Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Are Voters Rational? (3)

Although this section is part three of four, it makes up about half the essay. It deals with the central components of a Rational Choice explanation - the benefit, probability and cost - as well as one feature that seems problematic, duty.

III. Benefits, Costs and Probabilities

RCT predicts that people will vote if the expected benefits outweigh the costs, that is if Benefit x Probability > Cost. The benefit is the instrumental good of one’s chosen candidate winning the election – i.e. how much better they are than the next candidate – for now, I set aside ‘consumption benefits’. The probability is the likelihood that one’s vote actually makes a difference. For simplicity, I assume the cost is a given – the time and effort taken to vote, including perhaps time spent information-gathering, and I exclude, for example, the risk of being run over on the way to the polling station.

The reason it appears prima facie irrational to vote is that, even when B is very large, P will be so low amongst a large electorate that the expected benefit (B*P) will be near zero. As Green and Shapiro put it “Even if an individual would in principle trade $10,000 to determine unilaterally the outcome of a presidential election, the likelihood that she will cast the decisive vote in an actual election is vanishingly small. If we were to post odds of such an occurrence at one in a million, the expected value of the collective good in question is a penny”. Even if this underestimates P, and the chances were as high as 1 in 20,000, then the expected benefit is only equivalent to 50 cents. While someone might, for example, stoop to pick up half a dollar, they would be unlikely to walk to the end of the road even if they knew they could do so. Thus, it is puzzling why people should go to any more effort to vote. I will examine the three variables (B, P and C) in turn, and then briefly comment on a fourth – Duty – not so amenable to an RCT approach.

a) Benefit
The benefit of winning an election depends on the difference between one’s preferred candidate and the one who would otherwise win. Where two candidates are very close together, e.g. competing for the median voter, this is likely to be small. If one candidate is a relative extremist, e.g. Le Pen in France, then the benefit may be quite substantial.

It is often assumed the benefits that matter are those to the individual in question. As such, they might include lower taxes, welfare benefits, and state policies that happen to be tailored to the individual’s particular situation (e.g. suppose they are paying off a mortgage and have two children in the mid-teens, then a government that wants to lower interest rates and abolish university top-up fees would be in their interests). Feasibly, in this situation, the personal benefit could well be as high as $10,000, or even more. In reality, the difference between likely winners will probably be less, but even so an individual could have a lot to gain – or lose – from the result of an election.

Ordinarily, we would go to considerable effort to obtain a large benefit – for example, when contemplating large purchases, people often engage in much more market research and shop around for the best prices. RCT says what matters, however, is the expected benefit. While we’d do a lot for $7m, we wouldn’t do so much for a lottery ticket that had only a one in 14 million chance of winning this jackpot; it’s expected benefit is only 50 cents (assuming there are no other prizes). I will come to discuss probability next, but it is clear that the chances of one’s vote making the difference between success and failure are very low (as with winning the lottery), so even a benefit in the region of $10,000 is not enough.

Might the benefit be higher? So far, we have focused only on benefits to the individual, and perhaps the household to which s/he is so closely tied. We could, however, widen this interdependence. One might very well care for a wider group of friends and family. One will therefore want a government that not only best serves one’s own interests, but does good for everyone – e.g. by preserving law and order, and keeping the economy running smoothly. If so, there are far wider benefits to consider – not only you keeping your job, and being better off, but all your friends doing likewise. Most of us would, I think, go to some trouble to see our friends and family prosper. Indeed, if one feels some solidarity for one’s fellow citizens, then one may well want what is best for all of them – so if one genuinely believes the Democrats better than the Republicans, for instance, then one’s vote could mean a better government for 250 million people. Once we pass from egoism to altruism, we see the benefits may in fact be very large.

b) Probability
Whatever the relative merits of candidate X over candidate Y, however, if one of them will win regardless, then one’s own vote will achieve nothing to realise the potential benefit. If the benefit is high enough, one may take other measures to try to secure it – this is why rich businessmen make large donations to political parties, or use their media control to influence many other voters – but so long as one’s own vote makes no difference, the expected benefit of casting it is zero.

Calculating the probability of one’s vote making a difference, even to a quite inexact degree, is extremely difficult. For one’s vote to be pivotal, however, it means candidates must be separated by no more than one vote – so one’s vote can either turn defeat into a tie, or a tie into a victory. If there are only two other voters, two candidates, and each voter has a 50% chance of voting for either candidate, then the chance of one’s vote either way being decisive is 50% (this is just the probability that the other two will tie). As soon as we introduce thousands of other voters, a few more candidates, and crucially relax the assumption about how others are likely to vote, this calculation becomes almost impossible. We can see, however, by looking at our records that very few national elections are tied, or decided by a single vote.

One possibility is that people overestimate the value of P, and think they have a non-negligible chance of making a difference to the outcome of an election. If someone thinks he has a 1% chance of making a difference then this, multiplied by a potential benefit of $10,000, means he expects a benefit of $100 from voting. In this case, it would seem quite rational for him to vote – though we might question the rationality of the belief that leads him to this conclusion.

People are notoriously bad at judging small probabilities – a fact that perhaps accounts for buying lottery tickets. The fact that unlikely events receive more attention in the media than the everyday increases their salience, and makes them seem more likely than they are. Moreover, most people reportedly have an inflated sense of their own importance and ability to influence events. Perhaps this contributes to the fact that people prefer to travel by car rather than plane even though the latter is statistically safer – being in their own hands provides an ‘illusion of control’, and most people believe they are better than average drivers, and so less likely to have accidents. In some situations, these traits may be adaptive – some have suggested those with a true assessment of their self-worth are the depressed – but they don’t conduce to rational decision making when small probabilities are concerned. Many people may well over-estimate the probability of their being able to influence events, and Blais finds evidence this is indeed the case for a significant number of voters. Their decision to vote may be rational, given false (and perhaps admittedly irrational) beliefs they hold about its efficacy.

So long as benefits remain finite, a low probability keeps expected benefits low, and thus seems to make voting irrational. Is there any way P might be higher? Firstly, it is worth noting that the fewer people vote, the more chance one has to make a difference. If everyone were to abstain, then a single vote would then be enough to determine the outcome of the election, realising B, and so be rational. If RCT advises us not to vote in normal circumstances, then this is self-limiting, for when turnout drops low enough it becomes rational to vote.

P will also be higher in close-run elections. If one knows that 80% of the electorate are disposed to vote for a given candidate (X) then, unless turnout is much higher amongst non-X voters, the outcome is foregone. Whether or not one is in favour of X, one’s vote won’t make a difference either way. If the election is much closer, however, then one’s vote seems to matter more. While it is still unlikely that the election will be decided by a single vote, there is a greater chance that one’s vote will be decisive, so it is more rational to vote in close elections.

These facts merely repeat the observation that P varies between contexts. What is needed to make voting more rational, however, is a much higher value of P. One obvious way in which P could be higher is if one had more votes, but this is not the case in any democracy. It might be that one effectively has more votes, however, if one is a prominent community leader, and knows that many others will follow one’s example and vote, though they may not otherwise. (This may be why leading political figures like to vote early and with media coverage).

There is a danger that people will still be over-estimating P, if only by over-estimating their impact on other people (but also because, even if one effectively brought 50 votes, that would rarely decide a result). Blais points out that people may be guilty of confusing diagnosis and cause: they begin by reasoning that if everyone who reasoned as they did voted it might make a difference, and then vote as if they alone were responsible for all of that higher turnout. It would obviously be irrational for the ordinary voter to act as if his/her decision to vote also made the difference as to whether many others voted. People needn’t, however, be making the mistake Blais accuses them of – they may, for example, be employing Kant’s universalisability test: since they couldn’t will that everyone abstain, they hold themselves morally obligated to vote.

Whatever people’s actual reasoning, it is clear that, in a large electorate, P is low, and so even if B is substantial any expected benefit (B*P) must be relatively small. A small expected benefit is still worth having, the question we must now turn to, however, is its cost.

c) Cost
If one could acquire a small expected benefit – whether a certainty of a small benefit (say, 50 cents), or a small chance of a large one (say, a 1 in 2,000 chance of $1,000) – by something as simple as scratching one’s nose then, in the absence of any other compelling reason to act differently, it would seem that one ought rationally to scratch one’s nose (especially if, for example, one already wanted to scratch one’s nose for an itch). One would be unlikely, however, to go to much trouble – say a 50 minute round trip – for the sake of such a trivial benefit. If voting is a similarly small expected benefit, then its rationality all comes down to the cost.

The act of voting usually involves a relatively short journey to a polling place and, once there, giving one’s name or number and marking a cross on a piece of paper. For most people, this is likely to take around half an hour (of course, some will be lucky enough to live very near the polls, but others much further away). What is the opportunity cost of this time? We earlier suggested the expected benefit to be less than a dollar; so, assuming an hourly wage rate of just $5 – a rather minimal wage – and a time loss of just 15 minutes (below average), it still seems the ‘cost’ of voting ($1.25 in monetary terms) is greater than the expected benefit.

But is the cost really so high? Many people questioned reported that they had little better to do. I think it’s true that many people on most days have some ‘dead time’ when they don’t do much very productive. Perhaps the time is spent resting, watching TV (even just channel surfing), or on minor household chores that could have been put off. To take half an hour out of this time to vote isn’t much of a loss. Further, since elections come round but once every four years, while many of these other activities can be indefinitely postponed, probably no less worthwhile than any alternative. Moreover, many people enjoy a walk occasionally, if only for exercise or to pick up the daily newspaper. It’s far from clear that the ‘cost’ in going to vote is much of a cost at all.

Those who think costs are too high might protest that the cost is not just a trip to the polls, but includes deciding who to vote for. For a start, there are considerable costs of information gathering – following current affairs and studying party manifestoes. Once such data has been collected, one still needs to make an all-things-considered judgement who is best to vote for. Especially if parties are close on many issues, and given that the issues involved in running a modern country are often very complicated, it might take people a considerable cognitive effort to decide, on the basis of evidence, who to vote for.

Again, however, these costs may be exaggerated. Many people follow the news anyway – even if not reading daily newspapers, they pick up major stories from word of mouth, or even satirical current affairs shows like Have I Got News For You. A working knowledge of politics, sufficient to inform a vote, is little effort – for many people, it is simply a part of their general knowledge. While they may not be experts on political affairs, they know enough – given that they do not single-handedly determine the outcome, it is not rational for them to be better informed. Their low impact (P) actually reduces the costs of the decision, since casting a relatively uninformed vote need not be disastrous. As for those who still have difficulty making up their mind, it seems for them B is very low, so it may be quite rational for them to abstain. For those who perceive more at stake, it will usually be quite obvious who to vote for.

It seems that, for many people, while B*P is very low, C is also very low. Given that the costs and benefits are so small, and there is little ‘punishment’ for irrationality, it seems unsurprising that RCT is not a particularly powerful predictor. Indeed, some have gone so far as to suggest (given the costs of calculation), that it would be irrational to explicitly calculate costs and benefits – thus a ‘satisficing’ approach, that results in either voting or not voting but without much deliberation as to whether to, is actually maximal.

d) Duty
The B identified above was an instrumental one. There may also be an intrinsic benefit, however. Some analysts include this under a sense of duty, but it is not entirely clear that this is correct – duty need not benefit one (one may regard visiting an elderly relative as something of a burden, but do it anyway), this is distinct from finding an activity intrinsically worthwhile. One may value voting because it recognises one as a competent decision-maker, provides one with an ‘illusion of control’ and differentiates one as an active citizen rather than passive subject. Alternatively, one may indeed regard voting as only instrumentally beneficial, and all together a net cost, but see it as an obligation – perhaps a duty not to free-ride on other citizens out of fairness, or a feeling one should use one’s vote out of respect for the fact it was hard-won (such sentiments are likely to be stronger amongst the more recently enfranchised, e.g. blacks and women). While turnout is traditionally low amongst the younger voters, an 18 year old may vote simply because they have reached an age where they can – it is a novelty, or coming-of-age ritual. None of these motivations are included in the standard RCT analysis, which considers only instrumental benefits for fear of (even more) vague, unobservable or unfalsifiable predictions. Nonetheless, none of these considerations would seem to mark voters as irrational, as I hope to show in the next section.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


Today the Jesus College Squirrelmail server was down, meaning I had to log in to my webmail via the usual Herald interface - which I still find absolutely horrible. (In fairness, it does have extra functionality, and some of my dislike is presumably due to lack of familiarity, but I still find it cumbersome in many respects).

It didn't help me retrieve my mail - for whatever reason that was backlogged until the Squirrelmail returned with 41 new messages (mostly junk). While playing around with Herald, however, I did find out why I seemed to be consistently near my quota - I had 2000 messages in my junk mail folder!

For some reason, while they share an inbox and other folders, the Herald junkmail doesn't seem to have anything to do with Squirrelmail's spambin. After finding that nothing seemed to go into my spambin, I'd pretty much given up checking and assumed the filter wasn't doing much. I don't mind, I think it's probably easier to delete the crap from my inbox rather than have two folders to check anyway.

As it is, however, there was a large collection of junk that I hadn't been able to check. Probably at least half of it I really didn't want, though quite a few were the sort of mailing list/alert that while not particularly important I'd have liked to have seen then deleted. There were also a few from real people that had somehow been snatched by the over-zealous filter. (Sorry Rob and Mark)

Needless to say, though it took me at least an hour to sort through, I have now added a dozen or so addresses to my whitelist and adjusted the filter settings. Also I find a 25% point reduction in my quota use, so at least that's something.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Liverpool 2-1 West Ham

While this game didn't quite live up to last year's thrilling Cup final, West Ham play an attractive, open style of football - unlike many teams to visit Anfield - and the result was a pretty good spectacle (though I only followed online/saw Match of the Day).

Despite Liverpool having the majority of possession and a clutch of early chances, it was Zamora who scored the opener against the run of play with a speculative cross/shot. The knocked us a little out of our stride, but thankfully we were able to complete a comeback and win. First Agger was able to run unchallenged from the centre circle, before unleashing and unstoppable 25-yard curler into the top corner, then Garcia released Crouch to round the 'keeper and finish from close range. 2-1 at half time and so it finished (though, for the record, I don't think Bellamy's 'third' was off-side, and by the way Crouch had already been denied a penalty).

While I wasn't happy with again going behind, I was pleased with the overall performance. Agger suggested he may be able to replace Hyypia not only defensively but as a goal threat (albeit not quite in the same way). Kuyt also got about 40 minutes - put himself about and looked lively. Hopefully after the international break, we may have a few of our injured players back for the derby against Everton, and we can go about building a run.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Why the Simpsons is Philosophical

My dad and I are, whether the result of nature or nurture, very alike in some respects, but - being thirty years apart - very different in others, e.g. taste in music, TV and, well, most matters of taste really! One result was disagreement over whether to watch the new series of the Simpsons on Channel 4 tonight, or some gardening programme (that saw me confined to the dining room's portable TV).

(Incidentally, other than the Edgar Allen Poe Raven one, I'm not much of a fan of Simpsons Hallowe'en specials - particularly show at inappropriate time - but the second episode tonight was good, and hopefully augurs well for the series).

One thing my dad said, however, struck a kind of chord with me. He said I should watch programmes about real people, where I might learn something, rather than that cartoon rubbish (or words to that effect).

It occurs to me there are two types of programme about 'real people': those that deal with exceptional people, which may be interesting but from which we learn only very isolated particulars, and those that deal with ordinary, and consequently uninteresting, people (witness Big Brother).

Whatever my dad watched was, I assume, either concerned only with particulars or boring (or both). Good comedy, however, has to be something you can relate to - e.g. dealing with the ordinary matters of family, relationships or work. This includes the Simpsons. While the people might be yellow and have three fingers, in many ways they are ordinary humans - we see ourselves in them, and can relate to them. Comedy holds a mirror up to reality; we see universals instantiated.

It was for similar reasons that Aristotle said poetry is more philosophical than history - it deals with universals rather than mere particulars. So, I contend, the Simpsons is more philosophical than whatever programme about 'real people' my dad watched.

(By the way, the same is true about sci-fi)

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Are Voters Rational? (2)

Following on from part one (here), this section explores possible meanings of rationality:

II. Understandings of Rationality

Judgements of rationality will depend largely on what is meant by ‘rationality’, and it can have many different meanings. For some, rationality is merely a matter of internal consistency, requiring for example that one doesn’t believe both Q and not-Q. Sen, however, points out consistency alone doesn’t seem to be enough – if one consistently acts so as to frustrate one’s own desires, then one hardly appears rational.

A radically different account is offered by Plato, who believed the world was governed by a natural principle of order, the Form of the Good. He supposed that the Good is pursued by reason, and that it was in everyone’s interests to live in accordance with what was objectively Good – even if they had to be controlled by more rational Guardians in order to do so. For Plato, there are things that are just rational or irrational, regardless of one’s desires – for example, he thought acting justly was rational, while (to use a modern example) the non-instrumental desire for a saucer of mud may be irrational.

In between mere consistency, and living according to some objective heavenly plan, accounts of rationality employed in the social sciences often suppose agents act in order to maximise some quantity, e.g. firms act to maximise their profits, and individuals may seek to maximise their well-being or preference-satisfaction (I avoid terming either of these ‘utility’ as it is ambiguous between either of these, and other, meanings).

If we require that one act in order to realise one’s desires, accepting Hume’s dictum that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions”, then we avoid Sen’s worry about self-frustration. This, however, seems to licence almost anything – after all, Hume insisted “’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger”. If what one desires is beyond rational criticism, then it seems RCT will be unfalsifiable – we need simply point out that those who vote desire to vote, and act so as to maximise the votes they cast. Moreover, one’s desires could be based on false beliefs. As Green and Shapiro observe “The constraints of logic in no way prevent one from imputing to voters the belief that their failure to cast ballots will dislodge the earth from its orbit”. Assuming one doesn’t want this, it will be rational to go to great lengths to avoid it – yet on this means-ends approach, it would be entirely consistent with someone’s rationality for them to want this.

Capturing what is meant by rationality seems difficult. We clearly mean something more than – or perhaps other than – consistency (it seems rationality must allow us to change our mind/preferences to reflect learning or circumstances). It is easy, and tempting, to think of it as simply a means-ends issue, but there are some ends we intuitively regard as irrational. To simply insist people maximise some unknown and unobservable value is not a useful explanatory or predictive theory, and true only by tautology (if we define maximising ‘utility’ to be simply doing what you prefer). We want rationality to be able to evaluate – and criticise – ends, yet without going down’s Plato’s route of supposing there is one uniquely best rational life plan for everyone.

Swift suggests numerous ways in which we might avoid totalitarian perfectionism – for instance, we may deny that there is one best life plan for everyone, or even any individual, or that anyone else can better know it, or be justified in imposing it. It seems we should recognise a plurality of legitimate goals, and that rationality will ordinarily allow us considerable discretion for many different actions – it is merely a minimal threshold that rules out certain self-conflicting or -destructive actions. I will return to these themes in the fourth section, but first I turn to the standard components of RCT.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Maccabi Haifa 1-1 Liverpool

Just the other day, I was proudly proclaiming how strong our squad was. Unfortunately it seems they're dropping like flies, as Warnock and Sissoko are added to the injured list of Riise and Carragher. This is leaving us seriously short in defence, and down the left side (with Kewell also out thanks to the World Cup). It looks like Aurelio and Gonzalez will be getting plenty of opportunity to establish themselves in the side - though Agger, Garcia and Zenden can deputise if necessary.

Particularly worrying is the thought that Sissoko's knee injury could be serious - if it's anything like Owen's he could miss the whole season. His absence last year with an eye injury resulted in a significant downturn in our fortunes, and exit from the CL. Now, we don't even have Hamann as back up, so despite the fact we've already spent the money on Kuyt we may be forced to go shopping again if it's serious (a Gary McAllister figure would be ideal, if anyone knows one available...)

As for the game itself, Haifa gave us a few scares - a disallowed goal, their equaliser and forcing a great save from Reina with ten minutes to go - but generally we created more and better chances, mostly falling to Garcia. A satisfactory performance to secure qualification. For the third season running, it hasn't been smooth, but it's the result that matters.

Despite a few detractors recently, Hyypia marshalled the backline well. His lack of pace is sometimes exposed, but he's so important in dictating our defensive line, winning everything in the air and posing a goal threat from corners. While this may be his last season as first choice, I don't think he's about to lose his place in the immediate future.

Wheelchair Walks

My mum said last week about taking my grad out for a walk in the wheelchair. She's too old and frail to even stand herself, so has to be lifted into the chair and then wheeled everywhere - consequently I don't think she's even been out her flat since her sister's funeral Easter '05. What I didn't realise was that the plan was for me to take grandma into town for a couple of hours while a moving hoist device (rather like a stairlift, without stairs) was to be fitted to the ceiling between her bed and chair...

Anyway, I successfully negotiated the journey to town. It took us 40 mins to get from her flat to Culver Square, where we stopped for drinks and her to have a cigarette. I'd forgotten how hard wheelchairs - like shopping trolleys - are to manoeuvre. Every time you come to a dipped kerb, it wants to run away into the road! Moreover, I was terrified of tipping my gran out going down hill or a kerb (too bad there's not much flat land around)

Anyway, our day out was a success - though I'm sure my arms will be stiff tomorrow - but it turned out they couldn't find anywhere strong enough for the hoist on the ceiling, so it was all in vain. Needless to say, it was another no work day too...

Monday, August 21, 2006

Sanctioning Liberal Democracies

My friend Avia's paper has become topic of discussion at Crooked Timber. (Shortcut to my comment)

I've read it before, it's available online apparently, but also scheduled for the Priority in Practice conference next month.


I've written this week's editorial for

Politics Lectures

In addition to the Philosophy Faculty lecture list, which I pointed out a while ago, the Politics lectures for MT 06 are now online, along with the provisional annual forecast. (Sadly the central list seems to still be for Trinity term).

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Inheritance Tax

Stephen Byers writes here that the next Labour PM should abolish inheritance tax. (Reported in the Telegraph itself, and by the BBC)

Bush has already done something similar in the US, as chronicled in Gaertz and Shapiro's book Death by a Thousand Cuts.

It seems a strange move. Relatively few estates (just 6% last year) are affected, and it's clearly a progressive tax. It's puzzling why the focus is on this, rather than other taxes with more wide reaching effects.

Byers stresses a concern with the burden falling on those who only own a family home. Perhaps this taps into traditionally English concerns ('an Englishman's home is his castle' after all). I'm not sure this is necessarily problematic, however, if the home's worth that much - either the family in question have thereby done well for themselves or benefitted from the windfall of rising house prices (a capital gain). Moreover, it seems if this was a concern then the remedy might merely be to raise the threshold or lower it combined with an exemption for the family's primary residence.

He also wants to portray the tax as one that hids hard-workers, but that relies crucially on seeing it as a tax on the dead, not those who inherit - who merely benefit from a lucky windfall. The same story happened in the US. Estates tax was seen as hitting small family businesses, rather than merely depriving the Paris Hiltons of our world of their undeserved fortunes.

Of course, while some have proposed very significant restrictions or taxes on inheritance - e.g. Ackerman and Alstott propose its extensive use, albeit it to finance a universal capital grant that gives everyone a start in life (see my review here). I think there are powerful arguments against such measures, principally based on disincentives. (Rawls might allow inheritance if it served to promote the position of the worst off, without violating fair equality of opportunity; while Hayek explicitly argues that if barred from leaving wealth to their children parents might do worse to favour their offspring, so we are better harnessing the natural instinct).

I think Byers may have done some good raising the issue for debate, and there may be plenty of tinkering that could be done (e.g. to thresholds), but I'm opposed to any out-right abolition of the tax.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Sheff Utd 1-1 Liverpool

Well, a draw against a newly promoted team won't be seen as a good result, but it was never going to be easy. Newly promoted teams will always be up for it at the start of the season (like in a cup), whereas after a few defeats they might already have their heads down a bit. Let's not forget Chelsea began last season by only just salvaging a draw against Wigan.

Nonetheless, Liverpool's performance wasn't encouraging. Though we dominated possession, it wasn't until a goal behind that we really put much pressure on, against a team we should have easily dominated. It didn't help that we lost Riise and Carragher to two bad challenges, both of which went unpunished. Thankfully the injuries only seem to be sprained ankles, so no more than a couple of weeks (a few who saw Riise thought it might be much worse).

Not only was the result that we were playing with only one of our first choice back four (Kromkamp started due to Finnan picking up a knock), but using two substitutes meant our later attacking options were restricted, and we never got to use Crouch.

Some will say the penalty was fortuitous. Maybe - it's not clear there was much (if any) contact, but I think hurdling the lunge did deny Gerrard a goal scoring chance. The radio commentators pointed out Fowler didn't complain - and I do remember him being booked for arguing against being awarded a penalty against Arsenal once, so I don't know if he just learned his lesson or not. Anyway, our players were repeatedly losing their footing in the Blades' box, due apparently to them watering that area of the pitch at half time (I'm never sure if such tactics are legitimate use of home advantage or gamesmanship...)

I don't think many could deny we were worth a draw. Further, it certainly wasn't the dodgiest penalty of the day (Everton's was awarded for an alleged handball that was actually a header - all the more unjust given Alan Stubbs had just got away with blocking a cross with an outstretched arm), and maybe made up for those unpunished tackles. Hopefully Carragher and Riise will be back soon, nad we'll put in a better performance (minus them two) against Haifa - hopefully Kuyt and Garcia starting up-front.


Since most of my old school friends are now all over the country, I haven't met up with anyone in the three weeks I've been home. Last night though my friend Jasmin had another house party in her new place on Crouch Street. (Sadly, I missed the housewarming last month)

I'd met Jasmin's housemates Ellie and Elaine and friend Ruth and ex Sam before, but other than her and Mina I didn't really know anyone - or, at least, that's what I thought until I bumped into someone could Jim who, after a while talking, realised we'd been to primary school together (but not seen each other since we were ten)

It was still a good night, and I met several interesting people before ending up in a lengthy conversation about football with some other guys. We left not long after 4. I think I'm going to write today (and therefore pretty much the whole weekend) off work-wise though.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Are Voters Rational? (1)

It's been a while since I posted anything work-related - mainly because, largely due to computer troubl, it's been a while since I wrote anything. I decided I'd give you a brief respite from the football with an essay I'm currently working on, to come in four parts.

The title is 'Are Voters Rational?', and this first part is devoted to clarifying the question I will address (and what I won't) As always, comments welcome...

I. Preliminaries: Defining the Question

The question ‘are voters rational?’ is rather ambitious for at least two reasons: firstly, to establish whether people actually are anything would seem to require extensive empirical research which is beyond my means, and secondly because it is such a broad question and open to several interpretations. I will therefore begin by specifying more narrowly the issues I will talk about.

Firstly, since voters are people, the question could be taken to be asking whether those people who vote are rational generally, in their everyday lives – for example, do they always choose the most efficient means to whatever ends they pursue, or do they meet standards of consistency such as not holding contradictory beliefs. I assume this is not the question; I am concerned with voters qua voters – that is, with their rationality (or otherwise) in the very limited domain of voting.

Even so, the question is still ambiguous between at least two interpretations. When we question whether voters are rational in their act of voting we may be asking either:
(i) ‘Are people rational in how they vote?’ (i.e. do they vote for the party best serving their interests, or one realistically likely to win?)
(ii) ‘Are people rational in that they vote?’ (i.e. does it make sense for them to bother, given the costs and little chance of affecting the outcome in a large election?).
The former considers how people use their vote once at the ballot box, while the latter concerns whether they are rational in going to the ballot box to begin with.

Of course, these two questions are inter-related. Whether it is rational to vote will depend on what one hopes to achieve. Suppose one votes for the Monster Raving Loony party; an observer may think that since they have no chance of winning, this vote is wasted and therefore irrational, even if the party would best serve the voter’s interests were they elected. They may also judge that it was irrational for this individual to bother voting, given how ineffectively their vote was. The individual may not be concerned with voting for a winning party, or one that will serve her interests, however – she may be voting in order to fulfil what she feels as a civic duty, and at the same time wishing to express her dissatisfaction with the mainstream parties by voting for ‘none of the above’. If this is what she wanted to achieve, then her actions may achieve her end, and what’s more the satisfaction she gets may make it worth the trouble to vote. Nonetheless, since I have only limited space, I will confine myself to the second question – whether it is rational for anyone to take the time and effort to cast a vote.

Even suitably circumscribed, the question whether people are actually rational in deciding whether or not to vote would seem to require considerable empirical study, at least if rational choice is understood as explanatory rather than merely predictive. One more modest goal could be to show how voting turnout can be explained by, and is thus compatible with, Rational Choice theory (RCT), thus showing people could be rational. However, attempting to explain how observed behaviour, such as voting, is explained by RCT is an example of what Green and Shapiro condemn as theory-driven research. If one starts with a ‘pet theory’, such as an assumption that voters must be rational, then one may (even unconsciously) find contrived means to save these pre-commitments when studying the phenomena. Such vindications of RCT should therefore be treated with caution, owing to the prevalence of ‘confirmation bias’. Moreover, it should be noted that even if behaviour is compatible with RCT (as I hope to show), it doesn’t follow that it is best explained or analysed this way – after all, we might explain why stones fall by postulating a desire to be with (close to) other stones, and hence a tendency to maximise their proximity to the centre of the earth. Therefore, I will not set out to defend a RCT account of voting turnout.

I will argue for the weak claim that voting turnout is compatible with the rationality of voters. I do not, in doing so, commit myself to RCT playing any part in the actual explanation of turnout; I merely show the fact that people vote does not refute – or even count against – the supposition that they are rational. In fact, I think that, while rationality is one factor in voting turnout, it must be supplemented by many other exogenous, non-rational variables (in this respect, my position is what may be termed ‘partial universalism’). Nonetheless, I do not think that voting turnout need be a problem or embarrassment, if we recognise that rationality is not as constraining of action as is sometimes supposed.

One further qualification: I confine myself to what one might call ‘interesting cases’, i.e. those in which voting is efficacious – or as reasonably efficacious as might be expected in a large-scale democracy – (not merely rubber-stamping a one-party dictatorship), voluntary (not backed by legal sanctions for non-voters) and relatively uncostly (i.e. not particularly demanding on voters other than a relatively short journey to the polls and marking an X – they are not required, for example, to vote in person in the nation’s capital). Further conditions might be added, but hopefully my focus is intuitively clear: cases typical of national elections in most Western democracies.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


Well, before the World Cup, I hoped the much talked-about Dirk Kuyt could be just the striker we need: a powerful, alan Shearer-type centre forward judging from reports. I know these Youtube videos can make anyone look good - even Cisse - but with Rafa keen and Newcastle and Arsenal also rumoured to be interested, I trust Kuyt could do the business.

He had a shocking World Cup. My flatmate and I watched out for him, and afraid he was pretty useless. Of course, that doesn't mean everything - Diouf had a good World Cup (2002), while Lampard was as bad as Kuyt this summer. While displacing Ruud from the Dutch side may be a promising sign, the worry was starting to form that he might be another Kezman - unable to cut it at Premiership level.

Klose was a far more popular choice on the Liverpool message board, after recent rumours; but now it looks like Kuyt's finally coming, with a fee rumoured to be as high as £10m, so I just hope I'm wrong.

Whether or not Kuyt lives up to his billing, it seems Liverpool fans are genuinely buzzing over the quality of our current squad. It's impossible to pick a team without leaving out some great players. Just look at this:

First XI Second XI

Reina Dudek

Finnan Kromkamp
Carra Paletta
Hyypia Agger
Riise Warnock

Pennant Gonzalez
Gerrard Alonso
Sissoko Garcia
Kewell Aurelio

Bellamy Fowler
Kuyt Crouch

Of course, rotation means everyone will get some chance in the first team, but look at some of the players in that 'reserve' side (Crouch, Alonso, Fowler, Garcia...) Plus I didn't include players out on loan (Cisse, Carson, Kirkland), Zenden, Diao (still on our books...) or youngsters like Hobbs, Anderson and Hammill. The future's bright, the future's red...

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Thoughts on England

(For a full match report of the 4-0 win over Greece, see BBC)

First off, I'm really sorry for Ashton. He's a player I rate very highly, and I'd have been happy if Liverpool had signed him from Norwich (or, better yet, Crewe for £3m) rather than chasing Kuyt or Klose. I wish him a speedy recovery from his broken ankle, and hope he'll make his debut soon.

One player who did finally make a long overdue debut, after injury problems of his own, was Chris Kirkland - netting his father a tidy sum in the process (old story here). I think Chris' Liverpool days are effectively over, with Reina, Carson and Martin looking to dominate the Liverpool goal for years to come, but he's a good 'keeper and I'd like to see him do well - and recoup some of our £6m outlay.

On the subject of goalkeepers, I was slightly disappointed Carson lost out to Man Utd/Watford's Ben Foster, after it had been the other way round for the World Cup - but maybe it was better for Carson to play the U21 match than be un-used with the senior team, so it's a mixed message I guess. Hopefully his loan to Charlton will see him pick up some Premiership experience - which he needs if he's to develop.

As for the rest of the match, Gerrard unsurprisingly coped well at right midfield. I think, despite Pennant's arrival, he'll still have a place there for Liverpool this season (accommodating Alonso and Sissoko in midfield). In fact, though I'd long been saying we needed to drop Beckham or Lampard to get the best out of Stevie, I was expecting a fight between Lennon, SWP and maybe Pennant to fill Beckham's boots. As it was, I thought the midfield blend worked very well together.

I was also particularly pleased for Crouch to notch two more, I wish his England goal-scoring form would come to Liverpool - though a good player, he's hardly been so prolific in the red of Liverpool.

In the night's other big match, a Liverpool XI beat Lincoln 2-1.

Warning: Beans are Dangerous

Just heard my (ex)-flatmate Pavel Ovseiko* had a late night trip to Oxford A&E last night after seriously cutting his hand on a tin of beans. Thankfully he's ok, just a deep cut - he seemed more bothered about paying £12 each way for the taxi - but let it be a warning...

*The ulterior motive of this post is really to screw with his Google rankings...

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

I Lack the Creativity to Think of a Title

Psychologists say schooling has a positive impact on creativity up through the final year of college. Then the progressively narrow focus of graduate school actually detracts from creativity. You won't become a great novelist by getting a Ph.D. in creative writing.


Monday, August 14, 2006

Water Everywhere

Good job we've had plenty of rain recently, because we ended up pouring quite a bit of water down the sink today.

My mum thought the kitchen tap was stuck in the morning, so asked me to try turning it - and I couldn't, but gave myself a blister on the hand for trying. Nor could her partner Paul when he got up, but he tried pliers, and ended up breaking off the tap.

In the afternoon, water started gushing out the tap quite fast. It was doing that for a couple of hours, before I found the stop-cock and turned it off. (That hadn't really occurred to me, Paul said he couldn't get down low enough to reach it)

The plumber came around 4 and fixed it (for £30 - I should've trained as a plumber, rather than doing a DPhil I'm sure...)

Apparently what had happened is there'd been a leak in the road, so the mains was off. My brother - up before 7am because he started a temporary job in London - had tried the tap, and then left it on. Consequently what Paul and I had been doing was turning the tap the wrong way - it was already on - so no wonder it broke when forced.

At least we didn't flood, and thankfully we're not on a meter!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Liverpool 2-1 Chel$ki

Granted, this was just a glorified pre-season friendly, as Rafa underlined by resting Gerrard, Alonso and Hyypia to the bench. And in fairness Mourinho was right in pointing out his players were behind in their pre-season and obviously lacking the sharpness Liverpool's had. (Though But the suggestion that this was the difference between Sissoko and Fat Frank is ludicrous...) But it's always nice to beat Chelsea. Especially when the first trophy of the season is at stake.

Reports this morning had linked Chelsea with a £15m bid for Riise, that actually sounded pretty tempting - we have Aurelio and Warnock for the left-back position, and could probably ask for Bridge or Gallas as part of the deal - but he showed just what he gives us with a great goal. It took a bit longer than the 43-second opener from the 2005 League Cup Final, but this time he picked up the ball on the edge of the Liverpool area (from a Chelsea corner), ran almost the length of the pitch down the RIGHT, and then cut inside and launched a screamer from 25 yards. Cudicini probably should have done better, but early contender for goal of the season imho...

Liverpool, for my money, had the better of the first half, with Sissoko immense in midfield. Unfortunately, Shevchenko levelled just before the stroke of half-time. He showed some good touches, and will be a good signing for the short term, though at his age I think £30.8M was over the odds (even if Chel$ki can afford it). The young striker Kalou I thought might be a better signing for them, but I didn't really see much of him.

The second half was less exciting, but as Liverpool were able to bring on the big guns - Gerrard, Alonso and Bellamy - it was the latter who set up the winning goal for Crouch to evade Terry and head past Cudicini. Nice for the much maligned Crouch to score against the rivals who've knocked him (as against Man Ure last season). The fact that Terry allowed such an obvious target (and probably the only red in the box) a free header is pretty ominous for England too - and he let Aurelio in too, soon after. With the main personality rivalry having switched, for now at least, from Gerrard vs. Lampard to Gerrard vs. Terry it was nice to see our man come out on top again.

At the end of the day, however, the up-coming matches against Sheffield United and Haifa will be more important, and possibly more taxing. But the Shield's a good way to start a season that will hopefully end with silverware too. (My minimum for a satisfactory season: Prem top 4, CL quarter final, good domestic cup run)

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Liverpool 2-1 Maccabi Haifa

Well, I'd been more than usually worried about this game, and not without good reason it seems. Not only did Haifa pull off quite a shock by taking the lead, but they were never over-awed and generally lived up to the tag of being a difficult banana skin. We may have won it in the end (just), but don't forget in the last two seasons we've actually lost the second leg of the third round qualifier. We'll need a good performance away - though hopefully Haifa, needing a win, will leave themselves a bit exposed at the back. (Though in credit to them, they played a good open game tonight - rather than trying to shut up shop for 0-0, as many teams would have done).

As for the game itself, while something has to be said for rustiness/lack of match fitness, I don't think this team/formation particularly gelled. I'd expected Crouch alongside Bellamy, but as it was we lacked numbers in the box up-front, and many crosses from Pennant were wasted. (Not surprisingly, things did improve when Crouch came on). Also we had confirmation that Zenden is not a left winger - I'd have started Garcia there myself, though with both him and Gonzalez nursing pre-season injuries, and Kewell, Aurelio and Warnock out, maybe we didn't have much choice.

The good side is that the news lads Pennant and Bellamy played well, and it looks like once we get on the same wave-length we'll be a much more potent attacking force this season now we have a few more pacy players. The bad side is I'm not sure how we'll accommodate everyone in our midfield and play two up front. Maybe it'll be a case of rotation, as someone on the Liverpool FC messageboard pointed out, a midfield of Gonzalez/Kewell - Alonso - Sissoko - Pennant still looks pretty good, even without Gerrard. I suppose it's a sign of our squad quality that, even with some injuries, we can't include everyone.

As for the game itself, they only had about three decent chances, but unfortunately took the first one clinically. We had plenty of possession and crosses, but without men in the box failed to fashion many real openings. I think Garcia probably should've had a penalty after squirming through four men in the box, but he did rather throw himself over the last man's leg. Also I'd been hoping for most of the second half that Gonzalez would make a brief cameo - probably in place of Pennant - and it turned out he not only did but scored the winner. After a somewhat indifferent pre-season, he may just have justified his signing already!


I heard from the computer repair shop today, and sadly not good news. My motherboard had gone.

I already owed £35 +VAT for their investigation, but they reckoned repair would cost £70 +VAT (i.e. two more hours labour), plus £40 for a new motherboard and £50 to install a new copy of Windows - and at the end of that I'd still be left with a 3 year old potentially buggy PC.

With some reluctance, I decided to retire (or 'write off') that one. That's two PCs down in the time I've been at Oxford - the first, 'Peanuts' (bought reconditioned for £200 just before I started my undergrad in 2000) still runs technically, but has a 4GB hard drive and can't do much more than open Word.

Anyway, I'd had a browse online looking for potential replacements, hoping I could pick up a tower-only package for not much more than repair. My mum and I went in PC World for a look, and luckily came across 5 reduced to clear - £300, with P4 processor, 3Ghz (I think), 1024 MB RAM, 80 GB hard drive. We decided to buy it, and thankfully my mum had said she'd pay for the repair so didn't cost too much.

Looks like I'll probably have to wait until I get back to Oxford before I get it all set up and running though (which is a shame since we took out a monthly protection policy) but hopefully this one will be ok and last me until the end of my DPhil...

The guy in the repair shop did say they saw a lot of eMachines and the like because these shops make them so cheap using cheap parts. It's true, I was wary about buying another from them; but I'm hoping mine was a rarity caused by the heat. In any case, I'd rather have a cheap PC go kapput than spend a lot on a top of the range model and have that die on me...

Quick Football Update

Colchester's hopes of staying in the Championship aren't looking particularly good after losing their first two games.

Of course, my big concern is Haifa tonight. There's £12m riding on this tie, but with Liverpool having lost their last three friendlies, including the last one 5-0, things aren't looking too promising. I hope Rafa puts out a strong team, and they pull out a good result.

Monday, August 07, 2006


Although, with Michaelmas still two months away, I'd expect a few late changes, the Philosophy Faculty already has a provisional lecture list available here. Biggest point of note being that David Miller will be doing Theory of Politics lectures...

Friday, August 04, 2006

Rat Choice, Social Science and Random Linkage

I've spent the last couple of days reading a Critical Review symposium on Green and Shapiro's Pathologies of Rational Choice. (For anyone interested, and with access to the SSL, it's JC 585.CRI) Some of it is way over my head, but much of it makes me wish I'd learned more from our Philosophy of Social Science classes - particularly when Kenneth Shlepsle cited similar classes he'd taken as a grad student.

It's also amazing how many day to day things this ties into. The other day I'd just read about how few people act 'rationally' unless 'trained' to do so (e.g. by an economics course), and how consequently economists are often more selfish. I've heard similar before, and indeed I think my own three years studying economics (A level and Prelims) has affected my attitudes and behaviour. I also remember Rob telling me how in the 'Game Theory and Negotation' class that was also an (optional) part of our research training, the group comprised mainly of political theorists reached different bargaining equilibria governed by norms of fairness rather than pure self-interest. Anyway, Milan brings up something related here.

Now I've just read a post by Scott Adams on the confirmation bias - one of the pathologies with which Green and Shapiro charge rat choicers. His characterisation is rather crude, but makes the point.

(My comment:

That's a rather crude characterisation of confirmation bias. More generously, it's simply the fact that people are more inclined to seek out information that supports their pet hypothesis, and more inclined to give such evidence greater weight, while dismissing what doesn't fit as 'flawed' or 'irrelevant', on often spurious grounds.

The fact is though, that often both sides are guilty. Take Creationists vs Evolutionists. The Evolutionionists point to fossils, and ask the Creationists to explain. Creationists can just tweak their theory (e.g. 'fossils are put there to test our faith'). This makes Creationism sound rather dodgy to many (non-Creationists), but it is consistent even if gerry-mandered. On the other hand, if the real issue is belief in God, (moderate) Creationism is compatible with evolution, whereas secular Evolutionists can't give an answer to what accounts for the start of the process or the process itself. After surveying a good body of evidence, the fact is most people will tend to interpret it to support whatever it was they were already inclined to believe. This could simply be (in part) because the evidence is inconclusive.

What I find really puzzling is how this confirmation bias can be empirically demonstrated. Surely researchers must go out looking for examples of confirmation bias, but if their theory is true you'd think they might be guilty of it themselves (e.g. attaching too much signifance to a few supporting cases). Or is the beauty of the theory that it thereby guarantees its own truth?)

One of the existing comments on his piece also made me think:

Two points:
1) Logic is stupid because you can make a valid (but not sound) argument for almost anything.

True, the paradox of entailment means that from 2+2=5 (premise) one can validly conclude that the Pope is a Muslim, the Genesis story is literal truth and the moon is made of cheese. I remember we all found this quite disturbing in first year logic. What our tutor could probably have explained better is that validity is not all that matters in philosophical argument: a good argument is sound (i.e. it starts from plausible premises, as well as being valid). One criticism often made of Nozick's Anarchy, State & Utopia is that he starts with such libertarian premises his conclusions are hardly surprising. Returning to the general theme of Green and Shapiro, however, the fact that some arguments are bad doesn't invalidate the ones that are good.

2) In the real world the guy on the block with the biggest gun and the will to use it always wins. History, not logic, has proved this point time and time again.

This takes a rather cynical view of what it is to win an argument. Those of us in philosophy and/or social science would generally like to think we aim at the truth. (Of course, there are some who think it's fashionable to deny such a thing as truth - but it's not clear whether statements like 'there are no truths' are meaningful or self-refuting). Someone with a big gun may oppress everyone into agreeing with him, but it doesn't make him right. Might is certainly not an epistemic reason for belief. Suppose the Church threatened anyone who didn't believe the Sun revolved around the Earth. Even if they could command universal assent, it would have no bearing on astronomical reality.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


Just in case there were rumours of my demise, or Lord Lucan-style mysterious disappearance, I am now at home and therefore back online. Having to share a computer and such may restrict output, but I'll try to get back in the habit of posting semi-regularly again.