Home
Benjamin Franklin said, "When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic." We're still waiting for that to happen, but it looks inevitable to me, thanks to the Internet.

As the presidential election season in the United States has proven once again, facts are fuzzy, truth is optional, and poor people will vote against their own best interests. We have fact checkers, but they don't always agree with each other. Voters default to voting the party line. But that could change.

It is one thing for a fact-checker to say candidate X told a lie. That seems to have no impact on voters whatsoever. On some level everyone understands the election process to be about persuasion not truth.

But suppose another level is added to fact-checking. This new level allows each voter to get specific predictions of his or her individual net worth under each candidate's plan. These predictions would be based on odds and use an expected-value formulation. That just means a 25% chance of making \$100 is valued at .25 x 100 = \$25. That's a common way to approach predictions that have uncertainty.

The prediction model would take into account the odds that congress would thwart any particular plan, the odds of war, the odds of technological advances, and even the odds of the candidate dying in office.

Now let's say the model crunches all the numbers and lets an individual voter input his specific income, location, age, family size, mortgage, education etc. to see how he will fare under candidate Y's presidency versus candidate X. Armed with that information, the citizen votes for the candidate that is predicted to do best for him personally. At that point, Ben Franklin's prediction comes true and the Republic crumbles.

I know, I know. A model so complicated would necessarily be unreliable. But remember the accuracy bar is set extraordinarily low. Today most voters have no idea which candidate will serve their personal interests best. A model that improves on random guessing by 10% would be the best information around.

Presumably the model would show that poor people can come out ahead in the short run by voting for candidates willing to tax the bejeezus out of anyone rich enough to own a home.  People being people, I think the poor would vote for their best short term outcome even if the model predicted dire consequences ten years out. Hence, the end of the republic.

Democracy and capitalism are quite compatible as long as voters have poor information. If you put the Internet in the mix and allow it to evolve, sooner or later voters will have better information and the republic will collapse.

If it bothers you to see politicians lie, take a moment to consider the alternative. When voters have accurate information, it is game over for the republic. That's not me talking; it's the guy who helped invent the republic.

Sort By:
Oct 11, 2012
Theron:

This thread isn't about women or minority working or voting; it's about the ignorant masses demanding perpetual bailouts via the government. If the only way for a politician to get and stay elected is to promise and deliver a course that will lead to economic ruin (QE1002), then by definition, the government cannot last.

I want to be a billionaire. So I'm only going to vote for a politician who will give me at least a billion USD a year. All my neighbors like the idea and sign on. The idea goes viral and next thing you know 60% of voting public will only vote for a politician who will give them a billion a year (until one promising 2 billion a year comes along). Where is the US going to get all that money? We could take every penny bill gates has and end up with what, enough money to pay 10 people their billion... that's only 310,000,000 more people to find a billion dollars for.

Phantom II
I don't think the US is borrowing that much money from china that much any more. Last I heard the fed was just "printing" a lot of money to cover our costs.

-15
Oct 11, 2012
Nine thumbs down, but nobody has given me an answer. Why would equality mean the end of the Republic, when all the data on Gini coefficient and history of wealth inequality suggests the opposite?

A perfectly reasonable question. If you can't back your opinions up with an argument, then you're an intellectual gnat on the same platform as the Tea Party. And all the thumbs down in the world won't change it.

Oct 11, 2012
Gee, Scott, I just saw your Dilbert of today. A competitor going out of business by having its next product announced too early so that people stopped buying its current product. It's interesting that you have quoted Franklin one day and then pointed out what those of us familiar with Silicon Valley know is called "the Osborne syndrome."

For those of you who don't know, a guy named Jack Osborne started a PC company that was really on its way to stardom in 1981 called Osborne Computing. It came out with a PC called the Osborne 1 (what an innovative name!). When they started to lose market share to companys like, oh, say, Apple, they decided to announce a new computer, called "Vixen." So people started to hold off on buying the Osborne 1, while concurrently IBM lauched its first PC. Osborne went out of business, and his gaffe became a legend in the world of computing.

Scott has resurrected the old Osborne syndrome in today's strip. I just wanted you all to know the context.

Oct 11, 2012
One more thing - if you would like to understand what kind of government the framers had in mind when they established our Republic and wrote the Constitution, there's an excellent way you can learn about it in the comfort of your own home, and it won't cost you a penny.

Just go to the Hillsdale College web site - www.hillsdalecollege.com, and sign up for their Constitution 101 and Constitution 201 courses. Again, it's free. It will give you a great understanding of just what the Constitution authorizes the federal government to do, and why they wrote it the way they did. You can take the lectures at your own pace on your own schedule. For our US readers, everyone should understand this information. For our foreign readers, it's a great way to understand us better.

+11
Oct 11, 2012
I see, not surprisingly, that you have an incorrect and unrealistic idea of what Ben Franklin was talking about. The purpose of government, at least in the US, is not to give other people's money to the poor. The purpose of the government is to do what is specifically enumerated in the Constitution.

Franklin was paraphrasing the words originally attributed to (but not verified to be from) Alexander Tytler, to wit: "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy followed by a dictatorship."

Note that neither Franklin nor Tytler said that people voting in their self-interest would ruin the Republic. They said that when people learned that they could vote for people who would tax one segment in order to give money to another, that's when the end would begin. As George Bernard Shaw was reported to have said, "When you rob Peter to pay Paul, you can always count on the support of Paul." The problem is that the government robs Peter to pay Paul, Joe, George, Fred, Mary, et. al., so for every person who votes in his self-interest to keep the money he has earned, there are thirty or forty who vote for people who will take it away and give it to them.

The government is now not only robbing Peter, it's also robbing Peter's children and grandchildren, via loans from the Central Bank of China. And it's not just welfare recipients or the 45 million-plus people on food stamps - it's also the huge bloated government and its public employee unions who vote for people who keep developing more and more programs to hire more and more people, all at the taxpayer's expense. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that there is something wrong with a system that gives a federal government employee twice as much in pay and benefits as the people who are paying their salary.

So what you may start to see is the electorate start to take their heads out of their behinds and realize that voting for today's personal financial interest (who will give me the most money regardless of what that means to the country as a whole and to future generations) will result in the ultimate collapse of the country's economic system, and hence the world's. We're \$16 trillion in debt, folks. Them ain't just numbers - they're IOU's to many people and countries. And the people who are going to have to pay that debt haven't, for the most part, even been born yet.

We have to get this debt under control, and get our economy moving again. But we're not going to do it by continuing to vote for people who just want to buy our vote with China's money.

+8
Oct 10, 2012
@dugfromthearth:
Facts are tricky things. It's also true that in the last 30 years the only presidents to have run budget surpluses were rich white guys who played the saxophone and came from Arkansas. Those probably aren't good criteria for picking future presidents, though.

Oct 10, 2012
Scott,

I like the idea of calculating values for individual voters.
However, it seems some issues that are important to people would not be present.
Example, a 22 year old will not receive medicare, but they might want to when they reach their 60's, perhaps an option to show how well things will be for them later?
There are also things with no monetary value. Gay Marriage is a hot button issue these days, but weather it happens or not, that will not have an effect on their income. Perhaps the calculator will allow them to assign values to things they find more important than their own money?
Are public services in the calculator? Libraries, busses, Post Office, Firemen, Police, ambulance, and many other services are covered by the government. Typically they are measured in response time. Perhaps telling them that a change of 10 minute wait for police to arrive is expected to be adjusted to 30 minutes or down to 5 could be important to individuals in a high crime neighborhood, and might be more important than their own income. Or showing a change in expected time and cost to commute by bus could be important, even for those that do not currently ride the bus. (a DUI or other incident can change that, so maybe include chances of needing any specific service).

Oct 10, 2012
Instead of theory, let's look at actual history. Democratic presidents in the past 30 years have reduced the deficit. Republican presidents in the past 30 years have increased the deficit.

It is true that when people know they can vote themselves money the country is doomed. And that is what rich people have been doing for 30 years. Voting themselves tax breaks, handouts, bailouts, and any other way they can get money from the government. The screw the poor vote has been in control for decades.

Since the 80's the rich have gotten richer, the poor and middle class have gotten poorer, and the government has gotten further into debt. This is not the result of the poor voting themselves money, this is the result of the rich voting themselves money. But since the rich control the media they conceal that fact very well.

Oct 10, 2012
Which are you talking about Scott, jobs, or government handouts? The quote you reference (which may or may not have come from Benjamin Franklin or Alexis de Tocqueville) refers to government handouts. The prediction model you speak of seems to refer to jobs. The problem is neither can be predicted with any reasonable agreement. Depending on whether you talk to a Keynesian economist or a Supply-side economist, they will tell you that opposite policies will increase or reduce the number of jobs in the country. Depending on who you talk to, government handouts are limitless and if the money runs low we just have to tax the rich more, or China will stop funding our debt very soon and the government handouts will have to stop entirely.

If somebody followed your idea and created such a model, the other side would rapidly created their own model that reports vastly different results, and the voting public would again be left without clear information.

-16
Oct 10, 2012
Vote down the post by all means, but the question still stands, and I'm gonna ask it again:

*Why* would an egalitarian society spell the end of the Republic? All the data (for instance on Gini coefficient) shows that equality tends to make a society better, not worse. The top-rate tax rate was 90% in the 50s when the economy grew fastest. So where do you get the idea that distribution means the death of the United States?

Oct 10, 2012
@Melvin1

"the CBO calculations assume elasticity is zero - that rates have zero affect on behavior."

Do you have a reference for that claim?

+2
Oct 10, 2012
Scott, static economic models like you seem to long for, will never be of any use. As soon as any specific policy is announced, those who can start to adjust their behavior as much as possible. Those adjustments then start affecting other parts of the economy further, etc. This dynamic is enhanced by our improved ability to disseminate information more quickly. That's why macroeconomic plans *never* result in the expected outcomes. It must be frustrating to a technocrat like yourself, but you're just going to have to get used to it.

Oct 10, 2012
The application of computers should be a boon for creating discrete economic models. Given the right inputs, you could make some pretty good predictions on the probable effect of certain policies. But there are two things that would make any computer model useless.

First of all are the inputs. As Romney and Ryan have shown, candidates are perfectly willing to make pretty charts and graphs, but not to provide even a list of specific policies that they would do. You need a plan to actually enter into the model. You can't draw two dots, connect them with a straight line, and call that a map. In the same way, you can't just say "I will reduce taxes and balance the budget" and call that a plan.

The second challenge is assumptions. Predictive models must use assumptions that there is no control over. Some assumptions are pretty good, some are controversial, and some are just nuts. Depending on what assumptions are used can give wildly different outcomes.

Any comparitive model would probably work like this: Each party would set up a model with certain assumptions, plug in their plan, and present the outcome. Then they would swap assumptions, plug in their plan, and present that outcome. Of course using your own assumptions will present the best result with your own plan. But if you can present a plan that beats your opponent with their own assumptions, then that's like the other team scoring an own-goal.

But probably, your plan will give terrible results with your opponent's assumptions. So then the debate switches to why your opponent's assumptions are out to lunch, while yours are safe and rational.

+10
Oct 10, 2012
Believe it or not, many people are principled. Very often people act (or vote) based on a sense of fairness and justice, because they believe it to be "right." People shop at farmers markets, buy Priuses, donate to charities, vote their consciences, and spend time debating issues on cartoonists' blogs not for personal gain, but because they feel compelled to. The same holds for both sides of the debate on gun rights, abortion, contraception, foreign wars, and most social issues.

Plus there's the American dream of having it all someday, and not being punished for it. I recall reading about a Florida politician telling an immigrant domestic worker (in hopes to win her vote) that he would provide economic benefit to her by creating a 100% estate tax on everything over \$1 million. She was appalled: "do you mean that if I die with over a million dollars, the government will take it away?!?" The politician was speechless.

-20
Oct 10, 2012
Nobody has spelled out WHY an egalitarian society would spell the end of the Republic. It just seems to be a conceit of rich pricks.

+4
Oct 10, 2012
The complexity problem with your model is overwhelming. Not that it couldn't be done, but that its utility would be highly questionable and therefore unconvincing. We can't even agree on simple "facts;" how can we agree on all of those variables?

Consequently, we use some terrible simplifications. For example, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) uses a calculation that says if you double tax rates, you'll collect double the taxes, and if you cut rates by 20% you'll collect 20% less - as if there's no behavioral response. The odds of that being true are pretty much zero. If fuel prices double, people use less fuel. How much less, is speculation. In economic terms, it's called elasticity. If the elasticity were greater than one, then the taxes collected from the additional income earned (or recognized) under lower rates would more than offset the lower rates. This has indeed happened in the past when capital gains rates are lowered, though I suspect it's not sustainable because people simply choose to recognize their gains to coincide with lowered rates. I'm sure we're not at that point with income taxes, but the CBO calculations assume elasticity is zero - that rates have zero affect on behavior.

If we can't even come up with ANY reasonable estimate of the elasticity of income tax collections to tax rates (and end up using zero instead) then what confidence would anyone have in your model? It would simply be used to reinforce the positions of whomever is controlling it. Heck, people believe outright lies that aren't really even debatable; why would they even consider such a subjective model?

+18
Oct 10, 2012
Franklin also said: "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote. "

Well we certainly have the Democracy part down pat, but I think the lamb's liberty is in grave danger.

Oct 10, 2012
I think you've discounted two factors. One, that a statistically-significant (albeit small) percentage of Americans MAY vote altrustically. For this to be true, the model for one candidate need only project a SLIGHTLY worse outcome for the individual than the other, not a dramatically worse one as you imply. Two, that a model predicting dire future outcomes would apply to a majority of Americans (who, as you suggest, are compelled to vote for it) and thus be enforced on all. If dire outcomes are only predicted for 10% of the voters, the other 90% vote for the other guy and no armageddon.

+4
Oct 10, 2012
By the way, the Federalist Papers # 10 by Hamilton argues against governing through popular sentiments (i.e. the masses) and offers our current representative-democracy form of republic as the buffer for bad policies favored by the masses.

+8
Oct 10, 2012
The lower income vote for Democrats because they are promised money through social programs, business and higher income citizens vote for Repbulicans because they are promised money through lower taxes. How has BF's prediction not come to pass?

Agree with the other posters that your idea is ridiculous. The thing about the future is no one is able to predict it with any level of certainty and from an actuarial perspective, there is always a range of options with a median likelihood but the tail risks are always unpredictable. The predictive model you are talking about would have to give a range with a tail risk. More than likely both candidates will have some level of probability that matches each other at some point with perhaps different Kurtosis levels and different tail expectations. How then do you compare one with the other?

Old Dilbert Blog