I wasn’t born to be a blogger. I can’t respond to events in real-time. When history happens, I might or might not be there to react. To give one example: I still don’t have any update to share about the Australian models. (Hopefully soon.)
To give another example: last week Al Gore — the most famous American politician to think in complete sentences since Abraham Lincoln — won the Nobel Peace Prize, and where was I? At a workshop in Germany, wondering how it could be that if UNSAT many-one reduces to a set of subexponential density then NP is in coNP/poly. (More on that another time.)
So, Al Gore. Look, I don’t think it reflects any credit on him to have joined such distinguished pacifists as Henry Kissinger and Yasser Arafat. I think it reflects credit on the prize itself. This is one of the most inspired choices a Nobel Peace Prize committee ever made, even though ironically it has nothing directly to do with peace.
With the release of An Inconvenient Truth and The Assault on Reason, it’s become increasingly apparent that Gore is the tragic hero of our age: a Lisa among Cletuses, a Jeffersonian rationalist in the age of Coulter and O’Reilly. If I haven’t said so more often on this blog, it’s simply because the mention of Gore brings up such painful memories for me.
In the weeks leading up to the 2000 US election, I could almost feel the multiverse splitting into two branches of roughly equal amplitude that would never again interact. In both branches, our civilization would continue racing into an abyss, the difference being that in one branch we’d be tapping the brakes while in the other we’d be slamming the accelerator. I knew that the election would come down to Florida and one or two other swing states, that the margin in those states would be razor-thin (of course no one could’ve predicted how thin), and that, in contrast to every other election I’d lived through, in this one every horseshoe and butterfly would make a difference. I knew that if Bush got in, I’d carry a burden of guilt the rest of my life for not having done more to prevent it.
The question was, what could a 19-year-old grad student at Berkeley do with that knowledge? How could I round up tens of thousands of extra Gore votes, and thereby seize what might be my only chance in life to change the course of history? I quickly ruled out trying to convince Bush voters, assuming them beyond persuasion. (I later found out I was wrong, when I met people who’d voted for Bush in 2000 but said they now regretted their decision. To me, it was as if they’d just noticed the blueness of the sky.)
And thus my attention shifted to the Right’s #1 friend and ally throughout history: the Far Left. All over Berkeley I was seeing Ralph Nader placards. At the lunch table, I even heard the strange argument that if Nader caused Bush to win, it would ultimately be for the best, since it would finally force everyone to see how bad things were: an update of the old Marxist doctrine of “heightening the contradictions.” (I wondered: if Nader supporters truly believed that, then why didn’t they just forget about Nader and vote for Bush outright?)
Yet it seemed to me that most Nader supporters were still sane enough that, conditioned on Nader losing (i.e. conditioned on 2+2=4), they would prefer Gore over Bush. The problem was this: how to convince Nader supporters in swing states of something that, were they convincable, they would’ve been convinced of already? That’s when I read about an idea due to law professor Jamin Raskin, called “Nadertrading.” The idea was simple: Nader supporters in swing states (like Florida and Pennsylvania) would vote for Gore, having arranged for a Gore supporter in a “safe” state (like New York or Texas) to vote for Nader on their behalf, thereby helping Nader get the 5% he’d need to qualify for federal funds in 2004. Two separate irrationalities of the US election system — (1) the Electoral College, and (2) the lack of something like Approval Voting to handle three or more candidates — would be played against each other.
Almost as soon as Raskin published his idea, websites arranging the swaps were set up and were being used. Nadertrading clearly appealed to a nontrivial fraction of Nader supporters, possibly even enough to tip the scales of fate. Yet in magazine articles and message boards, I repeatedly saw fallacious arguments against the idea: for example, that Bush supporters could game the system; that you shouldn’t agree to a vote swap if you think there’s any nonzero chance of the other person reneging; that trading a vote has the same moral status as selling it.
So I set up a little web page called In Defense of Nadertrading, to make the moral and game-theoretic case for Raskin’s idea. The next morning, I was surprised to find myself an “expert” on the topic: getting Slashdotted, deluged with email, woken up by a call from CNN, etc. I also got a fair amount of hate mail, some of which I posted on the site and ridiculed: good experience for my blogging career.
The Nadertrading movement took a hit when, in a few states, the sites arranging the vote swaps (which didn’t include mine) were shut down by state attorneys-general (all of whom happened to be Republicans), over the protests of civil libertarians. But sites hosted in other states remained up and running.
In the end, though, the Nadertrading movement simply failed to reach enough of its target audience. The websites put up by me and others apparently induced at least 1,400 Nader supporters in Florida to vote for Gore — but 97,000 Floridians still voted for Nader. And as we know, Bush ended up “winning” the state by 537 votes.
After the hanging-chad circus and Gore’s withdrawal, I tried to bury myself in quantum complexity classes and worry as little as possible about the future of civilization. My main news sources became The Daily Show and The Onion. Yet much as I’ve wanted to forget, for seven years I’ve carried certain questions on my conscience like a sack of stones:
Why does the US have a failed oilman for president rather than the Churchill of climate change? Why was the president vacationing in Texas when bin Laden’s plans to strike the US came up in a daily briefing? Why are we stuck in Iraq?
There are, of course, many correct answers to these questions, but there’s one correct answer I keep coming back to: because I didn’t make a good enough website. Because my prose wasn’t tight enough and my jokes weren’t funny enough. Because I spent too much time procrastinating when I should’ve been pounding away at my keyboard.