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At My Real Job: The Irrationality of Voting. And What to Do About It.

Vote, vote, vote, like a baby stoat.
In the October 2013 Cato Unbound, Ilya Somin tackles a theme I’ve long found interesting: rational ignorance. Voters are demonstrably ignorant about a wide range of clearly important political matters. They can’t identify their representatives. They don’t know which branches of government are tasked with which responsibilities. They imagine nonexistent government programs and are ignorant of real and well-publicized ones. They can’t find on a map the countries we’re bombing. And so on.

And yet they vote. Why on earth would they do such a thing?

Somin’s answer is that voters are rationally ignorant: They know perfectly well that their vote is astronomically unlikely to matter. As a result, they don’t bother to become better informed. It’s just not worth the trouble.

But the political system that this produces is in many ways a dangerous one: It hands the government to people who are clearly not all that accountable to the public; on any theory of accountability, we need the overseers — the voters — to actually know what’s going on. And they don’t.

Somin’s answer here is to accommodate rational ignorance by shrinking the powers of the government. When government is a less important part of our lives, it will matter a lot less that we are ignorant about it. (He is dismissive of efforts to educate voters, noting that even while education levels have risen, voter ignorance hasn’t appreciably lessened.)

There is however a big problem with Somin’s thesis, namely that it can’t explain why voters still go to the polls. If voters know their vote is unlikely to matter, why do they still do it?

In what I find to be the most provocative response essay, Jeffrey Friedman argues that voters are not rationally ignorant. Rational ignorance theory is false, because voters generally and incorrectly declare that their votes do matter. One poll found 70% of voters think their individual votes “really matter.” And, as Friedman notes, 100% of voters actually turn out to vote. (I’m in the 30% here; I know my vote doesn’t matter for the outcome, and I vote to reprogram my own mind.)

Voters think their votes matter to the outcome of elections. And yet voters are demonstrably ignorant. This is a state one would not commonly expect from people who thought they were making a consequential decision. Why does ignorance persist? Friedman’s answer is that usually voters in fact make two errors. First, they mistakenly think their votes matter. And second, they think that political decisionmaking is easy: If all the world simply followed my party or ideological preference, everything would work out for the best. Friedman writes:

If one actually talks to ideologues, one finds find that they firmly believe they’re in possession of the obvious truth. The reason they dismiss counterarguments and counterevidence is that they think such arguments and evidence are implausible: they contradict things that any sane person knows to be true.

In both ignorant voters and dogmatic ideologues we have a good starting point for a truly realistic theory of politics. If voters don’t think they need to know very much if they’re to cast adequately informed ballots, they must think that our society is a mighty simple place, where it doesn’t take much information to be able to identify good policies and good politicians. The same is true of ideologues, who treat their views as reflections of obvious truths about society. (I know Somin would agree with me that modern society is more complicated than that, since he brilliantly demolishes as simplistic many decisionmaking heuristics commonly used by voters.)

Am I an ideologue? Darn right I am.

But a few words in my defense, and perhaps in the defense of others. I do not think I possess obvious truths. The truths I think I have are frustratingly non-obvious, and I struggle all the time in trying to convince people of them. I also wrestle with a lot of questions internally, and I recognize that they are difficult even in the favorable climate of my own mind. I also recognize, or at least I try to recognize, that those who disagree with me are not necessarily evil or stupid. There is room for reasonable disagreement. There has to be, if you want to keep both your ideology and your humanity.

There is also a significant likelihood that I am wrong about many things that I believe. All ideologies that we have so far been able to observe in hindsight have proven to be patchworks. In all likelihood, my own is the same, and so is yours. It would be intellectually immodest to suggest otherwise.

And yet I believe my own ideology nonetheless, and I am helpless not to believe it. Were I to resolve not to believe, a new belief system would immediately spring up on the ruins — a dogmatic skepticism that would itself be the product of a contingent encounter with history, and thus likely wrong in a lot of places. Action in the moment is necessary; it cannot be refused. And yet action when viewed from afar is absurd: Ideology for me at least is an existentialist enterprise.

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264 thoughts on “At My Real Job: The Irrationality of Voting. And What to Do About It.

  1. It often seems to me that voters vote out of tribal alignment; where tribalism is often aligned with ideology, but not necessarily ideology. At its most obvious level, we get liberals in Maine voting for Sen. Susan Collins in great numbers, for instance, because they are part of the tribe that supports Maine’s history of sending Republican women to the Senate. Or limited government conservatives voting for measures that support increases in Homeland Security spending locally because it will buy a new firetruck for the community, the tribe.

    It’s also important to make a distinction in voting choices here; one distinction is voting for candidates; the other is voting for policies.

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      • Being part of a tribe doesn’t mean you have to vote, but a strong identification with a party makes it more likely you will vote, if I remember right.

        I am not sure I agree that an absentee ballot removes anything meaningful about the social component of voting. You can still tell your friends who you voted for, still discuss with them whether you were happy with the outcome, still lament a vote you think cast badly or exult in one you think you cast well.

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      • And absentee ballots take out much of any social component of the voting act itself.

        This suggests that the social aspect of voting is limited to going to a polling place. I strongly disagree with that view. Rather, the act of voting, done in person or absentee, is an extension of the connections you make at the local diner, school, grocery store, or whatever other place you frequent where you connect with the members of your tribe.

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      • Jason,
        Going to vote is yet another in the critical network of “I meet my neighbors, I talk to my neighbors” interactions.
        Without said interactions, people get pretty insular… and in pretty nasty ways that you and I wouldn’t like.

        (this is not to say that I wouldn’t support the ability to use absentee ballots… the current shenanigan is to use them for folks who are busy canvasing the day of the election.)

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    • I would add to this that not only are there two kinds of voting (candidate/policy) that matters here, but also geography. Your vote in the local elections probably matters a great deal, state less so, and federal even less. The distance from home is important to understanding voting patterns and knowledge of topic; and sadly (from what I see) it’s the big, federal elections that get the most attention — easier to cover because its a topic we all hold in common, the state elections less so, and local elections, which are likely to have the most direct impact on your life, the least.

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  2. Nobody voted for Newton’s Laws. Votes don’t express rational considerations, if they did, we’d be able to apply the scientific method to these guys, compose better tests for ’em and let the boffins nominate our new philosopher kings. Problem solved.

    Human beings are not rational. Pointless complaining about it. Governments are reflections of the times and the people who live in those times.

    “I am Time who wastes and destroys the people;
    Lo, I have arisen in my might,
    I am here to swallow up the nations.
    Even without thee all they shall not be,
    The men of war who stand arrayed in the opposing squadrons.
    Therefore do thou arise and get thee great glory,
    Conquer thy foes and enjoy a great and wealthy empire.
    For these, they were already slain and it is I who have slain them…”.

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  3. Somin’s arguments are the kind of smug libertarianism that I find to be highly suspect. Of course, his preferred solution to the problem perfectly dovetails with his libertarian ideology. It often seems to be libertarians who talk about rational ignorance and how voters know nothing and this means we need to limit the franchise and/or limit the powers of government.

    This the same kind of whining that NRO did when Barack Obama was relected and to be fair it is the same kind of whining that liberals do when white, working class people vote Republican and complain about people “voting against their interests” I find it all rather distasteful.

    Though you are right that ideologues of all stripes seem to have a problem when confronted with people who think differently about their needs and wants. A limited government zealot is not going to be able to comprehend the believer in the safety net and vice-versa.

    I think single-issue voters are very rare people and so are policy wonks. Johnathan Bernstein likes to remind his readership that they are not “normal” for the simple fact that they read something called A Plain Blog about Politics. Very few people can earn an income from reading and thinking and writing about policy all day. People might be knowledgeable about some policy areas but ignorant in others.

    Elections and democracy are still better than the alternatives. I generally think that people who believe themselves to be competent aristocrats, technocrat managers, and philosopher kings disprove themselves by the arrogance of their self-regard.

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    • Tell me, if you believed what he did, namely that (a) voters are ignorant and (b) they have good reasons for remaining ignorant — on what theory could you justify expanding government power?

      Such expansion would necessarily entail violating voters’ wishes, even if they didn’t know it was happening. (Somin gives examples of this, too; Obama promised to renegotiate NAFTA to allow more protectionism, which was a stance popular with voters. But he hasn’t acted on that promise, and voters have generally forgotten about it.)

      As to your last paragraph, I agree entirely. Democracy is good not because it uncovers or aggregates knowledge, but because it conduces to domestic peace. That’s vastly more than can be said of most other political institutions, and it is all by itself enough to make democracy a key political value.

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      • “Tell me, if you believed what he did, namely that (a) voters are ignorant and (b) they have good reasons for remaining ignorant — on what theory could you justify expanding government power?”

        Necessity and justice and rule of law and environmental protectionism/conservation. Though Somin and I are probably at ideological disagreement here. I’m more inclined to socialism and an out-right socialist for some things like National Healthcare. During the government shutdown I found a general distaste for people who made ignorant comments about how they did not notice it (unless they could score talking points, this goes with Zic’s observation about the tribal nature of politics.**)

        Interestingly I think one of the big problems with the left for the past few years has been that we promoted techocrats above anything else. I get angry at people on my side who complain about people going against what they perceive as “good policy”. It seemed to me that there were too many liberals (especially of the neo-bent) complaining “Why are voters doing this? Didn’t they read the 900 white papers I read about this issue?”) This is the same dislike I have when Matt Y sneers about NIMBYism when voters don’t go for his preferred urban policies like raising height restrictions to Manhattan levels or wanting a limited number of bars in a neighborhood.) What does it mean for a policy to be good? Do we evaluate on completely economic growth terms or can people think about less quantifable and more intangible things and still be rational? BlaiseP is right. Humans are not rational and emotion-free Vulcans and automatons.

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      • Forgot my asterisk

        *I am guilty of this. During the BART strikes I saw two Jewish Silicon Valley techies make very snide comments about the BART strikers and my sense of tribal politics made me angry at them. To one I wanted to say “Jewish girls did not die in Triangle so you could make snide comments about striking workers on your blog.” The other guy said that Dobermans should be brought out to deal with the strikers and I thought that was beyond the pale especially because attack dogs have been used by anti-Semites in progroms.

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      • Necessity and justice and rule of law and environmental protectionism/conservation.

        But all of those will be decided, necessarily, by undemocratic means. Because the voters are not voting in an informed manner, and we cannot expect their preferences to be carried out.

        It is interesting that you will choose these values over democracy when you are compelled to. Even when perhaps the majority of your neighbors would oppose them. Some of them seem good to me; others (necessity?) seem hopelessly vague.

        Interestingly I think one of the big problems with the left for the past few years has been that we promoted techocrats above anything else.

        I fear you are guilty of advocating the same, now.

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      • Such expansion would necessarily entail violating voters’ wishes, even if they didn’t know it was happening.

        I don’t understand this claim. Any government action entails violating some voters’ wishes; a government contraction in light of voter ignorance would also entail violating some voters’ wishes, in the same way a government expansion would. I thought the claim was that voter ignorance makes democratically managing larger government less likely to be done objectively well.

        Where Somin’s argument turns to responsiveness, I thought, was where it says the fact of voter ignorance argues for decentralization. More people simply get what they want that way, and fewer are subject to the damage of bad outcomes that owe to voter ignorance (as an initial matter, as well as as a consequence of feet-voting in response to outcomes). I do see this argument, but there is a cost side to it, to the extent that certain functions of government are qualitatively feasible or much more likely to work well at larger – societal, national – scales and not at more localized levels, and if those functions aren’t preserved or are never tried as a result of this insight, then there is cost. Some simply prioritize those costs over the advantages of localized policy zones.

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      • Do you think that historically oppressed groups have a greater obligation to avoid engaging in oppressive behavior? I often hear this line of argument, but it is has never sat quite well with me. I understand the logic behind it and I suppose I could see appealing to certain people’s or group’s history to encourage better behavior, but setting it as an obligation seems unfair.

        I remember reading a piece elsewhere in which the writer took Obama to task for not being a better ally to LGBTQ folks (this before he came out in favor of gay marriage). The writer’s argument was that Obama should know better than any prior President the damages of second-class citizenry. Which may be true. But isn’t is also akin to saying, “You/your people had this horrible thing done to you, so now we have heightened expectations for you than the rest of society”?

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      • I understand your hesistency but I feel that my liberalism is often informed by what happen to Jews in the past and the Jewish experience. I’ve grown up experiencing very little anti-Semitism and oppression but I know what happen to my people and think this provides Jews an obligation to stand up for other victims of discrimination and oppression.

        I admit that there are often seeming trade-offs between what people want and what might be best in terms of long-term policy goals. I believe in majority rule but also that minorities need to have their civil rights protected. This is a tricky balancing act and I am not sure that there are easy solutions or answers and everyone is probably doomed to contradiction.

        That being said I don’t get Somin’s claim either for the same reasons that Drew listed.

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      • Kazzy, its an interesting philosophical question and I’m going to agree with you and ND. I think that members of oppressed groups certainly should be aware of potentially oppressing behavior. They do not have a responsibility to go to extrordinary steps to avoid. First, we have to define who is an oppressed group and what behavior is potentially oppressing. These aren’t easy tasks.

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      • Great points, .

        I should also make clear I wasn’t so much disagreeing with as I was questioning. I see the logic there. I just don’t think we should turn past oppression into present obligation. Really, everyone should be obligated not to oppress.

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      • I suppose I would say that my position is this:

        I would hope that people whose ancestors or who themselves were the victims of oppression would be more actively engaged in resisting oppression, as they are likely to be more acutely aware of its harm. However, I would stop short of saying they have an obligation.

        I will also say that my ability and willingness to tell Jewish folks what they ought to do is limited; I recognize that in-group responses are, and perhaps should be, different.

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      • But nearly everyone has ancestors who were oppressed at one point or another in history. If your rule held, , there would be no one left to oppress anyone else at all! Clearly this is impractical to the point that we can disregard the proposal.

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      • Jason,
        on the theory that the watchers are not the voters, at least not in full.
        Our system of checks and balances rewards those who expose
        malfeasance in government.
        And, believe it or not, a substantial portion of people could tell you more
        about the DMV (or the IRS), or other parts of the government (PENNDOT)
        that they interact with, even if they can’t tell you much about branches of gov’t.

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      • Jason,
        Just reading your other article, I note you call eugenics unconscionable
        Do you vote your preference? It seems like you hold it rather strongly.
        Do you in fact do anything about your preference, at all?

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    • Ecch, everything but the philosopher kings, buddy. A philosopher king wouldn’t have some big election victory speech. Probably look more like the sentencing phase of a criminal trial. “Socrates, you have been found competent to govern by a jury of your peers. You are hereby sentenced to govern in Washington for a period of six years and may God have mercy on your soul.”

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    • Actually Somin’s argument is simply stunning and inarguably shows why, for better and worse, libertarians will always be a marginal sliver of the voting populace with far less influence then they want.

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      • Yeah, it’s hard not to see shades of “If only stupid people would stop voting” and “We should figure out a way so only the right sort should vote” in that sort of thing, even if it’s the last thing on the writer’s mind.

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      • Think of the flip side then.

        If a voter does not know whether the crime rate has gone up or down in the last several years, how will that voter make intelligent choices when it comes to evaluating incumbents’ performance at fighting crime?

        This is not an elitist prejudice. It’s simply a fact: If you don’t even know whether crime has gotten better or worse in your area, then you cannot begin to evaluate the performance of elected law enforcement officials.

        Suggesting otherwise does the voter no favors. It might make him feel good, but we ought not to encourage the ignorant to have false opinions of their own knowledge.

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      • Hm, that makes me think of something else — how many people really feel crime rates are a big deal in terms of who they vote for? And how many of THEM are ignorant of the rates and changes in rates?

        I might be really big on, say, economic growth and might take views on interest rates or tax policies as a real big thing, and know a lot about candidates and their views on that.

        I might also claim crime rates and, oh, saber rattling in Iran are big deals — but not enough to really educate myself about them — are they really that important? Or is it just important enough to have a vague preference — “I prefer tough on crime sorts” and “I don’t like the idea of being too wussy with countries trying to start stuff” and then go with party preference?

        So, I guess — what if voters aren’t ignorant on the one or two areas they are truly, deeply invested in — and rather ignorant in the areas they consider important only to the extent of aligning to a party with roughly similar views?

        Somin there might be making a rather classical mistake: He might be assuming that knowing the details of Medicare Part D makes you “not ignorant” as opposed to “not giving a flip” or merely “I do care, but only enough to know Democrats tend to be better on social stuff like that than the GOP”.

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      • There are definitely people who say the ignorant shouldn’t vote (and again, there is always the problem of figuring out how to get the ignorant to self-identify). But I’m actually not clear if that is Somin’s position, or if he takes ignorant voting as a given and games out the implications for what we should want policy to be. Jason, are you saying that is his position? Is it yours? Are you saying the ignorant should voluntarily self-exclude (and we should help them do so after such time as we conclude our attempts to remediate their ignorance have failed before a given poll), or we should take accommodative action to lessen the negative effects of their voting, which we accept as an unfortunately inevitable result of extending the the right to vote, which we do affirmatively want to preserve for them?

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      • Oh, having the ignorant self-exclude is a non-starter. Ignorant people tend to be far more certain they know what they’re talking about than non-ignorant people.

        (Seriously, there are studies and everything. The less you know about a given subject, the more likely you are to express certitude in the depth of your knowledge. It’s because you have no idea how little you really know).

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      • Hm, that makes me think of something else — how many people really feel crime rates are a big deal in terms of who they vote for? And how many of THEM are ignorant of the rates and changes in rates?

        For some elections, the crime rate will be an important or perhaps the most important factor: sheriff, prosecutor, judge, even mayor. For others, that clearly won’t be the case.

        I might be really big on, say, economic growth and might take views on interest rates or tax policies as a real big thing, and know a lot about candidates and their views on that.

        I’d say that in some elections, those will be key policy considerations. But not in others. Certainly not in electing your local judge or sheriff.

        Somin there might be making a rather classical mistake: He might be assuming that knowing the details of Medicare Part D makes you “not ignorant” as opposed to “not giving a flip” or merely “I do care, but only enough to know Democrats tend to be better on social stuff like that than the GOP”.

        Knowing that Medicare Part D was the largest new social welfare program in many years ought to cause one to reevaluate that stance, at least a little. No?

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      • Let’s suppose crime has gone down, as it has under Bloomberg in NYC. Compare and contrast with how he lowered crime, with his stop ‘n frisk tactics.

        See, all this talk about rationality in voting is just specious. We vote for people, not because they’re going to do something — anyone who makes promises in politics is a liar. Politics and law are all process. The Graf von Bismarck Wurstfabrik, that sausage factory whose product is more appetising on the plate than in the factory. We vote for people who exhibit the right frame of mind to deal with these unforeseen and ultimately unforeseeable problems — as they emerge.

        Government is mostly reaction. It’s a coping mechanism. There’s no checklist for character, no handy Policymaking for Dummies book on the shelf. Maybe look in the section for Alligator Wrassling, more likely to find something appropriate over there.

        Put it this way, everyone likes low crime. Nobody likes stop and frisk. If lowering crime is your only criteria, that’s simply not rational.

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      • For some elections, the crime rate will be an important or perhaps the most important factor: sheriff, prosecutor, judge, even mayor. For others, that clearly won’t be the case

        Important to who? Voters? Are you sure? I don’t think I’ve ever voted for a single office based on crime rate, so why are you telling me it’s important to my vote for mayor or judge?

        That’s my point — are you sure you — or Somin — aren’t projecting. “I think crime rates are important to X, but Bob there votes and doesn’t even know the crime rate has gone down!”. Or maybe “Bob votes for tough on crime guys, even though the crime rate has gone down”….

        That’s the real nut problem with this “Ignorant voters” stuff — you’re defining what’s important for voters to know, and then lambasting them for not knowing it.

        You’re just assuming their decision making process, if it does not weigh things the way you prefer, is ignorant — rather than operating off different filters.

        As I pointed out — if you know what party someone is with, you can predict some 95% or more of their views. Is it rational to find out where that 5% differs, for a hundred candidates? Or just vote by party line?

        If my criteria for the “crime” part is entirely “Don’t be insane” my filters could happily twig a number of candidates, and I’d still not need to know where the crime rate is today versus 10 years ago. Does that make me ignorant because I don’t consider it important?

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      • If a voter does not know whether the crime rate has gone up or down in the last several years, how will that voter make intelligent choices when it comes to evaluating incumbents’ performance at fighting crime?

        Let’s try this argument: the basic idea behind representative democracy is to elect people that I trust to become informed on the issues and make smart decisions. So that I don’t have to. Because while I may have time these days to be moderately well-informed on some of the issues, back in the day when I was trying to succeed at a technical career and raise a family, I didn’t have the time. Certainly when the system was set up, that statement would probably have been true for the large majority of the people eligible to vote. So we got the Electoral College, and Senators chosen by state legislatures, both steps intended to increase the intelligence (or at least information level) of the “voters”. The system assumed ignorant voters.

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      • Jason,
        I can gauge my city’s crime rate from the involvement of NGOs.
        More specifically: the crime rate is unlikely to affect me much.
        I can tell you how much of a police presence is at my local grocery store
        (which, as we’ve seen a few murders in the past few years, is a good thing).
        I can tell you patrol routes, and can evaluate cop response to large scale disasters
        (someone shooting up a hospital).

        These are all more proximate, local views of the crimerate. Libertarians say that government should operate at a small scale… From what I’m arguing, it might make sense that elected officials should be on the same scale as people’s native decisionmaking… (thus allowing hard hit areas the ability to choose different leadership, and not shielding actually bad leadership from “everyone’s mostly okay because we didn’t do anything there”).

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      • “Actually Somin’s argument is simply stunning and inarguably shows why, for better and worse, libertarians will always be a marginal sliver of the voting populace with far less influence then they want.”

        You’re right, of course, but not for the reasons you mean to imply. It’s not that Somin is wrong—he’s quite obviously correct—it’s that he doesn’t give sufficient deference to the tenets of democratic fundamentalism.

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    • Maybe I’m wrong, but is seems like the implications of what you are saying is that since skepticism about democracy might lead people to abandon democracy, we ought not seriously consider some of democracy’s very obvious flaws. And the problem there is that ignorance of democracy’s obvious flaws is the very thing that allows those flaws to become even worse.

      For instance, we had a white, old-money, establishment Republican President and the United States bombed lots of countries in the Middle East. Then we elected a black, outsider, progressive Democratic President (who subsequently even won a Nobel Peace Prize) and the Unites States… bombs lots of countries in the Middle East. There are lots of reasons why this is the case, but one of the most basic reasons is that the median voter doesn’t have any real understanding about how government works and accepts promises from candidates that an informed person would now better than to believe.

      If the average person really understood just how much public policy is made and carried out by un-elected bureaucrats and special interest lobbyists, it is very likely that person might a smaller and more accountable government. I’m not sure why that should bother you, though. The size of government ought to be roughly equal to the size that people want. That’s democracy right?

      Here is something that progressives really ought to fess up to: progressive government is bureaucratic government. It cannot be any other way, at least not in a populous, pluralistic society. The welfare state is the warfare state and the warfare state is the welfare state.

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      • And while we’re at it, are you sure you want those special interest lobbyists? Ready to repeal the right of redress? That’s where you’d start. All this angry carrying-on about Big Gummint is pretty much nonsense. Tyrants run wonderfully small and efficient governments. They can turn policy on a dime.

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      • Tyrants run wonderfully small and efficient governments. They can turn policy on a dime.

        Citation? I call BS. Show me a tyrant, show me any authoritarian government, and I’ll show you a large and intrusive security and bureaucratic apparatus that makes sure everyone toes the line.

        Some tyrants might be better than others at managing their respective bureaucracies, but the authoritarian playbook is very similar case to case: destroy all competing government, civil society and religious institutions and replace them with entities loyal to the tyrant or to the tyrant’s ideology.

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      • The tyrant can never control more than five men. Those men might each control five other men. But in a world where the tyrant’s word is law, the tyrant is constantly pruning the ranks of the powerful, setting them against each other as best he may, keeping them all in fear.

        Saddam Hussein, one of history’s more interesting and effective dictators, set about the modernisation of Iraq. The things he didn’t do to improve his state would fit in your left shoe with plenty of room for your foot. He electrified Iraq, set about a mass program of education, turned Iraq into a middle class society. Won a UNESCO award for the education of children. Produced, at the time, the most literate of Arab societies — and did it mostly on his own, with a few technical advisors.

        But toward the end, Saddam’s chief complaint was that everyone lied to him. There’s a story told, after his crushing defeat in Gulf War part 1 of 2, where he asked one of his subordinates what he thought of the war. In a fit of inspired lunacy, the subordinate said “It was surely one of the greatest defeats in the history of warfare!”

        Saddam sat there for a moment, grumbled a bit and replied “Well, that’s just what you say.”

        That’s the problem with tyranny. It doesn’t include enough people to endure any healthy dissent. Saddam did all the right things, at a superficial level. He even cynically included people of every ethnic stripe in his government — but they all had to be Ba’athists. Those who entered a privileged position were also entering into ever more personal danger. To be a part of Saddam’s regime was to be automatically alienated from the people, to become an agent of a repressive state.

        But though Saddam used the Ba’ath Party as his tool, he never trusted his subordinates. His Republican Guard was comprised of men from his own tribe. That’s why tyranny can never grow very large. Once it grows beyond a certain size, it gains too much power and the tyrant can no longer control it.

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      • I agree with you, but by way of clarification I note that tyrants do indeed cost tax payers lots of money, just not necessarily in taxes. Tyrants are only able to exert that level of control by actively subverting all relevant political and economic institutions to the cause of supporting the regime. That extracts a lot of wealth from citizens and into the hands of the tyrant, who then disperses it to reward those loyal to him.

        A common method of accomplishing this, for instance, is through state-owned enterprises or private companies run by the tyrant’s cronies. These companies are often a major source of off-balance sheet funding for the regime. These types of entities don’t get captured in official statistics as government, but they are absolutely operating more as regime bureaucracies than private enterprises.

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      • A common method of accomplishing this, for instance, is through state-owned enterprises or private companies run by the tyrant’s cronies. These companies are often a major source of off-balance sheet funding for the regime.

        That’s so 20th century. These days, the clever tyrant knows better. He enlists platoons of outside experts to manage it all for him and pay him a cut of the proceeds. Letting your wife’s brother’s good friend run a corporation, that’s just asking for trouble in a well-run tyranny. Half a dozen Ferengi Rules of Acquisition are thereby violated.

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      • Again, show your work. Show me a citation.

        I’m talking about actual facts here, not Ferengis and “these days.” Here’s what I mean: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rami_Makhlouf

        “Rami Makhlouf (Arabic: ???? ??????, born 10 July 1969) is a wealthy Syrian businessman and the maternal cousin of President Bashar Assad.[1][2] He is considered one of the most powerful men in Syria and according to Syrian analysts no foreign company can do business in Syria without his consent and partnership.[3][4] He is a part of Bashar Assad’s inner circle.[5] He is regarded as Syria’s wealthiest man – worth approximately 5 billion dollars”

        Rami Makhlouf literally is Hafaz Assad’s wife cousin.

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      • Syria is a command economy and has been an economic basket case for three decades at least. I have given you Saddam Hussein as an example of a modern tyrant who did extremely well for everyone around him — and never allowed stupid people to run state enterprises.

        Iraq was not a command economy. It was, until Iraq’s disastrously stupid war with Iran and its subsequent clashes with the West, a great economic powerhouse. It wasn’t just oil. Saddam diversified his economy. It was also a great producer of grain, minerals, textiles — Saddam had nationalised the oil, put it under effective leadership (all imported, as had the Saudis when they first discovered oil) and made huge profits. Everyone who wanted a job and spoke Arabic went to Iraq. Times were once very good in Iraq. Look at it now and you’d be correct in saying it’s sunk down to a third world shithole, but once it was very efficient and extremely well-run.

        And it was small. Saddam didn’t encourage these make-work programs and messing about, as had Libya under Khadafy. Both were megalomaniacs but Saddam didn’t screw around with large government. Saddam had a reward system for his toadies and spies, but mostly they had to earn their own keep.

        Saddam’s government got out of control once he got into the Iran-Iraq War. That cost him a lot of money. Iran blew up his oil production facilities but Saddam got them back online pretty quickly. Nobody thought he was a particularly bad guy. He did deals with Americans and Soviets alike. Saddam made people rich but he extorted much of their profits. He really was little more than a gangster, which is how he began.

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      • One of Saddam’s chief problems, once he had all that money, was trying to keep local grifters from moving in on his stash. Iraq’s big problem was banking. He was investing prodigious sums into Iraqi infrastructure, but didn’t really understand how capitalism required honest government regulators and the need for independent oversight.

        That would would be Saddam’s downfall, really. He was good at keeping his enemies from the doors of his palace. Couldn’t keep them out of his banks, though.

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      • From a path-dependent perspective, not all ignorance is a choice. Unknown unknowns and all that. Known knowns for some can be unknown unknowns for others – ones for which there’s no path from unknowing to knowing that mere rationality assures completion thereof. It would be irrational to remain knowingly ignorant below a level you think is necessary to cast a “good,” ballot, whatever that might mean for you, if you think your vote matters. So if you think that knowing a candidate’s party affiliation is not enough to cast a good ballot and you do so and you think that vote matters, that would be irrational. But if you have looked into it a good deal, and consciously concluded that knowing a candidate’s party affiliation is enough to cast a good ballot and you vote on that basis, then you haven’t done something irrational – you’ve just perhaps not done good enough thinking and discovering of facts. (It also depends on what casting a good ballot means to you.)

        It can’t be that perfect judgement and total information awareness are necessary to avoid casting an irrational ballot, though perhaps they are necessary for casting a good ballot (though I’m guessing those in the Vote Well movement wouldn’t want to say that, either)..

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      • (I know this is late.)

        Here’s the problem with ignorance though: everybody will be defined as being ignorant if they don’t agree with the conclusions held by the person instituting the policy. Somin’s definition of ignorance almost certainly applies to many of those that disagree with him but few that agree with him. What a remarkable convenience. This is the typical philosophical problem of a thinker coming up with an alleged truth that also just so happens to end up with them getting exactly what they want.

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  4. “Somin’s answer here is to accommodate rational ignorance by shrinking the powers of the government. When government is a less important part of our lives, it will matter a lot less that we are ignorant about it.”

    Isn’t another notion to distribute the powers of government so that rational knowledge may be more achievable? There is certainly a logic to centralization, but sometimes decentralization is a simple answer to over centralization.

    One of the failings of Republicans (and some conservatives) is to over-state the need to shrink government when what many folks really mean is to re-distribute the locus of power and decision-making for government. That may well make one part (usually the central part) smaller, but it does not necessarily mean less governance. It is the difference between a constant focus on the efficiency of centralization versus the virtues of accountability and rational good governance that depend on a certain amount of decentralization. Getting the balance right isn’t obvious… but it seems to me that the besetting sin of modern politics on both ideological sides is the complete surrender to centralization. The result of which is, well, rational ignorance.

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    • He recommends decentralization as well. People can more easily understand local matters, he argues, and voting with your feet becomes easier if it’s just a local government that gives you trouble, rather than the national one.

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      • If town politics are any guide, it only gets bureaucratically weirder, not more understandable. Duplication of everything from town to town. No consistency to anything and no mechanisms to provide any,

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      • Anyone attending a local school board meeting would quickly learn that ‘local’ is not always an improvement.

        Seriously, attend those things. There’s a reason the ACLU has a steady job handling Church/State school cases over heavily settled and straightforward law, and it’s called “Reverend Bob got elected to the School Board”.

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      • Not to mention: Economy of scale doesn’t stop working just because it’s government, and it’s been my impression that the more ‘local’ a candidate, the less scrutiny they face by voters. Again, the fewer people a candidate represents, the more likely that guy or girl is to be absolutely bonkers.

        Cruz as the exception, I suppose. :)

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      • This assumes that rationality and good policy are like science and every policy question as a right and wrong answer and we can achieve a universal consensus on what the rational and policy correct view is.

        I find that most things exist in gray.

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      • I’m reminded of the ACA debate. I witnessed numbers of on-line forums where everyone complained about the problems of insurance as if their problems in their state were the scope of problems nationally.

        Localized government is a good thing; to great extant. But it also has it’s problems which should be clearly recognized. First amongst them is probably the resources for reporting on local government to assure some source of information about that government, be it municipal, county, or state, to the citizenry. Next is probably some clearer way of signaling that we’re working with a patchwork system, and that when you abstract up a level, the problems are often apples and oranges. For example, in my state, it was high costs for crappy insurance, where in some other state, it the insurance was cheap, but you couldn’t purchase it if you had a pre-existing condition.

        But there is some significant benefit from local. The roadless initiatives for national forests, for example, were designed for Western forests. Doesn’t work so well out here in the East where roads will grow in within a few years and trees sprout like weeds, and some management of that growth is necessary to promote many good things, including openings for wildlife.

        So it seems to me that it’s not a one way is best in all circumstances, but that for some things a single, national approach works best, for others, local solutions work best. The trick is identifying which thing belongs where.

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      • I agree that local is not simply an answer to everything… some things ought to be centralized. If I were to add two small thoughts that are usually overlooked it would be these:
        1. Some of the pettiness of local affairs are precisely because they are petty. Centralization can make this problem worse, so we’re not actually seeing devolved decision-making with measurable stakes worth investing in.
        2. I think I made two points in #1.

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      • Not to mention: Economy of scale doesn’t stop working just because it’s government,

        Eh, economies of scale aren’t automatic. Sometimes there are diseconomies of scale. Which holds is context dependent.

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      • Which holds is context dependent
        Which makes “Let’s fix ignorance this by localizing things more” as sort of a non-solution. Not only is it not shown to actual work (in my anecdotal experience, the average American knows more about the President’s policies than his mayor’s — but I’m open to actual evidence otherwise), but it’d take a context dependent decision and apply it without glance at context.

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  5. Do voters, by and large, have to know about minutia? Isn’t that what parties are for — to cover a broad (or narrow) ideology, to define more of an approach or world-view to dealing with problems, and allow voters to choose between them?

    If I am of the view that sometimes abortions should be legal, but maybe not always and distrust foreign adventuring and think that really big business would happily bend me over and screw me, and maybe I think I’d like some security in my later years….

    Do I really need to know the minutia of how SS funds itself, or where Iran is on a map, or exactly where life beings? Or could I just vote for Democrats, knowing that they’re roughly aligned (imperfectly, of course) with what I’d prefer? And let, you know, let people with actual experience and knowledge work out the details?

    The average voter doesn’t need more than rough outlines and general views, because the average voter will not dictate the outcome of anything. What he needs are general preferences, an ideological approach….

    Because when I go to the voting booth, I won’t know what President X will face in the years ahead — economic failure, war, social issues, market collapse, new technologies, new issues — but I will know that President X is likely to approach these things from something closer to how I, if I was in his shoes, would and President Y is less likely to.

    Sure, we like to turn elections into single-issue referendums because it makes for compelling TV, but in the end — we’re voting for people who are gonna solve problems that haven’t arisen just as much as ones that already have, and since it’s (supposedly) a negotiation/compromise sort of solution process we need people representing points of view, similar conceptual frameworks more than specific views on singular issues.

    I’m never, ever, gonna have a President who I agree with totally unless I get myself elected to the job. But party filters and campaigns give me an idea of which of the choices is gonna be more likely myself, but you know — with better information, advice, and the ability to make the call.

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    • The evidence Somin cites isn’t minutia. It’s things like “Who are the two major party candidates for the House in your district?” or “Is the unemployment rate higher or lower than when Obama took office?” or “What is Medicare Part D, and what did George W. Bush think about it?”

      Could I just vote for Democrats, knowing that they’re roughly aligned (imperfectly, of course) with what I’d prefer?

      You might, provided you know sufficiently what the party stands for. And provided you know enough to be sure that they aren’t saying one thing and doing another. Given most voters’ knowledge, that’s already asking a lot.

      And there is also the question of whether the Democratics’ policies will achieve what you want rather than being counterproductive. This is in principle knowable for lots of things: Just look at how the Republicans fail all the time to achieve their stated intentions. It might be better to vote for good intentions rather than bad ones, but within the party of good intentions, whichever one that is, still you should choose candidates that have the right way of achieving them, rather than strategies that are bound to fail.

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      • I know who my representatives are but I can’t tell you who the GOP puts up against them because as far as I can tell it is always token opposition and they spend approximately no time or money campaigning for the seats (until we get the state-wide office level).

        I can tell you who runs in the primaries when they happen though.

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      • “Who are the two major party candidates for the House in your district?”.

        I honestly couldn’t tell you who is actually my Congressperson right now. But I’m in Texas, and I can tell you that the “R” or “D” after their name gives me a ton of information on how they stand on a ton of issues.

        Of course, being Texan, any ballot I see has approximately a zillion names because we elected everyone, including judges, down here.

        To be honest, it’s the rare politician whose individual views are sufficiently divorced from their party platform as to necessitate knowing. Which is something I think Somin is shortchanging — deviation from the party platform is so minimal, overall, that knowing about the parties will cover about 95% of anything a given politician will vote for or say, without having to even learn his name.

        It seems quite rational to me to learn about parties more than individual candidates, since it’s far more bang for my mental buck. (I can cover all Democrats and Republicans I’m going to see on my ballot with 95% accuracy with a lot less effort than trying to recall a 100 people’s individual policies).

        Then again, I’d prefer a parliamentary system anyways. And if you’re saying the he-said/she-said news that American media has devolved to is particularly crappy at educating people, I’m behind that too.

        Shape of the world, views differ and all.

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    • It is exactly the lack of knowledge about the minutiae and the default to ideology that allows our present state of poor governance to exist.

      Here’s what I mean. If you took a group of people and educated them on how the Social Security program works and informed them of the accounting sham that is the Social Security Trust Fund, it would change a lot of their minds about SS. It might not turn those who are in favor of SS against the program, but it would certainly lead them to demand a very different system (perhaps one that actually matched current assets to current liabilities like an actual pension system). And in having to address the deficiencies in the current program, it would force politicians and voters to have to confront just the sort of problems that voter ignorance and ideology presently allow everyone to safely ignore.

      And this is not a partisan point. I could easily come up with similar examples regarding Republican areas like defense spending, homeland security programs and criminal justice issues. The combination of voter ignorance and the tremendous power presently amassed in the hands of the U.S. government is a very dangerous combination.

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      • If you took a group of people and educated them on how the Social Security program works and informed them of the accounting sham that is the Social Security Trust Fund, it would change a lot of their minds about SS.

        Doubtful. You’re basically assuming (1) They don’t know and (2) They’d make a specific conclusion if they did.

        I mean, I know exactly how SS works — and how pensions work — and I’m afraid the conclusion you’re describing would be quite impossible for me to come to, mostly because I’m aware of how governments can (and most specifically can not) save money. And also how pensions work, apparently.

        Seriously, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that people disagree with X only because they don’t understand it. It’s quite possible for people with the same information to come to different conclusions, and thinking that — as an example “People don’t agree with me on Capital Gains Tax Policy Y because they don’t understand it like I do” is a fallacy. Double so if you go with “They’re just ignorant of it”.

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      • Seriously, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that people disagree with X only because they don’t understand it.

        I don’t think that at all. Here are my thoughts on Social Security: it’s survivor’s insurance pretending to be a pension plan and as such is a really poorly designed pension plan. We’d do best to get rid of Social Security and just about every other specific entitlement program and replace them all with a simple, means tested cash transfer based on a guaranteed basic income. I know full well that most people don’t agree with this (conservatives because basic income sounds like socialism and progressives because they like entitlement programs), no matter how much specific knowledge they have.

        Now, what I actually said is that if more people who support SS actually understood that the trust fund is a sham, many of them would likely demand that the government take steps to address the long-term fiscal sustainability of SS. If people demanded a financially sound SS system, politicians would have to start taking all sorts of difficult actions like raising taxes or means-testing benefits. And then, people would have a more accurate means of assessing their support for the program than just defaulting to ideology. Sure, lots of people would still support SS, but SS would work much better in that case.

        This is how democracy is supposed to work. The people are presented with competing ideas about how to solve a problem. They pick one and see how that idea works, they see both the pluses and the minuses. They then apply that knowledge to the problems that they are presented with during subsequent iterations. Unfortunately, our present system is really good at either hiding the minuses or blaming them on the other team. And voter ignorance is the thing that allows this dysfunction to continue.

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      • jr,
        progressive (sometimes libertarian here).
        I’d be well down with a guaranteed income.
        Sure it would screw some people (probably with higher taxes —
        and some rentseeking gov’t employees),
        but just give a decent amount, and throw away the hoops
        (they’re demeaning if nothing else).

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      • JR: I invite you, in context of “SS trust fund is a scam” to contemplate the following:

        You are a government looking to save roughly two trillion dollars over 30 years, at which point you will spend it gradually. Probably.

        How do you do this? Specifically, how do you do this if you are America? What mechanism do you use?

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      • Reducing public debt (i.e., buying treasury securities, which is what it does now) is a perfectly reasonable thing to do with the Social Security surplus when the government has outstanding debt. But it’s disingenuous to misrepresent these securities as actual assets when the government can’t redeem them without either raising taxes, borrowing from the public, printing money, or cutting spending in other areas, which is exactly what its options would be if there were no “trust fund” at all.

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      • Brandon, I invite you also to answer the question.

        The US government forsees needing an extra three trillion dollars thirty years from now. How does it go about saving that money? What mechanism would you recommend?

        I’m quite curious as to your answer. I know what they chose, back in 1983 and I’m quite familiar with why they chose it and how it works — and how many misconceptions there are about it.

        But none of that matters: How would you, Brandon, King of America do it?

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      • I’d just go down to Home Depot and buy a lockbox.

        Is that an acknowledgement that you can’t answer the question? It’s not a trick question. there’s not a “gotcha” there besides the fact that once you stop hand-waving and actually focus on “doing” there are a lot of surprising issues you might not have considered.

        It’s strange. Three people have responded to that comment, all basically mocking the 1983 deal yet none of you was willing to answer the simple question: “How does the US government save 3 trillion dollars over 30 years, with the intent to spend it over another two decades or so after?”.

        None of you had anything but snark, sarcasm, or avoiding the question. Why is that?

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      • Actually, Mr. 20, it was just a joke.

        Maybe, but I’ve taken to asking that question of everyone who talks about “accounting tricks” or the “trust fund scam” or otherwise opines on SS and it’s situation.

        Surprisingly, those most dismissive over SS or the Trust Fund? Have never actually considered it. Heck, often won’t.

        It’s a good question, really. Makes you think — about politics, about economics, about monetary policy and really, really large sums of cash. So curiously, why do so few people want to even consider it as a hypothetical?

        I guess because it cuts into their rants about Trust Funds.

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      • My comment really wasn’t meant to get us into a conversation about SS. I accept that lots of people fully understand the present situation of the SS Trust Fund and still support SS. My only point is that lots of people don’t understand it and a significant portion of those people, if they did understand it, would demand a better program.

        But… if you want to talk SS, why not?

        It’s strange. Three people have responded to that comment, all basically mocking the 1983 deal yet none of you was willing to answer the simple question: “How does the US government save 3 trillion dollars over 30 years, with the intent to spend it over another two decades or so after?”.

        None of you had anything but snark, sarcasm, or avoiding the question. Why is that?

        I choose the third option. And here’s why: SS is a really dumb program. If you asked me how best to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, I’d give you a similar answer.

        To flush that out a bit, the problem with SS is that it tries to be an anti-poverty program and a pension plan at the same time and it doesn’t do either very well and in the future it will do them both even worse. There are plenty of good models for forced savings and mandatory pension programs that would never generate a government surplus, because the money would remain the legal property of the saver. And then the government would never have to fret over what to do with an extra $2 trillion.

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      • Morat: I did answer the question. Paying down debt is essentially the same thing as saving, and using the Social Security surplus to buy US treasury bonds was probably about the best option they had.

        The problem is twofold:

        1. Instead of paying down debt, Congress used the money to fund even more spending.

        2. There is no trust fund. It’s just a bunch of I-owe-me’s.

        Hypothetically, if the government had no debt to pay down, it could invest in other governments’ bonds, private securities*, or pro-growth spending**.

        *There would have to be some pretty strict safeguards here to make sure it didn’t become politicized. For example, it could only invest in globally diversified index funds and could not participate in corporate governance, or something like that.

        **Ditto, although in this case I can’t think of any safeguards that would actually have a chance of working.

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      • 1. Instead of paying down debt, Congress used the money to fund even more spending.

        Yes. On purpose. The 1983 deal was revenue neutral from the get-go. Tax hikes on payroll taxes, tax cuts on upper brackets, net revenue change effectively zero.

        It wasn’t a necessity to get through Congress or past Reagan either. So why did they do it that way? Recall, this was right then as they were fixing Social Security’s looming Boomer problem. (Which they did, despite your belief that T-bills are IOUs — you have to at least recognize that the amount of T-bills appears sufficient to cover the boomer retirement as planned).

        So why — right then and there, as part of the process — did they do it that way? You assume — 40 years later — that Congress spent it on accident, that it happened over time. That it wasn’t part of the plan. But the plan was VERY specific — payroll tax money would go into the general revenue to cover the amount removed from the general revenue by tax cuts on upper brackets. (The process for paying it back, btw, was that in reverse. Tax rates on the upper brackets would rise, and money would flow out of general revenue into SS. Again, overall tax revenue would stay equal).

        So why do you think it was planned this way? This was a huge deal, backed by Greenspan and Reagan. The “deficit spending” part was baked into the cake, on purpose.

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      • I choose the third option. And here’s why: SS is a really dumb program. If you asked me how best to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, I’d give you a similar answer.
        Ah yes, the “Let’s solve the gay marriage debate by abolishing state marriages” category.

        Clever, pithy, pointless.

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      • Morat,

        I apologize. I’ll refrain from making jokes about serious matters in the future. I just hope the principals of OT can create some tags to let us know when we’re in the humorless zone.

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  6. Off on a bit of a tangent… There is a recall campaign ongoing for my state senator. I was approached in the parking lot at the grocery the other day by someone with a petition they wanted me to sign. I asked, “Why do we want to recall Evie?” His answer was, “Because she raised our taxes and took away our guns.” I pointed out that (a) it was impossible for Evie to raise our taxes (this is Colorado — all new taxes and tax rate increases must be approved by a vote of the people); (b) the only people whose guns had been “taken away” were those who couldn’t pass a background check, the private-sale loophole in the law having been closed; and (c) it’s against the law to make false statements when you ask someone to sign an initiative or recall petition.

    Even people who are “involved” are ignorant, and willing to spread the ignorance.

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    • The LaRouchies were out in force last weekend when I went to CVS to pick up some meds. I didn’t talk to them (I’ve had my fill of that in the past), but I must say the Hitler stache they photoshopped onto Obama’s face was quite the elegant touch.

      Apparently they want to impeach him, but then I first saw that sign from them before he was sworn in, so I’m not really sure their current reasons are any better than their original ones.

      I love the LaRouchies. On the left/right spectrum, they’ve gone three dimensional down the Crazy axis.

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  7. If voter preferences are based on ignorance, and if voter ignorance isn’t correlated with anything like education level, can we really have any confidence that other decisions made as part of society aren’t made with a similar level of ignorance?

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    • One thing AI has taught me over the years, crowds are not wise, despite all the hoopla. See, in the crowd, often you’ll find lots of people answering the question correctly. But they’re drowned out by the people who have the wrong answer. Stupid is louder than smart. The bigger the crowd, the dumber it gets, too.

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      • Exactly. If you want wise decisions you need feedback. The problems self amplify where people make decisions and allow others to experience the feedback. Hence we go back to Jason’s recommendations of minimizing the extent not of decisions but of ignorant political decisions lacking direct feedback.

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  8. That is to say: At what point are aggregated preferences of ignorance groups actually dangerous? When it comes to picking the color of shoes? The types of drapes? What laws we want to live under? Whether or not shutting cheap gas today is worth substantial environmental costs 30 years down the line? It seems to me, that if you put aggregated voter preferences down to “rational ignorance” then I’m not sure you can dismiss the same concern coming into play for things like utility measures for market outcomes.

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  9. I know you’ve written about this topic before, and I’ve already commented about it before along the lines of what I have to say now… but what the hell, I’ll do it again.

    I disagree with the premises of the argument to begin with. Properly understood, voting does matter. Does any individual vote matter in the outcome when viewed discretely? No. But voting isn’t the kind of phenomenon that ought to be analyzed on a vote-by-vote basis. Just like antibiotic resistance doesn’t happen because of one lazy doctor prescribing Zithromax for a cold, or measles don’t break out because one person refuses the MMR for their kid, or a beach doesn’t disappear because one person takes a rock home, but with a sufficient n of like-minded people doing the same thing suddenly you’ve got no beach to visit, ineffective antibiotics and a measles outbreak.

    Does it make sense to think “my vote will make the difference”? No, of course not. Does it make sense to say “my vote will make an infinitesimally small difference as a tiny contribution to an aggregate result?” Yes, because that’s what happens.

    And people should also take the trouble to learn more about who and what they’re voting for. At least until we all realize that democracy is silly and go back to having monarchs like sensible people.

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    • Does any individual vote matter in the outcome when viewed discretely? No.

      And that’s all that you have power over. One vote.

      Yes, aggregates matter. But you don’t get to choose for the aggregate. No one does. Thankfully.

      Does it make sense to think “my vote will make the difference”? No, of course not.

      You are already further along toward understanding the problem than 70% of the electorate.

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      • Correct, but almost always an infinitesimal amount will not be enough to make the difference. Because this is knowable in advance, we do have to ask the additional questions that Friedman asks: Why do voters still vote? And why do they vote while remaining ignorant?

        I think he potentially gets the right answers, although I do think it’s also possible that many people vote for the same reasons I do: They want to affiliate themselves, and to feel themselves as part of a team.

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      • But the flaw is in thinking your vote would make the difference. If you expect your vote to make the difference, then you’re irrational. However, if you understand your vote to be one nigh-insignificant part of an aggregate result comprising all the other nigh-insignificant votes of like-minded people, cast in hopes that your total exceeds the other guys’ total of nigh-insignificant votes… well, that makes sense.

        Why do they vote when ignorant? They’re doing it wrong.

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      • Russell,

        I’ve thought about this, and, as a matter of affecting outcomes, I’ve concluded that Jason is effectively right – the chance that your vote will decide whatever election or question is being decided is. But the point you are making is that the idea of voting is that people don’t go to the polls all hoping t be their own 1/n of a dictator, where they’re hoping n is low enough and the returns of the policy stakes are great enough that it somehow compensates them for their time in voting. I think that what you are saying is that we (many of us) understand voting as a communal act of decision-making. Even if it doesn’t go your way, the outcome not the only value you placed in the act in the first place. it goes against you; you still endorse the process: your vote wasn’t wasted. If this is the case, then the size of the n doesn’t matter: indeed, greater n’s may give greater value to the activity. The fact that everyone involved has (in most cases, outside of presidential general elections, where the discrepancy is a quadrennial partial violation of the spirit I’m describing that people feel in this act) an equal share of the decision-making power is a primary value of the exercise in the first place. The results (as decided by the group) matter too, but any given person’s personal contribution to the actual outcome of the exercise is (in many participant’s minds) a much subordinated concern.

        The very legitimate point that Jason makes is that, despite this value placed on the actual act of communal decision making, the consequences of those acts have high stakes, so we should pay attention to what outcomes the process produces, and how they can be improved or best managed. Nevertheless, in elections, a very great part of the value we place in the, IMO, (for better or worse, Jason might say), is not instrumental as judged by outcomes, but is in fact intrinsically related to democracy. We (many of us) wouldn’t give up democracy merely if another system were shown to produce better outcomes (even better by our personal lights); it would have to produce much better results, or at least more than narrowly better, past a certain threshold that represents our commitment to democracy (in some form – including voting).

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  10. I think Zic had a good point. I’ve know many individuals who vote party line or some such. Best quote from a convo “I vote Democratic because I’ve always voted Democratic.” Even if you don’t agree with the guy’s policies? “Yes”. I’ve essentially heard this from both sides.

    I also think there is a herd mentality in voting. EVERYONE is voting on election day. Stickers for voters saying “I voted” to wear to work that day showing off you did “your civic duty”, etc. Voters are part of this great tradition of the peaceful transition of power and democracy.

    I’m actually more interested in the rates of non voting and whether that is increasing or decreasing over time.

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    • If someone asked me whether I would vote for the Devil if we were on the Democratic line, my answer would be “Well not in the primary”

      As much as liberals like to complain about Ben Nelson, Ben Nelson is more likely than not to go along with the party line in his votes in the Senate. The most conservative Democratic politician is still more liberal than the most liberal Republican. Congress people generally know that they have to adhere to the policies of the party for the most part.

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      • Yup. In the year 2013, barring the Democrat being a violent felon (and sometimes, if said felony was enough years ago), in my opinion, the best thing for the good of the country is always to vote for the Democratic. Even a corrupt venal out there ‘standard-issue’ Democrat is better than the most honest, deep-thinking, ‘standard-issue’ Republican (to throw out the “but but insert shiny ‘moderate’ Republican of the month’) because the Democrat will vote for the things I support and move the country forward in a positive way, but the Republican won’t. The only problem the corruption is that it makes the party look bad and there’s probably a better Democrat in that district.

        To not put a too fine point on it – none of the shiny moderate Republican House members signed a discharge petition. All of the House Democrat’s, even Charlie Rangel, were willing to do so.

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      • Even a corrupt venal out there ‘standard-issue’ Democrat is better than the most honest, deep-thinking, ‘standard-issue’ Republican

        I am generally more inclined to vote D than R, but I find this too simplistic, a justification of ignorance about the candidates. In the last statewide election in Michigan I voted R for gov, because as much as one can justifiably criticize Rick Snyder, his Democratic opponent is, IMO, a narcissistic looney tune. And I voted R for state rep even though I personally like and respect the D candidate (having met him personally multiple times), because he clearly had better ideas about how to get the most value out of state spending. To boil things down to a simple D beats R, even though that would more frequently match my vote, would have been an abdication of serious thought and reflection.

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      • James, I’d chalk it up less to simplistic/complex and more towards perspective. Which isn’t to say that Jesse isn’t being simplistic because he is. But it’s only overly simplistic if your views do not overwhelmingly align with one side or the other. One can be far enough to the left that virtually no Republican can ever have enough good ideas to compensate for the fact that he is so tremendously wrong on so many things. Or the other way around, of course. This is especially true if you think the Democrats are wrong a substantial portion of the time because they are too moderate, or the Republicans for the same reason.

        Well, for legislators anyway. For the executive there is the whole “competence” thing.

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      • What Will said, James. Ignoring the fact that I doubt how good a governor Rick Snyder has actually been, his expansive use of the emergency power law, signing of one of those ‘supply-side’ abortion bills, and signing of right-to-work means is enough to disqualify him from the possibility of ever getting a vote from me if I lived in Michigan.

        Plus, the talking point on the ‘sane’ Right has been, “oh, hey, the congressional Republican’s are crazy, but we’re still a center-right nation because we have 30 governorships, so austerity, anti-abortion laws, and tax cuts are still the way to go,” thus absolving themselves of blame for the crazy people they’ve sent to Congress. The less Republican’s, the less weight that talking point has.

        Now, since you’re closer to Snyder’s views on those issues, great. But, I’m a left-wing social democrat. The best way to do that is to elect as many Democrat’s in as many places as I can.

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      • Will,
        I have no problem with Jesse or anyone having a strong inclination toward one party, so that their default, in the absence of any important mitigating information, is to vote for party X’s candidate. But when your standard is “only felonies by my party’s candidate are mitigating information, and no combination my party’s candidate being venally corrupt and the other party’s candidate being honest and thoughtful counts as mitigating information,” that suggests a refusal to seriously consider what information one ought to take into consideration. I think that goes beyond simplicity.

        There is nothing respectable about the belief that honesty doesn’t trump corruption as long as the person shares my ideology. A liberal who takes this position is, in my view, indistinguishable from a conservative who does likewise. Each puts winning above decency and honesty. They’re indistinguishable from folks like Lance Armstrong. Curiously, each thinks itself superior to the other, while having essentially the same character.

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      • I’ll also say, I’m largely talking about national politics and to a lesser extent, state politics. I would’ve said only national politics ten years ago, but events like the purging of moderate Republicans in California and Kansas means we’re almost to the point that yeah, I’d vote for the D over the R for a state race the vast majority of the time.

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      • Jesse,

        Obama got 57 and 54% of the vote in Michigan. Democratic senator Carl Levin got 57, 58, 60, and 62.7% in his last four elections. Democratic senator Debbie Stabenow has gotten 58.8, 57, and 49.5 (ouch)% in her three elections. Although Rick Snyder only won his party’s nomination as a spoiler because two conservatives, and has never been liked by Democrats, his Democratic opponent was unable to reach even 40% of the vote (39.9%). A vote for him was legitimate, of course, but all my Democratic friends who did found it nausea-inducing to do so, and not all of them were that disappointed to see the nutjob lose.

        Your argument seems to suggest you wouldn’t have found it nausea inducing, just because the other guy was a not-very-conservative Republican. That indicates not a well thought-out position, but thoughtlessness. Blind commitment that places ideology in a position of superiority to all other values (except felony convictions, I guess). Nutjobs of my party are superior to thoughtful persons of the other party.

        You seem proud of that. So do Teabaggers. That’s your real company.

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      • James,

        I actually know who the “nutjob” was. In my mind, being anti-worker in the form of the right-to-work law he signed, anti-woman in the form of the abortion laws he signed, and anti-democratic the form of the his use of Emergency Manager laws is far more “nuttier” to my mind than whatever populism Bernero threw out there.

        I’m also not shocked that during a midterm election with depressed turnout, the type of Democrat’s the actually turnout weren’t the type to vote for a populist liberal like Bernero. Much better to vote for the “One Tough Nerd.”

        My disagreement, once you throw out ideology, has never been about the strategy of the Tea Party. It’s been about their tactics. I think the goal, for conservatives, of having the most conservative possible representative that can win a national election is perfectly fine if you’re a conservative. It’s the same reason I supported Edwards pre-scandal (well, actually pre-dropout) and Obama afterward – they were the candidates I believed to be the ones who were the most liberal that could win an election.

        Now, they’ve been dumb with states like Delaware or Indiana. But, I think it’s fine Ted Cruz is the Senator of Texas. Most likely, his views line up closer to those of Texans than John Cornyn’s does or David Dewhurst’s would have.

        The creators of the Tea Party realized we’re moving toward a parliamentary democracy in Congress and have tried to quicken that change. I have zero issues with that. There should be more liberal Senator’s and Congressman in multiple districts and states (hello, Dianne Feinstein) but at the same time, yeah, Jon Tester’s probably the most liberal guy who can hold a seat in Montana. If wanting the most effective, liberal as possible party that can win elections and advance progressive causes, then damn it, I guess I’m like a Teabagger, James.

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      • Rod,

        Agreed. I had certain reasons for voting against the Dem. I would have preferred if I could have just cast a vote against him, instead of having to cast one for Snyder. It wasn’t a vote I had great enthusiasm for.

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      • Let me add that given the way things stand now in Kansas (not my cup of tea, shall we say? ), I would be hard-pressed to vote for an R for any state or national office. Locally, party affiliation is much less important since the issues don’t break down that way nearly so readily.

        Thirty years ago that may not have been the case and perhaps it won’t be again in ten or twenty years. But right now? I’d rather stab myself in the neck with a fork than vote Republican.

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      • James,
        “There is nothing respectable about the belief that honesty doesn’t trump corruption as long as the person shares my ideology”

        This sounds like beautiful lovely words from someone who’s never bribed a public official in his life. [disclaimer: I haven’t either].

        One could rightfully say: “I know what the corruption is, and it isn’t a terrible drag — or prone to dramatic malallocations of resources.” [I think the second is far more of a danger than the first.]

        Magistrate courts (elected) in my area have a strong tendency to favor folks in their district. Gets ’em more votes. This is less bribery than systematic corruption of the system… but I still vote for magistrate judge.

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  11. Here is good example about rationality and policy on a local level. I’ve written about it before on the League but the number of Bars and Restaurants in a neighborhood.

    Matt Y generally thinks the number of liquor licenses in any neighborhood should be unlimited and that neighborhoods should encourage as many bars and restaurants as possible as generators of economic growth and wealth. He likes to sneer at people who want limited numbers of bars as being anti-growth and anti-people NIMBYs.

    I live in a neighborhood with a fair number of popular bars and restaurants or within walking distance of other neighborhoods with popular bars and restaurants. It is not uncommon that I have drunks playing with the buzzers on local apartments at 2 in the morning because they think it is the most hillarious thing ever. It is also not uncommon for me to hear large parties of drunks just hanging out side and being very loud after last call or on their march to another bar.

    Why should I want more of that? Isn’t it rational for me to want fewer licenses and the ability to enjoy sleeping peacefully? Or a nice quiet night in?

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    • Is this about rationality? It seems like a conflict of values. Each of these (growth & commerce and safety & quiet) is potentially legitimate, and I can’t readily choose between them with recourse to some higher value set.

      These are in other words perfect questions for a local election. Provided that voters know the alternatives, and provided that the policies and their probable effects are known to them in advance, this sort of election might be a very good example of the kind of democracy Somin thinks works best at the local level.

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      • Aren’t they already? Does the federal government (other than in DC, which is a ridiculous special case) set such things?

        We already HAVE a great deal of localization. School boards, local taxes and government — Texas does not set the speed limit on my street, and Obama does not pick out the books for my school.

        The devil is in the details — what does he want to move? It’s all dandy to say “I prefer we make local as many parts of government as makes sense” but whose to say we haven’t? What’s he want to move? Where does he think it’s wrong and why?

        Obviously, if we can be too centralized we can be too localized, so you want to avoid a “tax cuts are always the answer” sort of approach here.

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      • This is a local election issue and not a national election issue. That is true :)

        I never said that all issues needed to be solved at a national level. I think there are policies that work good on a local level, good on a state level, and good on a national level depending on the issue and importance. The number of bars in a neighborhood is good for a very local level and potentially not even city-wide level.

        Healthcare and civil rights laws need more centralized issues. Education works on a city, state, and national level.

        It is about rationality to the extent that everyone likes to call their opponents irrational.

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      • Yeah, but my point is does localizing it (1) Actually make voters more ‘knowledgeable’ about it and (2) Even make sense?

        Somin can prefer localization on an ideological basis, but he hasn’t really shown it makes people more knowledgeable or even that it’d work better — and even if he had, he’d have to show it on a case-by-case basis.

        Saying “Let’s do local as a first choice to solve the problem of dumb voters” seems a very expensive way to fix a problem that’s not really identified AS a problem. If voters can’t locate Iran on a map, I don’t think localizing foreign policy is going to fix that.

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      • One argument for a local monopoly is that it still provides a small degree of exit to another local monopoly. Another is that the local monopolies have the advantage of potentially pleasing more people as the monopoly can be tailored to its local constituents. Finally, the local monopolies can be benchmarked to each other and can learn from each other’s successes and failures. This can reduce or at least spotlight any rent seeking and exploitation within the monopoly.

        Of course this misses the real point. If we want choice and competition the true answer is to avoid all monopolies unless absolutely necessary, even local ones.

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      • You’re missing my point, roger.

        We have a great deal of localization. Some things very obviously make sense to be local, and we’ve made them that way.

        Somin’s response to supposed voter ignorance (I’d have to go over the methodology, but such things often boil down to ‘the rubes don’t consider important what I consider important, and thus don’t know what I know’) is to increase localization.

        But localization would work or not work for this entirely on a per-item basis, which is something that can and should be decided for reasons other than “Voters be Dumb”.

        It’s a…pointless suggestion. A solution that would only work at the expense of efficient government. Like I said — the fact that voters can’t find Iran on a map is no reason to let Texas invade it solo with their National Guard. It’d be a ridiculous outcome.

        Government’s got a job to do, and that job is not “making people know the things other people think are important” so redesigning government to rectify that is going to make government worse at those other things.

        Unless you assume something not in evidence — that voters being able to find Iran on a map would lead to better foreign policy outcomes. To be blunt, the entire media knew where to find Iraq on a map, and we still screwed the pooch.

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      • Morat, your arguments are reasonable, but they are precisely the justification for a sort of creeping centralization that makes the voters of Texas less and less important to the decisions that impact Texas.

        While it is indeed folly to imagine Texas striking out on its own against Iraq; Texas is an important state for providing soldiers who fight in Iraq. What one wonders is whether Texans might avail themselves of a map if the actual decision to go to war were somehow dependent upon Texans agreeing to send their kin there.

        I’m not therefore advocating for total decentralization in all matters, but rather pointing out that absent actual power, local interests are never fully represented… and the longer this goes on, the less interested the populace in decisions over which they have no control or accountability. deTocqueville comments on this fairly extensively and to good effect, it seems to me.

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      • Morat… and if only that element of government were subject to rational knowledgeable voters. :-) I think this is the nub of the issue, no?

        To Roger’s point about subsidiarity, the pendulum (IMO) has swung too far to the presumption that all decisions must be taken at the highest (most centralized) order… it is the presumption not the fact that I’m most concerned with.

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      • Decisions aren’t fungible. They come in all sizes and shapes and flavours. As such, they ought to be made at the maximum scope of impact. I do not want Dunn County to calibrate their produce scales and gasoline pumps to the Dunn Pound and the Dunn Gallon. Conversely, I don’t want Dunn County messing around with Eau Claire’s plans for its waterfront.

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      • Yes, Blaise, but are we more concerned with the rampage of non-standard weights and measures or the more likely scenario that the Federal Government is making a decision of Maximum Impact that forces the hand of Wisconsin, which forces the hand of Dunn County, which then determines exactly what Eau Claire can do with its waterfront?

        As a subsidiarist, I’ll stand with y’all to call for better governance at a higher order should Dunn County go rogue… but I just don’t think that’s the core problem we face in today’s order.

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      • I can’t help but feel, deep down, that when someone says “we need rational voters, not ignorant ones” what they mean is “Ones that agree with me”.

        And everything else is just either an excuse or another goal to try to get that state of affairs by some means other than “persuasion”. Like ‘let’s give some sort of basic knowledge test” (another Somin one, I believe) or “Let’s go ahead and make my preferred governmental preferences default (localization) as a means of fixing the fact that people don’t agree with me”.

        Even if Somin has the absolute best motives and is purer than driven snow — it still feels like that, and I distrust that absolutely. Maybe “irrational voters” or “ignorant voters” is a bad thing — but “only voters I choose” is worse. At least if I’m not the lucky ducky picking them.

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      • : Yes, we should be concerned with the rampage of non-standard laws. Usually the proponents of this feckless anarchy will tell us about Local Experimentation, much ignorant berating of Bureaucracy ‘n Schemin’ Lobbyists — without bothering to notice laws only affect people’s lives when they’re actually enforced. Nor do they notice how repealing one bad law does not always lead to better outcomes: those bad laws were once quite popular and addressed a specific problem at some point in time.

        Cases in point: bank and market deregulation. I would have hoped some eminent persons back in 2008 would have dragged Greenspan down to Nevelson Plaza and burned him at the stake, so everyone in the Federal Reserve could stare down at him and be thus instructed on the nature of deregulation and consequences for failing to enforce laws. His head would be put on a pike and put in a place of prominence in Statuary Hall in Congress, as a reminder of what happens to those who remove laws without regard for why they were passed in the first place. The first law is the law of gravity. The consequences for ignoring that law are entirely predictable.

        We might all hope for the smallest amount government in our lives as a worthy goal. But the primary role of the state is ultimately to stand alone among all the other states, under the empty sky, enforcing its own writ. All who complain of the State Monopoly on Power might remember the fundamentally anarchic nature of the paradigm of the nation state.

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      • Yes, it is well and good to stand guard against feckless anarchists; let us do so arm in arm.

        Is it ironic that your cautionary tale is to draw and quarter The Central Banker of Bankers for not respecting Chesterton’s gate? This strikes me as a most conservative principle… let us burn the Centralizers who use their power to maximal effect for the most minimal constituency by tearing down the laws made by previous generations to protect us from such excess. Is it ok if I and my kind throw the first torch?

        Your points are well taken, but I’m not that kind of conservative raging in favor of anarcho-capitalism and small gubermint. An honest mistake, to be sure. My response to you above was merely to state that in prioritizing mis-governance, Dunn County Imperialism ranks a good deal lower than the constant centralization of all things.

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      • I will never have a harsh word for anyone who reads Chesterton. If there is an ideal role for Central Government, it is the promulgation of common standards.

        In my business, things that end in A are bad, for they are Architectures. Things that end in P are good, for they are Protocols. Anyone can implement a protocol. Provided both ends of the wire agree to the protocol, things go along swimmingly. Thus arose the Internet and HTTP. Things that end in A, these never do well in the world.

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      • I can’t help but feel, deep down, that when someone says “we need rational voters, not ignorant ones” what they mean is “Ones that agree with me”.

        Yes, those who say things you dislike are, of course, being disingenuous.

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      • Yes, those who say things you dislike are, of course, being disingenuous.

        When did I accuse Somin of bad faith? In fact, several times in this thread I’ve stated otherwise — in fact, I’ve said that even a saint with lily-white motivations it would still be…problematic…to define ‘ignorant’.

        How do you define ignorant? Do you offer some political test? Measured by whose interests? If I have little to no interest in crime rates or law and order issues, should I be disallowed from voting because YOU judge it ‘important’?

        “Ignorant” and “Not Ignorant” require someone to first decide what issues are “important” and “not important” — because there’s really no problem if you’re ignorant over something unimportant to your vote, yes? No one can know everything, so obviously the problem is our ignorant voters don’t know the “important” things.

        Important defined by who? Tested by who?

        Heck, on Volokh one of the threads on this topic had a quick “People should be able to answer questions like these” and had commentators rip apart the questions, because the ‘right’ answer was often ideological — it just didn’t seem that way to the person posting it. “This is a straightforward economics question with a clear answer” — indeed, unless you were Keyensian.

        All Keyensians would cheerfully answer wrong, and not be allowed to vote. Hooray for purging ignorant voters.

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      • Morat,
        oh, boy, was one of them a q about the Minimum Wage?
        ;-} All the evidence seems to point to raising minimum wage in America, by small amounts, doesn’t lead to much displacement of income, if any at all.

        Yay for the actual research.

        (yes, naturally, frosh econ is a simplification. so is frosh physics).

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    • To play the devil’s advocate here ND, the same mentality that leads to restricting the number of bars in a neighborhood also restrict the building of housing in the neighborhood (especially high density low income housing) so then low income people have a hard time finding housing. Then of course to ameliorate that problem we descend on home builders and building owners to impose pricing and occupancy restrictions to provide housing for (some well connected) housing seekers which in turn depresses the incentives to build homes in a given area and drives the poor and unconnected out of the neighborhood.

      It seems rational to ask if we wouldn’t be better off trying to restrain those initial impulses instead of compounding the problem with layers of “cures” that, themselves, cause more problems and more inequity (and layer on inefficiency on top of that).

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      • North, it seems to me the primary question is whether any place would choose to have them, and whether they really need to be in a particular area.

        In the case of bars, after having given it much thought after ND brought it up, I am actually sympathetic to his complaints. Bars are a local benefit. If any particular neighborhood doesn’t want it, then the next neighborhood over will get it. We are not particularly in danger of nobody wanting bars nearby.

        The only question is whether or not its to society’s disadvantage for bars to be located in Easttown (or maybe a huge bar out in Outertown) than in Westtown. The two disadvantages I can think of are (a) we’re trying to get people to not have to drive everywhere and (b) we’re trying to get people to not drive home after a bar. From this perspective, it can easily be in an areas best interest to say Westtown needs to allow more bars because people are creating a hazard driving off to Easttown and Outertown and it’s creating a hazard. I actually find this rationale to be insufficient, though mileage would vary.

        On the other hand, I am far more sympathetic to the notion that multifamily housing is far more location-specific and that we want Easttown and Westtown to allow more building because otherwise we price people out and they have to commute in from Outertown, which creates all sorts of problems.

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      • Oh yes Will, I agree bars are manifestly a less sympathetic example than housing yet the basic NIMBY premise is the same. Banning new bars or businesses and banning new dense housing (or ANY new housing) are all the same species of impulse and it’s massively destructive to cities and heavily contributes to sprawl, urban blight, pollution and congestion on top of the massive burden it places on the poor (and this is without getting into the byzantine horrors of affordable housing intrusions which is akin to spraying lead laced air freshener in one’s house to alleviate the stench of the garbage one dumps on the floor).
        The frustrating problem with NIMBYism, of course, is the enormously powerful force it harnesses. People buy homes in neighborhoods because they’re drawn to the neighborhood the way it is. It is natural to wish to preserve that. I don’t buy a car with the expectation that a year down the line it’ll turn into a van so why would any home buyer purchase a property with a different expectation?

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      • I’m not advocating for the strict curtailing of bar licenses or even revoking liquor licenses and making it a byzantine process.

        I am advocating for the fact that there are balanced ways of doing things and negative externalities that seemed to be constantly ignored by the neo-liberal set. I’m also massively turned off at Matt Y’s constant sneers of NIMBYism to everyone who disagrees with him.

        These are not black and white issues where it is all growth or no-growth. There is a way to handle growth smartly.

        Speaking of housing, there are two ballot propositions up for votes this November in San Francisco. Ostensibly both are for raising the height restrictions on the waterfront. This is something I am sympathetic about and in favor of. Both are put forward by rich developers who want to build condos for the wealthy. I am not in favor of this and I have yet to see evidence that building luxury condos will result in affordable housing for the less than upper-middle class. I see lots of building in San Francisco and saw lots of construction in Seattle. It is all condos for upper-middle class or above professionals. Plus local landlords in SF are using Ellis Actions to turn their rental properties into TICs or Condos at a startling clip:

        http://www.sfexaminer.com/sanfrancisco/time-lapse-map-shows-ellis-act-impacts/Content?oid=2604754

        What is the time frame for condos and building spilling over to help those not in the upper-middle class or above? 5 years? 10 years? 15 years? 20 years? 30 years?

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      • I’m no expert ND, but the timeframe for improvement would presumably be from the moment the units went up for sale. Maybe a little sooner as the market priced in the anticipated increase in housing stock? People would move up and that’d ripple down the housing chain. Obviously you’d need a huge surge in building to produce a fast reduction in housing prices but in dense high demand markets like SF there’s enormous money to be made making housing of all kinds if it weren’t for the barriers in place to prevent or discourage building.

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      • Basically, when housing is unaffordable due to insufficient supply, almost every new unit helps alleviate that supply. A new condo for UMC means that someone UMC moves out of a row house, which means that someone else can move into that row house.

        Now, all housing is not created equal in this regard. My primary complaint about a lot of high-end housing is that it creates two units where you could easily have three. Even that helps alleviate the shortage and produces a cascading effect, but not as much of one as might otherwise be possible.

        This is why I think microapartments are so cool. It creates more units per square foot. There are limits to what you can do with microapartments, of course, because a lot of people don’t want them. But the alternative, often, is a lot of people taking up larger apartments than they need or even want.

        Where I tend to butt heads with liberals is that they want larger units with subsidies, which doesn’t do nearly as much to confront the underlying shortage. It’s helpful to those who manage to finagle one, but is completely unhelpful (in fact, potentially harmful) for everybody else.

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      • Again, I’m doubtful because a lot of upper-middle class people like living in codos that happen to be former rowhouses. See the map on Ellis Actions. These are landlords that are taking their entire property off the market (usually a rowhouse) and turning them into Tenants-in-Common or Row Houses.

        Stuff like this basically:

        http://www.sfgate.com/realestate/walkthrough/articleGallery/Eureka-Valley-condo-has-two-levels-period-details-4827797/photo-5198861.php

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      • ND, the rowhouse-to-condo was an example. Replace rowhouse with Condo A (1000sqft) and condo with Condo B (1500sqft).

        The point is that the people who move into the condos move in from somewhere. Somewhere that someone else can now move into.

        Some portion of them may be moving in from out of town, but if not for the new unit, they would still be moving into town and competing with everyone else for existing units.

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      • ND, you should keep in mind that part of the appeal of conversion condos is that it bypasses many of the hurdles raised by NIMBY anti-density zoning and similar regulatory barriers. Absent those regulatory barriers you’d see a lot more dense housing going up in this market area; a ton more.

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      • ND, I really don’t understand your thinking on this. When new luxury condos are built in
        San Francisco, who moves into them? Is SF growing in population? That is, are UMC and UC folks from outside the city (no caps!) outbidding current city residents for those condos and moving in? Because that could explain the old condos, etc, noy shuffling down the SES ladder. That scenario seems far-fetched.

        Or if the population is growing because MC folks are moving into the city, then as the currently resident UMC move into the new condos, their okd residences are mot dropping in price simply because the in-migration keeps demand for them up. The problem then is simply that the increase in new housing is not outpacing the increase in demand. But the new building that is occuring (and hence the housing that is vacated) is meeting some of that increase in demand, and so relieving what otherwise would be greater upward pressure on rental costs. If the city’s population is growing, this seems very plausible.

        But if the city’s population is not growing, and UMC folks are are moving from old condo/apartment to new luxury condos, what is happening to the space they vacated? Maybe it’s being turned into condos, but who’s moving into them, and what is happening with the housing they’re leaving? This is where I don’t follow your thinking…what could be happening here to prevent that housing from sliding down the SES ladder? The only possible cause I can think of is a rise in single living, fewer people having roommates, so that the same population is spread out among more apartments, so when Joe moves out the apartment doesn’t become available because John opts to stay and not get a new roomie.

        So what’s your explanation?

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      • , if New York is anything to go by, the people who move into luxury condos are people who’ve either never lived in the city before or are people moving from a high-class rental or luxury condo to another one. If they lived in the city before, their old place goes to another upper-income individual or family. That means that the exchanges in real estate are occurring among the upper-middle class and upper class.

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      • If they lived in the city before, their old place goes to another upper-income individual or family. That means that the exchanges in real estate are occurring among the upper-middle class and upper class.

        Lee,
        And the place the “another upper income individual or family” lived in? Don’t you spot the logical flaw in your argument? Or is there an unending supply of upper income people to both fill up new luxury real estate and keep refilling their old homes? Is that possible?

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      • Additionally, as Will has been trying to point out, the people moving in from out of town would be moving in anyhow, increasing demand and thus real estate values. People don’t move to a new city because there’s a new condo building. They move to a new city because of jobs, etc. They decide to move to the city and then they find a condo, not the other way around.

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      • Additionally, as Will has been trying to point out, the people moving in from out of town would be moving in anyhow, increasing demand and thus real estate values. People don’t move to a new city because there’s a new condo building. They move to a new city because of jobs, etc. They decide to move to the city and then they find a condo, not the other way around.

        Mostly, but not entirely, no? New developments go in – they ease price pressure in a certain price-segment of the housing market (presumably affluent professionals). Affluent professionals or new grads around the country are getting job offers in the SF area but also in other locales fairly regularly, right? SF is a desirable place to live for faux-hipster-yuppies (or just yuppies), but extremely high housing prices price a fair number of people out. If housing prices are controlled, it becomes more attractive to live there all things considered: some number of people choose to move to SF who previously wouldn’t have felt that they wanted to afford the housing costs on their salary.

        I wouldn’t say this supports ND’s view overall, though, as to me that looks mostly like a wash for people trying to hold it together at a particular housing price level below the brand-new-luxury-condo level. Or – generally, it might be like Mark & Will say – the pressure valve being opened at the top eases price pressure at all levels. But it’s not going to have absolutely no effect on how many people might decide to move to SF (or wherever).

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      • Will –

        What defines a microapartment? Obviously, there are efficiencies, small one-bedrooms, etc. etc. I’ve never heard of a microapartment, though. Fill me in?

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      • It’s fair to point out that ND’s challenge to the thinking here is not a challenge to the theory. He’s asking to see what the actual evidence is that it’s working out that way:

        I have yet to see evidence that building luxury condos will result in affordable housing for the less than upper-middle class.
        […]
        What is the time frame for condos and building spilling over to help those not in the upper-middle class or above? 5 years? 10 years? 15 years? 20 years? 30 years?

        I’m not sure what the evidence would look like – there’s no counterfactual price track of the units he’s interested in (where non-affluent people live) reflecting a world where many fewer luxury condo developments were built. But a response to him would be to try to talk about what housing prices in the market sector he’s concerned about have actually done compared to… something – not to just reiterate the theorizing about who must be moving in where and what the pricing effects have logically to have been. I think he gets that much of the theory.

        To ND, I would seriously ask him to dial back the Matt Y hate. The way you droop his name suggests you’re letting the fact that he’s expressing a view color your assessment of it. If I’m not mistaken, in The Rent Is Too Damn High, Yglesias does call for reduced density restrictions, but also for affordable housing policies (I could be wrong, but that is my impression). He doesn’t sneer at anyone with any reservations about more and more and more high-end housing, does he? Cite? As you say – you are in fact for loosening regulations that restrict density – and don’t we all agree that at some level, density is the key to preserving housing affordability in the urban core? The dispute is just over what kinds of housing should be built – whether affordability policies should be in place. In that, I think you’ll find Yglesias no your side (again, I could be wrong)? So why the vitriol? More generally, if you’re not prepared to commit to pro-density policy in the urban core in one form or another, this substantially placing yourself on the same side of the basic issue that Yglesias raises as he does, then what policies do you favor for managing rising housing prices in growing, popular cities like San Francisco?

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      • Isn’t real estate in San Francisco pretty much zero sum?

        I mean, in Colorado Springs, if you want to buy a house downtown, you’re going to pay for that… but there are plenty of unincorporated areas to choose from if you don’t mind a place in what used to be the boonies. (Powers Road used to be out in the middle of nowhere with not even a gas station nearby, now it’s a boulevard where you can run all of your errands alongside of everyone else running their errands.)

        As such, Colorado Springs is getting bigger.

        Isn’t it the case that San Francisco cannot get bigger?

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      • It’s not fixed in the vertical dimension depending on policy, but brand new apartments in the sky 1) tend to be objectively expensive per sq ft (but don’t have to be), and 2) have strong class and social implications/connotations for some. So whether to restrict (literally) upward expansion of living space (aka real estate), and what the effects of removing such restrictions are across the housing markets are really the crux of the dispute here.

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      • I seem to recall being told that San Francisco has some serious height restrictions on buildings, though

        If so, as Drew notes, that’s policy, not a natural fact. And on its western side in particular the city (no caps!) is characterized by single-family homes, with comparatively few apartment buildings of even modest–5 or 10 story–height.

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      • Not to be rude, but have you read the thread? That’s exactly what we’re discussing. New Dealer:

        Speaking of housing, there are two ballot propositions up for votes this November in San Francisco. Ostensibly both are for raising the height restrictions on the waterfront. This is something I am sympathetic about and in favor of. Both are put forward by rich developers who want to build condos for the wealthy. I am not in favor of this and I have yet to see evidence that building luxury condos will result in affordable housing for the less than upper-middle class. I see lots of building in San Francisco and saw lots of construction in Seattle. It is all condos for upper-middle class or above professionals. (My emphasis of ND’s view on loosening height restrictions.)

        Whether to loosen the height restrictions – but then also what kind of development doing that will produce in practice, and whether that will produce the hoped-for results in terms of preserving affordability of housing for those who really need help making it affordable in the city.

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      • Drew,

        Google microapartments and you’ll get all the scoop on them readily.

        I do think ND and Lee don’t fully grasp the theory, because they keep stopping one step into the process, arguing that the residences the wealthy leave for brand new construction are filled by other wealthy, without taking that process multiple steps back in a repeated “but who moves into their former residences?” sequence.

        Actual evidence can be tricky, because as I noted above, there could simultaneously be population growth that keeps demand up for the UMC’s vacated residences. But those non-declining, or even still-rising rents would mask the liklihood that without the new building the population growth would be creating more upward pressure on rents. (Up to some limit, of course, where high rents deter further population influx.)

        Similarly, the new luxury condos could mean there’s less gentrification pressure on poorer neighborhoods than there otherwise would be, because (some of) those who would gentrify have other housing options.

        With dynamic multivariate processes like this it’s hard to just point to obvious evidence, so a lack of clearly-seen residential mobility would not necessarily demonstrate that the process isn’t in effect, but could simply mean population growth is overwhelming it. Looking at census data, San Francisco is growing, by 20,000 from 2010-2012. Whether that growth rate is sufficient for this effect I don’t really know, but 10k per year will fill a substantial number of residential units. At the least it doesn’t undermine my hypothesis, but points in the right direction to support it.

        So the lack of a visible effect in SF could actually be a consequence of too few luxury apartments are being built. And consider what the effects on rents might be if even those too few weren’t being built,

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      • James:
        Obviously the answer is that the wealthy just rent as many apartments as they can. It’s expensive, but it’s a small price to pay to screw over the little people.

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      • Also, note the sucker’s game the anti-development left has set up. They don’t want to allow building, because that would benefit developers. But rent is really high, and eventually they’ll go along with allowing juuuuust a little bit of building, to show they’re good sports. Not enough to make a meaningful dent in the shortage, but enough to say they tried. Then, when it predictably fails to lower rent significantly, they say, “SEE? I TOLD YOU IT WOULDN’T WORK!”

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      • Brandon, can you point to an example of that happening somewhere? I mean precisely as you lay it out: the “left” opposes building, then complains about rent, then allows token building, then says “see, it didn’t help lower the rent.”

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      • I guess I wouldn’t mind hearing from Will in his words what the thing he advocates for against what he says liberals advocate for (“larger apartments with subsidies”) is. But perhaps I’ll google it.

        That I can see, ND doesn’t indicate that he doesn’t understand that the theory is that apartments vacated by UMC families moving to *new* luxury condos should be occupied by people with somewhat lower incomes, and so on down the line. He does express doubt about some luxury housing having that effect – where it involves expensive upgrades of existing units. Lee I think offers some doubt about the theory (maybe?), but, where ND was discussing the effects of new luxury condo development, he was primarily asking for concrete data that it’s happening that way in his community – *and “resulting in affordable housing for the less than upper-middle class.” That he was asking for the data to confirm the theory suggests he’s aware of the theory.

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      • Drew,

        But it’s not simply a theory, or at least not a tenuous one. In the absence of some other factor it’s a logical inevitability. Without another variable intervening it can’t not happen. So to say it’s not happening isn’t really a good rebuttal, and that’s how both Lee and ND seem to be using the lack of obvious evidence. I.e., if they do get the theory, they’re rejecting it on the basis of not seeing it happen in practice.

        But because it’s a logical inevitability–or at least the burden of proof is on those who would dispute that–then to not see it happening is evidence of an intervening variable. Or at the least, the presence of an intervening variable is a far more plausible, more parsimonious, explanation than that the logjcal inevitability isn’t really inevitable.

        So skipping over the liklihood of an intervening variable and going straight to rejection of the theory strongly indicates the theory is only incompletely understood, grasped at the superficial level, but not fully and deeply.

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      • A city planner of my acquaintance (used to play in a band with me) used to say a city is a stage play. A city planner works with two or three basic principles, known to every stage manager and set builder. Less is usually more in the foreground: the actors space to work. But the backdrops, well, those can get as elaborate as you like and really don’t cost all that much. Japanese garden designers call this “borrowed landscape”

        San Francisco is beautiful because its landscapes produce wonderful backdrops. Up close, it’s got lots of interesting amenities which make you feel as if you’re part of the scenery. But surprisingly few people live in San Francisco all their lives. Manhattan is much the same way, it’s where you come to be part of a great big play.

        Even if you’re an extra you’re still on stage — and often closest to the loveliest parts of the city. Granted, looking forward, not much to see, what with the stage lights pointing at you, but the coolest parts of any town are not necessarily its most expensive. The cool people, the up and comers, haven’t arrived yet, any more than you have. The people at the top of Russian Hill didn’t start out there.

        Cool neighbourhoods are really just cool people. They moved to the neighbourhood before it became cool and made it so. Often, they set in motion the very destruction they wanted to prevent: now everyone wants to move to the place they made cool. Old Town Chicago used to be raffish and a bit seedy, but jam-packed with the most interesting people. Now, sadly for me but not for others, it’s very cool. Rents are way up, the old cut-in-pieces stately homes in the back streets have been painstakingly restored. Add a few big apartment buildings along Wells Street and even more along North Avenue — Old Town has blown out any semblance of its former coolness.

        San Francisco has been loved damned near to death. The Google employee buses prompt the local folk to resentment of a sort I understand all too well, having watched Old Town transmogrify into a gauche demesne of too much money and too little cool. I would have loved to raise my family in Old Town Chicago. I wasn’t priced out so much as I was driven away.

        Gandhi said “we must be the change we want to see in the world.” Sometimes, to our horror, we are that change, especially to the places we love.

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      • He neither rejected the theory nor said the effect it predicts is not happening. He said he hasn’t seen evidence that it is; actually, even more limitedly, he says he hasn’t seen evidence that it’s happening to a particular degree: actually producing “affordable housing” (whatever that might mean), not just putting some downward pressure on rents.

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      • The affordable housing argument is usually self-defeating. No sooner does some zoning ordinance or construction permit forbid or allow something, it’s always going to tread on someone’s toes. I can’t speak to how other cities manage all this, but Chicago I know rather better than I’d like, and Chicago comes apart into wards. Aldermen. If the people along a given side street want it blocked off, call the alderman, get ‘er done. Want to keep the tourists out of your parking spot? Put in a ward sticker system for cars.

        The rent is always too damned high. But trying to lower it by external mandate never seems to work.

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      • MDrew, you can look up official definitions and such, but basically think along the lines of dorms or converted motel rooms. Single, smallish-room apartments often lacking in single-bedroom amenities like kitchens and sometimes even individual bathrooms.

        I was perhaps overbroad with my use of “liberal” and “tend”… especially in a conversation where North is participating. Not just out of deference to North, but because a lot of liberals do feel as he does.

        NewDealer and I have butted heads on microapartments in the past. He’s rather dismissive of them, as are some other liberals I know (conservatives don’t seem to care much one way or the other). I would agree that microapartments alone are not solutions to the housing crisis (I’m not sure anyone would claim otherwise), but if we’re concerned about affordable housing they are a great part of the solution. ND argues that they are “glorified dorm rooms” and I other criticisms are that they are analogous to flophouses (which, cruel bastard that I am, I also think could have their place – or, if not flophouses, then capsule apartments).b

        But it’s fair to say that my criticism of “liberals” was misapplied here.

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      • Drew,
        This is now heading down a familiar path, where you play the irritating “I shall now speak for others” role. I’ll happily continue to converse with either ND or Lee, or even with you speaking for yourself, but I’ll not converse with you as a stand-in for them.

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      • In city planning terms, they’re SRO. Single room occupancy. They go right back to the Roman empire *, Rome crammed more than a million people into the city.

        SROs are fire hazards because people try to cook in them anyway, They don’t solve the problem. Lived across from one in Old Town, the old Hotel Lincoln. Several of my friends lived there. Several fires. There’s an argument for the studio apartment but the SRO or Micro-flophouse / dog kennel is an exceedingly stupid idea.

        * and Rome had ordinances against lighting fires in them. Most people ate ready-made food from street vendors.

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      • Blaise, if external just got out of the way, that might make a dent. I’m not advocating doing away with any and all regulations nad safety requirements, but a reassessment might be in order. At least of those codes that are density-prohibitive and pushing people out to the suburbs.

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      • James,

        Looking again, I think your response at 7:43 does respond more or less in the way I’d want; I think it just buries the lede slightly. It gives the account of the lack of evidence in sort of highly conditional language rather han just flatly acknowledging a lack of clear evidence for the effect ND describes in SF, and saying straight-out that the deal on evidence is simply that the theory says that, so long as the luxury condos are purchased, there will be downward pressure on rents throughout the housing market (if it really does say that), and if this hasn’t seemed to be the case, it’s because not enough of them have been built (and purchased) to have a large enough effect for there to be clear evidence. There’s a lot about why the theory should be right – what happens to all the vacated apartments, ND? – when that isn’t really responsive to the question of where’s this price effect I’m told to expect?

        Note that it’s entirely possible that the number of luxury condos that can be built and occupied in SF simply isn’t large enough, due to one constraint or another, for the easing effect it has in the housing market to have a really noticeable impact on down-market rents. Broader upward pressure on rent may simply swamp the effect as a visible matter in any case. If that were the case, in some sense I suspect ND would see this as supportive of his view that, in allowing this development, one thing that isn’t really in the cards is broad housing affordability for working class people in SF one way or the other. The question then goes back to why he isn’t inclined to want to see these kinds of developments happen if the economy supports them in any case.

        To Brandon: what percentage of luxury condominium homes in high-rises built in SF since, say, 2000 are you willing to guarantee me were purchased by someone who was vacating another residency in SF as a result of the purchase? What percentage of purchasers are you willing to guarantee me were not purchasing the condo without vacating any other residency in connection with the new purchase?

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      • “The suburbs” is a capacious term, mostly implying single family detached w / yard, etc. Lots of the ‘burbs is some ghastly assembly of apartment blocks with a big sign on the front like Whispering Pines Estates or some other ridiculous name.

        The disconnect between city and suburb is mass transit. Neither wants to make effective connections because neither wants to pay for them. In Chicago, METRA makes life a lot easier, gets people into the Loop and gets them out again. There’s one stop just before Union Station on my old run, where a good many people would get out and take connecting buses to destinations north of the river.

        Mass transit doesn’t solve every problem and I weary of people who promote it beyond its tightly circumscribed benefits. Dog kennels in the city are not the solution. They’re a tacit admission the city infrastructure sucks. Other cities make this work: Tokyo, for all its complexity and expense, does. They’re getting sick of these all-night cafes turning into flop houses.

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      • James,

        I was wearing the “I shall speak for New Dealer” hat from the very beginning in this – I didn’t just don it in the last few comments. I have been, all along, because he seems – and seemed – to have more or less fully dropped out of the conversation, treating his comments as a text that I think is being misinterpreted. If you “now” (contra before) don’t want to engage with me doing that, that is entirely up to you.

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      • I didn’t drop out but this is not the only thing I have or want to do during the day. I had a happy hour last night and when I returned I decided to read a book instead of coming back.

        I like this community a lot but I don’t necessarily have a chance to respond to everything quickly.

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      • Will –

        Capsule apartments? Could you fill me in?

        J/k ;-)

        I can see ND’s resistance. The idea of affordable housing policy, in my view, would be to try to make bare-bones but adequate affordable to people at most income levels. Squeezing families into converted dorm rooms doesn’t seem like the goal you’d set for that. OTOH, as a transitional arrangement for families facing really hard times, it seems perfectly apprpriate that such facilities would exist – I can’t speak to ND’s exact position on this (natch), ie whether he thinks microapartments should not exist at all period, or whether you just don’t share a vision for exactly what role they should play in housing policy. I guess as a first blush, for myself I wouldn’t want to outlaw them or anything by any means, but I wouldn’t want to make them the centerpiece of an affordable housing strategy, either, except perhaps where truly severe housing shortages are widespread (for ex. I imagine on the North Dakota oil shale fields that type of arrangement was the only workable solution for quite a while – but there of course affordability wasn’t really the policy issue, just flat-out shortages were).

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      • I’m not completely against micro-apartments but I do have my reservations. I think I voice them stronger and more stridently because it does seem like certain sectors of the political and policy wonk class treat them as cure-alls for apartment woes. I can see why young and/or single and/or spartan people can be attracted to microapartments. I am probably too old for them at this point but when I was 22-23, I lived in a glorified hostel in japan with large common areas and it was just fine. However, part of me thinks that it boosting micro-apartments is about attracting the “right-kind” of people to a city. It feels like it is part of the creative class metros system as set up by Richard Florida. And I have my doubts on what he calls the creative class largely because his definition is overbroad and means upper-middle class knowledge workers who might or might not have creative jobs or desired vocations.

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      • ,
        I had a happy hour last night and when I returned I decided to read a book instead of coming back.

        Outrage!

        (OK, sounds like a nice evening. I think I remember having evenings like that once upon a time…)

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      • New Dealer,

        I I have have misrepresented your arguments in any way, please by all means dress me down accordingly, and since you have indicated that you’re still interested in the discussion, I’m backing out immediately, at least from the role of reading what you’ve written in the open record and telling people whether I think they’ve understood it and are representing it accurately, since you can do that perfectly well yourself. While you weren’t doing that, I thought it was good to have someone doing it, though. If in future, you’d rather I not do that if/when you write something that is being characterized and you’re not around to assess the accuracy of such characterizations, please tell me, and I will abstain from doing it at all times.

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      • Your constant name changes are confusing and make you hard to tag :)

        It is my understanding that most decent, affordable housing for the working poor and/or lower-middle class has always partially or wholly been through charity and/or government action. There are examples I know of from the early Victorian Era onwards of do-gooders trying to build decent housing for the working houses. Do you have examples of someone building not fancy but also not slum housing for the working classes on a for-profit basis?

        I can concede that we probably need more luxury condos but part of me would like to see someone build something other than a luxury condo. The houses built in the Outer Richmond and Sunset were built using mass production techniques and meant for more modest-income families. Are there any recent examples of people doing this in non-exurban communities?

        There is also a part of me that is a strong cynic. I think part of automation is potentially a way of not needing to deal with working class or moderate income people:

        http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2013/10/yes-technology-going-destroy-middle-class

        The big technological innovations: Self-Check Out, Driverless Cars, and other stuff seems exactly aimed at trying to create a working-class free city. I even think there is a robot barista now for coffee shops. Part of the reason I think Lyft and other car-share services are so popular is that the drivers tend to be homogeneous to the tech and young professional crowd as opposed to being older and foreign immigrants from different cultures. You can talk to your Lyft driver (who is a grad student or artist and doing this for extra-cash) about cool indie bands. Not so much with the 50-something or older cabbie from Egypt or whereever.

        I sadly think that techies and Creative Class boosters are purposefully or inadvertently trying to create cities that are very homogeneous on a socio-cultural level. Mainly professionals with the service class being hipster chefs, bartenders, and people working at alt-produce markets, yoga instructors, and cooler boutiques. Maybe some teachers for their kids (if they have kids).

        What will create affordable housing is when cities begin not working because necessary working class job-holders (stuff that is not glamorous like janitorial work and can’t be automated easily) does not get done because the workers live too far from the city to make a reasonable commute.

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      • : that’s all true enough, no doubt Tokyo has dog kennels. But from what I’ve been hearing, there’s a movement afoot to change all that, impose some restrictions on it. These people are stacking up in the public parks, rail tunnels, any place they can get in out of the rain. They come and go to these dog kennels, they’re often rented by the night. It’s a public health menace and that’s the angle along which it’s being attacked. It’s not just Tokyo, Osaka has the problem, too.

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      • The joys of being single :)

        Japan might not be completely good to emulate considering this report from The Guardian:

        http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/20/young-people-japan-stopped-having-sex
        You would be interested in the article as well.

        Japan seems to have reached the perfect storm of young people being fed up with the current cultural system but not being able to change it. Their best option seems to be a radical opting-out. Women don’t want to give up their good jobs for the sake of marriage but are still expected to (who would want to be called a Devil Woman?). There is also a feeling that families now need two incomes in Japan to support a family. Men are also tired of the work all the time Salary-man culture and structure that has really long days and weekend work* but the older guardians refuse to change or modify.**

        *From what I heard when living in Japan, the culture puts a lot of stock into long hours instead of smart work. Long Hours shows dedication to the company or some such. I feel the same is true in the United States

        **For the past few years, the government has been trying to encourage more casual office wear especially during the summer as a way of getting people to use less energy and be better for the environment. The old guard often refused to give up on the suit and tie all the time culture but they were willing to shut off the AC.

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      • Do you have examples of someone building not fancy but also not slum housing for the working classes on a for-profit basis?

        No, but I have lots of examples of the working classes living in housing that was built for people of greater means 3 or 4 generations before. This is part of my point. If we intentionally build affordable housing for the poor, we’re normally either doing it through charities or through the government. And the cost realities that keep for-profits out of that market affect charities and governments as well. They may not be concerned about making a profit, but charities normally have limited means, so they’re normally (not inevitably, but normally) going to be more concerned about making housing that is basically livable than housing that is elegant (and that’s not a criticism of them–it’s how to get the best bang for their buck, providing more not-as-nice housing rather than less but nicer housing). And government is subject to political pressures along the lines of “why are you making such nice stuff for the poor with my tax dollars, just make basic apartments for them.” Meanwhile, I’ve been in apartments in San Francisco that were on the lower end of the price scale that were beautiful–albeit generally rather worn–spaces.

        The houses built in the Outer Richmond and Sunset were built using mass production techniques and meant for more modest-income families. Are there any recent examples of people doing this in non-exurban communities?

        Not much. It’s a function of land prices. When those houses in the Richmond and Sunset were built they were the suburbs; that was vacant land. The availability, hence cost, of land is a fundamental factor that determines whether that kind of building is cost-effective. Why are those houses so expensive today? Same reason, really. They’re actually not efficient. Relax the rules and let pure market demand shape the housing in San Francisco and it will turn into Manhattan or Singapore. Nobody would do mass middle-income single-family homes there.

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      • RE: that Guardian article on Japan. It is only the most recent I have seen describing this issue in the last few years, from various angles (the “herbivore” men etc.)

        To the extent that it is true (I do suspect there is *some* media sensationalizing going on), I wonder how much of it has to do less with any social/cultural factors, and more with simple overcrowding (Japan is very densely populated).

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_B._Calhoun#Mouse_experiments

        After day 600 the social breakdown continued and the population declined toward extinction. During this period females ceased to reproduce. Their male counterparts withdrew completely, never engaging in courtship or fighting. They ate, drank, slept, and groomed themselves – all solitary pursuits. Sleek, healthy coats and an absence of scars characterized these males. They were dubbed “the beautiful ones”.

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      • NewDealer, I view the social dynamics of microapartments in a much different light than you. It’s not about attracting the creative class at all. If it were, the people of Seattle wouldn’t be fighting it like they are. They’re fighting it precisely because it provides housing for the poor (right in their back yard).

        I used to live in something that was, if not a microapartment, something close to it. A converted motel. It billed itself as being full of students (right across the street from the university). There were maybe a couple. A couple more people like me who were out of college. Mostly, though, it was just full of poor people. People on disability and social security. Ex-cons. Kids who never went to college. Young families, even. That, to me, is what microapartments represents, and why they get pushback.

        You and I may not agree on much, but we agree on Richard Florida.

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      • Michael Drew, I’m doubting this theory becomes it doesn’t match up to historical examples. Cities in the United Staes and Europe had something very close to what the libertarians argued for during the 19th century and a good chunk of the 20th century. The housing that the free market created for the lower class were the tenenments. These were usually houses that the affluent lived in and were subdivided to house as many people as possible in some very substandard conditions.

        So I agree that when the afflument move into new housing, the less affluent move into the previous housing sometimes but this housing historically was transformed to stuff more people into it. This transformation usually involed doing things that made the housing quality decrease, a lot.

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      • Lee,

        I think you may be focussing more on what people do in response to massively growing population, not on the effects of housing expansion per se. That being said, I think you raise a good point about stratification. The theory only works well if there is a smooth distribution of incomes, so that people can move up incrementally. It wasn’t going to help new settlers on the LES find housing much to see new mansions go in on the UES in the early 20th c. The the middle class, such as there was, perhaps wasn’t big enough to fill in the housing that the wealthy vacated to move into the mansions. If any income set in the middle can’t make the market clear in a housing sector just above their current station, then the effect won’t trickle down like we’d hope. So a lot of this is contingent of facts on the ground, with inequality presenting a potential limit on the market fluidity that the theory envisions. And, in cites like SF, increasing income stratification is an on-the-ground fact, so it may be a factor here.

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      • James, a three or four generation lag time is simply too much. Its like telling the weaver’s who lost their job to the powerloom in the 1780s that everything is going to be fine because railroads are going to come along in the 1830s and 1840s bringing high-paying working class jobs again. People, especially people who live paycheck to paycheck, need jobs now not generations in the future.

        Its the same with housing. Affordable housing is needed in the present not in the future. Not just affordable but quality. Its easy to create affordable housing, just bring back the slums, the flop houses, and SRO. Subdivide houses and stuff them with as many people as possible. All of this will lower the rents, few people would want to live in these circumstances. Quality is important to.

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      • Lee, what you say does not at all contradict what is being said here. In fact, it only strengthens the argument. Someone moves out of one house and into another, and the first house is subdivided into smaller units, then congratulations: You just increased housing inventory! And so, by creating more housing for the wealthy, you have increased housing availability for others.

        Cost being a function of space (where there is a scarcity of space), smaller units tend to be more affordable.

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      • Lee,

        Nobody is arguing that the housing remains wholly untransformed. There’s nothing inherently problematic about dividing a house into apartments. The beautiful three story house kitty-corner from me has been cut into about four apartments. I haven’t been inside, but it’s clearly big enough to hold 4 decent size apartments; not just efficiency apartments or microapartments or tenement style ones. I’ve seen countless such buildings over the years, including in San Francisco.

        I’m always skeptical when our reference for what we think will happen is the 19th century. As liberals like to tell libertarians, times are different now. They sure are. Would people accept that type of housing now? Probably not, in part because expectations have increased, including among the poor, and also because we have public subsidization of housing for the poor which would help them avoid settling for mere tenements.

        But here’s where the real rub is for me. Let’s agree tenements are something we don’t want to bring back because they were bad for poor people. The liberal solution over the course of the 20th century in cities like NY and SF has been to prevent expansion of the housing supply, both through restrictions on building and through rent-control that doesn’t simply make constructing new apartment buildings an unattractive economic activity* but actually leads to landlords abandoning existing apartment buildings. Here’s an NYT article form 1988 that shows that tens of thousands of empty abandoned apartments in NYC. Few well-intended social policies have been so phenomenally destructive of their intended purpose.

        To some extent, the liberal demand for public built affordable housing–which has, we should keep in mind, often resulted in projects that are no better than the old tenements were–is a consequence of the housing-destroying policies of the 20th century. Anytime we need a policy to fix the effects of our previous policy, it’s a good idea to take a step back and re-evaluate that initial policy.
        ______________________________________
        *Seriously, if we want to hasten the process of moving poor people up into decent housing, we should encourage the building of lots and lots of new middle class apartments/condos, so what the middle class leaves behind becomes available.

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      • @jaybird: San Francisco may not be able to get any bigger, but it can certainly get denser. There are huge residential areas in San Francisco that have 1-3 story buildings, giving it a population density of 17,000/square mile compared to Manhattan’s 70,000.

        That’s pretty much what NewDealer is describing here, isn’t it? Also, I said “the anti-development left,” not “the left.” There are pro-development people on the left, like Yglesias; obviously I don’t blame them for this.

        To no one in particular:
        If you only allow a small amount of development, developers will tend to build high-end housing, because that has the highest margins. But they can only sell or rent so much high-end housing at a profit. Eventually they run out of people willing and able to pay a premium for it, so they have to build mid-range and eventually low-end housing to be able to make a profit. But they won’t get there until they’ve built enough to satisfy the demand for high-end housing. When you allow just a little bit more development, high-end housing is all you’re going to get.

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      • All of this will lower the rents, few people would want to live in these circumstances.

        The point at which people stop moving into them is the point at which they stop being built. Or should stop being built, at any rate.

        Keeping in mind, of course, that I’m not talking about death traps. Obviously, there should be regulations in place to prevent things from living in death traps. But aside from that, SRO’s represent an affordable option. Perhaps the cost of living in SF or NY. It’s better than being priced out entirely.

        If you want spacious housing at affordable prices, move to Dallas. In San Fransisco, it’s going to come down to spacious vs affordable. The only way to bend that curve is to increase overall housing space. By a lot.

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      • Michael Drew, its true that the American population isn’t quite expanding in the same way as it was during the 19th century but a lot of immigrants move to the United States and Europe every year and people of our generation and younger are preferring cities to the suburbs. Thats why we are having a big boom in housing cost in many metro areas. Thats why I think the 19th century examples are still appropriate because the cities are growing in population and sometimes quite rapidly.

        In NYC, the subway was built as fast possible to relieve the housing pressure on Manhattan. The goal was to get the working and lower middle class people out of Manhattan and into the outer boroughs, where they would have larger and cheaper apartments and maybe even single-family housing of some sort. This generally worked. A lot of SF housing problems could be solved if the areas around BART stations were allowed to urbanize. Same goes for other metro areas. We need more transit and high density, mixed use housing along transit stations.

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      • James, a three or four generation lag time is simply too much.

        No, not at all. I think you misunderstand. It’s a three or four generation time-lag for that particular building. If you have had buildings being built every year, for the past century or more, there is no overall time lag, because every year some of those buildings have hit that third to fourth generation point.

        The only case where that three or four generation time-lag is a general time lag is when something has prevented the on-going construction of new residential units every year. The Great Depression may potentially have created a temporary hitch, for example. Or…and I will repeat this endlessly because it’s the crux of the matter…when our policies result in decades of under-construction.

        We simply cannot bitch meaningfully about the time-lag when it is our own phenomenally stupid policies that cause it to be not simply a per-building time-lag but a general one. NYC fucked up for decades, and now you want overnight results? Don’t blame the natural process; blame the policies that fucked things up for decades.

        Its the same with housing. Affordable housing is needed in the present not in the future.

        I agree. Which is why NYC should never have screwed up the natural process that continually made new affordable housing–transitioned from previously unaffordable housing–available.

        Look, I just can’t really take you seriously on this issue until you look backwards and assess why NYC has a shortage of decent affordable housing. You seem to be giving the city’s policies a pass, as though they’re irrelevant. They’re not. And they’re not just slightly relevant. They are the very centerpiece of the story–they are the primary cause. I’d love to see you address that and answer the question of what our first action would be when we see that policy X is causing really bad outcome Y.

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      • A lot of SF housing problems could be solved if the areas around BART stations were allowed to urbanize. Same goes for other metro areas. We need more transit and high density, mixed use housing along transit stations.

        Lee, I totally agree with this. Granted that for some people the lure of living in SF itself will still be a major draw, for others just having convenient access is sufficient (particularly for people with kids).

        But which ideological group is preventing this from happening? It’s not libertarians, and from my experiences living in SF it’s not conservatives. Certainly the real estate developers aren’t blocking it.

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      • Will,

        Perhaps so, and I would approve. But it’s not sufficient to just disapprove–we have to understand how the current situation was caused to understand the best solutions.

        Really, if we want to create sufficient and decent affordable housing, our policy should not be to focus on creating affordable housing, but to focus on encouraging so much building–at all levels from luxury condos to micro-apartments and everything in-between–that we have a housing glut that takes years to alleviate.

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      • I’ll say again, I think a lot of the disagreement here is over positions that were not stated or implied by the people whom others are disagreeing with for having such positions.

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      • I concur with : case in point, Wheaton, IL. It’s put up condos near the METRA station. Though most people work in Chicago, it was the salvation of the downtown, which was dying off. Wheaton is a prosperous suburb north of the tracks and a bit dingier on the south side but all those condos with METRA access to the Loop have made a big difference.

        Didn’t happen all at once. Wheaton allowed a hi-rise apartment building, Wheaton Center, to be build a few decades back. It wasn’t really close to the station, but close enough. Kinda crummy apartments but affordable. But those condos close to the METRA station are pricey.

        Ergo, if you want your suburban downtown to survive, install commuter apartments and lots of them. Seems perverse, but it works.

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      • NewDealer,
        safety regs are what generally impedes the creation of new low income housing.
        That and, well, price.
        SF isn’t Pittsburgh. We’ve got plenty of affordable housing around here.

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      • James, I think the ideological group that is oppposing suburban urbanization are suburban home-owners. Opposition to suburban urbanization exists everywhere on the political spectrum. It isn’t necessary about anything but keeping property values up and the idealization of the single-family home. I do blame rightists for having this weird opposition to mass transit and a belief that the only proper form of transportation is the car and the airplane.

        Will, I think the evidence is clear that rent control doesn’t work. It keeps people from moving out of their apartments and encourages the development of condos rather than rental housing in cities because developers can make more money. This makes it harder for the less well-off to move into cities.

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      • Lee,
        I’d rather we keep it to mass transit, rather than single family dwelling.
        Otherwise, people who pay city taxes (like,um, me) would count as being in the suburbs. And that’s just inane.

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      • but to focus on encouraging so much building–at all levels from luxury condos to micro-apartments and everything in-between–that we have a housing glut that takes years to alleviate.

        I couldn’t agree more. Trying to figure out what sort of housing should be built ends up being a barrier to anything getting built at all. I think more smaller units (built more vertically) would be preferable to fewer larger dwellings (at the least, in places of land scarcity, Frisco Cali if not Frisco Texas), but trying to insist on that can play a role in slowing things down, I think.

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      • And now, we have circled back around to grumbling about those dratted NIMBY’s. It truely is human nature and the nature of housing as a consumer product that is the rock in the shoe on this subject. We try and treat housing like a product but the annoying fact is that it isn’t exactly like one. If I buy a toaster I’m not going to wake up one day and discover that it’s grown into a blender. If I buy a house, however, I could wake up one day and discover my neighbor has turned into an apartment building.

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      • Quite right, North. I remember a property being built near the beach with a nice beachfront view. Then suddenly another property went up and completely destroyed the view, devaluing the first property and making condo living there less pleasant.

        There’s no easy way to deal with that. I default to “buyer be aware” but I can understand the frustration and the desire to prevent it.

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      • Oh yes Will, though if anything “buyer beware” is the heart of NIMBYism. The nonattentive buyers or the uncaring buyers don’t flood zoning permit meetings or picket offices or vote based on support for restrictive laws. It’s the people who carefully choose their location and then set about trying to ensure it remains in the state it was when they bought it that are the beating heart of NIMBY’s. Ya can’t even blame them really.

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      • I suppose I should more specifically say “Buyer be aware that you own your own property but nothing around it” or “Buyer beware that everything around what you own is subject to change.”

        Of course, that only works when people can’t prevent the change. Which is more the case in some places than other places. Usually along class lines.

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      • Will,

        I absolutely concur with ““Buyer be aware that you own your own property but nothing around it” and “Buyer beware that everything around what you own is subject to change.”

        Theoretically, that uncertainty should get factored into the purchase price. That is, if I am assured that the empty lot that allows me the scenic view can never be developed, I will pay more than if I know the empty lot could, possibly, someday be developed, and in those conditions I will pay more than if I know for certain that the empty lot will someday be developed.

        But in that middle ground, the person is paying–although not “full price”–for a scenic view, so when it is lost it is a real distress. Their purchase price may have reflected that possibility, but psychologically they’re not feeling compensated by the money they saved when they bought.

        That’s kind of an argument for being at least somewhat sympathetic, but in practice I’m not particularly so. I have a friend who was upset because the empty wooded lot across his street was bought by Jehovah’s Witnesses who cut down most of the trees and built a Kingdom Hall. He protested with local officials and tried to stop it, and his complaint to me was that they’d spoiled his view and the reason he bought that house was because he wanted to look across the street at trees, not buildings. But of course whatever he paid for his house, he didn’t pay for control of that lot.

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      • James, it’s a fact of life back home that every suburban rung is shocked and outraged when the next rung out starts to suburbanize.

        It’s also the case in the property I was referring to that it was definitely forseeable that a new development would go up and block the view. I hope everyone made that with that knowledge in mind. (On the other hand, the land where the obstructing development went up had been dormant for years and years, so there might have been reason to believe that it wouldn’t happen as quickly as it did.

        (And it might not have, but for a hurricane. It’s hilarious how hurricanes often spur development on the Gulf Coast beach. I’m still not sure how that works.)

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      • When that determined citizen who lays down in front of the zoning board to stop development of that lot across the street sees his house blown away he suddenly becomes less incented to bother maybe?
        Though the entire phenomena of building (both by the rich and the poor) in flood/storm zones in the United States remains something that has my jaw hanging to my knees in astonishment. When I describe the National Flood Program to my (commie socialist liberal) friends in Canada they think I’m fishing with them.

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      • San Francisco may not be able to get any bigger, but it can certainly get denser. There are huge residential areas in San Francisco that have 1-3 story buildings, giving it a population density of 17,000/square mile compared to Manhattan’s 70,000.

        Which brings me back to San Francisco’s fundamental problem: it’s got some of the harshest height restrictions from any major city (that’s from the wiki). Which means that if you’re going to be buying real estate to invest with (that is: tear down and rebuild something), you are going to be limited to how many floors you’re going to put up. If you intend to turn a profit (I assume you intend to turn a profit), you’re stuck making better stuff than you just tore down because you probably won’t be able to make taller stuff than you just tore down.

        The height restrictions are preventing people from making something ten times as tall and one fifth as expensive.

        Easier to make luxury condos with great views.

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      • San Francisco has some pretty good reasons for those height restrictions, and it’s not just about views.

        The fault goes right smack dab through the middle of the city. Modeled shake map of the 1906 earthquake here.

        A good portion of the south bay area is built on reclaimed wetland or soil type D or E, as is basically all the places where you’d want to build a high-rise in San Francisco city limits

        http://earthquake.usgs.gov/regional/nca/soiltype/

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      • Earthquake zone or not LA and SF have tons of buildings that’re much larger than single family homes and don’t fall down when earthquakes hit.

        Yep, and they’re almost all going to fall down.

        We are critically overdue for a major quake on the San Andreas. The whole fault is well past its normal cycle of a major event, and while the Southern San Andreas is the most likely stretch to go, the area around San Francisco is also overdue.

        This is not going to be like Northridge. It is not going to be like Loma Prieta. It’s going to be really, really bad. The shaking in Northridge went on for 14 seconds. Loma Prieta was 15 seconds.

        We’re overdue for something that is going to last something more like 80-240 seconds.

        In SoCal, the fault through the Cajon pass is going to displace on the order of 20 feet or more, if it happens down here. No aquaduct, no telecommunications line, no 10 freeway, no 15 freeway, no Union Pacific line. Over half of the raw goods that come into the country come into San Pedro, you’re looking at three months before that returns to normal. Without the water supply coming in from the Colorado River, we’re looking at a very short period of time before we run out of potable water, and it’s basically physically impossible to airlift it in.

        That’s just us. At least we’re pretty spread out.

        San Francisco has a whole different set of problems.

        Previous earthquakes have given Americans a very skewed idea of how much damage major quake really does. The Fukushima quake was a comparable magnitude, and it took place well off the coast (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_Sendai_Earthquake_2011.jpg). Japan has some seriously awesome building codes, too.

        When the San Andreas running through San Francisco goes, it’s going to literally rip right through the middle of the city. What’s worse is going to be a complete inability to fight a fire, same as in 1906.

        Just like then, there is going to be no way to put it out.

        Population density in San Francisco needs to stay low, or there’s going to just be too many bodies per square mile to do anything but die.

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      • The fault goes right smack dab through the middle of the city.

        Actually, no. It runs offshore right about the southern border of the city (no caps!). Still pretty much smack dab on the fault, though. There is bedrock that can be built on, and we probably have the technology to make buildings that will ride it out. They may be destroyed, but won’t collapse.

        But that’s expensive. So even making more efficient use of the land space won’t produce reallu inexpensive hpusing in SF, compared to, say, Houston.

        The fact is, from a public policy perspective inexpensive housing in San Francisco isn’t a “problem,” because it’s not something that has a solution. We’re about 60 years past the era when there could be such a thing.

        Yes, we could make housing inexpensive for the renter/owner by subsidizing the hell out of it, but it wouldn’t actually be inexpensive housing. And it’d be a lot more cost-effective to subsidize housing in the East Bay and buy all those folks a Bart pass.

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      • I meant to write “peninsula” instead of “city”, James is correct on placement (it’s detailed in that 1906 shake map, if you want to see the route).

        A friend of mine lives in Millbrae, and he’s all of about a mile from the fault.

        The fact is, from a public policy perspective inexpensive housing in San Francisco isn’t a “problem,” because it’s not something that has a solution. We’re about 60 years past the era when there could be such a thing.

        Yes, we could make housing inexpensive for the renter/owner by subsidizing the hell out of it, but it wouldn’t actually be inexpensive housing. And it’d be a lot more cost-effective to subsidize housing in the East Bay and buy all those folks a Bart pass.

        Yes, this.

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  12. Doesn’t increased voter participation led credibility to elections and their results? If only fifty people are involved in the election of our President, won’t he be seen as a less legitimate choice than if fifty million people participate?

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  13. Allow me to quote Anthony de Jasay on the dangers of extending more influence to these irrational, tribal voters.

    “Having done or agreed to do all the things that make some people better off and nobody worse off (which is how cooperative solutions are usually regarded), the state must go on and make some people even better off by making others worse off…. For there are no benefits left which do not “cost” anybody anything.”

    The political parties thus are attracted to providing the most benefits to the largest majority. Oddly it isn’t just the minority which they take from. They rob from Peter and Paul to pay both. They just move it from more to less transparent mechanisms. The ill informed voters just demand more. The net result is the expansion of the state becomes a grab fest for other people’s goodies and the other person is us. A destructive zero sum game played for negative sum returns.

    The ideology of the classical liberal thus becomes beware zero sum games. They are suckers’ games. Beyond a certain size and scope, democracy beggars itself.

    The right says let’s take from X and give to Y. The left says let’s take from Y and give to X. Libertarians suggest perhaps we should reduce the amount of taking — after a point no more good comes of it.

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    • I hear this argument all the time, usually quoting Benjamin Franklin, about how voters will loot the treasury etc etc.

      Has anyone bothered to check to see if this is happening?
      If this were true, wouldn’t welfare benefits be going up, and wouldn’t we have free health care for all, paid for by the rich? Would the taxes on the rich be going up?
      I don’t see any evidence of this.

      But there is looting of the treasury going on, isn’t there?
      Who is doing the looting?

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      • Not looting the treasury. Looting each other with government as a pass through. For details see SS, Medicare, defense spending, corporate subsidies, bail outs. We take from one pocket, throw it in the kitty, borrow some from taxpayers not yet born, and then put it back in another pocket.

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      • LWA,

        Somebody referenced this above, but the reason the majority doesn’t always take from the majoritu is because the benefits, being widely distributed, are often small on a per recipient basis, while the costs, being concentrated, are much greater on a per-payer basis. So members of the paying minority have an incentive to fight harder against such policies than do members of the recipient majority.

        Turning that around, concentrating the benefits and dispersing the costs explains why a recipient minority can often “rob” a paying majority. And that is both the kind of outcomes liberals hate, and a case of the type of redistribution that Roger is criticizing.

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  14. While excessive centralization has some disastorous results, historically its been local government that has been more willing to use its police powers to enforce traditional notions of morality and oppress minorities. The local community is capable of vehemet prochialism and tribalism. In a more centralized system, people become more autonomous and anonymous and the larger unit is more tolerant of deviations from the norm than smaller unit.

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    • The moderating effect that the central can have on the local can be a good thing. The downsides, though, are (a) when it does wrong there are more people stuck with it (with fewer options to leave) and (b) it assumes that needs and wants are uniform or that an objectively superior group of needs and wants can be found.

      I personally support a central that guards civil rights against the excesses of the local, for enabling a degree of calibration from one place to the next, and for some policies that simply need to be centrally administered even if it’s from a couple thousand miles away. Which is to say, even agreeing about the benefits of moderating effects I still prefer less central and more regional.

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      • Which is to say, even agreeing about the benefits of moderating effects I still prefer less central and more regional.

        What do you mean when you say “regional”? I am increasingly convinced that there are policy questions that are bigger than a state, but smaller than the US as a whole. At least today, those are hard to address because there’s no real authority on that scale.

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    • Many conservative sociologists agree with you. But the autonomous and anonymous individual comes with a cost; that cost is the diminishment (and often destruction) of all intermediary institutions leaving the autonomous and anonymous individual naked before the state. That this state of affairs is “more tolerant” I think this is much disputed.

      It is, incidentally, one of the conservative observations about the destruction of unions. And why many conservatives advocate worker solidarity. But solidarity just starts the cycle of parochialism all over again. The workers have interests particular to workers, and not necessarily aligned with those of the state.

      I don’t expect you to find the conclusion compelling, just that the argument you make is exactly the one we make. We’re just not sure that the autonomous anonymous individual is better served by the new state of affairs.

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      • I think that there are dangers to both excessive communalism and excessive individualism. The problems with excessive communalism is that there really are a lot of people who can not or will not conform to what can be termed the traditional forms of morality for various reasons. These people usually are not criminal, it might just be something like a woman with a need for variety in sex. These people tend to be at best miserable or at worse actively persecuted under excessively communal and local systems.

        The problem with excessive anonymous and autonomous individuals is that people stop caring for other people and “FYIGM” becomes policy. Democratic politics needs a concept of “we” in order to function properly.

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  15. I think the underlying error that Somin is making (and also, well, everybody else who talks about rational decision making in political voting) is that they’re trying to figure out why voting doesn’t look like individual decision making.

    I’m pretty sure that this is the problem, right here at step zero. Voting preferences and tendencies isn’t well explained by individual decision-making frameworks because voting is inherently not an individual decision.

    You’re generally not voting for what you want (unless you’re a Californian dealing with ballot initiatives). You’re voting for a proxy. And moreover, you’re not voting for a proxy for your own individual decision-making, you’re voting for a proxy for a whole bunch of people.

    I believe in rational self-interest in business dealings. In the public sphere, this all-too-often produces a Prisoner’s Dilemma with the Nash Equilibrium set to “suck”. Hence, I don’t normally vote for people who claim to take an ideological approach to their job as a politician, because I expect them to produce a suboptimal total outcome. I don’t vote as an individual. I vote as a part of a collective.

    And I expect the vast majority of other people do, as well.

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    • voting is inherently not an individual decision.

      Voting is obviously and necessarily an individual decision. It can’t be anything else.

      Sure, you may already have your mind made up, and you may make the decision to let a political party decide for you, but that decision is also individual.

      And you may tell yourself that you are making a decision with a collective, but telling yourself a comforting lie does not make it true.

      Consider this scenario: You are a member of the Whig party, loyal and convinced. You vote for them at every election. Then, one year, your wife falls ill and needs to be taken to the hospital on election day. You spend the day with her, and she makes a full recovery.

      On that day, you chose not to vote. It was an individual decision; something understandably more important came along, and you did what any decent husband should do.

      The act of voting is always your individual choice.

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      • We need to split the difference on this one. Voting is, indeed, a personal decision. But it’s mostly rooted in choosing the lesser of two evils, not necessarily what’s best for the individual, but the the individual in context of his or her community.

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      • You’re missing the point, Jason. Which isn’t surprising, since you think a lot like a political economist at times like these and rational decisionmaking is one of the basic tools in the toolbox of economists generally. But it’s a tool that provides enlightenment towards descriptive behavior, not normative behavior.

        The entire framework of individual, rational decision making is built off of assumptions. We assume that individuals are (more or less) inherently rational. We assume that individuals are (more or less) capable of susssing out their own utility functions.

        Then we pretend for a moment that they are always that way, and we examine their behavior, and the model falls apart and can’t predict an effin’ thing.

        I don’t think the model falls apart because we’re that bad at measuring people’s responses, or judging utility outside of our own skulls.

        I think the model falls apart because the scope of human decision-making is wildly varied. How we make decisions is affected by intellectual capacity, self-awareness, external awareness, problem domain, hormonal balance, feelings of group affiliation and trust models, etc.

        If I want to buy a candy bar and I’ve got $5 in my pocket, most of those effects contribute very little to the process of making a decision whether or not to buy a candy bar from the guy behind the counter in the gas station.

        If I want to buy a candy bar and I’ve got $5 in my pocket, some of those effects can contribute a little to the process of making a decision whether or not to buy a candy bar from the kid who has a table set up outside the grocery store and is selling crappy chocolate for the local public school or go inside and buy a quality candy bar or get something cheap.

        If I want to express my political will, all that stuff contributes mightily to whether or not I donate to a candidate, vote, campaign, run for office myself, bitch about somebody on Twitter or Facebook, blog, agitate for campaign finance reform, etc. And all of those individual decisions affect each other, because they all alter feelings of group affiliation, trust models, external awareness, internal awareness, etc.

        Under the assumptions of rational decision-making, voting makes no sense. And yet voters vote.

        Somin’s answer is that voters are rationally ignorant: They know perfectly well that their vote is astronomically unlikely to matter. As a result, they don’t bother to become better informed. It’s just not worth the trouble.

        And for the reasons pointed out in the article you link, and mention, this is clearly wrong. But it’s also clearly wrong because voters generally believe that they are informed just fine. You ask someone who votes whether or not they believe their vote matters, and whether or not they believe that their understanding of their vote is sufficient, and what are they going to say?

        Friedman’s answer is that usually voters in fact make two errors. First, they mistakenly think their votes matter. And second, they think that political decisionmaking is easy: If all the world simply followed my party or ideological preference, everything would work out for the best. Friedman writes:

        Friedman is more right than Somin, and Friedman’s answer explains ideologue voting, which is certainly a set of voting behaviors. But he’s still wrong.

        Compare this sentence:

        they mistakenly think their votes matter

        To this one:

        they believe that votes matter

        Those two sentences say two very different things. And they are both true.

        Your individual vote is astronomically unlikely to affect the outcome of an election, sure. And yet every election is decided by votes, so votes clearly matter, and to claim (or imply) otherwise is patently empirically absurd.

        So if votes matter, even if any one individual vote does not, the question really ought to be, “do voters vote because they believe their vote affects the outcome, or do voters vote because they believe that the aggregate outcome of an election is legitimately representative of the the collective will”.

        My guess is voters vote because they believe they have a responsibility to vote, rather than because they think they’re going to get anything out of it. It’s not a descriptive judgment, it’s a normative one.

        And they have a responsibility to vote because if nobody votes, democracy doesn’t work, plain and simple. If some people vote, and some voters are informed, democracy partially reflects the will of the consensus. If everybody votes and some people are informed, democracy partially reflects the will of the consensus. If everybody votes and everybody has perfect information, then democracy accurately reflects the will of the consensus.

        As long as the public believes that elections approximate a legitimate representation of the will of the people, the government has enough legitimacy to function.

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  16. Saddam Hussein, one of history’s more interesting and effective dictators, set about the modernisation of Iraq. The things he didn’t do to improve his state would fit in your left shoe with plenty of room for your foot. He electrified Iraq, set about a mass program of education, turned Iraq into a middle class society. Won a UNESCO award for the education of children. Produced, at the time, the most literate of Arab societies — and did it mostly on his own, with a few technical advisors.

    Not bloody likely. The oil exploration which provided the revenue for investments in infrastructure antedated the Ba’ath Party rule by more than three decades. Saddam himself was no one of consequence until 1969 and did not displace his kinsman Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr as the most influential figure in Iraq until around 1974. The Iran-Iraq War began in 1980 and lasted for eight years, the implosion in oil prices began in 1983, and ruinous sanctions were imposed in 1991 after he despoiled Kuwait. By 2003, some estimates had it that per capita income had declined by 75% over the previous 20-odd years.

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  17. I think it is a wide variety of factors. Overpopulation and density probably have a lot to do with it. But I lived in Japan from 2002-2003 back then a lot of young people felt like the system was beyond their control and they just opted out and became freelancers (freepers in Japanese lingo) instead of salarymen.

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