But for the grace of God &c.

by Henry Farrell on March 7, 2008

The “NYT”:http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/03/07/obama-aide-apologizes-for-calling-clinton-a-monster/index.html?hp tells us that Samantha Power (who is, on a variety of levels, one of the most interesting senior foreign policy types in US politics) has just resigned from Obama’s campaign after a supposed-to-be-off-the-record quote about Hillary Clinton being a ‘monster’ was published by _The Scotsman._ Which makes this “piece”:http://chronicle.com/free/v54/i07/07a00101.htm from David Glenn in the _Chronicle_ a few months ago all the more interesting.

Ms. Power is just one of dozens of university-based scholars advising the current crop of presidential candidate … The role of presidential advisers has changed a great deal since the early 1960s, when John F. Kennedy was closely identified with a clutch of Ivy League scholars. One of those advisers, the late Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, is credited with writing one of the most famous lines in Kennedy’s Inaugural Address: “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”

Ms. Power and the other scholar-advisers of the 2008 season face challenges that Galbraith’s generation never knew. The public is much more skeptical of credentialed expertise than it was during the Kennedy administration. And new technologies make the candidate-adviser relationship more perilous than it once was. In theory a student in one of Ms. Power’s Harvard courses might post one of her classroom comments (perhaps wildly out of context) on a blog and create a news-media storm within hours.

“That’s the one thing that terrifies me,” Ms. Power says. “That I’ll say something that will somehow hurt the candidate.” She says that in public lectures and interviews, she sometimes fights the urge to make unkind statements about other candidates. “That’s just not Obama’s style,” she says. “Left to my own devices, I’d articulate my frustrations in a much harsher way.”

If further reinforcement be needed, this tells me again how bad I (and I suspect many other blogging academics) would be at real world politics in the highly unlikely event that someone wanted me to work for them in a campaign. It’s pretty easy to shoot off your mouth when you’re only representing yourself, but it’s obviously not so great when others can use what you say to attack the candidate that you work for.

This is obviously a terrible abuse of posting privileges to promote something that really ought to be a comment on Harry’s piece below, but whatcha gonna do? I just wanted to add a small note on a technical issue to do with his conclusion about our civic responsibilities:

When you vote, you have a very stringent obligation to deliberate responsibly about the effects of your vote, and about whether those effects are morally justifiable or not. You should deliberate about the moral issues at stake in the elections, and come to have a tentative, but warranted view, about what justice requires, as well as about what the likely effects of policies your candidate is likely to implement (and whether they are morally justified).

That sounds like pretty hard work doesn’t it? However, luckily the Condorcet Jury Theorem comes to our rescue. More or less the same mathematics which ensure that voting is a waste of time also ensure that as long as the average voter has a slightly better than 50% chance of making the right decision and the electorate is large enough, the majority vote will be correct in a two horse race (like a Presidential election; voters in multiparty democracies, do what Harry says). It’s one of those seeming informational free lunches which are the basis of the James Surowiecki’s book.

So, the full advice to potential voters would be that your civic duty is:

1. If you are a reasonably intelligent and responsible citizen, just kind of think for it a bit and make a snap decision, like Malcolm Gladwell says and you’ll probably be right.

2. If you are voting for an essentially completely frivolous reason which has nothing to do with the actual election (like, for example, P Diddy threatened you with death if you didn’t, or you thought it might get you a shag, or you want to commemorate people who died a hundred years ago), then toss a coin; you won’t be bringing the average below 50%.

3. If you’re so stupid that you nearly always cock it up, then follow the Costanza Principle and do the opposite of what you think you should do. Actually, people like that probably can’t be trusted to follow the principle properly, so you lot flip a coin too.

4. If you’re reasonably intelligent, but also a selfish bastard, then stay at home.

So there you go. Voting isn’t actually quite as onerous a social duty as it would seem, at least in two-horse races, so go on, make Stone Cold Steve Austin proud. Or not, as the case may be.