Garbage in, garbage out

The hoary old programmer’s aphorism works just as well for politics.  You’d expect me to point to the candidates as “garbage in”, and I won’t disappoint, but of course it’s also the incentives under which those candidates operate once elected that’re garbage as well:

Bryan Caplan first notes that randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are pretty great for figuring out whether a given intervention works, then laments that “figuring out whether a given intervention works” is anathema to the political establishment.  He quotes Tim Harford thus:

[P]oliticians resist pilot schemes with objective measures of success.  This is partly because politicians are in a hurry: they expect to hold on to a role for two or four years, not long enough for most experiments to deliver meaningful results.  Even more politically inconvenient is the fact that half of the pilot schemes will fail… so the pilot will simply produce stark evidence of that failure.


This is our fault as much as the fault of our politicians.  We should tolerate, even celebrate, any politicians who test their ideas robustly enough to prove that some of them don’t work.

(Over on Meteuphoric, Katja Grace points out that people often prefer to be ignorant when the question is disconcerting.  “Does my strongly-held political ideology actually help people?” is a pretty disconcerting piece of introspection.)

Caplan, as you might suspect, is enthusiastically curious about this line of thought, and has similar opinions of his own:

[P]olitical agency problems are often a byproduct of voter irrationality. The principals give their agents grossly suboptimal incentives, then complain that the agents fail to carry out their assignments.

He wonders why politicians don’t get merit pay.  Incentives matter, after all, and the only incentive under which politicians operate that actually relates to the democratic process is once-every-few-years reelection, itself heavily biased in favour of the incumbent:

Admittedly, [no merit pay] is a standard feature of modern democracies. But why is it a standard feature? Because it is too hard to evaluate politicians’ job performance? If so, using re-election as a carrot is equally misguided. Because it is too hard to assign optimal weights to various aspects of job performance? If so, one could simply “let the people decide” the optimal weights by basing bonuses on approval ratings. Because politicians’ actions have long-run consequences? If so, bonuses could be a function of long-run consequences…

I’m tempted to suggest that finding a merit-pay mechanism for politicians is far more forbiddingly complex than doing so for corporate executives, and we’ve failed rather conspicuously at the latter.  I don’t particularly want a bunch of people who (a) control the regulatory state and (b) aren’t subject to insider-trading laws spending their days trying to maximize the value of their stock options.  But that’s an implementation detail; any even remotely sensible merit pay package is likely to work better than nothing.  But:

[T]he flimsiness of the leading objections should open us up to a simple alternative: Pay-for-performance is a good idea, but the public is too irrational to accept it.

We see — or would like to see — political office as public service, motivated by noble sentiments of civic virtue and obligation to the community.  Most people only bitch about corrupt politicians when they’re in someone else’s party.

2 Responses to “Garbage in, garbage out”

  1. 1 Not Sure
    May 30, 2011 at 16:59

    “Most people only bitch about corrupt politicians when they’re in someone else’s party.”

    I blame high school pep rallys.

    People are trained to support the home team and vilify the opponent:

    “Smash State! Crush Tech!”

    And when it comes to politics, most everybody will tell you there are only two real choices (Republicrat and Demopublican, or something like that), so most everybody chooses sides and screams bloody murder when the other guys win an election and continue to do exactly what their guys were in the middle of doing in the first place.

  2. 2 sex
    September 28, 2014 at 19:00

    Very good article. I absolutely appreciate this site. Keep it up!

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