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The "overlearning the game" problem (andrewoneverything.com)
362 points by sendos on Aug 29, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 140 comments

It's related to Goodhart's Law:

Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.

This is often the result of attempting to overoptimize a system. You can optimize a race car to a huge degree, because you know exactly what you want it to do.

You can't optimize a schooling system, because you don't know exactly what you want it to do. A little noise is a good thing, because the you want a little wiggle room for teachers to sidestep the dictums of education czars, and students to sidestep the dictums of teachers.

The Greeks solved this quite a few years ago, with sortition. Under sortition (injecting noise into elections - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sortition), Bush and Gore would have been forced to pay "paper, scissors, rock" for the presidency. Under the US's more pure democracy, they would have been tempted to make all kind of Faustian bargains with sordid players to nail down the last 0.01% of votes.

Randomization means that the last percent is just not worth chasing, so players in a competition won't be tempted to bend the rules for a tiny advantage.

The same process could be used for tests. If you allocate places in desirable courses (say medicine) randomly to anyone above a certain score, the top students won't bother drilling as hard just to get the top score.

Stocks are the same - quants wouldn't sweat timing as much if their placement in order books was randomized. It would be more efficient to pay attention to fundamental value than momentary fluctuations if they weren't guaranteed to make large profits on the momentary fluctuations. Some would still work on timing, but not as many.

Patents are just bad policy badly implemented at the moment, not over-optimized.

Good comment. I smiled at the sheer simplicity of injecting randomness to mitigate the >95% in order to deter exploitation. Of course it would be an interesting experiment to conduct and compare results against.

Also regarding your racecar example; they've gotten so good at making them go fast they actually are required to have restrictor plates (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Restrictor_plate) so this fits the example of exploiting a well-defined goal to the point it's no longer competitive/safe/fun.

I find that quite amusing and cool. (I don't follow the sport I just like watching science-type shows on tv)

Very interesting comment, hadn't heard of Sortition before. However, I see a few practical problems with this.

First, it makes it harder to fix any errors/cheating. You can ask for a reevaluation of exam papers or a recount of the ballot if you felt that something shady happened, but then what about the randomization phase. In the admissions example for instance, if after a re-eval, the composition of students in the >95 percentile changed, do you hold a new randomization to make it fair for the new kids who crossed the threshold? If you do that, is that fair to those who previously got selected in the previous admissions ballot, and weren't second time lucky? Would this lead to all the "losers" in the lottery to ask for re-evals just so that the lottery phase happens again? (given a large number of students, if there is any subjectivity in the evaluation, every re-eval is likely to change the composition, even if by a small amount)

Secondly, the losers in the lottery are going to feel cheated and angry, even if all evaluation was objective, and there was [provably] no cheating. I think most humans prefer an objective, unambiguous way of competing with each other, even when we think that the evaluation metric is flawed. So the unlucky competitors will feel angry post-lottery, even if everything was done in a fair manner.

Finally, it increases the chances of cheating/gaming the system at the randomization phase i.e. the administrator can game the lottery. And if/when the administrators do cheat, it is also easier for them to hide their cheating since the anomaly can be hidden within the random luck factor.

The reevaluation issue could be solved if all students in the >95 percentile is assigned a random number (e.g between 0.0 and 1.0) and then the students with the highest numbers are selected.

If a re-eval happens, all students that were already assigned a random number since before will keep it, and new random numbers will only be given to the students that previously were below the threshold.

This will have the effect that the list of selected students will not change much even after a re-evaluation. Only the few with lowest numbers risk losing their place.

I don't think the core of the idea is literal randomness injection. Compare for a moment high precision measuring devices. Any decent measuring device comes with a manual describing the tolerances of the device, the error rate, the expected skew caused by error and so on. They may be highly accurate, and very precise, but they don't claim 100% accuracy. Yet, ideally, this should be a simple task -- the math says if we do X to make the device, there is only one solution and the device is perfect. We take pains with these devices to construct them perfectly, but errors still slip in - and we acknowledge it. To counter these errors we do statistical analysis on the machines' output, we scrutinize anomalous readings and discard or normalize data within the error range and otherwise account for errors.

Look now at the Bush/Gore election cited above, in light of this. A vote is simply a measurement of the people's desire for leader X or leader Y. This measurement is taken via a tool called the ballot. The ballot is for some reason taken as an ideal measuring device - for some reason we think it is a perfect tool of measurement. Yet, a huge chunk of the debate and contention of the scenario came out of problems with the ballot itself -- hanging chad, butterfly ballot confusion, and so on, are all measurement issues. At some point, we should have said "look this is just too close to call with our ballot measuring system, other measures or means should be used to determine the outcome".

The same is true of tests, they are an imperfect measuring system we are trying to treat as idea; so are many other systems you allude to.

The core idea here, is to stop treating our measurements as some sort of ideal measurement and instead look at alternate measures and methods once you get within the error range of the original measuring device -- at this point you are in the realm of "luck" anyway, because there are other unaccounted factors affecting the measurement anyway. Further, it has no more effect on cheating than treating an imperfect measure as ideal -- cheaters in both cases attempt to exploit unnoticable issues in the measurement. Statistical cheating detection already considers this sort of thing anyway, if the statsticians are any good.

As for the social situation you present -- this is a trickier problem, but I suspect a large portion of it could go away once proper understanding is given to people. A lot of the "unfair" complaints are essentially based around "the measure is perfect, so if I can tweak the value measured of my by a small bit, it has some fundamental implication". Essentially we need to train people on the difference between platonic ideals and the realities of the scenario. Then instead of complaining over obscure minutia, energy can be focused on either bettering the overall situation, or bettering the measurement.

As to your final point: ignoring the imperfectness and pretending it is perfect does not really change the gaming problem, in fact it adds to it, because when you treat the imperfect as perfect, you must have lots of complicated rules, which also allow for crazy gaming. Instead effort could be better spent on gaming detection or simple administrator investigation/oversight.

Do you guys know that shooting theives stops them from stealing ?

I think the problem might be a deeper problem.

The writer of the article is asking generally about how a system's rules can be exploited to the point that the original intention of the system is no longer achievable. The sortition is also a system with rules, therefore it can be exploited. As soon as I saw the rock-paper-scissors, I remembered a competition some time ago where different bots played rock-paper-scissors against each other. Now the best bot exploited the reality of the seed number generators, compiled a database of sequences to find which seed the opponent was using, and so on.

So even sortition might be exploitable.

> So even sortition might be exploitable.

But the idea is that it's not easy to exploit. If it is more than trivially difficult to leverage, then that is wasted time/effort that dilutes from the greater message.

ie, why waste effort on the "tie-breaker" message when you can just spend that effort avoiding it altogether and push yourself beyond the margin-of-error?

The key to sortition is that effort expended on gaming sortition is wasted and non-complementary effort compared to the original contest/competition... right now, getting that 0.1% by dirty tricks is equivalent to getting-out-the-vote of 0.1% more of the populace.

I don't think it is a good idea at all. If the political power boiled down to picking paper over scissors, the loosing side may very well ascribed no legitimacy to the outcome. That is almost certainly going to end far worse than actually counting all the votes (i am looking at you, supreme court).

The same problem happens with your exam example. Why is it fair that someone less competent than you got in? A better solution would be to let everyone over the cut off point in.

I can't disagree with your example of the stock market, so long as the trades were still executed with a few seconds.

If some guy gets into medicine because their parents did their homework, drilled them in SAT techniques, and hired a firm to fabricate a good admissions letter, are they really more competent than a kid who did their own homework, got a high SAT score because of their IQ and good study habits, and wrote an honest admissions letter?

Do people think our current politicians are legitimate? I'd rather see them be more willing to say what they think, and act with conviction than get a guy who is 0.1% more popular.

Yeah, it's a strawman. Will randomization discourage people from playing the game dishonestly? Or will people panic, and play the game harder, and give up on the honest component of what they are doing? I don't really know.

It would just be recognizing the jitter that exists inherently in the system. You will always get a different number when counting the votes, so you can end up with a "50% voted for both" situation.

Why is flipping a coin worse than pretending the next count will be more correct? You kind of contradict your own point by implying the supreme court didn't supply legitimacy to the election. Nobody can blame a quarter for being stiffed with neocons on the heads side.

The trouble is that getting people to recognize that is really hard, and just changing how the system works probably won't do it. If you want to politically antagonize nearly any American with a strong political affiliation, regardless of what that affiliation is, just tell them that the margin of error in the 2000 presidential elections was far larger than the difference in votes, and therefore both candidates were about equally legitimate winners.

The losing side will always find some reason to claim the outcome is illegitimate and if you don't get in you will always be able to find someone you think you are better than.

What might make sense would be a combination. Have some barrier to entrance to limit the people to choose from, but then select randomly from the remaining candidates. For example, to be considered for an elected position, you first have to receive %x of the vote, or maybe only select from the top 3. This way you help to ensure that the person being elected is representing some of the population, but hopefully eliminating some of the games.

Interesting. Somewhat akin to dithering, i.e. deliberately inserting noise in quantized signals to increase their perceived quality (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dither).

Do you have any links on this? I hadn't heard of it before and am quite interested in it now, but could not come up with anything after a quick Google search for "sortation". Thanks for sharing this!

I've edited in a link now.

The main disadvantage with sortation seems to be that it killed Socrates. Randomly selected jurors did quite a few nasty and arbitrary things. But an elected tyrant (especially one who was willing to do anything to stay popular) might be worse. It's hard to say that sortation is bad because it allowed mistakes - every political system allows mistakes.

Also, systematic slavery, misogyny, the occasional genocide and other discrimination against non-male-citizens (non-voters) was a problem, but that's not really related to sortation. Any democracy can have those problems. Fortunately, we seem to have progressed a little in the last 2000 years (despite the occasional step back).

> The main disadvantage with sortation seems to be that it killed Socrates.

I was just reading this morning on the way to work a note made by Voltaire to Montesquieu's "De l'esprit des lois" that the decision in Socrate's trial was in fact a pretty close one, so things were not that bad (he still died, I know). I don't want to turn this into /r/politics, but look what's happening to Bradley Manning. I'm pretty sure that even if he were to be put to trial in front of a civilian court the call won't be as close as in the case of Socrates, for a lot of different reasons which I'm not going into details now.

For those interested, here's the count of the votes in Socrates' trial: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/socrates/greek...

> In the case of Socrates, the jury found Socrates guilty on a relatively close vote of 280 to 220. (Interestingly, if less than 100 jurors voted for guilt, the accusers had to pay a fine to cover trial costs.)

It's been argued in the past that Socrates quite deliberately provoked the jury into killing him - it's hard not to read it, see that far from being humble or defending himself he instead told them they should vote him a pension for his services to Athens, and think that this was just a case of suicide by cop.

I don't want to turn this into /r/politics, but look what's happening to Bradley Manning. I'm pretty sure that even if he were to be put to trial in front of a civilian court the call won't be as close as in the case of Socrates, for a lot of different reasons which I'm not going into details now.

Despite being a cause celebre, the fact remains that Manning's alleged actions were, in fact, illegal. Not that jury nullification doesn't happen, but it's actively discouraged.

> Randomly selected jurors did quite a few nasty and arbitrary things. But an elected tyrant (especially one who was willing to do anything to stay popular) might be worse. It's hard to say that sortation is bad because it allowed mistakes - every political system allows mistakes.

Exactly. The point of voting is not, repeat not to execute the will of "the people" as faithfully as possible. "The people" can be just as powerful and arbitrary as a single ruler, when it comes to that. The point of voting is to randomize so that no single entity stays in power indefinitely. (No executive, legislature, or even set of ideals can win elections indefinitely, no matter how popular they are when they start out.) In exchange for mediocre performance in the average case, you get to eliminate the almost unboundedly terrible performance of the worst case.

Apparently, the expression is 'sortition' not 'sortation'. wisty has a link to the relevant Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sortition, and a Google search for 'sortition' yields quite a few results.

>>Randomization means that the last percent is just not worth chasing...

True, but only in the case of complete randomization. In the case of randomization kicking in only when the election is close, one side will be chasing the last percent to get to randomization and the other to avoid it. Same thing...

Maybe the randomization could be weighted by the individual percentages. For example, randomize if the candidates are within 1%, but give the higher-voted candidate an increased chance of winning weighted by how far apart they are. That way the difference kicks in slowly, reducing the incremental value of additional votes in a reasonably smooth fashion.

Over-optimization of race cars can be bad too. Take the recent popularity of vintage racing. People don't want to watch 50 similar-looking, generic, computer-designed, air-tunnel-tested, same-engine cars going around a round track.

What they want to see is unique and historical body styles for every company in the race, powerful cars vs. nimble cars, finicky engines, twisty turns and long straightaways, etc.

Could be an example in the original post, really. Over-optimization leads to a worse sport.

Couldn't they just require that you must win by at least 1% or there's a runoff, and achieve the same result?

Bring on the Culture!

We had something on here many months ago about a voting system basically the same as what we have now, however instead of determining the winner by who got the most votes, the winner is determined by randomly choosing a single ballot.

If you pay a man by the hour, he'll work a lot of hours. If you pay him by the brick, he'll lay a lot of bricks.

These "games" are basically the equivalent of counting lines of code or checkins. We're measuring poor proxies instead of the things we're actually interested in. The solution isn't an arms race to build bigger and better proxies, the solution is to measure real things instead of artificial ones.

Here's just one example of what I mean by "measure real things". Electing representatives every X years to decide the laws of the land was once upon a time the fairest and best way to have the voices of the masses heard. Today it is feasible to directly poll everybody about every issue, so we no longer need the proxy. If you say everyone cannot be educated about every issue, fine, I can "follow" PG's votes on wall street reform and grellas's votes on IP tort reform and Schneier's votes on TSA etc just by copying their votes on those issues into my ballot, a permission which I can revoke at any time or on a vote-by-vote basis, as easy as unfollowing them on VoteTwitter. This is better than the proxy of professional politicians deciding every issue with fixed terms.

As you allude to, the problem with direct democracy is that people are stupid. Not all people about all things, but most people about most things. The realm of human knowledge is simply too vast for anyone to have a broad command of, so we specialize. This means that, for any given issue, the vast majority of people are ignorant about its specifics. Thus we cannot expect the masses to make wise decisions about most issues. The obvious counter-argument to this is education, that educating the public on the issues at hand would lead to better decisions. However, that would fall victim to the same demagoguery and corruption that we see infecting politics today.

By way of illustration, think of an issue that you care deeply about and are well-informed on. Now ask yourself if you would trust the public at large to make policy on it. For every pg, grellas, or Schneier, you'll have far more popular Becks, Palins, and Bachmanns. Direct democracy would be inherently susceptible to such demagogues, and as such cannot be seen to be any more reliable, or likely to produce wise policy, than the current system.

>> The realm of human knowledge is simply too vast for anyone to have a broad command of, so we specialize.

This statement could actually be used just as easily against voting for representatives as we do today. The real question is do you trust public at large to make a better or worse opinion than <name your representative> on some issue you are deeply informed on? In other words the comparison should be versus the existing system as a whole, not versus an expert on a single topic.

My perception of the demagogue is that their power comes from railing against the current authority. So while I can agree that it seems likely that a 'true democracy' would instantly prop up the Becks and Palins of the country, who do they blame when a majority of people vote that they are wrong? Or maybe even more extreme who do they blame when their views and proposals are voted for but still fail?

There is no longer a 'bad guy' to blame and arguments put forth by a demagogue will have to deal with two new realities-

1- They can no longer claim they are part of the majority opinion in an effort to gain further support. It'd be hard for Sarah Palin to keep up her 'regular joe' persona and reconcile it with being in major disagreement with a majority of the country

2- They can no longer claim obstruction by some authority steam rolling them in legislature. It would become pointless to argue about which pundit supported which policy or law in the past, because every individual would have their personal voting record.

>> This statement could actually be used just as easily against voting for representatives as we do today.

True. I'm no big fan of representative democracy, it just happens to be the least bad system we've tried.

>> The real question is do you trust public at large to make a better or worse opinion than <name your representative> on some issue you are deeply informed on?

Well, yes, because they are at least (usually) experts in business or law, which are the domains that are most important to government. Some will be military or foreign policy experts, and they will (hopefully) be appointed to the relevant subcommittees. It's a fairly broken system, open to all kinds of abuses and with little assurance of wise leadership, but I still think the competence of the average politician in crafting policy is higher than that of the average citizen.

>> My perception of the demagogue is that their power comes from railing against the current authority.

I think there's quite a bit of truth in that. I don't, however, think it's a necessary truth. Hitler was a classic demagogue, even and especially after he gained power. He appealed to antisemitism and a fierce nationalism, rather than to the incompetence of politicians. While the current crop in the US gain power by railing against the established political class in DC, that's not the only possible source of power for them.

>> It'd be hard for Sarah Palin to keep up her 'regular joe' persona and reconcile it with being in major disagreement with a majority of the country.

Reconciling her views with reality has never been particularly important to her, and I don't see how that would change in a direct democracy. She could just as easily rail against the liberals in the MSM who poison the electorate with their propaganda.

Ultimately, I picture direct democracy working quite similarly to the reddit hivemind, and I'm not convinced that's a good thing. It would likely be passionate and dynamic, but liable to go off the rails from time to time.

You assume they won't lie outright, which seems like an odd assumption. In a world where some people claim no American planes crashed into buildings on September 11, 2001, I wouldn't put it past the average demagogue to pin every defeat on a conspiracy that subverted the will of the voters, who are of course all Right-Minded and pro-demagogue.

I like the idea of a Ward Republic (see Jefferson) coupled with a Delegate Democracy.

It's not about people knowing a lot of things, it about people with a lot of things knowing. The fundamentals are what's lacking, the basic lies. "... ALL MEN are created equal" , lie from the very foundation, and why, why ,why can't they grasp "do until others as you would have them do unto you", the very heart of what they claim as their religion and proof of their legitimate claim to power ? It's only about holding key truths, not about vast sums of knowledge. People can do anything together, all the answers exist. It's the lack of power holding key truths that skews everything to the lack of progress,the lack of agreement and ability to find solutions. In short, we can fix it very quickly, the answers are actually simple and abundant, the people are deep and strong. BUT THEY WON'T LET US.

The idea of directly polling everybody is not new -- that 'everyone' could vote on everything was at the core of Athenian government.

The US founders specifically rejected that system because it leads to majoritarianism. And it would do so again, if you let it.

> The US founders specifically rejected that system because it leads to majoritarianism.

It would be wonderful if you could cite a few primary sources discussing a direct vs indirect legislative branch as leading to majoritarianism, whether a longitudinal study or quotation of the appropriate historical person.

You can still have separation of powers, judicial oversight, bills of rights, local governments, federalism, and all the checks we have today against majoritarianism within a direct legislative system. Direct legislature doesn't mean only one branch of government.

To put it another way, I don't believe the solution to the "tyranny of the majority" is to set up little tyrants to rule over the majority instead. Even if those were the only two options (and they're not), I would prefer majority rule to what we have.

That's a fantastic response. I'm shocked at how many people have unsubstantiated fears of simply eliminating an unnecessary proxy. The reason we didn't have direct democracy before is because it wasn't practical before -- not because those elected are superior and can ignore what the people wish for.

It is now practical to have a direct democracy: If we can bank online, we can vote online. In contrast, there are 26 lobbyists for every member of congress in the US. They are not there to support the public's will but to contravene it by paying for the opposite. Over 80% of Americans (statistically almost everyone) are dissatisfied with Congress, as they should be. The representational form of democracy is both no longer needed and horribly broken.

Online banking does not require customers to read 875 pages of legalese in order to have a chance of noticing and understanding the line that grants a $200,000,000 tax break to Exxon.

I think that the claim that it is now practical to have a direct democracy needs some support. Can you point to a smaller group which is governed in this manner? To a working prototype of transitive voting code? I am prepared to be persuaded, but the practicality seems far from obvious.

My point is, and it remains, that the problem is not technological.

Is it possible now to instantly poll all citizens, at any moment, on a question of law? Absolutely. Indeed we've had that technology for decades -- since the 50s at least with tabulators and telephones.

The point I am making, and which I was originally being downvoted for making, is that technology is not the point. Social dynamics are the point.

Ancient Athenians lived in a geographically small area, such that the several thousand citizens could all participate in any matter of public policy, lawmaking and justice if they so chose to. Many did so.

Periodically, a particularly charismatic leader would arise and obtain of great power. The Athenians, acting entirely within the limits of their constitution, eventually came undone. In the process they killed Socrates for asking annoying questions and wracked the Peloponnesian peninsula in war for many years, which is how they came undone.

The Romans established a Republic as a reaction to the demise of a monarchy. It was riddled with inconsistencies, but contained many of the features we now recognise as common. For example, there was one lawmaking body elected from a limited franchise (the Senate) and another from a broader franchise (the Tribunes). They tussled frequently, but each jealously guarded its privilege. Rome, an obscure city whose only natural advantage was in being found athwart a salt trade route, came to dominate much of the world while still exercising representative democracy.

In practical terms, what does a direct democracy with proxies buy us? The main advantage is, in theory, to assign power, through proxies, on topics to experts. That is, it's meant to be a meritocratic-democratic fusion.

Fine, except:

* How do you define a proxy's limits? I say "Bruce Schneier has my proxy on matters of cryptography". What does that cover? Simply voting on NIST competitions? Mandating the use of SSL in banking? Some say in the operation of the NSA? Here come thousands of nasty court cases to settle the boundaries.

* What about conflicts of proxy? If I give Bob my proxy on "the internet" and Jill my proxy on "fibre optics", whose proxy prevails when the question is about regulating Google's purchase of dark fibre?

* What about generality? We can assumably assign proxies to any level of generality or specification. Say that Ashton Kutcher, who holds 3 million proxies good for any subject, weighs in against Bruce Schneier over crypto, only holding 500,000 proxies on crypto alone. Is that the outcome you want?

* Demagogues! Bob, who has 500,000 proxies on education policy after a lifetime of careful study, experience and rumination, is suddenly exposed as being gay. Fox News hints he's in league with the devil. Overnight Glenn Beck cries a bit and acquires 2 million education proxies.

* Transferable proxies / sub-proxies. Beck's proxies cause Bob to be outvoted. Beck's viewers, who have now tuned into World's Greatest Unicycle Crashes III, forget that they ever assigned that proxy. 6 months later Beck sub-proxies the 2 million he still holds to the CEO of EvilCo. Hilarity ensues.

I just don't see it scaling.

The proxies are what we have today with Congress: elected representatives. It's my understanding that the reason it was created is because technically it was too difficult to allow everyone to vote on every law.

I'm saying: eliminate Congress. Allow people to vote directly on all bills. They can read various opinions online (no advertising allowed).

Pedantically, what we have in a Congress or a Parliament is trustees. They exercise but do not own the power.

> It's my understanding that the reason it was created is because technically it was too difficult to allow everyone to vote on every law.

It was created that way to prevent the tyranny of the majority.

"A pure democracy can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party. Hence it is, that democracies have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths."

- Federalist No. 10.

Think of it as defence in depth. Do you pin all your security hopes in file permissions? Of course not: you demand randomised address layout, auditing tools and so on and so forth.

In short, you want defence in depth. Representative democracy is a defence against majoritarianism.

> I'm saying: eliminate Congress. Allow people to vote directly on all bills.

Who will write these bills? How will they be proposed? Is there a minimum number of sponsors required, if so, how many? How do bills lapse? How are they amended during discussion?

Well, we in Washington State have some experience on these things, as does California with the initiative process.

Who will write the bills? Tim Eyman, Industry Groups, Costco, and other Lobbying Groups.

Who will get sponsors? Probably the same. They'll probably pay for it. The same forces that pay for lobbyists will pour into the direct democracy process, like they've taken the initiatives.

What will we get from it? A bunch of bills, all looking for no taxes, no gay marriage, and a pony. Meanwhile, the important stuff will quietly get looted by People With Lawyers who now have no more oversight.

Anyone who lives in Washington and California knows the contradictory results you get from this. If you ask the people "hey, do you want stuff?" they vote "yes, we want stuff". If you ask people "hey, do you want to pay for it" they vote "no, we don't want to pay for it".

Or <Insert Foreign Power>. E.g. here's a look at the contributions by state from California's prop 8: http://projects.latimes.com/prop8/ - about 29% of the overall funding came from out of state.

I'm not sure why you're being downvoted, because you give realistic objections to the simplistic 'solutions' being proposed. It's easy to be 'contra' something, but it's juvenile to be against something without have a better alternative.

I'm saddened to see he's being down-voted. His arguments are rational and sophisticated. I think people are just disagreeing and that's not a good reason to down-vote.

That said, I down-voted you. Don't reduce this argument to name calling. People are voting up my arguments; you seem to be in the minority in not finding the alternative I'm suggesting to be better. That's fine. I wouldn't belittle you for it.

You're not suggesting an alternative, well maybe in the most abstract sense, but in your post several levels up from here there is not even a hint at how to address even just the most obvious flaws in letting people vote for each bill. There's no 'argument' made, just a cry for revolution - of the type that is very common amongst high school and undergraduate students; rising from a simplistic world view that fails to recognize that there is a reason why we've some to the situation where we are now, and that radical, sudden changes very seldom lead to the outcomes that they were designed to lead to. 'Juvenile' was not name calling; it's an (albeit unqualified and broad-stroked) description, or maybe rather 'characterization', of the argument and the context that lead to it.

There are over 13,000 full-time lobbyists for the 535 representatives in Washington, and their only job is, when legislation goes the way of the public and not the way of their sponsors, to use their financial muscle to bribe a different outcome. Despite decades of the public electing officials who say they'll fight it, it has only grown worse. You don't seem to have valid alternatives other than to be deeply shocked at the notion of changing it.

So I don't need to explain myself to you. I don't need to go into details. I don't need to get your permission. None of us do. You had decades; your turn is up.

The future will see open government and direct democracy via the internet as the obvious, logical next step of politics. The internet has transformed nearly every industry -- and now it's simply time to consider transforming politics. And those students, radicals and "juveniles" who are launching it, won't care what you think. You had your chance. You fucked up. Now it's our turn, whether you like it or not.

Huh? Did you even read any of my previous posts? I don't care about how 'the internet will transform politics', and of course the current process is suboptimal, but those discussions are so repetitive boring and trite that I really can't be bothered with it. Nor did I ever try to. I was merely pointing out that your 'argument' isn't an argument in the honest intellectual sense of the word, it's just a cascade of slogans, and at first I thought it was going to be covered with a thin veil of content, but at least now you acknowledge that you're not interested in that and that you prefer to retreat to spouting empty rhetoric.

Of course you don't need my permission, why would I care, I don't even know you. I just thought that you were debating on content, and was annoyed that the one person who was providing sound reasoning was being downvoted for it.

Anyway, good luck with your revolution, be sure to post back when you're done.

By 'you', I mean everyone who is satisfied with how things are.

What I'm saying is there are 13,000 full-time employees of rich clients, each representing a bus-load of money, whose job it is to stop what people want if it conflicts with what their wealthy sponsors want. That system cannot stand. It is rotten to the core.

I'm telling you that it's not about us or the people on HN. Politics have been gamed and the people know it, and they will change it. The internet has revamped industry after industry; politics is next. You can call it revolution. You may think I'm crazy and extreme. But I (and others) see something disastrously broken and are willing to use modern technology to fix it.

Wow, you really need to read history and learn a bit about mob behavior.

No, you need to read history and learn about the success of democracies, that only third-world countries now are not democracies -- it's been that successful, and that all I'm suggesting is that instead of electing a Michelle Bachmann to vote on the laws, you can skip her and vote directly.

What on earth makes you think that direct democracy will eliminate the efforts of lobbyists? The money will just get redirected toward news and information outlets, because nobody will actually read the bills they are voting on.

As long as voting costs nothing, and the work comes from someone else, nobody is going to take it seriously.

Instead, attach the voter's name to the bill, as either yay, nay, or abstain. When their position is proven wrong, fine them to cover the damages their mistaken choice cost.

As is, voting is unjust. It leads to abominations like the draft.

No need to cry for me, the tide of votes seems to be turning.

I think you are right to object right now, but with time mindsets will change. Each new generation moving closer and closer to direct democracy.

Technologically it's already possible.

> Who will write these bills? How will they be proposed? Is there a minimum number of sponsors required, if so, how many? How do bills lapse? How are they amended during discussion?

Do you think this sort of thing makes you clever? In every idea there are implementation details. What's your point?

Unless you're saying that these things will somehow be radically harder under the proposed system, and if so say how, it doesn't need saying.

> Representative democracy is a defence against majoritarianism.

No, representative democracy is often proposed as a defense for such.

We can routinely see our politicians playing to the masses so obviously if it works it's only in a round-about fashion.

OK, the Roman system was better, because it had checks and balances.

You could do the same with direct representation. Have a constitution, wich can only be modified by a 2/3rds majority. Require a 2/3rds majority to execute philosophers, start wars, and murder the male population of subject states.

And Socrates was not just a kindly old Zen master, preaching peace and understanding. He was a bright guy, but as he developed philosophy he also preached against democracy in favor of some kind of military dictatorship run by philosopher kings. Some of his students led bloody revolts, overthrew the democracy, and executed hundreds of democrats before they were eventually toppled. He wasn't quite the Osama Bin Ladin of Athens, but he was responsible (in a sense) for a lot of deaths. But he couldn't be executed for that, because there was an amnesty; so they got him on some trumped up charge related to his religious skepticism.

Of course, his more philosophical (and less political) followers (i.e. Plato) painted his execution as a great miscarriage of justice.

"some kind of military dictatorship run by philosopher kings" — while Plato advocates this through the mouth of Socrates, most scholars believe it's Plato using Socrates as a hand puppet in this and many other later dialogues, not an actual recollection of things Socrates might have said, as is more likely for some of Plato's earlier dialogues. Forgive me the nit-picking :-)

He was a bright guy, but as he developed philosophy he also preached against democracy in favor of some kind of military dictatorship run by philosopher kings.

It seems like you're attributing the ideas in The Republic to Socrates. Of the Socratic dialogues written by Plato, some of them were fairly faithful representations of conversations Socrates actually had and others used Socrates as a fictional character to argue for Plato's ideas. The Republic falls firmly in the latter category.

Oh yeah, The Republic is a scary book. An alternative title could be Brave Ancient World.

I'm late to the table and you might not read this, but something conspicuously absent from this conversation is a discussion of the representative nature of the US government by _state_.

The higher legislative branch gives more weight to states as individual entities for very precisely balanced reasons. In a very real sense it is not representatives that act, but states themselves.

This has been incredibly important, because it further decouples the population from the decision. Sparsely populated states have traditionally had different concerns than urban states: the Popularist Party of the late 19th century was sharply divided along these lines.

In other words, the popular vote is disregarded because different 'types' of people shouldn't have too much power: the density of cities should not grant that population dominion over the agrarian folk.

People complained about the popular vote being for Gore without realizing that the system was still functioning as intended: the states vote for the president, their votes being determined by the population within. Those foolish states that split their electoral votes make themselves irrelevant!

In other words, the popular vote is disregarded because different 'types' of people shouldn't have too much power: the density of cities should not grant that population dominion over the agrarian folk.

In practice, the system grants sparse populations dominion over the majority. There's no well-thought-out philosophical reason for this, by the way, this was just a compromise states like Virginia had to make to get states like Rhode Island to agree to the Constitution.

Philosophically, people are people. Why should they be effectively disenfranchised for choosing to live in cities rather than in the mountains?

>In practice, the system grants sparse populations dominion over the majority.

Not so! Populism _failed_, but it wouldn't have even had a chance to represent the interests of the agrarian states if statehood were not more important than sheer weight of numbers.

>There's no well-thought-out philosophical reason for this, by the way, this was just a compromise states like Virginia had to make to get states like Rhode Island to agree to the Constitution.

How is that not a well-thought-out philosophical reason? Balancing the needs of states is what enabled the Union. You act as if the compromise was not based in real, valid needs on behalf of the states. Rhode Island needed incentive to join. Virginia needed incentive to join. A two-senator Senate and a two-representative plus population-based-count representative HoR is the result: an _elaborate_ philosophical compromise, balancing power on several axes.

You're looking at it the wrong way: cities have much, much more by way of population. The most populous states would _steamroll_ everyone else if weighted solely by headcount, assuming they acted in unison--which has historically been the rule and not the exception.

The mistake you're making is treating states as primary. States--and, more generally, federalism--are a means to an end. The purpose of government is to serve the interests of people. Rhode Island is a legal fiction delimited by imaginary lines; you and I are real people. The people who live within the imaginary lines of Rhode Island are just as important as anyone, but those million people are no more or less important than any other arbitrarily selected collection of a million people. Why should it matter where they choose to live, or where the imaginary lines are drawn?

In the United States, states are largely a historical accident stemming from the way North America was colonized. No one actually decided to establish a federal democracy in North America and divide it into states, different people from entirely different countries just happened to colonize different parts of the continent without ever intending that New Amsterdam and Jamestown would ever fall under the same American government. The Constitution was a political compromise based on the fact that thirteen of those colonies broke away from the mother country and needed a federal government. The Founding Fathers weren't gods, they were the same breed of hypocritical, self-serving politicians you see in any era, a scarce few wiser than the others for sure, but the same ugly sausage-making all the same.

I'm saying it's not a mistake, it's a decision, which of course has its drawbacks and pitfalls. Hypocritical, self-serving politicians can still have understandable and even rational motivations and arguments.

Believe me, I ain't putting no fathers on a pedestal. But you seem to like putting them in a cesspit.

"The reason we didn't have direct democracy before is because it wasn't practical before "

Is simply not true. Why did we (and by we I mean land owning white men) vote for congressmen directly but not senators or the president? Obviously the mechanism for voting was in place, but they did not use it for 2 of the 3 federal offices. They were specifically trying to distance the choice of president and senators from the poeple. It was only later that the voting base was expanded, people started voting directly for senators and the president (and technically, it's still a little indirect to the president).

If we can bank online, we can vote online.

Only if you ignore that pesky anonymous voting problem. I want my bank to know exactly what transactions I made when, and keep detailed logs of those transactions. I don't want some government body have detailed logs of exactly how I voted.

I tend to agree with you, but as online "voting" systems become ubiquitous (likes, karma, +1's etc.) I can imagine a future where a public voting record would seem normal or even desirable.

That would require a future in which all people, despite radically different political views, can agree to disagree in a civil manner. A world in which people will never fear retribution or discrimination from those who disagree with them. A world in which the very idea of threatening or coercing people to get them to vote as you wish is simply abhorrent. As much as I'd love to live in such a world, I cannot see it happening.

Sadly, I can't see such a system working either.

But I can imagine it being put into place and then being abused.

> You can still have separation of powers, judicial oversight, bills of rights, local governments, federalism, and all the checks we have today against majoritarianism within a direct legislative system.

This doesn't change the fact that legislation would still take on a majoritarian tone. You'd need even more circumscription of the powers of the legislature for it to work at all; history suggests that it's at best a partial solution.

> I would prefer majority rule to what we have.

I saw majority rule in high school. No thanks.

> This doesn't change the fact that legislation would still take on a majoritarian tone.

It's not clear that this is substantially worse that legislation written for/by lobbyists.

The current process is thoroughly corrupt.

Direct democracy killed Socraties. The current system, flawed as it is, does a reasonable job of prevention the most stupid ideas from getting Mainstream attention.

The people deciding political issues wouldn't be the reasonable and smart people who hang around here. It will be the people who stand around picking funerals, people who never graduated high school, functional illiterates and the drug dealers in the inner cities.

Is it really that kind of people, the ones who can be convinced with a few late night tv commercials, you want to run your country?

Direct democracy killed Socraties.

No, no it did not. Direct democracy means the legislative branch doesn't use a proxy. There are still two other branches. How is this so hard to understand?

Elected representatives are supposed to fully represent their constituents. There is not supposed to be a difference between the rep. and who they represent. What direct democracy says is that the proxy of a representative has been corrupted and is no longer necessary. That is all.

P.S. The whole notion that representatives are "smarter" than their constituents is both false (Michelle Bachman?) and elitist. Who the fuck are you to decide that people are too dumb to have a democracy? It's the same line throughout history and people have consistently proved it wrong.

Why is it false or elitist to assume that someone working full time on a subject is "smarter" than everyone else on that particular subject?

I am pretty sure 99% of the lawyers in US would do a better job than me defending anyone in a trial. Every car mechanic in the world would do a better job than me fixing some mechanical problem in my car. Does this mean that I am dumb? No, it just means I devote my time to other areas of expertise.

I really cannot see why this shouldn't apply for politicians as well.

We can have people working full-time analyzing the subject and read what their opinions are.

That's what representatives do, actually -- they have people who read the bills and give advice on what they think. I'm saying, like with so many areas, by using the internet we can skip the middle-man.

That there would be separate legislative and executive branches doesn't stop a direct democracy from passing laws that would punish Socrates again.

Sure it does: laws are held to be constitutional by the judicial branch. Such laws as killed Socrates are not constitutional.

You're still missing the point. Unpopular people would be made subject to laws meant to get them. This already happens in representative democracies, it would get much worse.

Socrates might not be executed (depending on the constitution in question), but he might still find himself prisoner for life because the law had mandatory sentencing provisions.

And I think you're missing the point: representational government has been gamed. It's not about them being smarter and understanding the laws better (they often don't even read them, but use assistants for that); it's a bottleneck, ripe for corruption. Billions are at stake and only 535 people stand in the way; with lobbying(bribing) being perfectly legal. It's broken.

You may not like it, but it's not really up to you (or me) to decide. The people can choose to eliminate that ineffective, rotten layer.

> And I think you're missing the point: representational government has been gamed. It's not about them being smarter and understanding the laws better (they often don't even read them, but use assistants for that); it's a bottleneck, ripe for corruption.


If you look elsewhere, you'll see my notes on the particulars of the US system. We have rent-seeking here in Australia, but nothing like the scale of the US.

The difference is that US Members of Congress are basically independent agents. No party discipline, and no executive constraints, prevent them from that kind of deal-making. It's down to the peculiarities of the US system, not representative democracy in general.

Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

(Plus there's the standard libertarian argument that reducing the power of Congress reduces incentives to fiddle; but that doesn't do away with merely petty corruption).

And I think it's all bathwater. No more political parties. No more Coke/Pepsi choices of elected officials. No more outright corruption.

Open government, e-democracy. The time has come.

You're a bit of a techno-utopian. In small groups with homogenous polities and aligned interests, this might work. In an opensource project, for instance.

But even those fall into strife. Politics is part of human nature; the encrustations of western civilisation and elsewhere are not arbitrary.

You're a bit of a techno-utopian.

Maybe. But I think if you look at history, distributing power has always been the most successful strategies. Unfortunately, it's also the least popular with those who currently hold power, so it's often a knife fight.

I'm not quite sure it's as radical as you seem to think it is. Is voting for a Michelle Bachmann to vote on laws, or just voting directly on those laws, so different? Really? I'm not so sure. The internet has transformed every other industry. Can we not apply it to politics and leverage its power there?

homogenous politics

I've been arguing the U.S. perspective, and it is so divisive there that I don't think it could be worse.

Jacques, this will be my last post so: thanks for the great dialog. All the best.

sigh OK then, so who is going to pass the laws that the judicial branch will uphold, and/or who is going to appoint the people in the judicial branch? Are they going to be elected by the same people who elect the officials?

It's a quite well-studied and well-explored area; I encourage you to read more about it. Switzerland, for example, is a direct democracy.

Switzerland is no such thing.

Switzerland is a federation of cantons with a patchwork of different electoral systems with some mechanisms for citizen-initiated referenda.

In other words, only some cantons in Switzerland use direct democracy. I've lived for many years in Switzerland and everyone I talked to was pretty proud to call it that; but if you want, I'll correct it: many parts of of one of the richest, best run countries in the world works as a direct democracy.

Of course it's well-studied area, but you make it seem as if that means that there's a 'solution' or even consensus on its effects, which is a position so ludicrous it doesn't even warrant refuting. For the rest, your 'argument' about Switzerland shows that it is you who has no idea what you're talking about.

>does a reasonable job of prevention the most stupid ideas from getting Mainstream attention.

Citation needed? Some pretty stupid ideas get through and lots of corruption (e.g. "bridge to nowhere").

>The people deciding political issues wouldn't be the reasonable and smart people who hang around here.

What kind of people do think are in the Senate/Congress? They're not the reasonable and smart people who hang around here either. And in any case, those people you so happily deride are choosing said representatives anyway.

Any problems you see with giving everyone a say exist with giving a subset of those people a say. In fact I would say the problem is exaggerated with the smaller group because the kind of people who would be good for government are the kind who would never be willing to do that job. I bet they would be willing to voice their opinions though.

Further along these lines, modern communication has caused the US political system to more closely approach direct democracy, causing problems along the lines of those foreseen.

I think polling is what has done it, because it shortcuts the feedback cycle between representative and represented.

Edmund Burke made the point eloquently in his speech to the voters of Bristol:

"Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.

But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

[emph added]


Burke is already presaging the exact topic we're discussing: whether democracy is about the direct will of the people, or whether an elected representative has duties other than merely voting as his electors wish him to.

That's an interesting link, Jacques; thanks.

Remember, though, at that time the world was ruled by monarchies and it was thought that people were too stupid and illiterate to be part of their own governing.

It's 2011, and no one can debate this: It's up to the people to decide themselves whether they want to someone to override their will or to respect it. No one has the power to say, "Should we trust the will of the people?" The Enlightenment happened. You and I can debate, but we, the people, will decide.

> Remember, though, at that time the world was ruled by monarchies and it was thought that people were too stupid and illiterate to be part of their own governing.

Note the date. The Glorious Revolution -- establishing the ascendancy of Parliament over the Crown -- is more than a hundred years in the past when he made this speech. The American Revolution is but 2 years away. Before long Burke will be reflecting on the horrors of the French Revolution.

I love the idea that electing representatives every X years to decide the laws of the land may not be the best way forward, and a new approach that takes into account modern technology may be a better way to go about this.

However, based on human nature, I think that given long enough time of your proposed system in place, some people will overlearn it and find a way to exploit it, e.g. to gather tons of votes for their favorite cause. We may even see 'vote consultants/strategists' that guarantee a huge increase in the votes for the cause you want to pursue.

Of course, you already see this in indirect form in professional PR firms whose sole job it is to influence public opinion on a narrow issue, and in direct form in places where 'direct voting' is implemented in some form, like in California's referendum system for which on almost each issue specific lobbying groups have a major influence on the outcome.

I'd argue that referenda are more even susceptible to the problems described in the article than transparent representative democratic systems are; laymen are easy to influence, and groups of laymen even easier. In the end it depends on the population that is being ruled though - people get the rulers they deserve, and blaming the elected people while still participating in bribery, nepotism etc (while rational! classic prisoners dilemma!) is useless. But of course somebody needs to step up, like the Indian guy is doing now.

The problem with this is that all issues regarding taxation/government spending are non-orthogonal, and can't be uncoupled easily (or at all).

This would not work in practice at all because it assumes that most people are sufficiently well educated, informed and interested to make a sound decision.

I for one would not want to spend much time on reading new law proposals and thinking about their exact meaning and implications, that's the job of a politician who is actually paid to do that.

We should at least be able to select who represents us. Think proportional representation.

I think its crazy that we can hire a lawyer or auto mechanic that must do what we ask, but we cannot be represented by someone that shares our perspective.

I don't think direct voting on every issue is the answer. Having the ability to pick our own delegate and change our selection any time is better. I really don't have the time to read every bill. But we can read people and share information with others that share our perspective.

Right now we must accept representation by whoever gets the most votes. And it doesn't even have to be a majority of the votes.

We also have a big cost shifting problem. People and states seek to shift costs to the larger country. That destroys any ability to weigh costs and benefits. Pushing such assessments down to as local a level as possible improves decision making.

It is just very hard to measuer real things. One program is not like the other. How do you want to measure success in a software project, where the result is actually not even clear to the customer?

The real problem with measuring real things is that real things have infinite dimensions. You can only measure along a limited number of dimensions, and if you want to make a ranking you can only directly compare one (scalar) dimension at a time.

So in the end you will always get overoptimization over those dimensions you are measuring, to the detriment of the other dimensions. I don't think there is a better solution than continuously changing the dimensions of measurement.

> Today it is feasible to directly poll everybody about every issue, so we no longer need the proxy. If you say everyone cannot be educated about every issue, fine, I can "follow" PG's votes on wall street reform and grellas's votes on IP tort reform [...]

You'd love Hyperarchy (http://blog.hyperarchy.com/2011/07/19/hyperarchy-democracy-f...)

I can see it now: "And make sure to VoteFollow us at #GlennBeck. Our research team carefully picks the right votes on all the issues."

I'm in favor of ending the cap on representatives in the House. The House was never meant to be capped at 435.

That would be an actual representative government. A good way,logical and efficient and there are others. None of which will ever happen because government cannot be representative, no one will give anything up and inequality cannot be represented. You know the saying, if voting changed anything they'd outlaw it. We don't need a better way to communicate individually with our governors, we need better minds holding power.

Systems theorists say that "structure predicts behaviour". It's a bit trite, but also deep. Here's an example.

The US political system pretty much guarantees bad budgeting. Members of Congress are elected fairly independently. There is no party discipline, so each member will operate independently to maximise pork. This encourages horse-trading within and across party lines; nobody can be forced to give up something for a general good.

There's more: there's no incentive to balance the budget. The Executive's separation means that Congress does not need to concern itself with proper administration; it only doles out the cash. It has every incentive to ... maximise pork.

The dynamic behaviour of American government arises from the static structure. The drafters of the constitution drew on their knowledge of history and current affairs to try and avoid certain pitfalls. The US Constitution was state-of-the-art when it was written. It's less so now.

Countries where the Executive is formed out of the Legislative -- the Westminster system -- tend to have much stronger party discipline, because that discipline is required to pass budgets, enact legislation and to form the Executive. This tends to almost eliminate horse-trading, except between parties and independents. It's not perfect -- whole parties can engage in pork too -- but when policy emerges that benefits the many at the cost of a few, countries with party discipline will find it easier to adopt than those without.

Australia, which has the amongst the toughest party discipline in the democratic world, is also a reform leader. And I think a lot of that is explained by our constitutional arrangements.

I think "overlearning" is not a good term (edit: it is quite accurate, though), because it tend to suggest the worst solution of all: that we refrain from learning. I prefer "lost purposes"[1].

The primary purpose of a game is generally to Have Fun. This purpose is lost if you have "solved" the game. The stated purpose of patents is to foster innovation. However it doesn't work[2]. The purpose of schools is learning. However its methods are flawed [3,4]. And so on.

The trick is to know your goals, and then find out means to best achieve them. The author said:

> But, in real life, we need to keep "playing the game": we need to have elections, and protections for inventors, and laws that govern society, and a market where companies can raise money.

But the actual goals are different: We don't need election, we need a working democratic system (which may, or may not, mandate elections). We don't need protections for inventors, we need innovations. We don't need laws, we need a fair and working society. We don't need a market where companies can raise money, we need a working economy.

Well, I could attempt recurse further up until pure morality, but that would be intractable. But at least you get the idea. If something looks broken, think about its ultimate purpose before you try to fix it.

[1]: http://lesswrong.com/lw/le/lost_purposes/

[2]: http://www.dklevine.com/general/intellectual/against.htm

[3]: http://vimeo.com/5513063 (Dr Tae)

[4]: http://www.khanacademy.org/

Overlearning/Overfitting is a term from machine learning/statistics that means that a learning system fits its learning data so well that it does not generalize to new data. The examples given in the article seem like perfect examples of this, e.g. elected officials fit the election process very well, but do not "generalize" to leading a country.

Ah. I didn't see it as jargon. I recognize the term is accurate, but my main point still stands: the connotation is still there, and still does suggest we should learn less about those systems if we want to preserve their original purpose.

Worse, the end of the post suggest we have to preserve things like schools, markets and elections, even though we learned enough to spoil them. Therefore, the only thing left to sacrifice is learning itself.

That would really really sucks: I'm curious, and I always want to learn more. There are many things I would sacrifice before I accept to put hard limits on what I am allowed to learn.

i prefer the term 'metagaming'.

Hey USA, your first past the post system actually does tend towards dual party governments [0]. Compare it to preferential system where voters can pick several parties or vote for one party for the preferences listed.

For example, look at this: http://www.abc.net.au/elections/federal/2010/guide/deni.htm With USA's system, Australia Labor Party would have got re-elected.

There's still improvements to be made for democracy that doesn't need to involve such fancy technology yet [1].

[0] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duvergers_law

[1] http://techpp.com/2011/06/08/homomorphic-encryption/

I'm reminded of Mechanism Design: a Nobel prize winning theory of economics that starts with the supposition that agents in any system will exploit its rules to maximize their personal gain. The corollary, which I've been quite taken by, is that where we can influence the rules of the game, we should design them such that exploitation serves a social good.

Many people see this from a macroeconomic or political point of view. So I think adding a more philosophical point of view might also be of value. Of course, because it is philosophy, I can only present my own point of view. There is no right or wrong.

For me, as a Zen student, the solution is to just accept that that it is, what it is. No system (shape, for Zen students) can be perfect. It is created to solve a problem and with time starts to fail badly at doing anything about the problem. Then another system is created by someone else and the cycle restarts. You might think for example that the stock market or democracy is a thing that doesn't change, because it exists longer then you live. But in the end it will change. We had different political systems before and we will develop different systems in the future.

So in the end the system is one of the most important things we have, because it gives us something to base our decisions and actions on and goals to strive for. But also the system is nothing, just an illusion we create for us, maybe based on how we understand the illusions other people created for themself.

The thing that is interesting to me personally is that every system itself is instable and will change or die in the end. But the life cycle of a system, what it does for us and doesn't, that all will always stay the same and even though we try to change that, we will never succeed. So while it changes a lot in one way it is totally unchangable in another. But that just as a side note.

The cynic inside me would extend this problem to the entire economy or even human society itself. Any economic transaction is supposed to benefit both parties: the buyer offers an amount he is willing to pay for what he wants, the seller provides his goods or services at a price he is willing to accept. As PG might say, wealth is created in tandem with creating stuff that people want.

The problem is that some elements in society have become extremely effective at creating a perversion of "stuff people want" for their own benefit. They exploit loopholes in the system, whether by preying upon the poorly-informed, shifting costs onto externalities that we can't price properly, engaging in corruption, or producing items of questionable actual value but very attractive perceived value. They take advantage of our desire for easy answers to our problems with minimal effort expended.

Case in point: Ponzi schemes, coal power plants, Halliburton, the tobacco industry, Zynga, and even to an extent, religion

We've tried to control this with laws, education, and social norms, but ultimately it seems the invisible hand reigns supreme.

This article seems to be addressing 'the spirit' of a document or system.

Perhaps another way to look at the problem is to imagine creating an A.I. that you want to succeed at whatever system you present. In most cases, an A.I. will take the literal interpretation of the system and become a test-taker, an electable 'gotcha-game' politician or even an entity that finds it can maximize game theory to its own ends by complicating the rules of an existing system to the point of absurdity once it becomes powerful enough to modify and create rules.

So then how do we create systems resistant to beings that take everything literally? I suppose the only way is to reward certain outcomes as opposed to rewarding the direct product of the system itself.

Examples: After an election, have we elected someone who has met with a high degree of favorability in the electorate by the end of his term?

After having students become proficient test-takers, do they then become excellent doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.. ?

In a game invented to be fun or fair, once overlearned, do they produce fun or fairness?

If not, then a new game needs to be created or the existing one might need to be extensively modified to produced the desired product. This is where the internet shines, where everyone is welcome to take an existing system and modify it to something better. The problem with politics, law, stock market, etc... is that they have become the only method adopted in real society (there is only one game in town).

If reality were allowed to adopt, incorporate or evolve from systems/games from virtual reality (i.e. internet) there might be some productive change. But first we would need to see the first step taking place, that being even flawed virtual systems are allowed to manifest in significant proportion within real life society.

Don't hate the game, hate the player. Every game that profits a winner will have its cheaters.

We run into this situation in programming quite a bit. The answer is refactoring: taking the principles and patterns that work, streamlining them, ditching the cruft that works for a few edge cases but mostly gets in the way, simplifying the underlying metaphor of the system, and re-asssembling.

The only way to do this with much larger systems, such as systems of governance, is revolution or exploring new lands. Personally I'm a bit concerned about revolution -- the assumption with refactoring is that the people refactoring understand what the "good" parts are and what the "bad" parts are. They also need to be able to generalize and simplify in order to keep the system cognitively approachable. In my experience, it's very easy to be angry-tear-down-the-system guy, very difficult to actually refactor. As the author points out, it's not that these systems are entirely useless. The hell of the thing is that the reasons for creating these systems are still very valid.

I remain convinced that programmers (hackers) have a lot to add to the discussion when talking about complex, brittle systems. After all, we spend a lot of time both working with them and fixing them. To me, programming and systems architecture is applied philosophy. Very cool stuff.

Refactoring is what political types call 'reform'. Reformations are safer than Revolutions, because revolutions dissolve all civil structure. They allow the ruthless sociopath to prosper.

What programming has taught me is humility in the face of complexity. Refactoring only works because we can, at a stroke, reverse our changes; because we can place those changes in isolation and test the heck out of them.

But society, constitutions, laws: they are not software systems. A revolution can't be rolled back. A constitutional change is a hotfix applied to a running system. It's important to be careful.

You might find reading Burke on the French Revolution interesting; also Oakeshott on conservatism (the intellectual kind, not the god-n-guns kind).

I think we completely agree. I did not mean to imply anything but humility was indicated here.

"Reform" is a big, fuzzy word. A lot more brittleness and complexity has been added under that rubric. Systems of governance eventually get "over learned", that is, people adapt to the system and use it in more ways than it was intended. The ability of hundreds of millions of people to adapt is much greater than any amount of complexity that we can create. Yet we persist in the idea that by continuing to "tweak" the system, somehow magic will come from it. To me this is where humility comes in. We can never create a perfect government. The best we can do is have one that balances stability and refactoring.

Election cycles and constitutional amendment processes were supposed to do this. What we've found, though, is that legal precedent, statutory code, and an expansion of pure democracy and the role of career politicians, given enough time, puts us exactly where we didn't want to go.

Interesting side note: overly complex and brittle systems that people execute actually give dictatorial powers to those responsible for executing them. That is, in a computer system, the complexity creates program crashes and dysfunction, because the computer has to treat each instruction cycle and piece of data the same. In a system executed by people, a subtle social goal takes over: things still appear to happen. The system still superficially looks like it is working somewhat -- those in authority just selectively apply and bend the rules depending on whatever their whims are. If you've ever worked in a large organization with too much process, you've easily observed this: most struggle under burdensome rules, never being able to get anything done. A few, however, work completely outside the system, given special permission. These folks are usually kept off the radar so as not to upset the troops. Complex people systems don't ever stop working, they just make things miserable on most everybody and give a few permission to do whatever they want.

You'd think that modern tyrannies would look like old Libya: one guy in a funny hat ruling totally. But that's not the way it works any more. It's not one guy, it's a distributed oligarchy, and it's not out in the open, it's obfuscated.

Less Wrong talks about this a lot; their term for one variant of it is "superstimuli".

What's the difference between your "overlearning" and "hacking"? They sound like the same thing.

This phenomenon is the reason for the Wikipedia rule, "Ignore All Rules".

> What's the difference between your "overlearning" and "hacking"? They sound like the same thing.

They are similar, but I think one difference between "hacking" and "overlearning" is that a hacker can learn to subvert/circumvent a system quite quickly, and usually does so in a way that breaks the rules. Overlearning usually takes longer to achieve, and is a more insidious problem because it achieves its goals without actually breaking any rules.

It depends on what you think "the rules" are. Generally speaking, hacking happens in a framework that has unbreakable rules, whether those are rules of a game, of a CPU, or of an OS. A solution becomes a hack when it exploits those rules in a way that was previously thought impossible.

Of course, there may be other, breakable, rules that are broken — "You can't render 3-D in real time on a PC!" — but those aren't the relevant rules.

Many hacks are not quick at all to achieve.

I guess an example of hacking would be someone hacking the phone system to make free long distance calls. An example of overlearning would be someone learning the rules of society to such a degree that he gets free long distance calls (e.g. using lawsuits against phone companies).

The former would get fined or imprisoned if caught, but the latter is fine under our legal system.

It's pretty bizarre that you're using the derogatory definition of "hack" given that you're posting on Hacker News. And it doesn't incline me to want to talk to you further.

Sorry, I was just using the colloquial meaning of hack. Did not at all mean to appear derogatory for the type of hacking exemplified by HN, of which I take part in.

In any case, I do see your point about similarities between hacking and overlearning, but I think there are some differences. If I can articulate those difference better, I'll reply a little later.

I think overlearning can be considered to be a subset of hacking. In both cases laws (as in physics) are exploited however while hacking may or may not break rules as imposed by society overlearning does not.

Ironically, if you actually do ignore all rules on Wikipedia the process and policy wonks will crucify you. In fact, WP process and policy is another great example--the original purpose was to write an encyclopedia, but now it's just used as a forum to bicker over the internet.

Very interesting post!

However, I got hooked on thinking about the childhood game that he mentions briefly in the introduction. Asking more and more questions about an object and wanting all of them to be consistent is a good description of mathematics. According to Godel, both teams are bound to lose, because you cannot create a system of descriptions/properties about a system that are self-consistent (as their number increases), there will always be questions to a team whose answer will be inconsistent with the previous set of questions. The game is then to see which team can push the inevitable further.

IDEABOLT: It would be interesting to develop a program that plays this game. Each answer could be stored as an RDF statement in database.

There was a book written in the 80's that covered the overarching philosophical discussion on this kind of thinking about games. The author broke games into two categories: finite and infinite.

Finite games like the one invented by the children described by the OP have end states, they have winners, and the goal within them are always framed from that perspective. While infinite games have no winners, have no end, and the goals are often framed around ensuring that the game never ends.

It's easy to think of finite games in our lives, they are everywhere in our society, and the OP does a good job of pointing out some of the less obvious cases. Infinite games are less obvious, the one that I found most illuminating was "language", a game where people actively collude to extend the game to the end of time, and has no winner.

Anyay, it's an interesting read, but a little bit mumbo-jumbo by the middle of the book. I would recommend it.


I think it is time we recognize that it is not the systems that shape our world but the individuals.

There is no optimal system, be it political, economic or whatever.

You can always find loopholes.

I think it is time we take responsibility for what we do - then there is no need for a better system.

The patent system is not responsible for people attacking each other - its the people.

Great post. I face this everyday in my job at an "old media" company. There are policies, rules and constraints in place which served some purpose at some point in time, and haven't been challenged for years. Unlearning the rules of established games is almost as important as evolving them. Everything should be questioned and challenged to find the root of the point of the rule/law/restriction and if it doesn't make sense any longer, throw it out.

Doesn't "Exploiting the System" capture the same idea? I think basically what people are doing here is understanding the core weakness that is intrinsic to the system(which probably is not perfect) and using(abusing) it to their advantage.

Regarding politics, it is interesting to note that the people have not, for their part, also overlearned the game of electing the best man for the job. I wonder why this asymmetry exists?

Have you noticed that yesterday every comment was concise, and now that applications are open, every comment is elaborate, long-winded, and footnoted?

Seems most of the things mentioned are an inevitable result of centralizing and expanding government power. Someone is being gamed alright.

People are predators and that's what predators do, never stop searching for what they need. Predatory behavior is the problem, and there is little will in successful predators to outlaw there own behavior.


The original purpose of Gerrymandering was not to enhance the voting power of minorities, it was to game elections.


Black majority electorates came decades after Gerrymandering.

Not a bad article though.


Also, while gerrymandering is indeed an abhorrent practice, its not clear it actually leads, in aggregate, to more extreme politicians. Gerrymandering is a delicate balance, and is often designed to create "just safe enough" seats (rule of thumb is 55% projected support), which, it turns out, are rarely safe at the margins in tumultuous times.

Indeed, its unclear that gerrymandering is hampering the ability of voters to change their minds. The last 3 elections have all led to historic upheaval, +30D, +23D, and -44R.

Thanks for the heads-up. I didn't know that Gerrymandering had not-so-pure origins. Maybe I'll remove that example from the article.

EDIT: Removed Gerrymandering example.

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