So You Think You Can Be President?

Our system for choosing presidents doesn’t work very well.  Voters are woefully uninformed on the most basic of issues and many end up voting on whim.  I don’t think restricting the franchise is a good solution, however.  A better idea is to create procedures that encourage voters to become better informed.  Our current institutions for providing information are lousy.  Debates, for example, are boring, the politicians don’t answer the questions and most importantly the voters don’t know what a good answer is.

(If the voters, for example, don’t know the difference between Sunni and Shia then how can they distinguish foolish and uninformed approaches to foreign policy from intelligent and informed approaches?  And if the voters can’t tell who is uninformed from who is informed then politicians have little incentive to become informed.)

Thus what we need is a way of conveying information to uninformed, unsophisticated voters in a way that is entertaining yet produces information about politicians that is correlated with real skills.

I suggest a game show, So You Think You Can Be President?  SYTYCBP would have at least three segments.

Coase it Out: Presidential candidates have 12 hours to get a bitterly divorcing couple to divide their assets in a mutually agreeable manner.  (Bonus points are awarded if the candidate convinces the couple to stay together.)

Game Theory: Candidates compete in a game of Diplomacy.   I would also include several ringers – say Robin Hanson, Bryan Caplan and Salma Hayek.  Why these three?  Robin is cold, calculating and merciless – make a logical mistake and he will make you pay.  Bryan is crafty and experienced.   And Salma?  I couldn’t refuse her anything but presidents should be made of stronger stuff so we need a test.   

Spot the Fraud:  Presidential candidates are provided with an economic scenario (mortgage defaults are up, hedge funds are crashing, liquidity is tight).  Three experts propose plans.  The candidate must choose one of the plans.  After the candidate chooses, the true identities of the "experts" are revealed. One is a trucker, another a scuba diver instructor and the last a distinguished economist.  Which did the candidate choose? 

Entertaining?  Check.  Correlated with important skills for governing?  Check.  Can the voters tell who the winner is?  Check.

What segments for So You Think You Can Be President do you suggest?

Addendum: Yes, I am serious.


That would certainly be entertaining, but I see two major problems with the idea:
* I'm not convinced that a well-informed electorate will produce a better outcome than the current system.
* What incentive would there be for candidates to participate? Debate formats are generally agreed upon by all participants, so efforts by skilled debaters to make the debates more interesting are always stymied by the lesser skilled candidates.

I would definitely watch this if it was on TV, though.

I am not so sure that what appears as individual irrationality at the individual level translates into irrationality at the macro level. There are many studies that seem to indicate that (excuse the phrase) macro polity acts quite rationally. For example when members of congress get to far out of step with their district they are defeated (Canes-Wrone, Brady, Cogan APSR 2004). Now how this exactly happens is still unsettled I think Erikson, Mackuen, and Stimson's "Macro Polity" lays out the puzzle of micro irrationality v/s macro rationality well, but ultimately I find their explanation unsatisfying.

So I think it is an open question as to whether the system really "doesn't work well".

Besides with all we know about the median voters level of knowledge on the major policy areas (economics, foreign policy etc). Do you REALLY want them paying more attention to politics or less?

The only real solution is to reduce to an absolute minimum the role of a government in anyone's life. There is no good way to select rulers, but there is a need for an authority perceived by the masses to be legitimate, to keep the evil fearful. Any truly wise philosopher-king would know he is not just fallible but powerless to do good in any but the most limited sphere.

Speaking as an economist, were I to poll three distinguished macroeconomists on solutions to our current mortgage problem, they would likely give three distinctly different answers. How can we claim that a presidential candidate should choose the advice of one of them?

Worse, a candidate who chooses the truck driver's plan may get credit in the eyes of voters, particularly if that plan involves distributed costs and concentrated benefits, no matter how harmful it might ultimately be. There's also American anti-intellectualism to consider. Agreeing with the egghead makes you an egghead and we all know that nerds get picked last for dodgeball. And that's basically how this is approached in the broader electorate.

I think this is a great idea. American Idol style shows work best when they are choosing someone for a job for which superficial qualities traditionally determine success. (For singers, style and looks; for politicians, fund raising and popularity). The show is actually able to find very talented people and give them the superficial stuff to make them popular.

And you wouldn't have to convince candidates to join the show. In fact it would be best to ignore the normal candidates. I am sure there are many people in many different fields who could do a better job at being president than someone who best skills are at schmoozing and fund raising like a lifelong politician. The show's winner could compete against the Democratic and republican nominee, and probably win. Another benefit would be the winner's lack of ties to donors or a political party. The politicians we've had historically who were famous or rich from some endeavor besides politics have turned out very well: Reagan,Schwarzenegger, Bloomberg + all the founding fathers.

The only problem I see is hat as our campaign laws are now, it might be illegal for a TV network to run the show since it would be giving extra airtime to one specific candidate.

"Spot the Fraud" doesn't work. Too many "distinguished economists" are frauds and would be hard pressed to come up with a better plan than that proposed by your average trucker. Present company excepted.

The game show idea is good: but expecting the candidates to play is wrong. The purpose of the game show would be to educate the public about the issues.

For example, the show "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" has the section where three putative news stories are brought up, but two are fictitious. The idea is to guess which is the real one. For sufficiently non-ideological issues (ie. fact based), this could be beneficial. For example, did Al Gore say he invented the internet?

You three contests all are too lengthy. They would necessitate a "Survivor" kind of presentation after the fact. In addition, candidates would need to function with their teams, else it would be unrealistic. And Survivor-like series work by manipulating the audience emotionally, rather than encouraging rational decision making.

So instead we should have games like "where does the propaganda come from?", "who's funding the propaganda?", "who benefits?", "spot the corporate connection", "what false assumption is the economist making?", "why should we believe that crap?", etc.

I know that I will get verbally shot for saying this on this website, but one real world idea that seem to work is well financed public service TV.

From my comparative experience between virtually no-public service, public service in decline, and well financed and established public service, I have found that understanding of political issues is clearly higher in the later context. And the quality of public debate is much much higher. Admittedly my experience is only from wealthy and stable democracies.

Fire away! But please no knee jerk defenses of pure free market in the media from those Americans who have no perspective on which to build an opinion. Thats is anybody whose idea of media diversity is the difference between Fox and CNN.

I agree that this is an excellent idea.

How about having them compete head-to-head in a game of Civilization IV? Start them with approximately equal civilizations and see who comes out on top. Plenty of opportunity for diplomacy, economic policy, military campaigns plus lots of treachery - just like the real world! Seems like a much better system than the current one, not to mention cheaper. The whole thing could be broadcast over the Internet.

Spot the fraud is not necessarily about choosing the better plan it's about spotting the fraud. A candidate who can't tell the difference between a distinguished economist/scientist/country expert and a non-expert isn't a good candidate since Presidents must use this skill all the time.

Remember also that we need the results to be correlated with good skills they don't have to be perfectly correlated.

Finally, I want to see more suggestsions for segments! (Kudos to Andrew for his suggestion). What skills do Presidents need and how do we test for those in a way that is entertaining and that there is a clear winner that voters can recognize.

I would like a Jeopardy segment...but replace Trebek with Walter Williams.

Plus, now we see evidence of what we've all long suspected: Alex Tabarrok is the academic pseudonym of Alex Trebek.

Anything that increases the voters' confidence is a bad idea. I want a game show that shatters the myth of knowledge. At the end of the show, the voters should feel ignorant, the politicians should look stupid, and the thought on everyone's mind will be "I don't want to give these guys too much power!"

Why is everyone so down on the trucker? Since when are truckers just a bunch of nitwits? Can't a trucker be an educated man? I mean just because a man is a trucker doesn't mean he can't be educated in economic policy. There is a lot of time for truckers to read while they are on their mandatory down time.

While I'd watch this show, esp. if mud-wrestling were added to the suite of required skills, I think it suffers from the same faulty premise that the Caplan book does, namely that populace's "ignorance" translates to bad policy. Yeah, Americans despise free trade when asked about it on surveys, but we still manage to have one of the most open economies in the world. I won't pretend that I know why that is, but maybe, as the saying goes, "Talk is cheap."

The other prob is that a politician isn't a "good" like an iPod with an easily identifiable set of ideal features. Alex might care about whether he (or she) can distinguish between Sunnis and Shiites, but I might care about his positions on farm policy or--and I know this is an unpolite topic to bring up around university types--religion, know a great deal about that and vote accordingly. I suspect that, if we trolled the internet, we could find a blog where the commenters are ruing the the public's ignorance of farming or its ungodliness and equally heartfelt (and well-intentioned) intimations of doomsday for the republic.

I also wonder if much of the sophistication that the well-educated congratulate themselves for doesn't really just boil down to trivia taken from reading the NYT, WSJ etc. Does the fact that you read a weekend info-graphic in the paper about the Sunni Triangle really make you any better than a trucker at sorting through our problems in Iraq or does it just allow for better showing off at faculty parties?

Ned: Optimal Civ IV strategy involves invading weaker opponents, destroying their cities, and setting up your own cities in their place. Not such a good idea.

Good point Dolohov.

Better point 8.

Very good point 8.

Dolohov posted my thought, the ability to choose qualified subordinates is crucial (and this is obviously related to the Coase it Out test as well). I would structure an event where you tell the canidate what the challenge will be, he gets say 7 resumes to review, he can interview 2 finalists for 5 minutes and then has to choose the proxy for the job

Alex, My only issue with Game Theory is you assume all presidential candidates to be male.

Although I would certainly be prone to giving into the temptation of Selma Hayek, I don't know how Hilary Clinton may affected by steaminess.

Nothing wrong with your proposal, but I scoff at your inherent gender bias.

Since Celebrity Jeopardy routinely humiliates its participants by exposing their ignorance on basic knowledge, I think a kind of Presidential Jeopardy would be equally useful.

"Name all the current members of the UN Security Council."

"How many Federalist Papers are there and who wrote them?"

"What does the 10th Amendment say?"

"What is a movement along the demand curve in response to a change in price called?"

"Name all the territories in the United States."

I don't buy the first or third.

To the first: Not sure how mediating a divorcing couple's asset division is particularly relevant to the presidency. I am quite sure that Jimmy Carter would have won that against most presidents of the last 100 years, but I don't think it speaks to his foreign policy prowess or his domestic policy.

To the third: All three economic policies are likely to be too interventionist and potentially unconstitutional. What we need is to reign in the powers of the president and congress with the constitution, not pick a president who can spot the modern economist's drivel justification for stepping outside those bounds.

I think something similar to your idea might make a good addition to the current debate and get-to-know-the-candidate venues out there. I don't think candidates are provided with enough what-if scenarios. They're only asked to speak on vague platform topics or are forced to discuss fixing current problems. We need to ask them how they would handle wild, unexpected situations, like 9-11 would have been to the candidates in 2000.

They could have a round, similar to the new "Power of Ten" gameshow in which they guess the percentage of Americans that agree with certain stances on current political "hot topics". The president is supposed to represent the people so I would hope that knowing what the people want would go along with this.

My mental experiments with electoral systems often revolve around banning political parties.

Political discourse always seems to degrade to pro-wresting/sports talk radio levels due to arbitrary factionism.

I've often wondered if its possible. Parties always seem to form spontaneously and quickly weed out to two factions.

Pass a constitutional amendment so money is no longer considered speech. Pass a constitutional amendment requiring non-partisan districting procedures.

The airwaves are supposed to belong to the people. Make the electoral process essentially funded by whoever gets the frequencies. Have enough mandated political content that additional advertising is unnecessary.

Have some sort of regional run-off system where governors vie for presidency. Make them work their way up.

Have a foreign language requirement. (And an English language requirement...)

Make more cabinet-level positions elected offices (*cough* Attorney General *cough*).

Have instant runoffs and "none of the above."

See "Giant Douche vs. Turd Sandwich."

That would be such a great show, if it could get off the ground (Maybe if you got Jon Stewart on board, he seems to have pull with at least some candidates).

I like the war games idea, but I'd change it to a real-time reaction (with fake new reports, and cool video -- it's TV after all) to say... A North Korean splinter group sets off a small nuclear explosion in Chicago Harbor.

I'd also like to see Democrats paired with Libertarians, Republicans with Greens to see how well they can work with people of opposing view points. (it should be easier to get 3rd party candidates to sign on)

Two word solution---Parliamentary Democracy. Radical, but does produce leaders who can think on their feet and speak knowledgeably--i.e. no cue cards, no scripted speeches. Could Bush or Hillary handle a question period such as our cousines in U.k. Doubt it. However, in a Constitutional Republic you cannot but help having sub par presidents. In fact up to the Lincoln Administration is was considered an outrage if a president made a public speech.

Great post. Especially suited to Argentina, my country, now that we're roughly two months from presidential elections.

Only the educated segment of the population cares about public debates. The rest would rather turn the TV off than watch a debate.

And, of course, whoever the polls say is winning has absolutely no incentive to attend.

In the end, we all end up voting for the one who, for some reason, is considered the "least worse" candidate.

And then we start over again.

You are missing the fact that we have already evolved a reality show to pick the president.

I'm thinking a game show more like something Nickelodeon puts on would be more apt. Having Clinton and Giuliani playing Foreign Policy Whack-a-Mole at pains of having gallons of green slime dumped on their heads would both be entertaining and give us a feel for how they react to stress and for their humility.

(Disclaimer - Canadian talking) The basic flaw in this idea is the notion that better Presidents would result in better governance. Think - who could do a good job in 2007 America?

Ghandi would be ridiculed and marginalized as weak. Congress would bully him around, and his Iraq policy would probably be a disaster.

Jesus would upset the gun lobby, the major banks and neo-cons. Without a strong grassroots fund raising effort, he would definitely be short-stacked in the fund raising department. He would probably be forced to ban same sex marriages and abortion to win compromises from right-wing Christians on social issues.

Winston Churchill would probably "hold the course" in Iraq and Afghanistan, prolonging the slaughter.

The problem isn't the people, it's the very way your government is structured. A centuries old system, designed to create a weak state on the eastern seaboard of North America is not suitable for a modern empire.

Brian? I think he's easy. I'd just tickle him.
Robin is trickier. Deflection *m i g h t* work.
Salma, I'd just let her roll. And she's not even my type.

Game Theory: Candidates compete in a game of Diplomacy

Spring 09: Fleet Afghanistan CONVOY Army Iraq->Pakistan.

Spring 04: Army Iraq->WMD

"WMD not found. Army stays in place."


Patrick's "Convince Me" game is a really good idea. A game that sees which candidates do the best job of convincing 100 citizens to support an option which rationally/empirically seems best even if it runs counter to popular biases. If nothing else, a "rational policy" lobby could invite candidates to participate in such a game, and the best performers could get endorsements and financial donations from that lobby.

Canada's CBC had a show with a related concept called "Canada's Next Great Prime Minister". I only saw a little of it, which was mostly candidates responding to questions from previous Prime Ministers. I think it's meant as more of a tool for inspiring young people to get involved politically. (It looks like they're doing it again this year:

I like the idea of hands-on problem solving situations, and seeing how candidates deal with the situations.

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Republicans won 25% of the popular vote they would get 25% of the electors in that state). This plan would force the candidates to campaign


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