Illiterate voters

I should know better than to visit Arts & Letters Daily when I am up to my ears in work. The wealth of reading material found there provides the ideal excuse for procrastination. “Hey, I am doing something intellectual here”. Nevertheless, after having resisted the temptation to go there for a while, I finally succumbed and discovered an interesting blog and an essay on the illiteracy of voters when it comes to basic economic principles. The blog is Cato Unbound and the essay, written by economics professor Bryan Caplan, is called Straight Talk about Economic Illiteracy (pdf, via Mercatus Center). My high school major in economics notwithstanding, please do not laugh, I consider myself to be an economic illiterate and therefore had to read the essay. It was a good call. One quote to wet your appetites as well:

Admittedly, economic illiteracy does not automatically translate into foolish policies. We could imagine that the errors of half the electorate balance out the errors of the other half. In the real world though, we shall see that such coincidences are rare. The public tends to cluster around the same errors – like blaming foreigners for all their woes. Another conceivable way to contain the damage of economic illiteracy would be for citizens to swallow their pride, ignore their own policy views, defer to specialists, and vote based on concrete results. Once again, though, this is rare in the real world. Politicians plainly spend a lot of energy trying to find out what policies voters want, and comparatively little investigating whether voters’ expectations are in error. Indeed, even when politicians brag about their “results”, they usually mean that their proposals became policies, and sidestep the difficult issue of whether those policies worked as advertised.

I do have to add one caveat concerning Bryan Caplan, at least for economic illiterates like myself. Caplan, according to wikipedia, “has been heavily influenced by Ayn Rand, Thomas Szasz, and Thomas Reid”. This influence is notable in the essay, just look for his take on the word “greed”. There may be an ‘agenda’ here. I especially like the before-I-saw-the-light style he adopts. In any case, I am mainly interested in his ideas about voter illiteracy and how he defines that illiteracy in terms of his own economic belief system. Is Caplan right, in general, in saying that voters are economically illiterate? Or is he simply using that angle as a trick to ‘convince’ true illiterates to see his light as well? This is an important, albeit naive, question, since illiterates like me are dependent on information from ‘specialists’, and Caplan ‘is’ an economics professor… To be filed under “forest and trees” and “caveat emptor”?

Municipal and provincial elections in Belgium

A very quick and summary update on the municipal and provincial elections in Belgium, which get more and more complicated what with all the “cartels”. The general idea is one of power consolidation for the ruling parties, with the Christian Democrats and Flemish nationalists the big winners in Flanders and the Socialist Party getting away nicely in the Walloon provinces.
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Satin Pajamas

I’m finally done, about three weeks too late. Go vote.

Btw, we lost the page for last years awards, but you can look at it here.

…The polls will close on Friday.


Update (by Tobias, 23:43 CET) – I’ve seen some nominees use screenshots of our lovely satin pajama wearing teddy bear in order to visually enhance a post about their nomination, but that’s clearly not overly convenient. So I’ve made three banners in different sizes. I hope that one of them fits your needs. You can find the banners below the fold.
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Catastrophic success?

In one of his many excellent pieces in the run-up to the German election, Alex mentioned the phenomenon of ‘overhang mandates’. These are extra parliamentary seats that a party gains by winning more seats via one of German’s two electoral methods than by the other. This might seem odd enough. What’s even odder is that a party could lose a seat if too many people vote for it.

German electoral law is complex. In a comment to one of Tobias’s posts, Florian recommended the website as a good primer on how it works. He also mentioned examples of some of the electoral weirdnesses explained by For example, did you know (asks Florian) that, under certain circumstances, a vote can have ‘negative weight’ — can reduce the parliamentary representation of the party for which it is cast?

Well, it can. And this conundrum is worth looking at closely, because right now it is more than a mere electoral curiosity. There is one electoral district in Germany, Dresden I, that has not yet voted. (Those who’ve been paying a perhaps unhealthy level of attention to the German elections will know that the death of a neonazi candidate has forced the delay of the election.) And in Dresden I, there is a very real chance that a local triumph of the CDU could cause the party to lose a seat in the national parliament. The reason? It’s those overhang mandates that Alex kept mentioning.

Excellent as is, it’s in German. Below the fold, then, is a summary explanation of how the CDU could lose a seat by gaining votes. For those who read German and are interested in that sort of thing, there are links to the relevant passages of the BWahlG (German Federal Electoral Act).

In the mean time, we should note that the possible ‘negative weight’ of CDU votes in Dresden I, though perverse and undemocratic, would not affect the overall results in Germany. Even if the CDU are ‘catastrophically successful’ in Dresden I, the Union will still have more seats than the SPD, albeit with a lead of only 2 rather than 3 MPs. The really perverse thing that could come out of the Dresden special election is this: CDU and SPD wind up with an equal number of seats. As the Spiegel explains, however, this is mathematically a possibility, but in real-world terms exceedingly unlikely. To achieve this result, the SPD would need to poll 91% of voters in the district, and every single eligible voter would have to vote.

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There’s nothing better for livening up all this dull, wonkish chatter about the German elections than a bit of CDU-bashing. So, how shall I bash them today? Oh, I know! How about this: they’re a shower of xenophobe racists.

Yes, yes; not exactly news, is it? What is news, though, is that the Union appears to value xenophobia even more than it does winning elections.

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A curious trend in the Balkans

2000-2004: Under the rule of the Social Democrat Party (PSD) and Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, Romania enjoys four consecutive years of rapid economic growth. Romania’s GDP increases by an average of nearly 6% per year; for the first time since the end of Communism, the country has four years without a recession. Meanwhile, Romania joins NATO and is accepted for EU accession in 2007.

December 2004: voters reject Nastase and PSD, voting in the opposition in a weak coalition government.

2001-2005: Under the rule of the National Movement Simeon II (NDST) and Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburgotski, Bulgaria enjoys four consecutive years of rapid economic growth. Bulgaria’s GDP increases by an average of around 5% per year; for the first time since the end of Communism, the country has four years without a recession. Meanwhile, Bulgaria joins NATO and is accepted for EU accession in 2007.

June 2005: Voters reject Saxecoburgotski and NDST, voting in the opposition, which now appears likely to form a weak coalition government.

2001-2005: Under the rule of the Socialist Party and Prime Minister Fatos Nano, Albania enjoys four consecutive years of rapid economic growth. Albania’s GDP increases by an average of about 6% per year; for the first time since the end of Communism, the country has four years without a recession. Meanwhile, Albania is accepted into the Partnership for Peace and moves from being an impoverished semi-pariah to a serious candidate for EU accession sometime in the next decade.

July 2005: Voters reject Nano and the Socialists, returning to former President Sali Berisha, out of office since 1997. Berisha will form a coalition government with several minor parties.

What’s going on here?
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Czech Voters Becoming Constitution Sceptics?

Evidence is growing that the legacy of the French and Dutch votes will be more enduring than many of our leaders seem to have thought. Now a survey in the Czech Republic finds voters increasingly unwilling to vote the constitution.

The poll showed that 29 percent of Czechs would reject the constitution and 19 percent would support its ratification… More than a quarter of the population is not concerned whether or not the document will be ratified, and another quarter believe ratification is unnecessary in the current situation. “At present, the European constitution would not be approved in a referendum and in addition, a very small number of voters would have take part in it,” Jana Hamanova from SC&C said, in reference to the results of the poll.

This means that the EU constitutional treaty is not currently supported by the majority of potential voters of any of the parties represented in the Chamber of Deputies.

The thing about referendums

I’m quite fond of representative democracy, and don’t think replicating the Swiss or Californian system would be a particularly good idea. I do however think that referendums are an occasionally vital and necessary part of democracy, and to do away with them, like the German constitution does, would be a great mistake.

There are situations where referendums are the only acceptable alternative. As a supporter of representative democracy I disagree with people who say that this or that issue is too important to be dealt with by the normal electoral process. But I do think I think referendums are necessary when an issue is 1) divisive 2) vitally important and 3) the normal partisan system cannot properly deal with, because the fault lines are different. As a corollary, anytime sovereignty is involved, I think an issue has to be pretty minor for you not to hold a referendum.

Most of the referendums on EU memberships are textbook cases of this situation. In the case of Sweden, nearly half of voters opposed Swedish entry and for most of the campaign the no side led. Without a referendum they would have had to vote for the Green or Left parties if they wanted to stop our entry. Both quite radical non-mainstream parties who together held less than 10% of the vote. In some countries all parties were for membership. In these instances I feel not holding a referendum would be undemocratic, and would to some degree disenfranchise (to use an American term) the whole electorate.
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French Referendum Poll Update

Just a quick follow up on the state of play with opinion poll outcomes in France. Le Monde today reports that of four polls published yesterday two gave a majority for the ‘yes’ vote, whilst the other two suggested a significant decline in ‘no’ support (details in fold). Since the shift is partly among socialist voters, is this a ‘Jospin effect’? (The former PS Prime Minister went public on prime tv late last week with his support for the ‘yes’ campaign)

Whilst I’m posting, this article in the FT about tensions between Barroso and Chirac makes interesting reading. In particular since it suggests that the fairly modest celebrations of the enlargement anniversary I noted yesterday may be linked to a deliberate policy of not rocking the boat at a sensitive time.

Curious detail: the FT reports “Mr Chirac believes Mr Barroso has an infuriating ability to sound like a liberal when addressing a business audience, while peddling a more French-friendly vision of a ‘social Europe’ to trade unionists.”

Wouldn’t this be yet another case of people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

NB following a point in the comments section, can anyone bring us up to date with some info about the evolution of and background to the vote in the Netherlands?
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fact and value, truth and knowledge

I would like to comment on an excerpt of a comment by Mike

“We might distinguish questions of fact (e.g. “which way will John vote at the next election?”) from questions of value (e.g. “is Blair’s outlook better than Brown’s?) by noting that the answers to factual questions may be true or false, but that the answers to value questions must always depend on and presuppose a point of view or value. Answers to factual questions do not presuppose a point of view or value – they presuppose the categories of true and false and must be framed in those terms (either we are correct in predicting that John will vote for X or, if he votes for Y we will have been shown to be incorrect).”

I think it will be important to define the word “knwledge” right now. I use “knowldge” to mean “justified true belief”. If we happen to guess right, we do not know. I will place great stress on the word “justified” in that definition.

OK back to the quote “answers to value questions must always depend on and presuppose a point of view or value” is implied by”answers to value questions must always depend on and presuppose a value”. In this post I will assume for the sake of argument that the stronger claim is true so answers to value questions must always depend on and presuppose a value. How does this make them different from claims of fact ?
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