snarky qotd about voting and economics

The prize goes to Peter T:

[Steven] Levitt has millions of brain cells. The activity of any one of them cannot possibly matter. So he doesn’t bother thinking.

It’s all part of a(nother) post by Andrew Gelman on why it might be rational to vote if you care about the outcome because there’s a nonzero chance of your vote being decisive, estimated at roughly 1 in 10 million depending on what state you live in. Since the chance of being killed by a car on your way to voting is probably much higher than that, I think the rationality calculus is still way off, since there are very few people who would prefer dying in a car accident to failing to cast the decisive vote. But hey, I’ve objected to Gelman’s approach to this for a while.

FWIW, I voted Wednesday. Early. In a swing state.


  1. klhoughton
    Posted October 26, 2012 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    That NC is a swing state is still head-shaking.


    • Posted October 28, 2012 at 6:32 am | Permalink

      For me too. But:
      – Significant, if subterranean, progressive movement over the long term;
      – Democratic registration advantage
      – Major in-migration of highly educated people over the last 2 decades


  2. Posted October 26, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    I voted, and I live in the swing state of Canada.

    I’m all for these fun economics debates on the marginal power of the single vote, but what if the effect of this discussion is to convince people that it’s not worth voting? Remember, boys, it’s an engine, not a camera.


    • Posted October 28, 2012 at 6:29 am | Permalink

      You had more choices than we did! No Greens or Constitution Party here in NC, just Dem, Rep, and Libertarian.

      I hear you on the performativity piece. But gosh – is the best we can do really that we should lie to people about the instrumental value of their vote in order to get them to act irrationally? I feel like we can do better.


  3. Posted October 29, 2012 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Are you folks aware that there is a literature on this exactly topic in social movements? It is very difficult to get movement participants to isolate the marginal impact of their specific contribution to movement success. What participants want to do is to use the “collective efficacy” term in their calculations–what is the chance that the movement will win. Careful interrogation reveals that they reason that the collective outcome can be calculated by assuming that everyone acts like them and they are very resistant to being talked into identifying any contradiction in this logic.

    At one level, you can complain that it is magical thinking. At another level, you can notice that there are well-established social and ideological mechanisms available in the culture that help groups to achieve the “collectively rational but individually irrational” outcome that actually benefits them over the model that predicts that everyone will defect into short-term individualist payoff calculation. In addition, experimental research regularly finds that people who are allowed to communicate and collaborate will find their way out of free rider traps and to collectively-rational outcomes. So why the ideological emphasis in this culture on trying to demand that everyone see things through the individualist lens?


    • Michaela
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      OW: Who are the main references for this literature? I’m interested in taking a look, as I’m seeing some of this in my own data.


      • Posted November 1, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

        Sorry I don’t have active links handy, but a few articles sprang to mind.
        The article that automatically came to mind because it got me interested in this topic is:
        Oliver, Pamela. (1984) “’If You Don’t Do It, Nobody Else Will’: Active and Token Contributors to Local Collective Action.” American Sociological Review. 49: 601-10.

        But some other places to start would be:
        For reviews of the related literature:
        Polletta, Francesca and James Jasper. (2001) “Collective Identity and Social Movements.” Annual Review of Sociology. 27: 283-305.
        Oliver, Pamela. (1993) “Formal Models of Collective Action.” Annual Review of Sociology. 19:271-300.

        For some case studies:
        Kurzman, Charles. (1996) “Structural Opportunity and Perceived Opportunity in Social-Movement Theory: The Iranian Revolution of 1979.” American Sociological Review. 61(1):153-70.
        Corrigall-Brown, Catherine, David A. Snow, Kelly Smith, and Theron Quist. (2009) “Explaining the Puzzle of Homeless Mobilization: An Examination of Differential Participation.” Sociological Perspectives. 52(3):309-35.



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