Politics is predictable

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

Politics is predictable, predictioneer Bruce Bueno de Mesquita says, and Copenhagen is destined to fail:

Today’s emerging powerhouses like Brazil, India, and China simply won’t stand for serious curbs on their emissions, and the pro-regulation crowd in the United States and Europe won’t be strong enough to force their hands.

BdM has used his game-theoretic models to make some other predictions too:

For instance, I can tell you right now that bribing Kim Jong Il to mothball, but not eliminate, his nuclear program is the best way to handle North Korea, that the land-for-peace formula in the Middle East won’t succeed, and that it will take approximately $1.5 billion annually in U.S. aid to Pakistan to keep that country’s government fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda.

BdM explains how he took an early model of decision-making on the brink of war and applied it to everyday politics — in India, in this case — setting him down his current path:

Intrigued, I grabbed a yellow pad and listed everyone I thought would try to influence the selection of India’s next government. For each of those people (political party leaders, members of India’s parliament, and some members of critical state governments), I also estimated how much clout they had, what their preference was between the various plausible candidates for prime minister, and how much they cared about trying to shape that choice. With just one page of my yellow pad filled with numbers, I had all the information the computer needed to predict what would happen, so I plugged it in and awaited the results.

My “expertise” had led me to believe that longtime parliamentary leader Jagjivan Ram would be India’s next prime minister. He was a popular and prominent politician who was better liked than his main rivals for the prime minister’s job. I was confident that he was truly unbeatable. He had paid his political dues and it seemed like his time had come. Many other India watchers thought the same thing. Imagine my surprise then when my computer program, written by me and fed only with my data, predicted an entirely different result. It forecast that Charan Singh would become prime minister, that he would include someone named Y. B. Chavan in his cabinet, and that they would gain support-albeit briefly-from Indira Gandhi, then the recently ousted prime minister. The model also predicted that the new Indian government would be incapable of governing and so would soon fall.

I found myself forced to choose between my personal opinion — that Ram would win — and the logic and data behind my model. In the end, I chose science over punditry. When I relayed my findings to the State Department official, he was taken aback. He noted that no one else was suggesting this result and that it seemed strange at best. When I told him I’d used a computer program based on a model of decision-making that I was designing, he just laughed and urged me not to repeat that to anyone.

A few weeks later, Charan Singh became the prime minister with Y. B. Chavan as his deputy prime minister and support from Indira Gandhi. And a few months after that, Singh’s government unraveled, Gandhi withdrew her backing, and a new election was called, just as the computer model had forecast. This got me pretty excited. But had I just gotten lucky, or was I onto something?

BdM is optimistic despite Bali, Kyoto, and Copenhagen:

Road maps like the one set out at Bali make us feel good about ourselves because we did something. The trouble is, deals like Bali and Kyoto include just about every country in the world. To get everyone to agree to something potentially costly, the something they actually agree to must be neither very demanding nor very costly. If it is, many will refuse to join because for them the costs are greater than the benefits, or else they will join while free-riding on the costs paid by the few who are willing to bear them.

To get people to sign a universal agreement and not cheat, the deal must not ask them to change their behavior much from whatever they are already doing. It is a race to the bottom, to the lowest common denominator. More demanding agreements weed out prospective members or encourage lies. Kyoto’s demands weeded out the United States, ensuring that it could not succeed. Maybe that is what those who signed on — or at least some of them — were hoping for. They can look good and then not deliver, because after all it wouldn’t be fair for them to cut back when the biggest polluter, the United States, does not. Sacrificing self-interest for the greater good just doesn’t happen very often. Governments don’t throw themselves on hand grenades.

(Hat tip to Kalim Kassam.)

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