Wednesday, May 04, 2011

How to save Humankind from self annihilation in three easy steps. Step 1: adopt approval voting

Below is a rant I posted to the Election Methods email list. Our current voting methodology of plurality is severely broken and is a root cause of much of what ails us. Step one therefore is to rally behind the most pragmatic and immediately achievable solution called Approval voting.

: [EM] A conversation with an English woman about IRV

[The full post being replied to is available here: [EM] A conversation with an English woman about IRV]

When the pragmatists collide with the perfectionists you get a lot of noise, no directed action and absolutely no results. This is a primary reason why we (the humans) are pretty much screwed, and it is indirectly why broken ideas such as IRV perpetuate.

The pragmatists know that the English woman written about above pretty much represents the norm around the world. Judge them if you will but people have lives to get on with and understanding complicated voting methods for reasons that are hard to explain just doesn't compete with thinking about lovers, current or ex or the latest Friends episode. Ordinary people will struggle with approval, roll their eyes at range and go catatonic over Condorcet.

The perfectionists on the other hand cannot accept any method with even the slightest unintended consequences and so will not endorse imperfect methods even if they agree that said method is an improvement over the status quo.

The two extremes of Approval vs. Condorcet are the best example. I have followed this list for years and read many explanations on Condorcet and just like the description given to the English woman above none of them are easy to assimilate. How the heck do you translate my rankings into "if more prefer A over C ..." You are asking people to have faith in your fancy math and programming. At the end of the day I remain unconvinced that it is a sufficiently better method than Approval by any metric grounded in the messy reality of imperfect humans voting for other imperfect humans to be their leaders.

From the perspective of US single winner elections I say the following:

1. Approval voting;
  - trivial to transition to (no over-voting), want to vote for the
    underdog while hedging your bet for the frontrunner, no problem
  - everyone gets the mechanics and the nuances of approval after a
    minute of explanation
  - very low effort to vote, avoids all the comparisons in ranking
  - minimal real world risk of unintended consequences
  - naturally resistant to strategic voting. It's binary, what can
    you do?
2. Range voting
  - degree of improvement over approval is debatable, at least for
    today, maybe a few years from now the need will be different
  - significant step in complexity for the equipment, 1 bit toggle
    to n bit integer. I can't implement that on the current ballots
    used in Arizona for example.
3. IRV
  - this one feels good to half assed thinkers and that is its
    greatest danger. 'nuff said.
4. Condorcet
  - theoretically near perfect but I don't grok it and neither will
    99% of the populace.
  - a bitch to implement without a computer for the UI and we all
    know how great it is having computers in this process
  - any ranking system is way to much of a pain for the average
    Joe who just wants to get out of the damn polling booth and
    home to dinner. Go try any of the example systems available
    on the web, I'm guessing it takes 10x the time for normal
    non-geniuses to articulate that they want in a ranked system vs.
    approval. Remember, you have an interest in the mechanics of
    voting and have practiced doing ranking. Everybody else
    will experience it as a tedious pain.
  - my gut tells me that Condorcet is more vulnerable to strategic
    twists than Approval. But that could be because I don't get it.

Humankind appears to me to be on a path to self destruction largely caused (IMHO) by the fact that we are forced to choose between the lesser of two corporate sponsored politicians (usually moronic very evil vs moronic mildly evil) that will not and cannot make decisions with the long term interests of all. This is a natural outcome of plurality voting.

I think it is within reach for us to change this bad situation but we need the experts (you) to accept that the world isn't ready for the perfect solution and drive hard for the most achievable and pragmatic solution. Please consider getting behind Approval voting and to stop confusing the politicians and public with complicated ideas. Repeat this everywhere: Approval good, plurality bad, IRV worse.

I apologize for this rant but this list is frequented by a bunch of very smart people and if you all could put the lofty goals and perfectionism on the back burner for a short while and drive hard for imperfect but sufficient Approval voting we would have a shot a breaking the current slide into chaos. By virtue of being informed you are influential, but when your influence is spread out in N different directions it adds up to pretty much no influence at all. To me this is sad. The potential to create good change lost, mostly due to attachment to perfection.

Obviously by the way you should keep in mind that at some time in the not-so-distant future you will be able to *realistically* drive for a transition to the perfect system from the "horribly broken approval voting system in use today" :)



Sunday, October 12, 2008

Why taxing resources makes them cheaper (take II).

Authors note: This is a work in progress, please contact me or post in the comments with any feedback or criticism. I value your input!

I am convinced that taxing oil, timber, minerals, and land and then paying a dividend from the proceeds to the citizens of the country can solve many of our social and economic ills. In the post I will use the example of taxing oil in an attempt to explain why.


  1. Production cost: cost per barrel of oil including processing, searching for new sources, developing new wells and some profits for shareholders.
  2. Current market price point: The current supply/demand balance in today's market.
  3. Sustainable market price: The price where consumption falls to a sustainable level. I.e. oil would be available for some set time, perhaps 500 years.
  4. Unnatural profits: profits that are unnatural in the sense that an ideal market would not support them.
  5. Tax to citizen dividend or public profits: profits returned to citizens as an annual dividend payment.


In capitalist economies poverty seems always to accompany wealth. This is not a coincidence. There are two sources of wealth, first are the fruits of creativity, hard work and perseverance, second is the control of natural resources such as land, oil and minerals.

The underlying problem with capitalism is that as commonly implemented, this distinction is not made or accounted for. Even when an individuals initial wealth is made though creativity and hard work if they then use that wealth to gain control of resources poverty will be created.

  • A percentage based income tax is a partial but poor tool to compensate for the labor vs resources generation of wealth.
  • Using the proceeds of the tax on resources to pay for government (as espoused by Henry George) is a viable solution but I think that the idea of paying a dividend to all citizens is politically more realistic.
  • There is some evidence that oil is being generated deep in the earths mantle. Setting a 500 year horizon for sustainable harvesting of oil should provide for adequate time to adjust consumption patterns to supply. Remember that the horizon is a moving one. As more oil deposits are discovered the consumption rate could be adjusted.
  • A similar tax needs to be applied to other energy related mineral deposits such as coal and uranium. Externalities such as disposal costs and green house impact would ideally be built into the tax.
  • The best possible scenario would be where all net oil importing countries agree on the tax levels. This could distribute the wealth and power of controlling resources such as oil to all people of the earth.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

An oil/island model to illustrate land/resource tax

Imagine a small tropical island which has an unusual feature. Deep in it's inland jungle there is a pool of tar. This tar has seeped from deep underground and is slowly replenished at a rate of about 100 gallons a year.

The inhabitants of the island discovered that the tar works great for water proofing their canoes, the roofs of their huts and baskets for carrying water. The resource seems endless and the area around the pool is a bit unpleasant so there is no conflict around the resource.

One day one of the villagers noticed that the area where a bucket of tar was spilled on some gravel near his doorstep didn't wash away after a heavy tropical rain storm. Realizing that this would mean freedom from mud and dust the villagers soon had paved paths routed throughout the village and it wasn't much longer before the other villages took note and started paving their village paths.

As more paving was done the villagers noted a nice improvement in their quality of life. Hot windy days didn't come with billowing dust and getting from house to house or village to village during the rainy season didn't involve traipsing through knee deep mud holes. However, the pool of tar, now nicely accessible by a winding paved path from every village, was starting to look much smaller.

One day, a couple of workers from two tribes arrived at the pool to collect tar to coat their canoes in preparation for the flying fish fishing season. As each tried to scrape the last of the tar into their respective buckets an argument broke out. Who deserved the tar? Who had taken more of their fair share? Before long this escalated into a full blown conflict with brandished spears and hurled insults. The elders of the villages called for calm and agreed to meet to discuss their options.

The elders debated their options for days. They had maintained relative peace on their island for a long time and the prospect of battle was not appealing at all. They knew that the tar was being replenished as it could be seen oozing from cracks and crevasses from a rock formation and slowly working its way down the rock to be held in the little pool. Many ideas were put forward, "we can ration the tar," said one, "each tribe gets to harvest on alternative days", "Yes, but there are more of us than you" said one tribal elder, "We must have the right to harvest the tar two days for every one you harvest". "Why should you get more?" asked another, "I see your tribe making unnecessary paths and using too much tar on your canoes". The debate raged on with no progress for quite some time. Then, one of the oldest elders came up with a new idea. "Why" he said, "don't we trade with ourselves for the tar? Here is how it would work ..." and the elder explained his idea. As the tar seeped into the pool it would be collected into baskets. As the baskets filled they would be available to be taken by whom ever brought the most goods to trade. A council with representatives from each tribe would take the goods from the best offer and use them to pay for a road around the island and the building of a large war canoe to be used in defense when threatened by neighboring tribes.

Whilst the plan did not appeal to all it was decided to give it a try and it wasn't long before the daily and weekly auctioning of the tar was a popular affair for villagers to attend. In fact over time the tar became a form of currency in of itself. There always seemed to be enough tar to go around and the goods collected by the auction paid for important common projects and occasionally was used to help villagers harmed by an accident or who lost their home in a storm.

One fine day the elders were arguing about their borders. One village had grown in population and wanted to expand and was encroaching on land traditionally controlled by another village. A vigorous argument ensued with accusations and solutions from every conceivable view point. One of the elders who was in the middle of arguing that tradition trumped need, suddenly stopped mid sentence, "Wait!" he said, "The tar! We can do the same thing!" The other elders looked at him quizzically, how could the tar help them with who had the rights to the land? One by one the lights went on behind the remaining elders eyes. Of course! The land was exactly like the tar, it was an inheritance of all the villagers on the island and it needed to be shared in some way.

After many hours of careful thought and debate the elders came up with a plan. Since tar was a great way to exchange value it was decided that every plot of land would be assigned a tax to be paid in tar. The land would be held, bought, sold and controlled by the individual villagers but annually a certain number of baskets of tar would be collected for each plot.

At first the idea was met with great animosity by the villagers but the elders prevailed and a council was set up to estimate the value of every plot of land on the island. Because the tax was simple and predictable there was little volatility in land values and there was no incentive to speculate and hold land out of production.

Over time the wealth of the islanders did change, however it was those who were industrious and or wisely adventurous who got relatively wealthy. Those with less wealth could compensate by consuming less land. Whilst there were some who could not produce much due to health or injury there was always some productive land available to be bought and since no one wanted to hold land and pay the land tar tax if they had no near term use for the land they would usually put the land up for sale at a competitive price.

Authors note: This is a work in progress. What you see here is a first rough draft. If you have comments, suggestions or criticisms with this draft status in mind I'd love to hear about them in the comments.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Want cheaper gasoline? Tax oil!

Want cheaper gasoline? Tax oil!

Most people understandably believe that if we tax oil it will harm the economy. The thinking is that the higher cost of fuel will dampen economic activity - something no one wants.

Reality however is more complicated. To make it easier to explain why I'm going to start by assuming that all the revenue from taxing oil is given directly back, divided equally, to all the adults in the country. Later we can discuss how that is not all that different from NOT giving the tax money back to the people.

The oil industry is very capital intensive. Oil rigs, refineries, pipelines and oil prospecting are all huge costs with a curious commonality, they are all mostly "fixed" costs. In other words, whether an oil company sells more oil or less oil, their costs do NOT change much. If the entire system of harvesting, processing and distributing the oil can handle X barrels of oil a day then there are two important consequences to note: 1. The system cannot produce more than X barrels a day and 2. Producing less than X barrels a day is inefficient and results in a higher per barrel cost of the oil product.

I'll illustrate with some simple made up numbers:

Prod     barrels per day    ;; number of barrels the system can make
 O        dollars per day    ;; total operating cost of the business
 S        dollars per barrel ;; sale price of a barrel of oil
 PC = O/X dollars per barrel ;; production cost per barrel
 P  = S-C dollars per barrel ;; profit per barrel
 Operating costs: 5000 dollars per day
 Oil sale price:   100 dollars per barrel

  Production       PC   Profit
  ----------   ------  -------
         100    50.00    50.00
          75    66.00    34.00
          50   100.00     0.00
          25   200.00  -100.00
          10   500.00  -400.00

Clearly for the oil industry keeping the system running at full production is very important. So, lets tax the oil and see what happens. We'll start with a $40 per barrel tax. After some time oil consumption would drop (even now this is happening with oil over $100/barrel). We'll assume consumption has dropped to 50 barrels a day. Looking at the table profits are now zero. How should the industry respond?

We don't have a supply/demand chart but we can explore what would happen if the oil company dropped their price to $60 per barrel.

 Operating costs: 5000 dollars per day
 Oil Sale price:    60 dollars per barrel

  Prod       PC   Profit
   ---   ------  -------
   100    50.00    10.00
    75    66.00    -6.00
    50   100.00   -40.00
    25   200.00  -140.00
    10   500.00  -440.00
At $60 per barrel and $40 in tax the per barrel cost to the consumer is $100. Consumption will rise to the same level as before, 100 barrels per day. The industry is now only making $10 profit. The tax revenue was $40 per barrel times 100 barrels per day, $4000 per day. Our hypothetical populace would have $1.46 million to share - and presumably spend.

So what happened? Using this simple model a portion of the value of a valuable natural resource, oil, was captured using taxes and delivered to the people. The "at the pump" cost did NOT change. With oil products costing no more than before the tax and extra money in their pockets the economy would do better than before the tax. A win-win for all except perhaps the oil executives.

Summary: Add substantial tax to oil (before refining) and you will get the following benefits:

  1. As a country you will pay less per barrel for the oil
  2. Use the revenues to displace existing taxes or give it back directly to the people. This makes the tax a net burden of zero!
  3. Oil derived products will increase in price. This will encourage people to find alternatives to oil based products and to use energy more efficiently. No need to put artificial impediments in place to mitigate inefficient usage. Even if you received a $5000 oil dividend recently, knowing that gasoline is $5/gal you'll be inclined to pocket the money and get the hybrid instead of the SUV.
  4. Fewer dollars will flow to the oil producing countries. Somehow I don't think too many people will shed tears for them.
Notes: This idea is closely related to the Georgist "One tax". Tax land and natural resources and you'll pretty much eliminate poverty.

For years there was a rant on the Opec site about how terrible oil taxes were. Uh, for who? Well - in this authors opinion the only harm is too those who are already rolling in cash. Everyone else wins.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Ramblings on Free Parking and Morality

Ramblings on Free Parking and Morality

There is a sense of entitlement associated with free parking for employees, at least in the US. I don't know if that same sense of entitlement exists in other countries but I want to take a moment to explore whether or not that sense of entitlement is justified and what the consequences, great, small, and intended or not, might be by perpetuating the employee benefit of free parking.

Overall, driving a personal vehicle is an inefficient, dangerous and environmentally harmful form of transportation relative to alternatives such as buses, bicycling, trains or trams. To subsidize driving is morally irresponsible given the harm done to society.


First, a word or two about what I mean when I use the word morality. My working definition for this discussion is: the harm or good done to others in the present or future by an action of an individual or group. I believe that every action anyone takes has moral implications. I was only able to articulate this after listening to Constructive Living by David Reynolds. On reflection, I think I have always believed it at some level. So, every act has moral implications by virtue of the fact that every act will impact someone, sometime, in a big, small, negative or positive way.

Now on to the moral implications of a company providing free parking. Lets look at the financial and social costs and benefits in a qualitative way.

Financial Costs from the Company Point of View

  • Parking lot maintenance, including: asphalt repair, painting the lines, periodic cleaning, snow removal.

  • Lighting maintenance and energy costs.

  • Safety, security, surveillance, insurance.

  • Property taxes.

  • Opportunity cost (the land could be used for more office buildings for example or rented or leased to someone else)

Not all of these costs would apply in every case but it is clear that providing parking lots and free parking for employees takes a toll, perhaps small, on the company's bottom line and ultimately this money is subtracted from employee paychecks or investor dividends.

Financial Costs to Society (Driving versus Alternative Transport)

  • Roads must be built to accommodate rush hour traffic removing land from more productive use.

  • More traffic means more police and safety-related infrastructure.

  • Roads cost a lot of money to maintain. Bigger roads cost more than smaller roads (duh!).

Social and Intangible Costs

  • Traffic accidents are more likely on crowded roads and when drivers are in a hurry to get to work.

  • Social isolation, which breeds intolerance. The thought here is that in general the more exposed to different people we are the more tolerant of those differences we become.

  • Because much more fuel must be burned than if alternative transportation were used dollars must flow overseas to buy oil, often to countries that we'd perhaps rather not be showering with cash. Or, to frame it a little obnoxiously, every time you buy gasoline you are indirectly supporting terrorism. How's that for a leap :-) .

The distortion of the free market by subsidizing automobile based transport by employers providing “free” transport arguably influences the employees decision making process. I think you will agree that free parking really means subsidized driving and that translates into a reduced incentive to use alternative transportation. Yes, driving a car to work provides a lot of benefits for many people. It is flexible, private, and comfortable (assuming you can afford more than a clunker). However there are consequences to having every employee of every company commuting to their workplace every work day in an automobile.

What to do?

What should an upstanding moral employer do? Simple: pass the costs of parking on to your employees AND at the same time give everyone a raise equivalent to the expected revenues from the parking divided by the number of employees. This maintains the status quo and would allow for a transition while avoiding employee revolt. Morally employees who think deeply about the factors involved should feel good about the parking costs coupled with the raise. No upstanding employee wants to be a part of an immoral (that is, harmful) subsidy. Those who love to drive will benefit by seeing the roads a little less crowded. Those who loathe driving will no longer feel that they are subsidizing other drivers because of the money that comes out of company profits or their paychecks to pay for “free” parking that they do not use.

UPDATED: What to do?

The solution is so simple I missed it. One small and easily enforced law is all it takes. If an employer provides free parking then require they also provide free bus passes to employees. The company I work for provides free bus passes for its employees. I recently started using the bus and even though my comute is now 10-15 minutes longer I am loving it. I get to read and relax and get a few minutes walk in every day.