Thursday, August 26, 2010

The X-Factor and Government

From time to time journalists ask pop stars what advice they would give ambitious youngsters. The pop stars think about this and explain what they did to achieve success, perhaps something like this:

Just believe in yourself and never give up on your dreams!
There are very few successful pop stars but a great many people trying to be, which means that most of the people who set out to achieve this actually fail, and those failures are never interviewed by journalists.

What if the people who fail also believed in themselves and never gave up, but were still unsuccessful? By ignoring the stories of all those thousands who try and fail we are missing what Lebanese scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls 'silent evidence'. Unless journalists also interview the people who fail, and compare what they did with the successful people, we can't know if the pop stars' advice is actually any use at all.

Taleb's The Black Swan attacks the assumption that successful people are simply more talented than the unsuccessful:

Consider the thousands of writers now completely vanished from consciousness: their record did not enter analyses. We do not see the tons of rejected manuscripts because these have never been published, or the profile of actors who never won an audition - therefore cannot analyze their attributes. To understand successes, the study of traits in failure need to be present. For instance, some traits that seem to explain millionaires, like appetite for risk, only appear because one does not study bankruptcies. If one includes bankrupt people in the sample, then risk-taking would not appear to be a valid factor explaining success.

By ignoring the silent evidence of the unsuccessful, media may unwittingly warp viewers' understanding of how to succeed.

Curiously modern TV talent search shows like the X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent help to challenge this every time they deliberately present deluded, talentless dreamers babbling about their X-Factor before being crushed by Simon Cowell. It's an odd thing for shows that tend to manipulate emotion and emphasise feel-good messages about success to accidentally show the inevitability of failure for most competitors.

Hidden evidence can warp understanding of how to attain success in popular culture, but it also applies to politics.

Suppose the government announces a massive public works campaign to employ many thousands of people. Some will welcome this job creation since the visible evidence is clear: lots of new jobs. But there is silent evidence being neglected here: the source of the money to pay for these jobs, for example. In order to create these popular jobs the government needs to either increase taxes (and deprive others of their money) or sink further into debt. Taxing removes money from the economy. Employers who might have been thinking of expanding and creating more jobs decide they cannot now afford it. Workers who might have been thinking of buying new products now choose not to, pushing the manufacturers of those products into unemployment. In order to create jobs the government may need to destroy many more.

This is a common complaint of right-wing thinkers. The immediate effects of government intervention may often seem clear and positive, but there are hidden side-effects that are much more difficult to calculate.

For example the Spanish government has heavily subsidised alternative energy projects like wind and solar power. The visible benefits are quite clear: greater energy independence, fewer polluting fossil fuel plants and so on. But "the policy has contributed to an €18bn ($23bn, £15bn) accumulated deficit that hangs over the electricity sector", and this defict needs to be paid either by increased taxes, budget cuts elsewhere or debt. By subsidising alternative energy the Spanish state creates economic inhibitors in the form of higher taxation, which might actually slow the development of new energy technologies.

Or it might not. The point is that a simple-sounding government policy can have incredibly complex side-effects not readily understandable. Too often journalists here in Ireland neglect the silent evidence of these side-effects (perhaps because they are not clear) and emphasise only the direct and clear benefits.

In political terms this can be manipulated by the use of emotive questions that focus on the direct results of government intervention but ignore the hidden side-effects. Questions like "Do you think the government should do more to prevent suicide" tend to get answers in the positive, because most people want less suicide, and this could be interpreted as support for more aggressive state intervention.

A practical example of this bias in questioning is The Political Compass, an online political quiz that places respondents on a left/right, libertarian/authoritarian graph. The first proposition reads: "If economic globalisation is inevitable, it should primarily serve humanity rather than the interests of trans-national corporations."

Many people will say that yes, globalisation should serve humanity, not faceless corporations, and this places them to the economic left of the graph. But the proposition is an odd one. A more accurate one would be: "Government regulation and intervention in global economies is necessary to make globalisation serve humanity instead of trans-national corporations." This is a more explicit left-wing proposition, showing that the respondent is not just limiting trans-national companies, but empowering state control.

In college I found left-liberals who were highly sceptical of government, particularly in governmental regulation of drug use or sexual activitiy. They were also highly sceptical of big businesses, seeming to believe that government and capitalism worked together against the ordinary people. Yet these same left-liberals wanted to give the government more power, not less, and shift control of the economy from private businesses to the people, via a political elite. They saw the benefits of weakening big business, but not the negative side effects of strengthening a government they didn't trust.


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  2. Personally I think the Political Compass is a fascinating idea, but flawed in practice! I'd like to find a better example online somewhere - let me know if you find one!


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