Politics for Software Engineers, Part 3

Please don't make me vote on everything

This is part 3 in a series titled "Politics for Software Engineers." Subscribe now so you don't miss future installments. Catch up by reading part 1 and part 2.

By far the most popular opinion of tech people is that there isn't enough voting. Or not enough communication between elected leaders and the people. This is wrong.

Maybe it's the culture of open source and Linus's law that "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." But solutions to technical problems from people vested in the provable correctness of their contributions do not map cleanly to the political arena. As I said in part 1 of Politics for Software Engineers: "it doesn't matter if you are right, it only matters if you have influence."

Voting on everything

Tomas Pueyo gained fame with his essay on the Covid-19 pandemic, "The Hammer and the Dance." Arguably, he set the direction of myriad public health departments around the world, but there's no arguing he affected how most of us thought about lockdown. He was not a public health expert or epidemiologist, but his analysis and advice may have saved a large number of lives. I really want to emphasize that this kind of citizen journalism can do really good things, and it doesn't need to come from a domain expert. Any smart person, like Tomas obviously is, can understand a problem and offer a good solution.

But Tomas is completely wrong about Democracy. Give this thread a read, or settle for my tl;dr: Tomas argues for direct democracy via a GitHub style legislative system where contributors are ranked by reputation.

Note: Sorry, Tomas, to pick on a year-old thread, but this essay has been kicking around in my drafts since your original tweet, so I hope you forgive me.

This appeal to more participation is extremely common among political hobbyists. Surely if no voting is bad and a little voting is generally good, then lots of voting must be way better! This is absolutely untrue. I don't think Tomas actually understands the problems with democracy, and is instead working with an idealized version of it. I don’t want you to interpret this as a slight against Tomas, but rather to show that even very smart and highly technical people poorly understand politics and the problems that politics solves.

His proposal for ranking contributors by “reputation” is just a roundabout and overly technical way to say that people who do things other people like will tend to accumulate power. That’s literally how politics works already. At best, he's advocating for a new, poorly scoped technical system with unknown vulnerabilities and failure modes. At worst, he's advocating for contributions to be fully captured by charismatic populists. In neither situation has he meaningfully improved democracy.

Governing is a full-time job

If you're going to seriously pitch the idea that we should devolve legislative authority to The People, first I want you to tell me about a single bill that your local government has passed in the last five years. Just one. Tell me what the legislators said it would do, tell me if you read the bill, and tell me what it actually does. What about at the state level? Can you even tell me how many bills they considered and voted on? What about Congress?

You can't, because keeping track of legislation is quite literally a full time job that we elect people to do.

Busy people who have jobs and friends and like to have fun do not want to follow every bill that moves through the government. They don't want to think about them. They certainly don't want to have to vote on them. But you know who does? The retired old NIMBY who shows up every week to the hearings. And, boy, does she have opinions.

This is kind of a taboo thing to say: the problems in SF are because we have too much input from regular people. It is already comically easy to communicate with the government. A solution that says people “just need to get in touch with their elected officials" ignores the reality of our current situation.

Direct democracy is anti-democratic

There's a woman in San Francisco with a surprising amount of power: Georgia Schuttish. She is single-handedly responsible for tens-to-hundreds of millions of dollars of fines levied against regular people who tried to do a little more to their homes than they got permission from the SF Planning Department for. She has solidified this power steadily over more than a decade.

But Georgia has never won an election, never ran for office, and I guarantee you've never heard of her. So how did she gain so much power and influence? Simple: Georgia has been showing up to the Planning Commission hearings at 1pm, every Thursday, for a decade. What were you doing? Working? Hahaha, what a chump!

Georgia Schuttish breaks into construction sites and takes pictures of the construction going on. Then she looks up the permits that were approved for that location and spends hours figuring out what totally minor thing the builder has done wrong. Then she writes up a report, sends it to Planning and the Department of Building Inspection (DBI), and shows up at Planning Commission to present her findings. More often than not, the Planning Commission then orders the Planning Department and DBI to investigate, levy a fine, and often halt construction.

Oh yeah, she also shows up frequently at the Board of Appeals. Did you even know these hearings existed?

San Francisco's uniquely participatory democracy means that your political obligations don't start and stop on election day. No, they recur every day in hundreds of small hearing rooms in City Hall that no reasonable (or employed) person would ever have the chance to attend or influence. Instead, retired people like Georgia, with her backwards-looking tattletale NIMBYism, control everything — and Georgia is only one of several dozen!

This is what direct democracy looks like, and if your theories on government and democratic reform don't account for people like her, then you are guaranteed to fail.

Return to representative democracy

San Francisco must end its failed experiment in direct democracy and return to representative democracy. Direct democracy is too easily captured by special interests and busybody NIMBYs, while representative democracy can actually represent the voice of the average person.

I want to redirect your energy from making government more participatory to making government more representative. Rather than write software tools to make it easier for people to stay in contact with their elected leaders, make software that helps people get better educated about elections. Make software that helps people quickly learn about an issue. Make software that summarizes legislation. Make software that reveals who controls what.

I have been working on a tool to document the network of power in San Francisco (one of the projects listed on my GitHub sponsors page). It requires a lot of manual effort to collect past endorsements, digitize old political mailers, and build the influence and endorsement graph. It should be ready to open source in a month or two, at which point I'd love your PRs.

Don't squander your energy on solutions that will make our problems worse. Spend some time understanding the problem space first. Go to a local political club meeting and talk to people. Understand your audience, understand why your city has problems. Only then should you write tools to fix democracy.