Thursday, January 21, 2010

Political Pundits and Sports Reporters

Political pundits and sports reporters seem to suffer from extreme forms of a common malady known to cognitive psychologists and behaviorial economists as the "availability heuristic." Simply put, they tend to base predictions of future events or outcomes on the most recent and vivid experiences they recall, regardless of how unrepresentative or unreliable those experiences might be. The Israeli pyschologist Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for his work on this and other forms of cognitive bias in individual decision-making. (Unfortunately, Kahneman's long-time collaborator and compatriot, Amos Tversky, died in 1996, and so could not be co-recipient of the 2002 Prize).

Among sports commentators, whoever won the last game or two is the "hot" team expected to sweep all others aside. Even during the course of the game, whichever team holds the lead is praised as if they could do no wrong, while the losing side is reviled. If the score flips, the previously losing team is now virtually unstoppable and the formerly winning team has no chance. Past praise is forgotten in an instant, without apology or explanation.

The same phenomenon is observed among the political pundocracy. All of a sudden, because the Republicans  now have what Jon Stewart referred to on the Daily Show last night as a "super-minority" of 41 votes in the Senate, Obama has been a terrible president and the Democratic Party as a whole is in free fall. The media-wing of the Democratic Party, known as MSNBC, is in mourning and seeking scapegoats. Meanwhile, the media-wing of the Republican Party, known as Fox News, is gloating, as if all of a sudden the Republicans are in charge of everything. The media have even treated seriously a proposal by Republic Senator Murkowski of Alaska to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases, as if such a proposal has a snowball's chance in hell of being enacted by a Congress that is still dominated by Democrats.

Yes, Brown's defeat of Coakley in Massachusetts makes the near-term prospects for climate legislation and health-care reform more doubtful. It also indicates, as President Obama himself has acknowledged, popular disaffection with something - Congress, unemployment, general economic conditions, the President's policies, the Democratic candidate - but the precise cause of popular disaffection is no more certain than what "causes" the stock markets to rise or fall on a given day. Brown's victory might be a prologue to greater Democratic losses in the fall. But greater Democratic loses in the fall are almost perfectly predictable based on empirical information from dozens of prior mid-term elections; we didn't need the Brown data point to tell us that. They would have become no less predictable if Coakley had won in Massachusetts this week.

The bottom line is that the Republican celebrations and Democratic wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth over a single Senate race seems pretty silly to me. And, yes, I would have said the same thing if a Republican were president, and a Democrat had won a Senate race in Georgia.

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