The Simple Formula for Success

2020. A new year has arrived. A year with a zero on the end, so you know it’s important. Time to make some resolutions that count.

That means strategy. Political strategy, mainly, but the ideas herein can be used elsewhere. The insight I am about to reveal is simple, yet many activists fail to heed it. Indeed, some very famous political gurus have come up with elaborate mental constructs to prevent their followers from heeding what should be an obvious insight. Many a failure and quite a few outright disasters were the result.

Ignore those gurus! Heed the formula!

To plan, to strategize, is to determine which actions to take, and which not to take. You cannot do everything! The Simple Formula for Success is a rough rule for evaluating potential actions.

In English: Take the value, if successful, of an action, multiply by the probability of success, and then subtract the cost of action. The result is the net expected value of taking that action. If the net expected value is zero, DON’T DO IT!


Applying this simple formula won’t guarantee success in your endeavors. Estimating the probability of success and cost can be hard. And you might not even have the ability to pay the cost for bigger projects no matter how motivated. Probability of Success and Cost are coupled.

But failing to apply this formula is a near guarantee of many failures, including costly unnecessary failures.

When I was young and brash, I had the time for many failures. Now that I’m past the half century mark I have to be more small-c conservative. It’s time to apply lessons learned to the Formula. It’s time to win a few.

This is going to be at least a three part meditation. In Part 1, I shall review my career in the Libertarian Party (and why I left) in the light of this formula. In Part 2, I shall explore why people act irrationally in regard to strategy, especially when it comes to politics. Some of this irrationality is baked into our genes, and for good reason(!) In Part 3, I’ll look at ways to stay more rational in the face of uncertainty and positive feedback. I may give out some of my plans in this part, or save them for a future post. (TBD)

Back to the Formula. Figuring out what not to do is just a start. Resources are limited. So we need to ask which actions are the most promising, which have the most bang per buck. To do that, simply divide by the cost:

Now we have a formula for the Return on Effort, the Bang per Buck as it were. But do note that Cost in these formulae means more than just dollars spent. Cost also includes time, energy expended, and unpleasant experiences endured.

Once upon a time, joining the Libertarian Party was a rational act for me according to this formula. Back when I was younger and brasher, I was a full on anarchist. “Taxation is theft! War is murder! Conscription is slavery!…” Slashing or eliminating government was very, very important to me. Vs was thus very high.

Ps was more than infinitesimal as well. The Libertarian Party was growing quite fast during the 1970s, and party outreach materials trumpeted this fact. (Ed Crane did understand this formula!) As for cost, the cost of action was small compared to a future career living under burdensome taxation, regulation, and assorted violations of liberty.

So I joined. And I bugged everyone I could to join also. I could be quite obnoxious at the time.

And unsuccessful.

Let’s dig deeper into the formula to find out why I was so unsuccessful.

Two Different Probabilities

In political activism there are several metrics of success. I focus here on the final two:

  1. Successfully got your policy enacted.
  2. Your policy worked as desired.


In college I was often calling for outright anarcho-capitalism. Most of my audience questioned the workability of my proposals. To eliminate government would indeed do away with the IRS, burdensome regulations, and a host of other injustices done by government. But what would happen next? Would we get an orderly market of private protection services? Or would we get ruled by gangs, warlords? Would protection services merge into monopoly government in all but name? Would we end up being conquered by a foreign power or suffer a civil war?

Even accepting liberty — reduction in the initiation of force — as the highest political value, the radical libertarian agenda I espoused was questionable. And because most people questioned the viability of my proposals, the probability of their implementation was reduced as well. The variables couple.

Eventually, wometime during my grad school days, I accepted the “grim” reality of Pw. I dialed down my pitch for less government to those cuts that were not terrifying.

I even contemplated the need for a new, more realistic, libertarian party. But the party appeared to be growing up as well. LP News began downplaying the Zero Aggression Principle in favor of the Nolan Chart definition of the word “libertarian.” They appeared to be widening the tent. The Advocates for Self Government taught persuasion courses, selling a softer vision of liberty. So I stayed in.

Later, I got truly active in the party, and then pushed for doing a better job of broadening the tent. Quiz2D was born: a tool to better detect moderate libertarians. I was looking to increase both Pi and Pw.

But it wasn’t enough.

Differences in Values

Politics is a group effort. When the system is democratic, we are talking very big groups, majorities even.

Not everyone shares my extreme distaste for red tape, mass incarceration, etc. They may share some of this distaste, but they hold other values more dear, and government at times serves those values.

So, starting in 2003, I diluted my libertarian extremism yet further: Holistic Politics was born. Here, I point out where increased liberty is compatible with other values such as helping the poor, Christian morality, preserving the environment, etc.

My ideas started getting traction…outside the Libertarian Party.

I also became more comfortable with my own positions. Much more compatible with my religion and my value set I held before I got the anarchist bug from reading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in high school.

Within the party, pushback grew. After a few years and an attempt to take over the LP convention in 2006, I realized that changing the Libertarian Party to reflect my current political agenda is next to impossible, for reasons I will go into in the next part of this series.

Indeed, for over a decade I have been pretty much out of the game save for my web sites and some chatter on social media. Family and finance have taken precedence.

But with the political climate growing uglier by the month, the urge to get back into the game grows.

Summary and What’s Next

The formula presented here isn’t earthshaking. You probably apply it subconsciously, just as I did from time to time in the story above.

But note how long it took me to come to a rational conclusion: over two decades.

The reason?

I turned off my rationality on this subject most of the time.

And I am not alone. This is par for the course in politics, especially fringe politics.

To attain audacious goals it can help to suspend rationality! The Simple Formula for Success can be very demotivating. History and great fortunes are often made by those who suspend prudence.

But the history books (and airplane books) fail to properly count the number of failures spawned by suspending rationality.

In Part 2 of this series I’ll show why people ofttimes fail to heed this Simple Formula, and the mind games used to suspend rationality.

In Part 3 I’ll explore ways to retain rationality without being paralyzed by uncertainty.

Stay tuned.

The System is Rigged — So Change the System!

The U.S. election system is rigged against third parties. With Plurality Voting most third party candidates suffer the Lesser of Two Evils Dilemma. I have found a couple of loopholes. (Read the book!) But there may be an easier solution: change the system.

That’s right: easier!

Changing the Constitution is hard, so I’m not suggesting that we can easily fix Presidential elections. But states and localities have control of elections further down the ticket, and history shows that states and localities are open alternative voting systems.

Furthermore, election reform is a transpartisan issue. Here, libertarians, progressives, greens, good government types, conspiracy theorists, mainstream media, etc. can work together.

In fact, there is momentum happening right now — for the wrong reform. Maine has enacted a Ranked Choice method (specifically Instant Runoff) for future elections.

I could tell you in great depth why I think Ranked Choice is the wrong reform, but I won’t (for now). Instead, I wish to show you. Over at my older quiz2d site, I have created poll for the 2020 Presidential primaries using multiple voting systems: Plurality, Approval, Range, Ranked Choice, and Range with Runoff. Give it a try yourself. Notice the complexity of Ranked Choice: both for filling in the ballot and for viewing the results.

In the future I will post deeper arguments. For now let reality do the talking. Take the poll and encourage others to do the same.

An Easy Plan of Action

The time for lobbying is not yet. To change the system we need more people to understand the problems with Plurality and to fully understand the alternatives. My online poll is a start.

A good next phase is to encourage people to try alternatives in smaller groups: social clubs, fraternities, sororities, church groups, school clubs, corporate boards, etc.

To some degree we already use Range Voting in these situations. A voice vote is a Range vote. Loudness is a measure of passion. Not just head count.

Perhaps the simplest reform would be to replace Robert’s Complicated and Easily Gameable Rules of “Order” with Approval Voting when people want to amend a motion. One way to kill or pervert a motion is to quickly offer an amendment. Debate can run longer on the amendment than the motion itself. This happens frequently at Libertarian Party conventions.

One particularly dirty trick is to offer an amendment to make the main motion worse in hopes of killing it. We have some bad laws on the books from times when this dirty trick backfired.

Approval Voting makes it possible to debate and vote on multiple versions of a motion in parallel. Just have a vote on all the versions, allowing people to vote Yea on as many versions as they approve of. The version with the most Yeas wins. (Or Nay wins if none of the versions get a majority.)

If this is not good enough, Range Voting would be the next step. This works well in a small group, like a committee even without electronic tallying. I first experienced Range Voting when I was on the Libertarian Party’s Strategic Planning Team. It worked well. This says a lot, since the LP leadership is nearly as good at gaming parliamentary rules as the U.S. Senate.

For a bigger group, electronic counting would be the next step. If I had the time and/or the money to pay some developers, I’d write a web/phone app that clubs could use for electronic voting at conventions and other largish meetings. Better yet would be a free software project so clubs could own their databases. (A shared service concentrates power. Mmmmmmmm, power…)

When enough people have seen the benefits of better voting systems in practice, taking it up to the government level will be fairly easy.

Hacked by Russians

Longtime readers might notice that the theme has changed — and is kind of boring.

The reason? Russians hacked my web sites! I feel Hillary’s pain.

So, I wiped the WordPress directories clean and installed the latest from scratch. Hopefully, this will work.

Maybe I will get a fancier theme in the future, but for now I am working on a big new project on my Quiz2D site. Stay tuned!

Why I Haven’t Posted in a While

I has been a while since I have written a blog post. Even my Facebook feed related to this site has been largely neglected. Here’s why:

The big hurricane this fall brought extra moisture through my leaking asbestos roof, and the leaking window frames in the room upstairs which shares a wall with my office. Notice the mold on the left.

This chunk of my office ceiling was dripping water.
A chunk of plaster removed from my office wall to get at the mold.
Underneath this plastic is my computer table for my Windows machine, where I do most of my writing. A bit inconvenient.
Kind of hard to get to my books as well, what with all the plastic.
Getting roofers is a challenge when there are hundreds of roofs blown off at the beach. And when they did get to work, it was rather noisy. Quite distracting.

Meanwhile, in the room I moved my computers into, there were dank smells. What’s this? The previous owner had heaped dirt against the foundation, covering the vent holes. Landscapers are next on the list…

Well, I am finally back in my office. The ceiling is repaired and painted. Rain stays on the outside of the house. Both of my computer tables are available, etc. (I still need to do something about the landscaping.)

In the meantime, my ISP made updates. I had to change email clients do to encryption. (I miss Pocomail!) If you sent me an email and I never returned it, try again. I lost track of some conversations while moving to Thunderbird.

Also, please let me know of any bugs on the web site proper. My ISP also updated PHP, which broke the political quiz on my other site. (Just fixed it today.)

Now that the weather is getting nice and things are settling down a bit, I might just do some writing. On what, remains to be determined. (I put a poll on the Facebook discussion group, for those who want to have some say in the matter.)

Free Liberal or Eco-Conservative?

Free Liberal or Eco-Conservative? That is the question.

The Democrats are descending into socialism. The Republicans are flirting with fascism. Congress has become a dysfunctional food fight. These are dangerous times for civility and democracy. We need an alternative and fast.

Some of my longtime friends say we need to revive the original meaning of Liberal. Recently, a member of the Holistic Politics discussion group suggested a Free Liberal Party. The idea has merit; I bought the domain years ago for this possibility. I have a book fermenting in the back of my brain on the subject of mixing classical liberal economics with reducing inequality.

On the other hand, there are quite a few Never Trumpers in the Republican Establishment. They are politically homeless, but still powerful and knowledgeable on the inner workings of government. They need new allies in order to regain real power. Trump and the ghost of the Reform Party took away their blue collar allies.

A conservative version of the Green Party might work. Once upon a time the Republican Party was the part for environmentalists. Recall Theodore Roosevelt. Think of the old conservation societies that conserved nature for hunting purposes. Think of country clubs, long the biggest users of electric vehicles. An Eco Conservative alliance is very natural.

And without such an alliance, conservatives may become an endangered species. The political Right has depended on the old folks vote, on people who will be dead before global warming become a real problem. The younger generations have reason to be concerned about the future, whether we are talking carbon dioxide buildup or chronic fiscal deficits.

So, Which Should it Be?

Though I bought the domain years ago, and once helped distribute a free newspaper called The Free Liberal, I grow leery of the Liberal brand. I have learned the hard way that words have very sticky connotations. While the truly educated and those from across The Pond know the original meaning of Liberal, for the masses, the word connotes Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, an alphabet soup of government programs, and agonizing quantities of bureaucratic paperwork. And for egalitarians in the potential target market, the word is said with a snarl, with the prefix “neo.”

I think an Upper Left coalition would do better with a different name. I have one in mind that is a bit ugly, but has clear connotations.

Of course Eco-Conservative is also problematic. Conservatives don’t like Eco- and cool young people instinctively flinch at “Conservative.” So I wouldn’t use this name either — except as a generic placeholder. (I have a much better name in mind, but haven’t bought the domains yet.)

Which Coalition?

The better question is: Which coalition?

Historically, I had pleasant experiences pitching the freedom-equality alliance idea. During my Asheville days I spent many a pleasant hour quaffing beers with progressives who considered the Clintons to be right wingers. I have written articles for lefty sites like Oped News with decent responses. The aforementioned Free Liberal was well received in the lefty coffee shops we distributed it to.

But those where the days when the far Left was against Hate and into Consciousness and yoga. Today, the far Left is into actively hating “Hate,” and they study Modern Indignation Studies instead of advanced anger management. The mavens in the movement see the danger of a liberalitarian alliance and are responding viciously with a wide assortment of strawman attacks and name calling worthy of The Donald.

I have become less hopeful on the prospect of building a new Upper Left coalition.

But I could be wrong. Maybe the Democrats are due for a split. Maybe a Never Bernie faction will walk out as the Cultural Marxists take over their party. Being a heterosexual white male Democrat is becoming as awkward as being a black Republican. I could envision the remainder of the New Democrats (people like Bill Clinton and Al Gore) walking out and joining a new coalition if the identity politics faction gets yet more traction.

Then again, I could see Al Gore joining an Eco-Conservative alliance. He was rather conservative back in the day.

The ugliness I see coming from the Left today is what I used to get from many conservatives. Upon hearing certain libertarian positions, I got variations of “You just want to smoke weed” or “You toke, therefore you are stupid.”

Today, many conservatives are much cooler with the idea of drug legalization. And now it is the Right, including the Christian Right, that is on the defensive and is thus in favor of freedom of speech and association. The environmental bits are a harder sell.

But I suspect much of the global warming denial on the Right is more teamism than natural inclination. Let the oil companies and the anti-intellectuals keep the Republican Party, there many tens of millions of people from the original Republican base who are ripe for an Eco-Conservative message, with a bit of reasonable libertarianism mixed in. leaning.

Go back almost century, and recall the demographics and sense of life of the Republicans of the day. The Republicans were the blue bloods, the mainline Protestants, the prosperous city dwellers, the preservationists, the classical music listeners — the sort of people who watch PBS and listen to NPR today. They were also the party of the well educated, not the party of science denial.

They were also the anti racist party. The first nonwhite in the presidential succession was a Republican (Charles Curtis, Vice President under Hoover).

They were also the party of peace back in the 20s. Recall the Kellogg Briand Pact.

That Grand Old Party is long gone. Today’s Republican Party is a mix of Know-Nothings and Southern Democrats.

There is plenty to build on besides the Never Trumpers. Many in the original Republican base left long before The Donald came on the scene.

Admitting my Personal Biases

When I was on vacation a week ago, I weighed the tradeoffs between Upper Left and Eco Conservative while listening to the waves. I got lots of plusses and minuses when contemplating Upper Left. I got nearly all plusses when weighing the possibility of an Eco Conservative alliance.

But I was factoring in personal factors as well as overall viability.

  • My first exposure to libertarian ideas was the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. C.S. Lewis was a free will Christian, an ethical hedonist, and deeply appreciated nature as God created it.
  • I am a Christian. There is an anti-Christian vibe in the Libertarian Party that I expect would carry over to a party based on any variant of the word Liberal, or even themed on equality.
  • I am a cis gendered white male who pegs out the WASP meter. Some of my ancestors arrived in Virginia in the early 1600s. My great great grandfather was a friend of Robert E. Lee. In the taxonomies of today’s lefty identity politics, I am an a priori supervillain.
  • I am a nerd with a sense of humor. Odds of getting into trouble with today’s egalitarians is 100%, even when I am trying to help.
  • I am a father, a homeschooler, a scientist, and a consumer of organic foods when available. I am very much a member of the Eco-Conservative target market.
  • While I frequently curse what government regulations have done to automobiles and appliances, I also love tinkering with eco-technology.

So yes, my personal biases affect my inclination.

Which is why I’d like to hear from others. Which alliance do you consider more viable? More useful?  Please comment below or on the Facebook discussion board.