Articles by Roger McCain
Jul. 24, 2015
Could clearinghouse be the future of college selection?
I was visiting an excellent liberal arts college in a scenic location and my host, while showing me the athletic facilities, said, “We price it out as a luxury resort and throw in the education for free.” I’m sure it was a joke. Well, pretty sure.
Jun. 5, 2015
This year’s most conservative goes to…
In my undergraduate game theory course, I have a unit on game theory applied to voting. The main topic is strategic voting — that is, voting for one’s second or third choice rather than the first, to prevent an even worse result. This term, since the Democrats are pretty boring, I asked my students to rank 14 Republican candidates. Since some might not consider voting for any Republican, and some are not citizens, I did not ask for their preferences as to who should win, but their judgment as to which is the most conservative, the second-most, and so on. I asked that at least the top five be evaluated. Twenty students responded. Most ranked the minimum five, several ranked all 14 and one left several out but made a point of ranking Chris Christie last. So who is most conservative? Well, it depends somewhat on how you count the votes. First, plurality rule — whoever gets the most first-place rankings wins. By that count, Rand Paul wins with five votes. This is a well-known fact about plurality or first-past-the-post voting: a minority who are united on one alternative can prevail over a majority who oppose that alternative but are not united on an alternative. Thus, in the recent British election, the Conservatives won a majority in Parliament with only about 37 percent of the popular vote. Pennsylvania also has plurality rule, for the most part. In some other states, if no candidate gets a majority, there is a “run-off” election with only the top two vote-getters in this second round. Since Ted Cruz came in second with four first-place votes, the runoff would have been between Cruz and Paul. Paul would have won, 10 to six (My announcement in class was based on a hasty miscount of the Cruz vote, but I believe all my errors are corrected). In the 1700s, the Marquis de Condorcet proposed that a candidate who could beat all other candidates in two-way races should be the winner. Not all elections have a candidate who can do this, but Nobel Laureate Eric Maskin has much more recently proposed a two-stage process that would select the “Condorcet candidate” at the first round if there is one. So, do we have a Condorcet candidate in this ranking? Yes. Jeb Bush. Why does Bush defeat Paul, Cruz and the other contenders? Because Bush is listed second or third on many rankings, and on the rankings of students who chose quite differently at the first choice. This also suggests that Bush could do well if there were strategic voting. Another way to count second and lower preferences is the “single transferable vote.” This is a multi-stage count, and at each stage the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and those who voted for him have their vote transferred to the next lower choice on their preference rankings. This is done in some elections in Australia and several other countries, and in some California cities including San Francisco. (Thanks to a student for this information.) There is a complication since it is a little unclear how to handle ties, and while ties are uncommon in real elections, in this ranking of 14 alternatives by 20 voters, ties for last place were common. It seems pretty clear, though, that Jeb Bush is the one candidate that would survive all eliminations, regardless how ties are handled. Thus, in this case, the single transferable vote yields the Condorcet candidate — but we know that would not always be true. In the 1700s, the Chevalier de Borda was a rival of Condorcet, and he proposed a different way of using second and lower choices: give a certain number of points to each candidate for each first place ranking, one less point for a second-place vote, and so on down to nothing for a last-place vote (a spreadsheet helps). Applying the Borda count, we get — Jeb Bush! Mitt Romney, Paul and Cruz follow in that order, but are very tightly grouped about 20 points behind Bush. Carly Fiorina beats out Christie for last place. What does this tell us about the coming election season? Maybe not much — my students probably are not representative of the voters in Republican primaries, since they are smarter but also younger and several are from other countries so perhaps less well informed. Passing over that, though, to the extent that their perception of conservatism is representative, and if the Republicans choose the most “conservative” candidate, it looks good for Jeb Bush. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz may do very well while the field is large, but are likely to be eliminated as it narrows. In the single transferable vote enumeration, they remain in the field until it is down to four. Strategic voting might push this elimination faster. Romney should probably stay in the race; like Bush, he has high ranks — although few for first place. If Bush should stumble, Romney would probably move into his place. But, having been nominated before, he may not want to be Plan B. Santorum, despite having “come in second” four years ago, never breaks into the top five on any count.
Feb. 13, 2015
A pedestrian’s plea to bikers
I took a vacation trip to scenic Northeast Ohio last summer. No, really! There are some nice places around Cleveland! One is Cuyahoga Valley National Park, where the reconstructed towpath of the Ohio and Erie Canal is a great spot for walking, biking and wildlife observation. But that’s a troublesome mix.
Oct. 24, 2014
Differences in freedom and liberty
The anarchist poet Herbert Read said that English is a particularly flexible language because it has borrowed so extensively from other languages. His example was that in English it is easy to distinguish between freedom (German “Freiheit”) and liberty (French liberte).
Sep. 26, 2014
States should be judged on prosperity, being peaceful
Scotland has voted to remain part of Great Britain. That’s good, in my opinion. Yes, I have some Scottish heritage — but my ancestors were Hebridean, from the Kingdom of the Isles, and Edinburgh has been no more a friend to the Hebrides than London has. But that’s beside the point.
Aug. 8, 2014
Tom Picketty could stand to learn a little from Marx
Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” has been much discussed and criticized in the last few months. Piketty argues that increasing inequality of wealth is the normal result of capitalism, that the first half of the 20th century, with its wars and revolutions, was not normal, but that the restored normal conditions of the latter half of the 20th century have returned inequality roughly to the level it reached in the 1800s.
Jul. 24, 2014
Picking on Tom Piketty
French economist Thomas Piketty’s recent book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” has been more discussed than any work in economics since those of John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman. Piketty argues that under normal capitalist conditions, the distribution of wealth is highly unequal and grows more unequal. It’s pretty simple arithmetic: the average rate of return on capital is greater than the growth rate of the economy, so individual fortunes grow faster than the economy itself.
Jul. 11, 2014
Health care and monopsony
The reason for this is not just politics as usual. If public provision of services is popular, but tax cuts are also popular, we might expect cynical politicians to vote for both, resulting in insufficient money to provide the services. And while that probably does happen, there is a nastier problem. It is economics as usual, not politics as usual. It has to do with what we hotshot economists call “monopsony” and “the elasticity of supply.”
Feb. 27, 2014
Wine shortage fears are unsubstantiated
My colleagues Anne Duchene and Marco Airaudo were recently interviewed about the surging demand for wine on the part of the rising middle class in China and other emerging countries, and they predicted that demand growth will outstrip production. They reasoned that land suitable for wine grapes is limited in supply (drawing on economic ideas from the Classical Political economists Malthus and Ricardo), so the quantity supplied can only be increased at rising cost. The idea is that increasing production of wine would have to take place on land that is less suitable for wine production, with higher costs and perhaps decreasing quality as the result. But I think they may have underestimated the power of modern agriculture to increase supply, and overlooked some important facts about the market for wine.
Nov. 13, 2013
Economists are to blame for Obamacare woes
Because Mitt Romney pioneered health care reform and the Obama administration supported the federal legislation that established it, maybe we should call it Robamacare. It’s been having problems, and not just with the website. Blame those on computer scientists. You can blame economists for the price fluctuations and unexpected cancellation of policies.