Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Crazy candidates and the paradox of voting

It’s well-known that voting is irrational, if one defines the motivation as increasing the probability that the candidate one favors will win. The problem, of course, is that the value of a favorable outcome, multiplied by the percentage increase in the likelihood of that outcome that will result from one’s voting, is indistinguishable from zero. Hence, no one with a positive valuation of his or her time would be expected to bother to vote, under this model.

The “irrationality” of voting, under this model, is even starker if one assumes that voters act on the basis of narrowly economic self-interest. Even if Candidate A, if elected, would cut my taxes by $10,000 relative to Candidate B, my bothering to vote for A can’t possibly make sense economically under this framework. Assuming narrowly economic self-interest heightens the irrationality by placing a ceiling on my potential valuation of alternative outcomes – especially when we keep in mind that a given candidate generally can’t enact his or her entire platform even if elected – there are broader political constraints. (Brendan Nyhan, for example, notes that, at the recent Democratic candidates’ presidential debate, “one issue received little attention: their theory of political change. How exactly would Hillary Rodham Clinton or her rivals pass the programs and proposals they advocate?”)

Under this calculus, by the way, it is not clear that even, say, the Koch brothers are being “rational” in narrowly economic terms. True, unlike we mere voters they can perhaps buy a statistically significant impact on the expected outcome. But would the narrowly financial benefit to them of having their candidates win elections and change policies in their favor, discounted by the probabilistic effect that all their spending actually has on the outcomes, come out positive if one ignored all of the other personal and psychological, but not so narrowly economic, reasons why they spend so much money? I suspect not. But, of course, it’s true that when you have so many billions there’s the problem that other valuable things money actually can buy start to run out – you can’t, for example, buy eternal youth or perfect happiness. If you could but it cost many billions of dollars, the Koches and all other billionaires who were potentially within reach of having the requisite amounts would have reason to be far more stingy with their money than in the actual state of the world, where good things available for cash start at some point to run out. But I digress.

Obviously, the well-known answer to the “paradox” of voting is that people do it for emotional, expressive, social, and participatory reasons. Once voting is viewed as an expressive or consumer act, the metric changes. There is still, presumably, an implicit calculus of cost versus benefit. This is why the Republicans hope to gain from making it hard for Democratic voters to get to the polls – although in 2012 this apparently backfired to a degree, by increasing, for many such voters, the expressive value of making damn sure they voted anyway, even if this meant waiting for hours on a line.

The continued relevance of cost versus benefit also explains why voter fraud is so close to nonexistent unless it can be centrally organized without detection – there’s simply too little payoff to the individual act. But voting as a consumer act destroys the basic paradox, because it saves from absurdity the premise that a given voter will view the benefit as outweighing the cost. (I for one have certainly wasted more time in my life watching bad movies than voting.)

I nonetheless view the paradox of voting as central to how toxically dysfunctional our political system has become. Once you are voting as a consumer act, all rational choice regarding whom to favor is potentially out the window. It’s almost a mystery that people ever bother to vote in favor of their economic or other interests. (Although the “what’s the matter with Kansas?” view posits, entirely plausibly, that often they don’t.) To the extent that people do vote in favor of their own economic and other interests, this presumably reflects expressive, group-solidarity type perspectives, rather than the economic calculus. A candidate who, relative to the other candidates, wants to direct net economic benefits to the likes of me is saying: “I like and favor people of your type.” But there are many different ways to make such a statement.

A key reason the disconnect matters is that it can eliminate any incentive whatsoever to think coherently about whether a given candidate actually would, if elected, tend towards making the world a better place, however one defines this. If I am thinking of buying a car, it is possible that I will be swayed by silly advertising, or by a car dealer who is expert on psychologically exploiting people like me, into making a bad choice. But at least I am the one who decides what car I should buy. I’m not going to fail to take the decision seriously on the basis that I can’t measurably affect what car I will end up owning. With voting as one member of a mass electorate, this is entirely changed. Given that the effect I will have on whom I will end up with is statistically indistinguishable from zero, a huge collective action problem discourages everyone from taking the decision seriously, other than as a consumer act.

One possible outcome, as we’ve been observing lately, is crazy candidates, or those who might not actually be crazy but act as if they are.

I think it also bleeds over into political irrationality by people in office who have incentives to get it right. Take the Iraq war as a case in point. Even if we posit that invading Iraq was enjoyable enough, to the key Bush Administration players, to be worth doing even if it was likely to turn out as badly as it actually did, there still are mysteries such as why, for example, they made no effort to ascertain seriously how the occupation could best be organized. Pro-war forces within the Administration actively suppressed efforts at a realistic assessment (which they not only disparaged but apparently genuinely viewed as mere weak-kneedness), even though the Administration paid the price when things started to go so badly. But when the entire realm of public policy debate is being systematically cheapened and distorted by the fact that individual actors, until they have great power, have almost no direct motivation actually to care about true cause and effect relationships – and when they are performing before audiences composed of individuals who each effectively have no reason to care – rationality gets drowned or shouted out. And of course all the issues are complicated, requiring knowledge and a sense of context. So it’s potentially much too late once a given politician, even if well-motivated (which is hardly a given), gets into a position where he or she can actually exercise significant influence on outcomes.

At the end of the day, “When do you get good political leaders?” becomes a cultural question akin to, “When do you get the Beatles instead of Justin Bieber?” [Not to hate too much on Bieber here, however – I needed to put someone there, and surely he’s much better as a pop star than Ben Carson would be as president.] Not exactly grounds for long-term confidence in our political system or others around the world.

3 comments:

blissex said...

«The “irrationality” of voting, under this model, is even starker if one assumes that voters act on the basis of narrowly economic self-interest. Even if Candidate A, if elected, would cut my taxes by $10,000 relative to Candidate B, my bothering to vote for A can’t possibly make sense economically under this framework.»

Oh please that "narrowly economic self-interest" is a complete joke. It was thus defined by malignant Economists to reach certain well sponsored political conclusions.

Consider for example *one* obvious reason why it is a joke: most people care a lot about the well being of their descendants too, and voting in their interest too is something they do, even if expensive.

Plus most all people have *obviously* a theory of mind, understand what Soros calls "reflexivity" is a thing, and understand that many other people will vote like they do, and therefore realize that collective action works, and even if their personal contribution is small, it is still necessary, and thus political parties and campaigns are a thing, they happen to exist.

«Not exactly grounds for long-term confidence in our political system or others around the world.»

Democracies are not designed to reach good outcomes: their primary purpose is to ensure that voters suffer the consequences of their own choices, not those made by some ruling class or sovereign individual.

If voters are gullible, disengaged, deluded, or make bad voting choices for any reason, and the political system ensures that the bad leaders preferred by voters are then elected, and their country then goes down the drain, than it is a political system that you can have confidence in it, because it has worked well.

The secondary purpose of democracy follows from the primary: by ensuring that voters suffer the consequences of their own choices, they give them an incentive to organize themselves and make better choices, at least in the long run.

blissex said...

«Even if Candidate A, if elected, would cut my taxes by $10,000 relative to Candidate B, my bothering to vote for A»

Put another way: voters don't "purchase" policies by spending their "vote" as a currency, as an isolated transaction.

Voters don't quite vote because «voting is viewed as an expressive or consumer act» either, and don't vote for particular policies: voters tend to vote their "tribe", that is their "interest group".

Policies are announced by candidates not because they really matter as such, but because they signal to voters which "tribes" the candidate intends to benefit once elected. T Blair in the UK expressed this lucidly:

www.britishpoliticalspeech.org/speech-archive.htm?speech=202
«You see, people judge us on their instincts about what they believe our instincts to be. And that man polishing his car was clear: his instincts were to get on in life, and he thought our instincts were to stop him.»

What voters want to know is that if enough members of the "tribe" they belong to do vote for their candidates, the will get some very real benefits, which often turn out to be quite significant.
And since they have a theory of mind, once they understand which "tribes" a candidate wants to boost, they also understand the other members of the tribe all know they ought to turn out to vote as a block.

All the voters who have elected "higher house prices" candidates have got amazingly high returns for their voting, which cost them very little.

«"narrowly economic self-interest" is a complete joke. It was thus defined by malignant Economists»

The story here is that their malignant assumption is that each act by an individual is an isolated transaction.

But many or most people have descendants, and anyhow have theories of mind (which tells them that other people also have similar theories of mind), and thus create and fund chambers of commerce or political parties, because they understand very well that their actions are not isolated transactions, but have consequences across time, and collective action is possible, based on a share set of interests.

As to the assumption of isolated transactions, that it is ridiculous even for "nearly perfect" markets like the stock market, because people have theories of mind, was well known to JM Keynes almost a century ago:

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keynesian_beauty_contest
«It is not a case of choosing those [faces] that, to the best of one's judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those that average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practice the fourth, fifth and higher degrees.»

blissex said...

«most people care a lot about the well being of their descendants too, and voting in their interest too is something they do»

That most people will often suffer costs for the benefit of their descendant (or even collaterals) is is an important objection not just to the assumptions of "traditional" Economics, but also to the usefulness of the Rawlsian "veil" assumption, in particular because a mother is (nearly) always certain of her children, "pater numquam" (in the past at least).