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The Prisoners’ Dilemma and Third-Party Voting

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Prisoners Dilemma - Ohdaira & Terano

[ Related: Responding to the ‘Voting for Jill Stein Merely Elects Trump’ Fallacy  ]

Does game theory explain why Americans don’t vote for third-party candidates?

Previous posts here have considered the tactics by which the Republican and Democratic parties collude to maintain a two-party hegemony in America  politics.  Lately it’s occurred to me that this problem can be understood as a special case of what game theorists call the prisoner’s dilemma (Rapoport, 1965).  Prisoner’s dilemma (PD), as we shall see, is a classic example of how two decision-making agents, both seemingly seeking to maximize self-interest, systematically make  harmful or suboptimal choices.  In the present case, the issue is that even though American voters would be better off voting for third-party candidates, there are structural reasons why they do not do so.  Looking at this problem in terms of PD can help identify the structural issues at work and suggest possible routes out of our present political impasse.

A few other people (e.g., John Sallet, and EvilRedScandi) have looked at  PD as a way to understand current political dynamics, but their concerns are somewhat different than the present one, which is how Republican and Democrat voters today are jointly in a prisoners’ dilemma.

First we’ll describe the basic PD paradigm.  Then we’ll show how this applies to reluctance to vote for third-party candidates.  Last and perhaps most importantly we’ll consider practical steps for reform that the model suggests.

Prisoner’s Dilemma

PD is a game theory paradigm that demonstrates how two decision-makers paradoxically fail to maximize either individual or joint interests.  Specifically, though their best strategy would be cooperation, they systematically choose non-cooperation.  The basic model can be understood with the following example:

Early one Saturday you and a college friend go hunting for ‘magic mushrooms’ in Farmer Brown’s cow pasture.  Farmer Brown sees you and calls police Chief Wiggum, who arrives promptly, arrests you and your friend, and hauls you both to the police station. There Wiggum places you in a room by yourself and proposes the following deal (he also tells you he will propose an identical deal to your friend).  The terms are as follows.  He asks you to sign a confession admitting that you and your friend were gathering the mushrooms with the intent of selling them (i.e., drug-dealing).  Then:

  1. If you confess, and your friend doesn’t confess, he will go to jail for 10 years, and you will get a 90-day sentence.
  2. Conversely, if your friend confesses and you don’t, he will get a 90-day sentence,  and you will get a 10-year sentence.
  3. If you confess and your friend also confesses, you’ll both be given 5-year sentences.
  4. If neither of you confess, Wiggum explains that he can still charge you and your friend with trespassing and put you both in jail for 30 days.

We can represent the dilemma with reference to a payoff matrix that considers each possible combination of choices and their consequences. You and your friend must each choose between cooperation with each other (not confessing), or defecting (confessing).  The days and years indicate the amount of jail time associated with each case.

Table 1. Classic Prisoner’s Dilemma

 Friend doesn’t confess
 Friend confesses
 You don’t confess
 you: 30 days
friend: 30 days
 you: 10 yrs.
friend: 90 days
 You  confess
 you: 90 days
friend: 10 yrs.
 you: 5 yrs.
friend: 5 yrs.

 

The best strategy here is clearly 4 — for neither of you to confess.   This is optimal both from the standpoint of selfish and altruistic motivation.  The paradox is that people in this situation predictably end up in scenario 3 (confess/confess). So  both of you go to jail for 5 years, when you both could have gotten off with 30-day sentences.

The pernicious aspect of PD is that this happens almost inevitably. Why? It has to do with what game theorists call the principle of dominance.  Relative to Table 1 that means that whatever your friend’s choice  is – that is, whether you’re looking at column 2 or column 3 of the table – your self-interest is maximized by defecting; thus, the strategy of defection is said to dominate that of cooperation.  And similarly for your friend.  Therefore, paradoxically, if maximizing self-interest is the only consideration, both of you will  defect, and neither will  maximize self-interest.

A detail is that although we’ve explained the dilemma in terms of various punishments, the crafty allocation of positive incentives, alone or in combination with negative incentives, can have the same effect. So, for example, Chief Wiggum can sweeten the deal with a bribe.  He could offer to give you or your friend say $100 if the one defects and the other doesn’t.

An important extension of the model is iterative PD, where two agents are presented with the dilemma multiple times.  Many researchers have studied iterative PD experimentally, e.g., seating two volunteers at computer terminals and repeatedly asking them to cooperate or defect, awarding payoffs (e.g., M&Ms, poker chips, money) each round.  A variety of player strategies are seen.  Sometimes players converge on cooperation, sometimes not. One not uncommon outcome is a tit-for-tat dynamic, in which players cooperate for a while, but if one defects, the other player retaliates by defecting in the next round, and this may go back and forth many times.  In any case, the iterative PD corresponds to our national elections, which occur at regular two or four-year intervals.

Third-Party Voting

Let’s now see how this applies to third-party voting. Our initial premise is that, while one might suppose that the Republican and Democratic parties are competitors, they’re really a duopoly.  Both serve the same ruling powers. They thus represent a single agent, which we might call Wall Street, the System, the Establishment, etc.  Whatever we call it, it corresponds to the role of the interrogator in our PD.

The role of you and your friend correspond to a given Republican and a given Democrat voter, or perhaps groups or Republican and Democrat voters.

The essence of the third-party voting PD is that it is in the best interests of both Republican and Democrat voters, individually and jointly, to replace or radically reform the present two-party duopoly.  Unless or until the two big parties nominate better candidates, the logical solution is for large numbers of citizens to vote for third-party candidates.  The paradox is that voters are not doing this, but are choosing to keep the aversive two-party system in power.

This happens, we propose, because of how the ruling powers structure perceived payoffs, both by their selection of candidates and by party platforms.

Here PD makes an unexpected prediction. Common sense might suggest that to win office, a party should nominate candidates who (1) appeal to its own voters, but also (2) are either somewhat attractive, but in any case not terribly offensive to voters in the opposite party. That way some voters in the opposite camp might switch votes, or perhaps may feel it’s not important to vote at all.  In either case, the party’s chances of winning are improved.

However if we grant that the Republican and Democrat parties are controlled by Wall Street and colluding with each other, PD implies that they will follow an opposite strategy, namely to nominate candidates who are frightening or even detested by voters of the opposite party. In such a fear- or anger-driven campaign, fewer voters will break ranks, believing that the opposite party must be prevented from winning at all costs.  All votes will be cast for the two big parties – precisely as Wall Street wants.

To further encourage voters not to break ranks, each party also offers positive incentives in the form of platforms and campaign promises:  for example universal health care or gay marriage by the Democratic party, or tougher immigration laws and Second Amendment protection but the Republican party.  But, again, PD would predict that parties would be especially keen to offer incentives that are hated by voters of the opposite party.

Table 2 presents the PD that Republican and Democrat voters faced in the 2008 presidential election.   (Cooperation here means voting for a third-party candidate, and defection means voting for the nominee of ones own party.)

Table 2. 2008 Presidential Election as Prisoners’ Dilemma

 Dem. voter cooperates  Dem. voter defects
 Rep. voter cooperates  Election a toss-up,
Two-party hegemony rejected
 Obama/Biden win,
‘Obamacare’
 Rep. voter defects  McCain/Palin win,
More guns
 Election a toss-up,
Two-party hegemony affirmed

 

If we suppose that both main parties represent Wall Street and are ultimately inimical to the interests of the public, the best strategy for Republican and Democrat voters is to vote for some third-party candidate.  That won’t change the power structure immediately, but over the course of two or three elections sufficient momentum may build to make a third-party candidate competitive.   If nothing else, this may force the two big parties to become more responsive to citizens.

However what is happening instead is that voters are afraid to do this.  So, to consider the 2012 presidential election, despite the disillusionment of many Democrats with Obama, and the unattractiveness of Mitt Romney to many Republicans, the combined votes received by all third-party candidates amounted to less than 2% of the total.

Practical Implications

Viewing third-party voting as a PD suggests specific strategies for extricating American voters from their current predicament.  Several, but not all, of these strategies relate to improving the perception of payoffs so that cooperation, i.e., voting for third-party candidates, is more appealing. Specific strategies include the following:

Accurately perceive costs of non-cooperation. The ultimate problem is that Democrat and Republican voters are not accurately considering the costs of maintaining the two-party hegemony and the benefits of electing third-party candidates.  If the true costs and benefits were salient in our minds, we would more eagerly vote against the abusive and arrogant Republican-Democratic party establishment.

Our social problems today are many and serious:  the economy is moribund, rates of unemployment and foreclosures intolerable, college tuitions insanely high, the environment is being destroyed, civil liberties disappearing; the country is engaged in perpetual war, and a spirit of divisiveness and antagonism dominate.

Less often considered, but perhaps even more important are the ‘opportunity costs’, i.e., besides these negative things, what positive things are we missing out on because of our dysfunctional and aversive government?  Objectively considered, America has sufficient natural and human resources to construct a veritable utopia;  we could eliminate poverty, grant free higher education and health-care for all;  we have enough land to let everyone live in their own houses on their own property in environmentally friendly and attractive communities.  Indeed, the blessings of nature generally, and in our country particularly, are so great that it seems we must make a concerted effort to avoid constructing such a prosperous and congenial society.  We need a clearer vision of how good life could be were we only to stop punishing ourselves with the present inimical political system.

How can we gain this vision? Surely we still have individuals with the imagination and skills to lead. We must develop and empower these natural leaders and intellectuals.  One obvious means of doing this is to reform our higher education system, which, by now neglecting liberal studies and humanities in favor of teaching technical and money-making skills, is discouraging the emergence of a more utopian vision of society.

We can also promote voter cooperation by applying more skepticism and critical thinking to the promises of Republican and Democrat candidates.  For example, a Democrat candidate may well promise universal health care, which sounds very attractive at face value, but ought to raise many obvious questions about its feasibility or unintended side-effects.  Would government-run health-care produce an unwieldy and inefficient bureaucracy?  Would the government give too much power to pharmaceutical companies?  Are there cheaper and better alternatives, such as a greater emphasis on preventive medicine and healthy living?  Subjected to greater scrutiny, the promises of the two parties can be seen as empty, or in any case far less attractive than the kind of society we could obtain by having a government based on citizens’, not corporations’ interests.

Long-term perspective. Clearly another way to acquire more a accurate perception of the payoff structure, so as to better see the benefits of cooperation by voting for third-party candidates, is to adopt a long-term perspective.  A bias favoring immediate wishes over long-term welfare is, of course, a fundamental problem of human nature.  But the problem is especially great in politics, where demagogues and news media specialize in appealing to voters’ short-term interests.   In any given election, the short term benefits promised by Republican and Democrat candidates may seem attractive to their respective constituencies, but over the course of 10 or 20 years alternations of policy and failure to pursue any consistent course is disastrous.

Collectivize utilities.  By collectivizing utilities I mean for individual citizens to recognize their own best interests and those of their fellow Americans are intimately connected.  We are a highly interdependent society.  Ultimately, social injustice or unfair distribution of wealth harms everyone.  If one segment of the population is oppressed or excluded, or their views ignored, then at the very least their contribution to society will be lessened, and this hurts everyone.  Moreover, eventually an oppressed or underserved group will gather sufficient energy to redress the wrong by political action.  Whatever is at the basis of the ideological split between Republicans and Democrats, the current political dynamics operate as a negative feedback system: as one group gains successive victories, opposing pressure builds until a reversal occurs.  Thus victories are often short-lived, policies flip-flop, and no sustained course is pursued.

Consider higher-order utilities. The utility calculus of voters is such that typically only material values – jobs, benefits, taxes, etc. – are considered.  Americans have bought lock, stock and barrel the political lie that “it’s the economy, stupid”, i.e., that all success and value of our society is measured by the GNP.  This does not reflect the true value structure of human beings.  We are not merely material creatures, but moral and spiritual beings as well.  It is an undeniable fact that people feel good and experience more happiness and satisfaction when they practice generosity, altruism, benevolence, charity, and justice.  Add to this that no amount of material benefits can outweigh the disadvantages of citizens being constantly at each others’ throats.   In an authentic utility calculus, higher-order utilities have to be considered; and if they are, the payoff much more clearly favors cooperation among voters and rejection of the two-party hegemony.

Third-party platforms and rhetoric.  Third parties must confront Americans with the price being paid for two-party totalitarianism and emphasize that a better future is obtainable.

Voter pacts. Beyond changing perceptions of payoffs, there are active steps that people in a prisoners’ dilemma can do to win the game.  Perhaps the most obvious is for the two players to anticipate the dilemma and form a pact beforehand.  For example, with regards to Table 1, you and your friend could agree beforehand, “If we’re caught, we both promise to assert our innocence.”  This solution is enhanced by establishing or improving trust, affection, and bonds of unity between the two players.

In theory, individual Republican and Democrat voters could pair up with a member of the opposite party and agree to vote for third-party candidates. A website might be set up for this purpose.  While this is sensible and ethical, I believe that at least certain forms of voting pacts have been ruled illegal, and one website dedicated to this was forced to close.   Nevertheless this principle could doubtless be applied in ways that are unambiguously legal, or at least such that contrary prohibitions would be unenforceable.

Bargains could also be made at the level of institutional endorsements.  For example, two newspapers, one liberal and one conservative, could make a pact to endorse third-party candidates.

Opting out. Finally, citizens might opt out of the dilemma in various ways.  I would personally not advocate failure to vote as a means for this, although some suggest it.  Protests, demonstrations, or even strikes might be used to pressure the Republican and Democratic parties to reform their platforms and supply better candidates.  Another possibility is to hold alternative elections run by the citizens themselves with candidates of their own choosing.  Such elections would have no legal status, but they would have symbolic value, would permit realistic debates about policy, and encourage trust and camaraderie amongst citizens.

These are only representative suggestions.  How feasible or effective any of them would be remains to be seen.  The main point here has been to suggest that PD is an appropriate paradigm for looking at the current two-party stranglehold on American society and understanding how to encourage third-party voting.   I would like to encourage others, including social scientists, to consider this topic more, as I believe the model is apt and probably contains more theoretical and practical implications than have been considered here.

Post-script

Writing this article helped me to see the more fundamental problem: American society generally is an n-way prisoners’ dilemma. When people view society as merely a ‘dog-eat-dog’ competition, they ‘rationally’ choose to maximize self(ish)-interest. But selfishness only pays off when other people act unselfishly.  When everybody acts selfishly, everyone loses; thinking you’ll win by acting selfishly is an illusion.

Each person is better off when everybody cooperates. This is more than an ethical maxim, it’s demonstrated by game theory.

This problem (whether to vote for a third-party candidate, or a less preferred candidate that is more likely to win) is an instance of a more general class of social dilemmas. As such it is not only related to the prisoners’ dilemma but also the tragedy of the commons. Several other forms of insincere voting that constitute social dilemmas. For all such dilemmas, the long-term optimal strategy is cooperation, viz. for each agent to choose so as to maximize long-term collective, not immediate personal utility.

Further Reading

Rapoport, Anatol. Prisoner’s Dilemma: A Study in Conflict and Cooperation. University of Michigan, 1965.

Uebersax, John. The Lions and the Tigers (A Political Parties Fable).

Uebersax, John. Third-Party Voting and Kant’s Categorical Imperative.

Uebersax, John. Voting as Constructive Idealism: Why Principles Do Matter More than Expediency.

Uebersax, John. Why Vote Third-Party?

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Theodore Parker – ‘Only a Hand-Rail of Difference Between the Two Parties’

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This continues a series of posts intended to demonstrate the ideological relevance of New England Transcendentalism to the Occupy Movement and to direct readers to this invaluable resource.

Theodore Parker (1810–1860) was one of the greatest orators among the New England Transcendentalists. In the excerpt below, Parker explains that, in the perennial struggle between Idealism and materialism, the US has become dominated by the latter.  The two great political parties – the one of the rich and the other of the poor – are alike in that their values and policies are dominated by desire for wealth. It is all too painfully clear how closely the Whigs and Democrats of his era correspond to the Republican and Democratic parties of ours.

Source: Theodore Parker. The Nebraska Question. Boston: Mussey, 1854.

* * * *

From 1620 to 1788 there was a rapid development of ideas. But since that time the outward pressure has been withdrawn. The nation is no longer called to protest against a foreign foe; no despot forces us to fall back on the great principles of human nature, and declare great universal truths. Even the Anglo-Saxon people are always metaphysical in revolution. We have ceased to be such, and have become material. We have let the programme of political principles and purposes slip out of the nations consciousness, and have betaken ourselves, body and soul to the creation of riches. Wealth is the great object of American desire. Covetousness is the American passion. This is so — nationally in the political affairs of the country; ecclesiastically, socially, domestically, individually. Our national character, political institutions, geographic situation,— all favor the accumulation of riches.

No country was ever so rich before, nor got rich so fast; in none had wealth ever such power, or was so esteemed. It is counted as the end of life, not as the material basis to higher forms thereof. It has no conventional check in the institutions of the land, and only two natural checks in the heart of the people. One is the talent and genius — intellectual, moral, affectional, and religious—that is born in rare men; and the other is the desire, the caprice, the opinion, of the great majority of men, who oppose {p. 329} their collective human will against the material glitter of mere accumulated money. But money can buy intellectual talent and intellectual genius; at least it can buy American talent and American genius. Money, and the men of cultivated minds whom it buys, can deceive the people, so that the majority shall follow the dollar wherever it rolls. The clink of the dollar, — that is the reveille, the morning drum-beat, for the American people. In America, money is inaugurated as a power to control all other powers. It has itself become an “Institution” — master of all the rest.

Three of those bad institutions … whereof our fathers brought the traditions from the old world, have mainly perished. The mediaeval Theocracy has gone out from the Protestant Church; Monarchy has wholly faded from the consciousness of the people; Aristocracy, sitting unmovable on her cradle, has had her heart pierced through and through by the gigantic spear of American Industry horsed on a steam-engine. Money has taken the place of all three. It has got inaugurated into the Church, — it is a Church of commerce; in the State — it is a State of commerce; in the Community not less, — it is a society of commerce; and money wields the triple power of those three old masters, Theocracy, Monarchy, Aristocracy. It is the Almighty Dollar.

In the American Church, money is God. The {p. 330} peculiar sins of money, and of the rich, they are never preached against; it is a Church of commerce, wealth its heaven and the millionaire its saint; its ministers should be ordained, not “by the imposition of hands,” but of bank-bills — of small denomination. In the American State, money is the Constitution: officers ought to be sworn on the federal currency; they should make the sign of the dollar, ($) as their official symbolic cross; it is a State of commerce. In the community, money is Nobility; it is transmissible social power; it is Aristocracy, it makes a man who has got it a vulgar “gentleman;” it is a Society of commerce….

{p. 331} Money having taken the place of these three institutions, it must be politically represented in the nation by a party; for a party is the provisional organization of a tendency. So there is a party organized about the Dollar as its central nucleus and idea. The dollar is the germinal dot of the Whig party; its motive is pecuniary; its motto should be, to state it in Latin, pecunia pecuniata, money moneyed, money made. It sneers at the poor; at the many; has a contempt for the people. It legislates against the poor, and for the rich; that is, for men pecuniarily strong; the few who are born with the desire, the talent, and the conventional position to become rich. “Take care of the rich, and they will take care of the poor,” is its secret maxim. [Note 1] Every thing must yield to money: that is to have universal right of way. Down with Mankind! the Dollar is coming! The great domestic object of Government, said the greatest Expounder of this party, “is the protection of property;” —that is to say, the protection of money {p. 332} moneyed, money got. With this party there is no Absolute Right, no Absolute Wrong. Instead thereof, there is Expediency and Inexpediency. There is no law higher than the power to wield money just as you will. Accordingly a millionaire is reckoned by this party as the highest production of society. He is the Whig ideal; he alone has attained “the measure of the stature of a perfect man.”

…But man is man, can a dollar stop him? For ever? The instinct of development is as inextinguishable in man as the instinct of perpetuation in blackbirds and thrushes, who build their procreant nests under all administrations, theocratic or democratic. So there is another party which represents the Majority of the people; that majority who have not money which is coveted, only the covetous desire thereof…. This is the Democratic party. It loves money as well as the Whig party, but has got less of it….

{p. 333} To the Whig party belong the rich, the educated, the decorous; the established, — those who look back, and count the money got. To the other party belong the young, the poor, the bold, the adventurous, everybody that is in want, everybody that is in debt everybody who complains. The audacious are its rulers [Note 2]; — often men destitute of lofty character, of great ideas, of Justice, of Love, of Religion — bold, smart, saucy men. This party sneers at the rich, and hates them; of course it envies them, and lusts for their gold.

The Democratic party appeals to the brute will of the majority, right or wrong; it knows no Higher Law. Its statesmanship is the power to enact into permanent institutions the transient will of the majority: that is the ultimate standard. Popular and unpopular, take the place of right and wrong—vox populi, vox Dei [Note 3]; the vote settles what is true, what right. It regards money made and hoarded as the foe of human progress, and so is hostile to the millionaire. The Whig calls on his lord, “Money, help us!” To get money, the Democrat can do all things through the majority strengthening him….

{p. 334} … The Whig party worships money: it is the body of the Whig God; there is no Higher Law above it. The Democratic party worships the opinion of the majority: it is the voice of the Democrat’s God: there is no Higher Law. To the Whig party, — no matter how the money is got, by smuggling opium or selling slaves, — it is pecunia pecuniata, — money moneyed. To the Democratic party it is of no consequence what the majority wishes, or whom it chooses … If the majority wants to violate the Constitution of America and the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution of the Universe and the Declaration of God, why! the cry is — “there is no higher law!” {p. 335} “the greatest good of the greatest number!” — What shall become of the greatest good of the smaller number?

There is, therefore, no vital difference between the Whig party and the Democratic party; no difference in moral principle. The Whig inaugurates the Money got; the Democrat inaugurates the Desire to get the money. That is all the odds. So in the times that try the passions, which are the souls of these parties, the Democrat and the Whig meet on the same …  platform. One is not higher and the other lower; they are just alike. There is only a hand rail between the two, which breaks down if you lean on it, and the parties mix.  In common times, it becomes plain that a Democrat is but a Whig on time; a Whig is a Democrat arrived at maturity; his time has come. A Democrat is a young Whig who will legislate for money as soon as he has got it; the Whig is an old Democrat who once hurrahed for the majority — “Down with money! that is a despot! and up with the desire for it!”

{p. 336} I once knew a crafty family which had two sons; both men of ability, and of remarkable unity of “principle.” The family invested one in each party, and as it had a head on either side of the political penny thrown into the air, the family was sure to win. A New England Family, wise in its generation! [Note 4]

Now, I do not mean to say that all Democrats or all Whigs are of this way of thinking. Quite the contrary. There is not a Whig or Democrat who would confess it. The majority, so far as they have convictions, are very different from this; but the Whig would say in his convention, that I told the truth of the Democratic party; the Democrat, in his convention, would say, I told, the truth of the Whigs. These ideas, — they reside in the two parties [Note 5], … as chemistry in the water, as in the drop the gravitation which brings it to the ground: not a conviction, but a fact. Each of these parties has great good to accomplish. Both seem indispensable. Money must be looked after. It is a valuable thing; the human race could not do without property. It is the ladder whereby we scale the heavens of manhood. But property alone is good for nothing. The will of the majority must be respected.  I honor the ideas of the Democratic {p. 337} party, and of the Whig party, so far as they are just. But man is not made merely for money; the majority are the standard of power, not of Right. There is a law of God which directs the chink of every dollar; it cannot roll except by the laws of the Eternal Father of Earth and Heaven. What if the majority enact iniquity into a statute! Can millions make Wrong right? Justice is the greatest good of all.

With little geographical check or interference from other nations, we are going on solving our problem of “manifest destiny.” Since the establishment of Independence, America has made a rapid development. Her population has increased with unexampled rapidity; her territory has enlarged to receive her ever greatening family; riches have been multiplied faster even than their possessors. But some of the least lovely qualities of the Anglo-Saxon tribe have become dreadfully apparent. We have exterminated the Indians; we keep no treaties made with the red men; they keep all. The national materialism and indifference to great universal principles of Right shows itself clearer and clearer. Submission to Money or the Majority is the one idea that pervades the nation….

{p. 338} … There is a contradiction in the consciousness of the nation. In our industrial civilization, under the stimulus of love of wealth, and its consequent social and political power, we have made such a rapid advance in population and riches as no nation ever made. The lower powers of the understanding have also had a great development. We can plan, organize, and administer material means for material ends, as no nation has ever done. But it is not to be supposed that any people could pass all at once from the military civilization, with its fourfold despotism, to an industrial civilization with democracy in its Church, State, Community, and Family. How slowly we learn; with what mistakes do we come to the true Idea [Note 6], and how painfully enact it into a deed!

Notes

1. E.g., the so-called trickle-down theory of ‘Reaganomics’.

2. Cf. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (2006).

3. Latin for ‘the voice of the people is the voice of God.’

4.  A prime tactic of special interests today.

5. Today we might express this by saying that, although many elected officials have principles and are decent men and women, the structural forces of the political system inevitably result in compromise of these principles and their sacrifice to the party agenda.

6. i.e., the ‘great principles of human nature’ (p. 328), or the Platonic Ideals of Truth, Beauty, Justice, etc.

The Lions and the Tigers (A Political Parties Fable)

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Long ago in olden times, the human beings were oppressed by a tribe of lions.  The people fought back bravely; they made spears and learned how to keep the lions at bay and to protect their village and children.  Then the lions got together to reconsider their plans. “I have an idea”, said one crafty lion.  “Let us divide ourselves into two bands, calling one the ‘lions’ and the other the ‘tigers’.  Each group will then approach the humans saying, ‘Those evil tigers/lions are a terrible threat to you.  We propose to protect you from them. Naturally you would need to pay for our protection;  but whereas without our protection the other cats would eat 10 of your children each year, we would only ask that you feed us one or two a year in payment.'”  This plan met with great approval among the lions, and they decided to pursue it.

And so each of the newly formed bands of ‘lions’ and ‘tigers’ alternately approached groups of villagers, offering protection against the other band of cats. The villagers surprised the cats by agreeing rather readily; being basically lazy, the humans much preferred relegating their protection to someone else.

And so the ‘lions’ and ‘tigers’ each struck a bargain with roughly half the villagers, and this arrangement continued for some time. Periodically, representatives from each group would visit their sponsoring villagers, reminding them of how evil the other cats were, and how necessary it was for the protection to continue.

As the villagers began to feel completely dependent on this protection, the cats raised the ante.  “Our work is so difficult,” they said, “and the lions/tigers we protect you from are more dangerous than ever!  We must therefore ask for more compensation.  We now request you sacrifice 5 children a year to us.”   And the villagers complied with scarcely a complaint.  And this continued until eventually the ‘lions’ and ‘tigers’ each demanded 10 children a year — twice in total what the cats had originally taken.

At any time the villagers could have ended this tragedy, if only they had once again taken their up spears and confronted the animals directly.  But by now they had become completely dependent on their external ‘protection’, and had even forgotten how to make or use spears.  Much worse, they also forgot how to act together.  The ‘lions’ and ‘tigers’ had poisoned their minds completely, turning one group of villagers (the ‘lions protect us from tigers’, or LPT party) against the other (the ‘tigers protect us from lions’ party, or TPL).  The entire political attention of the people revolved around disputes between these two parties.  Each party printed a newspaper to keep its members well informed of all the evils perpetrated by the opposing party.  Eventually nobody paid any attention at all to the lions and the tigers, or the many children they ate each year.  The only thing people cared about was expressing hatred and contempt of the members of the opposing party.

Eventually the village ceased to exist, though precisely what happened is not clear.  Some say they were conquered by a neighboring tribe; others say they died in a famine or some environmental catastrophe.  All we know for certain is that this once strong and happy people vanished from the face of the earth.

Now every fable must have a moral, and the moral here is this:  never place your protection in the hands of lions.

Written by John Uebersax

November 5, 2012 at 5:25 pm

The Commission on Presidential Debates: A National Scandal

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The Commission on Presidential Debates: A National Scandal

Following up on a previous post, I did a little research on the mysterious Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which organizes the televised presidential debates.

The sordid details of this Commission supply the most tangible, unequivocal evidence imaginable that the Republican and Democratic parties are a duopoly, collaborating to control the government and to preserve the status quo. The details are also a tragic testimony to how easily the American public is duped. As this blog hopefully shows, I try to stay politically aware; but until a few days ago I, like most people, naively assumed that the debates are being responsibly run. It seems rather clear that they aren’t.

The History

For many years, the famous League of Women Voters (LWV) ran the presidential debates. They saw themselves as citizens, and the candidates as ‘guests’ — that is, citizens controlled the debates, and the candidates took their directions from citizens. By 1988, the Republican and Democratic parties began to collude in advance, drafting “memoranda of understanding” agreeing with each other on the format and content of the debates. They then tried to dictate format and groundrules to the LWV. At that point the LWV withdrew, stating indignantly, “the League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

So, in their place, the Committee on Presidential Debates was formed — a private and ostensibly nonpartisan nonprofit organization, but actually under the direct influence of the Republican and Democratic Parties. Since then the debates have existed for the sole purpose of consolidating the joint Republican/Democratic monopoly on American government.

You might say, “Wait, wasn’t Ross Perot in the 1992 debates?” Yes he was. That’s because both Clinton and Dole agreed to let him participate. Basically, both major parties saw it to their advantage: each expected Perot to divert more votes from the other major party.

But in 1996 this same Ross Perot was excluded from the debate, despite (1) having roughly the same level of pre-debate public support he had in 1992, and (2) having gained 19% of the popular vote in 1992. Until 2000 there were no objective criteria for inclusion — it was decided by the CPD and their advisers. They weren’t accountable to anyone except the Republican and Democratic parties.

This is all spelled out clearly in a revealing 26-page report, Deterring Democracy: How The Commission On Presidential Debates Undermines Democracy, written jointly by several citizen advocacy groups. I can’t improve on what the reports says and simply refer readers to it. I especially recommend the sections, Candidate Exclusion, and Corporate Sponsorship.

Leadership

A look at the leadership of the CPD, as shown as their website, leaves little doubt about their control by the Republican and Democratic parties:

Here are their co-chairmen:

  • Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr. (former chair, Republican National Committee; gambling lobbyist;president, American Gaming Association; directs enormous contributions to Republican and Democratic parties)
  • Paul G. Kirk, Jr.(former chairman, Democratic National Committee)

Here are the ‘Honorary Chairmen’:

  • Gerald R. Ford (deceased)
  • Jimmy Carter
  • Ronald Reagan (deceased)
  • William J. Clinton

Here is the Board of Directors:

  • Howard Buffett: son of Warren Buffett (corporate investor and world’s richest man)
  • John C. Danforth: former Republican senator; grandson of William Danforth, Ralston-Purina founder
  • Antonia Hernandez: Democrat; “Her tenure with MALDEF [Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund] has been marked by controversy…”; narrowly escaped termination from MALDEF based on questions of leadership and administrative capabilities
  • Michael D. McCurry: former press secretary/White House spokesman for Bill Clinton
  • Newton N. Minow: veteran Democrat; former FCC head
  • Dorothy Ridings: former president and chief executive officer of the Council on Foundations
  • Alan K. Simpson: Republican; former US Senator
  • H. Patrick Swygert: Former university president; Fannie Mae board of directors

Corporate Sponsorship

The CPD is funded by corporate sponsors. An interesting trick: the Republicans and Democrats collude to form a non-profit, non-partisan organization for ‘public education’. Corporations can contribute as much as they want to this entity, freed from the usual concerns of limits on political campaign contributions.

Current or former corporate sponsors include: Anheuser-Busch ($550,000 in 2000), Philip Morris ($250,000 in 1992), AT&T, Prudential, IBM, Ford, General Motors.

For more information, why not visit www.opendebates.org. Basically this is a citizen-run group that would like to give back to citizens control of the debates. If the cloud here has a silver lining, it’s that there are still honest Americans like those at Open Debates trying to get the country back on track. You aren’t alone.

2012 Update

For more details and an excellent presentation overall, see this Democracy Now interview with George Farah, Director of Open Debates.

Written by John Uebersax

August 20, 2008 at 7:03 pm

Open the Presidential Debates to Third Parties!

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Open the Presidential Debates to Third Parties!

A recent Zogby poll showed that most American voters would like to see the Libertarian party presidential candidate, Bob Barr, participate in the presidential debates.

However, the Commission on Presidential Debates refuses to allow this. They require that a candidate meet two inclusion criteria:  (1) that their name appears on enough state ballots to grant a “mathematical chance” (i.e., a non-zero probability) of winning the election, and (2) that polls show that at least 15% of voters support the candidate.

As of this writing Bob Barr is already on 38 state ballots — including California, Florida, Illinois, and Texas — and he is likely to ultimately be on 48 state ballots.  Thus the first criterion above is met.  However, he only has a 6% endorsement rate in national polls; on that basis he is excluded from the debates.

The Commission on Presidential Debates fails to appreciate the circularity of their reasoning.  By excluding third parties from the debates, nobody learns about these parties, and therefore nobody supports them.  American is force-fed a diet of ‘Republicrat’ propoganda.  We continue to be presented with a narrow choice between the two major parties, which are basically clones of each other. This is something Americans should be angry about.

American needs fundamental change.  There are solutions — but these must entail bold, courageous, and innovative ideas.  Those will not come from the Republican or Democrat parties, which both reflect the vested power interests that have produced the problems America faces.

Whom you vote for is up to you to decide.  I wouldn’t try to influence your vote even if I could.  But I will supply a link to the Libertarian party platform, and, for that matter, to Ralph Nader’s too.  Please take a minute to look at these — just to see that there are good ideas out there.  People need to see how badly the Democrat and Republican parties are shortchanging us.

The two major parties, the media, and, to a large extent the academic community are colluding to perpetuate a fantasy world of wrong ideas and stupid ways of looking at things.  There’s no reason why the problems we face can’t be solved.  Your common sense tells you that.  Trust your common sense, and extricate yourself from the tissue of lies the major parties and the media present.

And if you haven’t already seen it, here is my article:  Why Vote Third Party?

Written by John Uebersax

August 19, 2008 at 5:54 pm

Ron Paul’s new book – The Revolution: A Manifesto

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You HAVE to check out this new book by Texas Congressman Ron Paul.

Some people say America is finished. But they’re wrong.

America is still the last, best hope for establishing a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Yes, America has fallen onto bad times and has made mistakes. That merely proves that a modern democracy is difficult to establish. If other countries were as large and as free as the United States is, they’d likely be making the same or worse mistakes.

Ultimately, if America cannot succeed in this grand experiment, then nobody can. Or, stated conversely, if modern democracy is feasible at all, then America will find a way to make it work.

This new book is a case in point of how America is still fundamentally committed to the ideals of justice and liberty. The Republican/Democrat political establishment has managed to engineer an oppressive political system. But Americans are still fundamentally free — that’s something built into the principles and spirit of the nation. In a free environment it’s only a matter of time before someone speaks out — and Ron Paul has done so.

His new book is titled The Revolution: A Manifesto

The timing of the book couldn’t be better — obviously planned to coincide with the upcoming November elections.

Here are some excerpts from the editorial review at Amazon:

* The government is expanding.
* Taxes are increasing.
* More senseless wars are being planned.
* Inflation is ballooning.
* Our basic freedoms are disappearing.

The Founding Fathers didn’t want any of this. In fact, they said so quite clearly in the Constitution of the United States of America. Unfortunately, that beautiful, ingenious, and revolutionary document is being ignored more and more in Washington. If we are to enjoy peace, freedom, and prosperity once again, we absolutely must return to the principles upon which America was founded. But finally, there is hope . . .

In THE REVOLUTION, Texas congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul has exposed the core truths behind everything threatening America, from the real reasons behind the collapse of the dollar and the looming financial crisis, to terrorism and the loss of our precious civil liberties. In this book, Ron Paul provides answers to questions that few even dare to ask.

Written by John Uebersax

June 11, 2008 at 5:53 pm

Analysis of Nader’s Platform – 2008

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As of March 5, 2008, Ralph Nader’s campaign has now placed a preliminary platform online. You can find it here: http://www.votenader.org/issues/

Let’s review the items one by one.

1. Adopt single payer national health insurance

As I understand it, this would work by having, in essence, a single, national, government-run health insurance agency. There are two rationales for this: (a) to achieve universal health coverage (at present, 40 millions Americans have no health insurance); and (b) to reduce overhead costs associated with the ‘private insurance bureaucracy’, which, it is claimed, consumes about 31% of every health care dollar.

Clearly we need to address issue (a). However about (b) we should be cautious. First, competition generally brings costs down. I don’t understand the argument that a single government-run health insurance agency would somehow have lower administrative costs than those of privately-owned companies. The former would be performing the same tasks, only with no competition and so with less incentive to find ways to increase efficiency, reduce costs, and improve service quality.

And where would you go if you had a complaint? Think about it: would you want the IRS to be in charge of your health care reimbursement?

I worked in a private health insurance company once, and it seemed to me they were always finding ways to improve service, process, and efficiency. They recognized and took seriously a responsibility to promote patient health and welfare. With improvements in computer and communications systems, private health insurance service is getting continually better.

2. Cut the huge, bloated, wasteful military budget

Definitely. This is a good platform policy.

3. No to nuclear power, solar energy first

Probably good. I’d rather we say instead “other energy sources, especially solar energy”.

4. Aggressive crackdown on corporate crime and corporate welfare

Nader coined the term, ‘corporate welfare’, in 1966. For him it means the government’s bestowal of grants, tax breaks, or other special benefits on corporations. This platform plank is related to the need for lobby reform, which is definitely a good idea. The phrase ‘aggressive crackdown’ hints at a basic animosity Nader holds towards corporations.

Further, corporate crime and ‘corporate welfare’ are separate issues.  The former is a legal-criminal matter; here we need to enforce existing laws.  However, what Nader calls ‘corporate welfare’ is a social policy issue.

Nader, of course, has a long history as an anti-corporate crusader, and tends to overstate things in this area. Economist Eric Blair, in his blog, put it well:

When I hear Nader speak of government’s ‘corporate paymasters’, I get flush with embarrassment, because it’s the sort of gross oversimplification that makes people think liberals are all dumb. It is based on a false us-versus-them dichotomy. All of us, capitalists and laborers alike, want to have a healthy economy where we all have some kind of income and lots of the stuff we want to consume with that income readily available. Gosh, that’s going to involve corporations, especially if we want things to be efficiently done.

See Eric’s article Critique of Ralph Nader’s 2004 Platform for details. Eric’s comments above are in line with my thoughts about Redeeming Corporations and Renewing America. Use corporations for good; don’t scrap them or see them as innately bad things.

For background on Nader’s position, see this article:

http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Nader/CutCorpWelfare_Nader.html

5. Open up the Presidential debates

To bring more third-party and independent ideas into public view during elections. Definitely.

6. Adopt a carbon pollution tax

To reduce greenhouse emissions. We do need to reduce greenhouse emissions, but it’s not clear that a tax like this is a way to do it. Arguably, a ‘disincentive tax’ like this should be linked to offsetting societal costs associated with the thing taxed. For example, cigarette tax revenue should be directed to treating smoking-related illness, preventing smoking, etc. It’s hard to see how that principle would apply here — but maybe we could spend it developing alternative energy sources.

Other various criticisms of a carbon tax can be found here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_tax

7. Reverse U.S. policy in the Middle East

If that means to switch from making enemies and war to making friends and peace, yes.

8. Impeach Bush/Cheney

This one sticks out like a sore thumb. Why impeach Bush/Cheney? Because of the war? Then why not impeach the US Congress while we’re at it? Or how about the majority of voters who implicitly endorsed the Bush administration in the 2004 elections? Come on, this is back to hate politics. Let’s raise the level of public discourse, and focus on issues, not personalities.

9. Repeal the Taft-Hartley anti-union law

Huh? Again, Nader’s atavistic 60’s liberalism shows. Does he really thinks labor unions are going to save America? Personally, I tend to see labor unions as an example of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” That is, labor unions are quasi-governments which (1) are run by selfish, greedy leaders; (2) exploit and coerce workers; and (3) are in the long run much less transparent and democratic than the regular government is.

10. Adopt a Wall Street securities speculation tax

At first I rejected this as being too unrealistic. Then I realized that what matters here is not Nader’s hypothetical solution, but that he’s raising the issue at all. The issue is that people, companies, and sometimes machines(!) presently engage in millions of short-term stock trades, solely for speculation. A company buys millions of dollars worth of stock and then sells it an hour later with a big profit. Sometimes this is based is on insider information; other times it involves deliberate manipulation by huge financial corporations to influence stock prices.

Further, knowledgeable traders can make huge profits even when stock prices decrease! All this creates an incentive for vastly powerful financial institutions to produce a fluctuating stock market.

This has created a bizarre, nightmarish economic machine which controls our economy, our society, and our lives, and enslaves us. It’s a huge, huge issue. I’m just not sure that a tax is a way to do handle the problem. We have enough taxes already. I believe we should simplify the tax code (e.g., a flat tax), not make it more complex.

It might be an utterly naive suggestion, but maybe it would be better to simply ban short-term stock speculation altogether, rather than to specially tax it.

11. Put an end to ballot access obstructionism

Make it easier for third-party and independent candidates to get on election ballots. Yes.

12. Work to end corporate personhood

Should corporations have the same rights as individuals? I guess it depends on what rights we’re talking about. A complex question. For background, see:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporate_personhood_debate

Overall Appraisal

Nader/Gonzalez are doing what third-party candidates should: to diversify the issues being considered in the election. Follow their election, listen to their speeches, research their ideas. Nader has 40 years’ worth of articles you can find online explaining his views.

Nader deserves credit for working to raise the public awareness and for better focusing on important issues than the Democrat-Republican candidates.

Written by John Uebersax

March 6, 2008 at 1:41 pm