What Is Wrong With The Supermajority

Nobody that Wonks Anonymous knows is particularly pleased with the recent budget passed by our legislatures here in California.
Which observation may simply be dismissed by readers outside of the state as a testimony to the proverbial extremism of Californians and our general detachment from reality.

Which may be so, however before we blame the constitutions of individual Californians, we may need to look carefully at the Constitution of the State of California. This being a document that dooms the majority to discontent.

The problem lies in the provisions that require a super majority, 2/3 of the legislature, to pass any budget or tax measures.

Wonks Anonymous hopes the reader will bear with him as he indulges in a graph or two - honestly he can quit any time that he wants.

Voters have preferences and democracy is a system for aggregating these preferences and coming up with collective decisions.

In some cases preferences are complex and hard to aggregate - public art etc. Preferences regarding the state budget are fairly simply and clear. We can represent them as a linear continuum without doing too much dishonor to reality: Above all people have strong feelings about the amount of national income that is at the disposal of the private sector and the amount of national income that is at the disposal of the public sector.

Which can be shown in the following graph:

The horizontal axis is the share of income in private hands - in Republican parlance how much of "your money" you get to keep. The vertical axis is a normal probability density function - the approximate share of voters who would prefer to see a particular outcome. For all of the gory details on this see here.

On the extreme left we see Tom Ammiano, Matt Gonzalez and the typical Berkeley voter who want to retain only 30% of their income - for food rent and pot - and would be pleased to see the state of California spend the rest on public services and public works. At the right we see the extreme libertarian who fervently prays every morning for the withering away of the state.

Under majority rule parties compete for votes in the middle. They need 50% of the votes plus one to pass their program so they try to make these programs as attractive as possible to the voters in the middle because: There are more of them as shown by the height of the density function and they just need to sway that additional, median, voter to get a majority and pass the budget.

Which leaves the far left and far right pretty angry because, on the left, we have not learned the lessons of Cuba, while on the right, we still have a functioning government. Because voters are packed most densely in the boring middle the program arrived at is not too far from the wishes of most voters and everyone is pretty happy.

Except here in California we need a 2/3 majority to pass anything except tax cuts which gives us a picture that looks like this:

In order to pass any proposal we need the votes of people whose preferences are at or about the rightmost third of the electorate because they are the swing voters. Not the people who want no government but those who would like to be able to drown it in the bathtub if they felt like it. If we do not please them we do not have a budget and the state stops, which result is not considered desirable by the middle of the road or the left.

So we hold our noses and come up with a package that pleases these swing voters who do not happen to be at the densest part of the distribution of voters. While majority rule gives us an outcome that is fairly close to the vast middle of the population, a supermajority insures that the outcome is distant both from the loony left and the solid middle.  Which is a solution that only Abel Maldonado seems to really like.


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