Jul 26 2013

Reform Party of California Essays – 5


The Reform Party of California: Its role and its limits


To a large extent, politics is the art and science of spotting problems, finding solutions, predicting the future and trying to get something done. That has to occur within the confines of the constitution and constraints of a chaotic democracy. More than a little of the chaos associated with competing perceptions of reality is at least partially grounded in the factors mentioned before, ideology, special interests and (self-interest – link to essay 3) competing against the public interest. Expert pundits and politicians offer an endless stream of confident predictions of what policies will work best for the future. All of that is based in no small part on an endless stream of [spin – link to essay 4] and usually profound differences of opinion over what relevant facts might be and their relevance to defining and solving problems. In that environment, politics may be more self-serving art (80%?) than public service science (20%?).

Despite the great confidence and sometimes arrogance that routinely comes from expert pundits and politicians, they turn out to be surprisingly bad at predicting future events, especially in view of their usual confidence in their own prowess. A study into what constitutes expert political judgment showed that at the most, expert pundits got predictions of future events right about 20% of the time.[1] Most were not even that good. Stranger still, some statistical models looking at the same scenarios got the future predictions right about 50% of the time. That says that statistical models absolutely trounce human experts when it comes to predicting the future. That is very strange indeed.

Not so strange is the finding that experts are expert at rationalizing or minimizing their failures and talking up their prowess when they occasionally do get something right. Experts tend to accept, with little or no question, facts and outcomes that generally support their world view (ideology) while rejecting facts or, being much more critical, that tend to contradict their world view. When you dig into this, it is clear that all kinds of fascinating human behavior is at work, most of which appears to be subconscious.

For example, experts that made wrong predictions usually softened the psychological blow to their egos by arguing that they were almost right, will soon be right, were wrong for the right reasons or not wrong at all (a very strange reaction to objective failure). Sometimes, they succumb to hindsight, rewriting their own memory of the situation before and after their failed forecast. In the case of hindsight, experts who made wrong predictions tended to partially forget what they believed before making the bad prediction. To save face, they recalled having a better grip on the weight of various factors than what the data said they had to start with.[2] The observed hindsight effect wasn’t conscious. When faced with knowledge that one of their predictions was wrong, many experts simply changed the “facts” about their own beliefs without knowing it. In essence, human brains were subconsciously rewriting history in hindsight to protect the ego.

Little downside: The nature of how the human mind works to distort reality cannot just be obliterated, even if someone wanted to do that. It is a matter of biology and is part of what makes humans what they are. However, that does not mean that there is no choice but to simply accept what human nature in conjunction with the two-party system foists on us. When pundits and politicians make their predictions and sometimes base policies based on those predictions, there is no way for the public to know the track record of who is speaking. Finding quality in experts is like trying to compares costs between hospitals for specific medical services. It is difficult, if not impossible. Given the lack of an accessible, potent mechanism for imposing more accountability and reality into politics there is often, maybe usually, little downside for the players when they are wrong.

That makes sense. For example, the pundit Mike Huckabee has recently predicted that, unless democrats gain greater control of congress in the 2014 elections, president Obama will be driven out of office (impeached) before the end of his second term. That is due to his alleged complicity in an alleged coverup regarding the embassy attack in Bengazhi, Libya in September of 2012. If Mr. Huckabee’s prediction turns out to be right, the public will no doubt be fully informed, if nothing else by Mr. Huckabee himself. However, if he is wrong, the public likely won’t remember it and probably won’t hear much or anything about the failed prediction. Finding out about the failure (or his track record to date) would require a significant effort. That is something very few people are willing or able to do.

Given the way things work, including the human ego and two-party politics, it is very hard to imagine experts voluntarily submitting themselves to a fair, unbiased system of critical review so that the public can easily see how good or bad they really are and how well their work compares to statistical models. There is no upside from the status quo point of view to establish that sort of a quality control system in politics. That alleged lack of upside is the two-party system’s perception, not the RPCA’s perception. Doing that would likely be a benefit to the public interest[3] from the RPCA’s point of view.

What the RPCA offers and can do

If you accept the arguments the Reform Party of California (RPCA) in essays 1-4 and the context discussed above as mostly true, then it is fairly easy to see that two-party system politics is inefficient and error-prone, to say the least. But what can or should a pragmatic, non-ideological political party do in the face of complexity, uncertainty, lack of consensus, massive differences in perceptions of reality and low trust in politics?

Assuming it would benefit the public interest, and the RPCA firmly believes that to be the case, a pragmatic or centrist political party like the RPCA can be a source of unspun context and information for assessing the nature of issues and policy options without bias. Because of the RPCA’s non-ideological starting point for politics and its openness to a real competition in a marketplace of ideas, i.e., assessing the merit of competing ideas, the RPCA can provide the kind of information that neither party is comfortable giving to its members. For example, the California Democratic Party will tend to shield its major power bases, e.g., public employees and their unions, from information that might reflect badly or imply that there is a better way to do things relative to the power base. The the California Republican Party is no different. Both have vested interests they protect, partly as a matter of self-interest and partly as a matter of ideology. Because there is no threat to party ideology, the RPCA can be more objective in looking for merit. Self-interest for the RPCA is grounded in service to the public interest, not special interests. Either the public will accept that or reject it. Merit can come from the left, right, center and/or elsewhere. The RPCA’s product is unspun reality, unbiased analysis based on honest assessment of competing ideas.

When it is feasible to do so, the RPCA can also offer for consideration political options arising from unbiased analytical models. Statistical models appear to be much better than the best experts in predicting the future and thus shedding light on which policy choices would seem to be the most efficient over time. It does not necessarily follow that what the RPCA or its members might ultimately decide for any given issue will fully or partially accord with what comes from that exercise. It could be the case that the RPCA or its members consider other factors than pure efficiency to be important and thus in accord with a policy choice that differs from what a model suggests.

Nonetheless, such options can serve at least as a reference point for what an unbiased source might conclude. Those options can then be accepted or rejected in whole or in part in the face of those choices. If nothing else, that exercise could make it easier to more objectively consider policy options that might be harder to accept if they came from sources who some people might consider to be biased or self-serving. Resorting to neutral sources should, over time, make it easier or more comfortable to objectively assess the strengths and weaknesses of various opinions and points of view. There is value in approaching political issues in that neutral manner.

In short, the RPCA can and will offer a neutral, non-threatening context in which to assess reality and policy options. The point of that is to get better, more intelligent politics than what the two-party system can deliver in view of the severe constraints it has to operate in now (as discussed in essays 1-4).

Another important product the RPCA offers is a transparent source that can be trusted to provide unbiased assessments of policy options and respect for competing ideas. Most Americans are largely passive participants in politics. Many people do not have the time or inclination to assess the details or merits of various policy choices and competing perceptions of reality. Doing that takes real time and effort. For those people, the RPCA can offer a source that ties together disparate threads of information (from non-profit public service sources and in the press and elsewhere from the two-party system) for easy consideration. Obviously, that requires trust in what the RPCA is doing and why it is doing it. The best that the RPCA can do to build trust is to be transparent, non-ideological and honest about the potential and limits of what can be, none of which you get from the two parties now in power.

What the RPCA cannot offer or do

The RPCA cannot make differences in individual perceptions of reality and personal values disappear. Each individual will incorporate those concerns into their own opinions. However, the RPCA believes that there is nothing wrong with having the personal factor integrate into the process after neutral consideration of competing options and arguments. It is clear that individual values will play a role. The goal of that approach is to reduce the massive gulf in perceptions of reality between the left and right and to give the center a point of view that is not distorted by the ideology of the left and right.

No party can come up with policy choices that all of its members will agree on. Disagreements within political parties are common. Some Tea party members have threatened to leave the republican party because core principles or ideological beliefs have been compromised too much. The best that a party can do is to be transparent about its policy choices.

Special interests: The RPCA cannot dictate to special interests about how they choose participate in politics. Two-party politics is pay to play for the most part and many interests may want it that way. Special interests with money, both legal entities and wealthy individuals, have to decide what they want out of politics (a focus on self-interest or public interest) and whether pay to play or competition on the merits is how politics should operate.[4] All the RPCA can offer is a changed status quo based on the merit of competing ideas in lieu of pay to play. The RPCA’s vision of politics might be appealing to at least some special interests who do not participate in pay to play or who like the idea of competition based on merit. On the other hand, most willing participants in status quo politics may not much care for what the RPCA is offering. That is no surprise. There can be excellent return on investment in the two-party system as discussed in essay 2.

What the RPCA would like to achieve

It may be the case that the RPCA can narrow differences in individual perceptions of reality by looking at alternatives in less threatening ways, e.g., presenting pros and cons of issues in a value/ideology neutral manner. That is what the RPCA wants to achieve. Obviously, that requires significant voter support. The two-party system tells us that we are far apart on most issues but more careful, less biased,  sources say that most Americans (not ideologues) are often not that far apart. One RPCA goal is to at least partially convert politics from win-lose ideological and/or self-interest combat to a search for win-win, win-neutral or neutral neutral scenarios whenever that serves the public interest.

Ultimately, the RPCAs’ goals include a higher GDP growth rate and a slow, intelligent recovery of fiscal control. The party wants to build a more efficient, responsive and transparent brand of politics compared to the often non-responsive, opaque product the two-party system typically delivers. Given the way politics now works, there is no reason to believe that better, more efficient governance can promote average economic growth without fomenting economic debacles like the 1980s S&L crisis or the economic meltdown of 2007-2008. In terms of its business climate, the business community perceives California to be a relatively unfriendly place (Chamber of Commerce; business community perceptions; think tank perceptions). The RPCA believes that California’s business and tax climate can and should be improved without loss of regulations that most Californians clearly want, despite contrary business sector wishes. Although achieving an optimum balance has been impossible to attain so far under the two-party system, it is the RPCA’s goal.[5] Without economic growth and health, it is difficult or impossible to be compassionate in governing.

1. Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment: How good is it? How can we know?, Princeton University Press, 2005, see, e.g., pages 49-51 and 53-54. Maybe not surprisingly, there is no universal agreement among social scientists that something like “expert political judgement” can even be measured. That school of thought sees politics about like this; History is “ultimately one damned thing after another, a random walk with upward and downward blips but devoid of thematic continuity. Politics is no more predictable than other games of chance.” (page 19) Of course, if that perception of reality is true then why should anyone listen to any pundit or politician confidently expressing any opinion about anything relevant to politics? And, why (i) were the statistical models so much better than human experts and (ii) is it that certain types of human thinkers were consistently better than others in predicting the future? It must be the case that expert pundits and politicians themselves believe in their own ability to see the future, otherwise they would not be so certain that they possess anything more than a faint idea of what they are talking about or why they feel the way they do. To say the least, all of this can be disconcerting to some people, especially ideologues. Unspun reality has a nerve-wracking tendency to undermine ideology. That implies that many (most?) ideologues will reject or distort the science and the results described here. If they didn’t, that would open the door to a real, critical review of exactly what the two-party system has done, especially ideologues, and how effective they have been and might be going forward.

2. Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment, pages 202-205. “Hindsight bias is a failing of autobiographical memory.” Page 205. The human mind is adept at playing quiet, comforting tricks with memory and thus perceptions of reality. Unfortunately, we are typically unaware of this and many people will tend to deny or disbelieve it when confronted with this aspect of human nature. Discomforting as it may be, science strongly suggests that our brains betray us by distorting memories a little each time we recall them (link to the original scientific publication describing recall-induced memory distortion). Hindsight bias seems to be part of the phenomenon at least when a challenge to the ego is involved, e.g., when an expert is told that his or her prediction is wrong.

3. One can argue that knowing how good or bad expert political judgment is does not serve the public interest because politics is just a game of chance. But, if the results of the science discussed here really do apply across the board, experts playing that game of chance are wrong at least 80% of the time. Knowing how effective the experts really are would thus only serve to undermine trust our whole political system and that would harm the public interest. That is one way to see it. Conveniently, that “ignore it and it won’t bite you” vision tends to preserve the status quo. Another way to see it is to call the two-party system’s bluff and demand to be treated like adults. Why does the two-party system think that indulging in endless spin (link to essay 4) and confident prognostication serves the public interest any better than brutal honesty? Why treat American citizens like mushrooms? When one looks at the poll numbers, trust in government in Washington (and in California to a lesser extent) has been low for years. Being more honest and transparent would increase public trust and better serve the public interest. That just might make governing easier and maybe a bit more efficient.

4. The RPCA fully understands that most special interests, including the two parties, will strenuously argue that what they do serve the public interest over special interests and that politics is not pay to play. Those interests will be able to point to many things that support their arguments. Those arguments are heard and have been considered. They are not persuasive. The balance of the evidence (as discussed in this series of essays and from many other sources) and common sense have led the RPCA to the firm conclusion that money plays too big a role in accessing government and that service is tipped too far in the direction of serving special interests at the expense of the public interest. This amounts to differing perceptions of reality. The question is obvious: What does your instinct and common sense tell you about how politics works and who it serves? The RPCA’s positions on those points and why it holds those positions and should now be clear. This is a fundamental dispute over what politics is and how it should operate. In these regards, the RPCA is different from the California Democratic and Republican Parties.

5. The issue here is one of reasonable balance. Democratic ideology and approach to governance embraces an ever growing and complex web of regulation. That imposes an increasing burden on essentially all aspects of commerce and society.  Republican ideology and approach to governance embraces stark deregulation, including deregulating things that most Californians want some regulation of. There has to be a better balance. Because democrats dominate California government, complexity and burden will increase even if it is not needed or wanted.