Offended By Bets

U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently offered a $10,000 bet to competing candidate Rick Perry, regarding what Romney said in his book. Pundits say this hurt Romney’s image:

The $10,000 bet … reinforces a narrative already swirling in the political world: that his wealth makes him out of touch with the economic concerns of average folks. …

No matter what the Romney people say, offering a $10,000 bet is, at best, somewhat odd. (You generally either bet someone $1 or $1 million dollars; anywhere in between seems weird and raises eyebrows.) …

“It seems pretty outrageous and out of touch. People around here don’t have that kind of money.” … Critics attacked Romney — a multimillionaire venture capitalist — for tossing out the $10,000 figure like Monopoly money. … “When I talk to my neighbor and want to make a bet, it’s 10 bucks.” (more; HT Maxim Lott)

The idea that a presidential candidate couldn’t afford a $10,000 bet is crazy, as is the idea that ordinary folks don’t know this fact. Candidates pay for TV commercials, which cost lots more than $10,000, and they fly all around the nation in planes, which gets expensive.

So clearly we have moved high up into belief meta-levels here. “Yes, most people know Romney can afford $10,000, but some aren’t sure that most others know this, and so this shows that Romney doesn’t know about such folks.” Or “It is rude to point out that you are rich, even when everyone knows you are rich. Yes wearing nice suits shows he’s rich, but not wearing suits is socially unacceptable. Offering smaller bets is acceptable, however, so offering a big bet could be interpreted as bragging about wealth. Not that I’d interpret it that way, but someone might, and this shows Romney doesn’t realize that.”

Geez it must be a pain to be a presidential candidate. This all shows how much we care about social savvy and signaling in such folks. We don’t much care if they understand supply and demand, but they damn well better know who might try hard to be offended by what.

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  • He was totally joking; mormons don’t make bets.

  • UserGoogol

    Candidates do not generally pay for campaigns out of pocket, but instead collect donations sent into legally restricted campaign funds. A bet like this might qualify as sufficiently campaign related to be legal, but it would be kind of a weird campaign expenditure. (Plus, Romney didn’t ask for Perry’s campaign committee to make a bet, he asked for Perry to make a bet.)

    Also yeah it’s kind of arbitrary economic signalling, but I don’t think you need to get into all sorts of meta bullshit to explain it. Part of this is flagrant political horse race politics: people don’t actually care, but they think other people might. There’s not a whole lot of evidence that stupid political gaffes like this actually swing elections all that much, but the cable news networks need something to talk about.

  • Ben

    Pretty sure presidential campaigns can’t pay for gambling debts the same way they pay for TV ads, meaning that any wager would need to be between Perry and Romney personally. $10k means a lot more to Perry than to Romney. Were I to guess, I’d say Romney’s coming across as a bully, and people are reacting negatively.

  • billb

    Isn’t this more likely pundits trying to manufacture outrage than actual outrage?

  • You may be overanalyzing Ed’s thinking. Clearly he wants to hang this around Romney’s neck in a damaging way. And clearly he hopes to do so, not on the basis of a non-trivial theory of belief meta-levels, but because:

    * It’s a soundbite that connects Romney to wealth. Romney’s done something unusual enough that in many people’s minds it can be attached particularly to him. Which is dumb but it works.
    * I expect he wants to use follow-the-crowd bias. His comment is laced throughout with “everybody’s saying” type remarks.

  • Mark M

    I’m not sure it shows how much we care about social savvy, etc. What it mostly shows is media mania. Just because the event is being reported doesn’t mean the public is influenced.

    It’s probably a good social learning experience, though. You don’t really want your president casually tossing out bets to the president of France.

    So… Betting $10,000.

    A straight up money bet is going to take a bad spin no matter the amount. Some groups will say this is a gamble and gambling is bad no matter what. I would guess that a $10,000 bet is illegal throughout most of the United States.

    For public figures, the socially acceptable way to place bets is for the loser to donate the sum to a charity of the winner’s choice.

    Betting $10,000 is enough to hurt. It’s real money (to most people). A large bet is supposed to be a signal that you are willing to give up a lot if you are wrong. Your opponent will take the bet if he feels as strongly. To further reinforce your position, you can give odds. At 100 to 1, your opponent doesn’t need to risk so much, while you risk a lot.

    Betting $1 is a token for an “I told you so” bet. You are shamed if you lose, and you get bragging rights if you win. Giving the $1 token is admission of defeat.

    The media is basically saying people will think that Romney is treating the $10,000 bet as a token bet, so people will think Romney is out of touch. I don’t know how many people would have come to that conclusion without the media introducing the idea, but I doubt it would have been very many. I’m sure a lot of people will believe it now that they’ve heard it, but I’d guess those are people who weren’t planning to vote for Romney anyway. Those who were planning to vote for him will believe it’s a big bet because it’s about an important subject. Confirmation bias at work, on both sides!

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  • Jared

    Usergoogol is correct: though Romney has put a good bit of his own money into his campaign, that was not a campaign expense. That was Romney, the guy, betting Perry, the guy.

    It is also clear what Romney was doing (and I think he was right to do it): he was saying something to the effect of “if you’re so sure you’re right, put your money where your mouth is.” To make such a bet meaningful, though, it has to be enough that it’d matter if either party lost, but not so much that neither party can afford to lose. The fact that the number, then, that Romney chose to make it hurt was such a very large percentage of everyday people’s incomes served as a stark reminder of how different his life is from the average person’s.

    I actually liked the bet. Had I been his consultant, I would’ve planned for the bet. But I would’ve made it an amount that (a) didn’t violate Iowa law, and (b) normal people could relate to. “Governor, a nice dinner down at [decent steak place in Ames] runs about $X. I’ll bet you a dinner at [steak place] that you’ve read my book incorrectly, and I’ll let George and Diane here be the judges. You a bettin’ man, Rick?”

  • The point of a bet is to challenge the opponent to show the same confidence in his position as you’re ready to show. Romney overlooked that Perry would have to be a lot more confident than would Romney to risk $10,000. He failed to take into account that people’s wealth, rather than just their beliefs in their contentions’ truth, determines how much they’ll bet. This oversight portends that Romney will fail to consider the different circumstances of people who lack resources when he formulates public policy. (A flat income tax? Why not? Everyone pays the same proportion of income. If I can pay that, plus tithe to the Mormon Church, why can’t they?.)

  • nazgulnarsil

    gentlemen bets ($1) should be encouraged as they are FAR AND AWAY superior to no bets.

    It would be nice if any form of betting based on beliefs were to become more a social norm.

  • I think this was a grave strategic error on Romney’s part. Now, if he is the GOP nominee, and he says something dodgy about Obama in a debate, Obama can propose a bet that he is wrong. Romney can’t back down because he proposed one to Perry. If Obama makes the bet for something nominal, like $10, then Romney really has no excuse to not take him up on it. If Romney still refuses, then Obama can make a joke about $10 being to “rich” for Romney. If Obama proposes the bet, he can propose a neutral arbiter, like the CBO.

    • Obama wouldn’t dare help solidify such a precedent. What if senators started proposing bets on the outcome of his favored “jobs programs” or “stimulus packages”?

      • I think it will happen, but not as predictions of events going forward but about simple matters of fact which many of Obama’s opponents simply get wrong.

        For example the idea that Obamacare increased the deficit. It didn’t, but no conservative is able to think that thought because it conflicts with their ideology.

        There is also the idea that social security is responsible for some of the deficit. It isn’t, but people who hate social security have a difficult time keeping their facts about social security separate from their feelings about it.

  • Preferred Anonymous

    Why did you stop at bets and suits?

    Why not album preferences, haircuts, religious beliefs, etc.? Society went nuts a long time ago.

  • This line made me laugh:
    “We don’t much care if they understand supply and demand, but they damn well better know who might try hard to be offended by what.”

    Sad, but true, unfortunately.

  • MPS

    “Geez it must be a pain to be a presidential candidate.”

    Or any political candidate. Which I think is why the pool of candidates one sees in a given election is remarkably disappointing, given the importance of the positions, in light of the overall level of talent in this country.

  • Tribsantos

    I wonder if bets are offensive because it is considered a violation of someone’s privacy to test their sinceriy. The whole “it’s too much money” issue is a distraction. People are offended by real bets. One dollar and million dollar bets are not real bets.

    • Tribsantos

      The reason there has to be a distraction is that people may be offended by the suggestion that they would be offended by a test of their sincerity – and so on.

    • Douglas Knight

      There’s something to this, but Perry was already attacking Romney’s sincerity.

      • Tribsantos

        The thing is, I think it is less offensive to call someone a liar then to actually prove that they are lying. You call someone a liar, he calls you a liar back, that’s it. If you propose a bet, a real one, people know who’s sincere.
        The strategy most people choose, never to take bets, for whatever reason they have, may at the end of the day help them get away with a lie when they need to.

  • arch1

    The issue, while not a biggie, doesn’t strike me as terribly meta or contrived.

    Romney’s choice of a bet amount some three orders of magnitude above the comfort level of typical betting Americans somewhat increases my guesstimate of his level of disconnection with his fellow citizens concerning economic matters, which slightly decreases my guesstimate of his effectiveness in handling those matters, and (to an even lesser degree) those of the Presidency generally.

    That said I agree it must be a pain to be a presidential candidate. Or a president.

  • Matt

    This is a variation on a very high profile and straightforward theme in American politics: presidential candidates have to pretend to be an American average-Joe. How man times have you heard the quesiton ‘who would you rather have a beer with?’ during a presidential race. How many times was the electoral success of Bill Clinton and W. Bush attributed to be people wanting to hang out with them because they are just like them.

    Obama doesn’t fit this mold, but that is why he is slightly distrusted by the American public, and his re-election chances are not helped by his elitist demeanor. Still, he has to awkwardly go to things like Texas bbqs and have beer summits in an attempt to fit the pose.

    “People you want to have a beer with” don’t make $10k bets to make a point, thats what fat-cats you don’t know do. It’s the same gaffe as Kerry not being able to navigate a fastfood restuarant. This isn’t about Americans demanding sociopath-signalling machines as presidents, its much more innocent and naive than that.

  • john

    I quite liked Mitt’s bet offer.
    It would have been better yet if he had said “loser to donate to the salvation army” or something similar.

    ignoring the value of the bet(which i really don’t think all that significant), i like the tactic of forcing a bet or standing down from a statement.

    if one is to be taken seriously, he should be willing to back all of his assertions by betting on them. if one is not willing to bet on an assertion, he ought not assert.

  • Well, I think one of the least controversial things to say about presidents is that they help with the general legitamacy of government. So, it makes sense that we’d want signal savantes in the presidency. Separate is the problem of hecklers raising the bar of sufficient signal savanteness to be President (at the expense of more mundane proficiencies like administrative competence).

    • Douglas Knight

      Is “controversial” really the word you want? Maybe it’s an extremely widespread belief (eg, school children are taught about Washington stepping down), but I think it is extremely controversial to say it.

      • It was a lazy word choice, but it seemed good enough to get the sentence done.

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