The Myth of the Rational Elected Official

by on November 23, 2008 at 7:36 am in Political Science | Permalink

Hail Mark Steckbeck, for sending me such content:

US elected officials scored abysmally on a test measuring their
civic knowledge, with an average grade of just 44 percent, the group
that organized the exam said Thursday.

Ordinary citizens did not fare much better, scoring just 49 percent correct on the 33 exam questions compiled by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI).   

Here’s one detail:

Asked about the electoral college, 20 percent of elected officials incorrectly said it was established to "supervise the first televised presidential debates."

Here is the clincher:

The question that received the fewest correct responses, just 16
percent, tested respondents’ basic understanding of economic
principles, asking why "free markets typically secure more economic
prosperity than government’s centralized planning?"

This one is a little tricky:

Forty percent of respondents, meanwhile, incorrectly believed that the US president has the power to declare war, while 54 percent correctly answered that that power rests with Congress.

I’m not sure if those last few numbers are for the officials or for everyone, though it doesn’t much seem to matter.  The quiz itself is hereHere is more on the results for the non-officials.

Dave November 23, 2008 at 7:44 am

When thinking about an occupation, pretty much the best questions you can ask are “what is the occupation’s recruiting pool?” and “what incentives are faced by the occupation’s practitioners?”. Given that, these results are pretty much to be expected.

a person November 23, 2008 at 8:07 am

Woo I scored a 30/33! Should I be happy about this?

odograph November 23, 2008 at 8:29 am

93.94% … 6 and 10 fooled me

Cyrus November 23, 2008 at 9:12 am

Defining ‘elected official’ as anyone who has ever held an elected office likely makes the population of elected officials older than the general population of quiz-takers. It would be good to know if the study’s result still holds up after accounting for age.

Nob Akimoto November 23, 2008 at 9:27 am

Some of these questions (notably the one on “public goods” for example) and the “benefits of markets” is rather odd. A few of them are definitely meant to be trick questions that become HARDER to answer the more you know about a specific question. (I mean really, the declare war one, after the War Powers Act, technically Congress no longer has that power since the President can just commit forces…)

Also is anyone surprised “elected officials” as a group don’t know any of this stuff? Some local elected officials clearly aren’t all too smart…I mean really, Sarah Palin anyone?

Andrew Edwards November 23, 2008 at 9:38 am

Also, they report 49% being the average score, but once I take the test it shows an average this month of 77.6%. Hunh?

Michael Drake November 23, 2008 at 9:58 am

Those presuming that the results here on “US elected officials” were actually representative might want to take that online test on statistical knowledge.

Dan Riley November 23, 2008 at 10:18 am

I think the intent of question 9 is to ask which power is exclusive to (“belongs to”) the federal government, but I agree that it is poorly worded.

Robert Olson November 23, 2008 at 10:34 am

“You answered 33 out of 33 correctly — 100.00 %”

Awesome.

Also, if you think economic knowledge (and, more specifically, what the government’s role should be in the economy) is important at all, then the public good question is similarly very important.

If you don’t know WHY the government “should be” providing public goods…well…you have an understanding deficiency.

Bernard Yomtov November 23, 2008 at 10:53 am

Also, if you think economic knowledge (and, more specifically, what the government’s role should be in the economy) is important at all, then the public good question is similarly very important.

The objection to this question is that the term “public good” as used here is economics jargon. One can perectly well understand the idea, or remember it from a class, without knowing or remembering the specific term.

Paludicola November 23, 2008 at 11:19 am

My score on the test was 100%, I suppose that means I’m overqualified to be both an American citizen and elected official.

I wonder if the quality of the electorate correlates convincingly to the quality of elected officials (and campaigns). If we have ‘irrational voters’, then perhaps that explains ‘irrational elected officials’.

assman November 23, 2008 at 12:04 pm

100% and I am Canadian.

assman November 23, 2008 at 12:42 pm

“I agree with the negative comments above. It doesn’t bother me that a bunch of politicians (or average Americans for that matter) scored poorly on this test, because it really is more about “have you read the same books I have?” as opposed to “do you understand US history?”

It does bother me. The test is extremely elementary. The United States has a public education system so everybody should have as you put it “read the same books”. That is one of the basic reasons for a public education system in the first place.

Plus I don’t like the focus on sophistication in our society. People keep talking about derivatives, CDSs, CDOs, inflation, normal distributions blah blah blah. But they don’t have even a very elementary understanding of discounted cash flow or basic corporate finance (e.g. difference between stock and bond). Its very scary. The same holds true in many areas. There is a faux sophistication. There is nothing wrong with basic ideas and understanding. You can often go very very far with this. Look at Warren Buffet or Paul Krugman. Our society is way too sophisticated.

Noumenon November 23, 2008 at 2:22 pm

I got through #12 before getting bored and quitting, and I wonder how many of the surveyed people did too, and got marked as “F.” They weren’t getting paid, you know.

Nylund November 23, 2008 at 3:23 pm

100% here. It was pretty obvious they wanted the standard undergrad textbook answer. Nine of the questions were really economics questions and not civic questions. There was a strong bias towards a Libertarian view on government and economics that I found a bit disconcerting.

The questions seem designed to convince you that the federal government has overstepped its constitutional limits and that an unregulated free market always leads to the best possible outcome. I would actually be happy if some of our elected officials got some of these questions wrong.

I also would not fault an elected official for not knowing the religious dogmas of the Puritans, the views of a 13th century saint, the topic of a 150 year old presidential debate, or for not knowing the primary source of some famous quotes.

The results of this test would not quantify how well-qualified an elected official is for office.

goodnessOfFit November 23, 2008 at 3:50 pm

What does any of this have to do with rationality?

Alan November 23, 2008 at 4:31 pm

You answered 33 out of 33 correctly – 100.00 %

Average score for this quiz during November: 77.6%
Average score: 77.6%

(Please note that, in addition to being very knowledgable, I am also a very humble person)

John V November 23, 2008 at 5:19 pm

Muirgeo,

27) Free markets typically secure more economic prosperity than government’s centralized planning because:
A. the price system utilizes more local knowledge of means and ends…

OTC derivatives and CDO´s not included here.

Congrats, you got the answer right on the quiz and fail miserably in applying it on your first attempt.

If you can’t see how “the price system” is broken and non-properly functioning in all things having to do with interest rates, then you don’t understand the full extent and implications of why (A.) is the right answer.

CJS November 23, 2008 at 7:46 pm

I am so ashamed – I missed 2, #’s 4 and 7. Apparently I need to refresh myself on Lincoln.

John Watkins November 23, 2008 at 8:24 pm

28/33 from an Australian reader here…

With all due respect, it’s hardly a ‘fading heritage’ when people can’t remember a few phrases from the constitution or how a president threatened a Supreme court 75 years ago. Trivia.

Steve Sailer November 23, 2008 at 10:12 pm

Decent test. I got 33/33. The source for the “wall of separation” between church and state seemed hardest, but you could eliminate all the other answers with some confidence, so it logically ends up being America’s go-to guy for random quotes.

Justaguy November 24, 2008 at 1:04 am

I don’t see what this has to do with rationality.

You can be well versed in history and irrational, or completely ignorant of history and perfectly rational. I take the idea that elected officials are rational actors to be a comment on the motivations and reasoning that they use to make decisions, not the information that they use to inform that decision making process.

And the past couple of weeks have left me fairly skeptical about the answer for 27.

David Tomlin November 24, 2008 at 2:51 am

So far no one has picked the nit that grabbed my attention. The electoral college isn’t an ‘assembly’, at least in the ordinary meaning of the term. The electors meet in each state. There is never an official gathering of the electors generally.

Dominic November 24, 2008 at 5:36 am

English person who has, errr, watched The West Wing and the news: 26 out of 33. 78%

I would be worried if many members of the US government did worse.

The ones that I got wrong:

Question #1 – E. life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – total guess
Question #4 – B. Would slavery be allowed to expand to new territories? – total guess
Question #7 – D. Gettysburg Address – thought I knew this, misrepresented in fiction as “law”.
Question #8 – C. appoint additional Supreme Court justices who shared his views – I had picked up the impression that the number was fixed.
Question #9 – A. Make treaties – I was going to put this but then thought congress would have to ratify them, obviously not.
Question #15 – E. Thomas Jefferson’s letters – total guess
Question #18 – A. guarantee women the right to vote in national elections – total guess, I thought the slave one was more in keeping with the quiz :)

Cormac November 24, 2008 at 7:53 am

88%. Irish.

Anonymous November 24, 2008 at 9:58 am

I don’t think it would be obviously wrong to say that a levee is a “public good” because:

E. government pays for its construction, not citizens

Darn! I forgot that the government only raises money from non-citizens.

Jeff Murray November 24, 2008 at 2:32 pm

Who has the power to declare war has not changed. Maybe current history should be tested also.

benamery21 November 25, 2008 at 12:43 am

100%. Amazing that only 21 of the survey respondents answered 30/33 or better correctly (less than 1%), when I count myself the 21st person reporting a score of that level here in just 2 days. Self-selection, eh?

Harald Korneliussen November 26, 2008 at 3:21 pm

A question you all forget to ask: Who gets to decide what constitutes important civic knowledge and not? Perhaps, just perhaps, some people would not answer “Victor Davis Hanson”.

At least they have a page dedicated to their methods, they score one point over Political Compass there (on Harald Korneliussen’s True Worth of Tests test, in case you wondered)

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