Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Drunk Frat Boys? No, Just Some Old Game Theory

I have often snarked about how a few drunk fraternity brothers can swing an election in a three-way race, producing such outcomes as Jesse "The Body" Ventura as Governor of Minnesota.  I have also been critical of the 50% plus one threshold for such a major change as an independent Quebec.  Andrew Potter gave a nice primer today in Condorcet's Paradox.  That when you have three or more options, you can get into situations where the outcome depends entirely on the framing of the choice and the voting rules.  No stable majority will exist.

What this means for Canada and Quebec is that the PQ can frame the choice, perhaps, to get enough support even if the public may prefer autonomy to independence.  So, Potter is right: 50%+1 sucks.  On the other hand, even if there is a referendum (not soon), the choices in people's heads will not be entirely the same as the choice on paper--that framing is not a one party project, that other folks can compete to frame the choice so that people are aware of alternatives.

The PQ has to do more than frame the choice as federalism vs independence, as the uncertainty of a new country vs the realities of the old one raise a counter-vailing tendency in this case.  From psychology, we know about loss aversion (note the recent hotness of a book by Daniel Kahneman)*: people will gamble more to avoid losses than to pursue gains.  In a referendum situation, the potential losses of independence are likely to swamp the potential gains of independence, especially if the federal government does not put Quebec into a use or lose kind of situation. 
*  The fun thing to note that Kahneman's book looks an awful lot like the covers of Malcolm Gladwell's but the former is a real social scientist and the latter is just a pop social scientist.  Hmmm
Machiavelli knew this a long time ago:
"It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favor; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it. Thus it arises that on every opportunity for attacking the reformer, his opponents do so with the zeal of partisans, the others only defend him half-heartedly, so that between them he runs great danger."  Previously quoted here and here.
So, I do greatly appreciate the public service done by Potter this morning, but there is cause for some optimism as well.  Sometimes, fear and uncertainty can be good.

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