Thursday, October 02, 2008

Electoral College and the Franchise

In the comments to my last post on the Electoral College, Steven Matheson asked how I would defend the EC against the charge that it is "an arrangement very well designed to disenfranchise about half of the American electorate" and that "the problem is that the votes of the citizens are not equally counted." This is certainly a common complaint against the EC, and would be serious if could be made to stick. I promised to post on the subject again.

However, more and more I'm thinking that I may not understand what's intended by the objection. To be disenfranchised is to have your franchise, i.e., your right as a free citizen, stripped away; in this context the franchise consists in (1) the right to vote as a citizen to contribute to the government; and (2) the right to have that vote counted in a way not discriminatory against my vote, to the extent that this is in fact rationally possible.* But there really isn't any question of anyone's right to vote being stripped away by the EC. So it would have to come down to the question of my vote not being discriminated against. But no one's vote is discriminated against by the Electoral College: the Electoral College doesn't handle the popular vote, the details of which are handled by state election laws (and Congress in the case of DC). Well, one could argue that this is not the case with Puerto Rico and other territories that lack representation in the Electoral College, to the extent that they cannot be represented by the Electors of states, but I take it that this is not the point of the objection. The popular vote is taken; I have the right to vote, my vote is counted equally according to state election law, assuming that the law is not itself discriminatory and is followed, and thus my franchise is preserved.

What is intended must be something else, and it has something to do with conflating the two distinct stages of our election process. We have a popular vote to determine "in such Manner as the Legislature [of the State] may direct" our slate of Electors for the Electoral College. The Electors then choose the President. Now the slate of Electors varies from state to state, since the number of Electors is determined by the number of that state's representatives in Congress. But how this is supposed to affect my franchise, assuming that my state's election laws are not themselves bad, is not something I really see. And if it's my state's election laws that are bad, it's the state election laws that need changing, not the EC.

I suspect that the real complaint here is that my vote is not a direct determinant of the choice of the President. But this is not really a complaint about franchise; one might as well argue that we are disenfranchised every time Congress votes, since our vote (for the representative) didn't directly determine the vote for the particular legislation on the table.

It's possible, too, that there's a sort of illusion created by the fact that the press tallies up national popular vote numbers. If you do that, it looks like all those votes are counted equally. This however is an illusion; and the national popular vote tally is a fiction -- a useful fiction for certain purposes, but a fiction nonetheless. For one thing, the tally ignores the margin of uncertainty in the election, which can be massive. But more importantly than this, not all of those votes in that tally were counted the same. And it's impossible for them to be, unless all our states had the same election laws and none of those laws allowed much wiggle room for interpretation by vote-counters. But both of these conditions are empirically false. A vote that would count in Miami might not count in Denver; and a vote that would not count in Los Angeles might have counted in Roswell, New Mexico. We are not using the same ballots. We are not using the same means of voting. Our votes are not counted according to the same laws, nor according to the same methods. And the reason is clear and explicit: we are not voting as a nation, we are voting as a state. In principle, my vote should count the same, to the extent humanly possible, as every other citizen in my state. If it's not, that's a sign that the state election laws need revision. But my vote is, strictly speaking, incommensurable with the vote of someone in a completely different state. We can only be treated as doing exactly the same thing by abstracting from a number of important differences. And this doesn't affect my franchise, either.

So I suppose I need more information about what the objection is supposed to be. So what is the real issue here?
* The qualification is due to the fact that there may be accidents, etc., that are unavoidable. In any sufficiently large popular election there will in fact be a rather massive margin of uncertainty due to accidents; this is not practically avoidable, since there are too many possible causes of accidents. It's possible, for instance, that my vote doesn't register for some reason, by sheer accident (e.g., I didn't punch off enough of the chad, or there was a computer glitch, or the paper ballot got stuck to something and was never discovered, or what have you). My franchise doesn't protect against this, but it does protect against deliberate failure or refusal to register my vote, and it does protect (indirectly) against radical negligence in the registering of votes.

Then the Gods of the Market Tumbled

A word to the wise is sufficient....

The Gods of the Copybook Headings
by Rudyard Kipling

As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place;
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "Stick to the Devil you know."

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "The Wages of Sin is Death."

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "If you don't work you die."

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four—
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man—
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began:—
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Thrasycles the Philosopher

He has plenty to say in his cups--he is then at his best in that kind--upon temperance and decorum; he is full of these when his potations have reduced him to ridiculous stuttering. Next the wine disagrees with him, and at last he is carried out of the room, holding on with all his might to the flute-girl. Take him sober, for that matter, and you will hardly find his match at lying, effrontery or avarice. He is facile princeps of flatterers, perjury sits on his tongue-tip, imposture goes before him, and shamelessness is his good comrade; oh, he is a most ingenious piece of work, finished at all points, a multum in parvo.

Lucian of Samosata, Timon the Misanthrope

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

My Two Cents, If Even That, on the Bailout

I'm not an economist, so I may well say something stupid here. But I am glad, actually, that the House voted down that bloated, ugly, vague piece of legislation that has gone by the name 'bailout'. What I think should really be done is a quick and extensive imposition of transparency across all the ailing areas of the financial sector. Contrary to popular belief, credit crunches do not arise because there is a lack of money. There is no dearth of lending power; there is a dearth of lending will. Credit crunches arise because there is a lack of good information. Banks have the money, but they are afraid to lend it out (particularly at present to each other) because they don't know what's going on. Contrary to what one would expect, cash is not the lifeblood of finance. Good information is, and how easily cash flows depends entirely on how available good information is. So pouring more cash into the system is simply treating the symptom rather than the underlying illness; the real problem is that people are having difficulty untangling the good investments from the bad. Good investments then suffer as well as the bad, and the whole system comes to a relative standstill until banks can get the information that allows them to make good judgments about whether someone can be treated as an acceptable borrower or not. I doubt that this would be enough on its own at this point (for instance, I think you would have to expand temporarily the capital available to the FDIC, one of our most competent finance-related government agencies, which already has powers directly relevant to certain aspects of this turmoil); but it seems to me that it's this, and analogous measures, that should be the focus. Banking is an act of the human mind, or, rather, the joint action of a lot of human minds; credit crunches are the result of widespread confusion among those minds. You don't cure confusion with money.

In any case, my distaste for the legislation was due primarily to the ugliness of it. Did anyone seriously think that the proper response to economic troubles was to expand, on a massive scale, the powers of the executive branch? That you could propose state intervention on an enormous scale and not get a populist backlash? That you can just throw oceans of money at it and be sure it will go away? If nothing else, the heavy-handed, top-down approach with which this has been handled has virtually guaranteed that any virtues of the plan, if there were any, simply were not communicated at all to the American people. I never heard of them. So is it any wonder people put their foot down? This isn't a matter of economics; even if the plan is the real salvation of everything financial (which no one claims it is) the way it almost went through was horrible, horrible politics.


It is common to divide categorical propositions into four groups:

A: Universal Affirmative
E: Universal Negative
I: Particular Affirmative
O: Particular Negative

But this is arguably not precise enough. There are actually two different ways each description -- Universal Affirmative, etc. -- could be understood, a weak way and a strong way. Using what I've called Welton diagrams:

Universal Affirmative, Weak Interpretation
|  |  |X|  |

Universal Affirmative, Strong Interpretation
|O|  |X|  |

Universal Negative, Weak Interpretation
|X|  |  |  |

Universal Negative, Strong Interpretation
|X|  |O|  |

Particular Affirmative, Weak Interpretation
|O|  |  |  |

Particular Affirmative, Strong Interpretation

Particular Negative, Weak Interpretation
|  |  |O|  |

Particular Negative, Strong Interpretation

You can see these differences operating in different 'squares' of opposition.* For instance, if you look at a standard textbook discussion of the 'modern' and the 'traditional' square of opposition, you'll find that they both take I and O under the weak interpretation, but whereas the 'traditional' takes A and E under the strong interpretation, the 'modern' takes A and E under the weak interpretation. These are far from exhausting the options. In Lewis Carroll's system, which arguably fits natural language better than either, A is taken under the strong interpretation while E, I, and O are all take under the weak interpretation. If you handle propositional logic syllogistically
you end up taking A and E as weak but I and O as strong.

This is very visible in the case of subalternation. Subalternation can occur only when flowing from a stronger to a weaker claim. Thus you can potentially have it in the following directions:

A-Strong to I-Weak
E-Strong to O-Weak
I-Strong to A-Strong
I-Strong to A-Weak
O-Strong to E-Strong
O-Strong to E-Weak

In the 'modern' square of opposition, universals are treated as hypotheticals; they are weak, so no subalternation is possible. In the 'traditional' square, universals are treated as categoricals; they are strong, so subalternation is possible. In Carroll's system, A is treated as a double proposition (an E + an I) so it is strong, and allows the withdrawal, so to speak, of the I proposition; E propositions, on the other hand, simply exclude a single term from another, and therefore are much weaker than the corresponding O proposition. In syllogistic propositional logic. A is treated as a hypothetical again, and E as a disjunction; both of these are low-information, and therefore weak. But I (and with it O) is conjunction, which is high-information, and therefore strong. So subalternation flows in the opposite direction we expect.

For my part, I'm currently inclined to think that we should regard the weak universals and the strong particulars as not really categorical propositions at all; rather, they are non-categorical propositions that bear certain very important analogies to the standard categoricals. But this is an issue I'm still thinking out.

* I put 'square' in quotes here because a great many discussions of the square of opposition would be improved if it were recognized that the 'square' is really just an abbreviation for a cube, one with the following vertices:

A (False)
E (False)
I (False)
O (False)
A (True)
E (True)
I (True)
O (True)

All operations in the square are determined entirely by combinations of relations of consistency and inconsistency among these vertices. For instance, subalternation, in which I is subalternate to A, follows when the following inconsistencies hold

A (True) and A (False)
I (True) and I (False)
A (True) and I (False)

given that the following is consistent:

A (False) and I (True).

Meddle with these relations of consistency and inconsistency in the cube and you change the operations of the 'square'.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The First Herculean Task of Feminist Philosophers

This is, if I haven't been clear enough in bits and pieces, a blog that is very friendly to feminist philosophy. I'm a big fan of feminist philosophy, in fact, and think even much feminist philosophy I disagree with to be insightful and interesting. I do think there's a lot of chaff, but I think there's a lot of chaff throughout philosophy, and I think feminist philosophy is an area of philosophy that has a better wheat-to-chaff ratio than most areas. I've always had an interest in feminist philosophy (due to an excellent undergraduate professor, Jeffrey Gauthier), and have found that some of my interests -- e.g., Catharine Trotter Cockburn, or Lady Mary Shepherd -- keep driving me into discussion with feminist philosophers, because they are almost the only people doing good, serious work on the subjects. I don't think I would call myself a feminist in strictu senso (in part because I am way more conservative than most feminists would be comfortable with), but in a context where I could be sure the term were taken in a fairly broad sense, I would. I think there is an immense amount to be learned from feminism, and would fight very forcibly for the claim that feminist philosophy is profoundly important and should not be neglected by anyone seriously interested in philosophy.

But there's no question, I think, that feminist philosophy, despite much excellent work, is highly marginalized in the discipline, such that good work in feminist philosophy is extraordinarily difficult to present and publish, and this is a travesty. I mention this all because a comment by Brian Leiter recently was given a deservedly sarcastic response on this point at Feminist Philosophers. (I highly recommend the latter blog, by the way: there have been some excellent discussions.)