The 2020 presidential election cycle has begun, and, as predicted, the Dem field is crowded. There is a whole slew, a passel, a plethora, a scad, a bevy… well, there’s a bunch. God, I hope Handsome Joe doesn’t foist a third presidential run upon us. With his record of sexual harassment, Anita Hill, mass incarceration, I don’t know if the country could take it. Speaking of God, if there were one, he wouldn’t inflict us with two more years of Bernie Bros and worse. But, we are in the stupidest of all possible worlds, now, so I suppose it was inevitable.
The talk on the Dem side is who can beat the Ol’ Pussy Grabber? That’s understandable considering the debacle of the last two years. During the 2016 election, twice I used Tversky and Kahneman’s Prospect Theory to talk about the election. First, on 26 May 2016, in How Obama Created Trump, I explain how the success of Obama’s presidency led us to be risk seeking with the election of the next president. It wasn’t so much a prediction as it was an explanation of why it was possible. Then, on 9 June 2019, I posted the Cost of Quitting for Bernie Sanders. It was my first viral post! I explained how loss aversion was preventing Sanders from quitting the race… and it explains why the Bernie Bros are still bickering over 2016. Christ! That damn election is dead and gone. Let’s MOVE ON!
If Obama’s calm, cool, collected handling of the Great Recession set us up for taking a risk on the Ol’ Pussy Grabber, then, the Ol’ Pussy Grabbers chaotic, confused, cray-cray must be setting us up for sure thing. As I wrote in the Obama post, people buy earthquake insurance AFTER the earthquake. And, dear god, has the Ol’ Pussy Grabber been an earthquake during an exploding volcano during a hurricane. And, if anyone ever felt like they needed insurance to protect against the losses incurred by an unnatural disaster, it is now.
PROSPECT THEORY is an approach to decision-making in which people consider subjective changes instead of ultimate changes when making decisions. It means that when you make a choice, you’re not thinking necessarily about the big picture, end of the road, goal reached. You’re thinking about the next thing. If its financial, which many of these studies use monetary gambles as a proxy for decisions, you’re looking at your wallet, not your financial portfolio.
Tversky and Kahneman were particularly interested in what they called risky choices. That is a choice that is made in which the outcome is unknowable. You know, like how a presidency will turn out. The only thing people can do when faced with a big decision that has multiple possible outcomes is consider the probability of each outcome occurring and make their decision based on that. Only they don’t.
Instead people rely one a rule of thumb: avoid risk, unless it is to avoid a loss. Avoiding risk is known as risk aversion, and the opposite is risk seeking. The classic example is contained in the exotic disease vignette:
Imagine that the UN is preparing for an outbreak of an unusual Antarctic disease, which is expected to kill 600 people in a small community in Africa. They have developed two alternative programs to combat the disease. Assume that the exact scientific estimate of the consequences of the program are as follows:Tversky and Kahneman (1981)
One group of participants are given these two programs to choose from: PROGRAM A: 200 people will be saved. PROGRAM B: There is a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/3 probability that no one will be saved.
The other group of participants are given these two programs to choose from: PROGRAM A: 400 people will die. PROGRAM B: There is a 1/3 probability that no one will die, and a 2/3 probability that 600 people will die.
What in tarnation? my favorite drunk uncle, Uncle Ignatius, slurs. That don’t make no sense no way no how! These things is easy! Let ’em all die! And then has himself a good laugh that only hisself understands. Meanwhile, back in reality the rest of us generally answer like this:
|Group 1||Group 2|
|Program A||72 %||22 %|
|Program B||28 %||78 %|
If you examine the four choices, you pretty quickly realize that they are all the same, just worded a little differently. Both program A’s result in the same outcomes: in the first one 200 people are saved (and 400 die) and in the second one 400 people die (and 200 are saved). See? They’re the same! And in the program B’s there is a 1/3 probability that everyone will be saved (no one dies) & 2/3 probability that no one will be saved (everyone dies); and in the other one, a 1/3 probability that no one dies (everyone will be saved) & 2/3 probability that everyone will die (no one will be saved).
This question has been asked of numerous people, and it always turns out roughly like this. It doesn’t matter if the participants are trained, licensed, practicing physicians, or college students, or mall rats. You can even ask the same person both questions (just minutes apart), and it still comes out this way. In fact, when you show those people that the programs are the same, they insist that their choices are still “correct,” or morally defensible.
The reason for this is the use of the words “save” and “die.” Kahneman and cognitive psychologists call that a frame and the framing effect. The first number in the programs become an anchor against which all other numbers are judged.
So, when someone sees the first set of program, saving 200 people sounds pretty good. Who could be against saving people, am I right? The heuristic stated above holds true, people aver the risk of 2/3rds probability that everyone will die.
When they encounter the second set of programs, 400 people dying sounds really really bad. But, when they look at the second one, a 1/3rd probability that no one will die seems like a better bet even though it is coupled with a 2/3rds probability that everyone dies. The second half of the rule is also followed, accept the risk if it is to avoid a loss.
Risk Aversion and the 2020 Election
The way this applies to presidential elections is that if the first term ends well, then the president is re-elected. Think Obama in ’12 or Clinton in ’92 or Reagan in ’84 or, hell, even Nixon in ’72! People see the presidency as a gain and become risk averse.
But, if the first term ends badly, then the president is not re-elected. Think Poppy in ’88 or Carter in ’80. People see the presidency as a loss and become risk seeking.
I can’t say who will fit the bill, but I can say that the public will probably seek someone who seems like a “sure bet” as president. That means centerist with tried and true approaches to government. A Biden-type without the baggage.
The funny thing is that some of the policies that the Repubes are trying to call socialist and radical are widely accepted by the public as being normal: Medicare-for-all and social support programs. So, the election isn’t likely to turn on those kinds of scare tactics that worked for the Repubes in the past. It isn’t even likely to turn on the demagoguery of anti-brown rhetoric. It is too closely associated with the chaos of the Ol’ Pussy Grabber.
But, what it means is that people are going to look for someone who SEEMS stable, intelligent, well-mannered, and not a risk. White men fit this bill pretty well. But, in my view, Sanders will always seem like a risk. God, I hope Biden doesn’t run, but he, at least on the surface, is the perfect fit. Beto fits that bill, though. He fits it pretty well if his current coverage is to be believed. He seems like an every man. He seems impassioned. He seems smart and energetic and well-mannered.
What about Cory Booker? He benefits from having had Obama be president already and being light skinned like he is. It makes electing a black man as president seem like less of a risk. He’s a man. He’s a centerist. He is cheerful, kind, engaging, confident.
But what does it say about women and, especially women of color? Electing a black president doesn’t seem as much of a risk any more since we’ve already had one. But, a woman president is another question. Did Clinton lose in ’16 because electing a woman was seen as a risk? Or is ’16 too confounded by Russian meddling to be considered instructive? It is hard to say. The level of misogyny that it revealed cannot be ignored. Taking all of that into consideration, Warren seems like a confident, capable, steady energetic, well-mannered, intelligent person. She could fit the bill.
Harris, as much as I love her, and would like for her to be president, may be a bridge too far under these circumstances.
The ’20 election will be about buying insurance AFTER the earthquake happens and we’ve lost everything because we let the policy lapse. Who will seem like that insurance policy? Who will represent a return to the more sober and well healed politics of Clinton, W, and Obama? Like those were any thing but partisan brawls?