Menus Subscribe Search

Calculating an End to Divisive Politics

• December 27, 2011 • 5:19 PM

Prolific political scientist Steven Brams has been promoting peace and fairness one algorithm at a time.

Much scholarly research never suggests a clear practical application for the public good. You can’t say that about the work of Steven J. Brams, professor of politics at New York University. He seems to have an angle on everything.

True to form, he has advice that could help detoxify national politics and pull the agenda from the grip of political extremists … and a better way to elect candidates in a political primary where there seems to be no clearly superior choice … and how to pick a special congressional committee when important work needs to be done on divisive issues.

Born in Concord, N.H., and educated at MIT and Northwestern, Brams, at 71, is the kind of measured, unflashy communicator — he has a slight New England accent — you would expect to teach a math class.

Yet he is a formidable representative of the “rational choice” or “social choice” professoriate — scholars who apply economic methods to problems once reserved for other disciplines. Some consider rational choice adherents an invasive species, and Brams does seem to represent the “go anywhere” approach.

The Public Choice Society — Brams was its president from 2004 to 2006 — says its members still use economic methods but combine them with others “that are not clearly identified with any self-contained discipline.”

Brams, for example, has devoted his career to the application of mathematics and game theory to elections, politics, property, international disputes, and law. He is an owner or partner in three patents related to his ideas, and he has also delved into literature and pro football.

Many of his ideas share a common outcome — no one gets everything they want, but most people get a good share of what they want. So if you’re filled with fiery rhetoric and aim for total victory, Brams may not be your guy.

In his 2008 book Mathematics and Democracy, Brams shows how we can use math to parse all the alternatives and outcomes possible in different voting systems “to illuminate how, in a democracy, individual preferences are aggregated to produce outcomes sought by the electorate.”

Another important part of his work involves the study of decisions and outcomes involving multiple parties — the definition of game theory. He uses it to show how public and private goods can be fairly divided in disputes, according to due process and rule of law.

In Game Theory and the Humanities, Brams even offers fresh ideas about history and the Bible.

He examines, for example, the benefits of Bismarck’s magnanimity toward Austria in the Seven Weeks’ War of 1866, which gave Prussia dominance in Germany. Looking to future conflicts with France and France’s possible cooperation with Austria, Bismarck prevailed against other Prussians who would have pursued the Austrian army across the Danube or held a victory parade in Vienna.

In a section on Bible stories, God is subject to analysis via game theory, because, as Brams writes, God is not only the Bible’s central character, but he has goals he would like to achieve, humans have free will and “sometimes God is thwarted in his desires.”

To analyze all the possible outcomes, strategies, and goals involved in God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, Brams draws up a series of increasingly complex matrices. Eventually he concludes that “the more sophisticated the rationality calculation of Abraham, the less need for him to have blind faith in God in order to achieve his goals.”

There are critics who say rational choice fails to fully explain many of the subjects it addresses. They claim “austere and remote” mathematical theories “are incapable of capturing intense feeling and emotions of historical and literary characters,” writes Brams.

But games, he responds, are “rational responses to trying situations.”

And the proper role of political science using mathematics, he says, is the prescription of new procedures or solutions that are “superior, in terms of specified democratic criteria, to the ones that arose more haphazardly.”

And how to make people understand how the math works its magic in giving us better democratic institutions and more justice, especially in our math-challenged society?

The results, says Brams, are what matter.

“Innumeracy is not a major problem if people believe the system is doing what it purports,” says Brams. “We won’t need to explain [the math involved, as we’ve done in our interview] if we’ve assured the election of a representative committee.”

Brams says the public will have to be assured by experts and academics “like me” that the new system is doing what it’s supposed to and that “we can have a healthy debate.”

In the links below, we give you examples of solutions Brams has advocated for fair elections, representative committees, settling complex international disputes, and even taking the inequities out of NFL games that go into overtime.


Brams: Use Approval Voting in Presidential Primaries
Brams: Use Approval Voting in Presidential Primaries
Brams says approval voting, in which voters can vote for more than one candidate, is a better way to conduct multiple candidate elections.


Brams: Let Congress Select Super Committees
Brams: Let Congress Select Super Committees
Instead of party leaders selecting members of Congress to form a super committee to hash out problems, Brahms suggests full houses of Congress make the picks using the minimax procedure.


Brams: Negotiate Mideast Peace With Point System
Brams: Negotiate Mideast Peace With Point System
When rivals negotiate, Brams suggests using the adjusted winner technique, which gives negotiators 100 points apiece and for them to start the bidding.


Brams: Kick Coin Flips Out of NFL Overtimes
Brams: Kick Coin Flips Out of NFL Overtimes
Instead of leaving it up to a coin flip, Brams says the NFL should start overtime by giving the ball to the team that wins a bidding war for the kickoff.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Richard Korman
Richard Korman is an award-winning journalist, Web site manager and an author. His freelance writing has appeared in Business Week, The New York Times, and Newsday, while the Library Journal selected his biography of inventor Charles Goodyear as one of the best business-related books of 2002. Korman's career has included ghostwriting advice about sex and relationships and a CD called Write to Influence, about improving everything from e-mails to essays. He has a son and a daughter, both college students, and claims to be the loudest rock 'n' roll keyboard player in the Hudson River Valley, north of New York City, where he lives.

More From Richard Korman

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.