Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Different Electoral Conversation

The vast majority of discussion around selecting the next President of the United States is misplaced. Why? Because voters are focusing on promises instead of performance.

In democracy, governments respond to voters’ needs and interests because they are held accountable by the people through elections; accountability causes responsiveness. How then does accountability work?

The most powerful, and arguably only, mechanism of democratic accountability is ex-post accountability, that is, the retrospective punishing and rewarding of politicians based on their performance while in office. If politicians face no risk of punishment or promise of reward, then they would have no incentive to perform along basic social, economic, or environmental criteria. This raises the question, under what conditions does ex-post accountability function?

Accountability in a free and fair democracy breaks down in three cases:

1. People vote based on ideology- Millions of highly educated people say “I would never vote for a Democrat.” This essentially says, “Regardless of your performance, I will re-elect you if you are a Republican.” In this situation, politicians have no incentive to perform because they will be rewarded under any conditions. Ideological voting opposes democratic accountability.

2. People vote on future promises- People often vote based on a candidate’s vision for the future. While romantic, this does not incentivize performance. Instead it creates a system that rewards politicians for making lofty promises, not fulfilling them. If people continually vote based on promises and visions, then politicians never have to account for their past promises, they only need to make more. Voting on future promises (voting ex-ante) does not foster accountability.

3. Voters are not informed- If voters are not aware of what changed or who is responsible for those changes, governments can shirk responsibility because they know that voters cannot accurately measure their performance. According to one study by Adserá, Boix and Payne (2003), the presence of a well-informed electorate explains between one-half and two-thirds of the variance in the levels of governmental performance and corruption. Performance improves as citizens have more precise political knowledge. Weak political knowledge is opposed to accountability.

So what’s the point? This election is not about Barack Obama or John McCain, it’s about evaluating the economic, social, and environmental performance of our current leadership and sanctioning or rewarding them accordingly. Ideally, we would have an incumbent candidate to reward or punish based on their performance. However, because of presidential term limits (to which I am largely opposed), we must evaluate the incumbent Party instead. Some argue that it is unfair to base one's judgment of John McCain solely on the performance of his Party; I disagree. The Republicans had six years of executive and legislative control and John McCain voted with President Bush 90% of the time. It is plenty fair to vote for or against McCain based on the performance of the Party he represents and desires to lead.

Therefore, come November, we have two obligations to ourselves and to our system: 1) Be informed and 2) Vote according to the performance of those in power, not on the charm or promises of their challengers. Obama may be a better choice, but he should be elected because he represents, not promises, change.


Adam said...

Those last two paragraphs really came out of left field, Dave. McCain's basically running his campaign on his record.

Here's the problem I see with the (excellent) analysis. The two party system lends itself to voting ideologically.

Let's say George W. Bush was running against Obama (by the way, term limits or not, the Republicans would not have nominated GWB). Something tells me many, perhaps even most, Republican voters would still side with the man because they are so far ideologically away from Obama. Now if there were more candidates to choose from, it'd be easier to give up some ideological ground in favor of accountability. But who's willing to vote for a candidate they "fundamentally disagree" (to borrow a phrase used like a bajillion times during the debate) with on nearly every major issue?

I think your analysis makes sense, and perhaps it's how things "should" be, but ultimately, I judge the men, and I judge their opinions.

Peter B said...

Ok Dave
I would like to push back on one of your assumptions. You seem to argue in this post (as I would imagine partly shaped by your economic background) that individuals are incentive responders. Now, that is obviously a true statement. Incentives help us explain a whole range of behaviors. However, I would argue that this is not the only story. Take for example the reason you started this blog... you can tie it post-hoc to an incentive story (... because I believe my thoughts will be more refined, etc.) but in many ways, you did it for reasons beyond (or different from) responding to incentives. This blog will take away your time. This blog will make you vulnerable. This blog, from a financial perspective, is an opportunity cost. But you do it... because? I don't know... perhaps you love the idea of collaboration, or you care about it because other's before you have showed you the importance of refined thinking... or perhaps because you want to deepen your friendship with Adam. Those are obviously incentives, but they are incentives in the far broader sense of implicit psychological rewards, motivation by what we consider beautiful, etc. Furthermore, those incentives (however intangible) will keep you accountable to posting even in the absence of clear economic incentives.

Now, given that you believe the story that I am describing in some sense... how should this modify your description of the politician above? Specifically, you write, "The most powerful, and arguably only, mechanism of democratic accountability is ex-post accountability, that is, the retrospective punishing and rewarding of politicians based on their performance while in office. If politicians face no risk of punishment or promise of reward, then they would have no incentive to perform along basic social, economic, or environmental criteria." Do individuals hold themselves accountable to their own ideals? Do their own visions of the future craft their policy, or are they all lying? Obviously examples of the latter abound, but is your above description too narrow a model of the human actor? If so, how does an expanded understanding change the way we should think about voting... should we vote based on what policies we think are important... based on the things we love... is this 'ideological' in the negative sort of way... are there ways to get around being ideological?

Andrew Karaba said...

One thing you forgot to take into account was the voter who initially votes based on promises, but later votes based on performance. For example, lets say I vote for a candidate who is promising to lower taxes. Perhaps his or her record is neutral on this point, but I believe the candidate anyway. Once elected the candidate does not lower taxes. The next time an election comes up, I may penalize the candidate and not vote for him or her based on his or her poor performance (broken promise).

Dave said...

Thanks for actually thinking about and responding to this post. A few comments:

Adam wrote "Here's the problem... The two party system lends itself to voting ideologically."

I agree, if people had more than two choices, then they could vary their votes more and be less forced to vote ideologically. However, I also think that there are shared performance criteria across the aisle. While Democrats and Republicans may have different means of creating social good, they often have similar goals. A great example is education; free-market conservatives may promote privatization while liberals may seek to reform failing public schools instead. While this is obviously simplified, voters of any persuasion can judge the performance of politicians on whether more kids are literate, receiving higher quality education, and performing on basic tests. But yes, Adam, having only two parties makes it less likely that people could move beyond ideology.

Ok Peter
My argument is based on a narrow model of rational incentives, true. However, I think it still holds water. Simply put, elections are blunt instruments of accountability. There may be 1,000 different "accountability" mechanisms that produce incentives for politicians to produce social good, such as altruism, guilt, a sense of purpose/vision, family pressure, religious calling, etc. However, none of those incentives are unique to the system of democracy, dictators may face those same "accountability" mechanisms. However, on the whole, I do understand that human behavior is more complex than a simple set of fixed incentive based behaviors. However, if we take the mechanism of electoral accountability seriously, we should act in accordance with the way it's designed to work.

Interesting point. I think you are right in that it's possible to vote on promise and then on performance. But I would push back and say that promises are easily forgotten four years later in a changing world. Remember George Bush's promise of compassionate conservatism? Nobody held him accountable to that promise because conditions changed, i.e. 9/11. Also, promises made four years ago may not be relevant in 2008, they could be outdated, whereas social, economic, and environmental performance standards are more consistent. Instead of polticians rigidly holding to promises that may have been wrong or lofty, I would prefer that they perform along criteria that are independent of the promises they made.

Blake said...

Interesting post, Dave. I'm going to have to disagree with Adam...McCain's not campaigning on his record--if anything, he's trying to obscure his record (at least over the course of the past 8 years) by asserting some appealing, but ultimately empty images of himself (he's a war hero, or a "maverick"). I think of Dave's 3-part division, the American problem basically comes down to voter ignorance. It's an inherently elitist opinion, I suppose, but the blame is spread pretty evenly between voters, the media, and the parties.

Voters don't have much of an excuse. Hundreds of thousands of active American voters don't know anything about either McCain or Obama--this is not an exaggeration. I canvassed up in Wisconsin last weekend and talked to dozens of people--people who might very well decide who becomes our next president, depending on how the electoral math works out--who don't know anything about either candidate, don't know which issues are important to them, and don't know when or how they will be making their decision. There are gobs of voters in Wisconsin, a state Kerry won in 2004 by an average of 2 votes per ward, who will probably decide who to vote for on the way to the polls. I don't think it's elitist or chauvinistic to be angry that people like this will be deciding the fate of the most powerful nation on earth.

Public ignorance starts in our schools (a problem that will get chillingly worse if McCain and Palin are elected--anybody seen the graduation rates in Alaska? wonder why Palin doesn't talk about education much?), and it festers in the media. The blatant failure of the media to hold politicians accountable for merely telling the truth is a veritable American tragedy. Now, bloggers tally the gaffes of the VP candidates while the networks air bullshit interviews with candidates in 4-part installments. Both are useless, but the pitiful mainstream media is a bigger problem. When was the last time you heard a TV journalist ask a tough follow-up question? Not even Tim Russert could do that, and he's everybody's hero now. It's sickening.

It benefits the parties to have an ignorant electorate. The Dems and Republicans are locked in a 50.5% -49.5% stalemate that keeps both parties in power. They're too busy clinging desperately to these narrow margins and hoping that nobody airs out their dirty laundry to govern effectively. So we have ineffective politicians elected by an ignorant public informed by an utterly impotent media. It's a giant fucking mess that's going to bring our country down.

I guess I'm mildly hopeful that the Obama presidency can improve the situation a little bit, or at least delay the inevitable decline of the era of American relevance. At the very least, I think Obama will govern gracefully and help us transition into the 21st century along with the rest of the world. The anger, fear, and alienation of the Republicans will only make us fall harder.

What a bitter little post this has turned into! What a load of highfallutin' bullshit! Whatever, I had fun responding to your post. Thanks for writing, and keep up the good work.