2016 election endorsements and decisions

I'm filling out my Berkeley ballot, and thought I'd share the reasoning behind my votes. I've tried to make it clear where I'm confident you should update based on my opinion, and where I'm basically just guessing.

This contains the summation of my case against Trump, as well as some more mundane stuff.

Contents

President

I recommend voting against Trump. If you're in a swing state, that means voting Clinton. If you're in a safe state, that means vote-swapping (background here). I've looking for a match via TrumpTraders, so I'll hopefully be giving my California vote to a third-party candidate in exchange for a swing-state Clinton vote.

I think that Trump is uniquely dangerous and worth voting against for people with a wide range of preferences, for two reasons:

  1. He is a threat to global political stability, might lead to a military conflict between great powers, and slightly increases the chances of a nuclear exchange.
  2. He is a threat to local political stability and might lead to the breakdown of civil order.

In a normal election year I might be worried about the serial sexual assault and promised mass deportations and pandering to Neo-Nazis, but I'd also be looking more closely into Clinton's flaws. This isn't a normal election year.

The main counterargument is that the establishment is terrible, but I think the track record of favoring people simply because they seemed likely to disrupt the establishment is even worse than the track record of pushing for stability and incremental change.

Global political stability

Trump talks like he's more skeptical of foreign interventions than Clinton, so it would be reasonable for a casual observer of US politics to think that he's the dovish candidate. But even if true (which I doubt), this is massively outweighed by his carelessness towards relations between the US and other major world powers.

One example of this is his blasé attitude towards nuclear proliferation; he casually suggested that the US might withdraw protection from Japan and South Korea, and that he'd be happy if they developed their own nuclear deterrent. He later denied saying this, as usual, but he's likely to continue making this sort of unforced error.

One reason this is a problem is that it suggests that he'll be lax about nuclear proliferation. But maybe the bigger reason is that it's part of a larger trend of Trump not seeming to care about sending a consistent message around which countries the US is or isn't prepared to defend.

Misunderstandings about the US's commitments have led to wars before. One of the causes of the Persian Gulf War was that Saddam Hussein misunderstood the US as saying it didn't care whether he invaded Kuwait, and interpreted this as tacit permission to do so. This happened even under a comparatively careful, temperamentally conservative president. Trump has been too lazy to bother managing his own campaign messaging, so I expect a substantially elevated risk.

Trump has publicly talked about reneging on the US's commitment to NATO. While I can see the case for a friendlier stance towards Russia on the merits, and the same for extracting more money from our NATO allies in exchange for bearing the majority of the military burden, Trump's method does not take into account the importance of sending clear public signals that we are willing to defend the countries that we are in fact willing to defend.

Trump may see this mainly as a negotiation tactic towards other NATO countries, but there's a very real possibility that Putin may see this as tacit permission to include more Eastern European countries in Russia's sphere of influence. It's plausible that Trump's tough talk towards NATO isn't his real position, and that a Trump administration would in fact defend a country like Poland from Russian aggression, so it's important to tell Russia that.

This is not a partisan argument. Many Republican national security officials have defected to the Clinton camp on this basis. In the 20th century, a major contributing factor to two world wars was ambiguity about which countries various Great Powers were willing to defend. Let's not do that again.

Some people claim that Trump's actually a brilliant negotiator and his apparently erratic stances are just a ploy to win a negotiation advantage. There's strong reason to believe that the public Trump is the private Trump, and there's no clever secret plan behind all this. Slate Star Codex wrote a review of Trump's own book The Art of the Deal, and came away with the opinion that Trump doesn't really believe that understanding policy content is relevant – he thinks that everything is negotiation. Trump's ghostwriter for the book reports that it's even worse than it looks – that Trump barely had the attention span to sit for interviews as a basis for the book, and mostly pays attention to whether he's getting attention.

For more on this topic, read Rob Bensinger's roundup of arguments. For a worked example of how great powers might have difficulty communicating clearly in private and need to take public pronouncements seriously, look at Daniel Davies's old blog post about Ukraine.

Local political order

Somewhat less important than a nuclear exchange, but still very important, is the prospect of degrading civil order in the US. Trump has already broken several important norms on this, around freedom of speech and tolerance of political opposition.

He’s advocated opening up libel laws so that he can punish people who criticize him. He’s not just advocated investigating his political opponent in this election, but overtly said she’ll be in jail if he wins. He’s threatened to use the Federal regulatory apparatus to harm Jeff Bezos’s business interests, to punish him for supporting the Washington Post, a newspaper that criticized Trump. He's said that he might not accept the results of the election.

It's normal to use the state to implement your agenda once elected. This is not normal, and it is not compatible with norms of democratic discourse.

Counterargument: the system is already broken

During the 2016 presidential debates it became obvious to me that both candidates are blatantly lying. Trump’s just telling less respectable lies.

No competent economist would ever privately describe the economic benefits of a policy by saying that it would “create jobs.” If you take that description literally, it is an admission that our economic policy is not about letting people create things they want and enjoy leisure, but about creating the need for people to work. It’s about increasing costs, not about increasing benefits. Economists don’t even believe that “creating jobs” is a thing. Hillary Clinton knows what economists have to say, but publicly promised that her economic policies would create jobs.

Then there’s the rule of law. When discussion of the supreme court appointments came up, Trump wanted to appoint pro-life judges who would enforce the second amendment. Also the other amendments, but mainly the second. Clinton wanted judges who “understand how the world works” and would stick up for LGBTQ rights, and the rights of minorities more generally. The option of appointing judges who would honestly try and figure out what the law says and decide cases on the merits was not even on the table.

Hillary Clinton is obviously the candidate of Ra, the shiny impersonal god of respectable vagueness and corruption. She even wore pure white robes in the last debate. She’s widely talked about as the candidate who understands policy, but she didn’t try to explain the details of her policies – she just appealed to the authority of experts. This is not exceptionally bad – it’s just how the system works.

Trump is plausibly the candidate of Horus, the all-seeing sky-god of personal responsibility, even saying “eye alone can fix it”, but he’s a lousy Horus, he doesn’t understand things, he’s trying to get by on personality alone. He thinks that only feelings matter. He's willing to take personal responsibility for everything, but that's not a guarantee of success - he's gonna screw it up big-time if he wins.

The system is corrupt, but it’s not collapsed yet – and people can do a lot of good, for a long time, in the ruins of a once-great system. Trump means we have less time to build the core of a new system before old one collapses. I want more time. We need all the time we can get.

Assuming Trump loses, I'll write more about the very real problems and grievances I think he's an expression of, and that we should do something about in the long run – but first, he has to lose.

Vote swapping

Years ago, Scott Aaronson proposed a system in which major-party voters in safe states dominated by one party swap votes with third-party voters in contested states, to prevent the wrong major-party candidate from winning without giving up on principled support for alternatives. A US Circuit Court confirmed it's protected speech, and it likely reduces the chances that Trump wins, so I endorse vote-swapping for anyone in either of those groups. Now it's happening.

Andrew Gelman, Nate Silver, and Aaron Edlin estimate that there's about a 1 in a billion chance that my safe-state vote in California will affect the outcome of the election, but about a 1 in 10 million chance of a safe-state vote affecting the outcome. That's a 100X multiplier in voting power for moving a Clinton vote from a safe state to a swing state. Let's say 30X to be safe since not all the swing states are quite that volatile.

Then let's say you're in a 2-for-1 swap, cutting your improvement down to 15X. Even if you think there's a 50% chance of fraud, that's still a 7X improvement in expectation.

California ballot propositions

California has a system where many otherwise legislative decisions get made by ordinary voters on the ballot. Ballot propositions are difficult or impossible (I'm not sure which) for the legislature to overturn, so changing one requires another ballot proposition. Past propositions have limited the legislature's ability to borrow and tax, which means that it has little leeway in the case of a budget crunch.

This seems like a bad problem that I don't want to exacerbate – I think that the pros should mostly make the decisions here, for two reasons. First, ordinary voters are even more prone than professional legislators to be overexcited about benefits and not properly appreciate the drawbacks of nice-sounding rules, and be manipulated by tricksy wording of propositions. Second, the irreversibility of ballot measures mean that it's difficult to undo bad decisions, while the legislature has comparative freedom to undo its own bad decisions.

For this reason, I'm following three heuristics:

  1. Bias for taxes or bond issues that the legislature wants.
  2. Bias against new taxes earmarked for specific spending (vs for the general fund), since that ties the legislature's hands.
  3. Bias against ballot propositions on issues where the legislature's perfectly capable of doing something, unless I'm very confident in the outcome.

Proposition 51: school bonds

Yes, because the legislature seems to want it. I'm a school skeptic, but we might as well build nicer boxes to keep the kids in. This also seems like a state vs local funding thing, and all else equal it seems better to equalize conditions between richer and poorer school districts.

Proposition 52: Medi-Cal hospital fee program

The Federal government offers matching grants for state Medicaid spending up to a certain level. The state of California games this system by taxing hospitals and sending the money back to them in the form of Medicaid payments. This ballot proposition makes the program permanent. I'm against this because:

  1. It's legislators' job to do this sort of thing.
  2. I'm against transparently gaming the system like this.
  3. It's not obvious that a net subsidy from poorer states to comparatively rich California is good on welfare grounds.

Proposition 53: Revenue bonds constitutional amendment

Right now, apparently the state doesn't need a ballot measure to authorize bonds, if the project they finance is expected to pay for itself, e.g. bridge construction bonds to be paid for by toll revenue. This changes that. Since I'm against budgeting by ballot box, I'm against this measure, which actively makes that worse.

Proposition 54: Legislative disclosure requirement

This proposition requires any bill in front of the legislature to be published 72 hours before a vote. This is meant to level the lobbying playing field and prevent huge last-minute changes to bills, which I think weakens the power of party leaders in favor of individual legislators. I can see arguments for or against this, but they're minor, and it seems like the legislature could make this rule if they think it's a good idea. Voting no.

Proposition 55: Tax extension to fund education and healthcare

This extends an income tax to fund education and healthcare. Voting yes because my sense is that the legislature wants it.

Proposition 56: Cigarette tax

I'm for public health measures like this sort of vice tax, but I'm voting no on this one. Why? Because right now, comparatively safe e-cigarettes are untaxed, and this measure not only raises taxes on ordinary cigarettes, but taxes e-cigarettes to match. Equating tobacco with e-cigarettes is dishonest, and I feel moral outrage at it, so I'm voting no.

Proposition 57: Criminal sentences – parole

Allows parole consideration for nonviolent felons, other sentencing reductions. I'm not sure why this is a ballot box measure, but I think criminal justice reform is urgent enough that I'm voting yes on this one.

Proposition 58: English proficiency, multilingual education

Repeals an old ballot measure banning bilingual education for foreign language speakers. I'm for more flexibility. Voting yes.

Proposition 59: Citizens United

This ballot measure is really stupid. Basically voting yes is voting to send the legislature a message saying, "we hate the Citizens United decision." I also think this is wrong on the merits – I think Citizens United was decided correctly and I like the 1st Amendment to the US constitution. Voting no.

Proposition 60: Condoms in adult films

Requires condoms in porn produced in California. If it's meant to protect porn actors, as far as I know they're all against this because there's no real safety issue. If it's meant to crack down on porn, I'm against sneaky ways to penalize messages people don't like. The 1st Amendment's there for a reason. Fight speech with better speech.

UPDATE: Alyssa Vance pointed out to me that this measure also absurdly makes the guy who proposed it, Michael Weinstein, California's official porn czar, and requires both houses of the legislature to remove him from the post.

This ballot measure is hilarious, creepy, and wrong. I'm voting no.

Proposition 61: State prescription drug purchases

A common tactic in negotiating state purchases of prescription drugs, is to pass a law prohibiting the state from paying a high price. This makes the state's short-run price negotiating position somewhat stronger.

This measure ties Medi-Cal prices to VA prices. Voting no because (a) the VA is strongly against, which suggests to me that this would screw things up for them in a hard to predict way, (b) the organization sponsoring this measure would be exempted from it, which is super sketchy, and (c) why isn't this the legislature's job?

Propositions 62 / 66: Death penalty

This is a set of mutually exclusive propositions – if both get majorities, the one with more votes wins. 62 repeals the death penalty. 66 kills people faster. Voting yes on 62, no on 66, since I don't trust the criminal justice system to get things right reliably on the first try, and I'm against executions.

Proposition 63: Gun control

Imposes a gun control regime largely redundant with recent legislative changes. Restricts ammunition purchases and large magazines. This seems targeted at mass shootings, which are comparatively minor sources of gun fatalities, and I see no point in needlessly antagonizing gun rights activists. It does little about suicides, which are the main area where I think the evidence shows clear benefits to gun control. I'm also against tying the legislature's hands. Voting no.

Proposition 64: Marijuana legalization

I'm strongly for marijuana decriminalization, but ambivalent about this proposition. It really seems like the legislature's job, and but maybe a ballot proposition's helpful for standing up to the Feds. I don't know. It also seems like, of all the plausible regulatory regimes, this one allows for an unusually high amount of power in the hands of large commercial marijuana interests, which could make future regulation harder. Still, coming down on the side of yes, because, I'm not sure that last concern is a big deal, imprisoning fewer people is very urgent, and people should get to take the drugs they like.

Propositions 65 / 67: Plastic bags

Another pair of mutually exclusive propositions. 67 allows the legislature's plastic shopping bag ban to stand, 65 overturns it and replaces it with a bag tax. I'm against bag bans, but much more strongly against legislation by ballot box, so I'm voting no on 65 and yes on 67.

National legislature

US Senator

California has two Democrats on the ticket. I'm voting for Sanchez based on Ozy's endorsement.

US Representative, 13th District

I haven't been following this race much – as far as I can tell the Republican Sue Caro isn't a serious candidate. Democrat Barbara Lee was the sole House vote against the war in Afghanistan, which looks like a pretty good call in hindsight, and is pretty much my only chance to vote robustly against killing more foreigners right now.

State legislature

CA State Senate, 9th District

My main opinion on local politics is that land use reform is a good thing, so I'm following the recommendations of land use reform organization East Bay Forward when available. They endorse Nancy Skinner, so I do as well.

CA State Assembly, 15th District

The Republican, Clare Chiara, is a University of California Senior with no clear selling points as far as I can tell, so I'm voting for the incumbent Democrat Tony Thurmond. I'm conservative that way.

Judiciary: Superior Court Judge, Office #1

The candidates are Scott Jackson, a discrimination attorney, and Barbara Thomas, a "victims' rights attorney." The latter sounds like she's in favor of more imprisonment, which I'm against on current margins. Daily Cal and Oakland Magazine both endorse Jackson.

Oakland Magazine also says that Thomas was involved in a weird legal dispute with the Alameda County Bar Association, after they took her off a list of legal aid lawyers. The Bar Association says she broke a bunch of rules and had dodgy billing practices. She sued them for age discrimination, and apparently conducted the lawsuit ineptly. I'm for the conventional competent-seeming candidate here: Jackson.

Local (Alameda County and City of Berkeley)

My main opinion on local politics is that land use reform is a good thing, so I'm following the recommendations of land use reform organization East Bay Forward when available.

Elected officials

Mayor

First choice Laurie Capitelli, second choice Ben Gould, based on East Bay Forward endorsement.

City Council

Deborah Matthews, based on East Bay Forward endorsement.

Rent stabilization board

David Glaeser thinks that Nate Wollman and Judy Hunt are broadly aligned with the agenda of Mayoral candidate and East Bay Forward endorsee Laurie Capitelli, so I'm voting for them, despite not really knowing who they are, what they do, or how their decisions are likely to affect anything.

School directors

David Glaeser points out that there's a write-in school abolitionist candidate, Norma J F Harrison. I'm broadly a school skeptic given the way they're constructed right now, so I'm writing her in. Perhaps inconsistently my other vote is for the incumbent Appel, based on Glaeser's say-so that the schools are fine as far as schools go, and the other challenger Sikder doesn't know what they're talking about.

Ballot propositions

A1 – affordable housing bond

Yes, based on East Bay Forward recommendation.

E1 – Berkeley schools tax

Basically renews a tax to fund Berkeley public schools, modulo a few fiddly details. Voting yes because no schools > well-funded schools > poorly-funded schools, and unschooling is not on the ballot here.

T1 – infrastructure bonds

Yes, based on East Bay Forward recommendation.

U1 – landlord tax (as proposed by city council)

Ye,s based on East Bay Forward recommendation.

DD – landlord tax (as proposed via ballot initiative)

No, based on East Bay Forward recommendation.

V1 – Authorization of already-approved spending ("exceeding the Gann limit")

Yes, based on East Bay Forward recommendation.

W1 – Transferring redistricting from the city council to an independent citizens' commission

David Glaeser says yes because the old way led to conflict, but conflict seems fine. He also says it led to districting to preserve incumbents' districts. I'm for government by the experienced, but the city council put it on the ballot, so I'm voting yes.

X1 – public campaign financing

Glaeser likes it, but I'm conservative here. Berkeley does not suffer from too few randos in politics. Voting no.

Y1 – 16-17 year olds can vote for School Director

Yes, obviously.

Z1 – 500 more affordable units

Yes, based on East Bay Forward recommendation.

AA – eviction protections

Yes, based on East Bay Forward recommendation.

BB / CC – minimum wage

Apparently BB and CC are both opposed by the city council which already implemented a more moderate compromise proposal. Voting no.

C1 – AC Transit tax

Yes, based on East Bay Forward recommendation.

RR – BART repair bond issue

Yes, based on East Bay Forward recommendation.

Transit

AC Transit District Director, At Large

Voting for incumbent Chris Peeples over retired bus driver Dollene Jones on the recommendation of East Bay Forward.

BART Director, District 3

Voting for incumbent Rebecca Saltzman on the recommendation of East Bay Forward.

4 thoughts on “2016 election endorsements and decisions

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