Related toShut up and multiplyPolitics is the mind-killerPascal's MuggingThe two party swindleThe American system and misleading labelsPolicy Tug-of-War 

Jane is a connoisseur of imported cheeses and Homo Economicus in good standing, using a causal decision theory that two-boxes on Newcomb's problem. Unfortunately for her, the politically well-organized dairy farmers in her country have managed to get an initiative for increased dairy tariffs on the ballot, which will cost her $20,000. Should she take an hour to vote against the initiative on election day? 

She estimates that she has a 1 in 1,000,000 chance of casting the deciding vote, for an expected value of $0.02 from improved policy. However, while Jane may be willing to give her two cents on the subject, the opportunity cost of her time far exceeds the policy benefit, and so it seems she has no reason to vote.

Jane's dilemma is just the standard Paradox of Voting in political science and public choice theory. Voters may still engage in expressive voting to affiliate with certain groups or to signal traits insofar as politics is not about policy, but the instrumental rationality of voting to bring about selfishly preferred policy outcomes starts to look dubious. Thus many of those who say that we rationally ought to vote in hopes of affecting policy focus on altruistic preferences: faced with a tiny probability of casting a decisive vote, but large impacts on enormous numbers of people in the event that we are decisive, we should shut up and multiply, voting if the expected value of benefit to others sufficiently exceeds the cost to ourselves.

Meanwhile, at the Experimental Philosophy blog, Eric Schwitzgebel reports that philosophers overwhelmingly rate voting as very morally good (on a scale of 1 to 9), with voting placing right around donating 10% of one's income to charity. He offers the following explanation:

Now is it just crazy to say that voting is as morally good as giving 10% of one's income to charity? That was my first reaction. Giving that much to charity seems uncommon to me and highly admirable, while voting... yeah, it's good to do, of course, but not that good. One thought, however -- adapted from Derek Parfit -- gives me pause about that easy assessment. In the U.S. 2008 Presidential election, I'd have said the world would be in the ballpark of $10 trillion better off with one of the candidates than the other. (Just consider the financial and human costs at stake in the Iraq war and the U.S. bank bailouts, for starters.) Although my vote, being only one of about 100,000,000 cast, probably had only about a 1/100,000,000 chance of tilting the election, multiplying that tiny probability by a round trillion leaves a $10,000 expected public benefit from my voting -- not so far from 10% of my salary.
Of course, that calculation is incredibly problematic in any number of ways. I don't stand behind it, but it helps loosen the grip of my previous intuition that of course it's morally better to donate 10% to charity than to vote.

[Disclaimer: the above $10 trillion estimate is not mine. Bush did not kill 10 billion current people (at $1,000 per life) and he massively increased health-oriented foreign aid to Africa, which can expiate many sins in the GWWC calculus. Politics is the mind-killer, this is not about blue and green, etc.] So we have a model of politics as charity, on which it is more plausible that voting on policy could be rational. But why stop there? If voting (wisely) is a charitable activity, then spending money on political contributions to convince or mobilize others to vote (wisely) could be as well. For those who don't have moral objections to politics as charity (see the comments in this discussion for examples of such objections) political influence affect the voting behavior of others can be as well (provided compared to spending on tuberculosis treatment. We can attempt to remedy or analyze the "incredibly problematic" components to make better and better estimates. When thinking about effective philanthropy, would the marginal dollar do more good as a political campaign contribution or as a charitable donation for tuberculosis treatment?

Politics as effective charity?

This is not a new question for those interested in optimizing the impact of their charity. Giving What We Can (GWWC), founded by Future of Humanity Institute associate Toby Ord, is a group of people who have pledged to give at least ten percent of their incomes "to whichever organizations can most effectively use it to fight poverty in developing countries." GWWC notes that political advocacy may have high expected value, but has not recommended any organizations in that category, mentioning the difficulties of analysis as well as hope that it will be done in the future. 

While those who care about future generations and existential risk might not choose to focus their charitable efforts on the task of GWWC, thinking about how political activity relates to it can still provide them a good example for a Fermi calculation. For instance, charity evaluator GiveWell, which posts its analysis online, estimates the cost of saving the life of a poor person alive today via their recommended charities as on the order of $3,000, giving a reasonably clear benchmark for political activity to exceed. 

This post and its successors will lay some further groundwork for that Fermi calculation.

Are votes worth buying?

To make the comparison between political activity and GiveWell-style anti-poverty organizations as clear as possible we focus solely on money spent to convince or mobilize the votes of others (as opposed to one's own vote, which may be easy enough to exercise to be worthwhile, even if efforts to influence others are not). 

We can then break up the initial analysis into three parts.

  1. How much political spending is required to elicit a vote for a candidate under various conditions?

  2. What is the relationship between purchased votes and policy outcomes?

  3. What is our probability distribution over the value (in lives of the poor saved, for this example) of those policies?

We could then delve deeper into questions of decision theory, value, signaling and bias that are raised by the basic empirical picture. Today's post will focus on the first prong, the cost per vote elicited via political spending (in the context of a two-boxing decision theory, for the moment).

How much do votes sell for?

To begin the analysis, we can consider as our example contests for the most powerful elected office today: President of the United States. Three lines of American evidence stand out as relevant to assessing the cost per vote of campaign spending: the revealed behavior of politicians, correlational studies of spending and electoral outcomes, and experimental evidence from randomized trials. The first and third indicate relatively low cost per vote, while the second suggests higher costs. For the causal judgments we wish to draw, randomized experiments offer the most powerful evidence, and this analysis will lean heavily on them. 

Revealed preference

In the United States, politicians dedicate an enormous proportion of their time to fundraising. Prima facie, this suggests that politicians, experts in getting elected, believe that fundraising will be at least as helpful to their election as other activities like personal appearances or actual governance. This is made more plausible by the tendency of politicians to spend more time fundraising and raise more money when facing serious challengers in their next election. Politicians might have been tricked by an initial baseless belief in the efficacy of campaign spending, with the most popular candidates also raising the most money and creating a spurious self-fulfilling correlation. However, selection over time would be expected to wear away at such mistaken beliefs.

Correlation studies

A number of correlational studies have been cited to advance the idea that 'campaigns don't matter' in U.S. presidential elections. Using information such as party identification, unemployment, economic growth, and the approval rating of the incumbent, political scientists can predict election outcomes surprisingly well before campaigning even begins. These correlations are only weak evidence of causation, however, since the fundamentals also predict fundraising capacity (more popular candidates do better at raising money from the public, and organized interests are more interested in buying influence with a candidate who looks likely to win). To be confident that additional spending will buy votes, one would ideally want robust randomized experiments capable of clearly indicating causal relationships.

Randomized experiments

Fortunately, the last several decades have seen a proliferation of randomized experiments and scientific methods in political campaigning. In these experiments, parties and political organizations randomly apply particular campaigning methods, often with the supervision of political scientists or other academics, and record the votes thus secured.  One reference is Donald Green and Alan Gerber's Get Out the Vote, which reviews dozens of experiments bearing on the cost-effectiveness of get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts.

The key results are summarized in a table on page 139 (viewable on the Google Books preview). The strongest well-confirmed effect is for door-to-door GOTV drives, which average 14 voters contacted to induce one vote (plus spillover effects), with a cost per vote of $29 (including spillover effects) assuming that staff time costs $16/hour for staff. Phone banks require more contacts per vote, but are cheaper per contact, with Green and Gerber estimating the cost per vote at $38 for campaign volunteer callers, and $90 for untrained commercial callers.

In recent years, the U.S. political parties have adjusted their GOTV strategy in line with these experiments, and turnout has increased. For instance, in 2004 Green and Gerber predicted predicted that the parties would increase GOTV spending by some $200 million using methods averaging $50 per vote, for an increase in turnout of 4 million, and the turnout data seems consistent with that. This money was concentrated in swing states, and in 2004 turnout increased 9% to 63% in the twelve most competitive states, while increasing 2% to 53% in the twelve least competitive states (while clearly leaving many potential voters home).

However, publication biases likely inflate the cost-effectiveness estimates here, perhaps drastically, and to get a solid (likely worse) estimate would require a detailed investigation of such biases. Many of these studies are weakly significant, inconsistent across circumstances, or involve degrees of freedom. The true cost per vote could easily be $1,000+.

Diminishing returns

But how finely targeted can GOTV efforts be? Adding n votes to both candidates in a two-candidate race is a disappointing result for those interested in affecting who wins in elections. A GOTV which mobilizes 1000 votes at the margin, but has 250 of them go to the non-preferred candidate, will be only half as effective as one that solely mobilized supporters of the preferred candidate. Fortunately for electoral campaigners, the candidate citizens will vote for (if mobilized) is often easy to determine. Voting behavior is highly predictable from rural vs urban location, ethnicity, age, past party registration, neighborhood, etc. With increasing spending on GOTV, increasingly less selected populations would need to be contacted. Depending on how much money is available (and accompanying diminishing returns as less polarized populations are approached) this might easily double or triple the cost per vote at the margin.

A further problem is that, since the forecast likelihood of a vote making the difference in an election varies widely across the country, other donors will also apply their resources disproportionately to closely contested elections. For instance, Gelman et al find that a U.S. presidential election vote in New Hampshire is around a hundred times as likely to make a difference as one in California. National presidential campaigns can efficiently allocate their resources in order of priority, with additional dollars going to relatively marginal regions. In non-national elections candidates may call in favors and tap war chests to deal with particularly close races, and empirical data do indicate increased spending in tight races. We can sanity-check an estimate of the cost per vote against total spending by national campaigns, e.g. the 2008 U.S. presidential race:

Candidate (Party)

Amount raised

Amount spent


Average spent per vote

Barack Obama (D)





John McCain (R)





Ralph Nader (I)





Bob Barr (L)





Chuck Baldwin (C)





Cynthia McKinney (G)





Excludes spending by independent expenditure concerns.
Source: Federal Election Commission

These amounts are surprisingly small (relative to, e.g. the U.S. federal budget), and also include all non-GOTV interventions. Negative campaigning which reduces turnout for an opposing candidate is just as effective in winning elections (per vote) as increasing turnout for one's preferred side. Interventions which push 'swing voters' to vote for one candidate rather than the other are twice as effective as either per voter influenced.

Some ballpark VOI guesstimates

Much more analysis can obviously be done here, but as a first-pass estimate, it seems likely that the marginal cost per vote from spending on U.S. presidential general elections is higher than the $50 per vote Green and Gerber estimate for GOTV efforts, so consider a range of $50-$5000. Note that these are after-tax dollars if contributed directly to political campaigns, and non-profit efforts are constrained in their ability to back particular candidates and coordinate with their campaigns (although many activities can be funneled through non-profit vehicles).

What would that be worth? For those considering how to spend their effectiveness-focused philanthropy budget, we could use Eric's quick guesstimate of a 1 in 100,000,000 probability of a marginal vote swaying a presidential election. But if we consider ex ante close elections the number might be one in tens of millions (if one holds one's donations for close elections, although Gelman's figure of 1 in 10 million was for a specific election, using polls from immediately prior to election day, exaggerating the degree of certainty). Say we take 1 in 25 million as our number, assuming one waits for close elections to donate, but can't wait until just before election day.

Then in order for campaign spending to outperform the Against Malaria Foundation saving one child from death by malaria for ~$3,000+, the victory of the preferred candidate would need to be expected (given extensive uncertainty about candidates' future behavior, future conditions, and the effectiveness of various policies) to do good equivalent to preventing over 400 thousand to over 40 million extra malaria deaths, with higher numbers more likely.

With higher estimates of the campaign spending cost per vote, political donations would look less attractive, but voting oneself has potentially lower cost, the opportunity cost of reliably informing oneself (an essential cost) and voting. So carefully voting oneself might be useful volunteering, even if political donations are not worthwhile in this framework. One might think of it as spending a gift of political power from the state.

Continued in: Probability and Politics

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I can think of one big advantage of charity over politics: Giving to politics is rent-seeking behavior. If you give money to support politicians against/for dairy tariffs, then you encourage the other side to give money to their politicians who are for/against dairy tariffs. In this game matrix, "cooperate" is don't give money.

I have a hard time swallowing the ten trillion dollar figure. I don't think the two parties are really that different, and there's good, game theory for them to be that way.

I think there is a market for some sort of organization by which a person who wants to donate $50 to the Democrats can contact a person who wants to donate $50 to the Republicans and mutually agree to donate their collective $100 to some third-party cause like world hunger instead.

I like this idea, but how do you verify that the donation would have gone to the political party? If I'm inclined to give $50 to a non-political-party charity, then there's incentive for me to claim it would go to the party I prefer in order to get one of my political opponents to divert money from the Bad Guys to another cause.

Agreed. I would like to come up with aways to prevent gaming this sort of system. If we could get past this sort of hurdle, I would be interested in implementing a website facilitating this.

Perhaps the matched donors have to agree on a charity and an amount: you pay into the system, and if you get matched, then the non-political charity gets your money, and if you don't (after some waiting period), then the political charity does. This means you have to at least not mind the money going to the political charity, or be willing to gamble.

A thought: Charity popularity probably isn't evenly distributed between political parties. This could limit the ability of some charities to be matched, but it would allow (for example) a Republican who supports Planned Parenthood to have little or no risk of their donation defaulting to the GOP. A Republican who didn't want to donate to the Republican Party and did want to donate to Planned Parenthood would take very little risk, while one who wanted to donate to the NRA might have more trouble.
Charity itself isn't evenly distributed: Republicans give more dollars to charity, period. If everyone in the US signed up for this site, it would guarantee a Republican win. But, of course, not everyone will, so it may not be that bad.
Yes, that should reduce the gaming of the system. It involves more secrecy that in my original conception of the website (which would display graphs of the matching money available for different charities), but I don't think that can be helped.
Why would my fix necessitate secrecy or prohibit such graphs?
It is probably impossible to become extremely confident about that, but past contributions to a party are a good predictor of future contributions, and I believe that Federal campaigns are required to disclose the names and amounts of any contributions to the Federal Election Commission, which publishes them. Those published disclosures can be used to qualify a counterparty (a person one is considering making a deal with) and then to verify that the counterparty carried out his end of the deal. The deal should be that a Republican promises to contribute X dollars less this election cycle than he did last cycle if a Democrat will do the same. The deal reduces (direct) contributions to campaigns even without the requirement that the Republican and the Democrat agree on a charity to donate 2 * X dollars to. In particular, it reduces (direct) contributions even if the two "sides" of the deal just keep that money. There are indirect ways to make contributions that do not require disclosure, however, and IIUC these indirect ways are heavily used because they allow individuals to get around the dollar limits on direct contributions. So that consideration brings back the idea that the $X each "side" saves in the deal should go to charity (but I see no need to require that each "side" donate their $X to the same charity, just that the donations can be verified) because it gives some assurance that the $X will not become indirect contributions to a political party, since the total amount an individual is willing to spend on altruism tend to stay relatively constant year over year. But that takes out of the stream of money going to campaigns and parties mostly altruistic money, leaving mostly unaffected the money that expects to profit from the contributions, which might have a bad effect on the political process. Also, credible arguments have been made that past experience with the dollar-limit laws shows that it is futile to keep money out of politics because the people
Providing there are roughly equal levels of cheating on both sides this sounds like a feature rather than a bug.
The problem is that if the potential participants expect this type of cheating, that their donations will be diverted by someone who would not have donated to their political opponents anyways, they will not want to participate.
Even if that is the case, they're still getting twice* the leverage they'd get elsewhere. *Minus the small finder's fee.
0Paul Crowley13y
I think you have to just eat this problem. The whole point of the system is that it allows a donation to do double duty as a political force and as a standard charitable donation. It will appeal to anyone who likes both, whichever one is more important to them.
Maybe this should be handled at a different level: the two parties get together and agree to each take a large amount of their donation funds and redirect it to a third-party charity. This seems less game-able.
If the parties could get on board with this, they could provide a separate donation option for something like this. Both parties would then commit to give an amount worth the smaller of the sums gathered into charity. Now for the funders not to donate to the charity option would mean a smaller charity sum for their party and more campaign funds for the opposing party if their party ended up with the smaller charity sum.
4Paul Crowley13y
It's not in the interests of the individuals employed by the parties to reduce their budgets, so I can't see them getting on board with this.
What's the advantage of either over the other?
For one, it eliminates the problem Alicorn suggests: we already know the money would go to the respective party because it has been donated already. Also, it would be easier to manage, because it would be a single public trade with a large amount of money involved, not many private $100 agreements.
Good points, both. But how would you convince them to do it?
I was thinking that a charity might propose this to each party individually and get them to agree to it. But upon reflection, a better way would be to run a charity (or meta-charity) that works like this: when you donate money, you specify your affiliation, and the charity takes care of donating the difference to the appropriate party. Perhaps it's not even necessary to specify a single neutral charity option. You give money to the meta-charity and specify your party affiliation and preferred charity. Then we donate the difference to the party's campaign fund as usual, and split up the remaining money between charities in proportion to how much was meant to be donated to each.
Vote. Up. If any other LWers want to start this website, I'll pull my weight with the marketing.
Wow, I expect this kind of naivete from normal people, but not from LWers. This is exactly the sort of bias-influenced human behavior that LW should be teaching you to understand. It's more Hansonian than Yudkowskian, but still. Politics is not about policy. Donors are signaling affiliation. No one will use this service. Vote. Down.
So you predict also that no one used Nader Trader? What is your detailed theory of politics that distinguishes them?
Probably true, but that isn't how donors see themselves. The idea here is to let them achieve the goals they proclaim, while still signaling their affiliation.
It would seem to be aimed at those with multiple signals they wish to send. (Political affiliation, charitable contribution, a general attitude along the lines of efficiency). It seems most likely to appeal to those who would otherwise be directly donating to charities but want a bit extra out of their contribution.
Your conclusion doesn't follow from the premises (which are well understood by those involved).
What if you give every donor a profile page that shows what causes you've defunded? What if you linked your facebook to a chart showing how much you've kept away from pro-life/pro-choice lobbyists? Correct me if I'm wrong, but this seems like an opportunity to signal tons of group affiliation, intelligence, and compassion.
I'd help with documentation/user support. ... yes, I happen to actually like the two most hated programming-related tasks. What of it?
Another potential issue: If money is diverted from small political donations by lots of individuals, does that increase the influence of big corporate donors over politicians? Could this effect be ammeliorated by getting politicians themselves to value the cancelling of a donation to their opponents as much as a donation to themselves?
Corporations reap some PR effects from donating to charity, so in theory, they'd be even more motivated than individuals to accept diverted matched donations.
I think public financing of elections is a good idea. If political donations are low it's much easier for a company to buy political influence through donating money. See Larry Lessig: Trying to get people who make small donation to cancel out each other by donating to a third course has the opposite effect of creating public financing of elections.
3Paul Crowley13y
Detail: the website takes donations in rounds that end on a specified date. Each donation has three parts: a political recipient (say, the DSCC), an offset recipient (say, the NRSC), and a backup charity (say, Village Reach). The backup charity must be scrupulously non-political. At the end of each round, the website finds all the donations which match, gives the political recipient who gets more money the difference in donations, and parcels out each side's remaining money (which will be equal) proportionately among their named charities. A $100 DSCC/NRSC/VillageReach donation is thus guaranteed to cause the difference in donations between the DSCC and NRSC to go $100 in the DSCC's favour; I just don't know whether it will do so by increasing the money the DSCC gets, or reducing the money the NRSC gets. But either way, if there are donors on both sides then VillageReach will get at least some of the money, and if they're roughly evenly matched it'll get most of it. So the big question is: how could this be made to seem attractive to people? It seems like very few would understand it. "No, give to the DSCC directly - that way they get all the money! Otherwise some Republican will put money in and take away your donation!"
I think this is exactly how to do this. I'm not sure how effective it could actually be, but I'd really like someone to make an honest go for it. One note: I think there is a motivation for underdog supporters not to contribute, since presumably the less-well funded candidate needs funding more than the better funded candidate. I think this should be relatively small though, at least for races that are at all contentious.
0Paul Crowley13y
Yes, this problem came up in my discussions. In theory you could state with each donation how much you'd need to take off the other side in order not to give it to your side and look for matches in a process a little like betting markets, but it's hard to imagine that working out in practice, so maybe you just aim this tool at evenly matched races.
But politics is not about policy. Political donors want to signal their affiliation with their tribes, not spend their money efficiently to change the world. It's a modern potlatch. Otherwise they'd be giving to something else in the first place - it's extraordinarily unlikely that giving to the Democrats or Republicans is the maximal way to impact the world, so anyone who is doing it obviously doesn't have the goal of efficient charity. I predict that such an organization would capture < 0.5% of donors by # and < 0.1% by $. That's a pretty small market - a few hundred thousand.
A brilliant idea. I wonder which type of voter is more likely to think such a system is a good idea. I would be surprised if both sides were equally open minded regarding such things. (But aren't American so don't know which lot is least insane.)
Such a system would appeal to the type of voter who doesn't vote because he is rationally ignorant and/or calculates it isn't worth his time (b/c he is not a utilitarian and doesn't count common benefit as a reason to vote), and wouldn't donate to a political party because he knows there are far more efficient ways to transform money into changing the expected future of the world. He can see why the system is an efficiency gain using the same tools he can see why voting and donating to political parties is a waste of his time and money. This creates somewhat of a problem for the proposal, if it is only appreciated by those who can't benefit from it...
Yes, I think this is a great line of thought (despite Alicorn's legitimate objection). In light of the fact that there's a fair amount of overlap in human values even among members of disparate groups, it seems like there's a substantial arbitrage opportunity attached to redirecting partisan efforts to efforts that are unambiguously good.
Re the Prisoner's Dilemma element in political competition, for this post I left it out (save the acknowledgement with respect to moral objections, and associated link to the Ezra Klein comments section). More on that to come. Re the second point, the ten trillion dollar figure is not mine (my estimates and data are coming in subsequent posts). I have an upcoming post on the data regarding the applicability of median voter theorem style analysis in the U.S. (short answer: democratic competition constrains differences between candidates to a small fraction of the variation in outcomes with dictators, but different politicians representing the same electorate thanks to narrow wins, incumbency, etc show markedly different voting behavior; primaries and the need to motivate one's base to vote/volunteer/contribute the ideological lumpiness seem to play a large role in deviations from median voter type outcomes).
I'm assuming meta-political discussion isn't included in the ban on political discussion. Downvote me if I'm wrong, and I'll abandon this type of comment. MVT very much applies to my model of U.S. politicians. I see them as having effectively similar policies but very different rhetoric. The similar policies are designed to woo the MV and the differing rhetoric chases the ideological fringes.
That's a fair description of many parts of U.S. politics (although that sounds more applicable to parties rather than individual politicians: note that foreign aid isn't a cleanly partisan issue, e.g. Bush massively increased anti-disease aid in Africa, and many Christian Republicans back such aid very strongly), but as I'll discuss in the relevant post the relevant sort of similarity depends on one's purpose: the variation among politicians (within, not just across parties) does seem to be enough for a narrowly-focused GWWC member (who can dismiss many standard political issues as trivial in terms of her objective function) to identify differences sufficient for politics to beat the direct effects of donations to the current GiveWell/GWWC charities.

Tangientially, this post assumes that there are only two reasons to vote: to affect policy directly, or to signal/express affiliation. But what about structural voting?

More important to me than any specific political issue is my desire to live in a country roughly like the US and the rest of the industrialized world: rich, relatively well-administered and safe, and not dictatorial. Of course there are relative strengths and weaknesses of different countries and different political factions, but these are all overshadowed by the fact that we all think it's pretty great not to be North Korea.

Civic engagement of various sorts probably helps keep that fate away. On the margin, your vote contributes practically nothing to preventing your home country from looking like North Korea. But a political/structural catastrophe would be so very bad that voting might be worth it on those grounds alone.

(This is related to Eliezer's point in "The American System and Misleading Labels" where he argues that the voter's real power is to threaten to throw the bums out, or even foment revolution. The vote doesn't give you a great deal of power to enact your favorite legislation; it does provide a rough sort of check against any politician doing something ridiculously, impossibly awful. Prevention of "ridiculously awful" behavior is much more important, in my view, than fine-scale policy manipulation.)

I think you're underestimating the potential difference in effect between two (or more) different political policies. For example, I think it's pretty great not to be Detroit.

I think there is a significant bias to overestimate the impact of who wins the Presidential election on policy. Look at how many of the Bush policies were continued by Obama. Normally that's used as a condemnation of Obama, but I think it's much better interpreted as evidence that the guy at the top doesn't matter that much - whoever wins is subject to almost the same set of pressures from interest groups, constraints based on who has what powers & goals, etc, which has a huge effect on policy.

In the tribe, you saw everyone, so you saw everyone with political influence. In the modern world, you only see a few politicians, and so you assume that's where the influence is, but you don't see the millions of unelected bureaucrats, and they also have power.

I'm inclined to agree with the first paragraph, but not so much with the second. It's probably not just the bureaucrats, it's the special interest groups, the financial, imaginative, and technological limitations, and comparable inertia from other countries.

She estimates that she has a 1 in 1,000,000 chance of casting the deciding vote

Why is this not a confusion? It seems on the face of it that since voters' decisions are correlated, your decision accounts for behavior of other people as well, and so you are not only casting one vote with your decision, but many votes simultaneously.

Do you believe that my decision to vote is as like to acausally influence my opponents into voting as it is my supporters? If so, and if we can expect about equal amounts of both, doesn't that produce the same problem?

I feel genuinely guilty about prop 19's failure precisely because the reason for my failure to vote -- general procrastination and lack of organization resulting in my not registering in time -- was probably correlated with similar failures by others on my side of the issue. That's probably a special case though. (ETA for non-Californians: Prop 19 was a proposal to legalize the use of marijuana)
There are asymmetric versions, too: for instance, if you choose not to vote out of lack of enthusiasm, you cede the field to people who are more enthusiastic about their candidate. This effect would help candidates with special-interest appeal (a smaller base of more enthusiastic voters) against candidates with more general (but weaker) appeal.
For example, if the reason you were considering not voting was bad weather on election day, and you managed to discard that reason as one you won't be moved by in a voting decision, this decision would be common to many people irrespective of their candidate. By deciding to vote anyway, you establish that people in similar situations do vote. This additionally places into question one vote as a lower estimate of influence of your decision, making it an outright useless figure.
9Scott Alexander13y
Right, I agree with that. But let's say I'm a Democrat. If I choose to go, maybe a thousand Democrats and a thousand Republicans all choose to go, for a net gain of zero. If I choose to stay home, a thousand Democrats and a thousand Republicans choose to stay home, for a net gain of zero. Either way, the net gain is zero. So why bother voting?
7Wei Dai13y
If it's common knowledge that every eligible voter is using UDT I think the outcome might be that everyone chooses a mixed strategy: vote with probability p (for some fairly small p like < 0.1) and stay home with probability 1-p. This way, the outcome of the election is almost certainly the same as if everyone votes, but its cost is much smaller. Caveats: I don't know how to derive this mathematically from the stated assumption, and I have little idea how to apply this type of reasoning to humans. Actually it still seems plausible to me that E(total number of votes | I vote) - E(total number of votes | I don't vote) is near 1 and therefore CDT-type ("deciding vote") reasoning is a good approximation for my actual situation.
Could you please tell me what "to establish" means in the last sentence? (Your comment made me spit out my tea. I know almost nothing about U/TDT.)
If my decision process uses UDT-type reasoning, do I have a chance of acausally influencing people who don't know about UDT-type reasoning?
#lesswrong * There's new grass planted in your apartment block's front yard. If everyone walks over it, it will die, but if just a couple of people walk over it, it'll be okay. Your way would be shorter if you walked over the grass. (Tragedy of the commons situation), * And you've read about funky decision theories on Less Wrong, and decide to avoid the grass because you've decided that you follow TDT. * Does this acausally make the other residents avoid the grass as well because they decide in approximately the same way when encountering the grass, or does it not because they haven't even heard of TDT? * What if all the residents were LW posters??
One thing I've long wondered: in cases like these is TDT equivalent to your mom saying 'and what if everyone walked on the grass?'
I think that's exactly what you would go around asking yourself if you were a TDT-using human in a community of TDT-using humans.
No, although it is often used in that sort of way.
This is actually a good question. Gary Drescher seems to think you can, but I think Eliezer is more skeptical.
Is this a topic in Good and Real?
Yes– it's in the account of ethics, near the end.
I'm saving the decision theory apparatus (which actually multiplies the expected payoff of both political and non-political altruistic expenditures) for a later post. I couldn't fit everything into the first one.
Then you should've made clear that "deciding vote" is actually a lower estimate, and shouldn't be interpreted as classical "deciding vote".
I added some clarifications.
-1Eliezer Yudkowsky13y
Ah, didn't see this earlier. I don't think it multiplies the expected payoff for both in the same way. Some Bostromian division-of-responsibility principle should apply in both cases. The apparent gains are from the probability of making an important shift via group action where individual action would be unlikely to go over a tipping point, not because you're multiplying by the number of people involved.
4Wei Dai13y
How does one go about computing E(total number of votes | I vote) - E(total number of votes | I don't vote)?
No idea, but "deciding vote" is not it.
But my vote doesn't even acausally affect others' votes: no one's thinking "I'll only vote if Will Newsome does", their algorithm is "I'll only vote if lots of other people do", and lots of other people will vote whether I do or not. Sure, if everyone had my decision theory it'd be a tragedy of the commons, but realistically the chance is still one in a million, or maybe very slightly better. Thus the notion of "deciding vote" is only a very little bit confused. Am I wrong?

Acausal influence stems from other processes similar to you. This can be a simulated version of you, on whose action the simulating agent's choices depend. Or it can just be someone else like you, who's likely to some degree to decide the same thing for some of the same reasons.

"Acausal influence" is superficially a contradiction, and this phrase deserves skeptical scrutiny. The only sort of "influence" I can think of, that might defensibly be described as acausal, is the "influence" of an object (actual or possible) which is being imagined or otherwise represented in a non-perceptual way (i.e. the representation was not being caused by sense impressions ultimately caused by the object itself). But even then there may be a "causal" interpretation of where the representation's properties came from - it's just that these would be "logical causes". A representation of the Death Star has some of its properties because otherwise it wouldn't be a representation of the Death Star; it would be a representation of something else, or not a representation at all. There seems to be a duality here. The physical properties of a physical symbol will have physical causes, while the semantic properties will have "logical" causes. I don't know how to think about these logical causes correctly - it doesn't seem right to say that they are caused by objects in other possible worlds, for example. But isn't the talk of acausal anything due simply to ignoring logical causes of properties at the semantic level?
I don't think it's worthwhile to fight the terminology: 'acausal' makes sense as opposed to 'causal' as in 'causal decision theory'. I think it's pretty sensible and defensible, even if 'timeless' might've been a better choice.
No, the more I think about it, the more I think there is a serious problem here. "Superrationality" is just a situation in which a certain bias - a certain deviation from actual rationality - is rewarded, when enough other people have the same bias. If a bunch of people all using a "superrational decision theory" manage to achieve the big collective payoff they sought by cooperating, it's only because of the contingent fact that they happened to have a majority. And under that circumstance, ordinary decision theory would tell you to go with the flow and choose with that majority as well! Superrationality is either an attempt to solve coordination problems through magical thinking, or it's a fancy name for visibly favoring altruism in the hope that others will too, or it's a preference for altruistic terminal values disguised as an appeal to rational self-interest.
Majority or whatever number of cooperating people happens to be sufficient to achieve whatever goal they are trying to achieve. Because of the advantages from cooperation the superational contingent will often not need to be larger than the remainder.
Not in a prisoner's dilemma.
Quoting from Wikipedia because I have no real expertise on decision theory: How exactly does superrationality differ from membership in the Club Of Always Colluding With Each Other?
It's only necessary for you and other people to make a decision for the same reasons. These reasons can be rather abstract and simple (except for the human universal component) and move many people in the same way.
I agree... tentatively. I haven't yet spent much time considering the idea of acausal influence in its most general form, but I'm not sure I see how it would apply here; you can have some pre-election influence by virtue of what sort of person you are (or seem to be), but when it's election day, it seems like you should be able to decide to vote or not vote without your decision retroactively implying too much about what other things you could have caused. I realize that sounds exactly like the argument for two-boxing, but I'm not convinced the causal structure is similar enough for the analogy to be valid. (I've previously had vaguely relevant thoughts about the expected payoff of one vote. I should expand on that at some point...)
If you acausally influence other people to vote, you'll also acausally influence them to spend time doing so. (And since they're like you, their time is as valuable as yours.) To a first approximation, the expected cost and benefit are proportional to the naïve (ignoring acausal influence) estimate. So the question of whether it's worth the effort should come out the same.
Other people's time is not as valuable as yours (to you).
Darn, you beat me to it! Given that your decision and others' decisions stem from a common cause, and you are highly correlated with them (compared to chance), then your decision is informative about their decisions. (You can think of it as deciding which world you "wake up" in.) I had elaborated before about how to apply this reasoning to PD-like problems: Also, if I go the opposite route, and use Schwitzgebel's model and decision theory, that's not a good argument to justify voting, for with a population of 100,000,000, you actually have far less than a 1e-8 chance of swinging the outcome, because the other votes are unlikely (under this causal model) to split exactly 50/50 other than your vote.

It also bears noting that humans are social creatures: even ignoring acausal considerations, you getting out to vote will increase the probability that people who know you will also get out to vote. E.g. researchers in one study visited two-person households and encouraged them to go out and vote. Afterwards, it was shown that the people the researchers talked to were 10 percent more likely to go out and vote (as compared to people in a control group who were encouraged to recycle, IIRC). But the other person in the household, who had not been spoken to, w... (read more)

But of course these outside view considerations don't matter if you know that, causally, no one's going to be affected by your decision to vote or not. And I haven't done a rigorous analysis but the acausal consequences seem rather minimal.
I'm not sure I follow you. Research indicates that your decision to vote does affect the decision of others (unless you're a complete hermit, I suppose). Note that I'm not talking about acausal effects here.
The research is great for calculations based on the outside view. It holds for people in general. But if I know that none of my friends care or could verify whether or not I voted, that screens off the outside view considerations. Take me, for instance. Unless I go post about it on Facebook, I'm not going to cause any of my friends to vote or not. I don't talk about such things. Maybe if my nature was sufficiently transparent they could infer my tendency to vote or not vote, but I'm not that transparent. So what causal process is stemming from my vote decision to theirs? In general, people yammer on about their voting decisions, but those trends don't apply to people like me. I wouldn't be surprised if my decision was correlated with the decisions of others, but I don't see causation, and so my action is only consequential via acausal means.
Right. So assuming you do care about the outcome of the vote, you should modify your behavior so that you do e.g. post about it on Facebook.
Or just post about it on Facebook without doing it, and thus get all but 1 vote of the benefit with almost none of the cost.

She estimates that she has a 1 in 1,000,000 chance of casting the deciding vote, for an expected value of $0.02 from improved policy.

But suppose she is a member of a cheese-lover's club with 10,000 members nationwide. If the club votes as a bloc, the chance that the bloc's votes are decisive is 1 in 100, and the expected gain per club member is $200, enough to motivate the effort and time of voting.

So how does the club handle the "free rider" problem? Well, one way would be to organize car pools to bring groups of 4 voters to the polls. Peo... (read more)

Doesn't your chance of swaying an election depend on how close it is? If your favored candidate is way ahead or way behind, then changing a few thousand votes doesn't matter. Whereas charity always has some marginal effect.

Also, influencing an election depends on the difference between the candidates. Which not only may be small, but may be difficult to predict, both due to reneging on campaign promises and to specialization - one candidate may do better in a recession, the other in a war. If you pick the wrong guy, your money has negative effect. All... (read more)

Politicians look at election results, and calibrate their political platforms accordingly. If they win by a lot, they keep doing what they were doing, and some are encouraged to become even more extreme.

See Voting Kills for more on this topic.

In a 'direct democracy' system where the general population vote directly to change and implement policies, then discussing about the behavior of these individual voters would be sensible.

But in a 'representative democracy', like the United States, the people don't vote directly for policies. They vote for representatives in Congress to 'represent' their interests. It is these representatives that actually vote to change and implement policies. The chance of these represenatives casting the deciding vote is 1/535 (1/100 in Senate, 1/435 in the HoR), and th... (read more)

The key question, however, is:

What is the relationship between purchased votes and policy outcomes?

It seems to me that the entire running theme of this post greatly underestimates the uncertainty of any feasible answer to this question, and that it also greatly overplays the strength of this relationship. In modern Western political systems, the effective role of elected politicians is far smaller and subject to much stronger and more complicated constraints than people who care about day-to-day politics commonly imagine.

Another source of great uncer... (read more)

The post mentioned these elements, and explicitly focused on the cost of influencing votes. Otherwise, it would have bloated to a mega-post of many thousands of words, rather than a series of manageable chunks. The 'value of information' discussion at the bottom is illustrative, highlighting the use of analyzing the other components (an analysis forthcoming in the follow-on posts)
I understand that. However, in my opinion, before delving into the technical details of the economics of influencing voters (which you have indeed researched and discussed skilfully), it would be desirable to present at least a rough outline of a general argument showing that the whole approach is feasible in the first place. The problems I pointed out in my comment, in my view, make its feasibility uncertain at best.
All right. My summary: adding further measures to improve the effectiveness of one's political spending (voting in primaries, publicly conditioning one's spending on desired behavior through political action organizations, etc), using realistic data-driven probability estimates for the probability of swinging elections, data on legislative behavior, and information on foreign aid effectiveness/corruption raises the expected effectiveness of political action above the direct effects of GWWC and GiveWell's recommended charities, according to their own criteria (usually DALYs for existing people) using standard decision theory. However, the indirect effects of giving to the recommended charities publicly as part of the GWWC or GiveWell efforts, e.g. strengthening a culture of efficient philanthropy and inducing others to follow one's example, complicate the issue. I will then use the example to make various points about decision theory, sorting out our values, and the efficiency of charitable markets.
In fairness to Carl, he said that he'll be addressing the question of what the relationship between purchased votes and policy outcomes in a future post. What evidence do you have to support this claim? Agreed, but despite the uncertainty, the magnitude of the potential impact may be sufficient to justify focus on policy outcomes. See Nick Beckstead's comment #15 at the Singularity Summit posting on the GiveWell blog.


What evidence do you have to support this claim?

To answer your question fully, I would have to expound my entire theory of the modern state, which would unfortunately require much more time and space than can be dedicated to a blog comment. So what I write will be very cursory, simplified, and incomplete.

The basic insight is that elected politicians are transitory and in constant danger of having their careers destroyed by bad PR, while the bureaucrats are entrenched like the rock of Gibraltar, constantly running circles around politicians and preventing them from doing anything that deviates significantly from the direction in which things are carried by the bureaucratic inertia. Politicians lack any means to dislodge the bureaucrats, who can in turn make their life miserable in many different ways. In case there's a direct conflict, the politician loses without exception. The only sensible strategy, which successful politicians inevitably follow, is to simply give up any thought of such conflict.

Of course, the bureaucrats won't mind if politicians do things that create more bureaucracy, but even in that case, the actual consequences of such measures are pri... (read more)

If you ever do write this up, I'd be very interested to read it. Incidentally, your theory sounds quite similar to Yes Minister, incidentally also the source of one of my favourite quotes about politics:
mattnewport: Oh, yes! In full seriousness, while the plot and dialogue in that series are exaggerated for comic effect, it depicts the structure of modern governments with more essential accuracy than probably any academic work of political science. There's a good reason for it. The series was vaguely based on the published diaries of Richard Crossman, who might be the only modern-age politician who published an unadorned day-to-day diary of his work instead of a customary auto-hagiography of the sort we usually get from politicians. Here's the opening passage of his diaries (with the source of the legendary "Yes, Minister" title highlighted by me):
Wow, so it is accurate for the same reason as the The Wire (based on a study of reality), that's awesome.
How independent is your theory from that of Mencius Moldbug? My impression is that the theory could be said to be more correct if it was clear what variables are treated as dependent and as independent, or as agentic and detemined. As is, the theory is underdetermined.
MichaelVassar: I've read lots of stuff written by Moldbug, and his ideas have influenced me somewhat, though the exact scope of this influence is hard for me to disentangle. On the other hand, the basic point from the above comment, i.e. that electoral politics is largely irrelevant compared to the entrenched bureaucracy and various nominally non-state entities on its periphery, was my opinion long before I first heard of him. Then again, by that point I had been independently exposed to, and influenced by, a lot of the literature that he draws on. In any case, I've never observed anything that would contradict significantly even the rough picture I paint in my above comment.
It looks to me like the Carter and Reagan administrations in the US and the Thatcher administration in the UK really did greatly cut back the bureaucracy fairly successfully. Also, like the bureaucrats don't decide what wars get fought, etc.


It looks to me like the Carter and Reagan administrations in the US and the Thatcher administration in the UK really did greatly cut back the bureaucracy fairly successfully.

Carter's (of all people!) deregulation of airlines and the subsequent phase-out of the CAB was indeed a rare example of politicians effectively shutting down an entire bureaucratic agency. The rest of Carter's record is very different, though; for one, his administration created the federal departments of education and energy. (And frankly, I'd be surprised if any major CAB bureaucrats actually got laid off rather than transferred to equally cushy positions.)

Regarding Reagan, I disagree. His ascent was indeed seen back then -- with hope or horror, depending on whom you asked -- as a reactionary tsunami that would sweep away huge parts of the federal bureaucracy, and he openly campaigned on this sentiment. Yet, in practice, he achieved almost nothing. This tremendous populist momentum crashed against the Washington bureaucracy while barely making a dent in it. Reagan didn't even manage to eliminate the fledgling education and energy departments that Carter had just created, which he promised ... (read more)

This is my worldview as well.
A couple of other constraints: There is also the constraints from international agreements (ACTA etc). And just trying to manage to cope in the world economy, you can't make your country less friendly to big businesses than the states similar to you, otherwise they will choose to move their research facilities/factories to the other places.

Thanks for writing this, Carl. I'm going to post a link in the GWWC forum.

Here are some papers you should add to your bibliography, if you haven't already:

What is the Probability Your Vote Will Make a Difference? Voting as a Rational Choice

In the first paper, his probability estimate is 1 in 60 million on average for a voter in a US presidential election, 1 in 10 million in the best cases (New Mexico, Virginia, New Hampshire, and Colorado).

If you focused on the best case, that could mean an order of magnitude for you.

Thanks utilitymonster. As it happens, they're already in the draft for the next post following this one.

Another old post well worth mentioning is Stop Voting for Nincompoops.

Politicians might have been tricked by an initial baseless belief in the efficacy of campaign spending, with the most popular candidates also raising the most money and creating a spurious self-fulfilling correlation. However, selection over time would be expected to wear away at such mistaken beliefs.

Not if incumbency advantage exerts such a powerful effect that selection on this trait has relatively little influence. Honestly, I do think that money helps politicians get elected, but it seems worth pointing out that there are structural reasons to sus... (read more)

I take it that you're using the standard wrong classical causal decision theory (in which no one is responsible for the election outcome unless one side wins by a single vote, in which case millions of voters are all solely responsible for the entire election outcome) out of either misguided humility about the probability of an SIAI-originating decision theory being correct, or because you're planning to publish this paper elsewhere and you don't want to invoke Hofstadterian superrationality in place of the standard wrong decision theory?

I don't think this should be downvoted (was at -2 when I wrote this). I generally downvote only those things that are either trolling or that will have the same effect because the discussion will spiral in horribly non-truthy directions. This comment seems to me like it is a legitimate question, with a legitimate answer, that may lead to productive plans for the future.

The question is legitimate because UDT/TDT/etc are concepts that are basically novel to LW but that we would hope could be developed to the point of practical utility if LW is going to be shine in some way other than being a popularizing mechanism for academic research.

The answer follows from the same thinking that explains why the question is legitimate.

With classical decision theory you're basically just trying to figure out the costs and benefits of multiple options with some uncertainty mixed in. Then you pick the one that adds up to "the best thing". The formal math basically exhorts you to simply perform numerical multi-pronged due diligence which most people don't do for most things but that "decision theory" can encourage them to do in a structured way. It gives them a research keyw... (read more)

That was a beautiful, useful, and tactful exposition of the basic reasons I refrained from reversing the downvotes. Along with not voting, I didn't say "it sounds a bit unfair and self-aggrandizing to expect Carl to use a decision theory you've invented, but have not actually explicitly described;" because that's minimally useful, except in contrast to your essay.
Ah, I think I see. You subscribe to an author oriented theory of moderation with strong emphasis on moral reward/punishment... and you don't have a lot of charity here... I generally just try to promote interesting content. I downvote into negative territory only when I expect content to be a net negative in terms of epistemic hygiene as when people go into conflict mode and stop sympathizing with their conversational partners. Trolling, spamming, and sometimes even just content "above out sanity waterline" deserve negative votes in my book. This seems like none of those things. Honest mistakes growing out of inferential distance (IE assuming that because Eliezer understands his own theory and wrote about it in public that now everyone can deploy it), that are related to deeply worthwhile content given the big picture (IE that TDT is an early draft for an optimization algorithm that might be able to recursively and safely self improve around morally fraught issues in a self-correcting way) seems like the kind of thing that need more attention rather than less. So I vote up in order to increase the attention it receives instead of down to express moral displeasure. Every so often I see something that seems to have been downvoted where I can plausibly imagine that the content was interesting, but there seem to be inferential distance problems between the voters and the commenter and I see if I can bridge the distance. Seeing as the comment is down to -3 now, I seem to be failing in this case. But maybe this will bring it up? :-)
You may have been more successful if you avoided telling people how they should vote, particularly with wording implying prohibition. Stating your own decision, reasoning and preference without presumption in general makes me more inclined to accommodate. I may have voted up the comment in question if Eliezer had included even a single sentence description on what difference using TDT instead of Lame DT would have made to the question of 'politics as charity'. That would have been a real contribution to the thread. As is it is more of a 'complete the pattern' then rant response that does not indicate that Eliezer even considered what TDT would mean in the context. (It would change the example in the introduction and change the framing in some of the remainder. Politics would still be charity, even though what that means is changed somewhat.)
I downvoted because in any piece of public writing "I am right" should never be offered as a postulate, and my opinion of those who do so is best left unsaid.
The big problem is that many ordinary people already outperform the standard wrong classical causal decision theory. They get the vote out, they get their man into power, they get the preferences, restraints, and rents they are seeking and they laugh all the way to the bank. There is a saying that a paradox is to a logician as the smell of burning insulation is to the electrical engineer. Many paradoxes are not really that serious, but the voting paradox strikes me analogous to seeing flames.
Elections have losers as well as winners. Do you think people who vote for losers have a different decision theory to the people who vote for winners? I remember a scene from a novel by Gene Wolfe in which a bunch of tribesmen find themselves on a battlefield against a foe armed with energy weapons. The tribesmen all engage in superstitious ritual meant to provide personal protection. Some of them get blown to bits and some don't. The ones who survive are going to end up thinking that their ritual works. By focusing only on the victors in the ritual of democracy, when you judge the rationality of the slackers who don't vote at all, you are creating a similar illusion. Supporters of the loser do everything that supporters of the winner do. They go house to house, they hold rallies, they donate money, they send letters to the editor. They make that big investment of time, hope, and energy, because they believe in democracy, and they still don't get any of what they want.
Your rhetorical question contains a noun-phrase "people who vote for losers". This seems to refer to the faction that misses out on the spoils of the electoral system because too many members of the faction subscribe to the theory the voting doesn't matter, resulting in the faction losing because they couldn't get their vote out. So the words "people who vote" are being used to refer to people who don't vote. This reminds me that I ought to stop reading LessWrong and get back to work on OuterCircle
I'm astonished that this comment has been voted down. The comment speaks bluntly, saying that standard classical causal decision theory is "wrong". Is the problem with standard classical causal decision theory really that bad? Yes! Consider an election in which the members of faction A have accept decision theory and each individual in A takes a cold-blooded decision that it is not worth his while to vote. Meanwhile faction B is made up of ordinary dumb schmucks. They believe that they have a moral duty to vote, except that half of them conveniently forget. Of those that remember, half get distracted by something good on TV. That still leaves a hard core, only half of whom are put off by the rain. The outcome of the election is that faction B wins with a turnout of one eighth of its members versus faction A which failed to get the vote out at all. Now comes the "tricky" bit; sticking labels on the factions. Which do we label "rational" and which do we label "irrational". If rationalists win, we had better stick the label "rational" on B and "irrational" on A. "There is a lot of rocking and rolling up here, this is not a telemetry problem." So far I just stated the paradox of voting, but there is a problem for Less Wrong and not just for voting. Ordinary people know fine well that you have to get off your arse and go and vote. If we on Less Wrong will not admit that there is a problem and simply repeat "voting is irrational" ordinary people will correctly conclude that we have disappeared up into our ivory tower where we can believe in stupid theories that don't work in the real world.
There's no need to invoke any kind of fancy "superrationality." There's just a conflict between individual rationality and group rationality. As a leader or activist, it's in my interest to believe and say things like "Yay voting!" because that helps me lead mobs of people and achieve the election results I prefer. As an individual private citizen, it's in my interest to stay home and donate to charity, because my vote has much less than a 1/100,000,000 chance of swinging an election: history shows that national voting preferences are drawn from a curve that is much more like a normal distribution than a uniform distribution, and the peak of the normal curve in any given election is going to be off by 1-5% of registered voters based on economic data, approval ratings, etc. In other words, a standard analytical rationalist should be able to predict that less than 1/100,000,000th of the curve of possible election turnouts fit under the exact 50-50 tie that you would need for your vote to matter in any straightforward instrumental sense. If you would take 5:4 odds in favor of either candidate, you shouldn't be betting that the race will end in a tie even at odds of 100,000,000 to 1, and if you can't figure out who to take 5:4 odds for by Election Day, then you haven't read Green & Gerber's paper. More importantly, even if there were a statistical tie, it would be settled by recounts, fraud, and the appeals process. See, e.g., 2000, 1960, and 1876. Elections that are within a few thousand votes come down to a contest of political will, sly manipulation, and spin waged among professional political operatives and election monitors/officials. If you really want to invest a few hours of your time to swing an election, you shouldn't bother voting: you should volunteer to monitor a polling station. I have no idea how to even begin analyzing standard vs. Hofstaderian decision theory, but it doesn't matter for the example of national elections. A truly rational electoral ac
I think this is close to the mark, but not exactly correct: a truly rational electoral activist would not vote, find a way to convincingly lie and claim that she voted, use the extra 2 hours* however she likes, and whenever the subject of voting came up in regular everyday conversation she'd urge others to get informed and vote (or just refrain from discouraging them, if she's uncomfortable/unskilled with hypocrisy). * Two hours for voting? Whoa. Do you live in a crowded city, or very far away from the nearest station?
[grin] I live(d) in Broward County, Florida. You may have heard of its stellar reputation for effective polling.
I agree that there is a conflict between individual rationality and group rationality, but what is the word "just" doing in there? Individuals belong to groups and the group's loses are shared out among the group's members. This imposes a consistency constraint on the relationship between individual rationality and group rationality. I wonder if there is a connection to the cost allocation problem in management accounting. In the electoral case, if faction A win by a good margin and each member is $1000 better off because of the policies their man enacts, should they allocate $500 dollars profit to each of the two hours they spent voting and think themselves handsomely rewarded for their efforts, or should they look at the good margin and say "Two hours wasted, I could have stayed home and we would still have won." In the business case there is a fixed cost A for a machine and a marginal cost B per unit of production. So the cost model is A+Bv. Obviously the business wants the sales force to go out there and sell and get price P and volume V so that A+BV < PV. One ends up with a conflict between individual sales, for which any price above B is better than no sale, and over all sales, which need a margin to cover the fixed costs, the margin being uncertain as the total sales are uncertain. I have just ordered Relevance Lost because I suspect there is a lot of history here, with people going round in circles trying to solve this problem. (Since I've ordered a second copy for £1 + £2.75 postage I'm not risking much money on this suspicion :-)
Right, but the conflict is for the manager alone to solve; the manager's challenge is to create incentives that will encourage salespeople to further the company's goals. The salespeople face no such challenge; their goal is (or should be) to do their job well with a minimum of time and effort. With respect: no, it doesn't. Everyone might wish that individual and group rationality would dovetail, but wishing doesn't make it so. The whole of political economics -- the study of governments, cartels, unions, mafias, and interest groups -- is an attempt to cope with the lack of consistency constraints. Governments exist not just because people are irrational, but also because rational people often choose to behave in their narrow self-interest. It is an interesting question whether defecting on the Prisoner's Dilemma is truly rational when one is writing code for an AI. It is not an interesting question when dealing with flesh-and-blood humans: in a true Prisoner's Dilemma, you defect, period. Thus, it should be our goal as designers of human social institutions to minimize and contain true Prisoner's Dilemmas.
But real flesh-and-blood humans are never in a true PD situation. They are in something more like an iterated PD - it is never a one-shot. If I choose not to vote, my neighbor knows - she works as a clerk at the polling place. If I belong to a union, my shop steward will know whether I have voted, because my union has poll-watchers.
Of course; that's right. Sometimes the fear of detection or the hope of establishing long-term cooperation will get you out of what otherwise appears to be a PD. Other times, it won't -- if you see an abandoned laptop at a scenic view pull-over on a recreational road trip, you're pretty much dealing with a one-shot PD. If you return the laptop, it's because you empathize with the owner or believe in karma, and not because you're afraid that the laptop owner won't return your laptop the next time around. Still, it's important not to believe that individual and collective rationality magically match up -- that belief can lead to all kinds of honest but horribly tragic mistakes, like thinking that peasants will exert significant effort at farming when placed in a Trotsky-style commune.
I would upvote you thrice if I could. An overwhelming number of time-tested social dynamics, to say nothing of deliberately designed laws, can be seen to have arisen as anti-PD measures.
No. At least, not with the period. It depends who you are in the prison with and your respective abilities for prediction. (True PD does not imply participants are human.) I agree on this as well as your general point.
I would guess that the downvotes were due to the ascription of "misguided humility", not calling CDT wrong.
And this argument has what to do with my personal decision to vote? My choice does not determine the choices of others who believe like me, unless I'm a lot more popular than I think I am. After saying voting is irrational, the next step for someone who truly cares about political change is to go figure out what the maximal political change they can get for their limited resources is - what's the most efficient way to translate time or dollars into change. I believe that various strategies have different returns that vary by many orders of magnitude. So ordinary people doing the stupid obvious thing (voting, collecting signatures, etc.) might easily have 1/1000th the impact per unit time of someone who just works an extra 5 hours a week and donates the money it to a carefully chose advocacy organization. If these rationals are > 0.1% of the population, they have greater impact. And convincing someone to become one of these anti-voting rationals ups their personal impact by 1000 as much as convincing someone to vote.
There's an organization (sorry no cite, but maybe this story will dredge up the info from other people) which teaches people how to be politically effective. There was a woman who wanted to get a local issue taken care of, but she couldn't get any traction. She went to the organization, and they found a mayor(?) who was running uncontested, and told her how to run against him. If she'd actually run, he'd have needed to do a lot more campaigning, even though he certainly would have won. So he went to her and said, "What do you want?". Her issue was taken care of, and she has continued to be politically active.
This topic seems to come up all the time on LW. Surely it's clear that any heuristic is bound to certain circumstances? If I make up the rule that I only give you the money you want if you are a devoted irrationalist then ¬irrational. I don't see any paradox here?

Bush did not kill 10 billion current people (at $1,000 per life) and he massively increased health-oriented foreign aid to Africa

Bush wasn't a candidate in the 2008 presidential election, so it itself it's irrelevant what he did or didn't do. (Of course, you could make the meta argument that a Republican president is likely to behave similarly to another Republican president).

I was offering that as evidence that clean partisan lines don't capture all the key variation, and to note that "$10 trillion" in losses suffered mostly by the global rich would likely be much less important (from a GWWC perspective) than a small fraction of that money that would otherwise be used in more efficiently humanitarian ways. And to blunt any signalling from the quote enough to ensure a broad audience could read the post without getting into arguments as soldiers mode.

Jane estimates the probability of her vote tilting the presidential election at 1 in 1,000,000; Eric estimates the probability of his vote tilting the presidential election at 1 in 100,000,000. I find both of these estimates orders of magnitude too low.

Eric presumably is modeling the election by saying that with 100,000,000 voters (besides himself), there are 100,000,001 outcomes of their votes, only one of which is a tie which his vote will break. But his conclusion that the odds of deciding the election are about 1 in 100,000,000 assumes that all of thes... (read more)

What is the probability your vote will make a difference? seems to be the state-of-the-art in the "deciding vote" type of reasoning. It concludes "On average, a voter in America had a 1 in 60 million chance of being decisive in the presidential election."

I'd need to read it again, with pen and paper, to gain an understanding of why the Student-t distribution is the right thing to compute. At the very least I can say this: the probability of one's vote tilting the election is certainly higher in very close elections (as measured beforehand by polls, say) than in an election such as Obama-McCain 2008. The article you quoted suggests the difference in probabilities is much higher than I anticipated. (Unless my calculation, which models the closest possible election, is incorrect.) Edited to add: Okay, I've incorporated the probability p that the coin lands heads into the calculation. Even when p=50.05% instead of 50% (closer than any presidential election since Garfield/Hancock), the chance of one vote tilting the election drops by over four orders of magnitude. So for practical purposes, my initial calculation is irrelevant. - At least this was a good lesson in bias: this argument was easy to find, once Wei's comment got me to consider the alternative in the first place.

Interesting post, but I remain skeptical of electoral politics as charity because I am skeptical that even an extremely strong rationalist can identify the best candidate.

But here is an experiment that would reduce my skepticism.

Find a pair of experimental subjects I would consider strong rationalists who have both informed themselves about some election past or present. Since it would be convenient for our pool of potential subjects to contain people who want the experiment to succeed or want it to fail, ask the subjects to swear that they have never com... (read more)


Doesn't it seem that politics and charity are not always substitutes?

If you want, say, money to go to disease eradication in Africa, voting in the US doesn't help much for that, but donating to private charity does.

The question becomes interesting when the same aim could be served either by voting or by charity, and we want to estimate which is more effective. There are two main examples I can think of: social services to the poor in one's own country (which can be provided either by government or by private charity), and changing laws (which can be a... (read more)

Maybe not, see Carl's comments here and here. This may very well be true and some of my friends have a similar intuition. I'm interested in learning more about this matter.
I forgot about foreign aid; you're right, that does seem significant.
That's just the calculation here, and they are directly comparable. U.S. aid agencies also dispense the same interventions that the charities GiveWell and GWWC endorses do. If one can increase aid spending on those (as opposed to 'aid' for political purposes in Afghanistan, or to subsidize U.S. farmers) sufficiently to make up for increased government overhead/leakage they're very directly comparable. U.S. Congress members and presidential candidates vary quite a lot in their stances on foreign aid, and helping those keener on effective aid in tight races can be compared reasonably directly against StopTB Partnership or the like.

If the cost of voting is $50 to $500, that is very efficient for most people. However if the value of voting is maybe an order of magnitude less (a number I chose because it "felt right" and without heavy analysis) the value of voting is potentially around $5.

So that means, voting is worthwhile if it will be fast, if it will have signalling benefits, or if you make less than $10/hour or so.

On the other hand, if there is a campaign with a huge amount of value between candidates, the value of a vote could skyrocket to $500 and make it worthwhile for everyone to vote, even if it takes over an hour.

Do people agree with this (admittedly hasty) analysis?

That's the cost of eliciting a vote in the above electoral context through cash campaign contributions, not the cost of voting yourself (opportunity cost of time).
Yeah when I wrote the first draft I was a little confused, and the "efficient" comment is left over from that. I guess the range of value for votes was never determined but my underlying point was that it seems to be in a range where it is likely to barely not be worthwhile much of the time, but may jump in elections with huge candidate value differences to being extremely worthwhile for anyone at all.
Right. A neat feature of cash spending is that you can save it up (with some complications from contribution limits) for close or important elections, and send it to jurisdictions more important than your own.
Sure. I don't really mean to be saying anything meaningful about politics as charity except that the actual expected value of voting should be decided as a corollary, and at this stage we have at least some idea of order of magnitude and it seems to be in the confusing range of sometimes worthwhile sometimes not.