Being unable to buy elections isn't a bug, it's a feature

"Markets in everything" can be taken too far.

Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt blogs an idea which, frankly, demonstrates why we're pretty justified in keeping a sharp divide between economists and politicians:

In Glen’s voting mechanism, every voter can vote as many times as he or she likes. The catch, however, is that you have to pay each time you vote, and the amount you have to pay is a function of the square of the number of votes you cast. As a consequence, each extra vote you cast costs more than the previous vote. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say the first vote costs you $1. Then to vote a second time would cost $4. The third vote would be $9, the fourth $16, and so on. A person who cast four votes would have to pay a total of $30 (1+4+9+16=30). Twenty votes would cost $2,870. One hundred votes would cost you more than $300,000. Five hundred votes would cost more than $40 million. So eventually, no matter how much you like a candidate, you choose to vote a finite number of times.

What is so special about this voting scheme? People end up voting in proportion to how much they care about the election outcome. The system captures not just which candidate you prefer, but how strong your preferences are. Given Glen’s assumptions, this turns out to be Pareto efficient — i.e., no person in society can be made better off without making someone else worse off.

Levitt deals with some potential criticisms on his blog, but only in passing; and while he argues that there is support for the idea in a laboratory, the laboratory experiments didn't deal with the major problem with the idea in the real world, which is that when the difference in wealth spreads several orders of magnitude, it couldn't fail to give more voice to those with more wealth, especially when it comes to issues where the rich speak as one (like, perhaps, taxation of the wealthy).

In addition, the proposal is only examined from an economists point of view, when it is an area also well studied by political scientists. An important aspect of voting, for instance, is that while we may talk of "wasted" votes in majoritarian systems, very little has been actually wasted. If you have to buy votes, then "safe" constituencies would basically never change hands, as the minority party's turnout would collapse. That, in turn, would likely see the majority party's turnout also collapse, which could set up frankly strange chaotic cycles, especially in a three+ party system.

Levitt also mentions the prospect of fraud, but focuses on a strange aspect; the problem seems less to be that people would sell their votes, and more that a system set up to take multiple votes per person removes one hurdle to voter fraud that we have now.

Add to those problems the fact that the system as designed locks anyone out of the electoral process who doesn't have enough money to spare on it; that one-person-one-vote was always defended for philosophical, rather than practical, reasons; and that a far more serious problem with elections from the point of view of an economist is that being forced to communicate acceptance of a broad set of policies with only a yes or no answer to a question every five years is a stupidly inefficient way to gauge public preferences.

So: be glad economists don't run countries, only their money.

A woman votes in Florida. Hopefully, she didn't have to pay. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The post-Brexit power vacuum is hindering the battle against climate change

Brexit turmoil should not distract from the enormity of the task ahead.

“The UK will not step back from that international leadership [on clean energy]”, the Secretary for climate change, Amber Rudd, told a sea of suits at Wednesday's summit on Business and the environment.

The setting inside London’s ancient Guidlhall helped load her claims with a sense of continuity. But can such rhetoric be believed? Not only have recent events thrown the UK's future ability to lead on climate change into doubt, but a closer look at policy suggests that this government has rarely been leading to start with.

Rudd’s speech came just 24 hours before she laid the order of approval for the UK’s fifth Carbon Budget. This budget will set our 2028-2032 emissions target at a 57 per cent reduction on 1990 levels – in line with the advice of the independent Committee on Climate Change. And comes amidst a party-wide attempt to reassure green business that Britain is open as normal: "I think investors now should feel they have a very clear path ahead," Andrea Leadsom has insisted.

In some respects, those wanting to make the case for an independent UK, could not have wished for a better example than the home-grown carbon budget. The budget is the legal consequence of the UK’s ground-breaking domestic 2008 Climate Change Act, which aims to cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. And the new 57 per cent interim target also appears to put the UK ahead of European efforts on the matter - exceeding the EU goal of a 40 per cent emissions reduction.

The announcement will thus allow David Cameron to argue that he has fulfilled his husky-loving promise to provide leadership on the environment. He may even make it the basis for an early ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement, ahead of the European bloc as a whole.

Yet looked at more closely, the carbon budget throws the UK’s claims to climate leadership into serious doubt.

In the short term, its delayed, last moment, release is a dispiriting example of Westminster’s new power-vacuum. Business leaders, such as those at yesterday’s conference, are crying out for “consistent, coherent and predictable national policies” on climate change and emissions reductions. Yet today’s carbon budget can only go so far to maintaining the pretence of stability.

Earlier this week, Amber Rudd responded to a parliamentary question into how Brexit will effect the UK’s climate ambitions with a link to none other than the Prime Minister’s resignation speech. And while concrete progress on policy will have to wait for party-political power struggles politics to run their course, historic Tory hostility to green policy makes progressive change far from certain.

Supporters of Brexiteer Boris Johnson may have played down his opposition to action on climate change in recent days, quipping that he would sooner be “kebabbed with a steak knife over the dining room table” by his environmentalist father. But the recent appointment of UKIP’s Mark Reckless, from a party notorious for its climate scepticism, as the new chairman of the Welsh committee on climate change has sent shock waves through the environmental community and will do little to help allay investor fears.

More concerning still is the 47 per cent shortfall between emission targets and present reality. A progress report released today is damning evidence of the Conservative's long-term neglect of the underlying issues.

Such censure builds upon the findings of a recent study from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit. Far from leading Europe’s major nations on issues of energy and climate change, their research finds the UK to be distinctly middle of the pack. “Of the ‘Big Five’ economies with comparable levels of population size, GDP, ect., Britain ranks third, behind France and Spain but ahead of Italy and Germany”, write authors Matt Finch and Dr Jonathan Marshall.

A significant number of incentives for government action – such as fines for not meeting interim targets on energy efficiency – would also be nullified in the instance of Brexit. And it cannot even be claimed that our long-term ambition is greater than Europe’s: the UK’s target is an 80 per cent cut between 1990-2050, and the EU’s is 80-95 per cent.

News that the manufacturing giant Siemens is suspending new investment into its UK-based offshore wind operations could thus be set to prove symptomatic of a wider trend. And ministers must act fast to turn promises into policy.

Even  Michael Gove - the man who once wanted to take climate change off the curriculum – now describes as one of the world’s greatest challenges. While according  to the new shadow secretary for energy and climate change, Barry Gardiner: “The government can no longer wait until December to publish its Carbon Plan. It must do so now.”  

Included in such a plan should be clarification of the UK’s relationship to European emissions trading, the development of a Carbon Capture & Storage strategy, and urgent action on heating and transport efficiency. The 5th Carbon Budget is an important step towards this process but Brexit turmoil should not distract from the enormity of the task ahead. Nor from the damning fragility of Cameron’s environmental legacy to date.

 

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.