If you are American, SSC endorses voting in this presidential election.
Andrew Gelman, Nate Silver, and Aaron Edlin calculate the chance that a single vote will determine the election (ie break a tie in a state that breaks an Electoral College tie). It ranges from about one in ten million (if you live in a swing state) to one in a billion (if you live in a very safe state). The average American has a one in sixty million chance of determining the election results. The paper was from the 2008 election, which was a pro-Obama landslide; since this election is closer the chance of determining it may be even higher.
The size of the US budget is about $4 trillion, but Presidents can only affect a tiny bit of that – most of the money funds the same programs no matter who’s in charge. But Presidents do shift budgetary priorities a lot. GW Bush started a war in Iraq which probably cost $2 trillion; the CBO estimates Obamacare may cost about $1.2 trillion. Neither of these are pure costs – Obamacare buys us more health care, and military presence in Iraq buys us [mumble] – but if you think these are less (or more) efficient ways to spend money than other possible uses, then they represent ways that having one President might be better than another. If we suppose a good president would use these trillions of dollars at least 33% more efficiently than a bad president, then this is still $300 billion in value.
So order of magnitude, having a good President rather than a bad one can be worth $300 billion. A 1/60 million chance to create $300 billion in value is worth $5,000; even the 1/1 billion chance afforded someone in a safe state is worth $300.
We don’t know for sure that we’re right about politics. In order to add signal rather than noise to the election results, we have to be better than the average voter. The Inside View is useless here; probably every voter thinks they’re better than average. I recommend the Outside View – looking for measurable indicators correlated with ability to make good choices. Education’s probably a good one. IQ might be another. But overall, my suggestion is that if you’re seriously uncertain about whether or not you think more clearly than the average voter, by that fact alone you almost certainly do.
Suppose you live in a swing state. If you think (in a well-calibrated way) that it’s 10% more likely that your candidate will use $1 trillion well than that the other candidate will, your vote is worth $500. If you live in a safe state, it’s more like $30. If you value the amount of time it takes to vote at less than that, voting is conceivably a good use of your time.
SSC endorses voting for Hillary Clinton if you live in a swing state. If you live in a safe state, I endorse voting for Clinton, Johnson, or (if you insist) Stein. If you want, you can use a vote-swapping site to make this easier or more impactful.
You might notice who’s missing from this endorsement. I think Donald Trump would be a bad president.
Partly this is because of his policies, insofar as he has them. I’m not going to talk much about these because I don’t think I can change anyone’s mind here – either you agree with me (and disagree with Trump) on things like abortion, global warming, free trade, et cetera, or you don’t. A two sentence argument in a blog post won’t change your mind either way.
In fact, I’m not sure any of this ever changes anyone’s mind, and I didn’t really want to write this post. But the latest news says:
This is going to be close. And since the lesson of Brexit is that polls underestimate support for politically incorrect choices, this is going to be really close.
And I don’t know if I’d go so far as Scott Aaronson, who worries that he will one day live in a nuclear hellscape where his children ask him “Daddy, why didn’t you blog about Trump?”. But if some of my blogging on conservative issues has given me any political capital with potential Trump voters, then I this is where I want to spend it.
So here are some reasons why I would be afraid to have Trump as president even if I agreed with him about the issues.
Many conservatives make the argument against utopianism. The millenarian longing for a world where all systems are destroyed, all problems are solved, and everything is permissible – that’s dangerous whether it comes from Puritans or Communists. These same conservatives have traced this longing through leftist history from Lenin through social justice.
Which of the candidates in this election are millennarian? If Sanders were still in, I’d say fine, he qualifies. If Stein were in, same, no contest. But Hillary? The left and right both critique Hillary the same way. She’s too in bed with the system. Corporations love her. Politicians love her. All she wants to do is make little tweaks – a better tax policy here, a new foreign policy doctrine there. The critiques are right. Hillary represents complete safety from millennialism.
Trump’s policy ideas are mostly silly, but no one cares, because he’s not really running on policy. He’s running on making America great again, fighting the special interests, and defying the mainstream media. Nobody cares what policies he’ll implement after he does this, because his campaign is more an expression of rage at these things than anything else.
In my review of Singer on Marx, I wrote that:
I’d always heard that Marx was long on condemnations of capitalism and short on blueprints for communism, and the couple of Marx’s works I read in college confirmed he really didn’t talk about that very much. It seemed like a pretty big gap. I figured…he’d probably made a few vague plans, like “Oh, decisions will be made by a committee of workers,” and “Property will be held in common and consensus democracy will choose who gets what,” and felt like the rest was just details. That’s the sort of error I could at least sympathize with, despite its horrendous consequences.
But in fact Marx was philosophically opposed, as a matter of principle, to any planning about the structure of communist governments or economies. He would come out and say “It is irresponsible to talk about how communist governments and economies will work.” He believed it was a scientific law, analogous to the laws of physics, that once capitalism was removed, a perfect communist government would form of its own accord. There might be some very light planning, a couple of discussions, but these would just be epiphenomena of the governing historical laws working themselves out. Just as, a dam having been removed, a river will eventually reach the sea somehow, so capitalism having been removed society will eventually reach a perfect state of freedom and cooperation.
Singer blames Hegel. Hegel viewed all human history as the World-Spirit trying to recognize and incarnate itself. As it overcomes its various confusions and false dichotomies, it advances into forms that more completely incarnate the World-Spirit and then moves onto the next problem. Finally, it ends with the World-Spirit completely incarnated – possibly in the form of early 19th century Prussia – and everything is great forever.
Marx famously exports Hegel’s mysticism into a materialistic version where the World-Spirit operates upon class relations rather than the interconnectedness of all things, and where you don’t come out and call it the World-Spirit – but he basically keeps the system intact. So once the World-Spirit resolves the dichotomy between Capitalist and Proletariat, then it can more completely incarnate itself and move on to the next problem. Except that this is the final problem (the proof of this is trivial and is left as exercise for the reader) so the World-Spirit becomes fully incarnate and everything is great forever. And you want to plan for how that should happen? Are you saying you know better than the World-Spirit, Comrade?
I am starting to think I was previously a little too charitable toward Marx. My objections were of the sort “You didn’t really consider the idea of welfare capitalism with a social safety net” or “communist society is very difficult to implement in principle,” whereas they should have looked more like “You are basically just telling us to destroy all of the institutions that sustain human civilization and trust that what is baaaasically a giant planet-sized ghost will make sure everything works out.”
And since then, one of the central principles behind my philosophy has been “Don’t destroy all existing systems and hope a planet-sized ghost makes everything work out”. Systems are hard. Institutions are hard. If your goal is to replace the current systems with better ones, then destroying the current system is 1% of the work, and building the better ones is 99% of it. Throughout history, dozens of movements have doomed entire civilizations by focusing on the “destroying the current system” step and expecting the “build a better one” step to happen on its own. That never works. The best parts of conservativism are the ones that guard this insight and shout it at a world too prone to taking shortcuts.
Donald Trump does not represent those best parts of conservativism. To transform his movement into Marxism, just replace “the bourgeoisie” with “the coastal elites” and “false consciousness” with “PC speech”. Just replace the assumption that everything will work itself out once power is in the hands of the workers, with the assumption that everything will work itself out once power is in the hands of “real Americans”. Just replace the hand-waving lack of plans with what to do after the Revolution with a hand-waving lack of plans what to do after the election. In both cases, the sheer virtue of the movement, and the apocalyptic purification of the rich people keeping everyone else down, is supposed to mean everything will just turn out okay on its own. That never works.
A commenter on here the other day quoted an Atlantic article complaining that “The press takes [Trump] literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally”. Well, count me in that second group. I don’t think he’s literal. I think when he talks about building a wall and keeping out Muslims, he’s metaphorically saying “I’m going to fight for you, the real Americans”. When he talks about tariffs and trade deals, he’s metaphorically saying “I’m going to fight for you, the real Americans”. Fine. But neither of those two things are a plan. The problem with getting every American a job isn’t that nobody has been fighting for them, the problem with getting every American a job is that getting 100% employment in a modern economy is a really hard problem.
Donald Trump not only has no solution to that problem, he doesn’t even understand the question. He lives in a world where there is no such thing as intelligence, only loyalty. If we haven’t solved all of our problems yet, it’s because the Department of Problem-Solving was insufficiently loyal, and didn’t try hard enough. His only promise is to fill that department with loyal people who really want the problem solved.
I’ve never been fully comfortable with the Left because I feel like they often make the same error – the only reason there’s still poverty is because the corporate-run government is full of traitors who refuse to make the completely great, no-downsides policy of raising the minimum wage. One of the right’s great redeeming feature has been an awareness of these kinds of tradeoffs. But this election, it’s Hillary who sounds restrained and realistic, and Trump who wants the moon on a silver platter (“It will be the best moon you’ve ever seen. And the silver platter is going to be yuuuuuge!”)
But I guess you’ve got to balance someone’s ability to pursue goals effectively with whether you like the goals they’ll be pursuing. I can imagine someone admitting that Clinton will probably be better at governing than Trump, but preferring Trump’s position on the issues so much that it still gives him an edge. In that case, I beg you to consider not only the mean but the variance.
I think even people who expect Trump to be a better President on average will admit he’s a high-variance choice. Hillary is an overwhelmingly known quantity at this point. A Hillary presidency will probably be a lot like Obama’s presidency. There might be a Libya-style military action; probably not an Iraq-style one. If something terrible happens like China tries to invade Taiwan, she will probably make some sort of vaguely reasonable decision after consulting her advisors. She might do a bad job, but it’s hard to imagine a course where a Hillary presidency leads directly to the apocalypse, the fall of American democracy, et cetera.
Trump isn’t a known quantity. Maybe he’ll kind of dodder around and be kind of funny while not changing much. Or maybe there will be some crisis and Trump will take what could have been a quickly-defused diplomatic incident and turn it into World War III. Remember also that it’s more likely the House and Senate both stay Republican than that they both switch to being Democrat. So if Hillary is elected, she’ll probably spend four years smashing her head against Congress; if Trump is elected, he will probably get a lot of what he wants.
Some people like high variance. I don’t. The world has seen history’s greatest alleviation of poverty over the past few decades, and this shows every sign of continuing as long as we don’t do something incredibly stupid that blows up the current world order. I’m less sanguine about the state of America in particular but I think that its generally First World problems probably can’t be solved by politics. They will probably require either genetic engineering or artificial intelligence; the job of our generation is keep the world functional enough to do the research that will create those technologies, and to alleviate as much suffering as we can in the meantime. I don’t see a Clinton presidency as making the world non-functional, whatever that means. I don’t know what I see a Trump presidency doing because, Trump is inherently unpredictable, but some major blow to world functionality is definitely on the list of possibilities.
The one place where Clinton is higher-variance than Trump is immigration. Clinton does not explicitly support open borders, but given her election on a pro-immigration platform and the massive anti-Trump immigration backlash that seems to be materializing, it’s easy to see her moving in that direction. If you believe that immigrants can import the less-effective institutions of their home countries, lower the intelligence of the national hive mind, or cause ethnic fractionalization that replaces sustainable democratic politics with ethnic coalition-building (unlike the totally-not-ethnic-coalition-based politics of today, apparently?), that could potentially make the world less functional and prevent useful technologies from being deployed.
I consider this one of the strongest pro-Trump arguments, but I think it exaggerates the scale of the problem. Hillary will have a Republican Congress to contend with; she probably won’t be able to increase immigration very much. Immigration rates are currently too low to cause massive demographic change before the point at which useful technologies can be deployed, and most immigrants are Asian and come from countries with pretty good institutions themselves. More important, Trump’s anti-immigration policies would prevent foreign researchers from attending top American universities, and probably slow the deployment of future technologies directly, far more than any indirect effect from Hillary would.
There’s another argument here – how exactly are we visualizing a world where immigrants damage American institutions? I envision it as America becoming more like Third World countries – constant ethnic tension, government by strongmen, rampant corruption, lack of respect for checks and balances, and overregulation of industry. But Trump is promising us all of that already, without even admitting any immigrants! If we’re going to become a Third World country, let’s at least help some people while we’re doing it!
US conservatism is in crisis, and I think that crisis might end better if Trump loses than if he wins.
Since a country with thriving conservative and liberal parties is lower-variance than one with lots of liberals but no effective conservatism, I would like conservatism to get out of crisis as soon as possible and reach the point where it could form an effective opposition. It would also be neat if whatever form conservatism ended out taking had some slight contact with reality and what would help the country (this is not meant as a dig at conservatives – I’m not sure the Democrats have much contact with reality or helps the country either; I’m wishing for the moon and stars here).
Nobody expects Republicans to win blacks and Hispanics. The interesting thing about this election is that college-educated whites are also moving into the Democratic column. If the latest polls are to be believed, the demographic – which favored Romney by 14 points last election – favors Clinton by 8 points now. The nightmare scenario is that Trump wins, his style of anti-intellectual populism is cemented as Official New Republican Ideology, and every educated person switches to the Democrats.
I’m not 100% this would be bad – maybe educated people who are temperamentally conservative would pull the Democratic Party a little to the right, turning them into a broad moderate coalition which has no problem winning elections and combines the smartest elements of liberal and conservative thought. But more likely, there’s a vicious cycle where the lack of intelligent conservatives guts the system of think tanks that produce the sort of studies and analyses which convince smart people to become conservative, which in turn makes there even fewer intelligent conservatives, and so on. In the end, intellectuals won’t just vote Democrat; they’ll shift their personal views further to the left to fit in. We already have a problem with a glut of leftist researchers and journalists producing evidence why leftists are right about everything, and a shortage of conservative researchers and journalists to fact-check them and present the opposite case. As intelligent people desert the Republican Party, this situation gets worse and we lose access to any knowledge that Vox doesn’t want to write an explainer on. In the worst case scenario, everybody develops a hard-coded association between “conservative” and “stupid people”, even more than they have already, the academies purge the hell out of everyone even slightly to the right of the loudest activist, and the only alternative is The Donald Trump Institute Of Research That Is Going To Be Absolutely Yuuuuuuge, which busies itself putting out white papers to a coalition of illiterates.
If Trump fails, then the situation is – much the same, really, but conservatives can at least get started right now picking up the pieces instead of having to wait four years. There’s a fundamental problem, which is that about 30% of the US population is religious poor southern whites who are generally not very educated, mostly not involved in US intellectual life, but form the biggest and most solid voting bloc in the country. If you try to form two parties with 50% of the vote each, then whichever party gets the religious poor southern whites is going to be dominated by them and end up vulnerable to populism. Since the religious poor southern whites are conservative, that’s always going to be the conservative party’s cross to bear and conservatism is always going to be less intellectual than liberalism in this country. I don’t know how to solve this. But there have been previous incarnations of American conservatism that have been better at dealing with the problem than this one, and maybe if Trumpism gets decisively defeated it will encourage people to work on the problem.
I said I wouldn’t try to convince people about the big hot-button issues, but I’ve been told now thatthe guardrails of democracy have been broken lying is okay. So let’s talk about global warming.
Most hot-button issues are less President-influenced than most people think. No Supreme Court is likely to overturn Roe v. Wade at this point, so the president’s impact on abortion is limited to whatever edge cases come before the justices they appoint. I have no idea whether there was more or less capital punishment during Obama’s administration than Bush’s, but I doubt that the president’s opinion of the issue had much impact one way or the other. But it looks like the Obama administration made really impressive progress on global warming; needless to say Donald Trump feels differently.
I don’t want to argue climate science here. I want to say that, as usual, I support the low-variance position that’s not going to make the world vastly less functional before we can invent genetic engineering or AI. Even if you doubt modern climate science, are you so sure it’s wrong that it’s worth the risk? What chance of global warming being a real problem would it take before you agreed that we should probably reduce CO2 emissions just in case? How could that chance possibly be lower than the chance of something that 90-something percent of the relevant scientists believe to be true is true? Yes, we know here that science is not always as authoritative as it would like to be, but it’s not completely anticorrelated with truth either!
(also, if the research about high CO2 levels decreasing cognitive ability is true – and my guess is no, but I’m far from sure – that could be even more disastrous than the traditional global warming effects – remember that even tiny IQ decreases have horrible consequences on a society-wide scale.)
Okay, but what about the real reason Trump is so popular?
When I talk to Trump supporters, it’s not usually about doubting climate change, or thinking Trump will take the conservative movement in the right direction, or even immigration. It’s about the feeling that a group of arrogant, intolerant, sanctimonious elites have seized control of a lot of national culture and are using it mostly to spread falsehood and belittle anybody different than them. And Trump is both uniquely separate from these elites and uniquely repugnant to them – which makes him look pretty good to everyone else.
This is definitely true. Please vote Hillary anyway.
Aside from the fact that getting back at annoying people isn’t worth eroding the foundations of civil society – do you really think a Trump election is going to hurt these people at all? Make them question anything? “Oh, 51% of the American people disagree with me, I guess that means I’ve got a lot of self-reflecting to do.” Of course not. A Trump election would just confirm for them exactly what they already believe – that the average American is a stupid racist who needs to be kept as far away from public life as possible. If Trump gets elected, sure, the editorial pages will be full of howls of despair the next day, but underneath the howls will be quiet satisfaction that the world is exactly the way they believed it to be.
The right sometimes argues that modern leftism is analogous to early millenarian Christianity. They argue this, and then they say “You know what would stop these people in their tracks? A strong imperial figure who persecutes them. That’s definitely going to make them fade away quietly. There is no way this can possibly go wrong.”
Leftism has never been about controlling the government, and really the government is one of the areas it controls least effectively – even now both houses of Congress, most state legislatures, most governors, etc, are Republican. When people say that the Left is in control, they’re talking about academia, the media, the arts, and national culture writ large. But all of these things have a tendency to define themselves in opposition to the government. When the left controls the government, this is awkward and tends to involve a lot of infighting. When the right controls the government, it gets easy. If Trump controls the government, it gets ridiculously easy.
This has real-world effects. Millennials are more conservative than previous generations. Andrew Gelman, who is usually right about everything, says:
If you look at the cohort of young voters who came of age during George W. Bush’s presidency, they’re mostly Democrats, which makes sense as Bush was a highly unpopular Republican. The young voters who came of age during Obama’s presidency are more split, which makes sense because Obama is neither popular nor unpopular; he has an approval of about 50%
I would prefer the next generation end up leaning more to the right, because that will cancel out younger people’s natural tendency to lean left and make them pretty moderate and so low-variance. I definitely don’t want an unpopular far-right presidency, because then they’re going to lean left, which will combined with the natural leftiness of the young and make them super left. And this is the sort of thing that affects the culture!
One more warning for conservatives who still aren’t convinced. If the next generation is radicalized by Trump being a bad president, they’re not just going to lean left. They’re going to lean regressive, totalitarian, super-social-justice left.
Everyone has already constructed the narrative: Trump is the anti-PC, anti-social-justice candidate. If he wins, he’s going to be the anti-PC, anti-social-justice President. And he will fail. First of all, because he doesn’t really show much sign of knowing what he’s doing. Second of all, because all presidents fail in a sense – 80% of Americans consistently believe the country is headed the wrong direction and the president is the natural fall guy for this trend. And third of all, because even if by some miracle Trump avoids the first two failure modes, the media will say he failed and people will believe them. And when the anti-PC, anti-social-justice President fails, the reaction will be a giant “we told you so” from the social justice movement, and a giant shift of all the disillusioned young people right into their fold.
Trump is all set to be the biggest gift to the social justice movement in history. They thrive on claims of persecution, claims that they’re the ones fighting a stupid hateful regressive culture that controls everything. And people think that bringing their straw man to life and putting him in the Oval Office is going to help?
If you’re a Jew fighting anti-Semitism, the absolute minimum you can do is not actually kill Christian children and use their blood to make matzah. Likewise, if you are a principled classical liberal fighting the social justice movement’s attempt to smear anyone who disagrees with them as an overprivileged clueless hateful Neanderthal, the absolute minimum you can do is not actually be an overprivileged clueless hateful Neanderthal. Opinions on Trump range all the way from “he is definitely an overprivileged clueless hateful Neanderthal” to “he is remarkably and uniquely bad at not appearing to be an overprivileged clueless hateful Neanderthal”. In any case, having him as the public face of anti-social-justice for the next four years would be a godsend for them and a disaster for everyone else.
There’s one more thought I wanted to mention which is vaguely in this space.
The enemy isn’t leftism or social justice. The enemy is epistemic vice.
When the Left errs, it’s through using shouting and shaming to cut through the long and painful process of having to justify its beliefs. It’s through confusing disagreement with evil, a dissenter who needs convincing with a thought-criminal who needs neutralizing.
Sometimes it might be strategically necessary to whack particular ideologies to make examples of them. But in the longer-term, replacing left with right just puts a new group of people in position to shame their opponents and silence dissent. The long range plan has to combine a short-term need to neutralize immediate would-be tyrants with a long-term need to slowly encourage epistemic virtue so that we don’t have to keep putting out fires.
Now, watch this video:
Trump’s not in that crowd. But does anyone think he disagrees with it? Can anyone honestly say that Trump or his movement promote epistemic virtue? That in the long-term, we’ll be glad that we encouraged this sort of thing, that we gave it power and attention and all the nutrients it needed to grow? That the road to whatever vision of a just and rational society we imagine, something quiet and austere with a lot of old-growth trees and Greek-looking columns, runs through LOCK HER UP?
I don’t like having to vote for the lesser of two evils. But at least I feel like I know who it is.