Thursday, December 20, 2012

2012 - Electoral Results and Density

From Omniorthogonal. He observes that the handful of low-density counties that went Democratic are almost all minority-dominated; very often those are Native American - those are the blue ones west of the Mississippi in New Mexico, Arizona and South Dakota. You can also see the Black Belt and the lower Mississippi agricultural area pretty clearly too.

Previous analysis by density here, for 2008 - I speculated then that what we're looking at is not density per se but "encounters with minorities", or forced ethnic mixing. Consequently infamously diverse California (using intermarriage and likelihood of whites having non-white neighbors as an index) is a mess on the scatterplot of non-whiteness vs electoral vote at the county level, but in Mississippi, demography does depressingly equal destiny.

That said, in 2008 the combined % Evangelical+Mormon was more predictive at the state level than even density.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Regulation That Favors Big Business

A central concern of progressives is that of large private organizations profiting in ways that harm the public at large, or that harm smaller "mom-and-pop" operations. Often this occurs with the collusion of the agencies that are supposed to be regulating them. Indeed, others would point out that in many cases, the opportunity to be corrupt would not exist without legislation regulating or banning the business activity.

This points to a need, not for anarcho-libertarianism, but at the very least to more efficient regulation that does not make worse the problem it's supposed to combat. One of the chief forces damaging regulation is that there are two kinds of interests involved in regulation: those who genuinely want to protect the public, and those who feel their organization will benefit materially from the regulation. That such a critical problem for democracy has gone so long without a name is incredible. Bruce Yandle calls them Bootleggers and Baptists:
"Baptists" point to the moral high ground and give vital and vocal endorsement of laudable public benefits promised by a desired regulation. Baptists flourish when their moral message forms a visible foundation for political action. "Bootleggers" are much less visible but no less vital. Bootleggers, who expect to profit from the very regulatory restrictions desired by Baptists, grease the political machinery with some of their expected proceeds. They are simply in it for the money.
This, from a post at Madmen, Intellectuals and Academic Scribblers subtitled "Politics Makes Strange Bedfellows". Do read it.

For example: a few years ago in Berkeley, California there was a well-meaning but incredibly poorly thought-out initiative on the ballot to require that all coffee sold in Berkeley be certified fair-trade, shade-grown, organic. It was noted by many local coffee houses that a certain gigantic coffee chain would have lawyers and deep pockets to do this very easily, and ironically, many small businesses would be badly damaged and a large corporation would benefit from this progressive law. The potential for big-company "bootleggers" to profit from the activity of baptists" is clear. (The article I link to gives another example with environmentalists unwittingly benefitting Big Coal.  Environmentalism is great, but there's probably a way to do it that doesn't favor big business.)

The bottom line: free-market supporters become frustrated when progressives support initiatives that end up favoring big companies. If this seems confusing, then keep in mind that "capitalist" is not the same as "favors big established companies against small ones". In fact, it's more like the opposite.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Physicians and Status: "A Certain Mystique About Their Judgment"

From Philip Tetlock, emphases mine.

One of the reactions to my work on expert political judgment was that it was politically naïve; I was assuming that political analysts were in the business of making accurate predictions, whereas they're really in a different line of business altogether. They're in the business of flattering the prejudices of their base audience and they're in the business of entertaining their base audience and accuracy is a side constraint. They don't want to be caught in making an overt mistake so they generally are pretty skillful in avoiding being caught by using vague verbiage to disguise their predictions.

...Things that bring transparency to judgment are dangerous to your status.  You can make a case for this happening in medicine, for example. In so far as evidence based medicine protocols become increasingly influential, doctors are going to rely more and more on the algorithms–otherwise they're not going to get their bills paid. If they're not following the algorithms, it's not going to be reimbursable. When the healthcare system started to approach 20 to 25 percent of the GDP, very powerful economic actors started pushing back and demanding accountability for medical judgment.  The long and the short of the story is that it's very hard for professionals and executives to maintain their status if they can't maintain a certain mystique about their judgment. If they lose that mystique about their judgment, that's profoundly threatening.

Of course there's the counterargument from most medical professionals, which in so many words is, "We're special and economics doesn't apply to us.  It just doesn't."  We're finding out.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Legislator Performance Scores

In a previous post I discussed methods to measure legislator effectiveness and challenges in doing so.  Imagine people sitting in bars discussing the averages of legislators like we do with pitchers and quarterbacks now.  But as of right now, we can't.  One measure that jumps to mind is sponsorship of passed bills comes to mind, but the seniority of the legislator has an impact there, and the bills might be ineffective or damaging!  Since we don't measure bills and legislator performance, diffusion of credit, and post hoc propter hoc behavior on the part of the electorate (when they're not just identity-voting) makes free ridership an especially bad problem.  It's amazing good bills ever get passed at all.

One thing we can measure is partisanship, although it bears immediate emphasis that this is not a measure of effectiveness.  I'm only using it to illustrate the point that politics is clearer when we measure performance numerically, which of course is exactly what politicians don't want.  To illustrate why partisanship is different from effectiveness:  imagine if an employee is told by his boss that he isn't meeting certain important performance metrics that were important for the company, and he would soon be let go if he didn't shape up.  Imagine further that the indignant employee's response is "yes, but I consistently support efforts that align with the goals of the VP of marketing's internal coalition!  Isn't that enough?"  That would be stupid, but this is exactly what voters are doing when they equate partisanship with effectiveness.

So scoring legislators is a way to make sure we have knowledge about something more than just tribal instinct.  For example, recently these measures have been in the press largely to put a value on political polarization over time that's based on more than just feelings in our little hearts. It's the political scientists who blog at (my new favorite blog) who make these nifty partisan plots.  There are multiple "dimensions" along which partisanship can be measured, as you can see below, but the one I pulled out for this analysis is the left-right axis here, which is basically the traditional American, de facto 2-party system conception of the conservative-liberal spectrum.

We can look at these measurements against the party makeup of state representatives and executives.  First, I looked at the D vs R composition of Senators and Governors as well as presidential electoral votes in 2012.   There are 26 states (a quarter) whose senatorial contingent, governor, and vote for president were entirely one or the other:  13 of each.  (All R: ID, WY, UT, AZ, NE, KS, OK, TX, TN, MS, AL, GA, SC.  All D:  HI, WA, OR, CA, CO, MN, DE, MD, NY, MA, RI, CT, VT.  The independents in the all-D column caucus with the Dems so they were included with them.)

First, do yourself a favor and watch the migration and clustering of partisanship for all Congresses through the 111th in this Quicktime movie.  (Note:  I've used only Senators here but a more thorough analysis would involve all of Congress.)

Then, I used their measurements for the 111th and ranked states by the average of their senators' voting, liberal to conservative (more negative liberal, more positive conservative).  The trend is clear in the table:  more liberal senators mean more likely Democratic Senators, governors, and presidential vote. What doesn't jump out right away is that states with senators more liberal than "neutral" will vote Republican for president, but not so much the other way around. The tendency is even stronger for governors.  I imagine it hasn't escaped notice at GOP HQ that Chris Christie is the Republican governor in the state with the most liberal senatorial voting record, who could benefit most from this effect in a national contest.  Whether he's pure enough to make it through a GOP primary remains to be seen.

State Sens Gov Pres Part Score
VT DD D D -0.5625
IL RD D D -0.5455
RI DD D D -0.5295
MA DD D D -0.51
NJ DD R D -0.498
NY DD D D -0.482
MD DD D D -0.457
DE DD D D -0.456
MI DD R D -0.451
CA DD D D -0.4465
HI DD D D -0.4405
OR DD D D -0.425
NM DD R D -0.413
MN DD D D -0.397
WA DD D D -0.3725
CT DD D D -0.371
WI RD R D -0.367
ND RD R R -0.32
CO DD D D -0.278
WV DD D R -0.2755
VA DD R D -0.249
MT DD D R -0.244
AR RD D R -0.214
OH RD R D -0.206
PA RD R D -0.133
IA RD R D -0.0595
AK RD R R -0.026
NH RD D D 0.0395
MO RD D R 0.045
ME RD R D 0.0495
IN RD R R 0.0615
SD RD R R 0.1
NV RD R D 0.112
NC RD R R 0.1575
LA RD R R 0.1935
NE RR R R 0.2195
UT RR R R 0.352
FL RD R R 0.361
TN RR R R 0.372
MS RR R R 0.396
KS RR R R 0.4295
TX RR R R 0.4765
AL RR R R 0.511
GA RR R R 0.511
AZ RR R R 0.5295
ID RR R R 0.53
KY RR D R 0.594
WY RR R R 0.6295
SC RR R R 0.652
OK RR R R 0.826

Legislative partisanship scores over time give us a number with more spatial and temporal resolution to assign to states.  A continuously measured integer that gets down to Congressional districts sure beats R or D at the state level once every four years.

That it's effective to think of politics this way is strange and troubling.  If people are really voting rationally, they'll look at how the actions of legislators and executives have impacted them materially, rather than just punishing them for not using certain in-group codewords or being in office during an economic downturn that they had nothing to do with and possibly even made better.  But Democrat or Republican are brand names that the party organizers use to paper over the cracks in coalitions, so that people can use them as a proxy for identification as their own tribe. Culturally, Native Americans, West Coast moderates, and Northeast union members have very little in common other than voting Democrat; and big city financiers and evangelicals don't cross paths an awful lot either, except maybe at the polls, voting Republican.  We've become so used to the absurdity of being a country of 315 million viewpoints that we assume can be represented by two parties that we don't think about this very much.

To re-emphasize, the whole reason we should be interested in scoring legislators is to measure their performance - that is, their productivity, not their partisanship.  So far we don't do that, although it's true that there are "report cards" issued by public interest groups scoring legislators (example here.)  But even there, the report cards only measure what the legislators and their bills were trying to accomplish, not what they actually accomplished; what we really need to fix the broken loop and help democracies is a way to measure what they actually did, relative to expectations, so that governments are accountable.  I imagine that lobbying organizations (or their smarter industry clients) have individual tools for this, but they're not available to individual voters.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Peter Thiel on Automating Law

An excellent article by Thiel that converges on some of the same ideas here, regarding automating legislation and constitutions in a legal programming language that has to compile before it's considered in effect.  It seems this is the ideal if we're serious about government being of laws and not of men.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Measuring Congress

A benefit of easy access to computation and publication tools is that public figures can be more easily made accountable to their performance, whatever their domain of endeavor, and then have their status affected appropriately.  Of course not just primates but many social animals track past behavior and reciprocation albeit sloppily, and we humans started doing this more rigorously by applying integers to one measure of exchangeable liquid utility in the Middle East fifty centuries or so ago (money).  But there were often ways to opacify performance and game the system.  I am optimistic that technology means this is changing for the better.  Impressively, after this U.S. election cycle, even Dick Morris had to explain himself on FOX. 

So why don't we measure and track legislators, in terms of the effectiveness of the laws they write?

It would be nice to hear people in bars talking about averages for legislators or entire Congresses instead of yards rushing. "Remember that 114th Congress? They had a term average of point eight nine. Those were the glory days. Not like these bums now, they haven't been above point seven oh any single week."

The first thing that's terrifying to contemplate about the legislative process is that the feedback loop (between writing good bills and re-election of the writer) is not just broken, it basically never existed.  Imagine if a company were run like this!  Think about it:  one or a few legislators (out of 435 in the House) write a bill, in committee, invariably with lobbyists "advising" them.  The bill goes to the floor for a vote, which in the U.S. at least will usually be along party lines regardless of the bill's content.  And voters do not reward or punish the legislators who wrote the bill - because voters ignore bills (whether they were good or bad) and decide who to vote for based on what tribal loyalty noises the politician makes during the election, and whether jobs were gained or lost during the last term, which usually has nothing to do with anything the legislator did.  Occasionally a bill will become known for its extreme unpopularity, and for this reason there's every reason to avoid association with laws passed, and few reasons to be associated with them in the minds of voters.  In very rare cases, a bill later becomes very popular, in which case at election time it was their idea all along, and we see five hundred thirty-some gruesome examples of the free rider problem. 

It is truly amazing any law ever gets passed.

(On the complexity of modern government in general and how this breaks the feedback loop, see Steven Teles on "kludgeocracy":  "[it is] hard for Americans to attribute responsibility when things go wrong, thus leading blame to be spread over government in general, rather than affixed precisely, where such blame could do some good. The consequence of complexity, then, is diffuse cynicism, which is the opposite of the habit needed for good democratic citizenship...The complexity that makes so much of American public policy vexing and wasteful for ordinary citizens and governments, however, is also what makes it so easy for organized interests to profit off the state's largesse." Additional emphasis by Salam here.)

This is a problem in medicine, where it's hard to think of a way to put one number on a physician that measures their performance.  Consequently, we use the burdernsome approach of looking individually at every condition they see and procedure they do, and compare them to national averages.  In legislation the problem is worse, because laws are (in theory) solutions to problems that are not just unique but only recently appeared, which is why they now require laws.

A related question to problem #2 is that legislator effectiveness should not be measured just by number of laws produced.  The number of laws sponsored or co-sponsored is in large point dependent on the legislators' committee seats and seniority; and beyond that, just because someone is producing lots of laws,  doesn't mean those are good laws.  In fact part of the measure of legislator effectiveness could be how many laws (and regulations!) they retire, or subsume within new laws.  (A constitution and legal system written in a consistent programming language, requiring the full set of laws to be compiled every time the session ended, would be one way to decrease redundancy and legislative sclerosis.)  It may be appropriate that in a more complex time, we have more laws than we did a hundred years ago, but resignation to this type of legal sediment accumulation is unlikely to produce an optimal government.

One solution to the difficulty of how to measure individual laws would be not allowing a bill unless legislators made a concrete prediction about its effect - and then tracking whether they were right.  The legislators' effectiveness would be some combination of their accuracy, and their effect on a concrete metric - money, jobs, happiness in their district, etc.  No one cares that you were 10 for 10 on declarations that the sun would keep rising in the east, but if you miss a few while increasing quality of life years in your district, maybe you're a keeper.  This of course is a version of futarchy, applied to legislators.  It might actually be easier to install it in a legislature first, before it's installed among the general electorate, since many people are likely to recoil at the suggestion that voting be counted differently for different people for any reason.  But sticking it to Congress, well now you have something!

How to Sell Legalization: As Improved Protection and Enforcement

The way our drug policy will get more rational is for sub-Federal entities to make their own laws and dare the Feds to come enforce them. This is exactly what people mean when they talk about the states being laboratories of democracy. And this is a great test to see if all the "states' rights" small-government people are blowing hot air, or mean what they say.

That said, there are completely legitimate questions to ask as we're starting to see exactly this happening, and one of them is: to what degree does legalization affect driving safety? It must be said that this article addressing the problem in California gets an F for statistics because it equates "1 in 7 drivers at checkpoints tested positive for drugs" to "1 in 7 drivers is under the influence" - obviously those are two different things, plus the population that gets stopped at checkpoints (about 50% of the total) is enriched for alcohol and drug use.

But that said, a great way to say legalization to hesitant voters is sell it as improved enforcement on drug use in dangerous circumstances, of which driving is #1. Tax it (as everyone except the politicians seem to be suggesting) and use some of that revenue for improved enforcement, which isn't being done systematically right now like it is for alcohol. This isn't just a gimmick either. I don't mind having this protection for alcohol and I'd like to have for all other mind-altering substances as well.