– February 4, 2020
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It’s not certain that by the time this article is published there will be any more clarity than there is at present (Tuesday morning) regarding the outcome of the Iowa Democratic Caucus. 

What we know right now is that it started with an app for reporting caucus results to the party headquarters. And that in the lead-up to yesterday’s caucus, there were growing reports among the higher-ups that the app had problems: there was trouble downloading it, trouble logging in once it was downloaded, and then problems with it working. But it only had problems if you were able to download it. And then, only if you were able to log into it. 

And so, in a not-unwise decision, the Polk County, Iowa, Democratic Party Chairman decided late last week to sideline the new technology; precincts were instructed to undertake the decidedly more simple (and assumedly more reliable) procedure of calling in polling results, supported by screenshots. And what happened next – although facts are still being fleshed out – is a bundle of confusion. 

The Rub

Some precincts reported their results without a hitch. Others found phone lines completely jammed. Still some amongst the local polling officials using the app were less experienced than others in using apps, probably owing to their age. Others called to report results and, owing to either the general atmosphere or chaos or technical malfunction, got nowhere. 

More information came out as the much-awaited final totals were delayed: not all of the people running the polling centers had been trained on the app. An initial report from the Democratic Party headquarters indicated that “quality control” measures accounted for the delay, and then, just before 10:30pm, that “inconsistencies” had been discovered. Meanwhile, many of the polling centers were reporting that they had sent in their results hours earlier without a hitch. 

A phone call between the campaigns and the state parties at just after 11pm added to the mayhem: by one account it quickly descended into acrimony and resulted in the state officials hanging up on the candidates. Not long thereafter the Biden camp reported hearing that, contrary to the statements of the state headquarters, “acute failures” in accurately accounting for votes were occurring systematically throughout Iowa. At about the same time, the Sanders camp reported that according to their internal, proprietary calculations they had garnered some 40% of Iowa precincts. 

The app failed. The back-up phone reporting system failed. Attempts to call in results ran into busy signals lasting for hours. And when some of those did get through, they were inaudible. And with that first cascade of failures came a second round of delays and problems: should polling centers that couldn’t get through jammed up phone lines attempt to use the app again, or would they double report? Should results be emailed through possibly unencrypted channels? 

And now, it’s a problem for resolution in accord with the best practices of the ‘20s. Not 2020, but 1820: paper ballots. And while paper ballots may, ironically, prove the most robust, fault-resistant method of voting, a look back at the events in Florida in 2000 points to the unique flaws associated with less technological approaches to polling. 

As of 1pm Eastern Standard Time, seventeen hours later, there are still no results. 

Simple Processes Hiding Enormous Complexity

It didn’t take long for observers to note that a party which, in perception or fact, has taken a sharp turn left was thwarted by simple counting. Most of the far left candidates in the Democratic Primary (and all of them, to some extent or another, are parroting those points to remain relevant) are busy promoting ambitious schemes to solve America’s ills, real or imagined, and this case study in how things that seem simple are always vastly more complex seems fitting. 

Of course, this is not only about counting. It’s not even about counting and adding. 

The core issue is akin to spotting icebergs; indeed, many fields include that analogy in their basic canon. The world abounds with apparently simple processes that quickly spiral out of control owing to vast, hidden complexities. The task of aggregating information is, or seems, simple; that is the low, smooth profile of the iceberg peeking out from the water. 

Even with extremely simple information – in this case, a handful of candidates and the number of votes they receive, plus two other data points (those latter points in response to questions about the 2016 caucus process) – the organizational, technological, and even social contexts within which the process of assessing and disseminating it take place comprise the disproportionately large, jagged, and most of all unseen influences which quickly come into play. 

What seems like the straightforward tabulation and reporting of an almost entirely mechanical process suddenly gives rise to feedback loops, and a handful of simple (probably too simple) contingency plans compounds the errors and confusion. Ultimately a vicious skirmish among the Democratic Party and the polling centers (to save face), the candidates (to spin outcomes), and outside parties (mine, included) over the narrative gives rise to further delays, conspiracy theories, preparation for (or actual) litigation, and scrambling in other, upcoming contests.  

Planned Chaos

There is a healthy dose of Hayek embedded here. In the first-ever Presidential election where two openly, indeed avowedly socialist candidates are polling strongly, watching the first Democratic caucus descend into utter chaos is as timely and succinct a dissertation illustrating what people “imagine they can design” as could be hoped for. 

Or as Ludwig von Mises would have said, this is a classic case of “planned chaos.”

Their campaign promises urge Americans to think big: not in terms of their locality, county, or state (and certainly not individually), but at the very least in terms of the nation. And where it comes to issues of the climate, they are told to embrace regional and global initiatives. Trillions of dollars, massive bureaucratic agencies, sweeping change: we are told to look to The New Deal, World War II, and the Space Race as proof of our ability to tackle massive problems. But the present world – its problems, conflict, and debt –  is as much a product of those putative solutions as it is an outcome, and with a decidedly pernicious blind spot. We cannot see what might have been, however opportunistically political figures assure us that they have always skilfully navigated the optimal course. 

Does anyone actually believe that “planning,” “organizing,” or “running” an economy would be any less complex in ways both seen and unseen than counting and reporting a few hundred or thousand votes would be? If so, how and why – based upon what? These are the questions I wish all candidates – and the sitting President, to boot – would be asked, and the ones I’m sure they won’t be. 

Peter C. Earle

Peter C. Earle

Peter C. Earle is an economist and writer who joined AIER in 2018 and prior to that spent over 20 years as a trader and analyst in global financial markets on Wall Street. His research focuses on financial markets, monetary issues, and economic history. He has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, NPR, and in numerous other publications. Pete holds an MA in Applied Economics from American University, an MBA (Finance), and a BS in Engineering from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Follow him on Twitter.

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