How To Vote

I’m a professor of economics who has published on politics, and in ten weeks the US will elect a president, and congress-folk. So a reasonable test of my supposed specialized knowledge is: do I have anything clearly useful to tell ordinary folks about how to vote in this election?

Well first, I have said that politics isn’t about policy, i.e., that we quite reasonably care more about how our political views make us look to our associates than how they effect policy outcomes. I’ve also said a lot about overconfidence, which applies in spades to politics. Being overconfident usually looks better, even it leads to less accurate judgements. So in general I can recommend: just confidently take positions that look good to your associates; forget about policy outcomes.

But what if you were to insist on trying to figure out which US presidential and Congressional candidates to vote for based on expected policy outcomes? And what if you were to further insist on avoiding overconfidence, seeking as much as possible to avoid relying on your own likely-overconfident judgements. Perhaps, for example, the image you want to project to your associates is of fair-minded broad concern, and well-calibrated rationality.

In this case, if you guess that your relevant information is roughly average or worse than average, you have an obvious solution: don’t vote. But, perhaps you want to signal a bit more confidence and concern than this suggests.

Another simple strategy is to search for an immediate associate who both clearly shares most of your interests, and who seems better informed than you. Then just copy their vote. But perhaps you don’t want to appear very submissive to this person. So let us assume that you want to signal that you are informed and autonomous, while still creating good voting outcomes, and continue.

Alas, we still don’t have presidential decision markets, that estimate important policy outcomes, such as GDP, unemployment, oil prices, etc., conditional on who becomes president. It would only take a few tens of thousands of dollars for someone to create these, at say Intrade. And then I could offer great simple clear robust advice – vote for whomever markets rate better. But, ok, this system failing is not your problem, so let’s continue.

The thing you probably know best is your own life. So a good simple strategy is to vote “retrospectively,” i.e., for incumbents if your life goes well, and against them if your life goes badly. The more voters who do this, the stronger incentives incumbents have to make most lives go well.

For life quality extremes this advice is clear, but what if your life is near the middle? What should be the cutoff between a good and bad life? One simple reference is how you expected your life to go when incumbents were elected – reelect them if your life has gone better than expected.

Now you might do a little better if you could broaden your judgment to how life has gone for more people you care about. But if you care about a lot of distant folks, you’ll face the problem that you know a lot less about how distant folk lives are going. I could just tell you that most experts agree that the US economy has done worse than experts expected when Obama was elected. But to rely on that, you might have to trust me.

You could also do a bit better if you focused on the outcomes where particular incumbents are most responsible. For example, US presidents have more influence on foreign policy, while Congress has more influence on domestic policy. US politicians have more effect on what happens in the US than in Europe. Politicians have less influence on earthquakes or hurricanes. And so on. You might also substitute the initial expectation you should have had, for the one you did have, if you can figure out that. But you have to know more than most people do to implement such corrections well, and they only moderately improve incumbent incentives.

So, as a professor of economics who has studied politics, my advice is to not vote if you know an average amount or less, to copy a better informed close associate if you are willing to appear submissive, and otherwise to just reelect incumbents when your life goes better than you expected. And if you care a lot more about the outcome than most do, help create presidential decision markets, so other info-seekers will have a better place to turn.

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  • Mitchell Porter

    “the US economy has done worse than experts expected when Obama was elected” The experts also didn’t see a financial crisis and world recession coming to begin with. Since economists these days are supposed to be prescribing what’s best for the general welfare, they have an optimism bias.

    • Robin Hanson

      If the economy does worse than someone expected, that *must* be due to something they didn’t see coming. Even so, punishing incumbents when things go worse than expected gives them good incentives to make things go well.

      • sartke

        There are countless “somethings they didn’t see coming.” The performance of a president is one of them. It is not something that you can pull out of the numbers. This view of the economy as this garden tended by the short-term actions of a president is absurdist, but it’s especially strange coming from anyone with a background in economics.

      • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ gjm

        It’s only strange if you make the assumption that Robin’s goal in offering this advice is to help people make rational decisions about the election according to their own principles.

    • Lord

      The US economy did horribly worse than experts expected when Bush was elected, so if the policy prescriptions are the same, you might want to avoid those even more.,  As congress serves longer than presidents, not being term limited, incumbents there would be more significant than presidents.  

  • Anon

    I just vote for the taller one. Way easier than all that.

    • Anon

       And if I don’t know their height? Whoever has the longer name.

  • John Q. Public

    This is horrible advice! Just as a thought experiment, let’s ask why the economy may have fared worse than voters/economists expected when Obama was elected. Plausible answers include: 1) complete Republican “scorched earth” obstruction of any policies Obama’s administration put forth, despite Republicans being the party in power for most of the decade leading up to the Great Recession; 2) naive assumptions that this was just another “regular recssion”, calling for only regular responses; 3) unanticipated and unforeseeable network effects in the global economy (e.g., the Euro meltdown); 4) etc., etc. Robin, you are advocating folks simply vote by gut instinct based on how their. Own lives narrowly viewed have gone. This is exactly what opportunistic politicians want to capitalize on.

    • Steve Bachelor

       > Robin, you are advocating folks simply vote by gut instinct based on how
      their. Own lives narrowly viewed have gone.

       

      That was his “last resort” advice, for if you really want to make your own,
      independent decision, regardless of the better options available. 

      It would be irresponsible for an economist to suggest
      *not* leveraging your comparative advantage. Your only information-wise
      advantage over anybody else is that you have better knowledge of how
      your own life has gone (unless you have a therapist or other confidant, in which
      case you should ask them how your life has gone).

  • sartke

    In all likelihood, a prediction market would predict 2016 unemployment, oil prices and GDP to be the same for both candidates, because too many other forces play a bigger role and at the same time are significantly ‘more predictable’. Properly measuring ‘what a president was responsible for, and when his/her effect on that took place’ is impossible. There would have been a housing bubble even if Kerry won in 2004 – “prediction markets” didn’t see that coming — if you think they’d be able to measure something infinitely more subtle, I dunno what to tell you.

    • Robin Hanson

      If decision markets didn’t recommend one candidate over the other, you’d have to fall back onto other ways to choose. But the markets wouldn’t have mislead you at least.

      • sartke

        These markets would be misleading by virtue of their existence, because they would be implying that there is information that can be discovered here when there isn’t. The *best* we could hope is that they function perfectly and you “learned” that you can’t learn anything, but any deviation from a perfect market would allow someone to misinterpret some .1% difference.

        This has got to be one of your worst ideas ever.

      • Alex Mennen

         Your hypothesis that economic outcomes will be the same under each candidate is easily testable… with a prediction market. Your criticism is pretty weak.

      • sartke

        “Economic outcomes will be the same under each candidate” is nowhere close to “my hypothesis.” My “hypothesis” is that the president’s “effect on the economy” is not a variable that can be isolated. This should be blatantly obvious to anyone with a basic understanding of economics and our political system.

      • Richardsilliker

         Bingo! 

      • Martin Epstein

         Why wouldn’t a prediction market be able to communicate a high degree of uncertainty? Also, why isn’t the president’s effect on the economy a variable that can be isolated? I think I have a way to do it – simulate 2 universes, one where candidate A is elected and one where candidate B is elected. Then compare.

      • Robin Hanson

        If it actually doesn’t matter who we elect, then it doesn’t matter who you vote for. If you think it does matter, and you can tell how, but that speculative markets couldn’t tell what you can tell, you have to explain how you are so much better informed than they would be.

      • sartke

        I never said “it actually doesn’t matter who we elect.” It absolutely matters. But it matters in ways that cannot be isolated from other variables + into a clear time frame.

        The American economy is not a car that one man is driving down a predictable road on a sunny day.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ stephenrdiamond

         The prediction markets would be predicting outcomes conditional on a party’s electoral success, and to use that prediction as a voting recommendation would confuse correlation and causation. For example, the prediction markets might correctly predict more unemployment under a Republican, but the reason might be that the Republican is more likely to win if the economy is doing badly under the Democrat. The prediction would give those wanting lower unemployment no real reason to vote for the Democrat. (You can vary the outcome–saying using change rather than absolute levels–but this just involves confounding other correlates with causation.)

      • Martin Epstein

         stephenrdiamond – “to use that prediction as a voting recommendation would confuse
        correlation and causation. For example, the prediction markets might
        correctly predict more unemployment under a Republican, but the reason
        might be that the Republican is more likely to win if the economy is
        doing badly under the Democrat”

        I don’t understand your example. Let’s say the economy is doing badly under Obama and the prediction market indicates it will continue to do badly if Romney is elected. But it will also indicate how the economy will do if Obama is reelected. How is this unfair to Romney?

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ stephenrdiamond

        @google-1d23fb975fff3a0bbcecccb059cc9c63:disqus  I don’t understand your example. Let’s say the economy is doing badly under Obama and the prediction market indicates it will continue to do badly if Romney is elected. But it will also indicate how the economy will do if Obama is reelected. How is this unfair to Romney?

        The prediction market will be unfair to Romney when it predicts the economy will do better if Obama is re-elected but the better performance is predicted under Obama due to the conditions that caused Obama to win.

        Whether the economy will do better if Obama is re-elected just isn’t the same question as whether Obama will cause the economy to do better.

      • Robin Hanson

        Guys, follow the link at the word “presidential” above to see how to deal with causation issues here.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ stephenrdiamond

        follow the link at the word “presidential” above to see how to deal with causation issues here.

        It’s a clever effort at a solution, but I wouldn’t use it to tell me how to vote because I don’t want to vote for the candidate who would be best  conditional on the election being close. (And I don’t think most people would want to vote that way.)

        The argument that I should care particularly when the election is close goes that my vote “counts” the most then–which is to say, that’s when the probability will be greatest that my vote will be decisive. But the probability of my vote’s being decisive is so small, that few people actually base their vote on it.

  • AnotherScaryRobot

    Given that research shows a general bias toward optimism among non-depressed humans, voting against incumbents whenever life fails to go better than expected would seem to favor challengers too often.

    • Robin Hanson

      Yes, you might try to correct for this. Market prices are much less subject to this, so use them for your expectation reference if you can.

  • Steve Winkler

    Following the advice to vote retrospectively and especially against one’s ex ante expectations interestingly would lead to many voting for the opposition. The original supporters of the incumbent generally had very high expectations that in turn were disappointed while the original opponents feared the world would end. Both were wrong; therefore, both have reason to vote in reverse fashion.

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  • zzk

    An obvious problem with voting based on retrospection is that insight is usually limited to the couple of weeks to a months before the election. Its not surprise that social spending a rent payments are highest in the 6 weeks before an election.

  • Andy Wood

    “…my advice is to not vote if you know an average amount or less…”

    How can I know whether I know more or less than the average amount?

  • scott

    If voting for incumbents when your life goes better than expected incentivises incumbents to make your life better, doesn’t it also incentivise challengers to make your life worse?

    • Robin Hanson

      Of course. But challengers are less able to influence events.

      • Cyan

        That may not be true of the challenger’s allies, particularly in a system with strong checks and balances. 

      • daedalus2u

        It is demonstrably not true that non-incumbants lack the means to influence events. The
        Republicans did work in lock-step to thwart Obama’s efforts to
        stimulate the economy using standard Keynesian economic theory.

        Private companies are doing well, the
        stock market is doing well, the 1% is doing extremely well. Advice
        to vote for the incumbent if you are doing extremely well seems to be
        falling on deaf ears among the 1%.

  • http://neq1.wordpress.com/ neq1

    “reelect incumbents when your life goes better than you expected”

    Don’t politicians already have too much incentive for short-term over long-term planning?

    • Robin Hanson

      Wishes aren’t horses. Yes it would be nice if voters knew enough to predict long term differing consequences of different candidates being elected. But the real situation is that typical voters struggle to reliably estimate *any* differing consequences of who they vote for. It is to such voters that I address my advice. 

      • Robert_13

        All but a very few voters know anything significant about the people they vote for or why. They typically just adopt whatever political stance helps them feel they belong in their preferred social environment.

        That’s why you can’t reason with them. Reason had nothing to do with their choices and they don’t even know what reasoning really is, much less how to vet their sources of information. You might as well be speaking Klingon to these people when you try to reason with them.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

        But the real situation is that typical voters struggle to reliably estimate *any* differing consequences of who they vote for. It is to such voters that I address my advice.

        But it truly is bad advice! Voters ought to keep struggling until they can articulate a reliable difference. That’s better than using your misleading measure.  

    • Robert_13

      Right! This guy is a professor of economics? He doesn’t get that it doesn’t only matter how things were when a new president takes office, but also which way the economy was headed and how fast on day one? This is not to mention the delay between legislation and implementation, then the long delay between implementation of the policies and practical impact on a national scale. I guess he thinks aircraft carriers make U-turns in a couple of minutes, too. He must be a professor of economics in his children’s home school!

  • NW

    Why not look at all the opinion polls of economists and see how their consensus overlap’s with a candidates platform? Or, some polls just ask economists which candidate they think will do better. Of course, you need to account for how good the poll’s sample is. 

    • Robin Hanson

      But economists don’t have a theory suggesting that the candidates who economists favor will have better outcomes.

      • NW

        Seems pretty intuitively plausible. If it’s not the case that the overall preferred candidate would lead to better outcomes, then economists must not know what they are talking about. No?

  • Lazarus Long


    consult some well-meaning fool (there is always one around) and ask his
    advice. Then vote the other way. This enables you to be a good citizen
    (if such is your wish) without spending the enormous amount of time on
    it that truly intelligent exercise of franchise requires.

  • Richardsilliker

    Amazing! Creation of an surrealism  to “fix” another surrealism.  Works for me.

  • Alexian

    My only problem is that the ‘no vote’ choice because you lack knowledge unfairly away political power to the old. They are more likely to vote whether they have knowledge or not so the political discourse sways more towards keeping them happy. I argue you should vote no matter what because your vote isn’t that influential, but keeping the voting age blocs more balanced will lead to a better balance of power an discourse.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_A4VNWL5SJ5TXC7NYQUGTNZGHSI Jim

    But which challenger? 
    I vote libertarian because I want to signal to politicians that I will vote for them and support them if they end the war on drugs.  Politicians need to know that they need not fear backlash from me should they end the war on drugs and the news people start running stories of lives destroyed by drugs.  So why not vote to signal?

  • http://www.facebook.com/paul.hewitt.12 Paul Hewitt

    If you think the super PACs have too much influence now, wait until they can leverage their millions in prediction markets!

    While we’re at it, if the markets tell people which candidate to vote for, why not just eliminate the costly voting process?

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    I might as well remind people that Robin already stated who he will vote for, and its not based on the economy. It’s somewhat odd he didn’t reference his reasoning there, which shows up nowhere here. There he gives somewhat (only somewhat) idealistic reasons for his own vote, while here he has a significantly more cynical take on the votes of others.

  • V V

    It seems to me that there is a fatal flaw in this “voting as signalling” stance:

    Your vote is secret.
    Unless you do something illegal, such as taking a picture of your ballot with your mobile, you can’t prove that you voted for someone. You can’t even prove that you voted at all.
    Therefore there is no (licit) way to credibly signal your allegiances and your personality with your vote.

    • Anthony_A

      In California, you receive a stub from the ballot, and usually, a sticker which says “I voted”. So at the very least, you can prove you voted.

      You can demonstrate your alligiences by getting into internet discussions about politics where your friends or coworkers will see them.

  • Philo

    If you “want to signal a bit more confidence and concern”
    than would be suggested by (publicizing the fact that you are) not voting
    because you judge “that your relevant information is roughly average or worse
    than average,” the obvious solution is to *vote while projecting the image of
    someone whose relevant information is well above average*.  This would be difficult to do if your
    information were not actually above average, and to achieve this you *might*
    have to engage in some research.  I am
    confident that you personally would need no *further* research effort, but others
    might require so much effort that they should give up the idea of attempting to
    appear informed, committed, and confident about politics.

    By the way, it seems that you do not follow your own
    advice:  you do not express political
    views with the main objective of looking good to the rest of us.  But I suppose you regard yourself as a
    special–strongly atypical–case.

  • http://twitter.com/higinihernandez Higini Hernández

    1. It strikes me as odd that no mention is made of non economy-related motivations in a country where religion and civil rights are so hotly debated as in the USA. Many people vote based on values and ideology only or mainly, e.g., “pro gay marriage”, “pro guns”, “pro migratory control” or “anti abortion”, “anti creationism in schools”, “anti active involvement in foreign wars”…
    2. The restrospective vote fails to consider the fact that the future actions and policies of incumbents may be different to the ones they undertook in the past and so may be their outcome. The “second term” shift in policies is a well known fact of American politics. Of course, one can argue that four years of policy allow for a degree of accuracy in predicitions, but the fact remains that you can’t just know what will happen.

    • Robin Hanson

      Religion and civil rights can be included in your evaluation of whether you are better or worse off than expected.

  • http://twitter.com/higinihernandez Higini Hernández

    Sorry, I don’t know why my name didn’t appear on the comment.
    Cheers,@higinihernandez

  • Anthony_A

    In other words, do what most people have been doing. Traditional wisdom proves itself again!

    Except that far fewer people believe they know an average amount or less than actually do.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwYig2CP66Q&feature=related Phaerisee

    I am a conservative christian and I was going to vote for Romney until I saw this crazy stuff:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGFAph3lWqw

    • Robert_13

      There are plenty of reasons beyond this not to have voted for Romney. Fortunately, a bare majority in enough states got that so he is not in the White House and never will be. Thank God!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/5I2B4FOPJLHTQQ7KC7DBTUHSR4 Moobz

    My golden retriever tells me how to vote.  This November I’m writing in, “bacon”.

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  • Robert_13

    This an amusing article with some deep truths embedded in it. The most important truth is that, as the author has stated, most people don’t vote on the basis of anything rational regarding outcomes, but rather on what makes them feel they fit well and comfortably into their preferred social environment.

    One really big truth the author misses, however, is that in this country we have developed a very strong class system based on wealth or lack of it that provides the moneyed elite with a very powerfully overbalanced influence on politics. These, on the whole, have a short-sighted wealth extracting agenda, which is to say they wield their influence to extract as much wealth from the rest of us as they can get government to go along with and reward their puppets in D.C. handsomely for taking their orders seriously.

    This is economic suicide in the long run, but this agenda is either blind to that because of simple, short-sighted stupidity or an immoral attitude best expressed as “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone” when the proverbial stuff hits the fan. They either are or can hire experts, however, to sucker many of their victims into voting for their political puppets to these voters’ own and everyone else’s great harm.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

    Alas, we still don’t have presidential decision markets, that estimate important policy outcomes, such as GDP, unemployment, oil prices, etc., conditional on who becomes president. It would only take a few tens of thousands of dollars for someone to create these, at say Intrade.

    In retrospect, weren’t you overly optimistic about Intrade’s entry barriers being inconsequential?