[PATV] Wednesday, December 11, 2013 - Extra Credits Season 7, Ep. 13: Incentive Systems and Politics (Part 1)
This week, we start a series looking at design problems in the US political system. We have a new EC t-shirt from Fangamer! Buy it here! Come discuss this topic in the forums! New episodes every Wednesday!
If you address that in part two, that's cool.
The problem is getting big money out of politics. As others have said the congressional paycheck is a mere drop in the bucket for most members of congress. There are so many other monetary incentives that simply limiting their paycheck would be useless. Personally myself, I think each and every candidate should have to prove they deserve to run before the campaign even begins. Have each potential candidate spend a month or two living on the median wage of their constituents. If they can't hack it they shouldn't be allowed to run for office. At least then you have a better idea of the character of the candidates.
As it stands now it's all a media circus designed to show them at the best.
I think that's what makes it so scary, yes you're often seeing their best side, so their worst side? I don't even want to think about it.
P.S. Is it just me or did Extra Credits get run out of things to talk about games and try to tackle other topics. I'm preemptivily saying that this isn't a bad thing in my opinion.
The US congress DOES have to use the same system of healthcare as people of their age - they are forced under penalty of being dismissed from their position to use the marketplace set up by the Affordable Care Act. Anyone telling you differently is an idiot, or lying through his smug teeth. Or likely both.
For us, as the other commenters have said, the idea of incentivizing legislators by doing anything to their paychecks is like trying to stop an elephant with a flyswatter. The money finding its way into their hands from sources outside their job income is generally so robust that dinging or boosting their pay hardly matters to many, and many of the ones who would be substantially impacted are already on board with ideas to boost the lower and middle classes.
But you, as someone with no stake in this particular game, can look at it purely from a mechanics perspective. And if the system worked as this idea must assume it does, the idea is a good example of proper incentives.
Quite beyond that, if there's a private sector job paying $1M/year waiting for them when they leave office if they vote the "right" way, the paltry sums discussed here for increasing median wages don't even warrant a mention.
The examples here aren't just simplified, but they point in a direction that cannot reasonably be called the right one.
@Zython , @Gezzer . Do you really think the poor/middle class *are* that magnanimous? The only reason the rich seem to be the problem is that the poor are powerless. Replace every rich man with a poor person, and they'll be just as selfish and just as willing to screw others over. 'Meet the new boss, same as the old boss' and all that.
The entire American/capitalist culture is screwed up this way, not just the rich who have managed to thrive in this system. You can't flip the system or show the rich what it's like to live a median or minimum wage and expect them to stop being selfish when everything in our culture demands that they stay selfish. There is no magic zen quality to the average or below-average "hard-working American", which somehow exiles selfish thought from the mind.
To put this in gaming terms,go to any PvP game forum. Look up any thread where someone is calling for a nerf. You'll notice the sides of the debate form up mostly like this. Side A is composed of players who use whatever is being nerfed and everybody else. It's politics at it's most basic. And the people who use the thing that's to be nerfed? They will never vote to nerf it. There might be one or two who willing say it does need to be nerfed,but they're the minority. Most of the players who use the whatever will declare they "need" it to stay the same.
And that's for a video game. You can imagine how much harder it'd be to pass when there's real money and real power at play here. I mean,the reason everyone's losing their shit over Obama-care is that it's going to effect everybody in some way. And let's face it,who's life was really improved over the government making laws you HAD to have insurance to drive a car?
And then have a career based public service that helps these unwittingly empowered legislators flesh out and implement their ideas.
I just think having career politicians means you're always going to incentivise keeping your job first and foremost. People who don't have to care about this are going to be less likely to bias their policies purely towards keeping their seat.
It'd probably wind up a mess.
I'm not going to begin this by saying that you don't have a right to say any of this, or that you don't have control over the content of your shows, because that would be incorrect and stupid. What I will say, however, is that, as a political scientist, I find this video to be naive and intellectually insulting. And that hurts to say because I normally adore this show and anxiously look forward to its release.
Politics is not a game, you aren't trying to use incentives to compel certain behaviors. The whole point of how the American government is structured was to isolate politicians from the people they nominally represented. This is why we needed an amendment to directly elect senators, and why state legislators used to control everything to do with the election of the president and representatives. This was, initially, to allow for what amounted to the intellectual gentry of the country to rule, successfully, over the less educated. That all went away with Jackson's Mob Democracy, and we're still reeling from that today.
The one, and only, incentive for politicians to follow is to get re-elected, which, to some degree, requires appeasing their constituents. Yes, there is a problem with gerrymandering, but there are still swing seats and primaries to deal with. If you tie the average wage of a worker to the congressman's salary, then you create an incentive for that congressman to care chiefly about the economy, specifically minimum wage, and influence behavior towards something either A ) Not in the interest of their constituents, or B ) Not, in their judgement, a worthwhile proposal. This ignores the idea that they weren't already in support of such a measure, because your premise assumes, without evidence, that the problem exists, so I'll run with it.
The founders, regardless of one's opinion, created a representative government where, ideally, prudent and forward thinking legislators would be elected, and, because of their insulation, they would be able to legislate for the common good, not having to worry about their own well-being. Quite frankly, this system has worked, albeit imperfectly, for the better part of two centuries.
In the end, it wouldn't really matter what you did, if we take your model of human behavior as fact. At best only those who would stomach not having a high income for a few years, ie the rich, would take the job for a few years before going into lobbying in order to make more money. At worst, you'd end up perverting the judgement of legislators.
P.S. Excellent video. I love alternative perspectives on the way systems are designed. Would it be possible to get further insight on some of the things you mentioned though? Currently there are a lot of opinions being bandied about or proposed as ideas in the video, but from a game design perspective, what do you think of the way that the constitution was drafted in the first place? Do you think that method of design is more or less reasonable for government than a game if it were of the same scale?
You said yourself that a politician's one and only incentive is to get reelected. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you've enough life experience to know that this does not always have anything to do with appeasing constituents. Party affiliation, political donations, the right lobby groups, and the fact that people can be grandiose idiots with the memory of a gold fish all go into the mix such that what an unconnected constituent (the flat majority of citizens) needs or wants is actually the lowest consideration in a bag full of other political considerations.
What this video suggests is that we come up with other metrics to measure a politician's performance instead of relying on a single yardstick - a citizen's vote. Vague threats that the average citizen will remember a politician's behavior a couple years removed from the act don't make for an effective behavioral control. Particularly when millions of dollars and the right marketing group can more or less rewrite history.
I look forward to EC's next video to see how deep the rabbit hole they go with this.
Finally, I know this is a little pedantic, but politics *is* a game. Despite being a fan of this series, you must have missed the episode that dealt with defining what a game is. It was a good one. I highly recommend it.
A politician starts out as basically having no income. This means in order to seriously enter politics you need to be someone with a good work, a solid income and a lot of free time (or a crazy youngster that will end up not doing anything with his life in most cases). This means 90% of our politicians are lawyers or ex-judges, 9% are professors and 1% are medics or engineers. In order to get an income, these politicians need to be elected somewhere and from there, climb up to a seat in a regional or national parliament. While elected there, they enjoy all the immunity and all the corruption that office is exposed to. The wage is... largely irrelevant for them. As an example, my region's parliament has 15 people that took around 50'000'000 € of public money each and spent it in luxury, while their wage is not going to touch 1'000'000 € a year. This degenerates in national parliament, where you also get access to free [insert service here] (from food to haircuts to travel to computers to hotels to pretty much anything) and, worst of all, a lifelong revenue system for all people that are elected for enough time. There is literally nothing more profitable to anyone than being in the parliament long enough.
Since this goes for everyone involved, there is little to no way to actually get people out of there once they're in. The 15 people above mentioned? They can't go to jail (immunity), they can't be taken out of their seat (nobody to vote them out of there), they can't be touched until they are no longer elected. Which means that if they get elected again, they're safe. Which means they (alongside many italian politicians and no, I'm not talking about Berlusconi - that's another hornets' nest entirely - I'm talking about people like Razzi Scilipoti and Dell'Utri) NEED to stay elected for as long as possible. The only real incentive for these people is to actually be elected. Which means the only thing they are doing is maneuvering in such a way as to stay where they are, piling scandals on scandals for as long as possible, the country be damned.
You know what I think the problem is? The wrong incentive, as you say? The wrong incentive is that people get power from being voted. As long as they can use that power to gain money outside of their own wage, their wage is irrelevant; as long as they can get power from being voted rather than from doing their job, their work is irrelevant. The only things that matter is that by being voted you get power and by having power you can be corrupted. The second part is not going to change easily if at all, and the first part is the principle of democracy, which is still the worst of the systems we haven't tried and the best of those we did try.
I'm a bit bleak on these themes, sorry.
My personal 2 cents on the issue is that you are trying to fix the wrong group. The politicians are an issue sure. They have gotten accustom to things being a certain way and every year take more and more liberty with their power.
Having said that I think the primary issue is with the people not the government. As long as we the people continue to A) expect the government to fix our problems and refuse to take responsibility for our own actions nothing is going to change. People are going to continue to vote for whoever gives them more stuff and whoever takes more responsibility away from them. They will do this even at the expense of driving the country into the ground. In my mind that is the biggest problem. The average person feeling Entitled to stuff.
We have 100% moved from the philosophy of…
” Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
And until we get back to that nothing is going to change.
Because the median is defined by the location of a number on a number line, it really has very little to do with the numbers themselves. A big shift of the numbers below that median that bring none of them higher than the median would not shift the median, and so there would be no reward for that other than the good feelies (and possibly self-actualization) a congressperson should get from accomplishing something of that magnitude.
Essentially, a focus just on the median (or a single measure median) means that poverty can still exist for large populations and congresspeople would not be negatively affected.
All in all, though, I like the general approach being taken here.
We really have moved far from our past philosophies...
"A house divided against itself cannot stand"
THIS is the real incentive problem for high level politicians. If it sounds like bribery, its because it is. Its institutionalized and legalized bribery, and its why politicians are in the pockets of corporations. This is why we have career politicians and political dynasties. If they kiss enough ass and do as they are told, they are given wealth unimaginable, and usually its at our expense.
If you're going to draw a parallel between games and politics, then really the focus should be about 'catering/pandering' to the players/politicians; not about the 'rules' which change based on said catering/pandering.
Take a well known game like World of Warcraft, and the state of it's game today as opposed to how it was initially designed; and you'll see almost the exact same trajectory of how politicians go about politics and how WoW players go about... WoWing.
There's two main kinds of WoW players: Those who play for relationship and community building, and those who play for the gear. Similarly there's two kinds of politicians: Those who work to improve the lives of the people they represent and those who work for money/power.
Initially in WoW you can't get at the gear without building solid relationships with other players. If you wanted the stuff, you had to have a good attitude and be competent at the game. Were there people who abused their positions of power and played favorites when dealing out epic purple loot? Of course. For the most part the same thing happens in politics.
However, both systems changed; and arguably for the worse. With WoW group finding systems were put into place, and the bar for getting gear was lowered; this was basically a death blow to the group of people who would play the game for interaction with other people and community. Everyone could get their hands on gear without the hassle of interaction with other people, it turned an MMO game into a single player game. The heart and soul of any multiplayer game was to have a good time with your friends, but when you do it with strangers it's not that much different than playing with an AI. Essentially, those with the most time do the 'best' in WoW as to collecting loot as opposed to those with the best people/community skills.
The political system suffered a very similar blow called "Unlimited Marketing/Advertising". No longer do politicians have to make an effort reach and connect to the community, instead it's about who has the most money to spend on advertising themselves. This is the death blow to the group of politicians who were in it to improve people's lives and communities, because once again people/community skills fall to the wayside; but instead of falling to those with an excessive amount of time it's to people with the deepest pockets.
In the end the game that was about beating monsters with your friends and a political system that was about helping people, has been turned into a game that's about getting gear in as short and easy time as possible and a political system that's about how much money you can pump into a politician and get away with it. Oh sure there's monsters to beat and people's lives to improve, but those are tertiary concerns now.
In the end, the mechanisms of both systems became more important than their intended goals.
Positive Incentives should be the focus. eg: Do this to get this benefit.
Negative incentives don't work well across the board and should be avoided. Don't do this, or else you get this penalty.
Ideas of tying incentives to politicians in order to benefit the people are badly needed, but it is only part of the problem.
Many systems that attempt to govern a politicians behavior are tied to penalties (negative incentive), and You can see the result with corruption.
In this case, there is a reward for circumventing the negative incentive, so it becomes a positive incentive to abuse the system... leading to another positive incentive system to cover up the circumventing of the negative incentive system by any means necessary.
You can see this clearly with whistle blowers...
Where whistle blowers are rooting out wrongdoers circumventing the penalties for larger (and wrongfully obtained) rewards.
Instead of stopping the behavior of circumventing the penalties for these larger (and wrongfully obtained) rewards, the new incentive becomes to do everything in their power to battle whistle blowers.
This leads to an even bigger problem... oppression (to prevent whistle blowers) while the bad behavior continues.
Take a look in Canada *today* for a perfect example of how totally ridiculous this can get...
The government is trying to pass lifetime gag order contracts on staffers (to prevent them from whistle blowing on the bad behavior of the members of parliament they serve) by (tah dah!) tying their pay raises to the singing of these lifetime gag order contracts...
That is a totally messed up abuse of everything I have just pointed out.
This would only hurt JUNIOR congressmen, who have the least political connections and influence. The only junior congresscritters who actually have influence are so awash in money that cutting their pay is akin to denying you an espresso once a week
This seems like a good idea but it's unworkable because the primary pain this would cause would go to the legislators who are least responsible for our problems*, least capable of fixing them, and their staffers (who must be paid by the congressional representative). Furthermore it would leave them even more vulnerable to special interests.
*disregarding a few hardcore ideologues, but cutting their pay wouldn't dissuade them
1) The whole "we need to control the salary of congresspeople!" is ridiculous. Most Congresspeople are independently wealthy, and lowering salaries creates an incentive that only rich people will run for office, or creates an incentive for them to do things like insider trading (which is completely legal for elected officials). This is a stupid, non-solution that's been offered by every uninformed, nonpolitical voter along with "kick 'em all out!" and other such platitudes. It won't work. People don't run for congress for the salary. It's an absolute non-issue.
2) Same goes with healthcare. Almost all congresspeople are independently wealthy enough to buy their own private healthcare.
3) "When this came to light, many congresspeople donated their checks to charity." Yeah, which should tell you how much it would really hurt them to go without a salary.
Reducing wages is not a solution, it's a band-aid to make people feel better, to feel like the politicians are somehow less hypocritical. I compare it to DRM. DRM doesn't actually reduce piracy, it's not a solution at all and it might actually be counterproductive, but a lot of people feel like, "Well, we have to do SOMETHING or we're just giving up!"
I'm an American. I don't have a polysci degree. I am not a politician myself. I would not describe myself as "politically active." I have been known to vote on occasion.
But even I know that most American politicians could make more money in the private sector. Can and frequently do.
When people talk about "getting the money out of politics," they're talking about campaign funds, not take-home salaries. I know the paycheck a Senator makes might seem huge compared to the average citizen, but they could be making vastly much more doing whatever it was they were doing before they entered politics. As lawyers, lobbyists, entrepreneurs, consultants, whatever.
The people currently in power in this country are the ones who made a conscious decision that they would rather be powerful than rich. That's part of the problem.
Another part of the problem is that only the rich and well-connected *qualify.*
Your low-level incentive-modelling strategies don't make any sense given the mental model I have of the political landscape in this country. It could easily be my model that's faulty. But since you haven't shown us your own model, since we are forced to infer your model from almost cartoonish naive underlying assumptions like "politicians are in it for the paycheck," I find it very difficult to take this episode seriously.
If you think I am wrong, I invite you to tell me why I am wrong. If you think you are right, I invite you to show your work and cite your sources. It's entirely possible, likely, even, that my underlying assumptions are wrong. But I won't know that until you illustrate it for me, ideally using sources I can cross-check on my own. Everything even vaguely political I've ever been exposed to suggests that those obvious, factual known truths such as how much money congressmen are paid by law and how the process is legally mandated to work on paper? Are only the surface layer of a much deeper, tangled web of conflicting motivations and tactics that has nothing to do with making the world a better place, OR making money, just about getting more votes than the other guy. At any cost.
You reveal your own disillusion by propaganda when you say things like, "our tax dollars that they voted to give themselves." If I steal from you, you do not regard it as me giving myself something. Simply put, if you do not grasp that taxation is theft, you really can't use the word fundamental at all. If they can get you to ask the wrong questions, they don't care what your answer is. The first question you pose in this video supposes that governments are righteous in their very existence (if they existed, but we'll get to that).
Let us start with first principles. It all begins with the question "Who owns you?" The answer is you own you. I provided the answer as it is literally unassailable. By that I mean that in order to argue against self-ownership, a person has to make use of the sole rights to their body to try and make the case that they do not own their bodies. Universalize this and we each own ourselves. If we own ourselves, then we also own the effects of our actions. This is the proof for the non-aggression principle; that it is wrong to initiate force against another human being as you would be violating their ownership of their body or the effects of their actions.
If you accept self-ownership, then you understand that you morally cannot have a government. The term itself is propaganda as it anthropomorphizes a concept. PEOPLE who claim to act on behalf of this fictitious entity initiate force against others by stealing from them, pretending to bind them to contracts they did not enter into voluntarily, and stealing from/assaulting those who do not accept these aggressions. This video attempts to discuss the design of the hood ornament of the car running you over rather than discussing not being run over at all. Not that this sort of thing is what people tune into Extra Credits for or that EC should approach without proper preparation.
For proper preparation, I highly recommend Stefan Molyneux's Introduction to Philosophy series. While it is long compared to what people usually turn to YouTube for, it is very informative. I think you'll be surprised at just how much you've been propagandized, especially in terms of the words that aggressors use to trick you into accepting their aggression. These things are important because when people look around and see the empire falling, those who do not understand that violence is what failed us will only seek out the next demagogue promising something for nothing to aggress against us all. And the time is now as the very technology that can set us free can also enslave us and if we don't understand these things now, we are poised for another dark age.
gtadem, you have a very specific, very extreme, political view. You need to be less assertive because you're absolutely condemning something as propaganda, while simply spreading your own. There is no ultimate truth, you're simply quoting philosophy, to which there are many philosophers and many contradicting ones. You can find the one you like and think it's awesome, but recognize that it is simply the one you've chosen and have the respect to provide the grain of salt to readers when you want to say your piece.
But saying that a government isn't morally defensible isn't the same thing as saying it doesn't exist.
People cheat. In the end, most societies give someone with a weapon the right to prevent or punish certain forms of cheating. Not having a guy on punishment duty leads to excessive cheating; having too many things for your punishment guy to punish will also lead to cheating (either because cheating can no longer be enforced, or because it's impossible to live while following every single rule).
Nothing any of us believes will change this. Making the Perfect Game is useless if you can't get people to play it.
As far as I'm concerned, EC is perfectly within its limits to discuss this. Politicians benefit immensely from understanding game theory. There's no reason to say we can't, by extension, use game theory to better understand what makes politicians tick.
EC would be overstepping if it handed out Poli Sci degrees at the end of its podcasts.
You guys have good minds, so I'd like to hear your guess as to why is it that representatives behave with such childish pettiness as a whole?
Our representatives need to represent the parts of us we actually want in a leadership position, rather than our baser attributes. Yet the competition to gain the office incentivizes oration and shmoozing. Neither of which prepares one to lead or sheds any light on decision-making or intelligence.
For example: Yes, 'cutting politician's salaries' won't do anything, but that's not what you should be taking away from this. What you should take away is that something should be done to make politicians care about good governance first, other BS second. Incentive systems seem to work well for making folk care about stuff. Therefore, we should incentivise good governance.
How? You figure it out! Talk to your friends, families, nutters on the street (or forums). Collect and form ideas. Argue your ideas. Rethink your ideas. That's the stuff the EC staff are after; the spreading of ideas.
Please don't just watch the video, convince yourself that what they are saying is wrong, and dismiss the ideas and presented intent entirely. Also don't just dismiss ideas from people when they're outside their area of expertise, as that's a monumentally arrogant stance.