28.9.03

THE MODAL VOTER THEOREM. Randy at Volokh Conspiracy notes the absence of gridlock in the quick Congressional enlargement of the powers of the Federal Trade Commission to keep the Do Not Call list on schedule. "Perhaps genuinely popular legislation is not so hard to pass after all? Perhaps the other stuff is harder to enact because significant segments of the population oppose them? Perhaps the country is genuinely divided ideologically and each side is blocking the favored reforms of the other? Perhaps even genuinely popular constitutional amendments would be swiftly enacted as well despite what we hear about how impossible it is? But perhaps the ones that get proposed more often involve ramming something down someone's throat and our system makes that harder to do? But then again perhaps this is just a fluke and does not mean much of anything." Quite so. Sometimes the median voter is also the modal voter. My guess is that relatively few people welcome having their dinner interrupted. As Chicago Report puts it, "In the case of Do Not Call legislation, the total lack of opposition would seem to indicate the overall reputation of telemarketers as the lowest species of human existence. Thus, the cost of their extinction to the society at large is perceived so minuscule, and the benefits so great, that there is effectively no opposition. Right or wrong, it sure sends a message to anyone planning to make their living bugging the hell out of people."

(On the other hand, are most people so out of tune to the preferred private times of the members of their social circle that spontaneous action couldn't defeat the telemarketers? Imagine everybody turning their telephone ringers off from 5.30 pm to 7 pm, or ignoring all rings and letting them go to voice mail or the answering machine.)

Some other times, there is a median voter, but the median might best be represented as the mean and mode of a bell curve, in which case there are gradations of agree or disagree that have to be on board to get a majority that includes the mean. In such cases a compromise of some kind is possible (does that include the exemption for charitable and political fundraising callers?) that will make people who strongly agree (because it has been watered down) or strongly disagree (because it is there) with the compromise angry. That compromise includes people whose positions are 1.5 standard deviations or less from the mean, assuming such a metric is possible. Perhaps that's why the angriest delegates in the House are those from districts with a lot of housing projects or a lot of religious fundamentalists, moving from left to right.

The hardest problem arises when preferences have two modes. That's where Chicago Report's worst case scenario really bites: "As the stakes increase so does the controversy. So ultimately, for important changes to be made, legislation has to [be] 'rammed down the throat' of the opposition. Gridlock serves the vital function of requiring the winning side to be a little more than just 51%." The stakes are likely to be higher (or in politicized departments with fighting factions, where the stakes by definition are small) and the opportunities to arrange a compromise that includes 51% of the votes diminish.

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