vote as an incentive to pay higher taxes, not current taxes (this was important, as to raise money we'd have to take it from the rich, because they're the ones who have it, but they're also the ones with the power to block a tax increase).

I took his idea and ran with it in a market-based fashion, directly selling votes to whomever is willing to pay, then mused about what price we should charge. The key to this is my assertion that voting is inherently worthless (or has such a low value that it's not worth the time to do it). So the beauty is charging an exorbitant price for something that has nearly no value.

Of course, herein lies a paradox. While my individual vote is worthless, voting en masse is priceless. Giving a vote to (or taking a vote from) a sizable enough demographic (e.g., women) changes things immensely. There's a paradox I've never answered. My individual vote is worthless. I maintain it's still worthless if I had 2 votes (and no one else did). Would it be worth it if I got 10 votes? 100 votes? 1,000 votes (now you're talking!)

As far as discounting 3rd parties, you missed my point that the 1-man, 1-vote, winner-takes-all system has a mathematically stable solution--two candidates with identical positions. This does make some simplifying assumptions (most important is that political opinion is reduced to a one-dimensional liberal/conservative line) and could be the subject of another post, but I don't really want to write that one up now. The important thing is, that math is valid whether or not the 2 parties are corrupt, or bought and paid for by lobbyists, it just assumes they each try to maximize their vote totals (i.e., people running want to get elected, which is a pretty good assumption). I have no love of the two party solution, but it's hard to fight that math. A charismatic outsider could shake up the system (e.g., Perot in '92 and to a lesser extent '96), but he'd either be a flash in the pan or end up destroying one party and creating a new one. Now, if we had a system where you could rank your top two or three favorites, and say assign 3 points to your favorite, 2 points to your #2 choice, and 1 point to #3, this would open up the system to more voices. All these people who say "I'd rather vote for Barr, but I don't want to throw my vote away" could actually vote for Barr and not throw their votes away. It could also lead to a winner who isn't many people's first choice, but everyone's acceptable second choice (i.e., a nice compromise that's not so polarizing as the people in power today). I'm not saying that would be the best system, but it's definitely better than what we have now. I love third parties, but I know they'll never be viable long term until we reform the voting system.

As for the Electoral College, I think I'm one of the few people left who actually defend it, and I defend it from a States Rights perspective (a position that hasn't really been that popular since before the Civil War). This is colored a lot by living first in Alaska (at the time when a lot of my political views were forming) and later in California. In Alaska, there's a strong attitude that 'those idiots Outside don't know what the hell it's like to live up here.' In California (especially in the Bay Area) there's an attitude of 'We have all the answers, and if only people everywhere else were as enlightened as us, the world would be perfect!' I can tell you with no hesitation, Alaska is right! Even though I don't agree with a lot of the politics of Alaska (i.e., their hard Republican tendencies), I have to acknowledge that Californians don't have a freakin' clue what it's like up there. And although Alaska will never have as much of a voice as California, just on population alone, the Electoral College helps narrow that gap a little bit (same reason that every state has 2 Senators, and the Representatives are based on population--that's a very good compromise). Incidentally, I would be for states splitting Electoral Votes, a la Maine and Nebraska, but I wouldn't split them by Congressional District (think, there are intense battles over redistricting all the time, imagine if you could gerrymander your way to a near electoral lock on the Presidency).

And finally, the "spoonful of sugar" was not my intentionally racist comment. Those were Scott Adams' words, not mine, and I didn't even think about that. Good try, though.

baceman007 said...

Well I'm stumped then. I've told the some others about your post and I think I'm going to let them try to find the comment. Overall, I came to a big realization the other day. Sure I'll still vote to preserve my right to, but I've realized that multinational corporations are so powerful and in such total control that pretending that we still have a government that isn't just an extension of large corporations is a joke. I mean think about it. How much control can a president, or any of the top guys in Washington actually have on the economy, for example, the cost of everything has inflated to ridiculous proportions over the last 60 years especially. We had alternative fuel options and conversion kits in the 70s, because the middle east tried to shut down our country by keeping oil from us yet we went on to buy more oil than ever and put it in a strategic oil reserve. Combine this with a complete lack of infrastructure changes to distribute alternative fuels and no real energy plan and you can see that this was not done in the favor of the people. Republicans and Democrats alike have done an equally poor job of helping out average Americans, and an excellent job of boosting corporate profits for companies that ended up downsizing, etc. So I think if any progress is going to be made, although all of your voting reform points are valid, we need to start with not tolerating companies having too much power, or at least more power than our government. I know on paper they don't, but in action they do. Between an overly powerful government and corporations, what is the little guy to do. The little guy being the other 90% of our population. Shit in their soup I say and if they don't eat soup shit in their iced coffee then.

baceman007 said...

Ok Jason, I'll take one last stab at this. The whole "Margin of Victory" thing was a big deal when Obama was on the campaign trail when Demon Spawn Clinton was still in the running. You know when she was eating the penii of the husbands of her femi-nazi supporters to gain extra power along the way. Although rampant sexism should have been at the forefront of worries it somehow became a larger concern about states that were expected not to vote for Obama just because he was black and therefore other, let's say lighter skin colored, candidates would be able to expect a margin of victory in those backward states, or at least districts in those states. If that isn't it I don't know. Oh and your face. By the way I'd pay nothing for an extra vote either, because I really don't understand how any system other than the popular vote is fair no matter how much bullshit artistry I listen to about the Electoral College. So since my vote may actually literally not count it seems like a bad idea to pay for one. Although our fellow citizens seem to always choose the worst candidate amongst the two, rarely 3, I think that if that's what the most people vote for it's only fair to give them the bad leadership they want so much. Still their idiocy effects intelligent people too, so...... In closing I would say that I can't believe people are still so backward that they will vote on a person's skin color or use of their vagina to the point that an educated mathematical guess can be made as to whether you should campaign in a district, or even state.