October 2008


From The Ash Heap of History

It seems like just a few years ago people were commenting that Communism and Socialism were discredited and flung onto the ash heap of history. I suppose that it is fitting that it’s Halloween because like the living dead, the zombie of socialism is rising from that ash heap to suck the brains of the free market, and the lifeblood of America.

Look at that ash heap. Estonia and Lithuania, Baltic republics, once fully integrated into the U.S.S.R. shed collectivism and redistribution with alacrity and embraced the free market, including a flat tax, and low corporate tax rates. Add to that the Czech Republic, Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine. Places where socialism has been tried have largely failed and are embracing democracy and the free market. Sweden is hailed as a socialism success, but is it? A more detailed analysis says no.

Even China, where the collectivism of Mao’s Communist Party still reigns supreme, has evolved to a hybrid capitalist system with practitioners who put the worst robber barons of the United States to shame. Clearly profit motives trump any sense of responsibility to the collective society. A sad example of the failed tenets of socialism being steadily abandoned in favor of pure, unadulterated capitalism.

The world has cast its vote and the ideals of Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, and V.I Lenin have been dismissed. They don’t work no matter how lofty the motives and how deep the ethical foundations. The process is as important as the goals.

So now we are engaged in an election, testing whether the last holdouts of collectivism and income redistribution, emaciated idealists from the 60’s, can prevail. One keymaster, riding the discontent directed towards an embattled President, lubricated by liquid Harvard consonants and with a fluidity of principles contorted to mean whatever the listener believes, stands at the gate. And behind him the zombies wait.


America is the land of opportunity. America is the shining beacon on the hill that attracts people from all over the world who want that chance to succeed where they couldn’t in their motherland. America is a land of entrepreneurs and of creativity — people who do for themselves and solve problems rather than sit and petition the government for redress. And for the most part, people who aren’t opposed to others making millions because they know that these same people demonstrate conclusively that the opportunity is there. When the richest man in the world is a computer geek, and two college kids can create a business with $500 billion in capitalization, America is demonstratably a land of opportunity.

So how can elected officials not understand what drives America? Are they so firmly wedded to their ideology that the raw fish slap in the face of economic fact is interpreted as a sea breeze from the shores of Finland? What does it say about Americans who let people like Speaker Pelosi, Rep. Barney (Ruble) Frank, Rep. Waxman, and Senator Reid achieve the highest legislative offices of the land when they don’t have a clue about what makes America great, what America’s fundamental strengths are, and how we came to be the world’s only super power.

Every so often one of our readers shows that he or she is just as angry as we are. When my hombre Angry Code Monkey send me this vituperative e-mail scree about how he’s not voting for Obama and how all his friends can stick it, I knew he’d make for a great guest rant. Especially, since, like the mainstream media, we’ve been pretty easy on the junior senator from Illinois. Well, courtesy of our loyal reader, Angry Code Monkey, this is no more.

Your editor du jour,
Angry New Mexican

I don’t usually voice my political decisions that much, but this year it’s important.


Our country faces a critical decision in one week.

I am generally viewed as independent slightly leaning towards the Left.

I never did, and still don’t, support the bulk of G.W. Bush’s policies.

I have voted Democratic or Independent more then Republican.

However, this year, I am in full support of Republicans. Why?

Because B. Obama scares me, a lot. I have never before feared for my own country’s future as much as I do now.

Here are my reasons:

1) B. Obama and his team are Socialists! They want to redistribute the wealth. Literally. The hard working and innovative should not be punished while the loafers are rewarded! When this happens, people stop working hard, and more people start slacking. The government has no right to decide who makes too much and who makes too little. Socialism doesn’t work. And it doesn’t belong in America. If you do not like capitalism, move to Finland or somewhere else in Europe. But this is America, land of the free!

2) B. Obama wants to hand out rebates to millions of people who don’t pay taxes. He wants to be “fair” to everyone. He calls it a tax refund. This is a hand out! This is welfare getting out of hand. The government already distributes too much money to anyone with an open hand as it is. We don’t need to give out more. Only 40% of Americans even pay taxes as it is. On the matter of taxes, B. Obama has a record of voting to raise taxes on the middle class (anyone making more then $42k/year).

3) America already has one of the highest tax rates on corporations. Is it surprising that American companies are moving to foreign countries? B. Obama wants to raise taxes on corporations even more. If America continues to drive out corporations, our economy will reach even new lows. By the way, if you raise taxes on corporations, they will pass on the increased prices to consumers. This will not solve any problems.

4) B. Obama wants to cut seriously back on weapons research and development and eliminate all nuclear weapons. Try to envision an America where we have second rate weapons and are behind the technology curve. What makes our military so great is that they have top-notch weapons and tools. If eliminate our nuclear weapons that doesn’t mean other countries will. If we disarm, as B. Obama supports, our country will be at grave risk to external threats. We need to maintain our stockpile and keep it ready otherwise we having nothing to back our interests.

5) B. Obama (and the bulk of the Left) want to spend billions (trillions?) on going green. What a waste of money! Even if we destroyed our entire economy to go green, it wouldn’t matter. China and other developing nations are polluting (and not going to stop) at an insane rate! Faster then we can compensate for. Should we reduce our pollution, yes we should. But we shouldn’t invoke carbon taxes or other crazy ideas that redistribute our wealth to 3rd world nations. You want cheap, plentiful, safe, and domestic energy? Build nuclear plants. They are proven safe and work reliably.

6) B. Obama would like to substantially increase the inheritance tax. This will seriously hurt our American right to pass on our worldly goods to our own children when we die. The government should not be taking the bulk of a person’s wealth when they die!

7) B. Obama has a history, old and recent, of associating with people and entities that have extreme viewpoints. While he quickly disassociates himself with them when the media mentions them, it does say something about B. Obama’s character that he maintained those associations in the first place for years and decades of his life.

8-???) Gun control legislation, the Fairness Act, etc. … and the list goes on, but I should stop this email before it becomes an essay.


This year America is on the verge of voting in the most Liberal senator in the senate to become President. This should scare you. We should never vote in the extreme leaders of either the Left or the Right. The fundamental fabric of our country is at stake here. If you are upset with G. Bush and want change, don’t blindly vote for B. Obama. Consider what you are voting for and what is at stake here.

Please note that I don’t adore J. McCain. I do not support all of his ideas. I would probably vote 3rd party this year if I thought I could. But I can’t! Every vote for J. McCain is needed to stop B. Obama from running our country into the ground in his quest to make everyone equal and fair.

Two final notes:

First, the media is biased so far to the Left it’s maddening. Almost all networks present biased broadcasts every evening. If you want the truth, you have to search for it. The media will (generally) not give it to you.

Second, if you want smaller (less costly) government, vote Republican.
B. Obama’s plan to make everyone fair and equal will not in any way reduce government costs. He will increase the size and complexity of the government even further. Both J. McCain and S. Palin have records of stopping pork and excess government.

Oh yeah, and regarding the current economic downturn, this is not all G.W. Bush’s (or his administration’s) fault. The bulk of the blame lies with Clinton and his housing policies during his 8 years as President. Republicans are definitely to blame in this, but don’t give all the blame to them.


Angry Code Monkey

We have a lot of negative stereotypes in this country, based in prejudice, hate, and false assumptions. Take immigrants from South and Central America. While many Americans look down their noses at these folks while shouting nonsense about building a ridiculous 1,969 mile wall, the truth is most folks from South of the Border are more hard working and industrious than your average American. Far from being a net drain on US resources, economists agree that these hardworking folks (most of which hold more than two jobs) contribute a net average of $7 billion to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid each year.

The reality is that these unfair stereotypes are the direct result of our own bigoted opinions and a few bad eggs which we have used to unfairly paint all people from these countries. Now I won’t say that everyone who lives in Latin America is hard working, industrious, and a net boon to our economy. In fact I’d like to take a moment to point out one person who is ruining it for the rest of Latin America by being lazy and wasting US tax payer money:

The individual I’m talking about resembles his more hard working compatriots in his back story. Born in Latin America, he immigrated to the United States in his teens. He worked various jobs and attended US schools in typical hot spots for Central American immigrants, having jobs and associations in Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Florida during his first decade in America. He got married, had some anchor babies, and continued to move about until finally settling in the South West.

I don’t know how hard of a worker he was in the past, but I do know that his work ethic now is pretty much non-existent. This fellow shows up for work just over a third of the time he’s supposed to be there. This bozo is statistically the least industrious and hard working member of his work place! Must be nice to only have to work the equivalent of less than two days a week. But far from being fired for this behavior, this guy is actually seeking a promotion.

In case you haven’t clicked the above links, or put the whole puzzle together, the fellow I’m talking about is Senator John McCain. Sure he may be an American Patriot, but his work ethic seems more French than Latin American. Quite frankly, with the ever growing economic crisis, the last thing we need is another do-nothing President. While I’m not convinced McCain even has “what it takes” (especially considering his dearth of foreign policy experience or knowledge), even if he does, he’d need to show up for work every now and then to make it matter.

-Angry Midwesterner

Piracy, like most disasters, is much more interesting when it happens to someone else. While schadenfreude here at 12 Angry Men is usually limited to individuals, seeing it on an international level (where the U.S. is -not- on the receiving end) makes for plenty of nice copy.

Piracy in the modern age has yet to really conquer the image of 17-19th century pirates that dominates the American mind. Modern headlines colored by movie images and Internet memes make for interesting juxtapositions, such as the pirate vs. ninja showdowns whenever Japanese ships are taken for ransom.

However, lately two instances of the theme have so many juicy bits to them that they might finally wrench the image of a pirate into the modern consciousness. But a good deal of modern silliness comes along for the ride.

The first one is a fairly straightforward ship, but the cargo’s final destination was in doubt: Ukranian ship (MV Faina) carrying 33 T-72 Soviet-era tanks to Kenya (on behalf of raiders in the Sundan). Kenya denies that they were for the Sudan, but tanks keep appearing in the Sudan, and they didn’t arrive overland to the land-locked south Sudan…

That ship is surrounded by warships, and pirates are still asking for $20m ransom.

The second one sounds like something from an action movie. The Iran Deyant (also spelled Iran Deyanat is owned by the Iranian government. It left China in late July and was bound for Germany through the Suez Canal to deliver 43 tons of iron ore and ‘industrial products’. On August 21st Somali pirates decided that this was a ship they wanted to take and hold for ransom. Bad for them, interesting for everyone else.

The cargo was an enormous amount of -something-, but it’s not clear that it was iron ore. The reports are spotty and changing, ranging from “gritty oily sand” to “crude oil” to “minerals”. The pirates who opened the cargo developed severe skin burns and hair loss in the following days, a la Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Ironically, the latest conspiracy theory surrounding the Iran Deyant comes closer to that movie than I thought possible.

The symptoms experienced by the pirates seem consistent with massive radiation exposure. A ship full of radioactive sand would make a huge mess if it were to spill. Or if it were to detonate…

An Iranian ship, a floating dirty-bomb full of Chinese radioactive waste, wouldn’t really be of much use in Germany, but delivery to Germany makes a good excuse to float it through the Suez Canal, and next to Tel-Aviv in Israel. Depending on its travel schedule, it would have hit right about October 9th… Happy Yom Kippur.

Iran was hoping not to be captured, and even happy to pay the ransom on this ship straight away before anyone looked at it too closely. But now things seem to be bogging down as the U.S. and others are taking a real interest in what the cargo here actually is. If Somali pirates have actually managed to block Iran’s long-talked about attack on Israel, that would certainly establish modern piracy as a force for change in world events.

And a worth a dang good laugh at Iran for not managing to bribe their way through Somalia properly…

So while we wait to hear what the facts actually are about the Iran Deyant, it’s certainly fun to watch the theories abound. This year might be the tipping point for Somali piracy where the big players suddenly don’t tolerate them anymore and just sink every ship on the Somali coast out of spite.

But until then, we will still get lovely implied headlines out of it:

Japan Executes Surprise Raid Against Pirates
Russia/US Form Joint Piracy Squad
Somali Pirates Save Israel and Prevent World War IV

Yay for the Somalis. They put the “piracy” back into conspiracy!

On a personal note, this will officially become my favorite conspiracy theory once someone completes the circle and finds a way to blame Bush, Bin Laden, and/or Palin for it.

The National Review Online also reported this (and also linked the US presidential campaign into its post, kudos), and now has sources saying most of this is bogus (no surprise here), but I’m still munching popcorn and waiting to see how Iran maneuvers through its explanation of this…

Last week (or so), I proposed a National Electoral Institute, or NEI. The short version of that proposal: The NEI is essentially a National Transportation Safety Board for elections. I promised to discuss the composition of such an organization as well as barriers to its creation and downsides, so here ’tis. This post is perhaps shorter than it could be, but I figured I better get off my butt and finish up before the election….

Staffing and Composition

So who would I hire to my hypothetical NEI? In addition to the usual lawyers, I’d consider:

  • Human Factors Engineers. Interface design? Yep, there’s science on it, and quite a bit. Anyone who has designed a user interface (me, for instance) knows the difference between something done hastily and something done with careful attention to detail. It is NOT easy. Cognitive scientists and human factors engineers cooperate to optimally design airplane cockpits and car dashboards, for instance. They can optimally design ballots to be readable to people with vision issues, such as the increasing number of elderly in the country, to avoid confusion, and otherwise improve the ballots to avoid the dreaded Butterfly Ballot Fiasco, or the numerous other fiascos we never heard about but doubtless exist out there.
  • Computer Scientists. One of the big holes in the system is computerized voting. There are all sorts of good reasons for computerized voting—cost, rapid counting, etc.—but getting the security right is far from trivial. Specialists in networking, formal methods and security would all play an important part. For a good example, read about the use of invisible ink on optical scan and voter-based fraud detection here.
  • Mathematicians and statisticians can help design innovative fraud detection schemes. For instance, the invisible ink fraud detection scheme I linked to previous is designed to preserve secret balloting while allowing a voter to check his or her own ballot. By having Joe the Voter (maybe even Joe the Plumber!) check his own ballot the potential for fraud through altering votes is dramatically reduced. Now it turns out that the vast majority of people won’t check, or wouldn’t notice even if they did check, but a clever statistician has shown that only about 1% of people need to check before widespread fraud will be noticed with very high probability. That’s the sort of thing that statisticians think about but most lawyers simply wouldn’t.
  • Political scientists with expertise in polling, geographical statistics, districting and voting rules would also be very helpful.
  • Oversight It’s really, really important to have the oversight of something like this be insulated from the political process or we’ll just be back to Gonzo land again soon enough. Thus it would make sense to have an oversight board with partisan representation, but the composition of the board needs to be people who are insulated. We can take a page from Iowa, where Congressional redistricting is done by a board of retired judges, not the state legislature.

Many of these people are already working on these problems out in academia or industry, e.g., Michael Herron at Dartmouth or Ed Felten at CMU, and that’s good. However, having a group that has institutional memory and, more importantly, a pot of hard money to give to researchers and to pay for “tiger teams” to handle problems when things go really wrong, would be very useful.


Well one of the big barriers to an adoption of this sort of thing is, of course, the Rovian political operator types (of all parties), who have a big incentive in having the system be manipulable. They’re not going to like having oversight and standards. And anyone proposing such a system should be prepared for a big fight from them. But I say screw them as they are surely screwing us.

However, there is a real risk of such an organization becoming a stultified bureaucracy, which is why limiting its enforcement powers would probably be wise (the “who guards the guardians?” question), and this factors into one of the giant barriers in the way… the US Constitution, which expressly leaves running elections up to the states. Massive federalization would require a constitutional amendment, which probably falls in the “ain’t gonna happen” column and I’m not sure I think it should happen. However, I suspect that many states would be very happy indeed simply not to have to mess with things if there was a good, low cost set of options available to them. If there were a list of approved systems certified by my hypothetical NEI, many states might well adopt. Even more, if the Federal government were to fund use of such voting systems via grants, this would shift quite quickly.

Just a few quick things:

(1) More accurate maps, weighted by population size, of the 2004 election. This should give you a much better sense of things than the ubiquitous but very misleading map graphics we see these days. Maps are misleading because state areas don’t line up with important quantities like population size and perception of areas of irregular figures is notoriously inaccurate.

(Interesting to see an “old web” stalwart, Cosma Shalizi, on this one. For those of us reading the intarweb back in the mid 90s, his various web ramblings as a physics student at UW-Madison were interesting reading. One of the original blogs, though nobody called it that then. I even tried my hand at it but the really big difference between me and someone like Shalizi is the fact that his writing output is immense and mine is, well, not. I honestly don’t know how he does it.)

(2) A map of the newspaper endorsements in the 2008 election. Note the numerous outliers in “blue” states (aka highly urbanized states), where newspapers such as the New York Post endorsed McCain, way back in September. The discussion is quite worthwhile. Also the New York Times fesses up, in pictures?

(3) The degree to which the election map is lining up to look like the Election of 1896 of William McKinley vs. William Jennings Bryan is… uncanny. The fit is not perfect, but it’s awfully close, and I suspect for many of the same big picture reasons (the urban vs rural split being dominant in the country right now), though there are many interesting role reversals between the candidates. For instance, William Jennings Bryan was the brash young orator who overthrew a party favorite… to represent the Evangelicals.

(4) In case you wondered what we look like, here’s a re-enactment of Angry Midwesterner ranting to a relative:

Before After


A while ago I posted a short note on one of the “green” initiatives by a student group on campus. This was funded from student fees as an effort, I suppose, to promote environmental awareness. To me, these two pictures represent perfectly the sometimes misguided efforts of people who generally ignore the law of unintended consequences.

In a political world close to an election, one would do well to look behind the fluff of election rhetoric and attempt to ferret out the substance of the candidates and the facts of what will occur. The Biocube is a fitting metaphor for what will become of our economy, our foreign policy, and our standard of living if we are subjected to a veto proof 60 member majority in the Senate under the governing reins of Reid, Pelosi and Obama (RePO).

I need to warn our loyal readers about a rather insidious new social networking site, and not just because it’s Yet Another Annoying social netwoRking sIte. The new site, called Yaari, is more than just annoying. It’s dangerous for you and your privacy, and is more Spam 2.0 than Web 2.0. I found out about Yaari from an e-mail I received the other day from a co-worker of mine, which read:

Jane Roe wants you to join Yaari!

Is Jane your friend?

Yes, Jane is my friend! No, Jane isn’t my friend.

Please respond or Jane may think you said no 😦

The Yaari Team
If you prefer not to receive this email tell us here. If you have any concerns
regarding the content of this message, please email abuse@yaari.com.
Yaari LLC, 358 Angier Ave, Atlanta, GA 30312

Looks pretty legit doesn’t it? I did find it kind of strange, however, that I received two invites each in both of my e-mail accounts. Why would my friend Jane send e-mails to all of my aliases at my work and personal address? This seemed kind of fishy so I asked Jane what the deal was, and she was pretty alarmed, turns out she had never sent me an invite, she had just joined due to an invite from a friend of hers who was equally perplexed, having sent no invites either.

Wanting to get to the bottom of things, I headed on over to Yaari and quickly discovered the likely culprit:

Yaari's Password Theft Page

Yaari's Password Theft Page

Scanning the terms of service, I also came across this little gem:

By registering for the Yaari website, … a member agrees to the Terms of Service and consents to allow Yaari to automatically send an email from the member to member’s contacts

The poor folks who were duped by Yari haven’t been taking it well either, here is what they have had to say:

  • Yaari has spammed all the contacts in my address book. The spam invites all contacts in my address book to join yaari or else I will be sad. Try Yaari at your own peril. (link)
  • This site sent out over 600 emails to my entire contact list… [The owner] needs a quick 101 on business ethics before she tries to become an entrepreneur (link)

If using your e-mail to spam your friends wasn’t enough, despite their supposed privacy policy, Yaari’s TOS clearly states that they will sign you up for spam as well:

Members consent to receive commercial e-mail messages from Yaari, and acknowledge and agree that their e-mail addresses and other personal information may be used by Yaari for the purpose of initiating commercial e-mail messages.”

You read that right! By agreeing to Yaari’s TOS, you give them a blank check to spam you and all of your contacts as much as they want, even from your own e-mail account. The lesson here seems to be that just as the web evolves to “Web 2.0”, the douche bags preying on web users will also be evolving to “Douche Bag 2.0”. Be careful to read the Terms of Service for all sites you join, and if something a site asks you to do seems insecure, err on the side of caution, no matter who supposedly invited you. And never, EVER give your passwords out to anyone.

-Angry Midwesterner

This somehow seems to become the unofficial gay week here at the AMB. Somebody must have replaced our pure, wholesome, American milk with soy milk or something. Somebody’s even reached back through time and revealed Star Trek (TOS) for what it realy was: a gay love story. Ah, youtube, you bring us all so much humor!

Having run out of cerveza at Casita Angry New Mexican, I’ve decided to follow up my earlier post about sin by state in America with another about sin by metro area before my next beer run (it’s cold and rainy here and I’m too darned lazy to go out). Here we’re considering micro/metro areas, not states so the results are a bit different and perhaps more enlightening. Again, the same caveats about margins of error (they’re in the ACS data, but I didn’t bother with them) apply.

Color Me Relatively Pink (most gay households by percent)

  1. The Villages, FL 3.51%
  2. Allegan, MI 1.81%
  3. Santa Fe, NM 1.77%
  4. Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA 1.61%
  5. Flagstaff, AZ 1.59%
  6. Columbus, IN 1.58%
  7. San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA 1.54%
  8. Vineland-Millville-Bridgeton, NJ 1.53%
  9. Plattsburgh, NY 1.52%
  10. Bremerton-Silverdale, WA 1.40%

There are a few surprises on this one! The lowly Columbus, IN (town population: 39,059) and Allegan, MI (town population: 4,838) rate higher than good old San Francisco, although you can argue that the addition of all the ultraviolent Raiders fans artificially lowers the ranking of the City by the Bay. The strong showing by Flagstaff, AZ and Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA were also a bit surprising (especially the former… looks like Flagstaff gets a different type of retiree than Phoenix does).

Oh yeah. Those of you not from the Land of Enchantment are probably looking at Santa Fe in a different way now. To you I say: shut up.

With that aside over, lets say you’re not so interested in percents, though, and you want absolutes. Well, here’s the same listing by absolute numbers of households. I mean, there are only 1,253 gay households in The Villages, FL (a fitting name, huh?). Even the relatively conservative San Juan, PR (0.35%) has more than twice that. So in some places, absolute size still matters. For that, here you go.

Color Me Absolutely Pink (most gay households by number)

  1. New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA 49,583
  2. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA 30,578
  3. San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA 24,064
  4. Chicago-Naperville-Joliet, IL-IN-WI 22,928
  5. Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 18,270
  6. Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA 17,363
  7. Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH 16,481
  8. Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 16,244
  9. Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 15,690
  10. Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL 14,599

This list more or less reads like a list of America’s biggest cities, in order, with a few exceptions. America’s Second City, home of Lord Dick, Duke of Daily (the city of Chicago, in case you didn’t catch either reference) punches a hair below it’s weight, seeing as it’s #3 by population (after NY and LA). Washington DC, Atlanta and Boston are all heavily over-represented, clocking in around 0.93% as opposed to the 0.74% from NY, LA, Philly, Dallas and Miami. Given DC’s top-of-the-charts performance in our last issue, it’s obvious that straight-laced (and well, straight) government types in Alexandria and Arlington brought the capital’s numbers way down, enough to give San Francisco it’s place in the sun as America’s best city for a Gay Pride Parade.

This article is already too long, but for those heterosexual fornicators in the audience, I highly recommend Ocean City, NJ (11.28% unmarried partner households) which ranks #2 in America, right after… wait for it… The Villages, FL (14.71%). Enjoy!

I don’t think I need to remind readers that (a) there is an election coming up real soon now and (b) the good old U-S-of-A has not had a good run of elections that are both clean and appear to be clean of late, as the various controversies of the 2000 and 2004 elections show. As a reminder:

  • Diebold Corporation, maker of touch screen voting systems seems to have a cozy relationship with Republican Party operatives and, far more importantly, has held the code for its voting machines closed so it’s not possible to check for security holes and other bugs, which lends credence to the various conspiracy mongers out there on the intarweb.
  • Large numbers of voters are put on and off the rolls by loosely supervised private contractors and other organizations often paid for by the parties, which leads to accusations of voter fraud (i.e., making up voters), voter exclusion (i.e., removing registration of eligible voters), etc.
  • Chicanery around electoral districts every ten years (or more often, as the case may be).
  • The use of partisan poll watchers to either intimidate (or unfairly challenge) voters or ensure voters vote the party line (by checking ballots for “validity”).

I’m sure there are others I’m missing but it really doesn’t matter, you get the point. These have more Republican fingerprints on them of late but Democrats shouldn’t be smug, you’ve been busted with your hands in the cookie jar before, too—the Republicans were just better at it than you were for a long time.

Part of the reason is relatively simple but often misunderstood: There’s always roaches in the walls and rat hair in your food. The closer you are too the cracks and crevices the more likely you are to see them. Well we’ve had close elections and close elections show you the cracks and crevices up close so no surprise there are roaches.

Stripping away all the civics class rah-rah, voting is a measuring system. It takes individuals’ subjective preferences, whatever they may be, and maps them into an aggregate choice of representative at various levels in a hierarchy. It cannot do this perfectly, as economist Kenneth Arrow showed in 1951, ever. In a nutshell, Arrow showed that five reasonable criteria (well, reasonable after a fair amount of thought) for decision making to be democratic are mutually incompatible. However, it’s not necessary to go to some of the esoteric extremes of Arrow’s mathematics to realize there’s a problem, and that problem is error.

Much like the price system—also a measuring system that takes your time, expertise and resources, my time, expertise and resources, and everybody else’s, even people you don’t know, and allows us to exchange them—it is ultimately subjective. Similarly the jury system is a measurement of the facts of a case when they are in doubt. Juries and voting are more similar than prices because in both much of the running of the system is in the hands of people who have stake in the “right” outcome happening and thus a lot of incentive to game it. (Of course there are regulations against price fixing for a reason.) Again, that matters in detail but not in the big picture. What is important is the fact that it is a measuring system and with measuring systems the important questions are:

  1. How much error are we willing to tolerate? Put another way, what level of resolution do we want from our measuring system? How many rat hairs are we willing to tolerate in a certain volume of peanut butter?
  2. How much does it cost to reduce error, realizing that because the universe is built on O(1/√n) convergence of averages, each additional digit of accuracy can be expected to cost increasingly more resources to attain? If rat hair free peanut butter costs, say, $100 per jar, who would buy it?

Let me give you an example to put this into perspective. The numbers quoted for DNA evidence are ridiculous. You hear numbers like “one in a million” or “one in a septuagenarian” or whatever. The actual number is unknown but probably somewhere around 1%… a reasonable guess for the probability of a human error in the chain of evidence. Human error, of course, dwarfs the chances of a real DNA match between people. If you mess up the evidence along the way, genetic science can’t help you. Sure Gil Grissom has a lower probability of error in chain of evidence, but even he’s not perfect and most CSIs are definitely not perfect, as OJ’s 1995 case showed the world. Assuming for convenience that human error and DNA sequencing machine error are independent,

Pr(one or both errors) = Pr(human error) + Pr(DNA sequencing error),

which effectively equals the probability of human error. Of course this doesn’t undermine DNA evidence, because in many cases the alternatives are worse, but it should make you a great deal more skeptical. In systems with substantial human involvement, we really can’t expect much better than about 1% give or take an order of magnitude… usually take an order of magnitude.

From actual data I saw of a study done in Illinois in 2002, optical scan with verify “kickback” (amusing use of that term in Illinois…), which is the best voting technology I know of, has an error rate of about… you guessed it, on order of 1%. So, unless we develop telepathic voting or are willing to spend a HUGE amount on the system, chances are good that 1% is about as good as it gets, or maybe one more digit, I would guess, but that’s just a guess. Maybe it can go smaller but no matter how you cut it, it’s not going to go smaller by all that much, which means that an election like 2000 in Florida—decided by a margin of about 0.01%—would be a nail biter for the foreseeable future. However, many people would, I believe, find the attainable level of error unacceptable, saying something like “It is a gross injustice if even one person is falsely denied the right to vote!” or “It is a gross injustice if even one person votes fraudulently votes when not entitled to!”

What’s ironic is that rather than taking effective, proven steps that would reduce the error level without breaking the bank (more on that below), we actually have many policies that increase the error level. The US is unusual in that voting is seen as a romanticized celebration of localism, civic virtue and so forth, and is handled largely by volunteers, many elderly, who are overseen by partisans. I don’t even need to leave the State of Florida to discuss this point:

  • If voting is so important it shouldn’t be left to the designer of the infamous Florida butterfly ballot, who violated a large number of principles of interface design because of well-intentioned ignorance.
  • Supervision of the system shouldn’t be left to elected officials who have multiple relationships.

Lest you get smug in other states, chances are good your electoral system sucks just as much but if things aren’t close it doesn’t matter. For instance, more chads were hanged in Illinois in 2000 than in Florida but because the vote in Illinois wasn’t close it didn’t matter, thus you didn’t hear about it. Then there’s the Land of Enchantment, where political pressure to bring cases of “voter fraud” (non-citizens voting or the good old standby of votes from bums “votes for smokes”, etc.) before an election got a good prosecutor kicked out of his job when he found no real evidence of it and declined to bring any charges.

It’s sad but many US elections simply don’t meet the standards that would satisfy electoral observers sent by, say, the Organization of American States (OAS).

To cut a long story short, I am arguing that we should turn the voting system itself over to a technocratic organization—let’s call it the National Electoral Institute, or NEI for short—built along the lines of the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, National Transportation Safety Board, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Census Bureau. These three organizations are recognized around the world as the experts on their respective topics. If there’s an airplane crash somewhere in the world, chances are that an NTSB investigator will be helping the locals both because he or she knows a lot more about such things than the locals but also because NTSB is gathering more data about airplane crashes for when something happens in the US. Similarly, there basically isn’t a census in the world that doesn’t draw on the deep expertise of the Census Bureau. These organizations are non-partisan. (At least I hope they are and that there aren’t any Monica Goodlings or Kyle Sampsons floating around in them but Lord only knows after the last eight years.) In short: These are professionals who see it as their mission in life to make sure their jobs are done properly and according to spec.

One of the deep ironies is that the US government has pushed independent electoral institutes in other countries, e.g., Mexico’s IFE or the Electoral Commission of India, while letting our own electoral institutions languish. Yes we have the FEC but all it does is oversee campaign finance, and it’s far from clear that that’s even a good idea. But a true non-partisan institute would allow the United States, the world’s oldest extant democracy, to finally end Amateur Hour and assume a role as a shining example of how to do elections right, a role we should darn well have had years ago…but better late than never.

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Next Time: What the NEI would have as staff and function, barriers to making all this happen, and, of course, the downsides.

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