Man Without Qualities

Sunday, August 15, 2004

More Conventional Wisdom

The New York Times today publishes a rather panicky interview by Deborah ("This Can't Be True! Nobody I Know Is Voting For Bush!") Solomon of Yale Professor Ray C. Fair - creator of the "Fair Model" for predicting presidential races - a model that Professor Fair updated as of July 31st to show a coming Bush landslide of 57.48 percent of the two-party vote that has Ms. Solomon so worried. Unlike Ms. Solomon's questions, Professor Fair's answers are themselves models of professional restraint:

Ms. Solomon: The polls are suggesting a much closer race.

Professor Fair: Polls are notoriously flaky this far ahead of the election, and there is a limit to how much you want to trust polls.

S: Why should we trust your equation, which seems unusually reductive?

F: It has done well historically. The average mistake of the equation is about 2.5 percentage points.

S: In your book "Predicting Presidential Elections and Other Things," you claim that economic growth and inflation are the only variables that matter in a presidential race. Are you saying that the war in Iraq will have no influence on the election?

F: Historically, issues like war haven't swamped the economics. If the equation is correctly specified, then the chances that Bush loses are very small.

S: But the country hasn't been this polarized since the 60's, and voters seem genuinely engaged by social issues like gay marriage and the overall question of a more just society.

F: We throw all those into what we call the error term. In the past, all that stuff that you think should count averages about 2.5 percent, and that is pretty small.

S: It saddens me that you teach this to students at Yale, who could be thinking about society in complex and meaningful ways.

F: I will be teaching econometrics next year to undergraduates. Econometrics is a huge deal, because it is applied to all kinds of things. ....

S: Are you a Republican?

F: I can't credibly answer that question. Using game theory in economics, you are not going to believe me when I tell you my political affiliation because I know that you know that I could be behaving strategically. If I tell you I am a Kerry supporter, how do you know that I am not lying or behaving strategically to try to put more weight on the predictions and help the Republicans?

S: I don't want to do game theory. I just want to know if you are a Kerry supporter.

F: Backing away from game theory, which is kind of cute, I am a Kerry supporter.

S: I believe you entirely, although I'm a little surprised, because your predictions implicitly lend support to Bush.

F: I am not attempting to be an advocate for one party or another. I am attempting to be a social scientist trying to explain voting behavior.

S: But in the process you are shaping opinion. Predictions can be self-confirming, because wishy-washy voters might go with the candidate who is perceived to be more successful.

F: It could work the other way. If Kerry supporters see that I have made this big prediction for Bush, more of them could turn out just to prove an economist wrong.

S: Perhaps you could create an equation that would calculate how important the forecasts of economists are.

F: There are so many polls and predictions, and I am not sure the net effect of any one of them is much.

S: Yes, everyone in America is a forecaster. We all think we know how things will turn out.

F: So in that case, no one has much influence, including me.

The interview casts some interesting light on why the prevailing Conventional Wisdom is leaning fairly strongly towards Kerry-Edwards with little in the way of conventional support. As Kausfiles delicately and diplomatically and, I believe, correctly, puts it:

I just think Halperin's "Gang" is still influenced--if only subconsciously--by sympathy for the Democrats and (more important) for those Democratic operatives who are their sources. Correct for that and it's probably not Kerry's contest to lose after all.

Ms. Solomon is herself a more rampant case than those who merely favor Kerry-Edwards "subconsciously." Here she interviews a scientist at a major research university - and terms herself surprised that he hasn't distorted the results of his scientific research to favor his pre-existing political view. One easily imagines her internal dialogue: "Gee," she seems to be saying to herself, "I think nothing of distorting the results of my journalistic investigations to favor my pre-existing political view. What's the matter with this guy? I'll bet he's a closet Republican!" And what to make of Ms. Solomon's stunned quiet at the end of the interview after the Professor observes that what he writes won't influence the election much because lots of people are writing. Can there be a more direct challenge to the write-it-and-they-will-come approach of so many mainstream liberal journalists? More internal Solomon dialogue: "I always assume I'm going to influence the outcome of what I write about substantially - that's why I distort what I write!"

Of course, Ms. Solomon shouldn't worry so much about what she does with her own distortions. Her profession has a lot more in common on this point with the work of trial lawyers than with that of scientists. Who cares much if the analysis proves to be wrong after the jury has made it's award and appeals have expired - or her newsprint has yellowed? That's yesterday's news! Judging from her questioning, her likely first choice for the Democratic nominee was John Edwards - as was the case with so many of her colleagues.

She deplores what she calls Professor Fair's unusually reductive equation - but she thinks nothing of attempting to reduce him to a political label "Republican" or "Kerry supporter." She's surprised when her labeling approach doesn't yield a good prediction as to what the Professor is up to. Then there is her "sadness" at hearing that a professor of economics has been teaching his students that economics has a lot of influence on how people actually operate. So much better to learn to think in complex and meaningful ways that give inaccurate predictions.

Even after Professor Fair does his best to disabuse her of her prejudices, it never seems to occur to Ms. Solomon that the only reason anyone pays special attention to Professor Fair is that very reputation for predictive accuracy. It also never seems to occur to Ms. Solomon that the day after the election Professor Fair will still have that reputation to maintain - and whether he predicted the actual outcome of the election will matter to his reputation, but whether "his" guy Kerry won won't. Perhaps Ms. Solomon bases her view of how Ivy League economists operate on Herr Doktorprofessor Paul Von Krugman - to whom a reputation for predictive inaccuracy now clings and who long ago traded in whatever economic credibility he may have had for the cheap, fleeting pleasures of a hack journalist: "Compare me… compare me, uh, with anyone else, and I think you'll see that my forecasting record is not great."

People like Mark Halperin and Charlie Cook really are non-hacks who do know more than the rest of us. Which is a good thing, because they and their like provide the input that makes the Conventional Wisdom worth reading - even if they are not always right. If every member of Halperin's Gang of 500 were equivalent to Ms. Solomon, and their input to the Conventional Wisdom equivalent to her contribution to this column, the Conventional Wisdom would be nothing more than a demonstration of the arithmetic fact that zero multiplied by five hundred is still zero.

MORE: From Betsy's Page. I'll be keeping an eye out for Stephen Green's Techcentral item, if Nick let's it through.

STILL MORE: From Don Luskin.

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