I desperately need your help: Presidential evaluation metrics

Every election, I get very anxious.  This election, which appears to feature even more clown school dropouts than usual, has me particularly anxious.  I prepare once again to make a decision which I feel is such a great and thrilling honor to make, but which I always make in terror and with very little confidence.

Honestly, I cannot imagine going to a rally for a Presidential candidate.  Not for even the most brilliant, compassionate, experienced, ethical, whatever sort of person.  This is because I’m honestly not sure it is possible for any human being to be qualified for such a position.  In the face of that, isn’t it a little silly to be jumping and waving banners for someone who’s, no matter what, underqualified?

Running a country like the U.S. is an unimaginably complex endeavor fraught with huge amounts of uncertainty.  There is not only a vast quantity of factual information from all disciplines to consider (even when you have the best, I mean the most primo advisors, they will be wrong or necessarily oversimplify at times, and when they are wrong they can make you wrong, and then you’ve caused a catastrophe or are at least in some sense responsible for one.  Oh by the way, the state of knowledge is changing, and your very underlying assumptions about how the world works may swiftly and incontrovertibly be proved wrong at any time, and you have to deal with that.  Sorry), there are inevitable moral tradeoffs that you must make.   Like, big, horrifying ones.  And some are even trickier than that; you have to weigh your personal beliefs against those of many of the people you claim to represent.  Your beliefs will also change; again, as you continue to learn and grow as a person.

You have to have the discipline to realize your own cognitive biases–every human must deal with this, but yours can lead to millions dying.  Even if you and your advisors are all fabulous and the best ever, you are then likely to fall prey to the ills of overconfidence.  That tends to calcify the mind and inhibit learning.  And if anyone should always be learning with a humble yet incisive mind, it’s the President.  You also have to consider the value of all human life–should not the ultimate goal of such an international office be to promote human thriving in general?–and how it weighs against national interests.

But then you also have to think about public opinion, and how to present yourself to the public in an honest (?) way that realistically deals with their own cognitive biases AND relative lack of information.  Things you do with information they don’t have may cause vast swathes of the population to think you are evil.  And you might think the same thing, in their shoes.  How do you handle that?  Wouldn’t it also make you feel disgusting to have to manipulate the polis (this seems inevitable, until the vast majority of us become sober, wise, learned, and intellectually honest) on a regular basis?   I think that sometimes people recoil from someone who “waffles” because such “waffling” can reveal the inherent complexities from which they would prefer to be shielded.

Why would any sane person ever, ever not run screaming from the prospect of this?  That’s the reason for the pit in my stomach.  Even when I think I like what I see in someone, I can’t shake the fear that no one who isn’t an idiot or sociopath could go all the way down the road to the White House.  The absolute best case scenario is someone looking around and, in mortal dread, realizing there’s no one better coming forth; then reluctantly coming in and hoping to raise the level of discourse enough that God in His infinite mercy would draw someone just a little better into the process.  Maybe there are candidates like this already; but their smiling and tidy speechifying would be once again a misrepresentation, and we’re sort of back where we started.

But okay.  Before I work myself into a complete lather and drown in the bubbles, I’ll go ahead and accept the fact that some unworthy person will end up doing this President thing.  It won’t be possible for it to be someone I completely agree with, and maybe a person I agree with most isn’t even the best person for other reasons.  The choice of person may have less of an impact than can feel like the case during this bloviating time in the political cycle.  So I have to make a choice eventually, for the least bad person, given severely limited information (and time to process the information that’s there).  And so, if you’re planning to vote, do you.

Here is where I cast myself upon the kindness of strangers.  I’d like to make at least some kind of stab at formulating a realistic, effective methodology for evaluating a candidate.  There are lots of tools out there for showing voting record or publicly stated claims/performance in the stupid rapid-fire debates and things like that, but I want to go a little deeper.  I want to answer some more fundamental questions, questions we think deeply about when hiring someone for a job in our company, but maybe not as much when selecting for the highest office in the land!  Here are some questions I want to start thinking about, and I’d so love if you’d contribute possible strategies for answering them (or telling me they’re not relevant for x or y reason, or distilling them into more usable versions) as well as salient additional questions I might not have thought of:

What makes for a “good” President?  Some things possibly to consider

  • To what degree does the President really, truly “run” the country?  I mean in reality, not in the official list of powers.
  • What are the person’s thinking/learning styles?
  • What’s the person’s educational and professional background, and what types of inquiry does the person consider most valuable, and why?
  • In what area(s) is the person’s lack of knowledge or experience most harmful?
  • What’s the person’s overall model of human nature?  Is this relevant whatsoever?  If so, how so?
  • How does the person handle being proved wrong, and learning from mistakes?  What degree of transparency about this is desirable?
  • What moral principles would this person absolutely never, for any reason violate?
  • How does the person deal with the realization that he/she has come to violate such principles?
  • What cognitive biases does the person appear to exhibit the most, and how is he/she working to address them?  What are the impacts of these biases likely to be in reality?
  • How does the person handle the very scale of the operation and the cognitive dissonance it entails?  Many a politician couldn’t raise a hand in anger who could accept innocents being killed in the name of freedom.
  • What would the person say (if the person would say it) makes the U.S. the greatest nation on earth?  Honestly?  Answer with something other than bombast, or suggest ways we might work toward being it.
  • How does the person handle public opinion and image management?
  • How does the person compromise (or not) in an unfavorable political climate?  How about a favorable one?
  • What actual impact does a sitting President have on the economy in four to eight years?  What are the long-term impacts on future administrations?  What agency does he or she have to handle the effects of previous Presidents?  Surely there are a lot of factors at play here; what are they?
  • Lots of countries talk up tolerance and openness until their citizens start feeling threatened by something concrete, then they quite often radicalize.  This is both a common individual and group dynamic, so it may not be entirely preventable.  How will the person manage or, better yet, partly prevent this?  How will the person deal with the consequences?
  • What is the person’s real, thorough plan for [the economy][education][perverse political incentives and structures in the U.S.][the environment][international relations][infrastructure][overall human thriving, at home and abroad][privacy/intelligence/cybersecurity][other stuff]?  Give the person a luxuriant amount of time to explain with real data, and allow a luxuriant amount of time for factual and philosophical rebuttal.  None of this answer in two minutes of breathless platitudes stuff.
  • How much does the person’s plan end up affecting the status quo, for real?  What indices are truly meaningful?
  • If analogizing to what other countries have done to introduce certain changes that should be made, can the person identify nuisance variables or other mitigating factors that might make the analogy not hold up?  If so, how does the person adjust the model?
  • How does the person pick advisors, Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, and what real impact can these decisions have?
  • What relevance does personal style have?  Is it completely unacceptable to elect a dreary introvert because other countries will find the person not leaderly?
  • What’s the worst thing this person can have done and still make me feel like I might not be a criminal by voting for him/her?  Do I need to calibrate by knowing the awful things the other candidates have done?
  • It seems to me (an ignorant person) that a lot of what actually ends up consuming a President’s time are weird things.  What are ten interesting issues that voters may know little about that can have a big impact on the country, and how does the person plan to handle them?
  • How does the person plan to try things out?  It seems to me that individual states can be a great test bed for certain things, then they can be gradually expanded to more and more ecologically valid regions.
  • When are totalitarian-style measures morally acceptable to the person?  What might those measures be?
  • To what extent should the person’s age or physical health be a factor?

If you have any thoughts on the above, PLEAAASE share them with me.  I really want to break down some of my own agonizing with some sort of problem-solving approach.  People have been able to solve some super-complicated problems with the right tools, and this is a really complicated one (not as complicated as running the country though :P).

Let us iterate together!  Maybe by November we can make a little more sense of this.



3 thoughts on “I desperately need your help: Presidential evaluation metrics

  1. I’m not sure the checklist approach is the best way to approach this especially as so many of the answers seem to fall into the category of “known unknowns.”

    In its place, I propose as a starting point a more Bayesian probability approach to answer the narrow question “who will be least bad.” Considering just the two eventual nominees, roughly estimate the probability that candidate A will produce worse outcomes than candidate B on the three issues with (in your view) the biggest moral impact and vote the least-bad option accordingly. I would throw in the observation that most prediction markets anticipate at least a very republican house and given a proven tactic of obstructionism on the right, the probability that a democratic president accomplishing any of the agenda especially the more radical parts is lower than a republican president accomplishing his agenda – the implication is that if you prefer NO new laws to either agenda then a democratic vote is implied. I would propose “three biggest issues” as impact of supreme court nominees, probability of war, probability of worse economic governance.

    Still fuzzy, but maybe less fuzzy?

    its 6am and I’ve been up all night so apologies if this is unhelpful or replacing the heuristic wasn’t what you had in mind!

    • No I really appreciate it! I like Bayesian thinking in general, and that may unfortunately be the best way to approach such a situation. However, I’m also quite open to third party candidates too, so it will be more than just an A or B decision for me. It just bums me out that we put more things of substance into picking people for office jobs than for THE office’s job, at times.

  2. On the emotional level, I empathize completely, and downplayed that in my original comment. I am more….astonished and horrified than bummed.

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