Lessons from Lyndon Johnson

I’m in the middle of the third book in Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. In brief, Caro’s thesis is that (1) Lyndon Johnson cares only about power, and (2) Lyndon Johnson is spectacularly skilled at politics. Moreover, (2) holds in a strong sense: Johnson is not simply skilled at politics, but far more skilled than nearly everyone around him. As a result, Johnson’s life is an example of asymmetric play in a theoretically symmetric game, and a beautiful illustration of how such asymmetric play is equivalent to the game itself having asymmetric rules.

You can't always get what you want

(This is an expanded version of a Facebook comment, because Jeremy asked.) Recently I came across an article about opposition to housing development in San Francisco. The headline positions of everyone involved are uninteresting: housing advocates want more affordable housing, housing developers want less. The really interesting bit is more subtle: at one point the developer says they’re still trying to figure out what the community wants and is immediately booed.

Rootstrikers conference summary

I went to the Rootstrikers conference yesterday, which consisted of a few panel debates/discussions plus questions from the audience. I also got to hang out in a bar at a table with Lawrence Lessig for a half hour or so after the conference, which was pretty cool. I’ll summarize the conference here, and include links for anyone who wants to follow the movement or get actively involved. Stepping back: there are two core ideas behind Rootstrikers: (1) representative democracy in the United States is being corrupted by the influence of money and money-connected lobbying, and (2) even if this corruption isn’t the most important problem to solve, it is the FIRST problem to solve, since it is blocking satisfactory progress on nearly every other issue (climate change, tax reform, health care costs, etc.

The one charity theorem

The normal scheme for donating to charities is to divide money up among several different charities. The following argument shows why this strategy is often wrong. Both the statement and the proof will be extremely informal: One charity theorem: Assume we have a fixed amount of money to divide between $n$ charities. Assume that utility is a smooth function of the performances of the charities, which in turn depend smoothly on the amount of money each receives.

Would anarchy work?

In the scale free government post, one of the completely unresolved issues was what to do about the federalism axis. There are two scale free extremes to choose from: completely uniform democracy and pure libertarianism (i.e., anarchy). This post will ramble about the anarchy option without getting anywhere very useful. Anarchy would only work if the universe is such that the middle ground can be efficiently simulated by ad-hoc coordinated groups.

Exponentially harder isn't hard enough yet

In well designed cryptographic security systems, the attacker needs to do exponentially more work than the defender in order to read a secret, forge a message, etc., subject to appropriate hardness assumptions. Maybe this is true for many non-computer security-ish systems as well, like choosing good representatives in a voting system or avoiding overpaying for advertised merchandise, and we simply haven’t reached the level of intelligence as defenders for the exponential effort of attackers to be prohibitive.

Incremental revolution

The previous post described possible ways of removing artificial scale parameters from a political system, the most important being a way to remove the representational scale dependency via “direct democracy plus scripting” (for which I still need a better name). This post will describe how one might try to achieve such a system. Besides the obvious reason for such a discussion, the transition from one system to another provides an excellent thought experiment to evaluate the merits of both current and future systems.

Scale free government

I read The Dispossessed again recently, which is a wonderful book by Ursula K. Le Guin about a society of anarchist/revolutionaries where ideally everyone shares everything and is never compelled to do anything by anyone else. In practice all sorts of societal and structural compulsions arise, and half the book is about struggling with these internal contradictions (the other half argues how much better it is, contradictions and all, than the alternative).

The problem

From CBS News: On the one hand, [Obama’s] administration has defended a free, open Internet as it watched repressive regimes fall in the Middle East with help from social media such as Twitter. It has also been a proponent of the concept of “net neutrality,” which prevents Internet service providers from slowing online traffic that comes from file-sharing sites known to trade in pirated content. On the other hand, Obama and other Democrats have gone to Hollywood dozens of times to raise campaign funds over the years.

Citizens United and Lochnerism

Here’s a wonderful article by Lawrence Lessig from a while back on the Citizens United Supreme Court case, which prohibited congress from regulating independent campaign expenditures by corporations: Lawrence Lessig, Democracy after Citizens United This is linked off of rootstrikers.org, but I hadn’t read it in detail before. His core argument is great: in key places in their decisions, the justices made statements such as The appearance of influence or access .