Saturday, May 28, 2011

What's The Matter With Politics?

You don't have to be an Einstein to know something is the matter with politics. Politics is frustrating to anyone with any training in, say, business or science or engineering. British economist Tim Harford, in an interview with The Washington Post's Ezra Klein, pinpoints a key difference between politics and these other human endeavors.

After the jump, risk analysis.

Tim Harford:

"Let’s think about the balance of risks in the market or the scientific method. In both cases, you could have 50 failures and one success and you’ll still come out ahead. The theory of relativity and Google and penicillin more than make up for all the failed experiments, theories and businesses. The same is true, of course, of biological evolution. The number of failures are orders of magnitude larger than the successes.

"Now think about politics. Any politician knows they can have 50 policies going well and one failure the failure will dominate the next campaign. So the politician is just desperate to avoid provable failure. And they can do that either by never doing anything or by refusing to quantify and evaluate what should happen when they do do something, as that way no one can prove it went wrong."

This goes a long way towards explaining why politicians in Washington and Austin so often do stupid things, sometimes even while knowing they are stupid things. It's to avoid failure. Politicians have a herd instinct. They will stick together, even going over a cliff together, in order to avoid even the slightest risk of standing alone in failure.

This explanation works well to explain some of the crazy things that happen in Washington and in Austin. How about in the city council chambers in Richardson, Texas? It's a holiday weekend, so I'm not going to expend too much time and energy on the question, but my initial thought is that it is much less applicable locally.

Local politicians are often not career politicians. Local politicians are less dependent on the money and organization of national political parties. They rely on personal relationships for political success. Accordingly, local politicians have a lot more room for failure. Their personal relationships can survive a failure or two; so can their local political careers. And, if not, they can always go back to their day jobs. Is that why local politics is less frustrating for me than watching Washington or Austin at work?

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