The Popularity Paradox

This week I’ve been pondering an apparent paradox: Given the fairly disastrous economic achievements of the current government, how in the world are they able to remain so popular in the polls?

Part of this is surely a lack of confidence in the opposition but even so, I don’t think that is enough of an explanation. The polls are not just saying that a lot of people still prefer the government to the opposition – the polls are saying that a lot of people actually trust the government on economic policy. This is The Popularity Paradox – the fact that the government can be hugely unsuccessful and still retain a surprising level of popularity. This post is my attempt to explain that apparent paradox.

Part I: The First Rule of Politics

The first thing we need to do is break our association between political success and political popularity. Democracy is far from an ideal system – the first rule of politics isn’t “Make things better!” The first rule of politics is “Win the next election!”

Because of this, the popularity of a policy is far more important than its success – the primary goal of government policies is to achieve popularity. You can see this in the way that governments deal with taxes. Sometimes increasing taxes would be sensible but governments know that increasing them is a vote loser, so they don’t get increased or they get increased in strange areas that they hope people won’t notice. Similarly they know that tax cuts are popular so a government might cut income tax before an election, even if it makes no economic sense for it to do so. Popularity is everything.

Do you think the trucks hauling, “Illegal Immigrants Go Home” signs were aimed at illegal immigrants? Was the government really expecting illegal immigrants (who they tell us can’t speak English anyway) would just see these trucks, pack their bags and leave? No. The message on those trucks was not aimed at illegal immigrants at all – it was aimed at voters. It was an attempt to boost popularity for the government by convincing people that illegal immigrants were a huge problem and that the government was implementing a tough solution.

Will this stunt result in fewer illegal immigrants? I can’t see how, but that was never its aim. The aim was popularity and whether or not it actually ends up resulting in fewer illegal immigrants is by the by.

Popularity is not achieved through success. Popularity is achieved by convincing people that there is a problem and then telling them how you’re going to solve it. That brings me nicely on to my next point.

Part II: Partial Problem Solving

Let’s take a look at a generic process for solving a problem. It might look a bit like this:

  • You define the problem you wish to solve
  • You find the underlying causes of the problem
  • You design a solution to address the problem
  • You state clearly how you will measure the solution’s success once it is implemented
  • You implement the solution
  • You measure how well the solution performs against your pre-defined criteria
  • You design and implement improvements to the solution and reassess against your pre-defined criteria (repeat this as necessary)

You might be wondering why I’m boring you with this. Well, one way of looking at a government is as a group of people we put in charge to solve problems in our society. In order for people to have trust in a government, they need to understand both the problems that the government is trying to solve and the solutions they are using to solve them.

Let’s look at an example from the current government:

  • Problem: Immigration is too high and unaffordable in its current state
  • Underlying causes: Immigrants are arriving in huge numbers, taking jobs from British citizens and claiming massive sums in benefits
  • Solution: Clamp down on non-EU immigration. Hold a referendum on EU membership so we might soon be able to clamp down on immigration from within the EU too.

Let’s look at another example:

  • Problem: The UK’s economy is weak because of high government spending
  • Underlying Causes: The previous government went on a spending spree that was unaffordable
  • Solution: We need to immediately reduce government spending.

In both of these cases the government clearly defined the problem and the underlying causes and then clearly set out the solution. Both of these policies were popular with a lot of people. Let’s remember though, the seven steps of problem-solving that I outlined above. The government is only performing four of the seven steps. Let’s look at the list again, this time with the steps the government is doing underlined:

  1. You define the problem you wish to solve
  2. You define the underlying causes of the problem
  3. You design a solution to address the problem
  4. You state clearly how you will measure the solution’s success once it is implemented
  5. You implement the solution
  6. You measure how well the solution performs against your pre-defined criteria
  7. You design and implement improvements to the solution and reassess against your pre-defined criteria (repeat this as necessary)

In the second example I gave, the government has spent three years unwilling to adapt a policy that has not even got close to solving the problem of a weak economy. A much better way of doing things would be to admit that the initial policy wasn’t working and adapt it. After all,  the economy is complicated and it is unreasonable to expect every policy you start off with to be perfect and never require adapting. Willingness to adapt a policy based on how well it performs is essential when trying to solve a complex problem.

Those missing steps might help to explain why the government’s solutions are unsuccessful. To understand why they are popular however, we need to look at something I’m going to call The Ignorance of Crowds*.

Part III: The Ignorance of Crowds

When we vote, we are expected to assess the relative merits of a huge number of different policies across many different areas of government. We need to determine what the best policies are in economics, health, education, foreign policy, crime etc etc etc. An economist might be an expert on monetary and fiscal policy but lack the knowledge to make a good judgment on education policies. A teacher might be an expert in education but lack the knowledge of the relative merits of sanctions vs military intervention in Syria**.

A small number of people are experts in one area. An even smaller number are experts in two. I doubt anyone is an expert in more than three. You can see why this is a problem in a situation where a crowd of people needs to each, individually pass judgment on a wide range of complicated subjects.

But why is this important in understanding why a policy can be simultaneously unsuccessful and popular? Have a look again at the steps of the problem solving process that are highlighted (the ones the government is doing) and those that are not. It is quite easy for a non-expert to understand a clearly defined problem. It is also quite easy for a non-expert to understand a clearly defined solution. However it is much harder for an non-expert to assess whether or not a policy is actually succeeding.

So the government defines a problem that the crowd understands (e.g. debt is too high) and defines a solution that the crowd understands (e.g. spending must be cut) but unless an individual has some level of expertise in that area they are forced to rely on the reports of third parties to know whether or not that policy is working. This would not be such a bad thing if the third parties took time to carefully explain how they had reached their judgments so that they could be understood by non-experts but that’s very rare because the third parties from whom people get this information are of course, the media and the politicians themselves.

The Ignorance of Crowds says that as non-experts we can understand a problem that is presented to us and we can understand a proposed solution but it is very hard for us to know how successful that solution actually turned out to be. That means the definition of the problem and the definition of the solution are far more important factors in determining a policy’s popularity than its success.

This explains why the government only worries about certain steps in the problem solving process. The things that make you popular are clearly stating the problem you wish to solve and clearly stating how you want to solve it. Whether it works or not is almost by the by.

Part IV: Phantom Problems

So we’ve looked at how a problem should be solved and seen how and why the government doesn’t do things like that. We’ve seen that a government can take advantage of The Ignorance of Crowds by giving the appearance of solving problems that they are in fact not solving at all and we have seen that solving problems is not their main concern in any case. There is though, another reason for that gulf between popularity and success and this one is far worse than anything I’ve mentioned so far.

In the set of steps for solving a problem that I outlined, you start by defining the problem, then working out the underlying causes and then defining the solution. The government does not do this. What the government does is nothing less than scary.

The government starts with the solution – that is, the policy that they want to implement. They then work backwards to come up with a “problem” that they can use to justify that solution.

Look at the examples I gave:

  • Problem: Immigration is too high and unaffordable in its current state
  • Underlying causes: Immigrants are arriving in huge numbers, taking jobs from British citizens and claiming massive sums in benefits
  • Solution: Clamp down on non-EU immigration. Hold a referendum on EU membership so we might soon be able to clamp down on immigration from within the EU too.

Now, if you were to start at the problem end you would never even get as far as defining this as a problem. Immigration has a clear net benefit to the UK. Immigrants contribute to economic growth, don’t take jobs away from non-immigrants and take less on average than non-immigrants do in benefits. We are better off with immigration than we would otherwise be. The only way you can arrive at the problem that the government defines is by starting from the solution you want to implement (I don’t like foreigners, let’s get rid of them) and then work backwards to define a problem.

This is an example of what I call, a Phantom Problem – that is, a problem that is scary, doesn’t really exist and has been made up purely to justify the “solution” you want to implement.

Let’s look at the other example:

  • Problem: The UK’s economy is weak because of high government spending
  • Underlying Causes: The previous government went on a spending spree that was unaffordable
  • Solution: We need to immediately reduce government spending.

The government dislikes public spending. Not, because it caused the financial crisis though, (it didn’t) but because government spending is paid for through taxes and they like low taxes. After all, taxes are a key instrument through which wealth is distributed from the rich to the poor. The government doesn’t like taxes.

But, whether or not you support lower taxes is irrelevant. The fact is that the financial crisis wasn’t caused by public spending – it was caused by irresponsible bank lending. “The UK’s economy is weak because of high government spending” is an example of a Phantom Problem.

Summary

Partial Problem Solving explains why government policies are often unsuccessful. The Ignorance of Crowds explains how the government makes unsuccessful policies popular. The phenomenon of Phantom Problems allows a government to arbitrarily create policies around their own ideals that have no real basis for existence. Unsurprisingly, a solution that addresses a Phantom Problem will almost always do more harm than good. We might turn away immigrants that would otherwise have made everyone better off. We might implement spending cuts that further harm an already weak economy rather than strengthening it.

These things together explain how our government can be far more popular than the success of their policies would merit and The First Rule of Politics explains their motivation for doing it. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs but it does at least show that The Popularity Paradox is not really a paradox at all. It’s simply the logical result of a government that is adept at exploiting the weaknesses of the democratic system.

So – benevolent dictatorship, anyone?

RedEaredRabbit

* I Googled “The Ignorance of Crowds” and see that different people have already used this term for different meanings. I am using it purely as the definition I give here and not referring to how anyone else might have used it. As Humpty Dumpty said,  “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

** I’m not being snooty here –  I count myself among the ignorant. That is the reason I generally avoid education or foreign policy or a whole bunch of other things on this blog. Like anyone else, I am mostly ignorant of most complicated things.

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About RedEaredRabbit
My name is RedEaredRabbit, King of Kings. Look on my works ye Mighty and despair.

3 Responses to The Popularity Paradox

  1. Can I add :-

    If the government did widespread harm (e.g. unintended consequence of addressing a phantom problem) then they will lose support from those affected — unless those affected are not its supporters in the first place.

    So solutions to phantom problems are good if they only affect people who don’t support you in the first place.

  2. Pingback: Facts? Where We’re Going We Don’t Need Facts! | RedEaredRabbit

  3. Pingback: Playing with fire | RedEaredRabbit

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