This is an article about voting. But, before I get to that, first let's discuss sinister body modifications.
Imagine a device has been installed in your body which causes back pain. You have a dial that turns from 1 to 500 that controls how much pain you receive. Each incremental move on the dial is imperceptible to you. You wouldn't notice if the dial went from 1 to 2, or from 2 to 3; the amount of pain that represents is simply too small. However, if the dial were turned from 1 to 3, or maybe 1 to 4 or 5, you would notice.
The dial starts at 1, and every day you have the option to turn it up 1 notch. In return for doing so, you will receive $10,000. If you don't turn it up, you receive nothing. Throughout the day you can turn it up and down to experiment and see what you're getting yourself in to, but at the end of the day, you have to decide whether to go to the next level of pain. Once you have decided to turn the dial up and received a payment, you can never go back down.
You play with the dial the first day, confirm that you can't tell the difference between 1 and 2, you even have a friend control the dial, going back and forth between 1 and 2, so you don't know when it's on which number, just to confirm that you can't tell the difference. You also play around with the higher settings, finding that 300 hurts quite a bit, and as soon as you hit 400 you turn it back down to 1 because damn, that was terrible. You don't even want to imagine what 500 feels like.
So, what do you do?
The rational answer is to turn the knob up once, take your $10,000 and never turn it up again.
But, a few months pass, you begin thinking about what you could buy with another $10,000, and you play around with the knob. You try out going from 2 to 3, and since again, you can't really tell the difference between the two, you decide to crank it up to 3 and take your pay out, vowing never to go to 4, because you recall that you could tell the difference between 1 and 4.
We make a lot of stupid promises to ourselves though. Every time we wake up with a hangover, we swear to never drink again. ...And then we drink again. At some point you'll want another $10,000, and you'll turn the knob to 4, then 5, and up and up, until you've got a pretty decent stack of money, and physical pain that will never go away for the rest of your life.
If we were to give the dial just two options, 1 and 100, and offer you $1 million to turn the dial up that high, you might not do it. $1 million is a lot of money, but 100 is an amount of pain that for most people wouldn't make it worthwhile. Yet, by giving you the incremental options, you'll probably be up to 100 within a decade.
Skeptics will contend that no, they are different. They would turn it up to 2 or 3 to pay off some immediate debts, and then never touch the dial again. Maybe some people would behave that way, but not all.
There is an experiment done in business and economics classes that's a modification of an auction. Yes, this is still an article about voting, but hold on.
In a regular auction, people place incrementally higher bids, until no one is willing to pay more than the current offering. Then, bidding stops, and the highest bidder wins the prize, paying the amount he bid (or, increasingly common, he'll pay what the second highest bidder bid, but that's beside the point). In this experiment, the prize is $100 cash, an odd prize for an auction. But, the real trick in the auction is that the two highest bidders must both pay, while only the highest takes home the prize. The second highest bidder pays and gets nothing.
So, what happens in these classes? Someone bids $1. Who wouldn't pay $1 to get $100? That's a $99 profit for doing nothing. Naturally, the person sitting next to the first bidder thinks that while a $99 profit would have been nice, a $98 profit is still good, and he bids $2. If bidding were to stop now, the second bidder would take home $98, while the first bidder would lose $1. But, it won't stop there. The first bidder does some quick math, concludes that gaining $97 is better than losing $1, and thus bids $3. Second bidder does the same thing, knows that gaining $96 is better than losing $2, and bids $4. Up and up it goes, until something interesting happens.
First bidder bids $99, which would net only a $1 prize. Second bidder, who had previously bid $98, will now bid $100. Bidding $100 to get $100, because coming up even is better than losing the $98 of his previous bid. First bidder now bids $101, more than the value of the prize. After all, a $1 loss is better than a $99 loss. Second bidder gets the same idea, and bids $102, preferring a $2 loss to a $100 loss. And so it goes.
In the real world experiments, classes of really smart people, trained in fields that let them understand the perils of the system, will routinely go over $100, sometimes hundreds of dollars over.
At each incremental stage it makes sense to bid just $1 more, the same as it always made sense to turn the dial up 1 degree to get your $10,000. But, if we were to ask you if you'd pay $200 for $100, you'd say no. Research shows that in the right set of circumstances, you actually will pay $200 for $100 though.
The auction experiment is limited to the classroom (unless someone wants to design the most insidious online auction system ever), and the pain dial is merely a thought experiment. But, this type of set up, where each incremental move is rational, but the aggregate of the moves is irrational, that happens all the time.
It's called voting.
You think both politicians are rotten, but you vote for the lesser of two evils. You've been raised to think that is the responsible thing to do, you're voting your immediate interests. Don't vote for the third party candidate you actually like, that would be throwing your vote away. The Tea Party, which hated rank and file Republicans for supporting the bank bailouts and TARP, and dubbed many of them RINOs, "Republicans in Name Only," will still vote for any Republican Presidential candidate over Obama, despite thinking that the candidate isn't a true conservative. The supporters of Occupy Wall Street, many of whom are aware that Obama takes more Wall Street money than any other politician, will likely support him in 2012, believing the Republican candidate to be even worse.
Based on their own political ideologies, the Tea Party and Occupiers will be making rational decisions, voting their immediate interests. In the long run though, they end up in a terrible situation, a two party system that completely shuts out the candidates they'd actually prefer, and leaves them with two terrible options.
It happens all the time in politics. We saw it in the debt ceiling debacle. Just raise it a little bit, that won't really make the problem noticeably worse, right? Bring home a little bit of pork to your district, and we'll let everyone else get a little bit of a pork too, that could never grow out of control. Maybe hire a few more military contractors; that will increase employment and it certainly won't break the bank, and hey, it's not like we're ever going to grow up to the point of the Department of Defense employing, either directly or through contracts and subcontracts, a whopping 6.1 million people making the industry so large that scaling it back would result in politically unviable unemployment rates.
The next time you consider walking in to the polls and voting for the lesser of two evils, think back to the last time you ordered fast food fries or opened a bag of chips. Each incremental fry or chip isn't really bad for you. What's just one got? Probably single digit calories. You burned more than that walking in to Micky D's, standing in line, standing around waiting after ordering, and walking back out again. No big deal, eat your fries, stand on your bathroom scale, and then rethink voting for the lesser of two evils.