Monday, December 10, 2007

The Psychological Approach to the Presidential Election

Here's my current primary criterion for the President: I have to like his personality.

By this, I mean that his personality must be suited to how I believe he'll perform in the job, not necessarily that I think he'd tell the best anecdotes at a dinner party.

I contrast this against strictly voting for someone based on an abstract alignment of his or her policy positions with mine.

The reason for this is philosophical. I believe in two contested philosophical positions: 1) I believe in Natural Law, and 2) I believe it the meaningful (if not perfect) ascertainability of Natural Law. As this applies to a President, what I believe is that most policy questions have right answers in an absolute (if approximate) sense. And so I believe the right kind of personality should be able to get to the right answers most of the time, or at least more often than the wrong type of personality.

However, what I have seen is that most politicians have personalities poorly suited for this process I've outlined of getting to the right answers. For example, President Bush has shown a strong tendency to be stubborn, unwilling to make thoughtful inquiry into matters, and unwilling listen to positions that contradict his own. I think a reasonable relationship can be seen between this and our entrance into the Iraq war (details of this are abundant, and I won't outline them here) (also, compare this to what I don't mean by personality, as it appears that President Bush would make a fairly amiable dinner guest).

This I why I currently prefer in order Sen. Obama, and then probably either Sen. Biden or Sen. McCain. (btw: can we perhaps refer to these men and women who are running for leader of the free world by their titles, giving them they honor they are due, as opposed to by their first names?). I've seen all of these men display remarkable candor and thoughtfulness, which for me are marks of good personalities for the pursuit of getting right answers to hard questions.

(update: I just reviewed Gov. Huckabees proposals for healthcare and taxes, and basically they strike me as ludicrous to the point he's fallen off my list of good policy is relevant to disproving a certain candidate's ability to get to the right answers)

This isn't to say policy positions play no role in my thinking, but, for example, my currently policy positions are actually fairly well aligned with Gov. Romney's. However, Gov. Romney has shown me so far a lack of candor and thoughtfulness, not to mention notable changes of policy positions over the years that are consistent with his reputation for self-serving expediency, and so I don't trust him to implement policies I agree with. I voted for President Bush in 2000 based on our shared pro-life position (which he has stuck to); however I've learned during his tenure that issues will arise during a presidency that are outside the scope of the policy positions the candidate took during the election season--when the unknown arises, I want a certain type of person there to meet that challenge. And further, the fact that a person articulates a desire to bring about a certain policy has only a tenuous relationship with whether that policy will be implemented due to numerous circumstances outside that person's control.

Another factor which has some bearing on the issue is a candidate's experience. The best prior job I can imagine to prepare a person for being president is possibly the vice presidency. But the Vice President isn't running, and it's not clear to me that any senator, governor or former First Lady has a clear leg up on the other candidate in terms of relevant prior experience.

So, that's why my primary reason for favoring certain candidates is their personality which I perceive as thoughtful and truthful.

Go ahead and tell me if you think this is crazy. I'm sure at least one of you does.


-Dave said...


I agree, in principle. I think it's a well-reasoned position - and the idea that a candidate's decision-making and truth-finding ability is of paramount importance is big.

I haven't heard much about Gov. Huckabee's health care and tax plans that you disdain so much.

But it strikes me that the dismissal of candidates for political positions that show an inability to get to the correct answer... well, that gets pretty close to where you start from. For a conservative to say that "I don't want the sort of person who can't figure out that abortion is basically murder" is saying the same thing with more words as "I won't support anyone who backs abortion." In the end, both come down to the ideology of the voter, because both rely on the voter's ability to discern the best course of action, and only then apply it to the politician's views.

One of my "prior experience" criteria is executive experience. Most presidents elected in the past 50 years (all, I think) have at least one of the following resume bliurbs: former governor, or former Vice President. And I think that's reasonable because executing and legislating are in some important senses very different beasts. Someone who has been a successful governor or vice president (none of the latter, for better or worse) has a skill-set the others lack.

On the conservative side, at least, that would be former Governors Romney and Huckabee. Mayor Giuliani might count, but mayor of New York - though the city's roughly 10x the size of the State of Nevada - is still a pretty limited experience. Senator McCain is left in the cold here.

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

"…a strong tendency to be stubborn, unwilling to make thoughtful inquiry into matters, and unwilling listen to positions that contradict his own."

Your description of the personality type of the current president matches, I would suspect, that of most worldly leaders, even the "Christian" ones. I especially notice the second trait, being "unwilling to make thoughtful inquiry into matters", as almost universal among the younger set of "managers", and maybe predominant among the older set.

(When I was a manager, I was what I refer to as "a working manager," that is, one who knows how to do whatever he delegates to a subordinate, usually does it first to demonstrate, and at the very least never asks anyone to do anything he wouldn't do himself, first one there in the morning, last one to leave at night.)

This makes me wonder, sometimes, how deep a leader's or manager's Christianity goes. Is it a veneer, no matter how thick, or is it the pith of a man's character?

It's a rare man or woman who is in a leadership position and at the same time unself-consciously fulfills the role of a servant, which is what Jesus commands.

"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:25-28)

Popes and patriarchs call themselves things like "servant of the servants of God", and yet they don't cavil at being addressed as "your Holiness."

History knows a few, but really only a few, leaders small and great who have lived and even ruled as Christian kings… some of them perhaps even without being Christians. These are known to God alone, and so is their reward.

As we go to the polls to vote for candidates next year, we can only make the best choices open to us, according to our moral lights. Let's hope that for once we have some real choices and are not, as in "one party" societies, invited to vote for candidates that have already been "appointed" beforehand. (I don't mean this in a conspiratorial sense.)

Jeff said...

I'm guessing that I'm the one you're expecting the "you're crazy" from... I do like the point about the ability to address issues that don't come up during the campaigns. I'd say that campaigns need to be more substantive, but... yeah, that's not happening.

Anyway, I think what you described isn't personality so much as governing philosophy, which I do find important. It matters whether you want a president who is responsive to the ever-changing will of the people or whether you want a president who uses his/her own judgment to address issues. (Romney, I guess, is the candidate of the former school of thought, similarly to Kerry in '04.) And if you're electing a president based on their judgment, it helps to know how they tend to make judgments. So yeah, I kind of agree with you, even if I don't give a damn how many wives they've had or such.

Kenny said...

I was sort of able to envision any one of you telling me this idea was crazy. I was recently called an ignorant bigot on the Washington Post comments section, so that made me stand back a bit and wonder if I was a nutty.

Kenny said...


Regarding Huckabee, his first idea for reforming health care is to encourage insurance companies to find innovative ways to bring down costs. Fine sentiment, but I can't imagine how his encouragement could possibly bring about its intended result.

His second big idea is so-called "tort reform." There's a lot of data and reason that shows the notion that medical liability is the problem in healthcare is just a chimera. In short, tort cases against doctors does not have a large impact on health care costs and to the extent it does have an impact it's due to a totally fair legal standard (negligence), and further major studies have shown that doctors in fact commite MORE malpractice than they think they do, not less.

He's also in favor of tax credits instead of deductions for health care, which might work if people would make good decisions about their health care, which I think they won't. This is a combo belief in "personal responsibility" and the "rational actor" of economics, both of which I think are flawed notions in many contexts, particularly in the health care context.

On taxes and the economy he believes he needs the line-item veto. While I can see why a president would want this, that idea is DOA as it just gives the executive far too much power.

He claims that progressive taxation discourage productivity, another chimerical notion as it's been shown that you need to tax people at a rate of 80% to discourage their productivity.

He wants to get rid of pretty much all taxation and replace it with a "consumption tax" and idea I'm not sure of the merit of, but he literally describes it as waving a magic wand and making the current pain of taxation going away.

I'm worried about policies based on mythical fire breathing dragons (the chimera) and magic wands.

-Dave said...

In the case of one profession in particular - Ob-Gyns, who in numerous, documented cases leave the practice because rising medical liability insurance simply became prohibitively expensive, I wonder at your second point.

On the other hand, knowing someone who died on account of medical negligence, I am convinced that there are legitimate cases for it. So the answer to the question of whether tort reform is needed depends on where you think the balance point is. Are we litigious to the point where the end result (severe shortage of necessary doctors, as with Ob-Gyns) leaves us worse off than an alternative (accepting more negligence, but also getting access to some level of care that we cannot get if there simply aren't doctors available).

I think in some cases, there is need for reform. But I do think it's an overblown example.

I doubt that "it's been shown you need to tax people at 80% to discourage productivity." That number sounds, well, ridiculously high... so I'd strongly question the methodology of that study.

But I do think a progressive tax structure is not, in and of itself, bad. What must be avoided are large STEPS in the rate that give people a real incentive to remain just below the step. I have seen tax advice that advises people to do just this - avoid making more money (through additional work) to avoid a certain step, like the AMT. Given that I've seen mainstream tax advice telling people to work less and make less to avoid a significant tax hit, I think that less than 80% taxation does, in fact, discourage productivity.

As long as working more gets you more stuff, and you feel the additional effort is worth the additional reward, you'll probably go the extra mile. It's marginal analysis, and if I had to place my bets somewhere I'd say it's about the most foundational, trustworthy segment of economics you can look at.

I think a consumption tax has its merits, but I don't think it could replace the income tax with the government we have now. Looking at how Nevada's reeling from a drop in predicted revenues from just such a tax demonstrates the volatility of such taxes... and that's something I'd find scary at a national level.

Concerning people making dumb choices: where do we draw the line on letting people pay for their own mistakes? At some point, in health care, education, careers, retirement, etc, people making bad choices will hurt them. How much of this should government prevent?

I'm not agreeing or disagreeing with your thoughts on health care, but you are saying "people will suffer X if government does not make them do Y." I'm assuming that it is not efficient, wise, or in the interests of liberty for government to prevent every single harm that could possibly befall someone in life. Therefore, what level of harm should the government allow a citizen to suffer, if that level is greater than zero?

Kenny said...


Re Obg-yns, I actually have a question for you: why doesn't the market simply "solve" this problem through traditional market forces?

My guess is that the cost of offering the OBGYN product is higher than the willingness to pay for it. So, yes, one answer could be some kind of reform to tort law, which would lower the cost of offering OBGYN services. If it were tailored to a particular situation, that would be better than a more generalized reform.

But doesn't this implicate the same issue as your question regarding when do we give people freedom to choose? You could say using a free market analysis that people have simply chosen that OBGYN services are worth it to them in certain places. If it were, they'd be willing to pay for it.

I guess this points out that in certain instances the market isn't perfect, and sometimes some limited tinkering by the government is warranted.

And so to answer your question of when we choose to have the government step in and tinker with the market, I think it's on a case-by-case basis. I'd be open to empirical data either way, but my intuition is that many people would not make good choices with Huckabee's tax credit.

-Dave said...

Another way of looking at the "how much should government do" question:

Given that government cannot do unlimited things, is it better to spend it's time, energy, and "political capital" making a slight improvement to the health of Americans, or should it spend that energy elsewhere?

If the tradeoff for improving health care in America is allowing famine and pestilence in Africa, is that a reasonable tradeoff?

I'd rather see some perspective on our health "crisis." Any candidate offering that would get a big jump in the "What Dave Thinks Of You" poll.

Kenny said...

Dave, I think that’s a good point about getting some perspective on the health care crisis. Right now, I’m simply noticing that both sides are describing it as such, so there’s probably something to it because they don’t usually agree, and presumably they’re responding to their own knowledge of what voters are concerned about---which seems like a decent proxy for data that there’s an actual crisis.

Also, I'd be all for major intervention in Darfur.

But the only candidate who I’ve seen advocate for that is Sen. Biden, who everyone knows is not a front-runner.

Kenny said...

I've had a hard time running down hard numbers on the optimal taxation rate at the higher marginal tax brackets, and apprarently this stuff is highly disputed as to its meaning, both liberals and conversatives claiming it (the Laffer Curve) supports their posisions. So, I did find a few articles referring to the 80% number for optimal taxation at the highest tax brackets, but they weren't connected to studies I could sight with any confidence.

-Dave said...

I'll admit, I hadn't heard of the Laffer curve before, but after looking at the wikipedia article, it looks like that curve is dealing primarily with maximising revenue - not maximising productivity.

That's a side answer to the question, because I'm not sure if maximising productivity and maximising tax revenue are the same thing. In fact, I'm rather certain they are not.

The curve has a strictly concave shape (I'm willing to bet) because all taxation decreases productivity, with the effect becoming stronger over time. If at very low tax rates taxation did not decrease productivity, then we should expect to see a shape where, below some tax rate t at which taxes no longer discouraged productivity, the curve was linear. Above t, the gap between the curve and the line would represent the loss of potential revenues because of declining productivity. Loss of productivity is the reason the Laffer curve isn't the Laffer line.

This would be so much easier with a graphic. I can see it in my head, but the drawing of the picture with words is not my strong suit.


You may ask why it might be optimal to choose a tax rate below the point of maximum revenue. My answer would be that decreasing productivity hurts jobs. Watching unemployment in various industries and occupations here in Nevada as the housing bubble pops makes that all too apparent. And the jobs that are most likely to be lost tend to be the workers at the bottom of the chain (because, in part, they are the easiest to replace when times are good again).

Kenny said...

The Laffer Curve addresses Huckabee’s argument that taxing people’s income discourages them from being more productive. This may be true, but unless you’re willing to tax people at 0% (which would be anarchy, which as a side note I’ve been thinking would be the “purest market”), then you’re looking for some optimal rate at which to tax people. The Laffer Curve says that when an increase in taxes actually leads to a decrease in tax revenue, then you know you’ve started to kill the golden goose. But until then, you’ve got room to work with that suggests that productivity isn’t being hurt so much so that it shows up on the Laffer Curve. So it helps in thinking about what the optimal tax rate might be.

-Dave said...

..."suggests that productivity isn’t being hurt so much so that it shows up on the Laffer Curve."

The Laffer curve is an imprefect tool, but this statement is... wrong. The loss of productivty DOES show up, at every point on the curve, to an ever-increasing magnitude, as increasing taxes leads to a decreasing rate of return on those tax rate hikes.

If you consider the Laffer curve as a crude trajectory, say of a cannonball, then the effects of productivity loss are seen on the Laffer Curve as the gravity that steadily pulls the ball back to earth.

You might argue that the goal of government taxation is to maximize revenue. Then, you can start looking at the Laffer curve, and say what you said above.

But you simply can't talk about productivity this way, though... because the loss of productivity shows up from the very lowest point on the laffer curve (take the curve, draw a line tangent to the lowest point on the curve you can, and shade in the gap between line and curve. *That* is, roughly, the loss in productivity - not the Laffer curve itself).

Confusing "productivity" and "change in tax revenue" can lead to some silly results if taken too literally. Let's say that 80% is the "peak" of the curve. Let's also say that 75% is very near the peak, such that the Laffer curve between thes points is almost flat. It is almost flat because despite an increase of 5% in taxes, the loss of productivity is so great at this point that revenue goes up a very small - say, 0.5% ammount... so you are losing some 4.5% of the straight-line increase to deadweight productivity loss. This is a real 4.5% loss in the economy, as it represents economic activity that would have otherwise happened if not for the tax increase... and it is done for middling revenue increases. I think it's rather clear that the ideal point, then, is somewhere below - perhaps well below - the peak of the curve.

This is not to say that the argument "tax cuts increase revenue" is reasonable. I doubt many reasonable people would think that, in light of the evidence, at the current tax rates. And that so many conservatives insist on saying that is something I find troubling, too.

But taxes, at every point on the curve, (unless you want to model a sinusoidal curve with an inflection point (where the slope changes from bowl-shaped to hill-shaped) at some positive tax rate between 0 and 1 -- since the Laffer curve seems a rather loosely defined concept, this isn't too unreasonable, and it would suggest that to a point government taxation + activity increases productivity) decrease productivity.

The Laffer curve, then, is good (as a starting point) for talking about revenue changes. But it is rather poor for talking productivity.

A reasonable policy debate is where to balance these factors. But to say "you need to tax people at a rate of 80% to discourage their productivity" is just as baseless as saying (in my opinion) "tax cuts (at our current rates) will increase revenue." But from your blurb, it looks like Huckabee is saying the plainly obvious - increasing taxes negatively affects productivity.

Until you seperate the idea of productivity loss (ever-present, and increasingly strong as rates go up) and changes in revenue (the question actually addressed by the curve), there isn't much that can be substantively said here.

The proper question is "what level of deadweight productivity loss is acceptable for the government to raise a given amount of revenue?" Not "does increasing taxes harm productivity?"

-Dave said...

For a crude illustration of where productivity loss shows up:

Kenny said...

I stand corrected; you're obviously right Dave.

The criticism of Huckabee remains about the same. Here's his actual words:

"Our current progressive tax system penalizes us for working harder and becoming more successful. As we climb the ladder, the government lurks on each rung, hungry for a bigger bite out of our earnings."

So, even putting the question properly as you do, Dave, Huckabee's position doesn't reflect the possiblity that some taxation may be a good thing.

-Dave said...

It looks like he's talking more about the fact that the tax system is progressive, as opposed to a flat tax.

Supporters of this idea say that The rich pay more in taxes under a flat tax simply because they are giving the same proportion of a larger pie.

And I can see some sense in the idea that increasing the rate of taxation as revenue goes up in inequitable. But it's both (1) a position just about any Republican would take (I think being anti-progressive taxation is about as party-line as being pro-progressive taxation is a Democratic line), and (2) not a hill I care to die on.

I think a debate on how progressive a tax system should be is reasonable. Taken at face value, his statement appears to support a perfetly flat system. While I don't think that's the best decision, I'm not sure I'd agree it's evidence of an inability to come to a reasonable answer.