The Economics of Why We Don’t Care: A Short Public Choice-Esque View of the Sanggunian Elections

Author’s note: I am both happy and willing to edit this article when more empirical evidence comes my way. Feel free to send in some if you have any.

At this time of the academic year, leadership positions are vacated and new students fill them up. From large student organizations to small clubs, old leaders are replaced with new students, serving as a fresh start for the upcoming semester. One of the organizations that will be holding this annual replacement is the student government. Here in Ateneo de Manila University, we call it the Sanggunian ng mga Mag-aaral ng mga Paaralang Loyola ng Ateneo de Manila. It is a mouthful, so the shorthand is the Sanggunian, or if you are feeling even more lazy, Sanggu.

However, there has been an observed decline in student participation in elections — perhaps even, in campus politics as a whole. There even existed a problem before of shortages within Sanggu. This was because prior to the recent Constitutional Convention, there were two hurdles that had to be jumped over: 1) Candidates first had to have 50%+1 of their constituency vote for them; 2) Once the previous condition was met, only then can the results be considered “valid.” Even if candidate X gets more votes than candidate Y, the votes would not matter if the 50%+1 requirement was not met.

Did the passage of the new constitution aid in increasing voter turnout? Some thought that it would, now that some barriers to entry have been removed. While others, like myself, thought that it would not. Removing those barriers to entry had nothing to do with increasing student participation at all.

The closest empirical data that can be used to look at this trend are the electoral results. The Ateneo Comission on Elections (COMELEC) posts them online. This made it easy to see the historical development of the percentage of the student population who voted over time. The data that was available was from 2012 Freshman and Special Elections (Fresh & SpecEl) up until the recent 2016 Freshman and Special Elections. To non-Ateneans, Fresh & SpecEl is usually scheduled within the first three months of the first semester, while the General Elections (GenEl) is scheduled at around three months before the end of the second semester.

For GenEl, Seniors are only counted in the official tally after a candidate reaches the 50%+1 quota. However, for my analysis, I decided not to remove them to further prove my point. On the other hand, for Fresh & SpecEl, in cases where there was no school-wide position being ran on (Vice-President, Secretary-General, Finance Officer), I merely took the sum of the voting population of each college-level position (those running in SOH, SOM, SOSE, and SOSS) and used that as a reference for the participation rate.

Below, we see a time series data depicting a progressively declining student body participation rate. However, the 2016 Plebiscite vote was an exception to the trend as it had a 67.44% turnout. Good job to the tireless efforts of those in the Ateneo Constitutional Convention at the time.

Since I have not yet figured out a way to embed Bokeh plots in Medium, feel free to click that thing below to see where I did the visualization.

In any case, here is the static version of the time series graph generated using python seaborn.

Source: Ateneo COMELEC

I argue that the incentive structures that exist make non-participation rational. Most of the ideas here are intuitive and are not my own. However, I still try to formalize most of these thoughts into a model of some sorts. This is to serve as an explanation as to why campus politics non-participation runs rampant.

The Tools We Need

First we have to be reminded of four terms in economics. These are, namely: 1) Time preference; 2) Ordinal preference rankings; 3) Utility maximization; and 4) The production possibility frontier.

We aim to use these models to describe the behavior of the student, and to explain the workings of the incentive structures that exist. I believe these terms will be important in gaining better insights as to what is actually happening.

Feel free to skip this part if you are familiar with the concepts already. This just serves as a brief non-technical overview. Here, I try inasmuch as I can to not bog down the readers with the boring parts. I will dive right into the gist of the concept.

Time Preference

Let us say that you were such a good child that your parents are willing to give you Php 100,000.00 (USD 2,000). There are no strings attached. The only thing they ask is whether you want it now, or five years from now. Let us also say that within that five year time period, prices will not rise, meaning the inflation rate is 0%. The question now is: When will you take the money? Today or five years from now? Most of you will probably answer now.

Time preference tell us that individuals will, majority of the time, choose now than later. This is because individuals seek to satisfy the not-yet satisfied wants of right-now with the available resources that are curently possessed; The more resources now, the better. Taking the money later means that the individual has forgone satisfying his or her wants now for later. The individual would then have to find another source for satisfying the now-wants. This means that there is an added cost for the individual: Look for that other source that he or she can use in order to satisfy those now-wants.

This is not to say that some people will choose later. It may be the case that some individuals will choose later for some reason. However, a reason to get the money now would be to satisfy further wants in the mental backlog. Another would be to put it in the bank and earn money from it. More often than not, you gain more from taking that money now than later.

Ordinal Preferences and Utility Maximization

Time preference serves as the time component in the decision-making process of an individual. It serves as a supplement and an important insight in understanding ordinal preferences and utility maximization.

Ordinal preferences can be taken literally, roughly “numbered preferences.” We have a set of preferences (or wants) that we seek to satisfy and we psychologically rank them accordingly. The higher rank ones are the ones an individual seeks to satisfy now, while those lower rank ones are those that the individual either: 1) Will want to satisfy in the future; or 2) Seek to satisfy now but are relatively not as important as the higher ranked ones.

During my midterms, the following was probably my ordinal preference rankings:

  1. Do Computer Science 130: Theory of Algorithms project
  2. Study for Computer Science 130 midterm exams
  3. Study for Computer Science 162: Operating Systems
  4. Do Computer Science 162 Lab
  5. Study for Computer Science 124: Object-Oriented Programming and Design Patterns
  6. And so on…

Finishing the project, which was ranked (1), was more important than studying for the midterm exams, which was ranked (2), because I only had to review a bit for the midterms — I could divest less amount of time and resources for (2) relative to (1). However, (2) was relatively still more difficult than (3), so I spent more time studying for and working on (2) rather than (3). The same pattern of logic would apply for the remaining ordinal preferences.

Again, individuals seek to satisfy the not-yet satisfied wants of right-now. Utility maximization just means that individuals try inasmuch as they can to “get the most bang for their buck.” In every action an individual partakes in, he or she incurs a cost (studying could have been done instead of partying, using Php 150.00 to buy new shorts could have been used instead of buying a two-piece Chickenjoy Meal in Jollibee, et al.). Individuals seek to obtain a psychic gain (Dr. Murray N. Rothbard’s term, see Man, Economy, and State) over costs. Given that, at any time, we as individuals only possess scarce amounts of time and resources, we then rationally seek to maximize the returns we get using said time and resources.

Say that we have the following set of ordinal rankings for lunch:

  1. Large Porterhouse Steak Meal at Rap Steaks for ~Php 250.00
  2. Three Pieces Chicken Meal at Pancake House for ~Php 200.00
  3. KFC Fully Loaded Meal for ~Php 150.00
  4. Save money
  5. Three Pieces of Pancakes at Pancake House for ~Php 114.00

If an individual only has Php 180.00 at hand, he or she cannot satisfy (1) and (2), the top two wants. But in order to get the “most bang for the buck,” will choose (3) over (4). It is true that (4) could have been chosen, but since more utility or psychic gain could be obtained from choosing (3), then (3) will be chosen over (4).

The Production Possibilities Frontier

Let us now have a quick look at the Production Possibilities Frontier, or the PPF for short. We are going to have to look at a graph here, but do not be terrified. The idea is quite simple.

This was part of a bigger model from Dr. Roger Garrison from his book Austrian Macroeconomics: A Diagrammatical Exposition. I cropped part of the original photo since we only have to focus on the PPF. This picture was from http://reformedlibertarian.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/PPF-to-LFM-to-SOP1.jpg

The PFF shows the possible combinations that an individual can act on. A dot relatively nearer to consumption means that an individual tends to consume rather than invest, and vice versa.

Say, for example, that apples are in the y-axis and oranges in the x-axis, where the maximum apples was at 10 while the maximum oranges were at 15. You cannot consume all at the same time. The curve above represents the different possible combinations of apples and oranges you can possess/consume that will yield the same amount of utility, “happiness,” or “satisfaction.”

In the graph above, we have different implications for consumption and investment. If the dot is nearer to the investment side, then an individual has forgone relatively plenty of consumption opportunities in order to invest in the future. For example, you decide not to eat lunch outside today. This act saves you X amounts of money to be used either for future meals or for savings to be spent in the future. However, if an individual tends to consume more, then he or she leaves him- or herself with less opportunities in the future. If you consume all of your lunch money, you get satisfied in the immediate run, but get left without the possibility of more money in the future.

Incentive Structures

There is a reason why the turnout over the years has been progressively declining; It is not the fault of anyone in particular either. Students should not demonize or castigate other students for “being apathetic” or for “being lazy” with non-participation. Here I argue that it is just what they are incentivized to do, and there is nothing wrong with that.

For instance, in a survey conducted by the Ateneo Constitutional Convention (ADMU ConCon), more than half of the respondents were not satisfied with the elections. That should tell you a lot already. Although a majority of them acknowledge the value of Sanggu, non-participation is still high.

There are exceptions to the things I will be outlining. Not every student fits into the mold. Individuals are still unique in their own special way. However, incentives may drive a portion of a group of individuals into acting on or doing something when incentives present themselves.

Student Purpose Incentive

Any student in a university would want to mainly achieve these three ends: 1) Pass classes; 2) Graduate; and 3) Take further studies or get a good job after. In order to achieve 3), 2) has to be achieved, and in order to achieve 2), 1) has to be achieved. From these three things, a student’s main goal is to then allocate his or her scarce time and resources properly to achieve these ends.

Let us first recall the PPF from above. For our purposes, we replace consumption with ‘leisure time’ and investment with ‘study/work time.’ The former can be categorized as activities that do not aid in achieving the goals mentioned, while the latter aids in achieving those goals. Binge watching Game of Thrones, assuming it is not part of a school requirement, is part of the former, while reading The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (good book; I highly recommend) for Philosophy 103: Philosophy of Religion can be considered part of the latter.

The more a student allocates time and resources toward leisure time, the less time and resources exists in the future for studying or working. However, the more a student allocates time and resources for doing school work, the more available time there is for future leisure time. If you finish all of your school work during the school week, that leaves you with a lot of free time on the weekend to do whatever you want to do. Some decide to study or review more, catch up on some sleep, binge watch, et al. The crux of the matter is that this extra opportunity would not have existed if you had no prior investment in doing school work first. However, that is the ideal student, and if you are like me and everyone else, you tend to take a combination of both leisure time and study/work time over the course of the entire week.

In maximizing utility, the optimal allocation of time and resources currently possessed will be done. To “get the most bang for the buck,” any combination of leisure and studying will be done during the course of the week. This combination is relative to the student.

Ordinal preferences step into the picture in disaggregating leisure and study/work. If more time and resources are allocated in doing school work, the student will choose which work goes first or which subject should be studied or reviewed first. The same goes for leisure time. This is again relative to the student.

Functional Incentives

The functions of a student government can be summarized into three things: 1) Represent the student population to the administration; 2) Cater to student needs by providing services; and 3) Protect student rights.

The problem with the first function is the power that the student and student organizations already have. Home organizations tend to be more connected to home departments, and in some cases, the deans of the colleges themselves. If a student wanted proper representation, like the delivery of grievances or concerns to the higher-ups, either the department responds or caters to it immeidately because it is hands-on, or the home organization does it for the student. There is also email now, which is quite helpful on our part as most professors regularly check their emails (shoutout to Ateneo professors who respond faster in email than on social media). Sanggu does step in to the picture, but in terms of who better to approach, the more connected home organization or student, in my belief, is far more effective in doing so. If the home department is hands on, then all the better in reducing the role of both Sanggu and the home organization.

The same sort of theme can be applied for the second function. Student organizations are more specialized in what they do than Sanggu. For instance, do you really approach Sanggu for math tutors, or do you approach the Ateneo Mathematics Society? Do you go to Sanggu to get better at writing through workshops, or do you approach either Ateneo Heights or WriterSkill ? These alone diminish the role of the student-service-providing function of Sanggu. This does not discount, however, that there may be some roles Sanggu can still play, like allocating subsidies for thesis projects. However, in my (and a lot of other students’) experience, a student can directly approach the home department chair and have it relayed up to the college dean. More often than not, thesis advisers themselves are the ones that guide and advise their students on where and how to get funding. There are tons of other examples, but it would take a long time to enumerate them all.

The last point, which is protecting student rights, is an important one. Incompetent and inherently rebellious professors tend to violate these rights. I recall of one case in which a professor included attendance in class as part of the grading system, when according to the Magna Carta of Undergraduate Student Rights (check page 79 of the .pdf file), is not supposed to be the case. However, these cases are either: 1) Rare; or 2) Easily handled. A student can easily complain to the home organization to be relayed upward, or go straight to the home department to complain these types of events. Or to be more straight about it, tell the professor that he or she is in violation of the Magna Carta. Professors in Ateneo are regularly briefed about the Magna Carta, and violations incurred merits a penalty to be delivered by the department chair, or even by higher-ups in the administration. Professors are also incentivized not to violate the Magna Carta because of job security (tenured professors are a different story).

Why Bother?

The incentive structures tell us that it is perfectly rational for non-participation to occur. Why? Costs incurred.

Being an informed voter can be costly. Investing time knowing the candidates, their plans/platform points, their backstories to dig up on their credibility and genuineness, and so forth means a cost is incurred not just in the actual effort exerted in researching, but also in knowing that you could have done something else.

A student has other things in his or her mind during the course of the semester. Is being informed of the candidates, and knowing the ins and outs of campus politics, be a priority for such a student? What do the ordinal preferences tell us? How much remaining time and resources does a student have after doing school work and having fun with friends? Does investing in campus politics merit a psychic gain? For the student who seeks to maximize his or her utility by satisfying the immediate not-yet satisfied wants given currently possessed resources, where does being an informed voter and participating in the political process enter?

In asking these questions, while looking at the economic models and tools we have discussed and applying them to our scenario, I believe it is perfectly rational for a student not to participate in campus politics. Given the scarce time and resource a student has at any given time, he or she would have to use them wisely in the limited amount of time he or she has in the university. Passing classes and eventually graduating and landing that dream graduate school or job are important too. What is immediately going on in your head during hell weeks, midterms, or finals?

Implications

Given what has been discussed so far, I think the question should not be why students do not participate in campus politics. I believe it is totally rational for a non-Sanggu aspiring student to not care about campus politics. Merely dismissing them as “apathetic” or “lazy” is not taking into consideration other factors that have been discussed. Non-participation is not born out of genuine disinterest, but rather born out of the incentives that point them generally in the direction of non-participation.

What is the better question to ask? I believe the better question to ask is the following: 1) What can then be the proper function of the Sanggunian?; and 2) Do we even need the Sanggunian in the first place?

I offer no answer to these questions. In part, because I do not know the answer to them, while the other is I honestly have no incentive to answer these questions as I am graduating.

On a parting note, I leave it up to the reader to decide what the answer to these questions are. This is not the first time they have been asked. Good luck.

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