Assume long serving politicians are rationally maximizing their careers

by rockthecasbah1 min read18th Jun 202116 comments

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World Optimization
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Imagine you had no idea how to ride a bull, and you encountered a bull rider. The rider is swinging his free arm and body wildly, at apparent random. Surely hugging the bulls back and moving less is better. You would immediately think the man is crazy, perhaps he’s having a seizure.

Now imagine your friend says “he’s been on that bull for five minutes, a town record”. Know you should reconsider. Surely someone has tried your strategy and lasted less. Flailing must help him stay on the bulls back, strange as it seems.

Politicians are the same way. Every political system has a steady stream of talented challengers, who incumbents must defeat. The Nancy Pelosis, Boris Johnson’s and Ayatollah Khameinis of the world may look like their flailing, but usually the know exactly what they’re doing.

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You need to extend your analogy.  If you note that almost all successful bull riders adopt that pose, you have VERY strong evidence.  If you only see one, there are plenty of other possibilities (blind luck, some other attribute or technique you didn't notice).  If you see many successful riders with widely varying styles, that's fairly strong evidence AGAINST that technique being the critical element of success.

Likewise with politicians - there are similarities and differences among successful politicians, and many non-successful politicians that share some of those traits which appear important at first.  It's not obvious, even to them, which of their behaviors or traits are actually causing their success.

Indeed, a lot of the most ridiculous human behavior is non-experts mimicking experts randomly and picking the wrong attributes.

Politicians on the top are often highly skilled but even highly skilled people make mistakes and don't act optimal. If you look for example at Bill Clinton, a lot of his success is due to a single skill that distinguishing him. He's incredibly charismatic in 1-on-1 interactions

One example gets described by Michael Elsberg:

“I have a friend who has always despised Bill Clinton,” a person at a cocktail party told me during the time I was writing my book about eye contact. “Yet, somehow my friend found himself at a function that Bill Clinton was attending. And, within the swirl of the crowd, he was introduced to Clinton.”

“In that moment, face-to-face, all of my friend’s personal animosity towards Clinton disappeared, in one instant,” my new acquaintance at the party continued. “As they were shaking hands, Clinton made eye contact with my friend in a way so powerful and intimate, my friend felt as though the two of them were the only people in the room.”

A skill like that gives Clinton an edge that allows him to get other things wrong. 

My not-a-Democrat grandmother had this exact experience when meeting him. They spoke for a few minutes, and she felt like he thought she was the most interesting person in the room. It left a permanent impression.

Someone writing a book about eye contact may possibly have reason to exaggerate the effectiveness of eye contact. I would not want to bet that the effect was as dramatic as Michael Elsberg says it was.

(I'm not denying Clinton's one-on-one charisma, though.)

This is not the only story about Bill Clinton's charisma that's out. I looked into the subject deeper in the past. It's the thing I could easily find on Google. 

supposedlyfun's comment about how his grandmother has a similar experience shows that this isn't just one isolated episode.

I don't find it plausible that the explanation of Bill Clinton's charisma is just about eye contact. Many people manage to hold good eye contact but don't reach the same results.

I completely agree that the dubiousness of this particular story doesn't do much to cast doubt on Clinton's (very well attested) one-on-one charisma. That's why I said "I'm not denying Clinton's one-on-one charisma, though".

Yes there are other factors, policy does not explain 100% of political survival. And charisma does help one win popularity contests. You could write a post about it.

My point is not that charisma generally helps but that you have leader at the top who are good at one very specific thing. 

For Obama for example it's not 1-on-1 charisma but his ability to give speeches in a way that makes people feel things. 

I don't understand Trump to the level of being able to point at the one thing that Trump was really good at, but Trump is also an example of someone who seemed to be good at specific things that allowed him to dominate the media and that allowed him to be extremely bad at others. 

Essentially, some people have "superpowers" and 3/5 of the last US presidents had one. If you count being the son of another president and the connections that come with that as an additional superpower it's 4/5. I'm unsure about Biden, but I have relatively little information about Biden that's goes deeper then political spin.

Many political candiates have nothing expectional going for them and when you see the people becoming president having superpowers, it might not be because they are any better at making political decisions then the average political candiates.

If making smart decisions was mainly about what gets you to be president we would see that US presidents that are as smart as FED chairmens but I don't believe that any of the last five US presidents have an IQ of more then 140 (with the possible expectation of Bush where someone working with him made claims that Bush was that smart and Michael Moore more making a comment of how Bush being mentally quick enough to outwit him suggests that Bush is very smart). 

Its more complicated than that. They must not look like they are merely adapting to change,like the vicar of Bray, because people don't like vicars of Bray...there's no point in voting for representatives who ditch their principles on day one.

So on the meta level,they have to strike a dynamic balance between seeming steadfast , and leaking the fact that they are adapting.

I don't think "flailing" was particularly meant to stand in specifically for changing political position. I think it was just meant to indicate "behaving in ways that seem like they ought to be bad politics".

(Considering the three examples specifically mentioned in the post: I think Pelosi is criticized more for being intransigent than for being inconsistent. Boris Johnson has changed his opinions almost as often as his women, and I don't think anyone would bet heavily on his having much in the way of principles, but since entering politics he's actually been fairly consistent. Khamenei seems to me to have been pretty consistent, but I don't know much about Iranian politics. So these don't seem like the examples one would choose if "flailing" meant making a lot of U-turns.)

GJM’s interpretation is my intended meaning. Specifically I meant Pelosi’s intransigence, Boris’s strategic position changes and fake awkwardness. For khameini I was referencing the nuclear bullshit which is destroying Iran’s economy and obviously a bad deal, but good for his career. As evidence it’s a bad deal, observe that only 1 other country trolls the big five with nukes. But all of this allowed Nancy to stay speaker for years, Boris to go from mayor of London to PM and khameini to rule for 30 years

Khamenei is not actually challenged by new people in the system. His position is more or less permanent. But to get to that position, then, yes, he must have done some things "right."

Iran has multiple power centers that interact in a very opague way. It would be possible for a very popular president who has the security forces/military on his side to strip Khamenei of power. 

Pushing for nuclear makes Khamenei more popular with the security forces/military while also weaking the influence of business men as a political force. 

See the Dictators Handbook for the general principles of political power and the following TED talk for Iran's political landscape in particular and the nuclear question.

It's worthwhile that this mechanism makes it easy to understand why North Korea has it's military first-policy. There are no powerful businessman and even when it means that people starve being popular with the military is what's necessary to keep political power. 

Yes! That’s exactly what I was suggesting! Couldn’t have put it better myself.