[Update: This post was intended for skepolitical.com, but the formatting and pictures only seem to work here.]

[Update 2: Below]

Too often, voters seem to get caught up in trying to make sure “their guy” wins, and meanwhile they lose sight of their underlying objective: making the world a better place, and maximizing whatever utility function they see fit. Normally, this would be an implicit objective — not many people have literally constructed a utility function for their political objectives, but everyone has things they think are important and those define their “implicit utility function.” The truth is that casting a vote for the less offensive of the two “viable” candidates, or advocating for others to cast their votes that way, is not necessarily the best strategy for your long-term well-being. I actually think there are many good reasons not to vote for the major parties (one being that their policy differences are overblown), but today I just want to highlight one perpective that I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere.

Suppose, for example, you were a one-issue voter, and your issue is the well-being of cats and their owners. You notice that neither of the major candidates seem to care at all about these issues, but that Mitt Romney advocates criminalizing having pets inside cars (he thinks they must be kept in a cage on the roof while you are driving), while Barack Obama says that this should apply to all pets except kittens. Both candidates are odious, but one is clearly worse than the other. You could also vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party, who thinks all pets should be allowed in cars and even supports a Single-Payer Pet Healthcare system, but she is polling at 3% nationally and has no realistic chance of winning. Your favorite candidate is Selina Kyle of the Cat Party, but she is polling at 0% nationally.

There may not be many true “one-issue voters” like this and the Cat Party may not exist, but other than that I think this is a pretty good model for the situation facing many American voters today. At least, it’s true for many minorities and people who care deeply about issues that most Americans don’t care much about, such as corruption, climate change, the drug wars, secularism, and civil liberties. The two candidates are appalling on all counts, but perhaps one candidate is clearly worse than the other. What is a voter to do? I think we can find a clue by studying the “Ultimate Game.” The Ultimatum Game is a standard framework around which various experiments in psychology and economics are designed (my personal interaction has been in studying Decision Theory and Game Theory). It works like this:

Two players have the opportunity to work together to win a total of $10. Player A can offer Player B any amount N from $0 to $10 in increments of $1. If B accepts, he gets $N and A gets $(10-N). If B refuses, both A and B get nothing. Variants include having the players play multiple rounds and making the amount of money much more significant. To relate it to the above Cat voters scenario, Romney is offering $0 and Obama is offering $1 (Stein $9 and Kyle $10), but they can only pay out if they win the election (and even then they will probably ignore the issue until it is politically expedient, or he won’t have the political capital to follow through). Both candidates value your vote at $10, but they stand to lose some “regular” voters if they’re seen as too “soft on kittens,” so they’d rather not make any concessions to you that aren’t necessary. If you vote for Obama, he benefits $10 (the value of your vote) minus $1 (the cost of making the kitten concession). If you vote for Romney he gets the full $10 value of your vote.

In the standard Ultimatum Game, studies show that player B usually refuses offers less than around $2 and almost always accepts offers of $5 or more. Player A usually makes an offer of around $4 or $5. This seems reasonable, but it goes against the standard “homo economicus” theory that suggests player B should accept any offer of at least $1. Under this assumption, the optimal play for A is to offer $1 and for player B to accept any offer. An economic paradox.

There is some debate about this, but to me the answer to the “paradox” is clear: both players know or expect that player B values his dignity and will be punish someone who isn’t willing to give him a reasonably fair offer. Player A will often offer $5 because he considers himself to be a “fair and good” person, or perhaps he offers only $4 thinking he can get away with it, and he usually does. Player B refuses any offer under $3 for being unfair. So, why do the Cat people find themselves facing a $1 offer, and why do they usually accept it (as they seem to in the analogous case of minorities and specific-interest voters)? Is it because they have no dignity and the two major parties are more inclined to do whatever they can get away with rather than make a “fair and good” offer? Well, that’s probably part of it, but there are at least two other plausible answers. They may have already occurred to you. 1. In a presidential election, the stakes are much higher than $10, and 2. The game isn’t played just once, it’s repeated every four years (or even more often, depending on how you look at it).

Fortunately, we have some experimental data showing the effects of these deviations from the “standard” ultimatum game, and it will help inform our optimal voting strategy. This study (which conforms to what I remember from decision theory and game theory) shows that: 1. the effect of increasing the stakes from $10 to, say, $1000 is real, but quite small, and 2. the effect of repeatedly playing the game is that the offers will trend downwards as Player A realizes he is offering more than he needs to.

The take-away seems to be the following: Player A will offer as little as he feels he can get away with, while Player B has a relatively fixed price, influenced only somewhat by the stakes at hand.

This evidence also suggests that the idea that Player A was trying to maintain his own self-image as “fair” and “good” is unlikely; he will take whatever Player B is willing to give him. This points to an obvious long-term strategy for Player B: demand more. It’s unclear how much more, but I would guess that $5 would be the optimal target. Certainly, at least $2. This will lead to several rounds of failure until Player A finally ups his offer to $5, as the research suggests that he will. The experimental evidence doesn’t suggest that Player A will be willing to go above $5, but he might!

So, how does the Cat voter signal to the Democrats that he will no longer be accepting $1 offers? Let’s consider four options: 1. Vote Republican. 2. Vote Green Party. 3. Vote Cat Party. 4. Don’t vote.

1. Voting Republican has the advantage of being the most effective way of punishing the Democrats for their unfair offer. The problem is that this strategy is unlikely to be interpreted by the Democrats as being a Pro-Cat vote. Your vote will be a drop in the ocean of other Republican votes, and the Democrats won’t realize they lost votes to the Republicans because of their Cat platform. This could be remedied to some extent if the Cat Lobby announced their plan, but the Democrats would be justifiably skeptical as to whether Cat voters really followed through.

2. Voting for the Green Party has the benefit of being aligned with enough other Third-Party voters that, as a bloc, you have a real chance of affecting the outcome of the election (as in 2000). The Green Party also has a coherent platform that represents a vision of the world and how the nation should be run, and would probably do a decent job if elected. It has even managed to get a few low-level politicians elected, tends to get at least modicum of media attention, and could (almost) conceivably actually win an election.

3. Voting for the Cat Party might be denounced as a sort of gimmick. The Cat Party has no platform on any of the important issues facing the nation, and would probably be a disaster if it were actually elected. (Hard to imagine it being a bigger disaster than the R’s or D’s, though.) However, it has the following enormously important feature: There will be no doubt whatsoever about why people are voting for the Cat Party. Suppose that Player B, the Cat Party, gets 1% of the vote. Player A, the Democrats, will immediately get the message that Player B is not accepting $1 offers any more, and if they want that 1% of the vote, all they need to do is increase their offer. Perhaps they will even meet with Ms. Kyle and ask what exactly it is they need to do to get the Cat vote, and Ms. Kyle can describe exactly what a $5 offer would look like.

4. Not voting is the expected, and probably the most common, way to react when the two major parties are both unacceptable, but this is the same as silencing yourself. Your grievance will be ignored even more surely than if you had voted Republican. If enough people abstain from voting, it may have the desirable effect of undermining the very legitimacy of the government and prevent the system from enforcing their Anti-Cat initiatives, but this seems like a bit of an odd way to deal with the Cat problem.

Of these four strategies, voting for the Cat Party seems best. Suppose, however, that the Cat Party doesn’t exist (it doesn’t). Is it then worth voting for the Green Party, or should you just grit your teeth and vote for the Democrats in the hopes that they’ll follow through and give you your $1 if they win? This is more or less the situation I face. Although several minor parties would like to end the onerous drug wars, there is no “End the Drug War Party” that would make the purpose of my protest vote clear. The closest thing is the “Justice” party, but even that seems a bit too vague to be worthwhile. Dan Carlin has suggested the “Clean Party” to protest money and corruption in politics, and I would certainly vote for that if it existed. Perhaps a project for the next election cycle would be to get the Clean Party or something similar on the ballot.

In the meantime, I will probably be voting for either the Justice or Green parties. I hope to write a More Serious post comparing the actual consequences of electing Obama/Biden versus Romney/Ryan, with the expectation that it will show that the overall effect of another Obama term is not significantly better than electing Romney (I know, a skeptic should not go in “expecting” to find one result rather than another lest I fall victim to the confirmation bias). Today’s post was a result of my attempt to prepare for my More Serious post, which I’m finding is rather more complicated than I had thought.



The above post was a narrowly-focused and rather light-hearted examination how best to use a vote to achieve political objectives. My intention was not to give the impression that voting is a particularly effective means to that end. Far more effective seems to be political activism and media attention, or even just talking to people about things you consider important (this blog is a version of this sort of effort). Major efforts by latino activists pushed Obama to issue an executive order that, despite over-enthusiasm for its value, should still be seen as a win for those activists. Now even Romney has backed off the extreme anti-immigrant position he took during the Republican primaries. Similarly, gay activists may have helped accelerate Obama’s “evolution” on Gay Marriage.

Another advantage of activism is that it can go beyond merely nudging politicians one way or another; it can move public sentiment. What the Cat people really need is a cultural shift towards a world where most voters respect the rights of pet owners. That is, they need a general shift away from Anti-Cat sentiment in the electorate. Then Republicans and Democrats would not have to worry about losing ground nationally if they made a $5 or even a $10 concession to the Cat lobby. We saw this sort of thing during the Civil Rights movement with regards to racism, and today the Occupy Movement may be having an effect on how people view income and judicial inequality. At least, the movement has injected this issue into the national conversation. By gaming the flawed winner-take-all system as I suggested in the post, the Cat people can expect a long-term gain of $4 or $5. By shifting the culture, they can expect the full $10.

One last thing. I also want to point out that I’m conscious that my perspective might be viewed as typical and easy for a “privileged” straight white male to hold. Turning down $1 now and for each of the next 8 or 16 years is easy for me because I can afford it. I’m not living on food stamps. I’m not interested in getting married to a gay partner. I’m not worried about my parents getting deported. It’s easy for me to say we should sacrifice on those fronts today in order to achieve a better tomorrow. I recognize that it’s hard for those who are directly affected by those policies to postpone minor gains. However, I still contend that it is the best approach. The alternative is to see that $1 shrink to $.50 and then $.10 over the same time frame. Far better to refuse to let your dignity be insulted, even if it is makes your life worse for the next few years. That’s the nature of doing the honorable thing. Don’t let the establishment call your ideology “retarded” (to put it nicely); punishing those indignities is the right thing to do.

[Update 2] I just noticed that on today’s Radio Dispatch, John and Molly discuss whether to vote for Obama. I’ve only listened to the first minute or so which is entirely about acknowledging their own privilege.