Challenger challenge

Kim Hynes has cross-posted to the Common Cause blog urging readers in Connecticut to get political exercise by running for office against their incumbent representatives. As she points out, there are great democratic effects of challenged seats even when the challenger is not elected.

After I ran in 2004, many people would ask me if I `won’. I would tell them that I did win. I didn’t get elected, but I won. What I mean by this is that I became a better person because of the experience. Why, you ask – what good did it really do? I may not have gotten elected, but the electorate sure did get energized by my race. Hundreds of people showed up for the debates. People started talking about local issues that they care about. People got to know my opponent better, and found out how she stands on the issues. I provided reverse coat tails – in the areas in which I ran, the Congressional candidate did demonstrably better than in areas where the incumbents were unopposed. Finally, I provided the inspiration for a candidate in the next district over – who ran in 2006 and lost by just 200 votes. This year the incumbent in that district has decided to retire, and the same candidate has a very good chance at winning this seat – in a district considered unwinnable for challengers.

I’m wholeheartedly in support of Hynes’ call for challengers. But can there be too many challengers?

Yes and no. Yes, when we use a plurality voting system for our elections. FairVote succinctly sums up the problems of plurality voting:

Three is a crowd in our current voting system. Plurality voting, where the candidate with the most votes wins, is dysfunctional when more than two candidates run. It promotes zero-sum politics that discourage new candidates, suppress new ideas and encourage negative campaigns rather than inclusive efforts to build consensus.

Plurality voting weakens candidates the more their politics agree with each other. So two challengers both fighting for the same reforms against an entrenched incumbent can become each others’ greatest enemy.

But in principle, we should stand strong that No, there can’t be too many challengers. Rather, we should be working to change the system so that our democratic process can be as lively as possible.

As I write this, I am worried about the upcoming election in New York’s Assembly District 64. Paul Newell, who I’ve written about here before, has a challenger, Luke Henry, who appears to have less press but a sexier website. (That is, since he fixed up its blog section, which used to contain his del.icio.us page embedded in an IFrame.) So far I haven’t traced out their policy differences; I don’t think it should matter much, since the greatest strength of both is pluck and the promise of Albany reform.

I worry about the chance that they will split the protest vote. It’s unfair for them to have to work around that consideration (instant runoff voting would allow them to run in friendly, undistorted competition). My hope is that they can come to some agreement between themselves, and then add voting system reform to their toolbox for fixing Albany.

Words and words and words and words and words and…

I was reading the Singularity Institutes Q1 2008 Update, and noticed the following proud news item:

[Eliezer Yudkowsky] has written 300,000 words as of March on the Overcoming Bias blog. Select material is intended for a popular book; the rest can be used by SIAI for years to come.

When I read this, I couldn’t help chuckling to myself. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the blog, here is how it describes itself.

Over the last several decades, new research has changed science’s picture of how we succeed or fail to seek the truth. The heuristics and biases program, in cognitive psychology, has exposed dozens of major flaws in human reasoning. Microeconomics, through the power of statistics, has shown that many facets of society don’t work the way we thought.

Overcoming Bias aims to bring the implications home.

Personally, I find these topics fascinating. The implications of the heuristics and biases program have not permeated society nearly as much as is due, and economic theory still sorely needs more input from behavioral economics and the like to give us better models. Meanwhile, I am passionate about many of the other topics that are discussed on Overcoming Bias, like philosophy of mind and Bayesian statistics and prediction markets.

But despite it’s being on my feed reader, I hardly ever read full posts on that blog.

Why is that? Because Eliezer Yudkowsky, its most prolific contributor, writes a goddam book each time he makes a post. Recently: Exhibit A and Exhibit B. These are typical.

Contrast with Robert Hanson’s latest quip about prediction markets, which adheres much better to the blog’s own style standards:

Ideal posts are short, direct, have a clear thesis, and clear support such as a real-life example, a quote, an analysis, or a pointer to longer treatment.

The portability of text and the efficiency with which it can be transported on the internet make it incongruous to publish it in large chunks. On the contrary, in today’s world, Twitter makes sense. It takes a breed of arrogance to believe that others will want to spend more than two minutes discovering what you have to say.

So mere word count is a terrible measure of one’s contribution to the writing available on the web. That raises an interesting question though. What is a better measure? I’d speculate about an answer here, but this post is already too long.

Ideology, via Toothbrush Debates

My friend Eli Braun recently made a gem of a post to Toothbrush Debates about the use of the concept of dignity in bioethics circles.

Via another bioethics center, I was just invited to a conference on “human dignity and bioethics.” I showed the invitation to a professor at my own bioethics center and asked: “Jesus! Why are these people so obsessed with human dignity?”

“I know,” he replied, “it’s such a clear and unambiguous concept. Why don’t we just define it in law and make everyone observe it?”

A central interest of mine is the role of rational discourse in politics, and especially how technology can assist it. The ideal is that if people just talk things out and provide each other with their reasons for holding various positions, then they can just arrive at consensus and achieve deliberative democracy.

When I talk to people about this, a natural place where conversation flows is, “Well, what happens if people just fundamentally disagree? You know, in their axioms.” It feels like the “dignity” question Eli points is one of deep sticking points.

Are these foundational stones of people’s world views really so immovable? Philosophically, I tend to think not. But sometimes I’m afraid that I’m wrong. If then, then what use is there for politics at all, except as an engine for coercion and war?