Category Archives: Politics

Segregation, Gerrymandering, and Schelling’s Model

[This note is more about modeling some of the mathematics behind political events than politics themselves. And there are pretty pictures.]

Gerrymandering has become a recurring topic in the news. The Supreme Court of the US, as well as more state courts and supreme courts, is hearing multiple cases on partisan gerrymandering (all beginning with a case in Wisconsin).

Intuitively, it is clear that gerrymandering is bad. It allows politicians to choose their voters, instead of the other way around. And it allows the majority party to quash minority voices.

But how can one identify a gerrymandered map? To quote Justice Kennedy in his Concurrence the 2004 Supreme Court case Vieth v. Jubelirer:

When presented with a claim of injury from partisan gerrymandering, courts confront two obstacles. First is the lack of comprehensive and neutral principles for drawing electoral boundaries. No substantive definition of fairness in districting seems to command general assent. Second is the absence of rules to limit and confine judicial intervention. With uncertain limits, intervening courts–even when proceeding with best intentions–would risk assuming political, not legal, responsibility for a process that often produces ill will and distrust.

Later, he adds to the first obstacle, saying:

The object of districting is to establish “fair and effective representation for all citizens.” Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 565—568 (1964). At first it might seem that courts could determine, by the exercise of their own judgment, whether political classifications are related to this object or instead burden representational rights. The lack, however, of any agreed upon model of fair and effective representation makes this analysis difficult to pursue.

From Justice Kennedy’s Concurrence emerges a theme — a “workable standard” of identifying gerrymandering would open up the possibility of limiting partisan gerrymandering through the courts. Indeed, at the core of the Wisconsin gerrymandering case is a proposed “workable standard”, based around the efficiency gap.


Thomas Schelling and Segregation

In 1971, American economist Thomas Schelling (who later won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2005) published Dynamic Models of Segregation (Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 1971, Vol 1, pp 143–186). He sought to understand why racial segregation in the United States seems so difficult to combat.

He introduced a simple model of segregation suggesting that even if each individual person doesn’t mind living with others of a different race, they might still choose to segregate themselves through mild preferences. As each individual makes these choices, overall segregation increases.

I write this post because I wondered what happens if we adapt Schelling’s model to instead model a state and its district voting map. In place of racial segregation, I consider political segregation. Supposing the district voting map does not change, I wondered how the efficiency gap will change over time as people further segregate themselves.

It seemed intuitive to me that political segregation (where people who had the same political beliefs stayed largely together and separated from those with different political beliefs) might correspond to more egregious cases of gerrymandering. But to my surprise, I was (mostly) wrong.

Let’s set up and see the model.


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The Hawaiian Missile Crisis

I read an article from Doug Criss on CNN yesterday with the title “Hawaii’s governor couldn’t correct the false missile alert sooner because he forgot his Twitter password.”1 It turns out that Governor Ige knew within two minutes that the alert was a false alarm, but (in the words of the article) “he couldn’t hop on Twitter and tell everybody — because he didn’t know his password.”

There are a couple of different ways to take this story. The most common response I have seen is to blame the employee who accidentally triggered the alarm, and to forgive the Governor his error because who could have guessed that something like this would happen? The second most common response I see is a certain shock that the key mouthpiece of the Governor in this situation is apparently Twitter.

There is some merit to both of these lines of thought. Considering them in turn: it is pretty unfortunate that some employee triggered a state of hysteria by pressing an incorrect button (or something to that effect). We always hope that people with great responsibilities act with extreme caution (like thermonuclear war).

How about a nice game of global thermonuclear war?

So certainly some blame should be placed on the employee.

As for Twitter, I wonder whether or not a sarcasm filter has been watered down between the Governor’s initial remarks and my reading it in Doug’s article for CNN. It seems likely to me that this comment is meant more as commentary on the status of Twitter as the President’s preferred 2 medium of communicating with the People. It certainly seems unlikely to me that the Governor would both frequently use Twitter for important public messages and forget his Twitter credentials. Perhaps this is code for “I couldn’t get in touch with the person who manages my Twitter account” (because that person was hiding in a bunker?), but that’s not actually important. (more…)

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We begin bombing Korea in five minutes: Parallels to Reagan in 1984

On a day when President and Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump tweets belligerent messages aimed at North Korea, I ask: “Have we seen anything like this ever before?” In fact, we have. Let’s review a tale from Reagan.

August 11, 1984: President Reagan is preparing for his weekly NPR radio address. The opening line of his address was to be

My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you that today I signed legislation that will allow student religious groups to begin enjoying a right they’ve too long been denied — the freedom to meet in public high schools during nonschool hours, just as other student groups are allowed to do.1

During the sound check, President Reagan joked

My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.

This was met with mild chuckles from the audio technicians, and it wasn’t broadcast intentionally. But it was leaked, and reached the Russians shortly thereafter.

They were not amused.

The Soviet army was placed on alert once they heard what Reagan joked during the sound check. They dropped their alert later, presumably when the bombing didn’t begin. Over the next week, this gaffe drew a lot of attention. Here is NBC Tom Brokaw addressing “the joke heard round the world”

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an article containing some of the Soviet responses five days later, on 16 August 1984.2 Similar articles ran in most major US newspapers that week, including the New York Times (which apparently retyped or OCR’d these statements, and these are now available on their site).

The major Russian papers Pravda and Izvestia, as well as the Soviet News Agency TASS, all decried the President’s remarks. Of particular note are two paragraphs from TASS. The first is reminiscent of many responses on Twitter today,

Tass is authorized to state that the Soviet Union deplores the U.S. President’s invective, unprecedentedly hostile toward the U.S.S.R. and dangerous to the cause of peace.

The second is a bit chilling, especially with modern context,

This conduct is incompatible with the high responsibility borne by leaders of states, particularly nuclear powers, for the destinies of their own peoples and for the destinies of mankind.

In 1984, an accidental microphone gaffe on behalf of the President led to public outcry both foreign and domestic; Soviet news outlets jumped on the opportunity to include additional propaganda3. It is easy to confuse some of Donald Trump’s deliberate actions today with others’ mistakes. I hope that he knows what he is doing.

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