The Value of Intermediate Milestones

This is the third article in a series on the Simple Formula for Success. See Part 1 and Part 2.

Politics is a long slog. Ditto for many other useful endeavors, from building a business, getting an education, to getting in shape. The next step often has no intrinsic value by itself.

And thus flame wars, cat pics, and casino gambling all compete successfully for our attentions over more useful projects.

In creative politics just what is the value of convert won, a petition drive finished, or an ad campaign launched? None of these milestones by themselves change the laws and regulations of the land at all.

Let’s try breaking the Simple Formula for Success into pieces, to apply it to a multi step project which does have intrinsic value when completed. To keep the algebra manageable, we’ll make a a two step project. (This is more general than it looks if we think of the first step being our next step, and the second being all the remaining steps lumped together.)

The estimated costs simply add together:

The probability of success is the product of the probabilities of success for the two steps.

Now suppose we have completed the first step. We now know the expected value of completing the second step:

Let’s subtract off the expected value of our project before completing Step 1 to see how much things have improved:

By completing Step 1 we still have no intrinsic benefit yet, but we do have a better opportunity ahead of us. Our opportunity has gained value for two reasons:

  1. The probability of success has gone up, since P1 is now 1.0.
  2. The estimated cost has gone down by the amount we estimated for Step 1.

The new opportunity is definitely better than the old one. But we had to expend time/energy/money to get there. Are we better off? If so, by how much?

Suppose Step 1 is a deterministic step, such as filing for office. And suppose everything went according to plan so that the actual cost for Step 1 matches our original estimate.

By finishing up Step 1 we have a new opportunity whose expected value is better by exactly the same amount that we expended to get there. If we value the opportunity by its net expected value when done, we are not better off. Our gain is exactly equal to what we spent to get there.


Back to the drawing board! Value of an opportunity is not the same as the value when finished. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch!

The Value of an Opportunity

Suppose you were given a $10 coupon. And that coupon was for a store that you shop at frequently: your usual grocery store, Amazon, Walmart… Such a coupon would be virtually as valuable as $10 in cash.

But suppose that coupon was “Buy $10 of merchandise and get another $10 worth for free.” The coupon would be almost worth $10, but not quite.

Let’s go further: “Buy $100 of merchandise and get another $10 worth for free.” Now the coupon is getting noticeably less convenient than the equivalent cash. But it is still a valuable coupon.

Another factor of ten: “Buy $1000 worth of merchandise and get $10 more for free.” For me, such a coupon from Food Lion would be utterly worthless. I might be able to use it on Amazon with great effort, but even there I would not value the coupon nearly as much as $10 in cash.

Back to Politics

The net expected value of a project function much like the nominal value of such a coupon above. The buying requirement functions like the remaining expected cost.

Bang/buck needs to be part of the function for valuing an opportunity, but exactly what function is still beyond me.

Let’s put some numbers into a somewhat realistic political scenario to make it easier to visualize. A small city council race has an expected remaining cost of $10,000 (of time, money, unpleasantness,…). The expected net value of the project is $20,000. That is, if you (plural) expect to be $20,000 better off after the race if you slog on to the end. The overall bang/buck ratio is 2.0.

Your next step has an estimated cost of $1000 and a 90% chance of success.

You succeed, but it turned out the effort was a harder than expected. You expended $1500 of timemoney. Are you better or worse off? Should you continue?

Well, our original first term in the Simple Formula was $30,000 of expected value, since we expected a net improvement of $20,000. Our expected cost drops by our original estimate for Step 1, not by what we actually spent. So our expected net value for continuing becomes:

The net expected value has gone up by over $4,000. Not too bad for spending $1,500 of effort, even though we had a cost overrun.

Our windfall comes from the reduction in uncertainty. Take note!

The bang/buck ratio has improved as well. It’s now 2.7. If your group is not burned out, do continue!

Even though I still don’t have a decent formula for valuing intermediate stages, there are some lessons here.

Do the Uncertain Steps First

Suppose you have some choice over which steps to do first. The lesson above teaches that you should do the most uncertain steps first whenever possible. Bonus points for those steps that are both cheap and uncertain.


For starters if you fail early you can quit before sinking too much costs. (Software startup gurus talk of Failing Fast.)

Secondly, the expected value function goes up nicely as the uncertain stages are crossed. This provides motivation to continue after the initial energy has been used up.

NOTE: here I mean uncertain steps of a project, not do uncertain projects first!!

Use Your Hardcore Activists for the Early Stages

When the going is uncertain, your borderline activists will sit on the sidelines. Deal with it. Don’t try to hype them into action with wishful thinking.

Use your hardcore activists, you true believers, to prove an uncertain strategy. If the results are good, then send out the screaming fundraising/recruitment letters to activate your dormant followers.

Pro tip: be honest with your hardcore base when pitching an uncertain project. Prepare them for possible failure. Complement them for being willing to take a risk. Don’t work too hard to motivate at this stage. If the mo isn’t there when the prospects are deeply uncertain, don’t do it.

(Case study: look up the history of the Free State Project. The original plan was to verify that enough people would move to the Free State before asking anyone to do so. Jason Sorens intended the project to shut down since they did not meet the original deadline. But the project refused to die and eventually they met the required 20,000 people commitment and 4,400 people have moved.)

Some Steps are General

Some early steps are prerequisites for many possible projects. For example, when you successfully educate people on the virtue of your programme, you increase the pool of volunteers, donors, petition signers, and voters – for a wide variety of projects.

This includes the project of starting a political party. There is much to be said for doing some kind of education effort first. There are cheaper ways to spread ideas and build mailing lists than direct politics.

Think Small

Are there projects that are intrinsically worthwhile that you can complete using existing resources? Do them! Even if the victories aren’t glorious, it is good have some actual victories.

Winning is a good habit.

Keep the Early Costs Low

But since so much power has been moved to the state and federal level, you do need to think big to have a real impact. That means long slogs, with many steps before policies get changed.

Since there is no political return until the endgame, keep the early net costs as low as possible. Don’t burn out.

Political activism can be a way to make friends, useful contacts, and build social skills. It can even be fun at times.

Postpone the annoying overhead tasks as long as possible.

Have fun.

Woo Woo and Political Cults — the Simple Formula for Success Part 2

In Part 1 I presented a very simple strategic planning formula to compare possible courses of action. (Some might say simplistic formula, and they would be correct, but I’m trying to keep the math friendly.) I then applied the formula retroactively to my own political career as an illustration.

There is a major problem with this formula: it doesn’t really apply to the individual steps needed to carry out any meaningful political action.

Just what is the value of a clipboard of petition signatures? Or even ballot access? Of a congressional campaign that gets 3% of the vote? Or getting a candidate into a televised debates? Or even for winning a legislative office?


That is, there is no intrinsic value in these accomplishments by themselves. There is no payoff in politics until you positively affect a law or a regulation. (Unless you are corrupt…) But to get to the point of actually affecting how the government actions requires hundreds of steps, many of which are costly and uncertain.

Politics is a long slog.

This makes motivation difficult. Too much rational strategic planning can make the problem worse! The return on effort on the myriad small steps needed to achieve big goals can be vanishingly small until the endgame is reached. And the math needed to even attempt to calculate the value of the early stages is apt to frighten off your followers.

Why Woo Woo Sells

The problem is not limited to politics. Launching a successful business, getting in shape, mastering a complicated subject, and other long slogs all suffer from this problem. What is the value of the next step?

In all cases the value is minuscule and conditional. One healthy meal won’t make you healthy. One problem solved won’t make you a master of physics. One lesson won’t make you a decent pianist.

This is why we have a woo woo industry. This is why stores have bookshelves filled with books on how to suspend rationality: Positive Thinking, Affirmations, Visualization, Habits, Self Hypnosis, Ready Fire Aim…

This is also why we have colleges. Many subjects can be mastered by simply reading books and working some problems. Classroom time could be replaced by watching online videos. But people spend huge amounts on college regardless, and part of the reason is valid: college create artificial near term returns on effort. That single homework set won’t make you an engineer by itself, but it will avoid a bad grade and a stern look from Professor Crusty.

Irrationality works!

Our Built in Irrationality

Is Man a rational animal? Psychology says no! We are equipped with a host of cognitive biases. It’s enough to make one question both Natural Selection and Intelligent Design.

Except, as I just pointed out, irrationality works. Let’s examine a view biases in light of this insight.

The Planning Fallacy leads people to make wildly optimistic schedules and cost estimates. This leads to gigantic cost overruns, projects which don’t pay for themselves, and worse.

But it also allows us to embark upon audacious goals, where uncertainty is great. This can be useful at times.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy leads people to persist on a project long after evidence shows that the project should be abandoned. Once again, this is a source of wasted effort.

But it also motivates people to persist on long projects where the marginal value of each step is tiny, but the eventual benefits can be huge.

Herd Mentality. Staying motivated when you have control of all decisions can be hard enough. They problem magnifies hugely when multiple people need to be motivated. Motivation affects the probability of success, after all.

Assorted herd mentality biases can come to the rescue. Persist because others are doing their share. Go to a rally and get psyched up. Follow the charismatic leader.

It works!

It can also lead to disaster, like lemmings marching over a cliff.

The Power and Danger of Political Cults

For large groups especially, motivation and morale effect probability of success. We have wild nonlinearity. It can take mass quantities of woo woo, cognitive biases, and herd mentality to hold a political movement together long enough to get something done.

Irrationality is power!

Such magical thinking can also lead to repeated defeats, wasted efforts, and/or outright disaster.

In my case it led me to sticking with a non viable course of action for over two decades.

Let’s take a look at a couple of political cults in the light of the Simple Formula for Success: the Karl Marx’s version of socialism and Murray Rothbard’s version of libertarianism. We’ll look at how the irrational elements of both movements affect the various terms in the Formula.

First, review the Formula:


The Cult of Karl Marx

Karl Marx can be hard to read. His ideas are based heavily on the crazy ideas of Hegel and some long discredited components of classical economics — the Labor Theory of Value, especially. When tried, his ideas have usually led to mass starvation, reigns of terror, and cults of personality that would make a Pharaoh envious.

Yet his cult persists, and it is growing among the younger generation in the U.S.


Let’s look at some components of Marxism and how they relate to the equation terms above.

A magically beautiful utopian vision. Marx promised to do away with inequality, poverty, and even government — paradise on Earth! He cranked Vs up to eleven!

Historical inevitability. Through the authority of hard to read pseudoscience, Marx claimed inevitable victory. True Believers can thus estimate Pi to be 1.0. The only uncertainty is when.

Defer all science. Marx claimed to have developed scientific socialism. Yet his theories are by design untestable until after worldwide implementation. This protects Pw from dangerous questions. It also provides built in excuses for the enormous failures of Marxist states to date. The experiments weren’t big enough! The capitalist U.S. made the Soviet experiment fail!

Go full on negative. Marx focused the bulk of his writings on the shortcomings of Capitalism. Exactly what the Dictatorship of the Proletariat was supposed to do was kept intentionally vague. I have spent many an hour arguing with Marxists and they always dodged and weaved when I try to get them to define true Marxism. Always they move the subject to picking apart either my ideas or the status quo. The closest thing I could get to an answer was “Read this book…” Such dodging protects Pw from even theoretical examination.

Dismiss all objections as bourgeois. Only capitalist pigs object to a bit of totalitarianism and mass murder on the way to Paradise. So much for the cost term (C).

Marx’s followers added a few innovations to strengthen the cult.

Forget democracy, build a revolutionary cadre. Convincing an electoral majority to adopt radical ideas is hard. So start a violent revolution instead! Build a cadre of fanatics willing to do whatever it takes. Insert them into society’s true power centers. Why wait for the Proletariat to revolt? “We” can force the issue. Near term Pi is thus boosted.

Kill the doubters and dissidents. Nothing like a good reign of terror to boost herd mentality in your favor.

Deconstruct and deny objective reality. “Everything is Illusion, Consensus Reality, blah, blah, blah..Therefore your arguments are wrong, or excuses for Patriarchy, or whatnot.” Welcome to the Marxist rot that has ruined the value of a liberal arts education. Turn young minds into mush and you can brainwash at will.

The Murray Rothbard Cult

The libertarian movement is composed of multiple factions: leftover classical liberals, isolationist conservatives who tolerate hippies, hippies who like capitalism, Objectivists, radical capitalists who believe that Public Choice theory shows that anarchism can work better than democracy, and the cult of Murray Rothbard.

Here I focus on the cultish elements of Rothbard’s writings, and how they prevent many Libertarian activists from thinking rationally when it comes to electoral strategy.

Rothbard’s writings are not as cult inducing as Marx. His writings are a mix of cult induction and often legitimate economics. Unlike Marx, Rothbard’s writings are readable; his prose sparkles at times. Unlike Marx, Rothbard presented a clear vision for his not-quite-utopian future. There is something there to pick apart, and detractors do.

But the cultish elements of Rothbard’s writings are powerful for those of us who love liberty. I was caught up in his spell for about a decade. Like Marx, he encouraged an Us/Them mindset, and he erected shields against scientific scrutiny of his theories and political strategies.

Rothbard went negative…a lot. At times he promoted his ideas in the positive and gave legitimate critiques of the alternatives. But such writings were also peppered with hand waving and ad hominem attacks. This tradition persists at the Mises Institute. (Rothbard was Ludwig von Mises’ student.)

Rothbard avoided experimental testing of his ideas. He argued that economics should be a priori theorizing, much like Euclidean geometry. To question this approach or his axioms of human action is to be guilty of SCIENTISM!! (I have been on the receiving end of such venom.)

All critics of pure libertarianism are thieves and worse. Taxation is theft, therefore if you advocate taxation you are a thief. With such a framing in mind, it is thus easy to dismiss critics of pure libertarianism.

Rothbard ruled out realistic electoral politics. Which is worse: slavery or the income tax? According to Rothbard’s axiomatic economics there is no way to tell! All we know is that initiating force is bad, and that there is a social welfare maximum if all force initiation is eliminated. The only moral system is complete and immediate anarcho capitalism. Anyone who argues for incremental measures is just as bad as the socialists.

The Libertarian Party persists despite a half century of electoral failure. The persistence, and possibly the failure, stem in large part from the cultish aspects of Rothbard’s writings. (I cannot know without experiment whether a more moderate Libertarian Party could have won elections. I can safely say that the extremism demanded by the Rothbard School repels the typical voter.)

Motivation without the Woo Woo?

Irrationality works…except when it doesn’t.

And those failures can be far worse than doing nothing.

Without Marx, the socialists would not have been nearly as effective at taking over countries.

On the other hand, we might well be seeing more successful communes and worker owned coops if communists did some actual science.

Likewise, if more libertarians respected political reality, we’d see either a broader libertarian themed third party or libertarians trying to influence larger movements.

Fortunately there are some radical libertarians who do respect reality and scientific scrutiny. The Free State Project, Charter Cities movement, and the Seasteading movement all focus on creating demos of various libertarian ideas. Scientific experiments! None of them require worldwide revolution or majority vote to allow testing.

In the next post I’ll look at some other ways to do creative politics without resorting to irrationality.

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!