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Just a quick announcement that New York City will be hosting its annual skeptic camp event this December 3rd, 2016. It's an unconference which means that anyone can be a presenter. As long as your topic has something to do with science and or skepticism, it's free of charge. And you can learn more at Skeptic Camp NYC, dawg, if you're not near New York and you're curious if there's an event like this in your neck of the woods, just go to skeptic camp, dawg.


And if there's not an event near you, you can learn how to start one.


Rationally speaking, is a presentation of New York City skeptics dedicated to promoting critical thinking, skeptical inquiry and science education. For more information, please visit us at NYC Skeptic's Doug. Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense, I'm your host, Julia Gillard. And with me is this episode's guest, Professor Scott Aaronson. Scott is a returning guest on rationally speaking. When last we spoke with Scott, he was a professor of computer science at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


He has since moved to Austin, Texas, where he is a professor of computer science at the University of Texas. Austin Scott's research focuses on quantum computing and computational complexity theory, but he writes and blogs about a bunch of wide ranging and interesting topics, including one that we're going to talk about today, which is vote trading. Scott, welcome back to the show.


Thanks. It's great to be here. So, Scott, I will have you know, that I picked up my ballot for this election and I've filled out almost all of it, including the gazillion propositions on the California ballot, and I've made my choices for like state Senate and mayor and all those things. But I have not actually officially voted yet. I haven't submitted my ballot. And that is because I was waiting to talk with you about trading. So personally pivotal conversation for me and potentially for many of my listeners as well.


So before we go any further, why don't you tell us what vote trading is and how it works? Yeah, so.


So vote trading is an idea that first came to prominence in the 2000 US election. The Bush versus Gore for you know, I was just teaching a class and talking about Bush versus Gore. And the students reminded me that they were five or six years old when it happened. But but for that but for those who don't remember, that was an incredibly close election. And many of us at the time realized that it would be incredibly close, that the Electoral College could actually matter a lot.


And many of us feared what would happen if if Bush won. You know, I think that history shows that we were largely correct to fear that. But we wanted to sort of do something to to help Gore win the election. And what we realized was that three percent of the electorate or so was voting for Ralph Nader and that that, you know, those voters could actually be make the crucial difference. You know, now these were typically voters who would who would strongly prefer Gore over Bush, but who just felt like Gore was not liberal enough and so wanted to register a protest vote.


Now, the the the idea, you know, it was it was not my idea. But I think Jamin Rankin and, you know, a bunch of people may have independently come up with this idea, but the but the idea was that people who live in swing states, you know, even if they're Nader supporters, they will vote for Gore, but they will arrange for someone who lives in a safe state such as California or Texas or something to vote for Nader on their behalf.


OK, so in this way, sort of, you know, both parties get what they want, right. The the Nader supporter who lives in the swing state, you know, gets to vote for Nader cast on their behalf. So, you know, so so Nader could, you know, would get the same vote share that he would have gotten anyway. And, you know, and so some people were concerned for him to get five percent of the vote, which would make him qualify for federal matching funds in 2004.


You know, in fact, he only got three percent of the vote. But but people thought at the time that he might get five percent. So, so, so so, you know, he wouldn't decrease his chances of getting that. But in the meantime, that Nader voter, you know, that Nader supporter would not be sort of helping to helping Bush win in a swing state. And then in the meantime, a Gore supporter who lives in a safe state, you know, gets to sort of what we will vote for Nader instead of Gore, where it doesn't really matter to the outcome.


But they effectively get to teleport their Gore vote to a swing state where it does matter much more.


Right. Right. So the the third party voter, the Nader voter in this case doesn't really care which state he his vote is counted in because he's only he only cares about it as a protest vote. And also, as you know, its contribution to the total proportion of votes for the federal matching funds, whereas the Gore voter does care very much which state his vote counts then because in some states it's just so uncompetitive that I mean, we should probably just give listeners a sense of just how unlikely it is that your vote will make a difference in a state like California.


I mean, it's on the order of at least one in a billion, right? Yes. I mean, I mean, you know, you know, I mean, it would depend on what modeling assumptions you make, but generally, you know, in states where there's a, you know, a 10 percent margin or more. Right. I mean, well, you know, I mean, the polls would have to be wrong, you know, in a in a very major way for there to be any chance that your vote is going to matter.


Right. Right. Right. And whereas whereas in swing states, you know, I mean I mean, you know, the the amount by which your vote does matter can be, can be, can be gauged maybe by by looking at what happened in Florida in 2000 that was actually decided that was Florida. And therefore, you know, the the entire presidential election was decided by about 500 votes.


Right. So returning to the story at the time, did you set up a site for a vote trading or did other people do it? And what happened right at the time I got involved.


There were already vote trading sites that were up there. So so but but I saw that people were making arguments against the trading that I thought were just invalid. And so, for example, you know, people were saying, well, well, couldn't Bush voters gamed the system? Right. And, you know, and that didn't really make any sense. If you thought about it right there. Sort of there's sort of nothing that a Bush voter has to gain by by impersonating either side of this transaction.


OK, you know, I know that just a little bit more. Yeah, yeah. Well, well, a Bush voter could pretend to be a, you know, a Gore supporter, let's say, you know, and so then they're going to get people to, you know, to you know, but then, you know, that that that that that that is going to cause more people to vote for Gore in a swing state, which, of course, is the opposite of what the voter would want.


Or, you know, they could also get more people to vote for Nader in a safe state. But, you know, but there would have to be a really, really massive amount of that for, you know, for a safe state to actually become competitive. OK, right. All you could do, probably you would get an inkling if that were, you know, if it were actually going on on such a scale.


Right. So all you could do if you are truly deep down a Bush supporter, and that election would be to increase the percentage of votes going to a third party candidate. But it's not a death rate increase. That's right. That's right.


Yeah. Yeah, right. And so some of are more a more common argument that people made was that they said the Gore and the Nader supporter will just won't be able to trust each other. Right. Each one will have a huge incentive to just renege and vote for their preferred candidate. And there will be no way of checking it. Right. Which I mean, it is it is true that, you know, you you know that our voting system is designed to make it difficult to prove the way that you voted for someone else.


Right. And the reason for that is that, you know, it's supposed to be difficult to sort of sell your vote to someone or, you know, to vote for someone, to coerce someone else to vote a certain way, you know, and I think about half of the state is actually legal to send a photo of your ballot to someone else, to another person, you know, and half the states, it's illegal. So you have to check the law in your state.


OK, but, you know, even in states where it's legal, in principle, you could mark a ballot, you send a photo of it and then change the ballot. Right. So, so, so at the end of the day, yes, you do have to have a baseline level of trust for the person who you're sleeping with. And this is why all the vote swapping sites recommend that you actually talk to the person, you know, talk to them on the phone or whatever, you know, you know, get to know them as you would, you know, get to know a friend.


Right. Make sure that you have some baseline level of of shared values. But then the other the other point that that's important here is that even if you thought that there was, let's say, a 50 percent chance that the other person was going to cheat, you know, like like the like the the overall trade is so much to your benefit that that most likely would still be to your benefit to do it. Right. So like, for example, if you live in a in a safe state, you know, then even a a 50 percent chance that someone in a swing state is going to vote for Gore on your behalf, you know.


Is better than than sort of a zero percent chance of a of a swing state vote, which is sort of, you know, to a first approximation, the only kind of vote that matters. OK.


Right. And if I as a let's say I'm a Gore supporter in California and I'm sleeping with someone in Florida, I basically don't lose anything. Right. Because my vote wasn't going to count in California anyway. So I'm sort of getting this thing for free. And maybe this thing that I'm getting for free is only a 50 percent chance of someone voting for Gore in Florida. But 50 percent for nothing is great. Right.


Right. I mean, now now for the Nader supporter, you know, the Gary Johnson supporter or whatever in Florida, the calculus is a little bit different. But, you know, if they if they value, let's say, you know, Hillary winning the election over Trump, you know, sort of comparably to how much they value, you know, Gary Johnson getting a certain vote share. Then again, you know, they ought to tolerate a certain chance of cheating.


So so anyway, so I'm so what I did in 2000 is I set up a Web site called In Defense of Nader Trading that just sort of set out these sorts of arguments. And, you know, and then within a few days, I was just getting like hundreds of emails, you know, and I was doing interviews because, you know, people were you know, this was like a trending topic. And somehow, you know, I was just a random person who had set up a Web page.


But I was you know, I was out there to, you know, to talk there so that, you know, people would would would give me objections that I would I would respond to them on the on the Web page. You know, this was sort of before some more sense. Yeah. Yeah, there was. Right. It was you know, this was this was before the concept of blogs existed. But, you know, but this page effectively became like a blog and, you know, so so, you know, and this page sort of pointed people to these vote swapping sites.


Now, unfortunately, while I was doing this, actually the main vote swapping site vote swap tales that I think was shut down by the California state attorney general. So so he sent them a cease and desist letter saying, well, this is what we're saying. This this is facilitating votes selling, which is against the law. And so, you know, and to that, you know, a lot of people, you know, said that this was an outrage and that, you know, that this shutdown would not stand in court.


This was a Republican attorney general who was who was doing this. But, you know, there were there were only a couple weeks until the election, and so there was no time to litigate it. So, you know, so so there were a couple other votes swapping sites that I think just the shut themselves down voluntarily because of what had happened in California, you know, even though, you know, in other states it was still legal to run to, you know, you know, or or.


No, no, no action had actually been taken against these sites. So so, wow.


I mean, given how close it was in Florida, could have made the difference. Really striking to think. Yeah. That just this could we have made the difference. Yes. And Yeah. Wow. And so you know and you know, and this is what we sort of what we were we realized at the time that, you know, that it could come down to just a few thousand. I mean, you know, I think no one imagined it would come down to 500 votes.


But, you know, it could come down to a very small number. And, you know, there were a hundred thousand people who voted for Nader in Florida. Right. To think about that. If we had gotten one percent of those people right, that would have changed the outcome. OK, so, you know, so we were trying I mean, you know, and we did reach some thousands of people, you know, around the country, you know, including some, you know, some I think some hundreds in Florida.


And it was not enough. So, you know, but but but I did all these interviews about it where, you know, I wanted to talk about the game theory and the question that everyone wanted to ask me, which is, you know, about legality. You know, will I be thrown in jail if I do this right? Yeah.


Well, so speaking of legality. Yes. How has the landscape how has that situation changed at all since the 2000 question?


It has changed dramatically. So so at that time, you know, the best thing I could say is, look, you know, I'm not a lawyer. I'm a computer science grad student. You know, if it's not legal and, you know, it clearly should be legal. Right. Because, you know, I could give many, many moral arguments for that. You know, that this is.


Yeah, no, I definitely want to talk about the ethics of swapping, but let's hold on to that for a minute and just talk about the law. Yeah.


Yeah, OK, but but right. But I couldn't you know, but I, you know, because I couldn't guarantee someone that they wouldn't, you know, go to court for either. For swapping votes or for setting up a vote swapping site, but now you know, the this you know, the the the people who ran this vote swapping site in two thousand actually filed a lawsuit about it. And eventually in two thousand and seven, it got resolved by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in an amazing decision which was called Porter vs.


Belad, which, you know, you can you know, it's worth reading in full. But with this decision says basically is that swapping votes, you know, as as the way that these sites were doing is an activity that's protected by the First Amendment. So, you know, it is people, you know, just legitimately using their voting power to deciding to vote strategically. You know, it is not at all the same thing as buying or selling a vote or sort of trading a vote for material good or service.


Right. It is instead trading a vote for another vote. Right. In an unenforceable way. So it's sort of you know, it's the same thing that, you know, in that way. It is. It is, you know, not not all that dissimilar from what, let's say members of Congress do. Right. All the time and. Right. And so so this decision did not prosecute the California attorney general for for what he had done.


It granted him immunity because it said, well, at the time that he did this, the legality of vote swapping had not been clearly established. But it also said going forward, vote swapping is protected. And, you know, it sort of gave people the assurance that, you know, they will not be punished either for for for, you know, for for doing vote, swapping for setting up websites that facilitate vote, swapping for any of that.


So as long as this ruling stands, you know, and at this point, it's only the Supreme Court that could overturn it. Right. But, you know, as long as it stands, vote swapping is legal.


And there are sites today. Oh, yeah, right. That are facilitating access for Clinton supporters who want to trade with a, you know, Johnson or Stein voter in a swing state.


Let's say there's a Trump. Traders say, oh, I'm sorry. There's there's one called make mine. Count that word, right?


Yeah, I checked out make mine.


Oh, you were just about to say everybody wins except Trump, right? Yeah, yeah, yeah. OK, you say you checked it out. Yeah.


A little bit. I, I. Do you have any like recommendations. Is one better than the others.


I don't really know. I mean the truth is that I, I signed up for make mine count. I don't think they ever gave me a match, you know, I mean I you know, it looks like the Johnson supporters in swing states are probably sort of the limited commodity in this market, right? Yeah, sort of like like sometimes a bar skews toward one gender or another. Right. It's like, you know, this this is you know, it looks like it's probably a skewed market toward the Hillary supporters in the safe states, which, you know, which which which might mean that you know, that you know that people are played arrangements where where one Hillary vote in a swing state would be traded for several Johnson votes in safe states.


You know, that's that's I think that that that's that's entirely possible to consider. Oh, interesting.


I wonder if the sites are arranging things like that that I would totally I don't know if they're actually arranging that, but anyway, you know, so I can tell you what I did. Right. Which is well, I just wrote a blog post about it. And because of this blog post, I got an offer to trade from a libertarian in Ohio, you know, a statistics professor there. And he said that he will vote for Hillary. You know, if I vote for Gary Johnson in Texas on his behalf and we agreed to that, except that, you know, now, you know, Trump is doing so badly, unfortunately, I think that, you know, that it looks like even Texas might be becoming competitive.


So. So, yeah.


So all bets are kind of off this time. It's also unprecedented.


Yeah, it is. It is. It really is. So, so, so, so, so he and I discussed it on the phone just just that just a week ago. And our our arrangement is that if we decide so the night before the election that the Texas is really a swing state, then he will really be saying that we will we will we will both vote for Hillary.


Do you need a backup person to trade with in the event that.


Oh, well, well, I yeah. So I guess I could find, you know, if if another person wanted to be my backup. Well OK. But, but, but see but if Texas is a is a is really a swing state that I should just vote for Hillary. It just be done with it. Right. Oh right. Right. But right. But he, you know, he's going to vote for Hillary in any case.


OK, but if, if we decide that Texas is really competitive, that he'll release me to vote for Hillary, otherwise I'll vote for Johnson. Right. So he needs the backup. Yeah, right. Right. Yeah, that's right. That's right. I mean, so we could right.


We could arrange a backup for him via you like a listener could email you offer to be the backup and you could pass him on.


That's right. Yeah that's true. Yeah. So yeah. So I should say, you know, like since, since I blogged about this, you know, of course, you know, Trump has been doing very badly. You know, the all the prediction markets give Hillary, you know, about a 90 percent chance of winning, although, you know, so so I'm happy about that. But at the same time, you know, a 10 percent chance of Trump winning, I think is still a greater risk than we want to bear.


Yeah, yeah.


I also feel like I mean, I would not, you know, bet at fifty fifty odds that Trump winning, but I still feel like things are volatile enough this time around that I'm not going to get too complacent despite the current.


That's right. That's right. Yeah. I think I think it's good not to get complacent. And I think even though, you know, it looks likely that Hillary will win, I think that vote trading is still a very good idea because, you know, we would like to you know, we would like to make it as clear as possible that he that he's going to win, given, you know, what I regard as the threat that he poses to the country.


So let's talk about some of the strategic questions involved in vote trading and then move on to the ethics from there. Yeah, sure. So you already talked about the concern that what if the other person doesn't uphold their end of the bargain? But another lesser, like a less common concern that I've heard people raise is. You know, this process, like the act of helping the third party candidate get funding and legitimacy, et cetera. So it might actually seem like a good thing to the Clinton voter.


Yes. Even if they're they would still prefer that Clinton win. However, if you look at the long game, you know, if I buy this election, I'm helping Gary Johnson get legitimacy and funding. And I'm happy to do that, especially because it helps Clinton win the next election or the one after that. Isn't the power of the third party candidate to be a spoiler just increased. And so we're facing an even bigger problem next time than we did this time.


I mean, I, I view, you know, third party candidates is just very, very hard to to predict, you know, in American politics. Right. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of continuity. And, you know, from one election to the next. Right. Like sometimes no one will, like, sort of, you know, have their moment in the sun where they get some percentage of the vote. And then often if the same person runs again, you know, in four years, people have sort of lost interest by then and they get a much smaller vote.


Share is the matching funds for like Johnson or for the Libertarian Party.


It's I think it's for the party that gets that gets five percent. So they can still, you know, to get to get federal matching funds would be an ironic sort of victory for the Libertarian Party. But, you know, but but, you know, you know, they could make the argument, well, this is the system as it stands and we have to work within it and so forth. But, you know, I think it would be great if there were sort of more voices in our political dialogue.


I think that, you know, unfortunately, our system has this incredibly strong equilibrium toward two parties. Right. And you can see that, you know, like, you know, for example, Ralph Nader got three percent of the vote. Right. Which was enough to swing the election from Gore to Bush. But, you know, but but, you know, this is an otherwise tiny right. You know, and then Bernie Sanders, you know, 16 years later running on a pretty similar platform to to Nader's, you know, actually almost defeated Hillary.


You know, it could have won the election. Right. Well, you know. You know, but he did it within the Democratic Party. Right. You know, Pat Buchanan, who was running on a sort of, you know, nativist, you know, anti-immigrant, you know, and so forth, platform, you know, got one percent of the vote in 2000. Right. And I think that's what many of us thought. And, you know, at the time that that will always be, you know, a one percent kind of share of the electorate.


Right now, we have Trump, you know, who's run on the same kind of platform as Buchanan, but he did it within the Republican Party. And, you know, he came, you know, you know, is still sort of very uncomfortably close to being president. OK, so so I don't you know, I actually think that third party candidates will, you know, will sort of you know, it's hard to say that they're ever going to get more than, you know, on the order of 10 percent.


I mean, the last the last one we had that did was Ross Perot in 1992. Right. But, you know, even he got, you know, less than 20 percent. OK, but but I mean, you know you know, is there a causal relationship between what we do now and, you know, and strengthening the third parties for eight years from now? I mean, I don't know. There might be, but but in any case, you know, both with with with this election and with the 2000 election, I feel like there is such an overriding interest in preventing a bad outcome that, you know, that we can sort of worry about what happens four years later when we get to that.


I mean that. Yeah. Point well taken to to ask about one more long term thing. Just, you know, even if you have the general position that long term considerations are trumped by the short term ones, in this case, prompt in some sense, yes. Oh, man, that word could be ruined. Sorry, I'm sorry, but what about the perverse incentives that are created by this kind of it's in some cases it's called moral trade, where you're like if someone's making a choice that you think is the wrong one, morally, like voting for the candidate that you think is going to cause the worse a worse outcome than a different candidate by offering to trade with them.


Aren't you creating the incentive for people to be, in this case, third party voters in the longer run because that gives them sort of a lot of bargaining power?


Well, I think that there's a word for this kind of thing in the world of politics, right? I mean, yeah, you know, I think I think, you know, I would argue that, like the you know. You know you know, of course I'm not a you know, no, I'm not someone who anyone would mistake for a politician. Right. I'm a theoretical computer scientist. OK, but you know who you know is very happy if I just have the social skills to just get through my own life without trying to sort of weed anyone else.


OK, but my understanding would be that the entire essence of politics is trying to make some, you know, mutually beneficial arrangements, you know, and deals actually with people whose values might be very different from your own. You know, the if everyone had the same values, then sort of there wouldn't be a need for a political process. Right?


Well, I mean, I agree. I agree with that. And in fact, I think that an objection that really annoys me is that people say vote trading is wrong because everyone should be voting for which candidate they actually prefer, which I could see that you.


But it it's it totally contradicts the thing that many people say when they argue, you know, well, I might prefer Johnson, but like I have I like I'm voting strategically. So I'm voting for the candidate who I think is the best overall given, like both my preferences and their chance to win. So in practice, many, many people do, in fact, vote strategically and endorse voting strategically. So that doesn't seem like a good objection to vote trading to me.




And I mean, the and the the you know, the president and the members of Congress who we're electing are engaging in strategic behavior all the time, constantly. Right. You know, they're saying, you know, well, you know, OK, if you want this bill for farm spending, then, you know, it has to have this rider about this completely unrelated issue. And, you know, I mean, this is like, you know, every single day.


Yes. Right. Which, you know, you know, is not necessarily a good thing. But, you know, but these are the people who we're voting for. Right. And so so I think that some degree of, you know, of sort of coalition building is inevitable in a democracy. And, you know, if everyone had the same values as you did then then, you know, there would be no need to form a coalition.


You know, you would just all you would just already. All right.


So what I was trying to point out with my previous question was not about the like the ethics of trading with people who have different preferences than you. It was about affecting people's preferences in the future because they know that vote trading is an option. I see.


So you're just going to encourage people to to say that they support people who otherwise might have voted strategically and voted for Clinton or whoever you think is the right candidate would instead decide to be third party voters because they know that vote trading exists consciously or unconsciously.


Look, look, it is it's it's possible, but, you know, I sort of, you know, when it comes to questions about human behavior, I apply this very, very strong attenuation factor the further you go into the future. Yeah, I respect that. You know, I mean. I mean. Right, right, right. There are so many predictions about, you know what. So so I mean I mean, you know, just just just just to give you another example.


There were in two thousand and there were actually Nader supporters, quite a few of them, who were arguing that, well, we actually want Bush to win the election. OK, you know, we not only do we not care about throwing the election to Bush, we actually want him to win. OK, why? Because Bush will be so bad that he will obviously just galvanize everyone into, you know, a populist uprising that will then, you know, it's very right that will that cause cause the Green Party to win or something like that sounds very familiar.


I've heard that same argument from Bernie fans. Yeah, right.


That that that that argument, such as it is, actually has a long history. Right. The Communists also believe that. Right. They called it heightening the contradictions. Right. That actually you have to oppose liberal reformers and make things as bad as possible for ordinary working people so that they will see that they have no option but to support a true, you know, uprising of the proletariat. OK, so, you know, there's this this this kind of thinking has a long history.


I wouldn't say a distinguished history, but. But a long history. Right. But but but but but there are all kinds of predictions, you know, about what people might or might not do, you know, years into the future that, you know, that often have a really poor track record. Right. In this case, not only was Bush elected, he was then reelected in 2004, you know, and you know. But but but, you know, in between 2000 and 2004, you know, several things that happened.


You know, the 9/11 attacks, the invasion of Iraq that I think no one on any side was really predicted. Yeah, OK. So, so, so, so. Yeah, you know, and likewise, how many people were predicting, you know, Trump or predicting the situation that we would be in right now back in 2012. You know, so these things are pretty volatile. And so that's why I'm sort of more concentrated on the immediate goal of preventing Trump from taking over the country.


The objection that vote trading is or the defense, I suppose that fair trading is practiced by politicians all the time. Could in another light be seen as an indictment of trading? But this is not you know, one man's opponent is another's motives. Times like saying like, wow, this does it. So therefore, it's fine. My other people might say, well, Congress does it, therefore it's not it's not fine. Yeah. Or like not therefore it's bad.


But like that doesn't you can't say we should in fact condemn it both in the case of Congress and in the case of private citizens voting in elections. Do you think that there's a relevant like is your claim just that? Well, it's no worse than what politicians do already? Or are you saying that the thing that politicians do is fine? Or are you saying that it's better than. Well, the politicians do?


I think I think it's definitely no worse than what politicians do. Yeah, I think that what politicians do is is, you know, is not great, especially nowadays when our our political process has become sort of more and more polarized with, you know, I would say sort of one side, you know, often just sort of holding the entire process hostage, you know, in order to sort of achieve the things that they want. But, you know, on the other hand, I would also say that even in the best case, you know, some degree of bartering and coalition building is probably inevitable in a democracy.


Right. There's probably never been any democracy where this sort of thing didn't happen. And so it's so it's not something that I worry about, you know, any like like anywhere near as much as I worry about the moral consequences of Trump winning. But, you know, there's another moral argument that I could try on you for sure, which is that, look, you know what? Let's say that, you know, you and I were friends and we just made a private agreement that we're going to swap our votes.


Right. That I'm going to vote for your preferred candidate and you're going to vote for mine. Right. You know, so then, you know, it's it's hard to think of anyone who would who would consider that to be immoral just to friends, you know, exercising their right to vote how they want. You know, discussing it with each other, right, and then and then the argument is, how is that really different if if a website is is involved in order to introduce these people to each other?


Yeah, that's an interesting form of argument that I've seen before. And I find it I certainly find it compelling, but I could imagine that, you know, those are two different policies where one policy is if people want to do this privately, then fine, we're not going to interfere. There's nothing wrong with that on the one hand. And then the other policy is we're going to like, endorse or allow this on a sort of wide and personal scale.


And it seems to me that the consequences are different in the second case. And you might believe that, like. The former is fine because it can't actually affect the democratic process, because it's not going to happen at a wide scale, but if you like, if you try to make that extrapolation from the personal to the impersonal, then you can actually like our democratic process could be under threat. I'm not necessarily endorsing that argument. I'm just saying that, like, I don't think that you can just scale up the act and assume that all the moral calculus is completely unchanged as you scale it up.


And in part, that's because the consequences can be very different when you scale it up. Right.


Right. But then, you know, I think that that any time, you know, you want to say, well, you know, this sort of activity is fine if people just do it here and there. But if they really, you know, use the Internet to talk to each other and realize that they can do it and do it on a large scale, then we have to crack down on it right then. You know, I think there are very, very serious issues with how a democratic society can can maintain that kind of balance.


Right. Because you know what? People can do it all they can talk about on the Internet. Right. And, you know, and of course, no one is forcing anyone to go to these websites. Right. You know, all that's being asked is that those people who are interested can can use them and that other people tolerate it.


This reminds me of another objection that I occasionally heard made to trading, which is that it undermines the role of the Electoral College in our democracy, which. So I'm not a huge fan of the Electoral College. Yeah, that I probably find the least compelling of all of the arguments because I believe that the elect I confess that I think that the Electoral College should be undermined. I mean, you know, within, you know, legal means. Right.


But I think that it is an anachronism. And I think that, you know, it makes no sense. And B has no real relation to what the founders of the country actually intended. I mean I mean, when they set up the system, the Electoral College was actual electors who would, you know, travel on horseback or whatever to go and meet and then sit and discuss it. And at the time that they were chosen as electors, they wouldn't know themselves which candidate they preferred, you know?


And, you know, now we have a system where the Electoral College basically just functions to enforce sort of a two tiered majority vote. Right. So, like for, you know, for almost all of the states, you know, all of the electors in that state, you know, are, you know, either legally obligated to vote for their party's candidate or or or in practice they're going to vote for their party's candidate. Right. And so you effectively just have a two tiered majority.


OK, but but a tiered majority is just a very bad system compared to a having a direct popular vote for a couple reasons. One is the sort of the well-known reason that it sort of focuses this inordinate amount of attention on the issues of Ohio and Florida and North Carolina, you and a few other states. Right. And those states just get deluged with, you know, with ads and politicians and so forth. And meanwhile, there are all these other states, you know, who's who has problems basically just get ignored because they don't matter in the Electoral College or, you know, they're not they're not swing states.


OK, but now, you know, there's also a second problem with a two tiered majority system, and that is that it is much, much more vulnerable to to small errors or small amounts of noise than a direct majority would be. So to take an example, the two thousand election. Right, was was ultimately decided by about five hundred votes in Florida. Or actually, we don't we don't we don't even know exactly how many votes because, you know, there was a recount going on which was substantially changing the situation before the Supreme Court intervened to stop it.


OK, but, you know, after it was over to let's say it was a statistical tie in Florida. Right. It just it all depends on which ballots you counted, which you don't. OK, but meanwhile, the the national popular vote was was actually much less close that that was actually by a five hundred thousand votes in favor of Al Gore. OK, and so, you know, you can actually do the math. And what you find is that a direct popular vote is way less likely to, you know, to sort of be at the at the margin of, you know, be like a statistical dead heat than that, that then a two tiered majority vote.


And why is that a good thing? Why is it a desirable feature? Well, because. Because you would like because because because you would like to not have the outcome of an election be be thrown into doubt, you know, because of a because of the Florida in two thousand type of situation. I mean, you know, we were we were you know, you could say we were we were lucky that time, you know, I mean, we were unlucky and then Bush became the president.


But we were lucky in that Gore stood down. You know, he conceded the election even though by rights maybe he shouldn't have and, you know, and thereby prevented, you know, the kind of thing that, you know, historically, you know, could could lead to a civil war here, I guess.


So I was wondering, as you're describing the flaws in the Electoral College, I was wondering whether I actually want to endorse the general policy that we should be undermining a national institution because we think it's bad. And I think I have qualms about that policy in general. But I think in this case, the means I think I'm OK with undermining national institutions as long as the means by which we're doing it are like legitimate and transparent and ethical, which I think that's it.


Yeah. All right. I mean, you know, I mean, I think of myself as a patriotic American, you know, I want what's good for the country. You know, I you know, I'm you know, I'm not even suggesting that anyone even contemplate breaking the law here, you know, talking about doing something that's completely consistent with the law. And, you know, and then you might say, oh, but but but he's going against what, you know, what the founding what what the founding fathers wanted or whatever.


But I'm not going against that either, you know, just going against, you know, these sort of, you know, irrational system that this, you know, evolved into, you know, and that we're sort of stuck with right now. But which is not actually the way things were set up originally.


We're just about out of time. But before we close, I wanted to ask you about a quote that I saw. I forget it was on your blog or an interview that you gave, but you were talking about what you liked about vote trading. And you said that it reminds you of combining quantum mechanics with general relativity. Can you elaborate on that?


Yeah, I well, it was it was just tongue in cheek comment that I made in two thousand. But you know, that there were sort of two different kinds of craziness here. One is the the craziness of the Electoral College, which you could say is a remediable kind of craziness. But, you know, but one that we're subjected to and the other one is the the craziness that always arises where when you have an election with three or more candidates, you know, and this is the subject of Arrow's theorem, for example, the saying that, you know, you're not going to have a you know, you're not going to ever have a completely rational way to hold an election between three or four candidates.


But but but, you know, in effect, these these two kinds of craziness are sort of being canceled against each other in some sense.


That is that is not to be that deeply sensible world that we see.


Right. That right. That is that is that is not to be taken too seriously. Cool.


Well, as my sort of closing comment, I'll just say that I had been considering signing up for Make Mine Count, and I was like definitely leaning in favor of doing that before this episode. Now, I, I am still in favor of vote trading, but I think because the you've as you've pointed out, the the whole process is kind of limited by the third party supporters in swing states. I think it's probably best for me not to like add my my California Clinton vote to the giant, you know, ever growing pile of California Clinton voters that are accumulating on sites like Make Mine Count and instead just offer to trade my vote with any listener of mine who was going to vote for Johnson or Stein in a swing state.


You can just email me at Joia at rationality, Doug, and we can chat. That's great.


That's that's the convenient thing about having an audience.


Yeah, absolutely. And to my listeners, I would encourage you if this whole thing sounds interesting and valuable to you as well, to check out Make Mine Count or Trump traders, dawg, to look into vote swapping, especially if you're a third party supporter in a swing state. But even if you're not, you know, there's still a decent chance that your vote will be able to be paired with with a third party supporter in a swing state. And yeah, email me if you would be interested in trading with me.


So, Scott, this is great. I'll wrap up this part of the podcast and we'll move on now to the rationally speaking tech. A quick update, there are two vote trading sites that we talked about in this podcast, Make Mine Count Dog and Trump Traders, Dawg. Now, I've had friends who have attempted to use both sides. The friends who've tried to make mine Count Dog have so far not successfully found a match. But the friends who've tried Trump traders dog have basically all been matched with a voter in a swing state pretty quickly.


So if you're interested in trying to find someone to trade votes with, I definitely suggest checking out Trump traders dog. Welcome back. Every episode, I invite my guest on, rationally speaking to give the rationally speaking pick of the episode that's a book or article or website or something that has influenced their thinking in some interesting way. So, Scott, what's your pick for today's episode?


OK, so I think my pick for this episode will be the the essays of Paul Graham Goodmans, the founder of Y Combinator Start Startup Incubator. And particular is his essay called Why Nerds are Unpopular. You know that really. I mean, I think I first read it about a decade ago, but it really changed the way that I thought about that question. Can you say a little bit more about how. Yeah, so so, so, so.


So basically, he puts forward an argument that that that, you know, a lot of the common theories about why nerds are picked on, for example, that the other kids envy them are just they're just not true. They just don't withstand scrutiny. And and that the you know, the main point is that, you know, you have to understand the phenomenon of the nerd, which is sort of actually a pretty recent cultural phenomenon. Right. You have to understand something about sort of the modern, you know, junior high school or high school and then particularly in the US.


And, you know, in the way that these were sort of designed for, you know, as effectively holding pens, you know, they might also teach people something. But, you know, but just by accident, yeah. That's sort of the main purpose, you know, and, you know, they're they're sort of the these holding pens. And then he said, like, any time that you you you create a situation like that, whether it's like like a prison or its Manhattan socialites or, you know, people who don't have sort of real work to do, you know, they will create a status hierarchy somehow.


Very normally, status hierarchies are based on things like, you know, who is contributing to the good of the group or, you know, who is, you know, who is building something or inventing something. But if there's none of that, then people will create a sort of pure self-referential status hierarchy. Right. You see that again and again. And so we just put you put it into this much broader context. And then, you know, in his account, you know, a nerd is just someone who is in that environment, but who, you know, who sort of cares about something beyond the immediate sort of self-referential status game.


Like, you know, they care about, you know, either either math or literature or or something in the external world. But then he says, you know you know, like there were not, you know, neurosurgery residents or Navy SEALs who work as hard at anything as high school students work and being popular. Right. And if you are not devoting one hundred percent of your effort to this, then you are going to fall behind. And so it was it was just to me, it was a very, very novel take on a question that, you know, that's concerned me a lot.


But but I would I would I to have had a personal interest in that question for much of my life.


Of course.


Yeah. Yeah, but but but, you know, I would say, you know, I will go. Graham just came up on my blog recently. That's why I was thinking about him. But his writing, his his his essays are some of my favorite essays. Yes. You know, as you say, being written today anywhere.


I think my favorite is keep your identity small. Oh, yes. Maybe we can also link to on the on the podcast website. But yeah, just so many of them are gold. That's a great thing. Well, Scott, thank you so much for joining us on the show. Again, I think this is a very important topic and I'm glad that you've been writing about it. And I'm happy to to increase the size of the conversation a little bit.




Well, thank you for having me. And let us let us hope this election has has a good outcome, indeed the least, so that I can exhale after so many months of not exhaling.


That's right. That's right. And so that I can get, you know, stop having to check predict what it's like 10 times.


And I know it's become like a technical, you know, I think. All right, I'll just like keep checking after the election's over just because I can't stop. Exactly who will.


It'll do wonders for my product. Yeah. Yeah. All right.


Well, this concludes another episode of Rationally Speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense. The rationally speaking podcast is presented by New York City skeptics for program notes, links, and to get involved in an online conversation about this and other episodes, please visit rationally speaking podcast Dog. This podcast is produced by Benny Pollack and recorded in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York. Our theme, Truth by Todd Rundgren, is used by permission.


Thank you for listening.