keep your distance

Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.


Wed 04

Scraping the Barrel

What Max Reckons I decided to stop doing those blog posts where I pontificate about how the world should be. Because reading those back, they even annoy me. And the ones that annoy me the most are when I start yapping about politics. I mean, please, like the world needs another shrill, ignorant opinion on that.

Well, maybe just one more. Don’t you think it’s strange how often people vote for somebody they don’t like? Elections should be simple, shouldn’t they? We vote for whoever we want to win, and the popular choice prevails. But in practice, you often have an incentive to vote “tactically.” For example, if you’re electing the US Democratic nominee, there’s no point voting for your favorite candidate if he or she has no chance of defeating the Republican nominee in the General Election. You should only vote for someone who can ultimately win. So now your vote has to not simply express your own preference, but be modified by what you believe everybody else prefers, too.

Anywhere there’s plurality voting, you can’t safely vote for your favorite candidate unless you’re confident enough other people will too. Otherwise, you’re smarter to vote for your least-hated candidate with a practical chance of victory. (Or vote swap.)

Now, in my experience, any time someone expresses an opinion they don’t personally have, but think others do, it’s a terrible opinion. For example, I’ve seen it produce some pretty ugly book covers. And I’ll ignore it in any reader feedback I get on my story drafts. People who try to guess what other people want end up settling on the dullest, most conservative, and uninspiring choice available, even if none of them personally prefer it.*

I get that there’s no such thing as a perfect voting system. Some are more warped than others, but, okay, it’s surprisingly difficult to create a fair, practical voting system. Still. How disturbing is it that on top of every other form of corruption inherent in the political process, it can be completely reasonable for you to walk into a ballot room and vote for someone other than who you want to win?

(* That’s one of the reasons Hillary got so close to Barack. There, I said it.)


This is where site members post comments. If you're not a member, you can join here. There are all kinds of benefits, including moral superiority!

Sean Gant (#201)

Location: USA
Quote: "I saved a girl from being attacked last night. I controlled myself. --Rodney Dangerfield"
Posted: 4151 days ago

Too true. On the plus side, Barack did clench the nomination and he should have no problem defeating McCain.

shabooty (#637)

Location: D.C./V.A/M.D.
Quote: "I will shake your foundation. I will shake the f**cking rafters. Nobody'll be the same -Danny Bonaduce ....& go visit my blog @:"
Posted: 4151 days ago

even though I am a democrat anyway, I am a proud member of the myspace group: Guys that act liberal to bang artsy hipster chicks club.

cause its phun, and funny.

Allison Maxted (#327)

Location: Caledonia, Ontario, Canada
Quote: "Why do the mice keep voting for the cats?"
Posted: 4151 days ago

Mixed Member Proportional! New Zealand got it right.

Phill Sacre (#1822)

Location: London, UK
Quote: "Computers are like air conditioners. Both stop working, if you open windows."
Posted: 4151 days ago

"How disturbing is it that on top of every other form of corruption inherent in the political process, it can be completely reasonable for you to walk into a ballot room and vote for someone other than who you want to win?"

Are you hinting at something, Max... maybe a political career? ;)

If you run for office in a couple of years you can count on my support!

bob (#2120)

Location: silicon valley
Quote: "they talked in papery whispers."
Posted: 4151 days ago

I've read all your books and enjoyed them, had a great time at your appearance in Mountain View, Calif., but I gotta say your thoughts about U.S. politics are a clueless joke--and surprising from somoene who has done so well in skewering hype, spin and bull$#!t.

Oooh, inspiring! Good speeches (read from teleprompters)! New! Shiny! Cool! He's the guy for arguably the hardest, most important job in the world.

Who cares that he's the least-experienced nominee in recent history? Who cares that he's lied about Wright, Rezko, Ayres, his statements, his accomplishments? Who cares that he and his campaign trashed rivals and tut-tutted any criticism of him as divisive, old politics? Who cares that he acknowledged playing the race card? Who cares that the basic premise of a new approach to politics is demonstrably false?

He's not dull!

Robert (#413)

Location: Los Angeles
Quote: "A positive attitude will not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort."
Posted: 4151 days ago

Hide yourself, Max, you've opened a can of worms of which you don't want to see the bottom.

However, it is good to know that you're an Obama supporter.

Colm O'Brien (#2140)

Location: Ireland
Posted: 4151 days ago

PR-STV all the way.

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 4151 days ago

> your thoughts about U.S. politics are a clueless joke

I prefer to think of my jokes as clueless opinions.

Machine Man subscriber Jonathan Dodd (#3579)

Location: Rotorua
Posted: 4151 days ago

Hey Max - just look over the ditch at the MMP system we have in NZ - tactical voting is what it's all about!

Machine Man subscriber Bas (#723)

Location: Rotterdam, ZH
Quote: "Funny how the horrible crushing of hopes makes no sound at all..."
Posted: 4151 days ago

It would seem very difficult to completely eliminate ‘tactical’ voting from any election. An effective way of preventing it would be to use an open party-list proportional representation system with a single electoral district. Whoever gets the most votes wins or gets the most seats, depending on what the elections are for; in such a system there is no room for tactical voting unless there is a minimum threshold of votes to be obtained to win or to be represented. Makes for very dull elections and campaigns though...

Machine Man subscriber Toby O (#2900)

Location: Sydney
Quote: "You can't sell your soul to the devil if he's not buying"
Posted: 4151 days ago

Politics: keeps the mainstream media working, and provides something to talk about. I would add that one does not have to be an expert in all things American politics in order to share a thought upon same (especially in one's own blog). I do it myself.

That said, I'd like to comment as follows: your assumption that one must pick either McCain or <del>Hussein</del>Obama is not necessarily true. IF I voted at all, it would be for Slartibartfast.

Machine Man subscriber Tim (#2866)

Location: Brighton, England
Quote: "How much do you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight?"
Posted: 4151 days ago

Great point, same here in the UK.

One huge problem with democracy is, it's not the person whose most popular who wins anyway, take the UK for example:

10,000 votes for Labour
12,000 votes for Liberal Democrats
9,000 votes for Conservative

Ultimately, lib dem win due to the higher votes (all those figures are examples obviously), but if you think about it, 19,000 people voted AGAINST liberal democrats, only 12,000 voted FOR them. Big flaw I think.

They should do it like a quarter final, semi final and final vote, haha. So in the end, two parties left, only one can win, everyone votes for one.

Tim (#3178)

Posted: 4151 days ago

On cans of worms and the opening of said cans...

Man, it wears me out and depresses me when someone expresses their honest, "for what it's worth opinion" on any marginally hot button topic (and in the age of the Internet, what isn't? Politics! Religion! Science! Kirk v. Picard!) and you barely get a three-count before someone is jumping down their throat, spitting venom. It seems to me civilized conversation is based on the notion of the proportional response--as opposed to the predictable STFU response you're all but guaranteed for having the unmitigated gall of challenging someone's world view by expressing your own.

The Age of Entitlement and niche realities seems to have created a "I am the final arbiter of objective reality" thinking--which works just fine if you happen to be the Unabomber. Come to think of it; it didn't come out too well for him either.

When it comes to voting systems, there does seem to be to me a troubling question of how much the concepts of "fair" and "practical" overlap on the Venn diagram. Democracy seems to be an unperfectable system that you still must strive to improve because otherwise... the shark dies. Or something.

I'm a Democrat, and while I was neither wildly pro-Obama or Clinton, I felt like, as they say, "reasonable people could disagree" about which of them was the better (or worse) candidate. Obama's rhetoric can be inspiring, but there's not a lot of a record to back it up and no evidence that he's capable of the kind of horse-trading it requires to accomplish anything in DC. And, well, Hillary's got a lot of baggage (a lot) and worrisome ethical question marks in her past, but she does seem to have a detailed working understanding of the sausage-making of politics along with an iron will.

For me, the choice was never blindingly obvious. But I'm the first to admit that I am a drooling idiot. (Although not enough of a drooling idiot to vote for McCain.)

Christie (#2970)

Quote: "I've listened to David Bowie songs that made more sense than this."
Posted: 4151 days ago

I'm a UK citizen who supports the Liberal Democrats, so I understand this very well. (Lib Dem supporters will fairly often vote Labour to block the Tories. One of the many reasons we do so badly.) Fortunatly for me, the constituency I live in is Lib Dem controlled and the main contenders are the Tories, not Labour, so I'm not likely to have to do that come the next election. :)

Machine Man subscriber Lossenelin (#3167)

Location: Christchurch, New Zealand
Posted: 4150 days ago

As Jonathan Dodd pointed out, 'tactical' voting is rife in New Zealand, last election, a number of Green party and Labour party supporters gave their candidate vote to the center-right National candidate to keep out the far-right ACT candidate (in NZ there is one vote for a party and one for a candidate) and in another two electorate left-of-center voters voted for National candidates to keep out the leaders of the conservative-Christian United Future Party and the conservative-nationalist New Zealand First party.

The idea was if none of those parties got electorate seats, the parties would be kept out of parliament by the 5% threshold for parties getting in on the party vote.
In the end, it didn't work, the ACT candidate won a seat, and United Future and New Zealand First got over 5% of the vote.

However, in the Maori electorates most people voted for Maori Party candidates and gave their party vote to Labour, meaning Labour got a larger percentage of the vote, but the Maori party still got 4 seats.

Tactical voting - I don't do it, but its a clever system

Gregory (#1530)

Location: Forest Hill
Quote: "I think therefore I am, I think"
Posted: 4150 days ago

For someone so erudite, intelligent and thought provoking, I am a littled bemused at your constant reference to Wikpedia as the font-of-all-knowledge. Is it accurate, just easy or does no one both to check?

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 4150 days ago

I'm starting to think "tactical voting" exists to make us feel so clever about working the system that we don't care so much that it's broken.

> Wikpedia as the font-of-all-knowledge. Is it accurate,
> just easy or does no one both to check?

All of the above! I think people unfairly criticize Wikipedia just because it's often inaccurate. But everywhere I get my information from is often inaccurate. Compared to newspapers, Wikipedia is the word of God.

Matt (#3598)

Location: Arizona, USA
Quote: "There are two kinds of Republicans: millioniares and suckers."
Posted: 4150 days ago

To use a coined word [one that my wife hates :-) ] What is a satisficient voting mechanism for single-winner elections?

I think approval voting would be satisfactory and sufficient. It uses the existing system with very minimal changes, undermines strategic voting and is the easiest to "get" of all the alternatives.

Having tried plurality voting side-by-side with approval voting I noticed an interesting thing. I quickly developed a "gut" loathing and discomfort for plurality. I was surprised by the impact - the difference in kinesthetically experiencing the different systems was powerful.

You can find a bunch of plurality vs approval (and other) voting sites via google. If you want you can try it at my (sadly broken) site

Sophie (#891)

Location: Devon
Posted: 4150 days ago

Hey, I actually found Hillary really inspiring and I'm gutted she didn't win. Even though I'm not American ... I strongly dislike Obama and McCain, and I'm not looking forward to four years of having to watch either of them on the news.

Also, tactical voting is a big reason the Lib Dems don't win in Britain. They've got such a low profile that even I (a lib dem) have to struggle to remember who Nick Clegg is. So people just assume they won't win, and vote Labour or Conservative (even though most people seem to dislike both of those parties).

AJ (#1866)

Location: Portland, OR
Quote: "Who said life was fair (or some shitty thing like that)"
Posted: 4150 days ago

The problem with politics in the US is that there are too many people who vote on moral issues alone. Something like 30% of the people who voted for Bush in the last election did so solely because he was pro-life. If THAT is the only reason you are voting for a candidate, then you shouldn't be voting at ALL.. period. When you choose the leader of your country you should really consider more than whether or not you think it's right that abortions are legal. I mean, what the HELL does that have to do with whether or not some idiot is going to wage war and get a bunch of people killed.... hmmm???

As for Obama vs Clinton... better to know the devil you know, than the one you dont... Everyone knows everything about the Clintons. I think we have yet to really see all the dirt on Obama.... But hey, the republicans still have 4 months to dig it up and and I'm SURE they will wait until right before the election to spring it on us...

Abgrund (#3357)

Location: Atlantis
Quote: ""Redeem your mind from the hockshops of authority." - Ayn Rand"
Posted: 4148 days ago

MMMMM, yummy worms....

It's amusing that we Americans invariably get all frenzied over politics, even though most of us are totally disillusioned with our "leaders" and we have a political structure that protects the status quo very effectively against the public. Even I can't help being pleased at seeing Hitlery Clinton get thrashed, even though 1) I hate Obama and 2) I refuse to voting, because voting is an implied endorsement of the system.

Here's a way to get rid of tactical voting: get rid of those silly elections and bring back the monarchy. I bet it costs more to bribe Queen Bess than to bribe two hundred Congress-Things.

SilverCloud (#2038)

Quote: "Fortune Favors the Brave"
Posted: 4147 days ago

It doesn't matter who you vote for, who ever gets the job must note that to get anything done they must have the Congress and Senate on their side.
It's a thin veil over the U.S. Goverment, open the curtains and what do you see?
Monster Corporations have all the puppet strings. He who has the most money wins and gets to chose the new leaders. In case the new leaders don't follow
the Monsters Corp. agenda, well they get knocked off....History does repeat itself.
What urks me is fanatic politics attached to fanatic religions.
What I love about your Country is they actually call the shots with the ILLEGALS.
Not in the U.S., we have MILLIONS of these folks.

Peter Wiegand (#119)

Location: Washington, USA
Quote: "Just because it's aimed at a particular market means it's not art?"
Posted: 4146 days ago

While I do think about how other people will vote, I always vote for the candidate I feel will represent my views the best. In this case, Max, it was Hillary. I don't find her dull, conservative, or uninspiring.
It's very sweet that so many of you outside the U.S. take such a keen interest in our political system. Too bad most of us can't find you on a map, much less tell you anything about another country's political system.

Nick Dantanavatanawong (#254)

Location: United States
Posted: 4144 days ago

I hope you don't stop writing these things. It's nice to hear someone else's opinion on world matters. At least to me it's interesting because of your nationality as I don't know any Australians. Also because of your marketing background which makes it even more interesting.

T-Bone (#3608)

Posted: 4139 days ago

I like the Condorcet method of voting:

RE: Obama's experience... The last few presidents have been governors. What was Reagan's experience. I think Clinton was called too inexperienced, but that didn't last. Obama even has the same experience record as Lincoln. There's not even correlation between "experience" and presidential success:

Obama clearly has shown very refined judgment on economics, especially compared to McCain who admits to not understanding it and yet still hangs onto some fantasy economic beliefs that fit his policies biases.

On Obama's supposed weakpoint, foreign policy, Obama predicted the future of the Iraq war before it started, realizations we've only recognized as true fairly recently. In his 2002 speech, he also laid out the most important issues that needed to be addressed, which were not addressed and that we today are dealing with the consequences. It's almost prophetic:'s_Iraq_Speech

And he's been calling for us to refocus on Afghanistan and the Palestine border areas, where now we've just seen a resurgence of the Taliban. How this guy can get so much correct and yet not overwhelmingly have the support of the nation, let alone get past this "inexperienced" label is a depressing state of affairs.

Alex Hall (#3610)

Location: Ohio, USA
Quote: ""¡Hasta la victoria siempre!" —Ernesto "Che" Guevara"
Posted: 4136 days ago

Isn't the critique you perform on marketing in /Jennifer Government/ a pretty good way of illustrating what you mean when you say that "people who try to guess what other people want end up settling on the dullest, most conservative, and uninspiring choice available, even if none of them personally prefer it"?

That's what struck me about that post. Also, I'm new here, and only signed up because I just finished /Jennifer Government/, which, I'm happy to say, is one of the best novels I've read in years. I do wish the proverbial bad guys had triumphed, however, because I think the cautionary element of the story would have been that much more effective if they had--like Winston Smith winning "the battle over himself," when he realizes that "he loved Big Brother." But, then, I'm just a grad student with a love of cautionary dystopias.


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