Friday, April 17, 2009

Political gossip, character and Goodhart’s law

Shuggy and Chris (among others) have been pondering the political media’s focus on personalities and why so many people seem to lap up gossip and muck. Shuggy’s sister suggested to him that it’s:

the political equivalent of magazines like Closer or Heat - the sort of journals that publish pictures of celebrities with their cellulite or acne on show, enlarged and helpfully circled with a yellow pencil in case you missed it. … It's what rather a lot of people appear to want - politics like their culture; something nasty, brutish and short.

I think that’s true. Whoever it was that said “politics is show business for ugly people” is being increasingly proved right.

One of the things about celebrity is that once you’ve achieved fame in whatever field (acting, singing, legislating), your activities outside of that field start to get public attention and so your status as a celebrity becomes independent of your main work. So we can follow what Madonna’s getting up to in her personal life without needing to have the slightest idea of when she last actually did something musical.

This is great for political celebrities. As everyone knows, politics is bo-ring. All those issues and policies and ideologies. Yawn! But once we’ve been forced to learn a few of the names and faces involved, then we’ve got a human angle. We’ll still talk about them with a sort of political slant, but that’s just a pretext to chew over what Gordon’s really like, how David and George really get on, and whether Charlie and Ming are ever going to do a comeback tour.

Chris adds some thoughts on why it’s a bad idea to fixate on ‘character’. But he also argues the other side:

one of the most important questions to ask of a potential leader is: how will he respond to unforeseeable events? … Perhaps - only perhaps - character, more than policy statements and ideology, can tell us how leaders will respond to the unforeseeable.

He has a point. But I’m not sold on the idea that we should focus politics on the judging of our (would-be) leaders’ characters to the exclusion of assessing the quality of policies. The reason is Goodhart’s law. To lazily take the Wikipedia summary:

once a social or economic indicator or other surrogate measure is made a target for the purpose of conducting social or economic policy, then it will lose the information content that would qualify it to play such a role.

If we use character as the main indicator of who should run the country, then our indicators of politicians’ characters won’t be reliable, as they’ll have great incentive to manipulate the information we get about them.

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