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Constitutional Calculus: The Math of Justice and the Myth of Common Sense

Jeff Suzuki
Publisher: 
Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication Date: 
2015
Number of Pages: 
280
Format: 
Hardcover
Price: 
34.95
ISBN: 
9781421415956
Category: 
General
BLL Rating: 

The Basic Library List Committee suggests that undergraduate mathematics libraries consider this book for acquisition.

[Reviewed by
Charles Ashbacher
, on
03/15/2015
]

Although the general topics of the book were not new to me, reading it was a breath of fresh air. It was a reaffirmation that mathematics should be used more often to make general public policy. The opening section is about voting and of course much of it is based on Arrow’s theorem. Like so much about the U. S. political system, there is a regular cycle where a high political figure advocates abolishing the American Electoral College.

As others before Suzuki have demonstrated, an application of mathematics and an examination of other voting systems demonstrate once again that the writers of the American Constitution were political geniuses. While there are times when the winner of the popular vote did not win the presidency, as long as the electors follow the popular vote in their state, to win in the Electoral College a candidate must have significant support in several large areas of the country. Therefore, all candidates must attract support from voters with a wide spectrum of backgrounds, a necessity if one is to govern.

My favorite section was the economic and statistical analysis of the “three strikes and you’re out” legal principle. As stated, it means that if you commit three felonies, then you go to jail for life, independent of the severity of the crimes. The example of a man going to prison for life for three instances of what was essentially petty theft was given. The analysis demonstrates that this is a horribly flawed policy, both economically and in ruined lives. Suzuki also concludes that the death penalty is economically and socially unjustified.

Other topics are Bayes’ Theorem, the absurdity of the “stop and frisk” policing policy, the impossibility of a pure democracy, statistical sampling techniques used in conducting the American census and the consequences of altering the jury trial system. Suzuki puts forth arguments about the number of allowed peremptory challenges in a trial, the number of jurors as well as the selection of the jurors based on gender and race.

The only conclusion that anyone capable of understanding the math in this book can take away from reading it is that math can explain things and is one of the few non-partisan areas in society. If it were used more often in the making of political and social decisions all countries and societies would be far better off.


Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, and teaching college classes. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.

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