The Electoral Collage

By Mike Koetting July 11, 2019

In almost everyone’s list of the reasons that Hilary Clinton is not the president of the U.S. is the Electoral College. As we all know, Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million votes (2%) but lost in the Electoral College, 304-227.  The usual argument suggests the number of low-population red states–that get disproportionate influence because of the way votes in the Electoral College are distributed–threw the election to Trump.

This argument, however, is wrong.

To be sure, the structure of the Electoral College is goofy. There are wild disparities among states as to how many voters are represented by each electoral vote.  It ranges from a low of 193K in Wyoming, to a high of 755K in Texas. In other words, each individual voter in Wyoming has almost four times the influence on a single vote in the Electoral College as a vote in Texas.

But it turns out this didn’t make much difference in the 2016 Presidential Election.  Specifically, suppose you assume the 538 electoral votes were distributed not as they are currently (number of Representatives plus number of Senators) but were distributed proportional to the actual population of each state. I did this exercise using 2018 population, but the results would not have been appreciably different using 2016 data.  In my case, Trump still beat Clinton in the Electoral College by almost the same margin, 305-233.

I think a more accurate assignment of the problem is the “winner take all” (WTA) approach that is used in 48 states. Under this system, the candidate getting the largest number of votes gets all the electoral votes from that state. This approach is not mandated by the Constitution and is solely at the discretion of the states. WTA rules have been common since the mid-1800s, and the appeal to political parties is obvious—it maximizes their clout.

I conducted a second counter-factual exercise on the 2016 voting data, this time assuming that in each state the electoral votes (as they currently stand based on 2010 census) were allocated not WTA but proportionate to the actual votes for the candidates in the state. In this case. Clinton had a slight margin, 269 to 266.

This would not, however, have made Clinton the winner because the presidency requires a minimum of 270 votes. In this case, the election would have been thrown into the House of Representatives, where each state would get one vote. This in turn would most certainly, once again, result in a Trump presidency.

To be fair, in a margin as close as my proportional vote approach, the final result depends to some extent on the rules used for allocation, including third party candidates. While I would argue the rules I used are reasonable (see note at end concerning data), I would not be at all surprised if real world, on-the-ground applications of this general principle would change the totals by enough to change this outcome. But since this exercise is entirely hypothetical, the exact results are not as important as the general principle: a WTA approach can distort the connection between popular votes and electoral votes—to no particular policy end.

A desire to improve the connection between the popular vote and electoral votes has led to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. This is an agreement among a number of states that as soon as enough states have signed on to the agreement that a majority of electoral votes (270) would be impacted, the states would agree to award all their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. This approach does not require a constitutional amendment and would, as long as it was in effect, hardwire the connection between national popular vote and the presidency.

It seems virtually impossible the Compact could be in effect for 2020. At present, states with a combined total of 196 electoral votes have signed on, primarily on the east or west coast. There are a few states where one can imagine adoption in the near future, but those yield less than half of the 74 additional electoral votes needed to get to 270.  Conversely, it is hard to imagine most of the other states signing on because they voted for Trump in 2016 and recognize that Trump’s most likely road to re-election is through the Electoral College rather than the popular vote.  While there is reasonable evidence that over time this approach would not favor one party over the other, long-run views are hard to come by in this day and age.

I support this approach, although it is not without concerns. For one, it absolutely removes third-parties from the board. In 2016, almost 6% of votes were for third-party candidates. I suspect different people have different attitudes on this, but there can be no question that third parties have had significant impacts on elections, and arguably a growing impact. Ross Perot was instrumental in electing Clinton over Bush One and the Ralph Nader campaign almost certainly cost Al Gore the presidency. In 2016, Johnson beat Stein by a 3-1 margin in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but in all three states if Stein voters had instead voted for Clinton, she would be president of the U.S.

The bigger issue for the Compact to overcome is psychological: are the citizens of the non-metropolitan areas ready to come to grips with the fact that residents of the big-cities outnumber them significantly, and, accordingly, might out-vote them?

The National Popular Vote campaign argues that their approach, since all votes are equally important in the final total, will serve as a force to equalize campaign focus. This argument seems to me to be far-fetched for logistical reasons and not that important for conceptual reasons.

Logistically, when the only thing that counts is votes, campaigns will as much—perhaps even more—focus on high population areas.  In Harris County, TX (Houston), the number of potential voters who didn’t vote is equal to the entire populations of Wyoming, Alaska and South Dakota combined. Both Clinton and Trump got well over 500,000 votes in Houston, so cutting even a bit into the other’s margin is a rich vote opportunity. I believe candidates will do the same math. But this get back to the question that is at the heart of the theoretical debate. What do we think democracy means? Under what circumstances is a democracy better served by having a president elected by a minority of the voters?

There is no question the Founding Fathers made a deliberate decision to weight votes by states. But I don’t think that is needs continue to be the case. That approach was a compromise based on necessity. At the time, there was no America; only a collection (at best a confederation) of individual states. There would have been no America without that compromise. But in the 250 years since then, the needs for this compromise have dimmed and the distortions caused by it have increased as population in big cities has increased faster than the rest of the country. Attachment to states have waned as mobility and communication have made the culture more national than regional. Campaigns are increasingly national in orientation. There may be differences in ground game and get-out-the-vote organization, but those are more a function of national fundraising than anything else.

There are no longer compelling reasons to privilege differences among states as more important than any of the other differences that might arise. For instance, the number of non-Hispanic blacks in Cook County alone is greater than the population of 9 states and the District of Columbia. While their interests are clearly different from the white or Hispanic populations, no one is suggesting they get their own electoral votes. Making all votes equal is probably the best we can do. And, actually, is a pretty good goal.



I used the vote totals as reported on Wikipedia.

In redistributing electoral votes by actual population, I used 2018 population to spread 538 votes proportionately. Note the hypothetical result I have shown totals to 538 votes, the total allowable. In fact, in 2016, there were only 531 electoral votes cast. (I have no idea why those electoral voters didn’t vote.)

For the proportional distribution within state, I used the current electoral votes by state (i.e. those set based on 2010 census). I rounded totals to allocate all the electoral votes. In Maine and Nebraska, the only two states not using a WTA approach, I left the results alone.  I ignored third party candidates unless they received a share of votes equal to the proportionate share of one or more electoral vote. With this rule, the scenario awarded three electoral votes to third party candidates, resulting in a total for Trump and Clinton of only 535 votes.

Science and Democracy

By Mike Koetting June 26, 2019

In 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend:

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched…..But I know that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered…institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.

Not surprising from Jefferson. He was a man with boundless interest in and reverence for discovery, science and the empirical understanding of human nature.

But the sentiment is not unique to Jefferson. The American revolution could not have happened before the Enlightenment. Prior to the Enlightenment, stretching all the way back through time, nature was explained by religion and kings were the natural order of things. But, as the Dark Ages turned into the Renaissance, people asking old questions started finding new answers. This was partially due to emerging technological developments which showed “facts” in a different light, But, as both cause and effect, the underlying paradigm started to shift. People were asking not what did the Ancients say, but what do the empirical facts show. This changed everything. Astronomy, physics, chemistry and geology started to paint a new picture of the world. Toward the end of the 17th Century, this new attitude exploded into philosophy and politics—”what does reason tell us” began to take precedent over history and tradition.

This was the milieu into which Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton and the rest came to develop a set of political considerations which, while having clear roots in earlier thinkers, were as radical to politics as had been the idea to astronomy that the earth circled the sun. The growth of understanding reality empirically and the rise of democracy are inextricably linked. Our founding fathers understood and believed that as the world around us can be better understood through scientific propositions, we would be better able to organize ourselves democratically in pursuit of a common good.

Accordingly, I am upset with the amount of “anti-science” in the GOP. It is ignorant and wrong-headed, but the point I want to make is more general: science is an integral pillar of democracy. The poster “Science is not a liberal conspiracy” is correct primarily in that it is completely out in the open. In truth, science is inherently liberal.

The term liberal comes from the Latin word for free or of freedman. The Oxford Dictionary defines liberal as: “Willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas.” This is the essence of democracy and without a liberal world view—the acceptance of differing ideas—there is no science and no democracy.

Paul Bloom, writing in The Atlantic says:

Science establishes conditions where rational argument is able to flourish, where ideas can be tested against the world, and where individuals can work together to surpass their individual limitations.

These are the beliefs in which democracy can flourish. Science provides a critical standard against which assertions about reality can be evaluated. It is these beliefs, particularly when incorporated into a democratic government, that keep people from being burned at the stake for having new ideas. And while today’s Republicans are not executing anyone, they have embarked on a dangerous course by trying to suppress and distort science.

We all know how this has played out in the discussion over climate change. Going from a bipartisan consensus on the need to address environmental issues in the 1970’s, to a campaign of denial and distortion specifically designed to further a partisan divide.

Instead of just lamenting how wrong this is, let’s consider the underlying concern. Science is not simply the accumulation of facts. It is the assembly of facts (each one of which is capable of empirical verification by means of replication) into a testable theory that successfully predicts how the future will behave in the presence of given conditions.

Michael Shermer in Scientific American describes how he went from being a climate skeptic to a believer:

I went to the primary scientific literature on climate and discovered that there is convergent evidence from multiple lines of inquiry that global warming is real and human-caused: temperatures increasing, glaciers melting, Arctic ice vanishing, Antarctic ice cap shrinking, sea-level rise corresponding with the amount of melting ice and thermal expansion, carbon dioxide touching the level of 400 parts per million (the highest in at least 800,000 years and the fastest increase ever), and the confirmed prediction that if anthropogenic global warming is real the stratosphere and upper troposphere should cool while the lower troposphere should warm, which is the case.

The salient point here is not simply that he concluded there was something to be worried about, but that he followed the scientific process. He went from skepticism to belief by reviewing individual (potentially refutable) pieces of evidence, looking at the results of their prediction model, and concluding that this met a standard of proof that is accepted by people who believe in science the world over. If one decides this standard of truth does not apply in this or that circumstance, one shuts not only the door on that discussion, but indeed, potentially all discussion by making empiricism conditional on the whim of the decider—who has concluded his belief is somehow above the otherwise impersonal standard of science.

This does not imply all particular scientific conclusion are “right”. That is manifestly not true. But neither does it suggest science is simply one ideology pitted against another. Science is the proposition that the goal is empirical validation and the commitment to allow, even encourage, all tests against any particular validation. As physicist Richard Feynman says, science is the process of leaning over backwards to be proven wrong. In the process, mistakes are corrected and understanding improved. It is an imperfect process, but superior to all known forms of inherited knowledge.

I suppose as a theoretical matter one could imagine some kind of democracy that was structured in such a way that all ideas were treated as equally good and the only test was who got the most votes. But it is hard to see how that works in the real world, particularly if one accepts the premise that one of the main roles of government is to provide for the common good. I can think of no workable construct where the common good was served by disavowing science. Science leads to understanding and understanding allows effective action—diseases are conquered, space is explored, new products are invented. It is no accident that the greatest advances in science have been made in democratic societies that as part of their construction have embraced empiricism as a way of life.

I also note—more as a matter of intellectual completeness than any worry readers will be confused—that any scientific statements about climate change need to be also tested since the importance of the issue is expressed primarily in predictions, not just the facts on which they are based. Nor is it simply a matter of predictions converging. As has been proven over and over, consensus does not create facts. Additional information is collected and some previous theories will be found to be less compelling…or just plain wrong. Accordingly, not everyone who raises questions about this or that piece of climate change predictions is a Know-nothing. People with different facts or different interpretations of fact are as welcome at the table of science as everyone else. Which is why science is so inherently democratic.

But that is not a license to suppress findings because you don’t like the implications, to fudge the findings by changing the measurements, to knowingly muddy the findings because they threaten your economic interests., or to reduce funding for science because you can’t predict the outcome. These are undemocratic actions because they keep the people from making their decisions based on the best information available.

By nature, scientists are some of the first responders when it comes to making democratic decisions. Ignore that process and the whole house is at risk.

Immigration Issues Aren’t Going Away

By Mike Koetting June 13, 2019

About 15 months ago, I had a series of posts on immigration. The issue has not gone away. In fact, Trump continues to bang the drum loudly on the all too plausible belief this is an issue that not only animates his core base, but slightly extends it to people who are genuinely concerned about this issue. The truth is that immigration is a real issue for both political parties, but a difficult and complicated one that can not be solved with slogans.

A recent article by David Frum in The Atlantic lays out the terms very clearly. This article is must-reading for anyone who wants to talk about immigration. It is a thoughtful, nuanced set of considerations, but essentially comes down to the question of whether it is possible to maintain a country and a set of national values without having borders and a common definition of citizenship.

Frum’s Arguments Cannot Be Ignored

He starts from the undeniable factual basis that the foreign-born population of the US is today close to its all time high, almost 15%. Countries of Western Europe, whom we think of as peers, are even higher relative to historic markers. He then notes that, while there are huge benefits to this immigration, there are likewise material political and social costs.

As Frum underlines, while economists agree immigrants don’t harm the overall economy, immigrants do change the distribution of costs and benefits. Even with overall growth, there is no evidence that lower income non-immigrants reap those benefits: the benefits are primarily divided between the immigrants themselves and the upper income Americans who are better off with an abundance of workers willing to work for less.

The consequences are jarring to many parts of society and we can’t simply dismiss the issue. Even if expressions on one side or the other are crude and wrong, there is a real issue.

Demagogues don’t rise by talking about irrelevant issues. Demagogues rise by talking about issues that matter to people, and that more conventional leaders appear unwilling or unable to address….Voters get to decide what the country’s problems are. Political elites have to devise solutions to those problems. If difficult issues go unaddressed by responsible leaders, they will be exploited by irresponsible ones.

Frum is very clear that the answer is not to pretend that immigration can be “stopped”. Immigration is both inevitable and desirable for first-world countries. Rather, we need to make a decision about how many immigrants we want each year and under what rules. While he considers a number of rules options, he is fairly prescriptive that unless we reduce the number of immigrants, the issue will continue to roil the body-politic. He may well be right, but that is a proposition that needs a wider discussion.

He is, however, absolutely right that whatever we decide about the number of immigrants, we need subsequent decisions about how to implement and enforce the decisions. He dismisses Trump’s border wall for the foolishness it is, but he also observes that America is in a peculiar limbo where so many of our immigration-related mechanisms are broken, unresolved or misaligned. A systemic fix is necessary but we can’t even talk about it in those terms.

“Prickly City” By Scott Stantis

The Issue Is Not Going Away

The problems raised by immigration are going to be a structural feature of the world for as far as we can see. Ending hostilities in Syria or stabilizing Central America are good things, but will not get this issue off our political agenda. The reality is that some societies are much better places to live than some other places. And everyone knows it.


The above chart shows differences in per capita GDP. But this is only one blunt measure. There are many other aspects—the degree of inequality within the country, the barriers to changing one’s status, the extent to which minorities feel threatened, the stability of the society, the threat of adverse climate change, and a host of other factors. But advanced countries come out better on most of these. While emmigration obviously has risks and problems, it is hard to think about the issue without concluding that a material number of people in less developed countries will want to come to more developed countries.

Paradoxically, the largest pressures are not felt from the poorest people wanting to escape. They may want to, but they have fewer means. The bigger pressures are from those who are starting up the ladder—have some education, have enough resources that travel is possible, and the idea of living in a different place is not at all beyond their imagination. Thus, the growth in incomes around the world, while it encourages some people to stay where they are, fuels dreams of still better lives in others.

The number of potential immigrants is eye-glazing. Egypt will add 50 million to its population over the next three decades and one-quarter of young male Egyptians would work abroad if they could. Twenty-six African nations will double their population in the same time period, to a mind-boggling 2.5 billion people—which is roughly the total number of people in the entire world in 1950. Three-quarters of all Nigerians and Ghanaians and more than half of the population of South Africa and Kenya report they want to leave. Pakistan, in 2050, will have almost as many people as the U.S. has now.

The pressure only increases from here.

Is There a Moral Dimension?

Beyond putting some decency boundaries around treatment of current migrants and appropriate policy for people who have been here for a long time and put down roots, Frum doesn’t address the question of what is a just solution.

I keep coming to the question of why exactly it is that I get to enjoy the many benefits of being American while other people should not be allowed those same benefits. Because white people took the land from the Indians 250 years ago? Because the evolution of the world was such that they set up a particularly smart government? Because my ancestors came here 150 years ago? These were big and momentous events, but my participation in them is purely happenstance. I can’t come up with a really compelling reason why I should be allowed to enjoy the fruits of these earlier sacrifices indefinitely…while others are prohibited from buying in with their own sacrifices.

Well…Another Fine Mess

So, I argue that social and political realpolitik dictates that we adopt a program of managing immigration and then I throw a bucket of moral cold water on the enterprise. What am I suggesting?

  • I think an argument that says “Throw open the borders and let it work itself out” could be justified. But it’s a bad idea. There would be way too much chaos before we reached a new equilibrium point—if we ever would. I think we need to adopt a new immigration policy (including enforcement) and get on with it.
  • It must follow from a realistic national discussion. There are no easy answers, but, as Frum argues, it can’t be an imposed solution. The issue is too close to the core of any society.
  • Whatever policy we settle on should be generous. I am not saying that will be easy, but it should be shaped In a context of what’s good for the world and workable for America, not what’s best for America and the devil take the rest.
  • We need to spend much more time thinking about the rest of the world. For all the recognition that the world is shrinking, we still want to put our fingers in our ear and sing “Nah-nah-nah-nah.”

Claude Lévi-Strauss once observed that, “for the majority of the human species, and for tens of thousands of years, the idea that humanity includes every human being on the face of the earth does not exist at all. The designation stops at the border of each tribe, or linguistic group or maybe even at a village.” Do we want to get beyond that?

“Prickly City” By Scott Stantis

Jettisoning Rationalist Guilt

By Mike Koetting May 30, 2019

As even occasional readers of this blog know, I think of myself as a reasonable guy who, biases and predilections notwithstanding, tries to see both sides of most policy arguments.

So I am uncomfortable with my growing sense that Republicans have strayed so far from reasoned policy that they no longer deserve much benefit of the doubt. I understand this attitude is potentially bad for democracy. There is something inherently objectionable to me about broadly discounting most of what one of our major parties says. But, and I didn’t get here lightly, I think that is the point I have reached.

This is more than Donald Trump. It is a problem that started when Richard Nixon decided to create a power base for Republicans by wooing those populations left behind when Democrats, belatedly, started to take the position that the situation of blacks was inconsistent with the stated goals of the country.

Continue reading “Jettisoning Rationalist Guilt”

High Expertise Government Jobs

By Mike Koetting May 1, 2019

This is the final post in my series on government workers. The last two posts have addressed government jobs, particularly federal jobs, in general. This post will focus more on government jobs at the higher end of the education spectrum. Generally speaking, these jobs require some specific expertise, are leadership/management positions, or both. As a society, we focus a lot of attention on political jobs, but we don’t pay much attention to jobs at the top range of the bureaucracy. Failing to get the appropriate people in these positions is as potentially dangerous as electing the wrong politicians. (See Michael Lewis’ new book, The Fifth Risk.)

Continue reading “High Expertise Government Jobs”

Private Sector Versus Government Workers

By Mike Koetting April 19, 2019

You don’t have to work very hard to find someone willing to criticize government workers, for instance this investors’ newsletter dismissing the hardship of government workers during the shutdown:

Let’s remember who we are talking about here. While there are certainly plenty of hardworking, dedicated federal workers, they are, for the most part, incredibly pampered. They get better pay and more generous benefits than private sector workers doing the same things.

Complaints about government worker pensions are ubiquitous, particularly here in Illinois where the pension system has been horribly mismanaged.

But I think there is a shortage of clear thinking on the topic. I would make two fundamental points:

  • Maybe the problem is not in the government sector, but in the private sector.
  • The net impact of moving good jobs to the contracting sector contributes to other problematic trends.
Continue reading “Private Sector Versus Government Workers”