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Democracy for Realists – space and time

Some more about this book, Democracy for Realists: …

If we accept that voters do not vote for their policy preferences (and you can read the book if you want to see the evidence) then what is driving their voting behavior.

Here are two models that Political Scientists have put forward – space and time.  Both model presume that voters, being humans, lack the time or talent to engage in a very subtle or complex analysis of what to do with their vote; so they simplify things.  They approximate.

The spacial model: all of politics is boiled down to some simple metric: left-wing v.s. right-wing say.  Or maybe a few two,  like both an economic and social variant of left/right.  The voter then “merely” asks the question how close are these candidates’ metrics to my personal metrics. He then votes for the one closest to him.

In the time based model the voter need only look at his personal experience over time.  He then aligns that with who ever is change during various time frames and votes for the candidates that deliver better outcomes.  It’s feedback loop, and presumably the statistics of large numbers of voters might make this work out nicely.

Again this is Science.  A theory is only interesting if we can proceed to try and disprove it.

The spacial theory is easy to disprove.  You just ask.   Compare the voter and the candidate he selects on the metric.   Questionnaires can dependably tease out where they are on the scales.  For example: Support for lower taxes verse more government services? What the data shows is only the lightest correlation.  In fact in some cases voters do the opposite of what they prefer.  So this theory isn’t helping us.

The problem with the time based theory is two fold.

The first problem: The usual ones found in feedback based systems.  These systems only work if (a) the signal the feedback is based on is accurate and (b) the feedback’s timing is adjusted correctly.  In Engineering school I spent a few years learning how to get that right for simple electronic systems like amplifiers.  In that context if you get it wrong you get nothing or horrific feedback noise.  Big social systems are even harder.  So first off voters get a signal (they lose their job, the weather is lousy, the crop fails, the town has an awesome fair,  the kid gets a lovely teacher) and they sum that up and vote for against the current candidate.   Then we have timing.  This model rewards the politicians for taking actions that have short term benefits; i.e. they show up in the voter’s impression before the next election.   Worse, long term benefits will accrue to the account of some other guy.

Like the spacial model voters have a very noisy model of the candidates.  In this case the their model of credit/blame is very poor.

So what are two models worth anything?  Turns out yes.

The spacial model is the gold standard for understanding legislatures.  While it’s useless for discovering how a voter will pick his candidate, it useful for predicting how Bob, your legislator, will choose to vote on any given bill.   This is good news:  Bob is fairly well informed about the position taken by the bill.  On the other the voters who elected Bob do not have a good model of Bob.

The time based model is actually quite predictive of how voters will behave.   But, oh my, they are largely miss informed about blame/credit and their sample is narrow minded.  They only look back a few months.  This is not good if you want responsive government.   It is useful if your placing bets on an election.  You can do a damn good job of predicting the outcome of elections by measuring just GDP growth over the last few months.

While these models are not as useless as the folklore model ( i.e. that voters give their votes to candidates who reflect their personal policy preferences).   But if your goal is to explain how Democratic governance is responsive to the voters preferences; they they aren’t going to help you.

More to follow…

Democracy for Realists – acting on falacies

Part 2 – So let’s step into this book a bit.

The reason to prefer a realistic view of politics is fear.  Fear that your unrealistic premises will lead to unfortunate outcomes.  So political scientists have spun up models for voter behavior. And then, tested them!  if you want to win elections it’s probably best to pay attention.

Personally my thinking about politics was entirely up-ended by the work on the voting patterns in Congress.   This book may be forcing a major resorting in my head.  I’m not sure how that will settle out.   It’s very discomforting to think that the model I took on board from that book might be wrong, that I’ve been extremely deluded.

Books that are attempting to force a painful dose of realism into their audience probably need to spend a lot of time addressing their audience’s bogus beliefs.  Scientists to this with studies, data, statistics.  It takes years to convince people that the world is not flat, the sun doesn’t spin around us, that punishment is effective, that bleeding out the bad blood doesn’t help.

So let’s start with the most most popular model of how democracy works.  It’s widely presumed that voters vote their preferences.  Say Sam is extremely concerned about Global Warming.  We’d assume he’d seek out the candidate who is most aligned with his concerns and then vote for him.   What the data say?  The data says:  NO!

If you take that to heart you really need to stop taking seriously sentence like:  “The voters, outraged about X, voted for Mr. P.”  Because it’s not true!  Talk of the “will of the people” is aspirational, but it too is not true.  The whole idea of a mandate splits thru your fingers like sand.

Good science is all about disconfirming models   Postulate a theory/model and then see if you can prove it’s wrong.   The audience may hate that, they may love the model, but science doesn’t care.

So this first model of politics in the democratic states is wrong.  The authors call this the folklore theory.

Once it became clear that the folklore theory doesn’t fit the data the political scientists went looking for other theories.  But that’s a story for another day.

<X> for Realists

I’m currently reading a book titled “Democracy for Realists: …”   It’s triggered a bemused fantasy about a series of “… for Realists: …” books.  In the tradition of those “… for Idiots: …”

I remember books stores.  They had lots of shelf space for self help books.  A popular genre. Let’s imagine some titles:   Schooling for Realists, Vacations for Realists, Project management for Realists, Home brewing for Realists, Gardening for Realists.

So’s why not?  I have my theories.  For example picking up a book of this title would seem to signal one’s appetite for disconfirmation.  Where’s the fun in that?  Or possible like the Monty Python argument skit it implies your shopping for a scolding or abuse.  At minimum it would seem to signal that the author is war weary, scarred, old, cranky?

One take on self help books is that they are selling a treatment for stress.   Realism doesn’t sound like a miracle cure, more like chemo.

 

An Argument for Centralized Systems

Open systems have their good points and their bad.   Their weak governance makes it hard, or impossible, to move the installed base.   The communities around an open system are more likely to evaporate that reengineer.   They can only make slow evolutionary changes, so instead one by one they switch to revolutionary alternatives .

HTTP or JavaScript are fine examples of this.  Both, once adopted widely, it has taken Herculean efforts by very large players to shift the dial.  That only happened because the installed base was so locked in.

I’m reminded of this by an essay by Moxie Marlinspike.  It’s a fine example of how a blog let’s you give voice to the spirit of the stairwell.   Somebody provoked him.  And it appears to have taken him a while to pull together his response.  That guy said:

“that’s dumb, how far would the internet have gotten without interoperable protocols defined by 3rd parties?”

At first blush that seems pretty freaking obvious.  We have a boat load of stories we tell about why open protocols are potent.  Some examples.  Open systems help to commoditize things, enabling those that stand on them to thrive; i.e. they help limit the power of the platform vendor to tax all the air we breath.  Open systems solve a search problem, i.e. what is this good for; no platform vendor can possibly know the answer that question because only end users can comprehend their problems.

But yeah, I’ve a long have a list of these arguments/models about what open systems are about.  Moxie isn’t arguing that side of the question.  The Open Systems tribe tell stories and other tribes tell other stories.  Moxie is trying to tell one.

 

Moxie has few arguments in his essay.  For example he argues that the classic open protocol examples of Internet mythology all bloomed decades ago and have since resisted much, if any evolution.  SMTP for example.   That’s fair, and it’s not.   One counter-point to that argument is that these protocol evolved fast as the problem they solved was discovered and they are good enough.  The switching costs v.s. the benefits of switching became such that we can and in fact ought to bear those costs rather than switch that even a dictator wouldn’t bother.  My point isn’t to say that’s the case, only that it’s would be work to be sure one way or another.  Another counter point is that to say, no those protocols have not stagnated.  That we have layered on lots and lots of technology that extend and address new problems as they became apparent.  A glance as the number of headers in a typical email gives a glimpse of that for SMTP.  SMTP is still a damn good default choice if you need a robust distributed low latency messaging system.

Moxie argues that if you have an open protocol you are going to have a hell of a time getting the client side software to deliver a consistent experience to your installed base.  Well yeah. That’s why for decades Microsoft’s embrace and extend tactics make it so damn frustrating to use email.  And many argued, and often insisted, that the solution to that frustration was to that we should all just get on board the train to Seattle.   Google’s extensions clever use of IMAP and Jabber are more modern, though possible less conscious, examples of the same pattern.

But Moxies core argument, it seems to me, is that we haven’t the time.  That democratic (sic) open systems aren’t able to meet the expectations of the industry we are now in.

That deserves more thought.  It is certainly the case that they don’t meet the needs of the VC, product managers too.  The open system processes frustrate individual developers – the consensus building requires skills they despise; they’d rather be coding.  The whole enterprise smells like politics, because – well duh – all consensus build is.  For 90% of users they don’t care any more than 98% of your co-workers cared that Microsoft Exchanges is/was a closed system.  These issues are below their radar, below the facade of the “product” where they never go.  Making that case is like activating voters, again it’s politics.

To my eye Moxie’s essay is part and parcel of the swing back toward centralized computing.     Maybe it’s a pendulum, maybe it’s a one-way street.  Either way I suspect only 10-20% of the way along the way.

The personal computer was the primary artifact the tribe of decentralized computing gathered around.  We have a lot of stories that tell about why it’s awesome.  The new tribe, for whom AWS is the principal totem, will tell their own stories.  Moxie’s essay is an example.

Let’s Encrypt Everything

I renewed the SSL/TSL certificate on one of my little cloud servers over the weekend.  I had been using StartSSL for this.  This time I decided to try out the services of Let’s Encrypt Everything, which worked out nicely.

You can read their website for the background story.  This posting is about the details of how I proceeded.

Let’s Encrypt Everything will sign TLS certificates for your website.  It uses a scheme called ACME.  That scheme involves running some software on your end that talks to their servers.  During that conversation a transient page is created on your website, this is used to prove that you control the site.  That proof of control how they validate that you control the site and thus it’s ok for them to sign off on the cert.

What’s nice about this scheme is that you really don’t need to know much, if anything, about how all this works.  You only need to install some software on your machine – the ACME client – and then follow the instructions.  The better the ACME client the less work you need to do.  This posting has a nice review of various ACME clients.

I first tried the client that the Let’s Encrypt folks are working on.  It didn’t work well for me.  I then moved on to acme-tiny and it was great; though it certainly required more hand work.

The proof of control step/scheme requires that you let the ACME client add a page to your web site, i.e. put a file into your sites http files.  That page is served using HTTP, not HTTPS.

The certificate they give expires in three months, so they presume your likely to run a crontab to renew the certificate, montly say.

The largest hick-up I ran into was that the page wants to be served via HTTP.  My site is setup to to immediately redirect all HTTP traffic to HTTPS.  So I had to adjust the configuration to leave a small hole in that behavior just for the proof of control page.  I do the redirects with Apache’s mod_alias; and it required a bit-o-thought to get that hole build.  I now redirect all URL’s, except those that begin with a period, it’s lame but it works and was easy.

Normalization of Deviance

I’ve found it interesting to think about a posting from Bruce Schneier over the last few days.

He’s musing about the term “Normalization of Deviance.”  This term’s home is in public health, and it’s used to describe a syndrome where the profession knows that certain practices are key to assuring safe outcomes; but where they have a difficult and frustrating time keeping the parties involved on board with those practices.

Bruce is musing about how some large swath of the software industries security failures can be viewed that way.   Clearly in many cases we know what to do, and thus the problem comes down to how difficult and frustrating it is to make that happen.

Some communities of practice (medicine, civil engineering, aviation, …) reside in (mature?) straight jacket of practice.  He kicks off that post with a link to a horrific story of pilots failing to conform to required practice.

Bruce links to this rant,  who’s author is confident that small software startups can, should, ought-to live in that straight jacket too.  That’s a conclusion that is at odds with the buckshot model of startups.  An interesting tension that.

I see I’ve touched on this issue in the past, it’s a fascinating subplot of all this how the straightjacket of regulated practice is analogous to the Overton Window.  The average velocity of the overton window varies widely from one field to another.  There is some sort of relationship between that and safety, but damn if I can say what with the precision I’d like.

Decades ago I had an argument with a young Professor at CMU.  I was right, for various reasons [1, 2] software engineering was not going emerge a “professional engineering” practice in the manner of older engineering fields.   What is clear now is that security issues, like the ones Bruce works on in his day job, are rapidly building out a very similar straightjacket of engineering practice.

Process Shock

I’m very interested in questions of scale, so Ben Adida‘s “Important read” click bait had an easy time getting me to click through to  “Orders of Magnitude“. But, let me save you a click.

FYI – HR is very different at Google with 8! orders of magnitude more employees than it is at a startup.

He actually wrote “Important read! For bigco engineers who join startups, eng processes also are very different at diff scales.”   So he had me twice hooked, I’m thinking a lot about process these days, as one does.

From the employee/HR point of view: moving from one firm to another, like any move, is all about encountering, digesting, introducing new conventions.   The resulting culture shock is always part of the work.  For both sides.  This emotional work is huge.

Management, on the other hand?   Well, their brief includes moving the immovable culture.  The real work of HR is keeping the collective culture shock in some sort of Goldilocks zone.

Be grateful for what blessings your betters have bestowed upon you.

We owe Barbara Enrenrich a debt, for two things: her autobiographical work on the cultures cult like insistence on over the top enthusiastic cheerfulness at all times (see her book Bright-sided).   And for her books about what it’s like to live poor.

Her recent op-ed on the currently popular meme that gratitude it the key to happiness (in the New York Times) brings those together.   I’m embarrassed not to have presumed something I’m reveals:

Perhaps it’s no surprise that gratitude’s rise to self-help celebrity status owes a lot to the conservative-leaning John Templeton Foundation. At the start of this decade, the foundation, which promotes free-market capitalism, gave $5.6 million to Dr. Emmons, the gratitude researcher. It also funded a $3 million initiative called Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude through the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, which co-produced the special that aired on NPR. The foundation does not fund projects to directly improve the lives of poor individuals, but it has spent a great deal, through efforts like these, to improve their attitudes.

One of my joke startup ideas: A chain of bookstores that offer to provide literature in service of any point you wish to make.  These stores would also let you select how you want your point made.   “Ah yes sir, you would like to show that the poor should be more grateful to their betters.  Would you like that in the form of a novel?  Or possibly a anthropological treatise?”  “…”  “Ah yes sir, we can arrange a bespoke social scientist, no problem at all.

The Poor? The pathologist report: it’s chronic, hopeless, and their own damn fault. Might be genetic too.

Steve Randy Waldman has another awesome post, and this case he tackles the mystery of how you can have a reasonably well functioning wealthy liberal democracy at the same time as a huge segment of the population is shockingly poor.  Wealth inequality is a simple answer, but then why doesn’t the democratic process work to fix that?  So you get a “trilema.”  I love triangles.

His names for the three sides of this triangle are: Liberal, Equality, and Nonpathology.  Clearly this idea is going to have trouble getting traction if only because that last one is so odd.  And that’s the key idea.  You can have a functioning liberal democracy along with extreme inequality if you can get everybody to flesh out the bible’s “For you always have the poor with you” sufficiently.  If the majority of the population accepts that the root cause of both is that the poor are afflicted with some pathological flaw – genetic say, or bad maybe bad fashion sense.  This is amusingly covered in the in Westside Story’s “Officer Krupke.”

This technique for suppressing the natural feedback loop you’d expect in a democracy is.  This isn’t just the usual technique of reactionaries to say that it would be futile to try and fix a problem they don’t care much about.

Once you decide that the problem is that the poor are suffering from the disease state – which is only true to the extent that they are poor – you can call in various quacks to prescribe their favorite prescription.  Interview training say.  Or better impulse control.  Or more entrepreneurship risk taking.  Or scolding that they should study harder.  You know: the things that the well off struggle to improve in their own lives.  This is totally a win for the elites because the prescriptions just happen to server their goals.  Tax cuts!

It’s a very good essay, particularly the tail end where he addresses some of the stories elites tell, and the poor often accept, about the pathological behaviors of the poor.