A Choice, Not an Echo

There is at least one national candidate for President this year who you can be sure really understands economics. That’s Larry Kotlikoff, a professor of economics at Boston University with a long string of high professional honors and a history of great accomplishment in both academics and public service (more here). His running mate, Ed Leamer, is no slouch either.

Kotlikoff and Leamer are not on the ballot, but they are registered write-in candidates (the result of a long and arduous process) which means that their write-ins will be counted (unlike write-ins for, say, Daffy Duck). This is a great way to send the message that you prefer a president who is in the habit of making sense. Here is Kotlikoff practicing that habit:

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32 Responses to “A Choice, Not an Echo”

  1. 1 1 Ken B

    Interesting. I will check him out (although I am not a voter). The most frustrating part of this election is how awful Gary Johnson has proven to be. Awful in completely different ways than Trump or Hillary, and better than they in most ways, but awful in a vital way.

  2. 2 2 Ken B

    Sold. I’m an easy mark this time round it’s true. Trump or Clinton is an unacceptable choice. Rejecting an unacceptable choice requires actually rejecting both choices. I do.

  3. 3 3 Martin M

    Just a note that nine states do not allow write-ins or do not count the votes of write-in candidates (AR HI LA MS NV NM OK SC SD). Of the remaining 41, seven count all write-in votes, while the other 34 require some form of paperwork be filed by the candidate. I believe Kotlikoff has qualified in all of these.

  4. 4 4 Steve Schow

    Kotlikoff is on the Colorado ballot – is he just not on the ballot in your state?

  5. 5 5 Daniel

    While I too find a lot of his proposals interesting, voters in states which may decide the race should not be choosing third party candidates. Obviously it doesn’t apply to Steve since he lives in NY. However, if you live in a potential tipping point state and if you think both are bad then you should be able to form a preference between the two. While it’s certainly cool now a days to articulate the both parties are awful and horrible story, Duverger’a law applies, and therefore no amount of complaining will make third parties viable. Therefore, one of the two candidates of the major parties will be elected (short a UTAH miracle, a polling miss, and a congress willing to elevate a candidate 95% of the country has never heard of). What I think is the real problem today is that we’ve turned being independent into this sexy cool thing, when really it is a forfeiture of any power in our system which can best be described as idiotic. Instead independrs should join the party that most resembles their own ideology and influence it through the ballot box and activism until it more resembles their desired policies. Anything other then that is a fantasy and a waste of time.

  6. 6 6 Steve Landsburg

    Daniel: I could not disagree with you more. No matter what state you live in, there is essentially zero chance that your vote will decide the outcome. Even Florida in 2000 was decided by a margin of hundreds of votes; no single vote would have come close to changing things. But a few extra votes for a third party candidate can make a substantial difference to that candidate’s visibility. Will your one vote substantially affect that visibility? Probably not, but the opportunity cost is zero.

  7. 7 7 Steve Landsburg

    Steve Schow: Thanks for the info. I thought he was not on any state ballots, but a registered write-in candidate in all 41 states that allow them. If he’s actually on some ballots (e.g Colorado) then I was partially misinformed.

  8. 8 8 Daniel


    I agree but participating in encouraging third party voting might, right? If you want to secretly vote for a third party, all well and good, but to encourage it seems counterproductive to democratic goals, because you increase the chances that the least desirable candidate by the majority of people will be elected. Better to amplify his policies while explicitly telling people that voting for a third party is a bad idea.

  9. 9 9 Daniel

    Just to be clear, I do think that third party candidates are good for our democracy but that encouraging voting for them is a bad idea.

  10. 10 10 Ken B

    Daniel seems to think voting your conscience is like goat-porn: legal perhaps but best kept private.

    Democracy isn’t government by voting, it’s government by talking. Better talking is precisely what democracy better.

  11. 11 11 Daniel

    @Ken B,

    I don’t disagree that talking makes our democracy better but think that discouraging voting for your ideal candidate and encouraging people to vote for your preferred viable candidate is the right course of action because it is more likely to lead to your own personal optimal outcome. I also think talking about and encouraging people to get involved in crafting more intelligent policy is a worthwhile endeavor. That’s why I think third party candidates are good because they facilitate this. However given our current system encouraging voting for them is simply illogical. However getting ballot initiatives to rank candidates instead of first past the post systems is likely the optimal solution.

  12. 12 12 Roger

    @Steve: The intermediate value theorem implies that one vote could decide an election.

    If the ballot counts differed by one vote, then there would be a lot of fights, and maybe the one vote would not be decisive in that case, but it would in others.

    It is possible that one vote decided Florida in 2000. If Bush had one fewer vote, then maybe judges would have been persuaded to do more recounts.

  13. 13 13 Zazooba

    @Steve 12

    Daniel: I could not disagree with you more. No matter what state you live in, there is essentially zero chance that your vote will decide the outcome.


    Voting only makes sense if you think of it in terms of what you want to tell people after the election. Any other rationale is vanity.

  14. 14 14 Zazooba

    Humans evolved while living in groups of about 150. In a group of 150, one voice and one person’s persuasiveness can make a difference. That is why humans tend to believe that “one person can make a difference”.

    In a country of 150 million voters, though, not so much.

  15. 15 15 Advo

    Isn’t Kotlikoff the guy going around talking about the Federal government having a gazillion in unfunded liabilities and pretending like that means anything?
    That guy seems more like a bullsh1t artist to me than anything else.

  16. 16 16 Ken B

    My vote for X serves as an incentive for Y to try to lure my vote next time.

    The strong performance of X can focus attention on X and why X got votes.

    Challenging the assumption that of the entire alphabet we can only have the D or the R undermines that assumption. Taking a longer view it can lead to mor choices, or moving the choice to E and T instead. Look at the history of the Reform party in Canada for an example.

    X can win. You mistake low probability for logical certainty. Besides, as S notes K’s vote for X has pretty much the same likelihood of changing the electoral result as his vote for Y. But again the vote isn’t just about affecting who wins this election but about changing the debate for the next one. And there I suggest a vote for X can have a disproportionate effect.

  17. 17 17 Ken B

    Are you denying that unfunded liabilities are possible? I saw some idiot argue that. What I asked were German reparations after WWI but unfunded liabilities? That’s a flamboyant example but it shows the principle. If we have legally enforceable obligations which must be paid to rich seniors from poor working youth I should think that matters.
    There is another effect. Imagine we entitle all 65 year olds to 4 yearly ocean cruises. This is an unfunded liability. What effect will it have over time as more of us hit 65? A lot of resources spent building and staffing cruise ships, a lot of peeled shrimp, and less investment in roads, bridges, physical plant, training. Plus of course working 30 year olds highly taxed.
    These seem to matter. They are NOT the same as Bob Murphy’s mistaken arguments about debt ipso facto impoverishing us. They are about generational transfers and sub optimal spending ( all that peeled shrimp instead of a bridge).

  18. 18 18 Ken B

    To clarify the last point. If you hunt back on my blog you can see a mathematical refutation of the argument of Murphy et al that debt by itself impoverishes the future. It does not, and this is a case where Steve and Paul Krugman agree. But what does matter is what you spend on and who decides that under what incentives. And for that unfunded liabilities matter very much.

  19. 19 19 Neil

    Kotlikoff tries this every election cycle. And everytime I write him in because his platform makes sense.

  20. 20 20 Daniel

    @ Ken B,

    It’d be one thing if a third party was in striking distance of one of the two major parties. Perhaps we should advocate conditional advice to voters. If a third party is within 10 percentage points of a major parties on Election Day then you should vote for third party. Otherwise, form a preference between the candidates that have a chance.

    As for whether the two parties react by trying harder, I don’t think that is the case. The Republican Party certainly hasn’t stepped up its game in the presidential race after losing 2. They are still advocating essentially the same policies with different rhetoric. Why does your scenario apply to X over D and R, but not D over R? Also, undesirable outcomes for voters are enough incentive for them to return to the two parties. Such was the case in 2008 after the Dem party was slapped by an undesirable outcome in 2000. Did the Dem party try harder in the aftermath, I don’t really think so.

  21. 21 21 Ken B

    I’m no great fan of Big Macs, but your question sounds like “Why would you want a Big Mac when you can have a shitburger, with or without cheese?”

  22. 22 22 Jonathan Kariv

    In the usa context I tend to agree with Ken B and Steve. Making a small party visible is potentially helpful. Where I live (south africa) we get proportional representation (same election as the presidential one). Which seems to make it a lot more obvious to most people that voting for a small party can have an impact (because it feels like might change a seat). I’ve always wondered if the two-party deadlock in the usa is a product (unique stable equilibrium) of the winner takes all set up.

  23. 23 23 Andrew Garland

    Landsburg October 21, 2016 at 11:05 pm, replying to a comment: “But a few extra votes for a third party candidate can make a substantial difference to that candidate’s visibility.”

    So, don’t vote for a major candidate because your vote makes too little difference.

    Vote for the third party, as advertising.

    Then, all going well, the third party will rise in prominence, and you then can not vote for them, because your vote makes too little difference.

  24. 24 24 Daniel

    @Ken B,

    Except if you ask for a Big Mac, you’re still get a shit burger (if that’s what you think of both major candidates) and possibly a much larger shit burger then you would have gotten if you had made a rational decision. Again, inability to form preferences between undesirable outcomes is not a virtue.

  25. 25 25 Neil

    Your vote has practically no chance of being decisive, so there is no cost for voting for a good platform like Larry’s, even if it is a long shot write in.

  26. 26 26 The Original CC

    I can’t remember where I read this, but I saw someone argue that you have something like a 1 in 200 million chance of deciding the election (the guy broke it out by swing state vs non-swing state), but flipping the election could be worth something like $1 trillion. The conclusion was that it was worth your time to vote (if you take into account the external benefit of swinging the election the “right” way.)

    I might not have the numbers right but that was the idea. I wish I could find this blog post…

    Why all the hatred for Gary Johnson? Does it have to do with Nazi birthday cakes or something like that?

  27. 27 27 Steve Landsburg

    The Original CC (#26):

    but flipping the election could be worth something like $1 trillion. The conclusion was that it was worth your time to vote (if you take into account the external benefit of swinging the election the “right” way.)

    It seems to me that this calculation should also account for the possibility that you’ve got things figured wrong and are flipping the election the wrong way.

  28. 28 28 Advo

    Are you denying that unfunded liabilities are possible? I saw some idiot argue that.

    What I’m saying it that adding up the estimated future cost of various government programs doesn’t, in itself, mean anything.

    It’s like saying “Over the next 40 years I’m going to need 2 million dollars for rent and groceries. Oh my god!”

    That number may be true, but whether it presents a problem depends on whether or not my income stream will be able to cover it, and of course I’ll be able to adjust my spending in due time if I find that there is some shortfall.
    The big scary numbers Kotlikoff likes to headline with mean nothing in and of themselves and are simple polemic.

  29. 29 29 Dave B

    It seems to me that if there were a ranked voting system of some sort it would remove a lot of the arguments against voting for a third candidate. Voters could still register their disillusionment with the main candidates and gain publicity for an independent whilst still expressing the view that one of them is worse than the other.

  30. 30 30 Ken B

    Dave B
    Maybe, but part of the signal IS the cost. “Well Id rather you bring Calvin Coolidge back to life and run him but OK, here’s my vote anyway” might be a signal of some sort but not one sent to the parties.

  31. 31 31 iceman

    I’ve thought for a while that if your goal is to help your candidate win, your vote is mathematically meaningless for the reasons offered here.
    If instead you wish to make a statement e.g. by withholding your vote or going 3rd party, your vote has exactly one vote’s worth of significance, however imperceptibly small that may be. It feels like that’s not a contradiction.

  32. 32 32 Ken B

    There are respected papers in psychology asserting that parents have no direct effect on how their kids turn out. Seems like a bad idea to conclude you should just ignore them, doesn’t it?

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