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First(?) Rationalist elected to state government

63 Post author: Eneasz 07 November 2014 02:30AM

Has no one else mentioned this on LW yet?

Elizabeth Edwards has been elected as a New Hampshire State Rep, self-identifies as a Rationalist and explicitly mentions Less Wrong in her first post-election blog post.

Sorry if this is a repost

Comments (54)

Comment author: Salemicus 07 November 2014 09:52:45AM 11 points [-]

She clearly has some non-standard politics. She identifies as a libertarian, but she sought election as a Democrat. I will be interested to see how she does.

Comment author: sixes_and_sevens 07 November 2014 02:58:42PM 23 points [-]

Well, since that whole mind-killer business is already way over the horizon...

It can't be uncommon for people on here to look at their elected representatives and think "that doesn't seem like a very high bar to clear". It may be that I'm missing something, but the one elected official I personally know is, to put it bluntly, an uncharismatic tool with no relevant background. I wouldn't trust him as a stooge. Even if it was the safest seat in the country, it's bewildering to me that no-one else is there in his place.

Why don't more people like us (for some conception of "us" that may or may not be coherent) stand for public office? Here are some hypotheses:

  • They do, and I'm misinformed
  • STEM backgrounds are anti-correlated with public office because:
    • they have higher earning potential in the private sector
    • they systematically lack relevant skills, or the ability to recognise these skills
    • they are systematically located in large centres of industry, which attract more dedicated and competent competition in political spheres
  • They're too cynical to be politically active
  • There is a secret undercurrent of heavily politically-active people on Less Wrong who don't discuss it because of prevailing mind-killer social norms

Other suggestions (or counter-assertions, or gentle mockery) welcome.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 07 November 2014 09:44:50PM *  23 points [-]

I participated in politics at one point, getting 198 votes at the Finnish Parliamentary elections and being a board member of the Finnish Pirate Party for a while. I suspect that I would've stood a reasonable chance of eventually getting elected into some office if I'd kept up at it - the Pirates don't look like they'll be elected, but there exists a not-too-horrible more-mainstream party whose members have led me to understand that they'd be glad to have me if I was up for it. But there are a number of reasons for why I chose not to pursue that career option further, including:

  • My basic nature is that of a scientist - if there's a problem in society, figure out what needs to be done to solve it, implement that change, and move on to the next problem. In politics, you figure out what needs to be done to solve a problem, and then spend the next several years talking to people and trying to convince them that this is the right answer, having to start the explanation basically from scratch each time you talk with a new person. I found this tedious.
  • A preference for at least some level of free speech - it's not particularly uncommon for a politician to make the headlines because they made an ill-considered joke in a Facebook conversation. I don't want to end up in a position where I need to run an extra check on everything that I write in public, to make sure that there's nothing about it that could be used to attack me or my party.
  • I dislike talking to strangers on the phone, and journalists asking for interviews tend to rather frequently call you on the phone. I'm also not good at thinking up quick coherent answers to unanticipated questions when under pressure, such as when doing a live debate or interview.
Comment author: hydkyll 08 November 2014 10:37:43PM 3 points [-]

but there exists a not-too-horrible more-mainstream party whose members have led me to understand that they'd be glad to have me if I was up for it

What did they see in you? If I may ask. You would disagree with your fellow party members on quite a lot of things, I'd imagine.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 09 November 2014 11:19:54AM *  3 points [-]

I didn't specifically ask them that question, but I believe that they've liked my social media activity and my writings: wrote a bunch of blog posts in Finnish when I was campaigning, also a book on the topic of copyright reform. I guess they considered my writings persuasive and well-reasoned. Also some of them used to be former Pirates who shifted parties when they saw that things weren't working out.

I don't know if we'd actually disagree on that much: e.g. the party is generally aligned with liberal values, which I tend to endorse, and has valuable stuff on its platform, like supporting a universal basic income. The specific people who've tried to attract me have also all been associated with a subgroup within the party that's explicitly focused on science- and reason-based decision-making. Of course there are also points of disagreement, but that's unavoidable when dealing with other people.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 09 November 2014 11:14:43AM 1 point [-]

In politics, you figure out what needs to be done to solve a problem, and then spend the next several years talking to people and trying to convince them that this is the right answer, having to start the explanation basically from scratch each time you talk with a new person. I found this tedious.

Maybe there are higher-level solutions for this. For example, write a text explaining the topic, make a youtube video, or hire other people to do the explaining for you.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 09 November 2014 11:48:41AM 5 points [-]

On the issue of copyright reform, I did try writing a number of texts, and when I came to the conclusion that I needed to cover more inferential distance than was possible in isolated texts, a book. The book was favorably received, with an extended and generally positive review in Finland's biggest newspaper among other things, but didn't ultimately seem to affect the landscape of the discussion very much, since only a limited amount of people actually bothered reading it. Maybe if we'd pushed it more aggressively in online discussions and such it could've had a bigger impact.

Comment author: ChristianKl 09 November 2014 12:50:03PM 4 points [-]

Politics is a lot about speaking with people and convincing them. If Kaj would join a major mainstream party and wants them to adopt his ideas then he has to talk face to face to many people in that party to convince them. Then he has to understand key objections of them and slightly change his pitch to address those objections.

Political journalist also are on deadlines. They call on the phone and want you to call them back in a few hours and then you have to talk to them. For a person who doesn't like speaking on the phone that's annoying.

Fortunately the kind of journalists who interviewed me for Quantified Self, weren't under tight deadlines so I could afford to wait a few days or a week to talk to a journalist but especially at the beginning the prospect of directly having to talk to journalists is taxing.

It's also the kind of talking where you are not allowed to get a single sentence wrong, because the journalist might quote that sentence. You have a message that's more complex then the journalist can write down in his article. That means you have to dumb it down somewhere or else the journalist will.

As a member of a political party you not only have to take your own views into account and speak from them, but speak from the current consensus inside your party. Doing that live is a challenging task. Not impossible to learn but I can understand when Kaj thinks that wouldn't be fun for him.

Comment author: Lumifer 07 November 2014 05:56:46PM 17 points [-]

Why don't more people like us (for some conception of "us" that may or may not be coherent) stand for public office?

Because it's unpleasant and not very productive.

If you have any desire for privacy, you would (or should) hesitate to stand for public office for obvious reasons. If you have unconventional views, they are likely to be a problem, you will have to explain and defend them (or hide them). In general, (some) people will be mean to you, including being maliciously mean to you because you're of the enemy tribe and should be trampled into the mud.

And that's just the election part. Provided you made it through, you're likely to find out that the actual power you wield is pretty puny and your role is more akin to that of a cog in a bureaucratic machine. If your positions are sufficiently different from the usual ones, you'll often find yourself in the minory, unable to do anything. You'll face pressure to compromise, to deal, to conform.

Now, if by nature you like the political hustle and bustle, give and take, push and pull, that all is going to be fine. But people "like us" don't.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 07 November 2014 03:27:36PM 14 points [-]

Practical politics involves a lot of boring, contingent details that don't appeal to people who like more stable truth.

Comment author: Jiro 07 November 2014 04:09:21PM *  8 points [-]
  • The uncharismatic official might have gotten there because of connections or some similar factor that you can't just get yourself, even if you're as charismatic as him.
  • The uncharismatic official might seem more charismatic to typical people than to you.
  • It may be hard for someone else to take his place, because the advantages of incumbency overwhelms the disadvantage he has from not being charismatic.
  • Public officials must lie to get into office. STEM backgrounds are unlikely to be willing and/or able to lie efficiently.
  • Public officials must do other dishonest things to get into office (backroom deals, for instance), which again engineers might not do.
  • Public officials need to compromise between various groups' ideas. STEM people work with things where there is one right answer and the need to compromise is limited, so are not very good at this, especially when one of the sides you're compromising with is outright incorrect.
  • Democracy is about doing what your constituents want. A STEM person who wants something different than his constituents won't get elected. This is still true if the STEM person wants it because he is more educated or more rational--democracy is about doing what the people want, not about trying to be better than them.
Comment author: Punoxysm 07 November 2014 05:08:55PM *  7 points [-]

Public officials must lie to get into office. STEM backgrounds are unlikely to be willing and/or able to lie efficiently.

I'll have bug fixed by Friday

Also, STEM backgrounds are much more common in other countries. It's moderately quirky that so many US lawmakers are lawyers.

Comment author: sixes_and_sevens 07 November 2014 05:25:02PM 4 points [-]

It's moderately quirky that so many US lawmakers are lawyers.

This may be a feature of Anglosphere political systems. UK and Australian parliaments are very lawyer-heavy.

Comment author: chaosmage 07 November 2014 07:10:19PM *  9 points [-]

I'd suggest that maybe it is a feature of Common law legal systems, where laws are developed by judges and precedent plays a huge role. The US, UK and Australia are Common Law systems. Civil law, where legal principles are codified into a referable system which serves as the primary source of law, are a lot more easily understood and handled. So maybe the former system makes legal expertise both more challenging and more necessary for lawmaking.

If that hypothesis were true, other common law states (India, Canada, Israel) should tend to have more lawyers in office than civil law states (pretty much all other industrialized nations).

Comment author: polymathwannabe 09 November 2014 05:31:03AM 3 points [-]

Colombia is a civil law state, and our presidents have included poets, journalists, and more recently, economists.

Comment author: fortyeridania 07 November 2014 07:42:43PM 1 point [-]

STEM backgrounds are much more common in other countries.

A good example is the PRC, where a clear majority of top officials have scientific or engineering backgrounds.

Comment author: jkaufman 10 November 2014 02:00:27AM 1 point [-]

I recall reading that this was the result of PRC politicians picking up degrees because this helped them advance up the ladder? And that the degrees were mostly fake?

(Searching now I can't find anything on this, though.)

Comment author: fortyeridania 10 November 2014 06:42:28AM *  1 point [-]

Yes, that is a problem. I believe it applies especially to advanced degrees, as officials are typically well past college age before they have the kind of pull needed to get themselves a fake degree.

As an example of a high official who got a STEM degree while still young and mostly unknown, take former president Hu Jintao, who got an engineering degree in the 1960s. (Source alert: It's the People's Daily. I assume they are trustworthy on this particular issue.)

Comment author: Pfft 08 November 2014 09:24:52PM 1 point [-]

But they are not elected, are they? So I don't think that's a very good example for this discussion.

Comment author: fortyeridania 10 November 2014 06:37:22AM 0 points [-]

Whether they are elected: They are not elected in universal suffrage elections, though they are chosen through a voting mechanism.

Assuming they are not elected, whether it is a good example: The comment to which I was responding used the term "public official" not "elected official." Second, all of the bullet points apply to unelected officials too. In the last bullet point, the constituents would be senior officials.

Comment author: sixes_and_sevens 07 November 2014 04:56:20PM *  5 points [-]

I ask you to take me at my word that the elected official I'm referring to isn't simply less charismatic than me, (which is saying something), but less charismatic than a potato with a smile drawn on it. Also the "tool" characteristic is far more salient. Imagine the least appropriate human being you can think of for public office, who nonetheless owns a suit and talks in complete sentences. Envision that person as receiving a plurality of votes in an electoral district, and ask yourself why someone, anyone, wasn't in a position to stand in their place.

It doesn't seem obvious to me that STEM-folk are fundamentally different types of people to non-STEM folk with regard to things like dishonesty or compromise. It also doesn't seem obvious to me that someone with a chemistry degree would have political goals more out of alignment with a hypothetical constituency than someone with a business or law degree.

Comment author: ChristianKl 07 November 2014 10:16:25PM 5 points [-]

Envision that person as receiving a plurality of votes in an electoral district, and ask yourself why someone, anyone, wasn't in a position to stand in their place.

In that case the first step would be to research what kind of opponent they faced in the primary and general election. That might tell you more. Did they actually win against a good opponent for reasons outside of your knowledge?

Comment author: Jiro 07 November 2014 06:59:44PM 1 point [-]

It also doesn't seem obvious to me that someone with a chemistry degree would have political goals more out of alignment with a hypothetical constituency than someone with a business or law degree.

STEM-folk are less likely to be religious. They are less likely to believe in certain pseudoscientific ideas as well, some of which affect politics (consider the anti-vaccination movements). They are also more likely to be knowledgeable of certain issues related to science and technology (quick, how many STEM people do you know who support TPP?) and therefore to take a different position on them or emphasize them to a different degree.

Comment author: ChristianKl 07 November 2014 09:56:13PM 5 points [-]

I think there a case to be made for more people of this community to run for office.

On the other hand there things are often harder than they appear from the outside.

There is a secret undercurrent of heavily politically-active people on Less Wrong who don't discuss it because of prevailing mind-killer social norms

Or who participate on LW under a nickname and don't want their LW account to read by their political enemies when an election comes up. To the extend that might be the case there's nothing to be gained by outing individuals. Attendance lists of LW events also shouldn't be public to get such a hypothetical person into trouble.

Comment author: bogus 07 November 2014 10:50:39PM *  5 points [-]

Yup, people who are seriously politically active in online venues are disproportionately likely to be using nicknames, and this can only become more likely if they aim to actually run for office. This is one key reason why anonymity/pseudonymity is seen as an important free-speech issue. And sites like Facebook, which try to enforce the use of real names, are widely distrusted as places for some political discussions, for much the same reason.

(Of course all of this is very much context dependent. A Real Names policy will benefit other political contexts, which are less related to the roughness of deliberating and negotiating about political ideas, and more about things like expressing support for firmly established proposals by publicly taking a stand about them. You can see this very clearly with "Neoreaction" at its current stage - how many people would be willing to sign their name under a petition asking for a king to rule them, and for "shares" of the country to be distributed to a new aristocracy?)

Comment author: DanArmak 09 November 2014 07:49:39PM 4 points [-]

I've heard that atheists absolutely cannot be elected in the US, and people "like us" have a far higher proportion of atheists than the general US population.

Comment author: Emily 07 November 2014 04:48:17PM *  3 points [-]
  • Certain personality traits are correlated with enjoying or being perceived to be good at "us"-type (adopting the same use of "us" as you) activities and analysis, and anti-correlated with enjoying or being perceived to be good at politics-type activities and analysis? (This may just be a more general and less useful formulation of some of Jiro's suggestions.)
Comment author: peterward 12 November 2014 03:37:29AM 2 points [-]

It also takes no shortage of conceit to imagine one knows better than the majority or people. Lots of individuals flit between business and politics--GHW Bush is a major owner of a gold mine where I'm from.* But an honest person isn't going to go into politics, because they understand the fundamental lie doing so requires.

*'Fact, I'd wager the two are strongly correlated--though I'm not privy to correlation data you are.

Comment author: [deleted] 09 November 2014 12:27:23PM 1 point [-]

While all your reasons for STEM/rationalist types not to be in politics are very plausible reasons, I'm thinking I should become more politically active, alongside my fiancee. Anyone able to say what one should do in order to get into elected office?

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 09 November 2014 05:49:41PM *  3 points [-]

Become famous? I was once almost elected in municipal election, because I was a popular blogger. For greater fame, it helps to be a movie star, or other kind of a person that happens to be seen on TV.

In a country with multiple political parties, it helps to be there when the new party is born. If you read that someone started a new political party that sounds like something you would like, quickly go there, and socialize. They will be happy to have a new supporter, and you will become a member of the inner circle. And generally, be there where is a political debate, make connections, avoid making enemies (even on the opposing political side, because you never know when you may need them, and also being neutral-ish seems deeply wise), use people you know to know more people.

In other words, be a popular extravert, and then do some networking.

Comment author: [deleted] 10 November 2014 09:18:49AM 2 points [-]

be a popular extravert

Fuck! My greatest weakness!

Comment author: RichardKennaway 10 November 2014 01:22:06PM 2 points [-]

be a popular extravert

My greatest weakness!

Would finding a popular extravert you can get behind and getting to be a key member of their team be an alternative? Besides supporting them in a common cause, it would also be an opportunity to learn extraversion by example.

Comment author: sixes_and_sevens 10 November 2014 10:08:33AM 1 point [-]

I've had similar thoughts myself, (becoming more politically active, though not alongside your fiancée). Joining at least one political party seems like a good start.

Comment author: [deleted] 08 November 2014 08:14:38PM 1 point [-]

STEM backgrounds are anti-correlated with public office because:

  • voters are prejudiced against them

(probably that only applies in certain countries)

Comment author: passive_fist 08 November 2014 02:24:26AM *  1 point [-]

I'd argue that most successful politicians already are highly effective instrumental rationalists when it comes to getting elected and staying in office.

Comment author: sixes_and_sevens 08 November 2014 11:40:19AM 6 points [-]

If by "highly effective instrumental rationalists" you mean "good at winning", that's a very defensible position. That said, I'm not sure it makes sense to use the terminology that way unless you want to commit to Usain Bolt being a highly effective instrumental rationalist when it comes to the 100 metres.

(If you're reading this, Mr. Bolt, well done on your many successes.)

Comment author: RowanE 08 November 2014 02:53:34PM 0 points [-]

Well, I wouldn't be surprised if Usain Bolt's training regimen was very effectively optimised for his goals, although he probably delegates that to someone else who's highly instrumentally rational in that field.

Comment author: sixes_and_sevens 08 November 2014 03:02:06PM 2 points [-]

My point is that using "instrumentally rational in the field of x" in the sense of "does what it takes to win at x" doesn't really interact with the topic of this thread, which is about the wishy-washy demography of the Less Wrong community (i.e. "us").

I'm not casting doubt on Usain Bolt's methods, but I am casting doubt on the suggestion that those methods being "instrumentally rational" makes him likely to be reading this.

Comment author: RowanE 08 November 2014 05:16:35PM 0 points [-]

I didn't read passive_fist's comment as implying that the successful politicians are likely to read Less Wrong, but that a rationalist wouldn't be able to use their superior rationality to win an election - thus answering the question "why don't more people like us stand for public office?" with "we probably wouldn't win against typical politicians", which is how the comment is relevant.

Comment author: sixes_and_sevens 08 November 2014 06:05:48PM 3 points [-]

The question wasn't "why aren't more people like us in public office". That is a legitimate question, but it becomes irrelevant if it's true that such people don't even stand.

I used to think that "politicians" were some special type of people with arcane social powers the geek knoweth not. More and more, I'm starting to think they're just the people who turn up for things. Ms. Edwards, to her enormous credit, turned up for something and got elected. Why don't more of us do that?

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 09 November 2014 11:35:57AM *  6 points [-]

I'm thinking if there are some non-traditional ways an elected politician could create a lot of utility.

What exactly are the "super powers" of the elected politician? What can they do better than before? The ability to have 1 vote in 400 is the obvious answer, but there is certainly more, both formal and informal. Maybe you actually have a very little formal power, but I'd guess that many people will overestimate it. If many people suddenly start taking you much more seriously than before, how can you use that? (I am thinking about speaking with those people personally, because if you publish something in the media, your opponents will say the opposite thing, and the public discussion will go somewhere different than you originally wanted.)

Maybe I am naive here, but I think that calling someone and saying "I am a state representative, and I believe you have the power to improve this country, can I have a talk with you?" will instantly get attention of most people. But how to use it properly? (Also, those people will probably expect you to have unlimited power and money, and their further thinking may get totally focused on that idea.) One power you have is to make people feel important, if you e.g. promise to mention them on your blog. Or, if people are willing to talk with you, you could use this to connect people you believe should cooperate, by inviting them to the same debate.

Okay, maybe these are not the brightest ideas, but the general idea is to think about opportunities other than voting.

Comment author: Lumifer 10 November 2014 03:18:23AM 5 points [-]

Maybe I am naive here, but I think that calling someone and saying "I am a state representative, and I believe you have the power to improve this country, can I have a talk with you?" will instantly get attention of most people.

Are you familiar with the expression "I'm from the government and I'm here to help" and its connotations?

Comment author: michaelkeenan 09 November 2014 06:04:28PM 1 point [-]

Maybe one could influence malfunctioning government-run services to behave better. If some DMV office or post office is notoriously slow or broken, one could send a letter with official letterhead saying that your constituents are complaining and you'd like to speak to the manager to find out what the problem is. Then actually find out what the problem is, have them work out a plan to solve it, and report back to you on their progress. If necessary, mention that there's currently a big push in the Senate to cut back for poorly-performing services.

Comment author: ChristianKl 11 November 2014 01:57:35PM 1 point [-]

The job of a person elected to a parliament is to produce new laws and public policy. It's not to simply vote on laws proposed by other people.

The general idea when contacting people should be: "I'm a member of parliament X and I'm writing a law on subject Y. I want to hear from experts on Y to have an informed idea of the subject. I think you are on of the important experts on Y, can I talk to you for you to explain to me your perspective on Y and your ideas of how Y should be legislated?"

When voting on subjects on which you don't have expertise you want to vote with other people in return to them voting for laws you sponsor.

Comment author: DeterminateJacobian 07 November 2014 12:58:42PM 5 points [-]

They don't call it systematized losing, now do they?

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 07 November 2014 07:58:06AM 22 points [-]

Rationalists should win election. Yay! :D

Comment author: Minds_Eye 13 November 2014 07:58:43PM *  2 points [-]

Applause lights, really? :(

While I do agree, you need to be careful with super happy thingies. (They often aren't.)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 07 November 2014 03:28:56PM 11 points [-]

Here's what I posted on her blog--

I regret that I don’t live in New Hampshire. You’re exactly my kind of libertarian– I focus on harm reduction, too.

What I’ve seen go wrong with libertarian and libertarian-flavored public officials is that they don’t focus on harm reduction. Instead, they start by cutting useful public services. You’ve got principles which keep you from making that mistake.

It’s going to be interesting. I don’t think a lot of libertarians or rationalists know much about the specifics of government. (I don’t either, I’ve merely picked up the idea that there are a lot of specifics.)

Comment author: DanielLC 07 November 2014 04:29:45AM *  9 points [-]

She also posted on the Facebook LessWrong group asking for a mentor.

Comment author: tgb 07 November 2014 03:17:38AM 8 points [-]

Pretty cool! Also note that the NH House of Representatives is a massive body of 400 representatives, which is somewhat absurd considering how small NH is. Now we'll have to see if she can bring anything new to a land already full of unusual politics.

Comment author: Jiro 07 November 2014 03:56:43PM 7 points [-]

When you go to that link, you can see that the total number of votes in the election is 365. New Hampshire's districts aren't that big.

Comment author: AlexMennen 07 November 2014 09:04:22PM *  10 points [-]

That was just the Democratic primary. It doesn't give the vote totals for the general election, but apparently there were 5,364 votes in the general election in the same district in 2012 (oddly close to the total population of the district, which should be about 6,600, since it says there are 3,291 residents per representative, and it's a two-representative district).

Edit: Oh, I think I see what's going on. People can probably vote for two candidates, so the number of voters would be about half the number of votes (or a bit more, if some people only vote for one).

Comment author: Error 07 November 2014 01:44:40PM 4 points [-]

Hrm. On the one hand, politics is the mind-killer and so I think I am obligated to be skeptical.

On the other hand...this is pretty cool. Hi, Elizabeth, if you're watching.

Comment author: shminux 07 November 2014 03:12:04AM 2 points [-]

Pretty impressive. It remains to see if she will be able to use rationality as winning.