Thursday, October 4, 2012

I understand the math

I was thinking at the time that maybe I should write a longer post on the voting article than I did. That was probably a good intuition. Gene writes:

"Come on, Daniel, marginalism! First of all, buying in the market we, of course, get the thing we want. But what's more, our dollar does have *some* effect on the price, even if miniscule. But no single vote has any influence on an election unless it is tied or within one. If my candidate is losing 154,000 to 78,000, my adding the 78,001st vote does not even infintitesmally effect the outcome, because the outcome is binary. The argument you critique is sound: unless you cast the deciding vote, your vote does not matter at all."

I understand the math of voting in a country with over 300 million people, guys. I did not challenge that. Gene is also right that we "get the thing we want" when we make a purchase. Indeed, that's the whole beauty of the market. You have an interest in revealing your preference and bringing your knowledge of the subjective value of the good to the table. Since everyone has an interest in doing so, we don't have to worry about the prices correctly aggregating information. Not so with an election. By voting for Obama I don't automatically get anything (which is OK because the marginal cost of voting isn't very high). That's exactly why I despise arguments telling people their vote doesn't count. It's precisely because it's a public good that we need to think about more collectively that the article bothers me.

I'd also take issue with Gene's point about this being a binary outcome. Candidates (more or less... obviously there are electoral college complications) pursue the median voter. They pursue that voter with their platforms and judge how they should perform in office based on the margin that found their platform convincing. When you vote you influence who that median voter is and you influence platforms. This is something libertarians ought to be able to appreciate.

I'm not even some kind of voting Nazi (hmmm... kind of a weird phrase). I've voted in 50% of the grand total of two presidential elections so far that I've been eligible to vote for. I'm not going to yell at you if you don't vote. But this idea that it is trivial bothers me.

I don't object to the math of her answer; I object to the choice of question.


  1. From where I sit, the difference between Republic and Democrat seems very slight. If Obama gets in instead of Romney (or vice versa), what does it actually matter?

  2. "When you vote you influence who that median voter is and you influence platforms."

    That is a good point.

  3. "Candidates (more or less... obviously there are electoral college complications) pursue the median voter. They pursue that voter with their platforms and judge how they should perform in office based on the margin that found their platform convincing. When you vote you influence who that median voter is and you influence platforms."

    I think the same argument could be made in that regard. Sure, you influence the median voter more than the election's outcome, but your influences is well within the margin of error when potential candidates look at those numbers.

    As to looking at this collectively, I must confess that I do not see the point. It is the very property of free-rider problems that even caring greatly about the group doesn't change much. After all, the reason you would not vote isn't that you don't care about the election's outcome. It is that you can't do anything about it. And surely, while the marginal cost of voting is low, it is non-zero and I would argue greater than its benefit. For instance, if you vote to help the poor, spending that time in a soup kitchen will help much more than your vote. Spending that time calling up a Congressman is also likely to be more effective.

    1. Most amusingly, you would be doing more for your cause by spending your "voting time" canvassing as part of a "get out the vote" effort than voting for the guy you are supporting. I found endlessly amusing 4 years ago that as a foreigner, I was prohibited from voting, but that my time canvassing, sitting on phone banks and registering voters probably gave me influence over more votes than most Americans. According to the stats that the Obama administration gave volunteers, I believe my work was the equivalent of voting 15 times.

    2. On doing things collectively -
      What I mean is that yes, if you pay attention to only your self interest that calculus might get you to not go vote. It's very low marginal cost, but perhaps high enough that you wouldn't go vote. I'm not disputing that particular calculus.

      My whole point is that that should not be the calculus.

      Democracy works well when we all participate. So I want everyone to participate. And I think everyone should want everyone to participate.

      This does not jive with the way economists are used to thinking about human decision making. But that does not mean that it is something I can't or shouldn't want.

      If this were an academic paper trying to explain why a lot of people don't vote, I would fully endorse it. As a scientific matter it's fine.

      What I don't like is telling people their vote doesn't matter in a popular publication. It does matter - just not in the way that we economists talk about when we're doing marginal analysis on individual preference relations.

    3. If you would join me in supporting the improvement of remote voting so that someone could vote while at the soup kitchen while waiting for the next homeless person to come up and receive a meal, I would like that very much.

      I see no obvious reason why that particular trade-off matters at all.

      If we spent 7.5 hours sleeping instead of 8 and used that extra half hour at a soup kitchen that would probably do a lot of good too. "Your half hour of sleep doesn't matter", in other words. But I feel like we don't learn much from highlighting that potential tradeoff in a feature article pointing out to people that they could really wake up half an hour earlier.

      In fact the whole idea of putting the tradeoff in those terms sounds ridiculous to me.

      I'm not sure why I should privilege it with respectability when the topic is voting.

    4. You probably wouldn't have gotten 15 people to vote in the time that it would have taken you to vote, though.

      You probably would have gotten a very small fraction of a person to vote.

      So that slice of time would probably have been better spent voting (if you could, of course).

    5. You're right of course. Canvassing for a single vote takes way longer than casting a single vote.

      But even then, what you're effectively saying is that it would be much better if many more people voted. That would make for a better democracy. So let's say I'm at home thinking to myself: "wouldn't it be nice if participation in presidential elections went up by 1%?" Well, I still don't see how I get from that to me voting. Whether I do or do not vote will not substantially affect participation in the democratic process. What you seem to be saying is that not only should people be altruistic but they should also act in ways which are merely symbolically linked to their altruistic goals. It doesn't seem to be particularly rational.

      As for the soup kitchen example, I'm simply pointing to an altruistic opportunity cost of voting. If voting takes about 30 minutes, there are plenty of altruistic things you could have been doing during that 1/2 hour. I suppose much more rationally related to your goal (democratic participation) would be to write an op-ed for your newspaper encouraging people to vote. Or perhaps writing a letter to your senator advocating a particular policy.

      A question comes to mind. From reading you, it sounds as though you would disapprove of strategic voting in general. Is that the case?

    6. Why is that not rational?

      It's what Vernon Smith calls an ecological rationality, of course. But that's my entire complaint: that the author completely ignores the question of the ecological rationality of voting.

  4. I am perfectly happy to support public choice theories of voting if it means less market fundamentalists vote.

  5. What about Jason Brennan's argument that uninformed people shouldn't vote?


    1. Well I agree with him that voters should be informed.


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