Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The 50/50 rule

In reading about tonite's French Presidential Debate wherein, apparently, Sarkosky stayed very calm, and Royal lost her cool, I was reminded of a curiosity of polling. It appears that Sarko might win the election by a "large margin": 53/47. Is that really a large difference?

In the politics of modern Western democracies, true landslides are fairly rare, while uncanny statistical ties seem common. Indeed, imagine an American presidential vote between two very different candidates decided by "hanging chads." This is odd. How could tens of millions of voters split by a hair. How could we split so vehemently, yet so evenly?

I have an answer to this puzzle which thinkers about democracy may well have proposed before. It has to do with the scientific concept of a "steady-state." This phenominon is frequently encountered in chemistry. For example, the evaporation of water into a closed space. What happens is that water molecules leave the liquid phase for the gas phase until there are so many gas molecules floating around that every time one tries to leap into the gas, another has landed in the liquid. While many of the individual molecules may change their state over and over again, the number in each state reaches an equilibrium.

As similar kind of phenominon is observed in social systems such as the stock market. The famous Chicago School efficient market theorists showed, essentially, how natural markets can efficiently find the exact price of something for a given set of conditions. Change a condition and the price is disturbed, bounces around in a kind of damped oscillation, and then finds the new price. Indeed, Wall Street has been hiring the likes of Physical Chemists to help them develop option trading strategies.

So, now consider the old see-saw between the Left and the Right. Imagine that a swing percentage of voters changes from one side to the other in proportion to prevailing conditions. In this case the conditions are not temperature and pressure, but law, policy, and maybe even interest rates. When things get pushed too far one way or the other on any of the perpetual Gordian knot type of issues, a freely functioning democracy will elect policy maker that corrects the disturbance. When efficient markets are disturbed buying and selling restores temporarily abarent pricing; when efficient democracies are disturbed, electing and unelecting correct abarent policy.

This brings us to the 50/50 rule. Consider the perpetually debated issues with all of their encompased grey areas. Any of the traditional unanswered (or unanswerable) questions of the American body politic (classically, abortion). Here we find a 50/50 deadlock. Despite the complexities of the arguments, the grey areas like partial birth abortion, and the embarassing zealots on either side, the country is split, evenly. To my eye this probably means two things: 1) That current policy is about right and 2) that our democracy has functioned efficiently on this issue. Were the law to be changed dramatically one way or the other, public opinion would shift heavily against the temporarily prevailing side until elections and unelections of law and policy makers fixed the percieved error, restored the equilibrium.

Of course we have positions on multiple issues linked together by traditional parties and individual candidates for office. Like riders on Bills, issues riding along with other more active issues decreases the efficiency of our democracy (i.e. decreases the voter's satisfaction that the parties or politicians and subsequent law of the land are reflecting their views.) When the democracy becomes inefficient, civil unrest arises. People go to the streets en masse (and not just the usual San Fransisco protest everything set).

We are often tempted to see 50/50 splits on issues as a failure of our democracy or a failure to get things right. We hear people saying "this country is deeply divided." The line of reasoning presented here suggests that, at least for some things, 50/50 is the goal. Given that America has been remarkably 50/50 of late, perhaps our democracy and policy makers haven't been functioning so badly after all.

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