Fixing the Electoral Process

A meandering think-out-loud post.

In the aftermath of an election, it is easy to blame the system. However, the flaws in how the US Presidential system works really are appalling.

Attention is currently focused on the Electoral College. It is an almost indefensible system. Indeed one of the main defences offered simply ignores what actually happens in an election. That particular defence is that without the Electoral College presidential candidates could simply ignore the smaller states and concentrate on the big states. Practically, any system in which the popular vote mattered more would encourage campaigning in more states than currently occurs. The Democrats would benefit from votes in Texas or even Utah and Republicans would benefit from votes from California. As things stand, ‘safe’ states get little attention. Yet the key swing states would stay relevant. States like Ohio, Florida, Virginia, or Pennsylvania which saw more campaigning would be important sources of votes in a national vote.

The rights or wrongs of state level representation are an argument worth having when devising a system of government and I can see the benefit in how the US Senate is organised but the Electoral College makes next to no sense.

The only other potential benefit is very much a double-edged sword. Yes, in theory, electors in the college can potentially vote for a different candidate. There are some who are campaigning for this to happen to prevent Trump being elected. Yet, that is a truly drastic measure which would shake people’s faith in the democratic process. It is hard to imagine how somebody could govern as President if they were elected in that way. Worth it to stop Trump? Not my call to make.

The EC can be reformed piecemeal at the State level. States can either choose to split their electoral college votes proportionately or subdivide their electors to districts. Alternatively, States can legislate for their electors to vote for whoever won the popular vote nationally.

However, the problem is deeper than the electoral college. In most Presidential elections the discrepancy between the popular vote proportions and the EC vote proportions are irrelevant. Typically the winner has a majority in both. The discrepancy arises when the election is relatively close and close elections have been rare. [Of course, two of the most notable ones have occurred this century and the EC gave the Republican candidate the Presidency…]

The all-or-nothing aspect of the Presidency is the deeper problem. Even if Clinton was elected on the strength of her popular vote margin, a substantial number of voters would, not unreasonably, feel they had been disenfranchised. Trump and his surrogates have argued that if the election was based on winning the popular vote than they would have campaigned differently and hence may have won the popular vote. That argument is both desperate and not without merit. Change the voting system and people’s voting behaviour will change to some degree also. Trump would have campaigned in California and Clinton would have campaigned in Texas – so we can’t know how the election would have turned out (although I suspect Clinton would have won).

Trump won over a lot of voters despite his obvious flaws. A future Trump-like candidate may well have fewer obvious flaws (or hide them better) and do even better. Reforming the EC won’t fix that even if it is a worthwhile move in itself.

There is also little point thinking about the advantages of a parliamentary system. The level of constitutional change needed to bring that about is too vast to contemplate. The comparison is almost not worth making. The US doesn’t have a parliamentary system and isn’t going to have one anytime soon.

Ideally, the electoral system should force on candidates in a close election a need to compromise and recognise their mutual lack of support. Given that President is a single position there is no capacity for a coalition government. Arguably, the role of Vice-President provides some balance to the presidential candidate but this is often in terms of age or experience.

Yet, the Presidency is a bigger role than one person. The Presidency is also a set of appointees – to the cabinet and other senior positions.

Trump’s proposed appointments have been an interesting bunch. Collectively they are a repudiation of much of his populist rhetoric. Others (e.g. General Petraeus) would have effectively neutralised conservative attacks on Clinton’s email use or Wall Street connections.

It seems odd that people vote without actual knowing who will be occupying these key role. While it is true that voters in a general election in a parliamentary system don’t know who will be ministers in the event of one part being elected, generally people have a better idea given the restricted space of either the existing ministers (if the party in government is re-elected) or the opposition shadow cabinet. [Another plus of the Westminster system is the rulers of the nation are opposed by a body nearly called ‘The Cabinet of Shadows’ ]

What would happen if POTUS candidates had to announce their cabinet before the election?

In many scenarios, I doubt it would make much difference. It might depersonalise the election a little but not by much. It might even help a Trump-like candidate appear more palatable by surrounding themselves with less scary, more level-headed people. Would Trump have done that though? Yes – maybe, Trump is now finding some people who are less intent on chewing the scenery but would many of them signed up before the election? Trump’s choice of surrogates during the election suggests that he would have struggled to surround himself with more moderate picks. Consequently, he may have had to pick electoral liabilities (e.g. Chris Christie) and/or people that would have undermined either his own image or his own arguments against Clinton.

Would this require a change in the constitution? I’ve no idea but I assume if a single state made it a requirement of appearing on the ballot that the candidate had to nominate a cabinet as well, that might do the trick.

More Bad Science from the alt-right


Speaking of the Alt-right, their house journal has been getting its knickers in a twist over global temperatures. Resident UK spreader of warming nonsense, James Delingpole got himself somewhat agitated about the fall in temperatures after the 2016 El Nino.

 Global land temperatures have plummeted by one degree Celsius since the middle of this year – the biggest and steepest fall on record.

But the news has been greeted with an eerie silence by the world’s alarmist community. You’d almost imagine that when temperatures shoot up it’s catastrophic climate change which requires dramatic headlines across the mainstream media and demands for urgent action. But that when they fall even more precipitously it’s just a case of “nothing to see here”.

As happens so frequently, Delingpole reveals the stark evidence for global warming inadvertently in his critique. According to Delingpole, we are now in a chilly El Nino. But what do the actual temperatures show?

Dr Roy Spencer is himself a climate change ‘skeptic’ and the satellite temperature data has been lauded by Delingpole in the past.So what are the satellite data showing?

Yes, temperature anomalies have dropped since the 2016 EL Nino peak but they are still high. Indeed November 2016 is substantially higher than most of the data points in the satellite record.


Taking Delingpole’s blather seriously would imply that his chilly La Nina is HOTTER than early 1980’s El Nino’s.

The Alt-right and misogyny


Discussions on the term ‘alt-right’ both among the left and in the media have got more sophisticated in the past week. For example here is the Associated Press’s Blog discussing the term:

“Alt-right” (quotation marks, hyphen and lower case) may be used in quotes or modified as in the “self-described” or “so-called alt-right” in stories discussing what the movement says about itself.

Avoid using the term generically and without definition, however, because it is not well known and the term may exist primarily as a public-relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience. In the past we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist.

That is a good move but I think it is still lacking. The problem is how to discuss differences without sounding like you are minimising some aspect of neo-Nazis or the alt-right.

Brianna Wu tweeted some criticism of the AP piece that highlighted the glaring omission in the AP’s description:

Nazis were misogynistic and the Alt-right are racist BUT the roles misogyny and racism play in those movements are different. It isn’t that somehow the misogyny of the Nazis was OK or a lesser evil or that the racism of the alt-right is not deeply disturbing – both movements are appalling in either dimension. However, the misogyny of the alt-right is more key to their identity and to their behaviour.

In addition, misogyny has been the gateway for the alt-right to recruit young men into a racist movement. The current alt-right has deep and continuing connections with misogynistic ‘men’s rights’ style movements as well as with the supposed pick-up artist groups and dodgy ‘self-improvement’ and pseudo-psychology. In each case, there is a strong element of the alt-right playing on sexual insecurities of young men.

At the same time, the alt-right have tended to prefer nationalism and racism to self-define their movement. For example, Vox Day’s 16 principles of the alt-right overtly includes a white-supremacist credo as point 14 (the number chosen to highlight the source). Yet women are the most consistent personal targets of Alt-right campaigns. Anti-women viewpoints (including views that promote or legitimise sexual assault) are central to their messaging. Even their anti-immigrant propaganda is centred on sexual fears – often phrased in terms that imply women are territory or property at risk of being stolen or violated that they see as properly belonging to white men.

In short, the alt-right seeks to exploit the sexual insecurities of men to recruit and promote an overtly racist agenda while targeting women and feminism for harassment.

Review: Class – What Quill Did or the Metaphysical Engine

I really enjoyed this chaotic episode – maybe I’m just keen on a Ms Quill TV series.

This is a partner episode to the last episode, in which we see what Ms Quill was up to while the rest of the cast were trapped in a classroom in space with a psychotic rock.

There isn’t actually much of a plot – it is essentially a hunt for some plot coupons with a betrayal at the end – but it suits Quill and has a host of ideas some of which are disposed of too quickly. It has the opposite (but related) problem to the issue Doctor Who has with two-parters – sometimes a single episode has too many ideas and not enough time to explore them.

Central to the story is a device that allows people to travel to world’s of collective belief. In each case, the world is the heaven or hell of a species. We get a shapeshifter hell, a parasites heaven and an atheist gets to meet a manifestation of their god.

Fun, weird, cheap but not unconvincing alien worlds. I felt it had the feel of a better Blake’s 7 episode without actually resembling one – perhaps because Quill feels more like a character from that universe of dodgy BBC sets rather than the Who universe of dodgy BBC sets.

Weird Internet Ideas: DDT

This is a compilation of comments I made in reply to a comment on File770 here:

‘Bring back DDT. “The ban on DDT,” says Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health, “may have killed 20 million children.” Who was more dangerous, Rachel Carson or Pol Pot?’

The answer is Pol Pot.
Rachel Carson killed nobody that I’m aware of.Pol Pot was responsible for the deaths of an unknown number of Cambodians – but 3 million is a plausible figure.

Pol Pot was responsible for the deaths of an unknown number of Cambodians – but 3 million is a plausible figure.So, the first questions

So, the first questions is WHY somebody would compare a woman science writer to a murderous communist/nationalist with a murderous fixation on an agrarian utopia and a hatred of urban intellectuals?Because that is what you’ve been told to think.

Because that is what you’ve been told to think. By whom?

By whom?By some definitely non-communists but who are also nationalists and also seem to have a persistent hatred of urban intellectuals.

By some definitely non-communists but who are also nationalists and also seem to have a persistent hatred of urban intellectuals.‘But, but’ you might say ‘the ban on DDT has killed millions because of malaria and that’s all Rachel Carson’s fault!’

But, but, that is what is known as ‘bullshit’. It is wrong encased in more wrong and built up from wrong.

The evil brilliance of this argument is that it works like the opposite of a Gish Gallop – instead of a whole series of wrong that the debunker has to debunk in multiple directions, this argument uses the BIG SIMPLE LIE instead – to mislead and distract.The lie being – the “ban’ on DDT.

How is the ‘ban’ a lie?
 Well, there are many kinds of things that could be called ‘bans’ on DDT.
 The ‘ban’ that could be ascribed to Rachel Carson’s book ‘The Silent Spring’ is the ban on the use of DDT in the United States of America.
 Of course, THAT ban has not led to millions of deaths in the Third World because it was a ban on the use of DDT in THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, not the world.

Even THAT ban (essentially the EPA limiting its permitted uses) included public health exemptions. So the ban that could be linked to the political pressure from people being convinced by Carson’s book definitely led to zero deaths in the USA – the country that the ‘ban’ applied to.

‘Yeah, yeah, but’ you might say ‘The US ban led to other bans’.

This is true after all DDT is a dangerous substance with real environmental impact. It is well researched.

‘Yeah, but Silent Spring was wrong on these points…’ irrelevant. No restriction on the use of DDT has ever been enacted on the strength of whatever Rachel Carson wrote in Silent Spring alone. She could have written that DDT was haunted by tiny demons from Gloucestershire and it wouldn’t prove anything about the validity of restrictions on DDT. Of course, her arguments were much better than that but they were simply a start of an inquiry – not the foundation of a case. Attempts to disprove ‘Silent Spring’ are just a way to divert from modern evidence on DDT. Of course, Silent Spring didn’t have every fact right – so what? It is like saying we shouldn’t treat cancer because a 1950’s medical manual has errors in it.

‘Yeah but the worldwide ban’…no the ‘worldwide ban’ doesn’t exist. There are worldwide (effectively) limitations on its use. However, the most notable one is the World Health Organisation’s. Yet THAT ‘ban’ ALSO has exemptions for health programs.
So what ARE the bans? The bans have substantially reduced the use of DDT for AGRICULTURAL use.


Well have you heard of evolution?

Evolution – animals change. Mosquitos can become resistant to pesticides. Indeed, fighting malaria, whether it is mosquitos or the nasty creature that actually causes the disease, has been a constant arms race between us and the nasty bastards.So wide scale DDT use for AGRICULTURE means lots of bad news for animals further up the food chain but that kind of uncontrolled use means exposure of malaria carrying mosquitos to DDT in an uncontrolled way. That means more survivors, more resistance and hence LESS EFFECTIVENESS of DDT as a tool of disease control.

So wide scale DDT use for AGRICULTURE means lots of bad news for animals further up the food chain but that kind of uncontrolled use means exposure of malaria carrying mosquitos to DDT in an uncontrolled way. That means more survivors, more resistance and hence LESS EFFECTIVENESS of DDT as a tool of disease control.

Anybody who believes that DDT is the best way of eliminating malaria-carrying mosquitoes should be absolutely in favour of a ban on DDT for agricultural use. Interesting that the people pushing the lie about Rachel Carson *aren’t* in favour of the ban on agriculture.

Of course, whether DDT is effective for public health uses is another question. But, I’ll leave that one. As the key lie has been identified already. Even if DDT is effective for public health campaigns then the bans that are ascribed to Carson definitely SAVED lives rather than resulted in deaths. Without those bans, DDT would have become increasingly ineffective.

Yet, people fall for this glib lie.

Forgive me, but I’ve seen enough of those recently.

I say ‘lie’ because we know who and why this lie was invented.

So why would somebody say something both absurd and also a bit nasty?

Well, I’ll start with something a bit more current. Ladies and gentlemen the next Vice-President of the United Sates, Mike Pence:

“Time for a quick reality check. Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill. In fact, 2 out of every three smokers does not die from a smoking related illness and 9 out of ten smokers do not contract lung cancer. This is not to say that smoking is good for you…. news flash: smoking is not good for you. If you are reading this article through the blue haze of cigarette smoke you should quit. The relevant question is, what is more harmful to the nation, second hand smoke or back handed big government disguised in do-gooder healthcare rhetoric.”

Smoking? What’s smoking got to do with it?

The Advancement of Sound Science Center was established as a front for the tobacco industry – specifically Philip Morris. Cigarettes, as we all know (except VP elect Mike Pence) smoking kills. As a business model, killing your customers has some drawbacks, not least of which is a kind of selective pressure which ensures that people in charge of such an industry have to have an almost pathological disregard for the welfare of others.
Of course, the TASSC couldn’t just leap in and do a Mike Pence and say smoking doesn’t kill. Nope. A more clever and cynical strategy was employed.

The idea was this: attack science. Throw doubt on notions of expertise and scientific authority. That is not an idea invented by the right – its most excessive expression was during Mao’s cultural revolution in China.

If enough doubt could be seeded in people’s minds about scientific claims of harm – particularly those based on indirect chains of causality or complex statistical evidence – then moves against smoking could be hampered. After all, lung cancer is capricious and the connection between any one cigarette and a malignant tumour in your lungs is hard to establish. The harm is found in broad net effects that grow over time. It is a matter of statistical preponderance.

To make this kind of attack another target could be used.
We’ve had one villain in this story already (Pol Pot) but it is time for another.

Steve Milloy.

Milloy, locked onto the DDT issue as a way of sowing doubt about science-based environmental policy. The brief was to help limit legislation on secondhand smoking but to do that a broader strategy of creating FEAR UNCERTAINTY DOUBT around science policy was being employed. This was not new – a long-term approach to hamper moves on environmental and public health issues was the application of FUD.

It’s why if you are a right-leaning American you probably think that global warming is dubious. For any industry that unfortunately poisons people as a by-product, there are only a few PR gambits you can employ – making people doubt reality is going to be the main one.

In 2001 the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants  was used by TASSC and Milloy to create a set of enduring myths about DDT. While the convention overtly did NOT ‘ban’ DDT for use in vector control, the surrounding discussion was exploited to imply that first-world environmentalists were trying to stop struggling third-world nations from fighting malaria. The claim was false on many levels and had only a limited long-term impact on policy. But that wasn’t the point.

The point was to create a stick with which to attack science-based activism and policy.

Some years ago I was standing in a long Hindu temple that sat on a precipitous cliff edge and below me was all of Cambodia.
The temple is on a disputed piece of territory between Thailand and Cambodia. It lies in Cambodia but is really only accessible from Thailand. For political reasons it isn’t always accessible but at the time it was. Well worth a visit if the border is open. Exquisite. I think it is more impressive than Angkor Wat, although the scale is smaller.

After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and put an end to Pol Pot’s murderous regime, the Khmer Rouge retreated to various places.One of these was Preah Vihear Temple because of its strategic command of the surrounding territory.

There were stern warnings about minefields, a partly destroyed Russian helicopter, some small artillery pieces (possibly there just for tourists) and Buddhist monk  who treated me as a tourist attraction for a group of visiting Thais because I was the biggest, most obviously Western (‘Farang’) person there.

One of those places which had just way too much history concentrated in one spot.

Now you just can’t help but try and get into the heads of the Khmer Rouge standing in a place like that. It wasn’t just the genocide – and it pointless to try and draw levels of awful when it comes to murder on those levels – but the extent to which it was a kind of self-genocide. During Pol Pot’s reign, he and the Khmer Rouge essentially tried to make Cambodia murder itself. It is nigh on incomprehensible.

Ideology doesn’t explain it. After all, it was another brutal communist regime that eventually brought the mass murder to an end. Some kind of mass traumatic syndrome from the horrors of the decades of war in former French-IndoChina goes someway to explaining it I suppose.

Pol Pot literally wanted to make Cambodia great again. It was nationalism and communism and Maoist obsession with agrarian living that formed a truly appalling mix that led to horrors that should chill every one of us.

But also denial. Denial of learning. Denial that people from the cities had anything to contribute. Denial of learning. Denial of expertise.

When things didn’t go to plan, when the agricultural revolution instead brought starvation, the killing only intensified. When eventually the Khmer Rouge was toppled, the die hards didn’t stop and think ‘we really messed up’ but dug in and kept fighting for decades afterwards UTTERLY CONVINCED that they had done the right thing. To the extent that they would carry on fighting and dying for their beliefs that were so factually and morally wrong.

So who killed more? Pol Pot or people’s capacity to fool themselves with cynical lies? Pol Pot personally could have only ever killed a few people. To kill on the scale that he did required people who would believe and spread cynical lies and CONTINUE TO DO SO in the face of reality demonstrating that what they believed was wrong.

I’ve typed a lot in reply now. Some of what I’ve typed will be incorrect, misleading, inaccurate or exaggerated. Infallibility is not achievable.

Rachel Carson killed nobody by not being 100% correct.
The followers of Pol Pot killed millions by not accepting that he could be anything other than 100% correct.
I know which is a better example for any human regardless of their ideology.