The Great American Election Lottery

Americans love gambling.

Your odds of winning the Powerball jackpot are just 1 in 292,000,000 (compared to 1 in ~40,000 odds of being killed by lightning). Since only half of Powerball winnings go towards prizes, we can infer that expected value is 50 cents on the dollar.

And yet, lotteries remain incredibly popular. Around half of American adults play state lotteries, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports average spending of $834 each year on lottery tickets and betting pools.

Meanwhile, US voter turnout overs just over 50%.

Given the unreasonable popularity of lotteries, why can’t we just hand out lottery tickets with ballots?

The idea of financially motivating votes isn’t unprecedented. Australians who don’t vote are fined $15, up to $37 on continued offense.

And neither is the idea of a civic lottery. In order to cut down on tax evasion, Taiwan introduced a lottery on sales receipts in 1951, leading to a 75% increase in collected taxes. Even after increasing the payout, the Taiwan Finance Ministry today pays a mere $20 million USD in prizes.

Fans of behavioral economics may notice a similarity to the classic A Fine is a Price paper, which describes how charging parents for late daycare pickup actually aggravated the problem. The authors propose that:

When help is offered for no compensation in a moment of need, accept it with restraint. When a service is offered for a price, buy as much as you find convenient.

Accordingly, we may worry that in the context of elections, voters are currently motivated by civic duty, but would lose this motivation in favor of a purely financial one. If the lottery winnings aren’t sufficiently large, we risk crowding out incentives and actually harming turnout. Even if turnout is increased, people may vote merely for the money, and make worse or more selfish decisions than if they were voting out of civic duty.

At least with regards to the first risk, Australia has been largely successful, achieving over 90% turnout in recent elections.

Logistically, a lottery would be easier than it sounds.

Voter registration lists are public information and include each voter’s address. Even without an official lottery, any donor could decide to hold a lottery, and mail checks to a random set of addresses after the election.

Unfortunately, this is also totally illegal. U.S. Code § 597 reads:

Whoever makes or offers to make an expenditure to any person, either to vote or withhold his vote… shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years

You could argue that retroactively paying a few random voters is different from paying a particular person to vote, but it’s still a big legal risk.

Still, 2 years isn’t the end of the world, especially since people regularly dedicate entire lifetimes to political activism.

Unemployment Part 2 - How to Save Yourself

Mandatory warning that I’ve used this system for exactly 3 days:

And secondary mandatory warning that nearly all advice is bad.

In Part I, I proposed a short list of solutions to working independently after quitting your job. Here’s the long version with details fleshed out.

Accept that you max out at 4 hours a day, and make sure you actually hit it every day.
The major caveat here is that it is incredibly difficult to consistently work 4 hours a day. Nearly no one can pull this off, and even people with stressful full time jobs are often just faking it by spending 8 hours on Slack and in meetings.

So while 4 hours a day sounds downright leisurely, you can’t get tricked into complacency.

If 20 hours a week sounds like easy mode, the easiest way to become dramatically more productive is not to “hustle harder”, but to add weekends. This puts your total weekly hours at 28, a 40% increase over only working weekdays, but still keeps you at 30% under a normal 40 hour workweek.

Also note that you’re still “on” the remaining 140 hours a week. That time is for making sure you’re healthy and energetic enough to do 4 hours work very consistently. Most people don’t actually know how to relax, just how to “blow off steam”. If you go out to a bar after work, you don’t feel more motivated the next day, you just feel more able to handle another 8 hours in an office.

Find sources of lasting intrinsic motivation that aren’t based around feelings of inadequacy.
If you’re a smart person, you’ve spent your whole life winning competitions, getting praise from authority figures, checking boxes and gaining prestige.

Understand that there is no difference between a superiority and inferiority complex. The feeling of being great just means you value your ego, and will fear losing it even more.

I don’t have any concrete advice here, other than to take it seriously, give it time, and hope that after years of education and employment you still have any genuine interests remaining.

Measure yourself by what you’ve done, not how many hours you’ve put it
This is a bit misleading. If you’re working independently, you likely won’t have any “accomplishments” in a conventional sense for many months.

The real advice is Scott Adams’, which is to follow a system instead of a goal. If you want to learn a new language, don’t try to measure progress towards fluency, just set up a simple system (study flash cards 1 hour a day, watch 30 minutes of content, write 10 sentences in your journal using the new words you learned) and measure progress by how consistently you’re able to follow the system.

A month in, you can see how the system is going and try to establish progress on external goals, but that can’t be the first step. Day to day, progress is never going to be linear, so winning has to be about behaving the right way, not achieving the right results.

If you’re like me and love abstraction, not hyper-optimizing the system at every opportunity feels incredibly wasteful. But the truth is for most pursuits, a very simple system will get you 80% of the way there, and much much further than an optimal system poorly followed.

More deeply, goals and systems are two parts of the same coin, and you can’t fully design the system without spending time engaged in practice. You might discover after a month that you derive way more joy from conversation than from writing, and decide to shift your language learning focus, but that insight won’t happen from taking the bird’s eye view.

Enjoy your newfound freedom, but in ways that don’t directly compete with your real aims.
I banned myself from video games throughout my last job, which means that as soon as I quit, I binged everything I had been denying myself.

Some hobbies just feel all-consuming like this. If I get deeply involved in a TV show or game, I basically just have to give up on the entire week and try to get work done later.

In other cases, the activity might not be time consuming, but will still impede efforts elsewhere. The most obvious examples are drinking, sleep deprivation, and having a poor diet. You can stop taking shots at midnight, but still feel horrible at noon the next day.

The only thing I’ve found effective for quitting addictive habits is binging to the point of self-hatred. I will stay up all night playing video games, and then hate myself enough to stop for the next 3 months. This might not sound particularly healthy, but outside of alcohol, I don’t actually think it’s a serious harm.

Create psychological distance by choosing a particular time and place to work, if necessary, inform everyone you live with of your “official work hours”.
This is fairly straightforward. The only caveat is that it might be embarrassing to tell your parents or housemates that you’re “writing a blog on the internet” or “doing independent research” or “starting a startup” and can’t be interrupted.

I’m even more embarrassed to write about this publicly, but I literally solved this problem by becoming nocturnal, and doing all my writing after my housemates have gone to bed.

This isn’t meant to be generic productivity advice. I’ve read so much of those posts, and gotten basically no value from them. This won’t solve all your problems, but hopefully it will at least make you feel less alone if you’re struggling with similar issues, or give you a jumping off point to figure out your own system.

Ranked Choice Voting is Arbitrarily Bad

Recently, there’s been headway in adopting Ranked-Choice Voting, used by several states in the 2020 US Democratic presidential primaries and to be adopted by New York City in 2021.

For all its virtues, Ranked Choice Voting contains a number of risks, largely due to tactical voting and democratic illegitimacy.

First, a quick primer on existing systems.

The one we’re used to is called Plurality Voting, and is by far the simplest: Each voter casts a vote for one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins.

Though clear and intuitive, there are several problems best illustrated by example:

Tactical Voting for “Realistic Candidates”
Say public polls report:

  • 45% of voters prefer Alice
  • 45% of voters prefer Bob
  • 10% of voters prefer Carol

No matter how strongly voters support Carol, on election day, they would rather vote for Alice or Bob than “waste” a vote on a candidate who won’t win.

It’s worth asking why Carol was polling so low in the first place, but a common explanation is perpetuation through a party system. If Alice and Bob’s parties have won historically, the electorate may be locked into a perpetual two-party system, no matter how compelling a particular third-party candidate happens to be.

Loss of Popular Moderate Candidates
In another race, voters have real preferences such that:

  • 50% of voters prefer Alice > Carol > Dave > Bob
  • 50% of voters prefer Bob > Carol > Dave > Alice

Alice and Bob are both despised by half the population, yet one of them is guaranteed to win. Meanwhile, Carol has universal appeal, but would receive 0 votes in a plurality election, no matter how polarizing the other candidates are.

In a more extreme case, we might have:

  • 25% of voters prefer Alice > Bob > Carol > Dave
  • 25% of voters prefer Bob > Alice > Carol > Dave
  • 30% of voters prefer Dave > Alice > Carol > Bob
  • 20% of voters prefer Carol > Alice > Bob > Dave

Alice is the clear intuitive choice, but according to plurality rules, Dave ends up winning despite being despised by 70% of the electorate.

Tactics in Ranked Choice Voting
In theory, these are precisely the problems solved by RCV, but the general form I’ve outlined above can still apply.

Given real preferences:

  • 33% of voters prefer Alice > Bob > Dave > Carol
  • 33% of voters prefer Bob > Alice > Dave > Carol
  • 34% of voters prefer Dave > Alice > Bob > Carol

Each cohort knows that Carol is not a realistic threat to their preferred candidate, and will thus rank her second, while ranking their true second choice last. For any individual, this is a good strategy to maximizing the odds of their preferred candidate, but in aggregate, it leads to:

  • 33% of voters prefer Alice > Carol >  Bob > Dave
  • 33% of voters prefer Bob > Carol > Dave > Alice
  • 33% of voters prefer Dave > Carol > Alice > Bob

Leading to a victory for Carol, even though she was universally despised.

What’s Wrong with Tactics?
At some point, we might bite the bullet and say that all voting is tactical, in the sense that it incorporates outside information rather than merely expressing one’s preferences.

But as we saw in the last case, tactical voting doesn’t just skew results, it can have arbitrarily bad outcomes, like the election of a universally despised candidate, or the failure to elect a universally liked candidate.

Self-defeating Tactics Over Time
It is also worth introducing the concept of self-fulfilling and self-defeating tactics.

Self-fulfilling manipulation is what we’re used to. A candidate attempts to portray themselves as having a real chance of winning that is not yet guaranteed, thus giving voters the impression that their vote is likely to matter.

Self-defeating manipulation is weirder, and possibly much worse. Take our RCV scenarios again with equally sized cohorts:

  • Cohort 1 prefers: Alice > Bob > Carol
  • Cohort 2 prefers Bob > Alice > Carol

2 weeks before the election, a polling organization correctly reports these  preferences, thus creating the perverse reaction described earlier, and a shift to:

  • Cohort 1 states a preference for Alice > Carol > Bob
  • Cohort 2 states a preference for Bob > Carol > Alice

1 week before the election, the polling organization reports these new stated preferences. Voters see that their preferred candidate is no longer at risk of losing to their second favorite, and shifts back to to their real preferences:

  • Cohort 1 prefers: Alice > Bob > Carol
  • Cohort 2 prefers Bob > Alice > Carol

Thus restarting the cycle of polling > new tactics > new polling up until election day.

At this point, each voter is confused and uncertain, and votes according to tactical necessity rather than actual preferences. In this scenario, Alice, Bob or Carol could win, and it just depends on the particular rhythm of polling, speed of reporting, date of the election, and other factors largely incidental to voter preferences.

Condorcet Paradox of Circular Preferences
Finally, consider the case where ranked choice voting is simply incoherent:

  • 33% of voters prefer Alice > Bob > Carol
  • 33% of voters prefer Bob > Carol > Alice
  • 33% of voters prefer Carol > Alice > Bob

No matter which candidate is elected, there is an alternative preferred by 66% of the population, such that there appears to be no stable solution. If Alice is elected, the majority of voters would prefer that Carol be elected instead.

Note that this is not a coincidental feature of perfectly balanced distributions, we can just as easily have:

  • Cohort 1 (20%) prefers Alice > Bob > Carol
  • Cohort 2 (35%) prefers Bob > Carol > Alice
  • Cohort 3 (45%) prefers Carol > Alice > Bob

Where in the best case scenario, Carol wins, but 55% of voters would prefer Bob.

(In general, the worst case scenario depends on the number of candidates, such that in a 5 candidate race, an alternative could be prefered by up to 80% of voters.)

One might object that this is simply unrealistic. Are such circular preferences coherent?

We can generate intuition using a simple model where candidates and voters are mapped on 2-dimensional space, and rank candidates based on proximity. In the above example:

Circularity in Space

The key thing to note is that circularity exists across cohorts, but not within them. Each voter or cohort has a simple linear ranked order, it is only in aggregate that the paradox appears.

To be clear, this paradox exists equally in Plurality Voting, it just remains invisible. Even without stated preferences, real preferences could contain the same circular result.

But since voting serves as a coordination mechanism, this invisibility is a feature. With a single vote per person, simple plurality feels like a fair result. In contrast, Ranked Voice Voting risks the instability of a majority-preferred alternative, and undermines democratic legitimacy.