10 December 2012

Politics, Exponentials and Sinusoids

I wrote the following a couple of days after the election, at which point I promptly forgot about it. I figured it might be worth dragging out, even though an entire month has passed.


I'm a libertarian. Neither Obama nor Romney are, by a long shot. So why was I disappointed (not at all surprised, but still disappointed) by Obama's election?

Option 1 is that I was raised conservative, and while I've mostly out grown that, there is still some lingering affinity.

Option 2 is that libertarians and the right are more natural allies, either in principal or just as a function of contemporary American politics. More ink has been spilled on potential left-libertarianism fusion that I care to rehash.

Option 3 is that I'm surrounded by Dems who I disagree with, and so I want to see there guy loose. If I lived in a Team Red area I would be surrounded by annoying Romney suporters and would be happy to see their guy loose.

Option 4 is that while both Obama and Romney are miserable, Obama is worse. This lesser-of-two-evils situation makes sense, but it also seems like a way to rationalize any of the more emotional reasons listed above. When either one of them is so abhorent to me, picking which one is worse is a mug's game. This post is an attempt to figure out how after the fact how I implicitly measured them against each other, so that doing so again in four years -- when I will inevitably be presented with two wretched candidates -- will be a little more rational.


Megan McArdle was right that no matter what the outcome of the election was, my life will go on mostly the same. I spent last night watching Downton Abbey with my wife, doing a bit of data analysis for one of my advisers, cooking a delicious (and cheap) dinner, teaching myself a bit about Sobel filters and trying to apply them a new art project. These are the bread and butter of my life, and they won't change no matter who wins what office.

(Sidenote: for all the people talking about how polarized American politics is, do me a big favor. Just hold your tongues until we see something like the Nika Riots. Billions of people and man hours were poured into selecting our next leader, the selection happened according to plan, and no one got stabbed over it. Not one single stabbing, or beating, or riot, or arson, or assassination. Do you know how rare that is in the history of the world? Maybe I'm setting a low bar, but can we take a second and appreciate that the worst reactions that happen when we get a new president is that some partisans freaked out Facebook or Twitter or cable news or talk radio? If the worst reaction we get from people is them screaming "OMG! We're all doomed! I'm packing my guns and MREs and holing up outside of Saskatoon!" then we're doing okay.)

Waking up today, or Janurary 21st, 2013, or 2016, it doesn't really matter to me who won the election night. I got up, made some coffee and got to work. I thought about when I'm going to the gym this week, whether I should go to a seminar tomorrow afternoon, and whether I could finish reading Swamp Thing before it's due back at the library.

So on that hand, the election was pretty irrelevant to me, and I'm happy about that. But on the other hand, it might very much matter who won last night once 2063 rolls around, because some small changes can compound a lot between now and then. Some policy changes are exponential, and others are sinusoidal.


Let's start with economic growth, since that's where my metaphor is the most literally true. Say a president implements some policies like, I dunno, a massive health care "reform" that doubles down on one of the worst aspects of our current system, namely, the tight coupling between employment and insurance. Say that lowers economic growth by half a percent a year. That doesn't much matter now, or even four years from now. I'm still going to get up in the morning and do the same things I would have otherwise and live the same life. But in fifty years that lost growth will matter a lot. If growth is 3.5% instead of 4.0%, in 50 years we'll be 21% poorer than we otherwise could have been.

This isn't just true of economics though. I think a lot of political processes are exponential like this. A bad Supreme Court ruling now is bad, but the way one ruling compounds on another, stacking bad ruling on bad precedent like a castle on a swamp, means that a single bad decision now can become really terrible in a few decades.

Giving the police (or pseudo-police) the power to search me without any cause before I get on a plane leads to giving them the power to search me before I get on a subway, which gives them the power to search me before I get on a bus, which gives the them power to search me when I walk down a sidewalk.

A lot of political opinion and policy comes and goes. The pendulum swings back and forth on immigration. For every decade in American history where people are streaming out of steerage class and up onto Ellis Island, there's been another where the borders are locked down. A president who screws up immigration policy is a disappointment, and has costs now, but those mistakes can be corrected later when the pendulum swings back. Sadly a lot of things don't look like pendulums to me, at least not on the couple-of-centuries time scale relevant to a modern nation state.

Privacy doesn't seem to ebb and flow. An administration that claims some prerogative to spy on its citizens will be followed by one who claims even larger prerogatives to do so. One that claims the privilege of arresting and holding indefinitely anyone it claims to be dangerous, anywhere in the world, will be followed by one who claims the ability to execute them as well.

The things I don't like about another Obama presidency seem to be mostly in this exponential growth category: poor economic policy, poor court nominations, executive privilege regarding secrets and whistleblowers, spying, executions & use of force abroad, centralization of local matters like education policy, the president-as-venture-capitalist-in-chief, corporatism, protecting consumers from themselves, etc.

The issues I wound't have liked about Romney seem to fall into one of three categories:

(a) Things that are sinusoidal, and destined to swing back against him sooner or later, like immigration.
(b) Things that are exponential but that Obama will also be terrible about accelerating, like the War on Terror.
(c) Things that are exponential* but moving in the opposite direction as him, like gay marriage and marijuana liberalization.

(* Actually, I need to introduce a third category: sigmoidal policies. These behave like exponentials but only for a limited time, because there's a natural ceiling on how much they can change. Gay marriage can only become so legal. In about half my lifetime it's gone from being non-existant to being treated exactly the same as heterosexual marriage in many states. However there's no place else for it go in those states. It's essentially a non-issue there now. The ride is over.)

Had Romney won he would have done plenty of things I wouldn't like, but I don't think would have much affect in 50 or 100 years, while Obama has the ability to do some bad stuff now that could make my twilight or my children's lives a lot worse than they could have been.

Next time I've got to mentally tot up a pro and con list, I'm going to divide every issue up into exponential, sinusoidal and sigmoidal categories.


1 comment:

  1. Minor typos:
    "Option 3 is that I'm surrounded by Dems who I disagree with, and so I want to see there guy loose"

    Should be "their" and "lose".

    Feel free to delete this comment.

    ReplyDelete