Learn From Politicians’ Personal Failings

     Politicians want voters to have a positively-biased view of themselves. Consequently, voters learn more about politicians from their failings than from their good deeds.

     Barack Obama, for example, smokes. If being known as a smoker was politically beneficial to a candidate then we couldn’t know if Obama really enjoyed smoking or if he was just pretending to enjoy smoking to appeal to voters. But because being known as a smoker will probably hinder Obama’s political career, we know that he really wants to smoke. Consequently, Obama’s smoking reveals something about his character. Perhaps, for example, it shows he is not very future oriented and is willing to suffer long-term harm for a short term benefit.

     Newt Gingrich has admitted to having had an extra-marital affair whereas Hillary Clinton appears to have been faithful to her husband. Perhaps Hillary Clinton really wants to cheat but for political reasons either hasn’t or has covered up her infidelity. We can’t be sure, therefore, if Hillary Clinton has the type of character that causes her to remain faithful. Since his infidelity will certainly not help his political career we can be sure that Gingrich wasn’t just pretending to be unfaithful or wasn’t being unfaithful just to gain political advantage. Rather, given his character being unfaithful maximized Gingrich’s lifetime happiness. This infidelity, therefore, provides considerable unbiased insight into Gingrich’s character.

     Finally, it was recently revealed that Al Gore’s mansion uses 20 times as much energy as the average American’s home does. If Gore personally used much less energy than most Americans did we couldn’t be sure if he was doing this because he genuinely cared about the environment or if he merely wanted people to think he cared about the environment. In contrast, since his large energy use harms him politically, we can be sure that he didn’t use vast amounts of energy just to help his political image. Rather, given his character it is in Gore’s self-interest to use huge amounts of energy even though such considerable energy use will cause others to think he is a hypocrite.

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  • Doug S.

    Since when are people’s decisions rational? (I know mine aren’t!) Let he who has never done anything completely stupid cast the first stone. Also, character matters less than you think it does.

  • Nick Tarleton

    “Perhaps, for example, it shows he is not very future oriented and is willing to suffer long-term harm for a short term benefit.”

    Or at least that he was in the past. I don’t know when he started smoking, but it may be long enough ago that his future-orientation then is a bad predictor of his status now.

    “Rather, given his character it is in Gore’s self-interest to use huge amounts of energy”

    This is surprising? (It does, however, show a potential lack of commitment to principles. Again, potential, per the fundamental attribution error as mentioned above.)

  • Lee

    This is a neat way of discovering facts about our politicians’ characters, but I don’t why it’s useful except in a tabloid/celebrity-curiosity way. You are not suggesting that whether they smoke or have affairs says anything important about policy are you? Since you only mentioned potential presidents, that’s the implication.

    And anyway, I do not understand why Obama’s smoking indicates that “he is not very future oriented and is willing to suffer long-term harm for a short term benefit,” but when Gingrich has an affair he does it in order to maximize his “lifetime happiness.”

    Perhaps Obama is a long-term thinker who believes a shorter life w/ smoking is worth it. Perhaps Gingrich diminished his lifetime happiness because he was thinking in the short-term when he had an affair. —Whatever.

    The Gore thing is especially silly. I’ll grant that he is a hypocrite—-So? A president is good insofar as he enacts good policy.

    I think the real bias is that belief that character is important. Why should I believe that?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I think the point here is to pay selective attention to politicians’ failings and neglect their apparent pluses when determining their character, this being the opposite of what the politicians would have you do.

  • Trey

    Gore’s position has been entirely consistent. He advocates that families calculate their carbon footprint and then reduce it to zero with a combination of reduced energy consumption and purchase of ‘carbon credits’ that offset what is left. That is in fact what he did with his own family and had been doing before his supposed ‘hypocrisy’ was ‘exposed’.

    Note, there is an ongoing debate in the environmental community as to whether buying carbon credits really has the desired effect in terms of reducing global carbon emissions. I think there is a consensus that it’s not as good as reducing consumption, but that it’s unrealistic to cut your emissions to zero and still lead a normal life, given the current infrastructure.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    A good example of a wealthy environmentalist who really lives what he preaches is actor Ed Begley, Jr., who has a TV show on the HGTV network showing his lifestyle. He lives in a very modest bungalow in an average part of town, has covered the roof with solar panels, rides his bike or drives his electric car when possible, otherwise his hybrid, uses recycled materials, etc. Now, all this stuff costs a fortune and the average guy would have no prayer of being able to afford this kind of lifestyle. But Begley is definitely putting his money where his mouth is.

    Gore is probably at least ten times richer than Begley, and I’m sure his house is ten times bigger. I can’t imagine Al clambering up on the roof of stately Gore Manor to scrub off the solar panels the way Begley does.

  • http://www.universityupdate.com/politicians/hillary_rodham_clinton/1439173.aspx?src=blog University Update

    Learn From Politicians’ Personal Failings

  • TGGP

    Gore has ownership in the company he buys carbon credits from. I don’t know whether or not he should be considered a hypocrite, but like others I don’t think it matters much. It makes for good ad hominem arguments but it doesn’t have any bearing on the argument this is a proxy for: what should or should not be done about global warming. I haven’t read Jeremy Lott’s “In Defense of Hypocrisy” yet, but I agree with the point he has made that when you are accusing your opponents of hypocrisy you are essentially conceding there is virtue in what they say, because otherwise you would be attacking that rather than them. Most people now remember Jesus accusing the Pharisees and others who flaunted their piety of hypocrisy, but he was also up-front about their advocating a lot of correct things and essentially said “Do as they say, not as they do”.

  • http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2007/03/bayesian_analys.html EconLog

    Bayesian Analysis of Hypocrisy

    Hanson and Balan aren’t the only sharp tacks at Overcoming Bias: Politicians want voters to have a positively-biased view of…

  • Marcus

    As was already stated in the previous comment, Gore buys his carbon credits from his own company which then turns around and invests it. He is simply moving money from his left hand to his right hand.

    I, on yet another hand, think it is important. Not to bash Gore but to ask a question.

    Let’s compare at two possible scenarios:

    1) You have $100 and decide to give it away (ie. buy carbon credits). You start with $100 of influence in the world, decide who to give it to and now have no influence. You hope who you gave it to does something good with it. Next week, you start all over again.

    This is what Gore wants you to do.

    2) You have $100 and decide to invest it. You start with $100 of influence in the world, decide who to invest it in and now still have $100 of influence in the world. Next week, you add $100 to it and now you have $200 of influence in the world (excluding market fluctuations of course). Later, if you decide the people you’ve invested in don’t live up to your high standards you can take it away from them and invest it in someone else.

    This is what Gore does.

    Now the question is, why doesn’t Gore preach what he practices?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Marcus, where does Gore’s company get the credits from?

  • Bruce G Charlton

    I think the Gore situation is most telling because it shows the flimisiness of the policies he advocates – their perverse incentives.

    In the UK there are periodic hypocrisy scandals on the left related to private schools – Labour party ministers generally advocate state schooling for all, and policies that give government education administrators exclusive right to allocate children between schools; but these same labour members of parliament sometimes themselves exercise the very ‘parental choice’ they try to prevent by their policies, and send their own children to private schools.

    Universal compulsory state education is a policy which demands that politicians ‘set a good example’ by operating in defiance of incentives which apply not just to these politicians but to all parents. And the parental incentives to educate their kids well are so strong that leftish politicans will risk careers and political damage to pursue these interests.

    The hypocrisy debate about Al Gore is an irrelevant distraction, the point is what the inconsistency tells us about the incentive structure of his policies.

    Any policy which demands that politicians or nations ‘set a good example’ is a policy with serious problems of perverse incentives. The same applies to Gore’s policies in relation to global climate. The incentive – both for individuals and nations – is simply to break the rules, and not get caught.

    And if you do get caught, to avoid or minimize the punishment.

    There is no incentive genuinely to comply.

  • http://yorkshire-ranter.blogspot.com Alex

    The “Gore has ownership in the company” thing is, frankly, intellectually dishonest. Carbon credits are issued as part of emissions trading schemes. Owners of these securities can either use their right to release CO2, sell the permit on, or “retire” it – that is, remove it from circulation permanently. Gore’s company buys carbon dioxide permits in the market and retires them, thus reducing the total pool of CO2 permits and increasing their price. Effectively, he is paying a voluntary tax.

  • Marcus
  • http://stuartbuck.blogspot.com John Doe

    Even assuming that everything Gore does is “carbon-neutral” in any meaningful sense, he’s still a raging hypocrite. If he really cares about saving the planet, he could live like a normal American (using X amount of energy), buy 20X worth of carbon offsets, and then he’d actually be doing something to offset the carbon overusage that (he claims) is the greatest moral crisis that civilization has ever faced.

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