politics

American politics suffers from our electoral system. We have a first past the post system, which, by Duverger’s law, results in a two-party system. That means we are stuck with a political cartel, where the two political parties only have to distinguish themselves from each other and have only minimal incentive to serve their constituents.

Both political parties are rife with corruption and incompetence, and are riddled with plutocrats and kleptocrats who are uninterested in taking the long-term view for the nation they were elected to serve. (This is amply documented in David Cay Johnston’s Perfectly Legal and Free Lunch.) Many of our Congressional districts are gerrymandered to favor a particular party. I tend to hold my nose and vote Democratic because I believe their candidates will do less harm than the Republicans that make it to the top of the GOP, but I would prefer to see a free market in politicians— third parties that have a chance to make their case to the people without having to make it through the entrenched political machines in the dominant parties. I do not assume that the politicians elected by a party are representative of the people in the party; no matter how much corruption turns up in Washington, DC, there are still plenty of decent folk in the Republican party, and lumping them in with the more visible extremists is unhelpful.

Change Congress Fixing this is going to take a lot of work. Remedies I favor include public campaign financing (national support: Public Campaign; California: California Clean Elections), instant-runoff voting (IRV) (national support: The Center for Voting and Democracy; California: Californians for Electoral Reform), and increased transparency (national support: the Sunlight Foundation). The Change Congress movement also has overlap with these groups.

(Regarding voting reform, I’m aware of the advantages of the Condorcet method. It’s easier to explain IRV than Condorcet; if we can get IRV implemented, we can have a debate about Condorcet at that point. I’d also like to see the single transferable vote, or at least some form of proportional representation.)

My own view is that government is there to serve the people, and if there are efficient ways for it to do so, it’s reasonable for us to pay our taxes for it as long as we’re getting fair value for our money. If making use of the economies of scale to benefit the citizens of the country makes fiscal sense, it would be silly not to use them. For instance, switching to Canada-style single-payer health care could be a good move; people react with horror to the notion of socialized medicine, but are happy to drive on our socialized interstate system. What we need is more transparency and accountability to make sure that our tax dollars aren’t being wasted; the big-government/small-government argument is missing the point of efficient, effective government. I consider deficit spending acceptable for a country the same way I consider a mortgage acceptable for a citizen: if you really are getting good long-term value for the cost of going into debt on the way, then it’s worthwhile, but the ideas that deficits don’t matter or will cause people to demand cutbacks in spending are just poppycock. I would prefer to see a government run at a surplus in prosperous times so it can afford to invest in infrastructure during lean times as a way to damp out economic oscillations, but we’re years from being able to establish that as a pattern.

Capitalism isn’t the problem that some folks on the left make it out to be; our problem is that we don’t have a well-designed, well-regulated market, and there are a lot of naïve conservatives out there who don’t understand that “free market” is to economics what “frictionless surface” is to physics: a useful abstraction for pedagogy that isn’t an adequate model for dealing with the real world. Every negative externality that affects us, directly or indirectly, is a de facto subsidy, whether it be mercury emitted from smokestacks or factory conditions that take years off the lives of workers. If corporations had to pay to clean up all of their negative side effects, they would naturally optimize to avoid them.

Government also has the tricky task of balancing public and private interests to ensure healthy competition while breaking up monopolies and oligopolies, and averting both the resource destruction of the tragedy of the commons and the gridlock of the tragedy of the anticommons.

The whole field of politics is mostly an annoyance to me; understanding economic effects can be interesting, but by and large it’s a tedious mess. I believe that complacency got us into this mess, so my conscience prods me to be a well-informed voter. All in all, cleaning litterboxes and scrubbing toilets is a more enjoyable activity than following politics: it’s over sooner and more morally satisfying.

I make a point of researching each ballot on which I need to vote, collecting links to opinions from noteworthy people and groups. I post the results to my LiveJournal, tagged election research, so I can save my friends a bit of sanity. I recommend Annenberg Political Fact Check and PolitiFact.com for cutting through the hype.

Lobbying organizations to which I contribute include the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the League of Women Voters, Planned Parenthood, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.