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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