Politics and Government

Population and the Electoral College

Epistemic status: Speculative. I did some personal research on the electoral college, and have some intuitions about voting, but I have no special expertise in this area.  
This depressing webtool lets you figure out, among other scenarios, how few counties you can move to make Hillary Clinton win the electoral vote. (Spoiler at the bottom)


I do think that something like an electoral college is a good idea. It’s not hard to imagine a political coalition that consistently wins huge margins in big cities or a few highly populous states, gets virtually no votes elsewhere and still wins the popular vote. I think that would be bad.

That said, the current system is just *INCREDIBLY* shitty.

For those not in the loop; the # of electoral college votes for each state is determined by their # of congressional representatives. So, 2 senators plus at least 1 congressperson per state. This gives a huge advantage to low-population states. The two lowest population states, Vermont and Wyoming don’t even have 700,000 residents, but get fully 3 electoral votes.

States then supposedly get an additional congressional district (and congresspeople and electoral votes) for every roughly ~710,000 people living there. In reality there are weird irregularities in how new districts are added. Montana and Rhode Island both have a pop. of 1 mil +/- 100k, but MT gets 3 electoral votes while RI gets 4. Louisiana has ~4.53 mil people, Alabama has ~4.78, Louisiana has 8 votes Alabama has 9.

To show how distorting this system is is, here’s a sample of the population per electoral vote in different states, ordered by pop.:

CA (~37.25m pop/55e.votes)= 677,348 p/ev
TX (~25.15m pop/38e.votes)= 661,725 p/ev
PA (~12.70m pop/20e.votes)= 635,119 p/ev
VA (~8.00m pop/13e.votes) = 615,463 p/ev
WI (~5.69m pop/10e.votes)= 568,698 p/ev
AL (~4.78m pop/9e.votes)= 531,082 p/ev
LO (~4.53m pop/8e.votes)= 566,672 p/ev
NV (~2.70m pop/6e.votes)= 450,092 p/ev
WV (~1.85m pop/5e.votes)= 370,599 p/ev
RI (~1.05m pop/4e.votes) = 263,142 p/ev
MT(~0.99m pop/3e.votes) = 329,805 p/ev
VT(~0.62m pop/3e.votes) = 208,580 p/ev
WY(~0.56m pop/3e votes)= 187,875 p/ev

Revolting, yeah? Huge range in absolute voting power, huge variation in the per-unit effect of changes in population, multiple internal trend reversals, and this ISN’T EVEN ONE OF THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE PROBLEMS PEOPLE TALK ABOUT.

This is *not* a swing-state vs. safe state thing, this is not voter fraud, this is not ‘faithless electors’, this is literally just population per electoral vote. If California was a swing state, your vote would *still* count way less than someone in West Virginia, or Nevada, or Wisconsin, let alone Wyoming.

Changes I’d like to see:

1. Ditch the appointed ‘electors’ all together, they are a bad idea.
2. Decouple electoral votes from Congressional representation, and use a population-indexed point system with a less extreme small-state-friendly flattening term.

Keeping state voting-blocks unified makes sense due to the unification of their governments. Changes in the federal government affect Californians differently than Nevadans. Discrepancies in the per capita number of districts could also be sensible, I don’t know enough about it and I reserve judgment, but I can’t think of any reason to link # districts to electoral votes. I don’t know why we settled on that idea in the first place; availability heuristic and decision fatigue among the Framers perhaps?

Residents of small states should get their voting power nudged upward and residents of large states should get a nudge downward. I don’t know what weight to use, and there will be downsides to any system. But, Wyoming votes should not count nearly 4x more than California votes. Louisiana voters should not have less voting power than Alabama despite having a *lower* population, and moving a single county from one state to another should *probably* not flip presidential elections.


Factcheckers and Transparency

Epistemic status: Speculative. I have no special knowledge about factcheckers, these are just my opinions from casual research of easily available public sources.

Here are some beliefs I have about factcheckers:

1. Factcheckers can’t do their job unless they are *exceptionally* vigilant against bias, sloppiness, and inaccuracy.
2. Factcheckers tend to be kinda transparent, but not exceptionally so, *and* they could do much better if they put some effort in.
3. There are probably ways to incentivize factcheckers to put some effort in, and do much better. I hope my lovely cadre of clever, thoughtful FB friends have some ideas.

Not really going to explain or justify 1 unless prompted, except to say that I’m much more worried about bias in the general culture of the factchecking organizations than about blatant ‘pay-for-play’ from funders or deliberately misleading reports.

As for 2.. take Politifact for example; it discloses that it is a project of the Tampa Bay Times, but there’s very limited information on the TB Times anywhere on their website. I could only find a small blurb that reads more like an advertisement for the paper. The TB Times (formerly St. Petersburg Times) is a reasonably liberal paper, and has openly endorsed Democratic Presidential candidates in every election going back decades.

I’m not saying that compromises the independence of Politifact, but it should be openly and publicly acknowledged! If they really want to be transparent, they should be *concerned* that such a connection could undermine their credibility and should make efforts to point it out and explain why it’s not an issue. Instead, this possible source of bias is sort of tucked away. That’s standard practice as journalism goes, but that’s *not good enough* for an organization claiming to be a uniquely objective ‘fact-checker’.

(As an aside, the Poynter Institute mentioned in Jake Krycia’s comment owns the Tampa Bay Times and derivatively, Politifact. It would be nice if the Poynter institute noted its ownership of one of the most prominent US factcheckers next to its pledge.)

Also, while Politifact gives a statement of its policies, there is no enforcement mechanism or systematic review of previous ratings to check for objectivity. I’m satisfied that they do a good job ensuring that the quality of their evaluations is reasonably good (sources cited, genuine attempt to find objective information), but, again, what’s good enough for journalists is not good enough for factcheckers. They should actively guard against non-representative selection of facts to scrutinize and sources to cite, as well as the subtle ideological influence of their staff’s personal beliefs.

For a contrasting, positive example, Factcheck.org give a highly detailed and thorough account of its funding (https://www.factcheck.org/our-funding/). Buttt, there’s no real explanation of its methodology or actual disclosure of the organization’s internal practices. If we were just worried about ‘paid schills’, disclosing funding would be good enough, but that’s not the real issue here.

3. is trickier and I’m a little reluctant to post my own thoughts for fear of influencing other commentators. Probably I’m just being way too optimistic about how seriously anyone takes my facebooks posts, and I should just chill and share. For now, I guess I”ll just say that GiveWell is an incredible organization and is the gold standard for transparency everywhere. It’s tempting to say “well, not everyone can be GiveWell”, but if anyone should be GiveWell, it’s factcheckers. GiveWell has done a good job of creating incentives to keep itself transparent, and factcheckers could learn a lot from their example.


Boringness & The Principle of Charity

Epistemic status: Suggestive. This post is expository on one of my ideas in an area I know know a little about.

Which arguments are boring?

I think this question is an important source of confusion in conversations between rationalists and more left-wing types

Rationalists tend to place a very high value on respecting discourse norms. One important norm is the Principle of Charity: when a statement is ambiguous, one should assume that the speaker meant to convey the best, most reasonable interpretation. Generally, this principle is a really good thing; it allows parties to signal respect and good will, guards against malicious misinterpretations and other smear tactics, and helps focus the conversation on the best and most interesting arguments and counters.

That said, there are ways to abuse this principle, and I think the Left is often more cautious and aware of these abuses than they get credit for. Take these recent remarks by Carl Higbie of the Trump Super PAC on creating a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries:

Higbie: ” …it is legal, they say it would hold constitutional muster. I know the ACLU is gonna challenge it, but I think it’ll pass and we’ve done it with Iran back a while ago, we did it in World War II with the Japanese which, y’know, call it what you will, was maybe wrong, but..”

Kelly: “C’mon you’re not proposing that we go back to the days of internment camps, I hope…”

Higie: “No, I’m not proposing that at all Megyn, but what I am saying is that we need to protect America first…. just saying there is precedent for it, and I’m not saying I agree with it, but…look, the President needs to protect America first, and if that means having people that are not protected under our Constitution have some sort of registry so we can understand, until we can identify the true threat and where it’s coming from, I support it.”

So what’s the most charitable interpretation of Higbie’s statements? I think it’s something like this:
“There is a legal precedent for a President to issue an order requiring certain people to submit to invasive or uncomfortable requirements in the interest of national security. The Supreme Court ruled that Japanese internment, a much more invasive requirement than a registry for immigrants, was constitutional. I believe that this precedent extends the President the legal power to create such a registry, and furthermore, *if* that registry is necessary for the national security of the United States, I would support it.”

The above interpretation seems pretty reasonable to me. There is a long legal tradition supporting SCOTUS’ reluctance to challenge the other branches when national security is involved. Korematsu v. US is a very controversial decision, but it could plausibly serve as a precedent for a registry. Furthermore, *IF* the creation of a registry was *necessary* to protect national security, supporting it would be reasonable.

But I don’t think that’s what Higbie meant. Part of the reason I don’t think Higbie meant that is that it’s *BORING*. Megyn Kelly’s viewers do not care about the doctrine of judicial modesty. Higbie does not have any special insight to share about the scope of Korematsu v. US. No one is currently debating whether it would be okay to do X if X were absolutely *vital* to America’s continued safety as a nation. The most reasonable interpretation of what Higbie said, *IS SOMETHING HE HAS NO REASON TO SAY*.

I think this is also true of the second most reasonable interpretation (which might be basically the same as the above, but maybe a little sloppy on the legal details), and the third, and the fourth and so on. By the time we get to something the spokesperson of Donald Trump’s Super-PAC might go on Megyn Kelly to defend, the most reasonable interpretation is something *extremely* scary to a great many reasonable people. Higbie knows that what he *really* means would set off alarm bells for many people who are not particularly liberal. So he words his response carefully to preserve a bland, but reasonable interpretation of his statement, which he can sort of gesture to during the inevitable backlash. His uneasy tribal allies are reassured that he didn’t mean that *scary* thing, and confirmed in their view of liberals as hysterical PC police, always interpreting conservatives in the worst possible light. A lot of rationalists *also* think of liberals as hysterical PC police, and *they too* are willing to give Higbie the benefit of the doubt.

This is not quite the same as a motte-and-bailey retreat. If pressed, Higbie might endorse a robust (read: scary) interpretation of his position. But he knows that if he is careful to leave a tame option open, many of his allies will *never bother to ask* what he really meant. The will just go on defending him as though he meant something totally innocuous. He doesn’t have to retreat, he knows his friends will retreat *for* him.

I think often when left-leaning people go into full on panic about statements from conservatives, *especially* Donald Trump and his allies, they are choosing what they think is the *most likely* interpretation, not the most charitable. Many lefty-folk have a cached belief that conservative elites hide their crazy and aggressive beliefs behind a veneer of intellectual rigor and formality. Conservatives have a parallel narrative about liberals and “tolerance” or “respect for equality”. On this, I think rationalists are generally more sympathetic to the conservatives than the liberals, and often wrongly so.

You might think that this *particular* example is unfair to rationalists. After all, most of them are pretty smart and Higbie’s subterfuge was not particularly subtle. My response is that I chose Higbie’s argument *because* I think it’s an obvious example of this pattern. Rationalists might not be taken in by Higbie, but I have seen rationalists fall for more subtle versions of the same trick. Many rationalists are former blue-tribe liberals, and I think the corrective backlash against liberal excesses encourage tribal bias towards conservatives, especially on issues involving race, gender, or social justice more generally.

When evaluating arguments on these topics particularly, ask yourself both “is this interpretation charitable?’ and “is this interpretation so bland and timid that no one would bother to bring it up?”

(Obligatory disclaimer: Liberals do all sorts of sneaky definition switching too including this kind, many rationalists already know this and don’t make this mistake, there are sometimes charitable and interesting interpretations that horrify liberals but not other people, and liberals who appear to not be respecting the principle of charity are often just not respecting the principle of charity. )

Social Justice, Uncategorized

Social Justice Diplomacy

Epistemic status: Mixed. Part of this post is purely my opinion on strategic considerations in social justice activism. These statements accurately represent my opinion at that time, based on my own experiences and on general background knowledge. Other statements about the causal role of social justice activism in deciding the 2016 election, specifically, are more speculative, and are probably overconfident as written.

(CW: race, privilege, Trump)

I think social justice activists deserve some of the blame for Trump.

I also think they are correct about their most important points, and often have good justification for their actions.

As I said in my earlier status about my forays into pro-Trump sections of the internet, many Trump supporters are very angry at social justice activists. Some of this anger is genuinely ‘whitelash’, the discomfort of white people being forced to confront their privilege. However, some of it results from a confusion of language that is perpetuated and even celebrated by SJWs and their allies.

A common definition of ‘racism’ as used in America is something like “conscious revulsion or devaluation of people not of one’s own race”. This (or something similar) is the definition Trump supporters almost universally accept (which is why they can’t possibly be “racist” if they are married to a person of color, or are themselves a person of color). Social justice advocates of my generation use a very different definition; for them ‘racism’ includes the above, but is expanded to include unconscious biases, cultural appropriation, unacknowledged privilege, unwitting microaggressions, and (sometimes) tolerance of these things in others.

Trump supporters (AND ALMOST EVERYONE ELSE!) are completely unaware of this highly expansive definition. They see activists make allegations of ‘racism’ and are *JUSTIFIABLY* confused and angered. After all, an 18 year old college student wearing face paint and a head dress for Halloween is not evidence of “conscious revulsion or devaluation of people not of one’s own race”.

Social justice activists have done virtually NOTHING to address this confusion. Instead they double down on the need to disrupt and challenge ‘racism’ wherever it appears. Demands that they clarify this point are met with anger and defiance by activists. Activists will say things like, “It is not my duty to educate you about my experience, you should accept that you will never fully understand and make efforts to educate yourself”, or, “Asking me to explain race and privilege to you is to ask me to relive all of the trauma that I have been subjected to because of the white supremacist culture.”

In making these responses, SJWs embrace a very reasonable, common-sense *NON-CONSEQUENTIALIST* moral principle. They don’t explain, because they have no duty to do so. It is harmful and unfair for the privileged to ask the disenfranchised to relive trauma, just so they can understand injustice better. I think SJWs are absolutely justified on these grounds. ****BUT ENDORSING NON-CONSEQUENTIALIST MORAL PRINCIPLES CAN HAVE REALLY REALLY BAD CONSEQUENCES.****

There are also more subtle dynamics. Requests for explanation by privileged folks are often actually covert demands for justification. “Explain your experience to me, black queer person, so that I can critique your experience, challenge your inference, and ultimately deny your conclusions.” Privileged people are defensive and guilty and often not really interested in good faith discussion. They demand higher standards of justification for claims about social justice than about other issues. They change the subject when they are on the defensive, they make uncharitable interpretations of SJ arguments and hammer on them. They are shitty conversation partners, and marginalized people rightly don’t want to deal with it.

There are also tactical considerations. Some SJW believe that the best way to gain attention and support for their cause is through disruption, confrontation, and demonstration. Some privately hold more moderate beliefs than they express publicly, but think the best way to get to their preferred position is to anchor with a more radical view and then compromise to a better midpoint. Some have seen the effectiveness of radical activism (maybe they were personally influenced by such tactics). Some are just angry and want to publicly express their fury.

I don’t claim to have the answers, but I DO claim that the answers will be complicated. I DO believe that many SJW have subtle, sophisticated, and largely TRUE positions on how race and privilege work. I DO believe that racially privileged folk unfairly challenge and undermine good faith attempts by marginalized groups to communicate. I DO believe that Trump supporters are wrong, and cruelly-so, to deny the bigotry of their candidate.

But I don’t think that social justice can progress without cleaning up its act. Social justice needs *DIPLOMATS* as well as warriors. We need a more-moderate arm of this movement.

Politics and Government

What Trump Voters Believe

Epistemic status: Anecdata, but pretty confident. This post accurately records my personal experiences interacting with Trump voters on the internet. I think the factual claims are modest enough that I endorse them as written. I intentionally don’t make broader statements about “what most Trump voters believe” or related topics.

(CW: The beliefs of Trump voters)

I made some posts on various pro-Trump parts of the internet to get out of my bubble and learn a little more about why people chose Trump.

I was hoping to find some common ground, or at least a less depressing narrative than the one in my head.

No dice on that.

Here’s three things I did learn. Note that these beliefs are *not* the ‘reasons’ I think the election went for Trump, but rather the explanations offered by a certain set of Trump supporters for their choice.

1. Many people are extremely upset about ‘social justice warriors’ and ‘political correctness’. The specific features that Trumpfolk find most upsetting vary considerably, but include:
privilege and race discussions of the ‘offensive Halloween costume’ or ‘racist sports mascot’ variety;
Black Lives Matter and affiliated movements;
perceived unwillingness of liberal politicians and journalists to say bad things about Islam;
fears of accepting refugee immigrants from Syria and similar places;
and, perhaps most tellingly, a general perception that race, gender, and sexuality ‘cards’ are played to smear political rivals and silence reasonable dissent.

2. Many Trump supporters believe that elites on both sides of the political aisle are part of a vast multinational conspiracy to preserve the power of the ruling class over everyone else. The exact composition of this cabal is vague, but it includes lots of rich people, government leaders from around the world, and definitely George Soros. Trump is believed to be uniquely free from the influence of the cabal. Evidence for this includes the universal revulsion that ‘cabal-y’ people feel towards him, and also his immense personal wealth, which they believe insulates him from corruption. As one supporter put it, ‘What would Trump have to gain by being President?’. Trump has so much wealth and power already that many of his supporters think he would never subject himself to the inconvenience of a presidential run unless he were altruistically motivated.

3. Clinton is super-part of the aforementioned conspiracy. The Clinton Foundation is a slushfund. The Clintons have taken money from the Saudis and other suspiciously ‘Islamic’ foreign powers. The Clintons have constructed a vast web of influence with corporations, the media, and other powerful folk. The most damning evidence for Clinton’s special corruption comes from Wikileaks releases of her emails. One of the most important leaks is a 2008 memo from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta (linked here: https://wikileaks.org/podesta-emails/emailid/59125) outlining key strategies and messaging for Hillary’s 2008 run. Podesta strategy imperatives like “brand all conservative candidates as ‘Bush’ Republicans” and “drive the content of politics through a strong “echo chamber” and message delivery system” are held up as conclusive proof of the Clinton’s desire to brainwash and control the American populace.

Notably absent from the people that I spoke to were Conservative talking points like abortion, climate change, or government waste. The exception was the considerable anger at Obamacare, which seemed more motivated by opposition-in-principle than personal inconvenience. This is probably partly a selection effect, questions asked in explicitly pro-Trump online spaces naturally get answers from exceptionally ‘Trumpy’ people.

Overall, I feel considerably worse about the election that I did before. I didn’t expect to find sophisticated conservative arguments about the tax burden or cost-benefit evaluation of environmental regulations, but I was hoping for some good old fashioned working class anger. Ultimately, I do think the rage of working class whites tipped the election by hurting Clinton in WI, PA, and WV. That said, Trump also gained lots of motivated support from people primarily concerned with the things above. I want to scream.

EDIT: I should point out that there were also a fair number of people who said things like “He can’t be worse than her” or “We’re fucked either way, but a least we don’t know what he’ll do” or “If he fucks us at least we can say we tried”. So there’s that.


Cash on Delivery-Literacy Aid that Works

Aid and Development

Infographic: COD Literacy Aid

Misc., Uncategorized

Hot Showers, Dairy, and Offsetting

Epistemic status: Mixed. The opinions in this post accurately reflect mine at the time, but I’m not sure I would endorse everything I said here now. In particular, I wouldn’t now be comfortable making the claims in the last third of the post without better sources. 

I really like this post by Jeff Kaufman.

In the post, A tries to convince B that B should stop taking hot showers because of the impact of heating the shower on climate change. B responds that he would rather donate $5 a year to offset his energy use than take cold showers, and that the donation would probably have a much greater impact on climate change than taking cold showers. The conversation between A and B mirrors comments on another of Jeff’s posts about the value of eating a dairy-free diet. (I have one small gripe about this post, which is the use of AMF as an index-charity. I think cross cause-area comparisons are controversial enough that we should avoid them if not talking about cause prioritization, so for the rest of the post I’ll assume cold showerers are only maximizing climate change improvements, and that ethical vegans only care about animals.)

In general, I think that the direct benefits of donations to high impact charities often outweigh the direct benefits of difficult lifestyle changes, and that cash donations will often be less invasive and less painful way for people to have an impact.

However, I don’t think B is factoring the signalling value of lifestyle changes vs. small donations correctly in this exchange with A.

A: Your numbers look plausible but you’re ignoring the communication value of giving up warm showers. I’m skeptical of your assessment of donations to effective charities vs. personal consumption changes because it seems to ignore many of the important effects of personal changes like signaling your disapproval of the energy system, especially when that signaling is coming from a particularly influential person (which I think the average EA is). If you tell your friends, and they follow your lead and tell their friends, we can reduce emissions a lot.

B: The per-person benefit of cold showering is still very low, and nearly everyone would prefer to donate $5/year than give up warm showers. And your donations can inspire others just as your consumption changes can. So people should donate to effective charities, and not worry about the showers.

I don’t think that donations inspire others in the same way that lifestyle changes do, and I think A might prefer B to take cold showers rather than offset his consumption even if cold showers don’t directly help the environment very much. I think A’s preference for B’s action should depend on:

1) How much better high-visibility lifestyle changes are for movement-building around a cause area vs. offsetting donations. (I would guess much better)

2) The number and severity of costs resulting from the pursuit of ineffective lifestyle changes for faster movement building. ( I expect it would vary a lot among lifestyle changes. I think the potential costs of vegan diets are much higher than cold showers. )

Per 1) I think it’s likely that high-visibility lifestyle changes are much better at generating connections between activists than offsetting donations. If I start attending cold shower meetups with other people who take cold showers every morning, we have an unusual shared experience and an obvious common interest. If I attend an offsetting donation meeting, we still probably have common interests, but our only determinate shared experience is having a bit less money than we would otherwise. This effect is more obvious with more invasive and more public lifestyle changes. I’ll use veganism as my example from here on, but most of what I say will be about lifestyle changes as a class.

Most of the value of vegan diets (and some other purity-focused behavior changes) plausibly comes from creating social in-groups through signalling. Activists who are connected to one another through shared activities, and a shared public identity, might be more likely to become motivated to take action for the cause, and more resilient to fatigue/defection. I think it’s also likely that tight knit groups are better at attracting new members, and that tangible sacrifices like avoiding milk or taking cold showers might be better at promoting group cohesion. Coupled with the well-trod fact that successful movement building multiplies the efforts of an individual exponentially, and I think we have the outline of a case for preferring the lifestyle change over an offsetting donation.

Per 2) Vegan diets don’t seem to be very good at at promoting resilience, but the vegan label has been effective at creating tight-knit groups and motivating people to be more active in the animal rights movement. I also expect that the efforts of vegans, as a class, are generally pretty ineffective, and this is potentially very dangerous for their cause. As a general rule. outcome-insensitive, highly-persuasive social groups are a bad thing.

On the other hand, its possible that the benefits of bringing more people into the movement and motivating them to act might outweigh that. One scenario where this would probably be true is if vegans are more likely switch from ineffective to effective animal-focused interventions than non-vegans are to take highly effective actions in the first place. The deciding factor here is probably the cost-effectiveness distribution for interventions within the target cause area, though there might be weird signalling costs associated with converting from ineffective to effective interventions.
I think it’s likely that not-obviously-effective lifestyle changes have most of the traits above, most of the time, but I’m really uncertain about how large these effects are. I also expect that many of the above advantages in movement-building could be gained with fewer costs by other social movements more focused on effectiveness. Earning to Give is plausibly a lifestyle change that weds the best of both worlds. Still, I think there are a lot of uncertainties in the value/feasibility of movement building vs direct donations, and I don’t think the comparison between cold showers (or eating dairy) and offsetting donations is straightforward.