Saturday, September 19, 2020

Storm coming

I am very worried about how the next election will play out. I am more worried than most commenters, hence this post, because as an economist I predict people's behavior by asking what is natural given their incentives and the rules of the game as they are. That thinking leads to a dark place.  

Our democracy has one essential function: a peaceful transfer of power. There are rules of the game. A winner is determined even in a close race. Both sides agree who won, and that the winner is a legitimate office holder. 

We seem inexorably headed to the most divisive election since 1860, in which this mantle of legitimacy is sure to vanish, to horrendous result. 

Ruth Bader Gisberg's death adds both distraction from the task of fixing election machinery -- really, agreement by both sides what the rules of the game will be, and to abide by the results -- and one more pathway to disaster. 

Imagine, as seems quite possible, that  Trump scores an early lead in the days after the election, with a narrow electoral college majority, though losing the popular vote, with 90% - 10% losses in the deep blue cities. Trump declares victory. Blue cities erupt in  protest. 

As mail in votes come in and are tabulated, Biden gets closer and closer and by his party's count has won.

 But lawyers have already fanned out around the country. Every single smudged postmark, questionable signature is challenged by both sides. Conspiracy theories abound. Vote harvesting stories are told. A few bales of forgotten mail are discovered. As the key battleground counties are isolated, we have 50  hanging chad controversies, with warring and disagreeing injections by different courts.  More protests erupt on  both sides. 

For example, the Wall Street Journal reports on Pennsylvania. 

State law clearly says absentee ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day. 

But the state Supreme Court, recognizing the poor design of the law, 

orders that ballots be counted if they arrive by Nov. 6. If their postmarks are missing or illegible, they will be “presumed to have been mailed by Election Day” unless evidence shows otherwise.  

The journal says, modestly, 

This also increases the chances that the courts will decide who wins Pennsylvania, and maybe the Presidency. 

No, this makes it a virtual certainty that courts will weigh in. If Pennsylvania is within a few thousand votes, it is certain that federal suits will be filed either to force compliance with the clear statement of the law, as admitted by the court, or to force compliance with the court's order. Georgia just had a similar ruling, in which a federal district court judge over-ruled the clear statement of Georgia law. With similar legitimate concerns that the law was poorly designed, and might make it harder for some people to vote. 

I'm not here to opine which side is right in these debates. The point: there is a debate, both sides make good arguments, and the basic rules of the game are up for grabs.  

We will have the 2000 hanging chads all over again -- except in multiple states and counties all at the same time. 

All that ends up in the Supreme Court, on a tight deadline. (There are abundant legal issues, which are beside the point. The suits will be filed, argued heatedly, and people will be in the streets protesting.)
This was going to be bad enough. Now suppose that the Senate has flipped to Democrats, 51-49, but the lame duck Senate confirms a Trump appointee to the court. Protests and riots erupt. (There are already protests, here for example, and Trump hasn't even nominated anyone. Another, from "grandma, team resistance:"   "If he tries to appoint someone, it's civil war, and I'll be on the front line." There are demonstrators in front of Senator Mitch McConnell's house now.  I just googled "Ginsburg protest," there's lots more.) 

And then suppose that  court decides, 5-4, or even 6-3 with the new member, in favor of Trump. In the softer gentler era of 2000, many democrats never acknowledged that Bush legitimately won the election. (I read the New Yorker which called it  "stolen" for years afterwards. I have never seen them acknowledge that in the final count, Bush did, actually, win.) Democratic acknowledgement that Trump really did win in 2016 and is the legitimate President of the United States has been soft at best.  Can you imagine they would sit still for the legitimacy of this outcome?  

There will be widespread protest, violence and looting. Right and leftwing "militias" will face off. We are not fighting about abstractions like "social justice." This a good old fashioned fight about political power. 

What do you do if you are president with cities burning? You send in the troops. Republicans will call it "law and order, " "protecting life, property and the rule of law." Democrats will decry this as "martial law," and a "coup." And with some justification:  To their view, protesting such a presidential outcome is the same as protests all over the world, in Hong Kong, in Iran, in Belarus, that aim to topple illegitimate regimes, though those regimes are "lawful" by their laws and procedures for implementing those laws. 

Keep going past an inauguration marred by violent protest to the spring. Trump is President, with Joe Biden still publicly claiming victory, not conceding the election, and daily disorder in the streets of DC. Trump faces a Democratic house and senate. The latter swiftly abolishes the filibuster, and now the two branches are openly at war with each other. No bill gets passed, no appointee is confirmed. 

Even my capacity to imagine chaos is strained from what happens next. States refusing federal power -- the next closest thing to secession -- is not unimaginable. 

Peggy Noonan is worried, but not enough in my view.  On the wait for mail-in ballots to be counted, 
The waiting will require patience and trust. That’s not, as we know, the prevailing political mood. We are riven and polarized. “It is my greatest concern,” Joe Biden has said. “This president is going to try to steal this election.” Mr. Trump: “They’re trying to steal the election from the Republicans.”
She leaves out the army of lawyers ready to go. Patience and trust are not going to happen. 
What many people will fear in such an atmosphere is the possibility of violence.
Me too. It is not insane to start looking at how to board up your house, or other defenses of your home and person for a time of civil unrest. 
There will be charges and countercharges, rumors, legal challenges. There will be stories—“My cousin saw with her own eyes bags of votes being thrown in the Ohio River.” Most dangerously there will be conspiracy theories, fed by a frenzied internet.
I've told one story, but many paths take us to the same sort of disaster. 
There is also the issue of so-called faithless electors, who could deny the winning candidate a majority. In either case, the election would be thrown to the House, where people may be surprised by the rules. They assume that if the Democrats have a majority, as is expected, the House would vote Democratic. But the House would vote not by individual member but by state delegation. There, in the current Congress, the Republicans have an edge.
But, she forgets, the Democrats run the process and enforce the rules. The battle here will be monumental. And-- my central point -- the chance that either side, or their supporters, regards the result as legitimate is very small. 

Risk analysis 101: If there is one path to disaster, by which 5 improbable events have to fail, you're probably ok. But if many scenarios all come back to the same disaster, the chance of that disaster is larger. 

We can imagine similar chaos if Biden comes out on top. Again, it won't be known for sure until weeks after the election. Right wing conspiracy theories float around the internet, how the deep state is hiding mail-in ballots. Armed protesters show up at post offices. Maybe the Roberts court, clearly anxious to keep its legitimacy and not take the huge hit to left-wing reputation that happened in Bush-v-Gore, goes with the Democrats and certifies just enough of their creative vote counting. (As opposed to equally creative Republican vote-counting.) The right wing is confirmed in its view that the deep state finally got their guy.

In my view the right wing, being a little more invested in the whole idea of America and her Constitution as a useful construct, is less likely to view the result as illegitimate and take to the streets in violent protest. They're mighty upset about creeping socialism and all, but that is a policy difference. Plus there aren't many right wingers in the big cities, and there is not much to loot and burn in the Trump-land country side.  But I could be wrong about that. 

(I see some commenters already think I'm wrong on that. Please send in comments with your scenarios. The more credible scenarios we can articulate, and the more bipartisan the danger, the stronger my point.) 

If a Democratic administration and senate make good on their pledge to pack the Supreme Court -- even more likely in face of a last-minute Trump appointment which they will regard as illegitimate -- the right will surely see the packed court, and its decisions, as profoundly illegitimate. The court has no police force, and only has any influence if people regard its decisions as legitimate, if often wrong.  If the campaign to end the electoral college in one way or another succeeds, the right will see the result of the next election as superbly illegitimate. People feel justified in defying power they see as illegitimate, even at the cost of violence.  

What a crisis—including a constitutional crisis—may be coming down the pike.
Me: It's worse than that. 

I hope I am thoroughly and completely wrong. I hope that reverence for the United States' constitutional architecture allows a close and hard-fought election, which goes to the second, third, and fourth fail-safe clauses for producing a winner, is sufficiently revered by both sides to avoid this disaster. Just saying that makes me lose hope. Please prove me wrong! 


The fix is obvious: the two sides need to agree to the rules of the game ahead of time and abide by the result. We need to know now which ballots get counted, how, and when. There have been opeds aplenty advocating this, for months. This is an entirely predictable disaster. 

But early voting has already started. It's too late for that. (Before any of the debates! Before the inevitable October surprise! Everyone voting on the same day has some merits.) 

The two sides are doing exactly the opposite -- fanning out to play this game to the death. The choice to prepare to fight vs. work together to find acceptable rules, especially with short time and suspicion the other side is cheating, seems like a classic prisoner's dilemma moment. Peace treaties, constitutional moments, take a lot of trust-building. 

Peggy hopes for a Kumbaya moment, 

Get a group of Americans of national stature, people who would stand for the national interest even when at odds with their own party’s. Ask them to come together and speak as one. “It will seem Disneylandish,” Mr. Sabato said, “but distinguished Americans on both sides really need to teach the American lesson to the young and the old—how we have survived and been so successful and prosperous because we had common sense, which so many ideologues have lost.”

He thought they should make it clear, before the results are in, “that we have to do this in the American way, we have to accept outcomes whether we like them or not, otherwise we will dissolve.” They could ask citizens to join them in a pledge of nonviolence. “They should say sometimes demonstrations are useful, sometimes justified, but no violence under any conditions.” He suggested leaders from a wide range of fields—Nobel Prize winners, artists, people of left and right.

I nominate Tucker Carlson and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

That's a nice thought. But really, what needed fixing is the low-level bureaucratic machinery of counting votes. We've had 250 years to get good at the basic task of counting votes. It looks like that is as broken as the rest of our government infrastructure. With that broken,  encouraging people to peacefully accept an outcome they naturally will regard as deeply illegitimate, and which will have big impacts on their lives,  seems a vain hope. 


Back to the initial theme. The first task of democracy is a peaceful transition, or confirmation, of power. It doesn't have to be the right person. We have elected horrible people, incompetents, corrupt, and very ill politicians before. Our democracy is not great at producing a technocratically excellent bureaucracy. We take forever to hash out sensible public policy. But when you look back at the sweep of history nothing matters to peace and prosperity more than the assurance of a peaceful transfer of power. When the king dies, the knives come out. Then the cannons come out.  

The key to peaceful transition is that politicians and their supporters must be able to lose an election. Losers and their supporters understand that they may lose on policy issues, but they will have the chance to regroup and try again. They will not lose their jobs or their businesses. They will not be put in jail, dogged with investigations, prosecuted under vague laws, regulated out of business. Their assets will not be confiscated. The machinery of state will not turn on a dime.  The losers will retain rights and places to slow down policies that they really disagree with. The winners will push the rules a bit, but winners will not use their hold on power to utterly disenfranchise the losers in the next round. 

It is this assurance that allows losers to lose with grace, accept the legitimacy of the winners, and work to improve their (loser's) message or shift their coalition to do better next time. It is this assurance that allows both sides to abide by traditional norms and not fight each battle as if survival depends on it, respecting traditional norms. 

Dont' laugh. It's not this way in most of the world, and was not this way through most of history. 

Why are our politics so polarized? Because it is more and more dangerous to lose an election. Regulation has supplanted legislation, and dear colleague letters, interpretations, and executive orders have supplanted regulation.  More and more politics is fought through the criminal justice system and control of the FBI and congressional investigation apparatus. 

The vanishing ability to lose an election and not be crushed is the core reason for increased partisan vitriol and astounding violation of basic norms on both sides of our political divide. Democracy relies on norms more than legal limits. We won't replace a justice within a month of an election, because we trust you won't do it when it's your turn. We won't eliminate the filibuster to cram our agenda through, because we trust you won't do it when it's your turn. And so on. 

Richard Nixon famously decided not to contest the 1960 election, which was very likely stolen from him, because it would not be good for the country. He got a chance to come back, for better or worse.  Neither is likely these days. 

The real way to avoid crises like the coming storm is, in my view, to roll back the power of a narrowly won majority to shove major changes down the other sides' throat, and to extinguish their chances for recovery.  Peggy Noonan's leaders of national reconciliation have a lot of work ahead of them. 

When so many on both sides scream that this is the most important election ever, justifying any means to its victory, the answer is that winning any election by a slim majority should not be that important. Grant less power to the winner, and more rights to the losers. 


Update: A wise correspondent makes an interesting suggestion: 

Invention of sort of parliamentary-style deal, as sometimes attends the formation of a new government where that model holds, where the competing parties essentially make a package of deals:  agreements to support a particular candidate to head the government in exchange for a commitment by the candidate to lead and support certain actions and policies. 

For example, Trump concedes but no Supreme Court packing, no medicare for all that bans private insurance, no judicial persecution of everyone who worked for the Administration, and so forth. 

Parliamentary systems can make such deals, and with mechanisms to police reneging. They can enforce a short term with new elections, or loss of confidence vote.  

We just don't have that mechanism. The losing side does not have a mechanism to say they accept a loss in exchange for something else. We have instead elaborate rules to produce a winner,  but limits by rights, norms, institutions, separation of powers of just how much one can change with only a slim majority. The latter is falling apart.  

This is not an argument for a parliamentary system, which have lots of their own problems. 

Another correspondent passes along the Transition Integrity Project report. It's highly partisan, full of evil schemes that Trump may use try to stay in office, and advice for Team Biden to stand up for honesty and integrity. But it also includes incitement to protest, at least disruptive if not violent. My correspondent labels it "Democrat plan to override the election," which is a bit strong, but a useful perspective. But it also highlights strategies both sides are likely to follow, and offers chilling  predictions for civil unrest. Recommended reading. 

Earlier posts explaining the virtues of the electoral college here and here. 


  1. While I agree with the high-level conclusions of your post and am also worried about the prospect of violent protests and the increase in partisanship, I find it curious how you do not mention President Trump's refusal to commit to accepting the election results (

    In contrast, both Gore in 2000 and Obama in 2016 championed the peaceful transition of power.

    Gore: ``I personally will be at his disposal, and I call on all Americans -- I particularly urge all who stood with us to unite behind our next president. This is America. Just as we fight hard when the stakes are high, we close ranks and come together when the contest is done. And while there will be time enough to debate our continuing differences, now is the time to recognize that that which unites us is greater than that which divides us.''

    Obama: ``And one thing you realize quickly in this job is that the presidency and the vice presidency is bigger than any of us. So I have instructed my team to follow the example that President Bush’s team set eight years ago, and work as hard as we can to make sure that this is a successful transition for the president-elect. Because we are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country. The peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. And over the next few months, we are going to show that to the world.''

    1. Just reading the quote from Obama makes me sick to think of how he worked to sabotage Trump before he even took office. Obama did what he always did: make a good speech with a knife behind his back or a trick up his sleeve. All good, law-abiding Americans want our country to thrive, which is why if Trump loses (I honestly don't see how without fraud), riots and looting will not take place. It's the other side that needs to police itself. Unfortunately, it's too late for that. Antifa has declared open war with America and will accept nothing less than revolution and death to the American way.

    2. Obama said (& apparently knew about) as his FBI was working to undermine the incoming administration through illegal fisa warrants & entrapmemts!

    3. And most will find it surprising that you chose to highlight Obama but not mention either Bush, who were both extremely gracious in helping a Democrat come into office. I understand Gore; it was a close election and it was years before we knew that Bush really did win.

    4. You honestly can't see how Trump loses without fraud? He won in 2016 by a few thousand votes in a few states; the economy is not strong at the moment and regardless of how much credit or blame a president should get, voters pay attention to that; his response to Covid certainly has not been perfect (I think it has been poor, but it is all bus impossible to say it has been great). It is easy to see him losing.

    5. Lots of venous rage and hatred against Obama in this comments section. It's always Obama, Obama, Obama. It must be nice to be him, to live rent free in the minds of so many people.

    6. Personally I wish Obama shut his pie hole and leave the stage. Even Clinton retired gracefully. Not Obama the Illinois politician, still running his mouth and thinking he matters. I think Bill said it best.
      This life, which had been the tomb of his virtue and of his honour, is but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

  2. I think the fundamental problem is here: "I hope that reverence for the United States' constitutional architecture allows a close and hard-fought election."

    I've been teaching in a not-particularly-political liberal arts college (please hold your laughter) for almost ten years now. I would guess that, of the under-30 crowd (i.e. the crowd mostly likely to engage in violent protests), about a quarter have respect for the Constitution. Reverence would be 10%, tops. Maybe I'm just wrong, but most coastal/liberal 20-somethings do not particularly like America, do not think America or American history has been a force for good, and do not have any allegiance to the American system.

    Regardless of the rules and the history, unless there's a next generation which feels very differently, I think the American experiment's days are numbered.

    1. Sadly, I think you are correct. For this we can thank Gramsci and the long march through the institutions.

    2. I believe your math is off a bit. I have been teaching in universities since 2011 and most students I interact with are liberal; but they are not revolutionaries and they are not vehemently anti-American. Honestly, a revolution is too much work and too bloody for their tastes.

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  4. I think you are saying in part that the perceived stacks are really high now. People think their side has win or they lose their business, etc. Is that reality or perception, I think it is latter because of the nature of social media at least in part. My name is Bruce True.

  5. Great article. Your insight at the end regarding the higher costs of losing from a regulatory and executive order perspective is particularly perceptive. Although I understand the conciliatory purpose of your writing, I do take issue with the assertion that both parties are equal in their eagerness to dismantle democratic norms for short-term advantage, and that right-wing groups are less likely to engage in violent protest given that most terror in the U.S. is carried out by right-wing extremists.

    That said, you are absolutely correct that public trust is the connective fiber of our country. If Democrats take Congress and the Presidency, legislative priorities need to shore up structural safeguards and formalize norms to address these system concerns, and, in my opinion, bridge the (mis)informational divide that is a primary driver of extremism and lack of trust in the U.S.

  6. I wonder what the Fed is going to do if there is a civil war. Are they going to pick a side? Or is it even possible for them to somehow remain neutral? In the absence of the gold standard, what will happen to the dollar?

    1. Pretty much the same thing that would happen with the gold standard.

  7. Counting mail-in votes that arrive after Election Day sounds like a recipe for disaster. In Switzerland, which is probably the most experienced country when it comes to voting, votes that are not received in time are not counted. As 97.8% of all mail arrives within two days, voters can be confident that their vote will be counted if they drop their envelopes into a mailbox by Wednesday. The vote itself is always on a Sunday to ensure no one is prevented from voting by work. (I don’t get why anyone would think Tuesday is a good choice.) Ballots close at 11:30 and by 15:00, the results are usually clear.

    Here’s a link with more than you ever wanted to know about voting in Switzerland and its political system. I think having frequent votes (four times a year!) and well-dispersed power ensures the game-theoretic requirement pointed out by John Cochrane, namely the ability to lose an election.

  8. What about efficient markets? Financial markets seem oblivious to this.

    1. I think markets are pricing in a Biden win, the extreme left wing not taking over, and enough opportunity for big companies to keep lots of profits going through a regulatory resurgence with staffs of Lobbyists, so long as they keep up public support for the new regime. See business roundtable statements for example. This post is about risk, not about the mean. Also much of the market rise is big tech. Less sexy businesses that just produce profits are not doing so well, see the whole decline of value. Maybe we should call it stock market inequality and it would get more attention. And while the first Chicago verity is that markets are darn efficient (Fama), the second Chicago verity is that nobody knows why prices go up and down (Hayek).

    2. But, your observation may say that markets also fear less disorder from the right from the forecast Biden squeaker than from the left in a Trump squeaker.

    3. "But, your observation may say that markets also fear less disorder from the right from the forecast Biden squeaker than from the left in a Trump squeaker."
      That would certainly be a rational response. There will be substantially less disruption to profit streams by marauding gun-toting white racists than by a few looters running under the cover of mass protests for justice.

    4. John,

      Can I get you to haphazard a guess about value's future? I admit to being heavy on value(and small) based on all of the empirical results. The recentish skid I believe is baked into the return premium so my intuition says this is necessary. However, I'm worried I might be that true believer who continues to hold faith as drought after drought continues.

  9. Wow! sobering scenario. Nicely presented. I'm adjusting my priors.


  10. The ultimate Cloward–Piven strategy unfolds.

    Look at gun sales and availability & pricing of ammunition over the last two years, an unpleasant but factual barometer.

  11. This is how civilizations perish--not all at once, but incrementally over time, until, like Oliver Wendell Holme's logically-built "wonderful one-horse shay" that works for 100 years and a day, it goes to pieces in an instant.

    Language, not economics, is the determinative factor. Lack of a common vernacular, a shared set of mores and norms, and principles, contributes to the break-down in civilization. Allowed to go its own way, it becomes less capable of defending itself because it can no longer convince itself that it is worth defending. From there, it is but a short step to anarchy and chaos within, and external conquest from without. Like ancient Rome, it disintegrates and collapses, setting the world into turmoil.

    Prove me wrong. I certainly hope that you can. But, based on what is in view this year, I very much doubt that you will be able to. However, only time will tell.

  12. I would like to point out that the way SCOTUS stands the Republicans have a 5-3 majority. So, they do not have to confirm a judge to have the balance of power in ruling on election issues.

    From a political view point. Having Trump nominate a person may well be the Republican's best shot at keeping control of the Senate. The Republican hope is that Democrat opposition to the nominee will become as crazed as their attack on Kavanaugh was. That fiasco cost the Democrats a couple of seats in 2018.

  13. We're well on our way to having elections be completely winner take all. Court packing basically nullifies any notion of an independent judiciary. The party that wins then senate and presidency has free reign to "interpret" the constitution however they wish.

    The parties are under so much pressure from their polarized bases that I don't think they see the danger. Protections for electoral minorities are terrible until you're in the minority. Courts have blocked many of Trump's proposals that Democrats have been the most opposed to (DACA, etc).

    1. The parties see the danger, but most of them think they are all old and will be dead before the chickens come home to roost. They don't care about the future, just themselves.

  14. John,

    "The winners will push the rules a bit, but winners will not use their hold on power to utterly disenfranchise the losers in the next round."

    "It is this assurance that allows losers to lose with grace, accept the legitimacy of the winners, and work to improve their (loser's) message or shift their coalition to do better next time. It is this assurance that allows both sides to abide by traditional norms and not fight each battle as if survival depends on it, respecting traditional norms."

    See gerrymandering.

    1. Freakonomics Radio has a nice one relevant to the current state of affairs. "America’s Hidden Duopoly".

    2. That’s why I wrote The winners will push the rules a bit, gerrymanders, election law and rules, stuffing agencies with supporters, channeling tax dollars to supporters — universities, unions, corporations — has been around a long time gerrymander is 1812. So far eventually the voters have been able to speak.

    3. The takeaway I got from the Freakonomics Radio piece is that the current system of first-past-the-post vote counting and party primaries selecting candidates assures that the only possible candidates for president are those that successfully appeal to the extremities of the two parties. Serious reform of the election system is necessary if we are to have stable, middle-of-the-road, governance. It is suggested that selection should be by ranked choice counting of all votes, where voters indicate their order of preference for all candidates, without any segmentation by party affiliation. In which case a candidate can only win by appealing to moderately-inclined voters.

  15. John,

    Here is my opinion, take it for what it is worth.

    "The key to peaceful transition is that politicians and their supporters must be able to lose an election."

    I disagree. The key to peaceful transition is that politicians and their Democratic / Republican supporters must realize that there is a legitimate 3rd option. And I think that is what is missing - a viable 3rd party candidate.

    Without a viable 3rd option, voters are stuck between being held ransom to the extremes of either party that is in power.

    The two party system in the U. S. is vulnerable in this way because there are only two parties. There is a scorched turf / winner take all mentality that pervades politics.

    If someone like Ross Perot ran today, he might not win, but he would at the very least put the two parties on notice that they can both lose.

  16. I read Ms. Noonan's column also. I found it unsettling. I thought it was she who nominated AOC and T. Carlson (no quotation marks). Whether it was L. Sabato or Ms. Noonan, I thought someone was being ironic. I do not see either of them as "great Americans" or likely to become over time, great Americans. They are virulent, pot-stirring provocateurs.
    Her column in conjunction with your post makes me more than "unsettled". I am gravely worried about the "American experiment". If we, as a people, lose confidence in the elective process, we are sunk as a nation.
    Maybe Ben Franklin was prescient. "You have a republic, if you can keep it."

    1. I thought she was challenging the worst two people she could think of to be good. It's not a bad strategy. I wish Peggy Noonan were president.

  17. What if the markets are just being buoyed by the money that is being held by us that are staying home (avoiding coronavirus) and still receiving our usual income? Money that really should be flowing to those who provide necessities (food, housing, medical, etc.) to those who are not able to do their usual paid work from home.

  18. In 1960, the year Nixon decided not to challenge the obviously corrupt vote count in Illinois, Federal government expenditures were at current prices the equivalent of around $900 billion. In 2020 the Federal government will spend around $5 trillion. In 1960 you could, depending on personal choice, go to church or sit in a bar. In 2020 government permission is necessary before you can do either of things. In 1960 property owners believed that the Constitution protected them against uncompensated taking. In 2020 a failed federal bureaucracy, the CDC, believes it can require landlords to provide housing to people refuse to pay rent.

    Sure, fix the election system and encourage people to recognize that they have a stake in preserving a smooth transfer of power. But with, apologies to Henry Kissinger, the politics are so vicious because the stakes are so large.

    1. $5 trillion? More like $7t. Yes this is the real problem. The stakes are so high in terms of resources that G allocates that it encourages rent seeking and fraud and makes each election that much more important.

  19. So, Chinese invasion of Taiwan Nov 3rd anyone??

  20. My major disagreement is that this is a "both sides" issue to Cochrane.

    The Democrats feel they don't need to compromise. There is a bipartisan view that demographic change fueled by immigration will permanently annihilate the existing political right and give the left total power and dominance for a window of time. Democrats have openly been talking about packing the supreme court, ending the electoral college, and ending the filibuster. They intend to annihilate and humiliate the political right rather than compromise with it. This seems a likely scenario.

    Cochrane writes that "Protests and riots erupt." as if it were some uncontrollable natural occurrence like a volcano. A study says, "Up To 95 Percent Of 2020 U.S. Riots Are Linked To Black Lives Matter". You can google that quote to get the link. The left is using riots as a political tool quite deliberately. Prominent figures on the left are making explicit public threats over the supreme court seat. Here is just one of many: ( The left is absolutely willing to use political violence to get the power they crave.

    Cochrane's example of astonishing violation of norms on the political right is nominating a supreme court justice to fill the vacant seat. That's not a violation of norms at all. The duly elected President is supposed to nominate a justice to fill a vacancy on the court.

    The harassment, intimidation, and threats to Mitch McConnell and Tucker Carlson at their private residences is, at least in recent history, that's a one-party tactic. At some level if you can't acknowledge reality, it will be hard to fix it.

    1. I also fear political violence and authoritarianism more from the left, but when making a point that does not require a political opinion I think it best to listen and acknowledge as much as possible to the other point of view. If those such as the transition initiative who fear more violations from the right can be brought to agreement on the core problem, we can make progress. Thanks for the comment though -- I think the post is stronger with both sides' scenarios of just how bad things could be.

    2. Polite Pete,

      And Democrats would counter that the Republican Senate feels they don't need to compromise either - see Merrick Garland nomination for the Supreme Court.

      The Republican led Senate decided that it would not vote on Garland's nomination so close to the Presidential election (while Obama was in office).

      Now, the Republican led Senate appears to be doing an about face in the nomination to replace Ruth Gisberg, rushing through an appointment before the Presidential election (while Trump is in office).

      It's like two kids fighting in a schoolyard and then pointing at each other saying that "He started it".

    3. Appropriately for a complaint about "both sides", politepete provides us with a hilariously one-sided rant. No wonder much of the rest of the world suffers from the misconception that the Republican Party is the natural home of scripture-misquoting, gun-toting, functionally-illiterate crazies.

      From the perspective of a libertarian living in a seemingly-saner part of the world, Democrats and Republicans appear equally culpable for the mess John describes.

  21. What I fear more is that we compromise because of our fear of violence and protests. I don't see how Biden being the president can potentially reduce the occurrence of protests that are led by the left. Once Democrats have learned that their tactics can win, they will do it more often. This is the usual socialists strategy, unrest, until the other side gives in. Then the next time, more unrest, until they reach to their goals.

  22. What is missing from this conversation about Democracy, norms, rules, laws, and process is how the inherent minoritarianism in the Constitution has evolved from a theoretical flaw to the meaningful over-representation of the minority at the expense of the majority.

    Nate Silver estimates that if Biden wins the popular vote by 1-2% he has a 22% chance of winning the election. 2-3% he has a 46% chance of winning the election.

    The senate majority was elected with many million less votes than the minority received. The 48 senators who voted for article 1 to remove the president through impeachment received 68.6 million votes versus 57.3 million votes supporting the 52 senators who voted to acquit. Were the impeachment put to a popular majority vote it is almost a certainty the President would have been removed.

    For most of American history the geographic distribution of political preferences did not manifest the theoretical minoritarianism inherent in the Constitution as an actual subversion of Democracy. Today, after decades of "the great sort", this is no longer the case. Political divisions are correlated to geography and the preferences of the majority are currently being subverted by the elevated voting representation of the minority.

    There are strong arguments to support the preservation of our Constitutional system including the electoral college and senate representation, but there are also strong arguments that entrenched minoritarian rule is an unstable form of government. Many of the norm busing tactics being discussed by the Democrats are a direct response to the recognition that minority preferences are likely to remain over-weighted for the foreseeable future. It is my belief that no amount of repair to norms, process, or voting infrastructure will bring stability as long as a minority continues to routinely weld power over a majority and ignoring this imbalance comes with great peril.

    1. Anonymous,

      I don't think minoritarianism is cooked into our Constitution. In fact, the founders did contemplate the problems of small majorities by requiring super majorities (2/3 vote) in some instances.

      I think minoritarianism is a problem with our two party political system. There is nothing in the Constitution that stipulates how many political parties must exist.

      In a three party political system with a division of power across those three parties, compromise must happen for anything to be accomplished.

      That is why we have 3 branches of government - Legislative Branch, Executive Branch, and Judicial Branch. In a government with only two branches, the same "scorched earth / mutually assured destruction" tactics would be employed.

      It's also why Kissinger's triangular diplomacy was a success and why the Great Pyramids are triangular shaped and why geodesic domes are made from steel tubes shaped into triangles.

    2. Anonymous,

      This is the problem that Henry Kissinger saw with the prevailing brinkmanship policies engaged in by the U. S. and the U.S.S.R. during the cold war. The policy of building up a large stockpile of nuclear weapons may keep the peace - but that peace is unstable because of minortarianism. Any small shift in policy to appease the warhawks (on either side) could trigger a chain of events that ultimately destroys all involved.

    3. exactly! "There are strong arguments to support the preservation of our Constitutional system including the electoral college and senate representation, but there are also strong arguments that entrenched minoritarian rule is an unstable form of government."

    4. Frestly, two comments.

      Regarding additional (viable) parties, as you likely know first past the post elections drive political systems towards two parties as expressed by Duverger's law. Ranked choice voting would be an important step towards supporting broader party choice.

      Second, the minoritarian design of the Senate was well appreciated during the Constitutional convention of 1787 and debated on a number of dimensions. One can still pursue those arguments but the allocation of two senators per state regardless of population elevates representation of residents of low population states by definition. Other aspects of the Constitution, for example the mechanism for resolving an electoral college tie, similarly give disproportionately large representation to residents of low population states. For example, a voter in Montana has 40 - 60 times more Senate representation than a voter California (the range depends on whether you use state population, eligible voters, or registered voters).

  23. North, Violence and Social Orders, has an extensive relevant discussion, though mostly going the other way – how a society transitions from “natural state” to “open access” society, but plenty of hints as to how we might go backwards: “As organized political parties emerged in the first American party system in the early 1790s, each party sought to destroy the other. Americans in this era had no concept of the loyal opposition: one had never existed in any political system. . . .The transformation in beliefs was central to sustaining party competition in open access orders. We now accept competition among parties as commonplace, but the idea of party competition, especially the idea of loyal opposition parties, had to be invented and sustained. Van Buren recognized a central piece of the incentives for sustaining these beliefs: competition from the opposition was necessary for the winner's success. Here too, we see that sustaining party competition results in limits on politics: the winners do not seek to destroy the opposition, nor is the goal of the opposition to take power and destroy the incumbents.” Also a discussion of the need for a dissident elite to effect social change: mass movements, even w violence, rarely succeed without support from an elite group (for better or worse).

  24. For a structural approach based on demographic trends and rent-seeking, see Turchin, Ages of Discord, which essentially predicted the current unrest. Turchin’s approach is a formalized model based on Goldstone’s brilliant work Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World. Looking at the US now, I’m really torn between “Every empire goes through rough patches and mostly it recovers,” and “but sometimes not.”

  25. WOW!!!! The comments are really powerful. Another possibility. What if...a big if... all of this goes to the SCOTUS and there are are only eight justices, split 4 to 4. A monumental test for the Republic. "Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."

  26. I'm afraid the author feels there can be "peace in our time". The Democratic Party honors neither our Constitution nor the laws of this land. They have created a false scandal, prosecuted a President when they knew there were no grounds for it, tried impeachment for no credible reasons, encouraged rioting and destruction or our cities when they thought it would help their cause and then stopped it when they saw it wouldn't, and misused every arm of the government in an illegal manner to further their grasp of power. The Democrats are now so besotted with their powers that they believe they can get an obviously senile candidate elected. Biden can not even read a teleprompter with any reliability. There is no "peace in our time" with these power mad creatures. We must fight and win against the Democrat/Progressives on every point, and press our advantage wherever we hold one. There is no other option.

  27. From another blog I read:

    Mandatory government issued voter ID and a fingerprint on your ballot. Form an independent federal commission to conduct federal elections and mandate states abide. It works in Mexico, and they have higher turnout than we do.

    One party would sign up for this tomorrow. The other would not.

    This seems like a pretty easy way to fix it.

  28. Here in PA, seeing the potential problem of reporting so many mail in votes late, one side is trying to start counting the mail in votes 3 weeks before Nov 3. The other side is suing to, I believe, delay the start of the counting until 3 days before Nov 3.

  29. The divisiveness may be partially because there is more at stake in any election, but it is mostly because of our first past the post voting system. <- watch that for a quick explanation of why it causes a two party system but the proof is in the pudding aka our current system. The two biggest things that need to happen is we need to get rid of the two party system. Hopefully it just takes changing the voting system to ranked choice or some other good option. The second thing is to get money out of politics. This one is harder, but giving each registered voter "democracy dollars" that they can donate to any candidate they like and limiting or blocking altogether any other contributions would probably go a long way. These two things would cause greater trust/transparency in the election process. You can see who got the most votes accurately without people gaming the system/voting for who the hate the least. You can also be more certain that the options you are given reflect the peoples opinion and not just of those that have the most money/influence.

  30. "We just don't have that mechanism. The losing side does not have a mechanism to say they accept a loss in exchange for something else."

    We don't officially have that system, but we have done this before: see the Compromise of 1877, which put Rutherford Hayes in the White House in exchange for concessions to the Democrats.

  31. I agree with many of your points in the above, but continue to be surprised by your (and unfortunately many other traditionally libertarian or conservative leaders') general silence as to the role of President Trump in these developments.
    Same as in 2016, President Trump does not commit to accepting the result of the election. Let that sink in. I cannot name a single former President or Candidate (R or D) who openly rejected this most fundamental principle of democracy. This is - to use Trump's own words - "shithole-country style" and the most direct threat to democracy there can be.
    Trump's rhetoric and actions serve as one (certainly not the only!) major catalyst for everything that you describe in the above. Instead of trying to fix the voting system, the President has unleashed a calculated campaign to cast doubt on the rules of the game, culminating in the above-mentioned non-commitment to accept the election result. The moment the rules of democracy are called into question, people lose faith in the system and become receptive to calls for civil unrest and even violence. For the sake of preserving his own power, Trump has started to wilfully tear the country down a highly dangerous path.
    Once again, I agree with many of the assessments in the original post and see grave dangers arising from the actions of both the radical left and right. But it astonishes me how the persona of Trump is so blatantly ignored as a key driver in these developments. Yes, the original problems go way deeper than just to the Trump presidency, but I like to call out an elephant in the room when I see one.


  32. Ultimately, this a fight about who owns what and who deserves what.

    Rivalry has a way about bringing put the worst in people, especially when it comes to controlling resources and laws that dictate how they should be used. The probability of violence escalates when one side feels they are losing control and/or a meaningful seat at the table. A peaceful transfer of power only works when, at the end of it all, people are willing to work together in earnest to solve real problems. Ever since Clinton won in 1992, the seeds were sown for scorched earth tactics and, unfortunately, the populace pays the price while this insane game goes on.

    1. Mykel,

      The scorched earth tactics (in terms of presidential elections) were mollified by the presence of Ross Perot on the ticket.

      In terms of what took place later (the attempt to impeach Clinton), our court system is still based upon the adversarial two position notion of justice - right and wrong, plaintiff and defendant. And so each step in the impeachment process (House articles of impeachment and vote, Senate trial and vote) is a two party affair.

      The potential problem is a snowball effect where the determination made in a previous setting carries weight into the next.

      What if all determinations are made simultaneously?

      With only two parties participating in an impeachment trial (House and Senate), there is the possibility of a split decision (House votes yes and Senate votes no or vice versa).

      If the Supreme Court was Constitutionally permitted to weigh in on an impeachment decision, it could act as the third party and allow simultaneous decisions from the House and Senate.

      A two thirds majority would carry the verdict. House votes no, Senate votes yes, Supreme Court votes yes - impeachment occurs.

    2. Still the same mess, just with more players allowed on the field.

      Thank you for the reply. Good read.

    3. The problem with comparing politics / economics with a football or baseball game is that in a game, there is a victor and a loser. In the real world of economics and politics there are situations where both sides end up losing.

      Then comparative analysis starts to justify these lose-lose scenarios - Yeah I might end up with a black eye, but you can be sure that my opponent will end up with two broken legs. Or yes I might end up going to jail for setting a building on fire, but the building owner ends up with a burned out unusable building.

      Dale Carnegie wrote several books about dealing with people starting with "How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936)". One of his core concepts was in any situation seek resolution where both sides win.

  33. Mykel,

    The probability of violence de-escalates when there are three sides jostling for seats at the table. If two of the three sides want to fight, bicker, and snipe at each other, the third can remain above the fray.

    I am glad you used the sporting analogy.


    1. Hi FRestly,

      Will the third remain above the fray? Why not pick a side? The structure of our government allows a branch to settle legal disputes as a result of bad/contentious legislation/regulation.

      A nasty fracas is on the horizon, methinks. It's almost here as Dr. Cochrane wrote there's a storm coming...


    2. Yep,

      "Why not pick a side?"

      When both sides are hell bent on destroying each other? Let them, stand back and watch the fireworks display instead.

      Just saying, if a fracas comes about, both sides could end up losing more than they ever hoped to gain.

  34. Regarding three sided football that I provided a Wikipedia link to above - if two of the teams get into a fist fight, play is not suspended. The third team is permitted to run around and score goals on the other two teams.

    So guess what happens - there are no fist fights, scorched earth tactics, or any other nonsense. The third team on the field changes everything.

  35. "But really, what needed fixing is the low-level bureaucratic machinery of counting votes. We've had 250 years to get good at the basic task of counting votes. It looks like that is as broken as the rest of our government infrastructure."

    This is actually the most important point, even if it appears as a side note. The Supreme Court might have partisanship problems, but the mere fact that non-trivial electoral disputes reach the SC is a bigger problem. As far as I can tell there has been no serious effort since Bush v. Gore to fix the vote-counting process. Arguably, the situation has even worsened due to electronic voting (computer security experts are pretty much unanimous that this is a poor idea unless the only function of the machine is to print a ballot that can be visually checked by the voter and is later counted by hand).

    I have a decent familiarity with the voting process in France, the UK, and Germany, and there are no significant election-day problems in any of those countries.

    Some easy-to-implement ideas from the French system:
    - instead of a list of names to tick, you are given a bunch of standardized papers (one per candidate), one of which you put into the enveloppe that goes into the ballot box. Advantage: clear rules about what is or is not a valid ballot (any marking on the paper or the enveloppe invalidates the ballot). [This works best when there is only one issue on the ballot; for multi-issue election, have one enveloppe for president, one enveloppe for House rep, etc.]
    - voters come and take part into the vote-counting. This requires clear rules about ballot validity (see above) but allows to farm out the job to volunteers. From my experience, 12 volunteers will count 1000 ballots in ~30min (*), including double-counting by different persons and all side operations (storing the ballots after the count, reporting the tallies, etc.). You cannot afford to pay a dozen staff per precinct of 1000 voters, but you can find 1.2% of voters to volunteer for half an hour of counting the ballots.
    - proxy voting instead of (or in addition to) postal ballots: you designate someone to vote for you. Candidates will happily arrange for some local party member to be your proxy if needed (e.g. you do not want your family/friends to know who you are voting for). Proxy designation is made at your local police station within a month or so of the election.

    (*) Most French elections take place in two rounds. The figure above applies for a second round where 95% of ballots split between two candidates. First-round results are somewhat (~20%?) slower to count when there are 10+ options on the ballot, but the US situation is so bipartisan that every election is already a second round.

  36. In terms of extreme scenarios actually one was left out: what could happen to Biden and Trump? The recent incident of ricin in White House mails is minor to the real possibilities...

    Also, this game analysis left out a closer look at the two key players themselves, the mention of Nixon as a possible parallel notwithstanding. The fact is, neither Biden nor Trump is Nixon, both are old and accomplished in their own ways, neither "needs" this presidency if their choice (whether to contest the result) is a personal one. Despite their rhetoric now, we should have faith that both are patriots and that in the end, the better angels of their nature will reign in.

  37. I think you're ignoring a real imbalance in what's going on here. Trump is a pretty "unique" politician. This left would give anything to swap him out for a Romney or McCain right now. Trump has none of their dignity or honor though. He cheats and lies and steals.

    Just look at the opinions of many of those people who have worked with him. James Mattis - 44 years in the US Marine Corps, and... not exactly "AOC" politically, called him a 'threat to the constitution'.

    The large number of conservatives, like Cindy McCain, who are voting for Biden as a contest between "Democracy and Trump" should really tell you something. The Lincoln Project, RVAT, 43forbiden, and so on. Even *George Will*, the arch conservative columnist, is voting for a Democrat for the first time in his life.

    Much of the right's beefs with Biden appear to be really inflated too. Biden is a centrist Democrat. He's not taking anyone's guns away. He's not a socialist. This is all nonsense propaganda from the fact-free folks who gave us one of the worst COVID-19 outcomes in the world.

    Also agree with the comment above about minority rule. That's simply not fair nor tenable long term.

    1. The names you mentioned are all elites with strong ties with Wall Street money and K-street lobbyists. Many are intertwined with business interest in China. They trust Biden because they know Biden's 47 years of mediocre career and Biden will take good care their family interest.

  38. You seem really biased and favor republicans..

  39. I came here to chuckle a bit. Yes, I know both sides this, both sides that. But as far as I know it's right wing extremists that are getting arrested for making plans to overthrow the government (Michigan).

    I love reading your stuff whenever it's econ, but your texts on politics are laughable.

  40. Wow: It's scary how close you were back in September '20. So, moving forward with President Biden, and a Congress with razor thin Democratic majorities:
    1) How do we "Unify"? -- and who gets to umpire said unity?
    2) How do we make voting rules in which both sides can agree?

    This blog was linked by Reason's JD Tuccile's article: "To Avoid More Political Violence, Allow Americans To Escape Each Other's Control"

  41. "In my view the right wing, being a little more invested in the whole idea of America and her Constitution as a useful construct, is less likely to view the result as illegitimate and take to the streets in violent protest."

    Have you reconsidered your threat assessment model after 1/6? I came to this article by way of a very good friend who attended Stanford's business school, and has slowly started developing a similar view point of the world and it just really frustrates me. I just... gosh darn man. I'm no coastal elite educated person. I'm just a typical midwestern raised dude who is a dummy. But it makes me feel like my brain is in a blender when I read articles like this and that objectively intelligent people like my friend (and you!) can come to these, what I think, are galaxy brain conclusions. Well written article, totally get the thought process and not trying to be a d*** here just.. I don't know. Hope all are safe out there!


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