Density, Hierarchy, and Power

This is a post about why gerrymandering might not be as unethical as it appears; or maybe it’s about the hidden agenda of those who argue against it.

Each time you encounter a highly skewed (power-law) distribution the population spread out on the long tail can be assumed to suffer from a severe coordination problem.  Being numerous, banding together to advocate for their common interests is harder.  Meanwhile the population at the elite end of the distribution have a much an easier time coordinating their actions.  By an example consider overdraft fees – it’s a lot easier for banks to get it together for their prefered regulation than it is for bank customers.

The natural disadvantage of the diffuse and numerous doesn’t prevent the elite from worrying about  the little guy ganging up on them.  This is old news.  In Dicken’s Hard Times we get this dialog.

” All is shut up, Bitzer ?” said Mrs. Sparsit.
“All is shut up, ma’am.”
” And what,” said Mrs. Sparsit, pouring out her tea, ” is the news of the day ? Anything ?”
” Well, ma’am, I can’t say that I have heard anything particular. Our people are a bad lot, ma’am; but that is no news, unfortunately.”
“What are the restless wretches doing now?” asked Mrs. Sparsit.
“Merely going on in the old way, ma’am. Uniting, and leaguing, and engaging to stand by one another.”
“It is much to be regretted,” said Mrs. Sparsit, making her nose more Roman and her eyebrows more Coriolanian in the strength of her severity, ” that the united masters allow of any such classcombinations.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Bitzer.
” Being united themselves, they ought one and all to set their faces against employing any man who is united with any other man,” said Mrs. Sparsit.
” They have done that, ma’am,” returned Bitzer; “but it rather fell through, ma’am.”

” All is shut up, Bitzer ?” said Mrs. Sparsit.

“All is shut up, ma’am.”

” And what,” said Mrs. Sparsit, pouring out her tea, ” is the news of the day ? Anything ?”

” Well, ma’am, I can’t say that I have heard anything particular. Our people are a bad lot, ma’am; but that is no news, unfortunately.”

“What are the restless wretches doing now?” asked Mrs. Sparsit.

“Merely going on in the old way, ma’am. Uniting, and leaguing, and engaging to stand by one another.”

“It is much to be regretted,” said Mrs. Sparsit, making her nose more Roman and her eyebrows more Coriolanian in the strength of her severity, ” that the united masters allow of any such class combinations.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Bitzer.

” Being united themselves, they ought one and all to set their faces against employing any man who is united with any other man,” said Mrs. Sparsit.

” They have done that, ma’am,” returned Bitzer; “but it rather fell through, ma’am.”

In spite of that we encourage this uniting in numerous cases.  The California Raisin Marketing Board for example brings together small producers.  We often write regulations to encourage or force the pooling of common interests like that.  From trade association to the interlibrary loan system there are plenty of examples.

Often these schemes involve a certain amount of coercion.  Clearly an urban voter could be a little peeved to discover a Montana vote is twice as potent as his and no doubt there are some California raisin producers who would rather go it alone.

So the menu of schemes for enabling, encouraging, or forcing solidarity on the members of the long tail interest me.  These are the tools for community forming, and one of the most venerable is representative government.  You can’t run any large organization with direct democracy; sooner or latter it’s a good idea to encourage a bit of intermediation.  At some point the town meeting doesn’t work.  So you start electing representatives instead.

Ok, so here’s the point of this post.

Andrew Gelman draws our attention to an political science article (pdf) that throws new light on ethical puzzle of how to draw congressional districts.  The whinging crowd loves to make fun of how bizarrely shaped congressional districts are.  Oh the horror, they cry, look politics has tainted this process.  I’m not sure what they expected, but yeah.

Let’s say your state has two kinds of people, good people and bad people, and they are split evenly 50/50.  Your a good person and lucky you you’ve been given the power to draw your three congressional districts.  So, obviously you draw them so that 80% of the bad people are in one district; thus come election time you’ll get two good congressmen and you can limit the damage the bad voters can do to one congressman.  Such cartographic manipulation is obviously fraught with ethical implications.  Not the least of which is how it leads to increasing polarization, reduced competition and absence of discourse.

You might be able to achieve the above goal indirectly.  For example if all the good voters live in the country and all the bad voters live in the cities then you could lobby for rules that requires congressional districts to have small perimeters, i.e. to be compact.  That would tend to trigger districts bundle up those bad urban voters in compact little districts.  As a fall back position you can’t get of rules adopted that arguing for compact districts you need only argue for such districts on cosmetic grounds.

The article asks: Does a political party who’s voters live in dense regions have some significant structural advantage or disadvantage?  Their answer: yes, a big one.  If representatives are drawn from geographic regions and there is a preference for compactly shaped regions then a party that draws principally from rural areas will have a substantial advantage.  They focus on Florida and use detailed data for the two parties to show that a preference for compact districts gives the Republicans a significant structural advantage given the concentration of Democratic voters in urban districts.

One last thing, communities of common interest aren’t always aligned with geography.  While the raisin growers of California probably have some geographic coherence other groups, e.g. doctors or school teachers, don’t.  For the last century or two communities have been becoming increasingly a-geographic.  It is a fun sort of sci-fi like fantasy to imagine representative district lines that are dawn in virtual rather than physical space.  Then the senator from the Auto Industry wouldn’t have to live in Michigan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.