Alternate Electoral Methods

In the realm of alternate electoral methods, the somewhat “out there” novel Courtship Rite by (if I recall the mathematician) Donald Kingsbury. In this science fiction novel set an a colonized planet quite a number of customs have arisen among the humans living there that are very alien to our customs today. One of the societies, from which a number of our protagonists derive, for example practices polygamy as well as cannibalism. There is actually a logical reason for the latter, being that on this alien world most animal and plant life is poisonous to the colonists … and there is no meat available other than man for consumption. Anyhow, that is not the point for today’s little essay. Given the current season and year in the States it might be more topical to offer some of Mr Kingsbury’s unusual suggestions for government.

In an age where the Democrats urge universal (and in fact arguably foreign) enfranchisement and participation in our elections the suggestion in Courtship Rite is quite the reverse. The radical society in that culture was a full participatory democracy … with a catch. On laws, one could only vote on their passing if one was an expert on that particular law. How did one become an expert. By becoming a participant in the discussions involved in framing the text of that law and in discussion on its merits, consequences, and implementation. Anybody could vote on any issue and law, but in order to vote, one had to become knowledgeable and and expert in that.

Further, the executive as well as selected in another manner. Mr Kingsbury suggests essentially that one of the primary qualities this society felt was necessary in a leader or the executive was to be able to accurately predict the unfolding of political and global political trends. People who wished to become executive submitted to a repository, dated predictions of future events. There was likely some (but the details of implementation were left to the reader) weighting of predictions based on the importance of the event and how far in advance the prediction was posted. Whomever had the highest score at this “prediction” game was the Executive. Any citizen could call for a “re-tally” like a vote of no-confidence and possibly in that way remove the current leader. Of course, one way to get predictions to come true, is to make predictions and then work to make them come true. In this way, the Executive very often had a good deal of influence which enabled him to have his predictions fall in line.

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15 comments

  1. Boonton says:

    There is actually a logical reason for the latter, being that on this alien world most animal and plant life is poisonous to the colonists … and there is no meat available other than man for consumption.

    This doesn’t seem like a very viable long run strategy.

    Any citizen could call for a “re-tally” like a vote of no-confidence and possibly in that way remove the current leader. Of course, one way to get predictions to come true, is to make predictions and then work to make them come true. In this way, the Executive very often had a good deal of influence which enabled him to have his predictions fall in line.

    I predicted that any time you mentioned Bill Ayers on this blog you would loose and you did. Please email me the keys to this blog, I’m taking over!

    I can see how the predication game could be a test of leadership if the point is to make a prediction and then make it happen. If the point is to make accurate predictions, though, I’m not sure the system would be any better than ours. We make horrible predictions and, ironically, being an expert in a subject probably makes our ability to predict worse (see Taleb’s The Black Swan, I can’t recommend it enough). If you asked a bunch of schlubs at a bar what are the odds of a massive 40% decline int he stock market in the next five years they probably would have given you a higher probability than a bunch of stock brokers….and yet look at where were have come in just a few months?

  2. Boonton says:

    In an age where the Democrats urge universal (and in fact arguably foreign) enfranchisement

    Arguably meaning “I have or am capable of presenting valid and worthwhile arguments in favor of this assertion” or arguably meaning “this isn’t true but I get to claim it anyway because technically if I put ‘arguably’ in front of any proposition it means a person somewhere can make an argument for it even if it is the crazy homeless guy who swears he picks up UFO transmissions from the fillings in his teeth!”

  3. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    In some sense of order you make your points.

    As for as “not a good long term strategy”, my recollection is that their original ship had crashed and they had both lost the technology to leave over the centuries and had no alternative. You can get “complete” proteins from a vegetarian diet. It’s just that one of their cultures had turned to some use of the one source of meat that they did have.

    As far as the predictions in which you note, like predicting “the stock market is going to crash in the next 5 years”. I covered that. It seems to me the “metrics” on value of a prediction have a lot to do with its accuracy. If you predict, “The market is going to lose 8% on the first Tueday of December 2010” that’s a lot different than saying “in the next 3 years”. The more accurate, the more “weight”.

    In our last post on laws about identity, it had occurred to me that you were arguing the wrong side. You were arguing ways in which identity might be provided, which is to say, identity necessary and laws requiring are a good thing and not to onerous. The Democratic platform on the other hand, says “they support no laws requiring voter identification”, which seems to me means (arguably as I note) that a foreign tourist could arrive a polling place and vote since he would then not be required to post any identification.

  4. Boonton says:

    It seems to me the “metrics” on value of a prediction have a lot to do with its accuracy. If you predict, “The market is going to lose 8% on the first Tueday of December 2010″ that’s a lot different than saying “in the next 3 years”. The more accurate, the more “weight”.

    True but you could just end up with a ‘lottery winner’ effect. Out of a quarter billion people there’s plenty of people to cover every day for the next 10-15 years. Sooner or later an 8% drop will happen and there will be one person who selected that day just like there’s one person who got the right lottery ticket out of millions of possible combinations.

    that a foreign tourist could arrive a polling place and vote since he would then not be required to post any identification.

    Errr, no. This is not what the platform says nor what was discussed over on the thread about it.

  5. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Turn your imagination around. That is, you are willing to derive lots of ways of voting without an ID card, but can’t figure out ways past your simple objections in this case. For example, to stop the “lottery” winner effect you just need penalize wrong predictions and not have crazy weights on unlikely far out predictions that happen to come true. So real-life predictions, like how what will Nation X do next week are more heavily weighted and are used to select the executive.

  6. Boonton says:

    And at the end of the day the assumption is that having an almost supernatural ability to predict the future makes one a better executive? The executive should make decisions, not predictions. It seems to me that if this process did lead us to discover some type of super-predictor society would most likely end up having them less as a philosopher king and more as a ‘brain in a vat’…..think of the ‘precogs’ in Minority Report

  7. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    You must be a big Herbert fan, social darwinism and all. Your notion of this change of society is mindful of the Dosadi Experiment as well as the Dune series.

    No I think the idea is that an executive who can correctly perceive trends and others can correctly lead his society because he can anticipate the responses to his actions.

  8. Boonton says:

    The flaw, I suspect, is the difference in perceiving trends and making trends. The ‘test’ seems to presume total lack of free will, everything is determined. But if that’s the case knowing the future is useless…your path is still set in stone. But if you can ‘prepare’ your people and ‘guide’ them thru the future you’re no longer perceiving trends but making them.

    Imagine a person who was able to perceive in the early 70’s that ‘swinging’ culture would spawn an outbreak like AIDs. He makes other good predictions and is made executive. He sparks a crash research program, HIV is detected early when it is only spreading in a small population. The small group of people it has infected are isolated.

    Not only does AIDS never happen but what can be called the ‘counter sexual revolution’ doesn’t happen either. More than that, because AIDS never happened society wonders why this guy who is supposed to be a great ‘predictor’ just spend 20% of the Federal Budget seeking out a disease that only 0.0001% of the population has. People will say what good is this great predictor guy…why didn’t he put this money into…say stopping the USSR from invading Afghanistan or breaking OPEC.

    See the problem that’s solved will never be seen but the problems that remain will. You see 9/11 but consider maybe 9/11 was the price of winning the Cold War and the price of not winning it would be we are all dead under a few feet of radioactive rubble. But you see because you only see the problem that’s there you are going to wonder how good could your ‘superpredictor’ really be.

  9. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    I don’t believe your “superpredictor” exists. So I’m not sure that’s an issue. That is to say, if a good weighting system (metric) for predictions was established and instead of elections we used “best predictor” to select our Executive. I don’t think the person who fell out would match your prediction of a super-predictor.

    Whom I think it might possibly select for, is someone who is (a) interested in the job, because the effort of posting and making lots of predictions is going to be difficult, (b) possibly personally influential because if one can create events that match your prediction that are big enough to have significant weight that would help your cause (it would also help the executive stay in power giving some stability to the system (as he can post predictions and them work to make them happen)).

    Consider a system in which your super-predictor is not super, just the best of us not-superhuman-but-merely-mortal-predictors.

    And I might add, I’m not offering this as something which I necessarily think is a great idea, I am open to considering lots of alternatives, in part because I think our current system is un-necessarily flawed and in part because its an interesting exercise. I offered this notion from Courtship Rite because I thought it interesting … no other reason.

  10. Boonton says:

    Mark, it’s not so much that the superpredictor doesn’t exist it’s that it’s hard to really appreciate a person who acts on accurate predictions if he has the ability to change the outcome (as an executive would). The gov’t could have contained AIDS early on but if it had done so no one would have thought it would have been such a big deal. The problems that couldn’t be contained, that would happen regardless, would cause people to think their ‘predictor’ had lost his touch.

    We have a hindsight bias in that we know what happened but we don’t really know what didn’t happen. Here’s another example that doesn’t require much of a ‘superpredictor’. In the 80’s we got concerned about the ozone layer and more or less stabalized it. You don’t think about that much now but if we hadn’t it really could have been a diaster. Imagine having to dress in reflective layers of clothes just to go outside for a few minutes. Now even if you appreciate that the problem was addressed you don’t really appreciate it. You note what didn’t get solved from that time and is causing problems now.

    I think someone who won this prediction game would either be good at predicting stuff no one has any real ability to control or who can predict the unexpected results of policies of the current executive. This would make his value diminish quickly as he was choosen for executive.

  11. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    The real point is, Mr Kingsbury has proposed a system in which the governed agree that the most important property for a ruler is his perception and ability to predict trends. Given that proposal, he then suggests a good way to select for such a leader.

    Our government has decided that the ability to win an election is what we want in a leader.

    I’d suggest that perhaps the ability to win an election is not the best predictor of whom might our best Executive. The trick is to come up a better selection process that locates a person whom it is generally agreed is the best executive. For now, I’ll leave the rest of that question (in honor or Mr Kingsbury being a mathematician and all) as an exercise for the reader.

  12. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Also, on your note of the influence of the predictor … your US bias is showing. The US executive has a strong influence on both internal and foreign events. However, consider instead the advantage of a good predictor for say, Romania or Eritrea. That is, in a place in which the influence of the government is often overshadowed by the power of external events (and external players). There the ability to predict outside political events might be more important.

  13. Boonton says:

    Our government has decided that the ability to win an election is what we want in a leader.

    Actually ‘We the People’ decided that.

    That is, in a place in which the influence of the government is often overshadowed by the power of external events (and external players). There the ability to predict outside political events might be more important.

    Possibly but I think what you’re missing is legitimacy. The ability to win an election ‘closes the deal’. The politician attempts to establish his abilities to the electorate but the electorate also ‘signs off’ on the candidate, hopefully, because the campaign establishes that they can feel comfortable supporting him. You’ll note that very few businesses hire high level positions based only on ‘objective criteria’ like test scores. They require interviews and sometimes multiple ones to establish trust enough to hire the person.

    Speaking of predictions, have you had a chance to read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan? I’d be very curious to know your take on it since he goes after traditional statistics as harshly as one can in a book intended for a non-mathematical audience. In 2007 he made some predictions that seem quite interesting now:

    Globalization creates interlocking fragility, while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability. In other words it creates devastating Black Swans. We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse. Financial Institutions have been merging into a smaller number of very large banks. Almost all banks are interrelated. So the financial ecology is swelling into gigantic, incestuous, bureaucratic banks – when one fails, they all fall. The increased concentration among banks seems to have the effect of making financial crises less likely, but when they happen they are more global in scale and hit us very hard. We have moved from a diversified ecology of small banks, with varied lending policies, to a more homogeneous framework of firms that all resemble one another. True, we now have fewer failures, but when they occur ….I shiver at the thought.

    Banks hire dull people and train them to be even more dull. If they look conservative, it’s only because their loans go bust on rare, very rare occasions. But (…)bankers are not conservative at all. They are just phenomenally skilled at self-deception by burying the possibility of a large, devastating loss under the rug.

    The government-sponsored institution Fannie Mae, when I look at its risks, seems to be sitting on a barrel of dynamite, vulnerable to the slightest hiccup. But not to worry: their large staff of scientists deemed these events “unlikely”.

    Once again, recall the story of banks hiding explosive risks in their portfolios. It is not a good idea to trust corporations with matters such as rare events because the performance of these executives is not observable on a short-term basis, and they will game the system by showing good performance so they can get their yearly bonus. The Achilles’ heel of capitalism is that if you make corporations compete, it’s sometimes the one that is most exposed to the negative Black Swan that will appear to be the most fit for survival.

    As if we did not have enough problems, banks are now more vulnerable to the Black Swan and the ludic fallacy than ever before with “scientists” among their staff taking care of exposures. The giant firm J. P. Morgan put the entire world at risk by introducing in the nineties RiskMetrics, a phony method aiming at managing people’s risks, causing the generalized use of the ludic fallacy, and bringing Dr. Johns into power in place of the skeptical Fat Tonys. (A related method called “Value-at-Risk,” which relies on the quantitative measurement of risk, has been spreading.)

    Please, don’t drive a school bus blindfolded.

  14. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    I had forgotten, thanks for the heads up. I ordered it via inter-library loan from the public library.

    btw, for what its worth, the two books I noted as “most influential” for me from last year, I’d highly recommend to you. Collier’s The Bottom Billion on global poverty and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which though rambling is chock full of fascinating ideas.

  15. Mark says:

    Oh, also, I’m not sure that the case that we have “never been” in this situation before is exactly correct. The failure of the Roman Empire might serve as an earlier example. Their economy has “global”, highly inter-connected, and ultimately did suffer a somewhat catastrophic failure. Northern European economic conditions dipped to bronze age levels, I think at some points. England for example, lost the ability to maintain and use potters wheels for ceramics and pottery and went to more primitive simpler methods.