05 February 2008

The Economics of Voting and Other Archaic Rituals

I am wholly convinced that my vote will have no impact on the outcome of the primary election today. But later this afternoon I will go and vote. I've already disclosed my choice. So, this time around not only will I have no influence on the outcome, I don't even much like the candidate I will vote for. The sheer irrationality of my going to the polls is over-determined. There is something extremely unseemly, though, about the adolescent snottiness involved in that view, a sort of looking down one's nose at the deluded masses.

In The New York Times today the 'Freakonomics' duo basically recycle and old column. I knew TV shows went into re-runs, but am a bit surprised that opinion columns, even cute ones, do so too. So here is the 'stupid economist joke' that Dubner & Levitt used as a hook a couple years back:

Within the economics departments at certain universities, there is a famous but probably apocryphal story about two world-class economists who run into each other at the voting booth

"What are you doing here?" one asks.

"My wife made me come," the other says.

The first economist gives a confirming nod. "The same."

After a mutually sheepish moment, one of them hatches a plan: "If you promise never to tell anyone you saw me here, I'll never tell anyone I saw you." They shake hands, finish their polling business and scurry off.

The obvious question from the point of view of a non-economist is why the final "sheepish" interaction, all that promising and hand-shaking to seal the deal? Indeed, why even their initial pretense? Is any of that less gratuitous and irrational than voting? After all, unless we assume some anonymous medium that might be used for professional character assassination, in order for either of these two economists to reveal that he'd witnessed the other entering the booth, he'd also have to reveal that he himself had gone to the polls. Perhaps he might insist that he'd not voted but merely accompanied his wife - the sort of "date" to which only a self-respecting economist would admit. But that would hardly be credible. And the colleague he'd already "outed" would surely testify loudly to that effect.

So the ritualized mutual assurance involved in making up implausible excuses and promising and hand-shaking is a complete waste too, right? Yet in all likelihood, for any given year world-wide, there are very many, many more instances of people (and economists too) engaging in those sorts of ritual than in going to the polls to vote. A mildly clever economist, and they are nothing if not clever, will no doubt start invoking epicycles here - reputation effects and repeated interactions and so forth. In this example that is simply ad hoc. Both of these world class economists (in fact, even any middling member of the club) surely would be able to see through to the essential strategic structure of their interaction and dispense with the ritualized niceties. They would, that is, if they really acted out their theories. Pragmatic contradictions are a killer. They remind us that we too are just regular folks.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jim. You did a good job of hiding your political belief feathers when I was your student in 1999. I enjoy reading the real you, even though it is not close to being the real me.

FYI - the guy you voted for has a University of Chicago economist as his chief economics advisor. :-)

Mike LePore

06 February, 2008 12:57  
Anonymous Dan said...

I too keep running into those folks, those "snotty adolescent" types, that say they're not voting out of protest. But then proceed to not do anything except sit around and complain. They make no efforts to change the campaign finance system which continues to leave us without real candidates but gives us in turn, these middle-of-the-road-that-won't-deal-with-any -issue candidates.

I can't say I do much to improve the situation either. All I can see to do is to go with the candidate seemingly representing him or herself as progressive at the time of casting my ballot. Is that Obama? I guess so. You mentioned before you might still go with Dennis even though he's out. I see that you didn't end up doing that. I guess that would have been a protest in itself or a message to the poll followers and politicians. And I guess no immediate change will arrive regardless but that move seems almost the same as simply abstaining from the polls altogether. Well maybe a little better.

I guess it is true that a vote is really a crap shoot anyways. No one really knows what the candidate will do once they are in office anyways.

06 February, 2008 13:33  

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