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.
Hmmm...so 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:
- 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.
- 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!