Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Enjoy True Democracy with SDR

Suppose the government announced that we could choose between only two breakfast cereals: Sugar Jolts and Bran Bombs. Every two years, we would choose by election between a two-year supply of each type. If you and 499,998 others in your district preferred Sugar Jolts, but the other 500,001 preferred Bran Bombs, you would all be stuck with Bran Bombs every morning until the next election.
It's kind of important how we choose our leaders.

Yet, somehow, most people give little or no thought to the election process. Most people don't seem concerned that our current system is awful, and they certainly don't lobby for change. It's certainly not that no one has thought of a better system; many people have thought of many better systems. I for one enjoy reading about them, but amazingly, normal people don't seem to find the topic quite as fascinating.

There are numerous problems with our "First Past The Post" (FPTP) electoral system. Here are two of the biggest:
  • The geographic restriction: this is the rule that you're only allowed to vote for someone who is officially running for office "close to you", in the same district as your house. The district boundaries themselves are chosen undemocratically, and the person running in your district might actually live somewhere else (usually near the legislature). You might love the candidate running in the north side of the city, but if you happen to live in the south side of the city you're out of luck. The geographic restriction is the main limitation on voter choice; drop this restriction and you'll suddenly have hundreds of candidates to choose from.
  • Your vote probably doesn't matter: Of course, there is a bigger problem. In FPTP, if there are four people running in a district, one of them can win with as little as 26% of the vote, and it common in Canada for winners to have less than 40% of the popular vote. That means more than 60% of the voters basically go unrepresented in the parliament or legislature. There is a different sense in which your vote doesn't matter: many, if not most, races are won by more than 10% of the vote. That means that the winner could have had 10% fewer votes and still won. So in another sense, even if you voted for the winner, your vote didn't matter because he or she would still have won if you had stayed home. True, if many other people think the same way and stay home, it could change the election result, but if just you stays home, the chance that it will make a difference is infinitesimal. Finally there's a third sense in which your vote doesn't matter: you might not actually like (or know) any of the people running in your district, and if that's true, any vote you cast is kind of meaningless.

Introducing Simple Direct Representation

Of the dozens of proposals I've read, my favorite electoral system is called Direct Representation. This is a fantastic idea which might solve pretty much all the problems with FPTP, but most importantly it will solve the two problems I just mentioned. However, Direct Representation is a radical overhaul that questions everything you assume about how elections should work, so I think it's worth considering if we could have most of the benefits of DR, in a simple system that doesn't feel quite as radical.

So today I'll sketch out a proposal I call Simple Direct Representation (SDR). It consists of six simple rules:
  1. No Geographic Restriction: During an election, you can vote for anyone who is running for the legislature in your state/province. Obviously, some thought will have to be put into how the polling station can gather votes efficiently when there are so many choices available.
  2. Proportional Power: your vote always counts! The voting power of your representative will depend on the amount of "poll votes" they have (votes from the official election polls). A representative that got 10,006 votes will have twice as much power as the one that got 5,003 votes; whenever a legislator votes for or against a bill, that single vote is multiplied by the number of poll votes that he or she got during the election. A simple computer program would be used to tally up votes; in case of power loss or computer trouble, the legislature could agree to allow approximations (e.g. by rounding off each member's power to the nearest thousand poll votes instead of counting individual poll votes).
  3. Two Choices: On the ballot you can write one or two names: a first choice and an optional second choice. The second choice will be given your vote if your first choice doesn't get enough votes to win a seat in the legislature. Your first choice should be your favorite candidate, and your second choice should be someone you are sure will win a seat. (Note: perhaps voters often won't be sure who is likely to get a seat and who isn't. In that case, the system could allow three or four choices so that you can safely write your favorite candidate as your first choice, and still have enough "extra" picks to avoid the risk of wasting your vote, which would happen if none of your picks has enough votes to get a seat.)
  4. Fixed Number of Winners: The legislature physically has a fixed number of seats, and those seats are filled with the people who got the most "first choice" votes. For example if there are 100 seats total, the 100 most popular candidates (measured by first-choice votes) get those seats. Then, for every voter whose first choice did not win a seat, their second choice is given an additional vote (provided that the second choice won a seat). If the first and second choice both lost, the vote doesn't count, but a voter can easily avoid this problem by choosing someone they know is popular as their second choice. In case the election concentrates power in the hands of only a few legislators, there will be some legislators that win without getting a large amount of votes; I think this is a good thing, as it can give "the little guy" a voice in the legislature without giving him serious voting power.
  5. Power Sharing Required: Often, people will simply vote for the leader of a party (or the person they think should be the leader). Excessively unbalanced power in the legislature is potentially a bad thing, since a politician may not behave the way voters expected; therefore, there is a fixed upper limit on the amount of voting power that one legislator can wield, for example, 3% (or N%) of all votes cast. This limit is calculated on election day and fixed until the next election. For example, if 5,000,000 votes were cast in the election, 3% is 150,000 votes. If 500,000 people voted for candidate Smith, then Smith still officially "owns" 500,000 votes but is only allowed to use 150,000 of them when he votes on a bill. Normally, Smith will use the next rule to transfer his excess votes to his friends or allies in the legislature (otherwise he would be wasting his votes).
  6. Vote Transfer: A legislator who is above the N% power limit can transfer excess votes (i.e. voting power) to another member of the legislature. The legislator should only transfer votes to someone he or she trusts, because the giver cannot change his mind and take the votes back. That's because revocation power could be used to get around the N% limit by giving one legislator leverage over other legislators; the legislator with 20% of all votes could say "vote the way I tell you, or I'll transfer your votes to someone who will!". All transfers will be a matter of public record, so the voters can judge in the next election whether the transfer itself, and the use of transferred votes, was appropriate.
That's it. Enjoy True Democracy. We could add a couple of minor extra rules, such as one that allows a legislator to designate an "heir" who will get their seat if he or she quits or dies or resigns. But extra rules are optional, and can be added as needed.

One important thing that is often overlooked about elections is that the kind of people that run in elections depends on the rules of the election itself. For example, if election campaigns are 100% funded with private donations, different kinds of people may choose to run, compared with a system where campaigns are 100% funded with public money, or tax-deductible small contributions or "democracy vouchers" (Lawrence Lessig's idea to let each citizen redirect the first $50 of income tax they pay toward one or more political candidates).

Likewise, the electoral system itself will change the flavor of politicians who choose to run for office. FPTP is a cutthroat system—it's all or nothing, you win big or you lose big, and if there are four people running per district, 75% of them are guaranteed to lose. What kind of people would enjoy running for office in a system like that? I wouldn't. On the other hand, in an SDR system, if there are 100 seats, it's likely that (to avoid wasting time and money), less than 200 people will decide to make serious runs (with door-knocking, ad-buys and the works), so less than half of the serious candidates will lose. Minor parties who don't expect to win a lot of votes don't have to run a lot of candidates either, so they won't be scouring college campuses for kids to run "symbolically" in "unwinnable" districts. Among the "heavyweight" contenders there is a lot less drama, since there is no particular "enemy candidate" that you have to "defeat". "Going negative" won't work well, because if you convince people not to vote for an opponent, that doesn't mean they will vote for you instead. Also, an individual candidate no longer has to convince half the voters in a tiny region to vote for him, but instead can pander to a small percentage of voters in a huge region.

All these factors will change which kinds of people choose to run for office. I, for one, expect that the legislature will enjoy increased diversity of opinion and expertise. For one thing, single-issue candidates may be common--they'll run on a platform of "let's fix this one thing that's wrong with our government". If candidate McFoo wants to, let's say, change the way hospital fees work, or start a municipal broadband network, or improve privacy rights, there's no way to convince half the voters in any specific "district" to care enough about one particular issue to vote for McFoo. However, McFoo could very likely convince 0.5% of all the voters in the entire state/province to vote for him on that issue. Once in the legislature, McFoo can't directly pass any laws with his 0.5%, but he could dedicate his time to lobbying on his issue.

Another difference with SDR is that candidates can probably have a thinner skin and lower income than typical winners in FPTP. FPTP candidates often have to be prepared to spend a lot of money campaigning and accept the risk of being attacked by the "opponent", as well as the risk of losing. Winning a seat under SDR should be a more predictable affair; the amount you spend and your chances of winning are no longer tied to whoever happens to run "against" you, and a person can have a chance of winning whenever they have a fan base of some kind—any large group of people, no matter how geographically dispersed, who like that person. It's important that the fan base need not have anything to do with politics; a popular author, or actor, or university professor, could more easily run for office and win under SDR because they don't need a lot of "campaign skills", they don't need to struggle to figure out how to get a large percentage of votes in a small geographic area and they don't have to run "against" anyone, they can simply ask their (geographically dispersed) fans to vote for them. This may mean that we'll end up with fewer "career politicians" in office.

Why don't politicians care enough to change the electoral system? In part, I've already answered this question. Legislatures are filled with career politicians, who might be threatened by a new system that allows new kinds of people to win. A bigger factor is certainly the big-party advantage of FPTP. In Canada it's common for a party that got only 40% of the popular vote (or less!) to get a majority government; big parties win more seats per vote than small parties. It's obviously unfair, and most politicians probably prefer it that way. In America it's worse; Duverger's Law has taken full effect, so that no party outside the big two ever wins a federal seat. When the system favors you or your party, of course you don't want to change the system.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Harper's Copyright Givaway

I was horrified to learn today that the Conservatives are going to retroactively extend copyrights from "entire life of the author plus 50 years" to "entire life of the author plus 70 years". Since most valuable copyrights are owned by corporations (and any human authors are deceased by definition) this is a corporate giveaway designed to make a few extra bucks for the oldest media companies that own a few rare copyrights on music and films that have been selling copies for more than 50 years.

Meanwhile, thousands of works that are not commercially valuable will be locked up by this copyright extension--so many movies and songs and books that weren't in print, that aren't selling copies, could have entered the public domain, but now it will be illegal to copy them. Harper, you are such an asshole.

Copyright in the early 1800s (in Canada, the U.S. and Britain) lasted 14 years with an optional extension to 28 years. We're not talking "life of the author plus 14", we're talking "14 years in total". Since then, every increase to copyright term lengths has been retroactive, demonstrating that lengthy copyright terms are not designed to encourage authors and artists to create new works, but merely to make even more money for the most successful works, to pad the pockets of the rich with payments from the poor, to limit the ability of authors to "remix" old and obscure works from the past, and to limit the public's ability to enjoy older works freely.

It's interesting to wonder what the world would be like if we still had 28-year copyrights. Every hard drive would probably be shipped with a library of thousands of older books and songs (Why not? It would only require 1-10% of the disk space on a 1TB drive); YouTube would let you watch any movie or hear any song made before 1987, for free; Google would search all older books and screenplays whenever you search the internet; filmmakers could create new films on a lower budget because they would be allowed to put any song published before 1987 in the soundtrack, and they could re-use art from older sources too; anyone would be allowed to write translations of older foreign-language works; bloggers could link directly to any paragraph of any old book (because the full text of all old books & movies would be on the internet) and low-budget academic researchers could do large-scale analysis of, let's say, every book written between 1885 and 1985 (or whatever).

Such a world cannot be observed, though, since wealthy interests have made sure that every country in the world adopts a minimum copyright term of "life of the author plus 50 years". This is called the Berne Convention, and almost every country in the world has been forced to adopt it, which means we will probably never find out what life would be like under a 28-year copyright term. Since 1887, powerful organizations like the WTO have forced all poor countries to adopt not only the Berne Convention, but other onerous "Intellectual Property" treaties, notably TRIPS. Now, the U.S. and many other countries are negotiating The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a new so-called trade agreement whose text is a secret. The TPP is rumored to contain even more corporate power givaways in the name of intellectual property, and a lot of other garbage that has led to all kinds of opposition across the political spectrum:
Pretty much every identifiable progressive-aligned organization is against it, including human rights groups, environmental groups, faith groups, legal scholars, consumer groups, food-safety groups, LGBT groups and many, many others. ... Polls show that the public is overwhelmingly against it. (Even conservatives are opposed.)

Monday, April 20, 2015

Normal People

I haven't had a lot of success in romance. I met a woman who seemed like a really good match for me; so we had a date, walking downtown, and I thought everything was going fine. After 50 minutes she said it was just too cold and she wanted to end the date. I suggested she warm up in my car; she said no. Back online, days later, she let me know that "I don't think we have enough in common. We approach life differently." I asked what she didn't like about me. Eventually she responded that she had an overwhelming sense that I "lacked an appreciation for the inexplicable or ephemeral". I was too "literal" and tried to "quantify everything". I asked her, not impolitely, if she could be more specific, or tell me what I failed to appreciate. She did not respond... which is very typical.

Sometimes I wonder if I was born on the wrong planet. I don't get it... everything about me seems so human, I have all the emotions and the body parts, but it often feels like everybody around me cares about and thinks about such different things. Like sports, or fashion, or manners... normal people care, I do not.

Normal people are more afraid of flying than driving, because statistics? Whatever. Normal people want better government services but lower taxes. Normal people are afraid of nuclear power, but coal power, the greatest cause of global warming, is four times more popular and kills roughly 15 thousand times as many people. Normal people claim to care about democracy, but don't know anything about electoral reform. Normal people say violence and poverty are bad, but they don't look for solutions because these are things that happen to other people—you know, the same people who can't solve anything because they are uneducated because they spend their lives trying to make the rent, or obtain food. Normal people say a methadone clinic is fine, as long as it's not in my neighborhood. Normal people are swayed by "small-potatoes" politics, like the cost of running the Senate or the the cost of a weird government-funded study about sexuality, because "million" and "billion" are only one letter apart. Normal people are glad they make twice as much money as the people across town, so they can spend twice as much on themselves. So normal women look at me, I think, and see someone who is too "intimidating" to love, someone who is undesirable because he doesn't pick up on social cues properly, and hasn't learned to dance yet, and doesn't appreciate the outdoors enough. Yeah, because those are the things that really matter. Right.
"Engineers have a grievance. They think we should think more like them. They are not wrong." - Malcolm Gladwell