Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Egypt and California

Democracy is trickier than people think. The boring parts, like voting systems, turn out to be really important.

Good news: Egypt finally has an elected president. Bad news: He's what people had in mind when they invented the phrase "the lesser of two evils." He is a pretty hard-line Islamist; he ran against the last prime minister of the now-ousted President Mubarak. Neither candidate represents what a lot of those in Tahrir Square thought they were fighting for. How did this happen?

Egypt had a presidential primary, in which these two candidates were the top vote-getters, with 25% and 24% of the vote, respectively. The next three candidates, all more moderate, got 49% of the vote collectively. What we have here, in short, is the familiar problem of vote splitting, where all the moderate candidates are saying, "Get out of the race?? No, you get out the race."

To be more analytic about it, there's a result in political science known as the "median voter theorem." It says that, given certain assumptions, the candidate who gets elected is the one whose position on the issues is closest to the position of the center of the electorate. The intuition is not difficult: if you have one candidate in the center and one on, say, the right of center, the one at the center will get the 50% to the left, plus those who are on the right but close to the center, and will win.

Here's the thing about the median voter theorem: it only works in a two-candidate race. For more than two candidates, candidates with extreme positions can sometimes win, as in Egypt.

So what happened in Egypt was not a problem with democracy. It was a problem with a particular electoral system.

Today, the primary system used in Egypt seems like the obvious and intuitive one. But the ancient Greeks used negative voting, where the person with the most votes lost (specifically, was exiled). The medieval Venetians used approval voting, in which electors vote for all the candidates who are acceptable, and the winner is whoever gets the most votes. Then there is instant-runoff voting, known in Britain as alternative voting, in which voters rank the alternatives in order of preference. Any one of these systems would probably have changed the outcome of the election, and thus Egyptian history.

The Egyptian system, of one big nonpartisan primary, is known in the U.S. as the "jungle primary," which, under the rubric "top-two primary",was recently adopted in California. It was intended as a way of favoring more centrist candidates than would be produced by a party-primary system. California just had its first top-two primary, for Diane Feinstein's Senate seat. It was a bit of a circus: there were more than twenty candidates, and Feinstein got 49.5% of the vote. (Even if she'd gotten over 50%, there still would be a runoff.)

How did they do at avoiding extremism? There was some speculation that Orly Taitz, the Queen of the Birthers, might come in second, but in the end she placed fifth. The second-place finisher was Elizabeth Emken, a Republican who is a former vice-president of Autism Speaks.

So the jury is still out on how well the top-two primary works. But the example of Egypt is unsettling.

Monday, June 18, 2012

This Month's Irritating New Journalistic Tic

All of a sudden, everyone is using "the food chain" to dress up plain sentences.  Here's an example from a recent issue of The New York Times article about China: "The secrecy, Ms. Sapio said, is intended to shield the public from details that might harm the party’s image and to limit any collateral damage to those higher up the food chain." Does this add anything to just saying "to those higher up"? It gives it a certain patina of cynicism--it's a fish-eat-fish world out there--but since the higher-ups are not in fact eating their subordinates, even figuratively, it doesn't actually mean anything.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Piercing the Government Veil

David Brooks got all huffy in The New York Times recently about the Occupy Wall Street folks. He says they wanted to raise taxes on the rich, and he thinks that's not enough to do something meaningful about the deficit.

When you've got one percent of the population getting almost a quarter of the income, it's simply not true that there's no money out there. And the most recent year where data is available, 2009, happened to be the year the stock market really dove, and so a bad year for the rich. But all this is beside the point.

The OWS people weren't just talking about the changes in the distribution of income. They were talking about changes in the distribution of wealth, which is even more unequal than the distribution of income. This doesn't register with Brooks, because how does that affect the Federal government? The feds don't tax wealth. (The very prospect sends a chill down the spine of right-thinking people, though local governments do it all the time, at least for real property.)

It strikes me that this is an interesting example of how public conversation often gets sucked into talking about how policies affect Government as a thing, rather than how it affects individuals.  Take one of Brooks's favorite worries, Medicare. The threat to the economy is not Medicare. It's increases in health care costs--no matter who pays them.  Confusion about this leads Brooks to praise the courage of Paul Ryan's budget plan, which does nothing about rising health care costs and simply puts a cap on the government's contribution.

The belief that costs borne by government are somehow more real than those borne directly by citizens also shows up in journalists' accounts of how Europe is groaning under the burden of its generous social programs.  For example, they have universal health insurance. Yet it turns out that every European country spends a lot less than we do on health care. This is an economic advantage to them, not us. It looks like a burden to them because in countries like France, virtually all health care costs end up in the government's budget, while in the U.S. only about half do. But those are real costs, no matter who pays them.

Similarly, Republicans who want to scare you about the costs of Obamacare will sometimes suggest that it will cause large numbers of employers to drop their health plans and dump their workers in the exchanges. Never mentioned is the fact this will drastically reduce labor costs and improve competitiveness for businesses. The only question then is who should pay for the increased costs to the government.

Economists will point out that there is a second-order effect when raising taxes: higher taxes impose an additional efficiency cost on the economy by distorting people's choices away from the taxed thing. But to a first approximation, costs are costs. They don't suddenly disappear by shifting them out of the Federal budget onto individuals, businesses, or state and local governments. And they aren't always shifted through the tax system.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Happy Families Are All Alike, Even in Afghanistan

From The New York Times:

The conflict over the project, known as Aino Mena, has provoked accusations of theft and extortion, even reports of an assassination plot.

“It’s family,” Qayum Karzai said. “They get upset, and over time they get over it. I hope they get over it.”

One Karzai brother is also said to have imprisoned a longtime Karzai aide in an effort to make him disclose the whereabouts of money and assets that relatives suspect were hidden by Ahmed Wali Karzai, another of President Karzai’s brothers...