25 September 2015

Why House Leader John Boehner Should Be Replaced by an Algorithm

John Boehner is retiring from his job as Speaker of the House 30 October. The next day, on Halloween, he might just dress up as someone with actual power.

If you look at history or even across the world now, it seems obvious that as countries advance, power is dispersed. Theocracy gives way to religious freedom. Monarchies are replaced by democracies.

What we sometimes miss is that this matter of democratization, this continual dispersal of power to more and more people, doesn't stop. The founding fathers of this country forced aristocrats to share their power. Later generations forced the founding fathers' type to share power even with people who weren't Protestants, weren't land owners, weren't men, and weren't white. Power continues to diffuse.

John Boehner has had to negotiate deals with conservative fundamentalists who have been prepared to wreck the economy in order to limit debt and de-fund Planned Parenthood. It's not enough that he has to negotiate with the White House and Senate, or even House Democrats. He has to negotiate with extremist factions of his own party.

The problem is not John Boehner. Or even these radical conservatives. The problem is the process for negotiating deals in the House and Senate.

A good process is realistic. The model of Speaker of the House negotiating in backrooms assumes that power is still concentrated in an individual or small group. John Boehner doesn't actually have much power. But neither does any other congressperson and any model that assumes they do is bound to be frustrating and flawed.

Liberals and tea party conservatives seem pretty excited about making it to Congress. The problem is, no matter what promises they made to their constituents, a single Congressperson has no power to affect change. Well, not "no power." Just "very little power." To be precise, as one of 435 representatives, the power of an individual Congressperson is 0.2%. That's two-tenth of one percent.

Rather than expect someone to negotiate a deal between rural conservatives and urban liberals, why not just turn vote mediation over to an algorithm? A simple spreadsheet could suffice.

One congressperson wants to increase defense spending by $30 billion. Another wants to cut it by $20 billion. 433 other congresspeople would like to change it by varying amounts. Why not simply let every congress person submit a budget and simply take the average of those? If the average of all congress person's votes is to cut defense spending by 7% or raise it by 13%, that's what gets sent to the Senate for vote there. (A vote that could be done in the same way, only with 100 senators instead of 435 representatives.)

This does more than disperse power. It means that the most conservative rural Kentucky district gets the same representation as the most liberal San Francisco district. Exactly. Regardless of who is in the majority.

Among democracy's many flaws is this: it can easily leave 49.9% of voters feeling like losers. Their guy doesn't get in and they feel like they've lost their voice. Better to let everyone have a voice - and with it the message that with 307,000,000 other Americans, their voice is just one of many. Everyone will expect to be heard and everyone will expect their shout to become a whisper as it is averaged with the views of hundreds of million other Americans.

It probably won't be on October 31, but eventually, John Boehner will be replaced by an algorithm. It's not just because of the evolution of technology. It's because of the evolution of power. It's no longer enough to give it to just 50.1% of the voters. Averaging in everyone's views will disperse power to something closer to 100% of the population. And that is the direction this dispersal of power is going.

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