Questions that are rarely asked

By email, from Joshua Miller:

Do you think there is an audience for a public policy game show? The idea would be to ask contestants to solve policy problems instead of asking them to navigate obstacle courses or eat spiders.

Much of my research is on deliberative democracy and civic engagement, but though Obama used that rhetoric in his campaign there haven’t been any major policy moves to increase civic engagement. So I wondered:

If you have any comments, I’d appreciate them. I don’t imagine this as some sort of televised town hall meeting; rather, I envision judging contestants’ policy choices according to realistic projections of their impact.

Here is Alex’s proposal for, So You Think You Can Be President?


And just how is solving policy problems NOT like navigating obstacle courses or eating spiders?

I liked the fantasy congress idea:

If you could improve on the complicated point system, it might become pretty engaging.

Implicit in this, is the whole myth of Democracy. So many people have the innate belief that Democracy is the cure to all problems, and so the problems that do exist is because the electorate "isn't engaged enough"... or the electorate is "uninformed", or "not enough people vote", or "corporations are doing too much political advertising", etc.. and even deeper than that is a belief that "'the people' want and support my political ideology, so to the extent that my side doesn't control government, there must be something un-democratic".

People are always shocked when you make their pet reforms, or "engage" people, or limit campaign spending, or whatever, and nothing at all changes.

If you can overlook his obvious socialism, Augusto Boal had interesting ideas about participatory theater games to increase civic engagement. The most appealing part of an American Presidential Idol might well be the idea that any viewer could grow up to be president, which is certainly not now the case.

I spend hours a day chatting about regulatory issues on gchat. I do not ever chat about American Idol. Maybe someone needs to make new friends.

As contestants, would we have to solve policy problems or could we opt to eat spiders?

Every day, myself and four of my closest friends* are engaged in endless email discussions. A good many of them center around policy reform, so I say yes, this game show could at least run one season. Although if there's going to be spider eating, I'm out.

*We're all women, so if any screenwriters/novelists would like to show realistic depictions of women talking to other women, there you go.

I have this image in my mind of Simon Cowell judging a medical reform debate about death panels. Talk about ironic.

Seriously though. I think Joshua has a very creative idea here. My biggest concern would be in making sure the selection process for the judges and the contestants is credible. The topics would have to be restricted to fiscal policies. If too much ideology got into the mix, you'd need to have Jerry Springer as the host. The next trick would be in how to keep it "entertaining" for the people it's aimed at. I'd like to see a graduated prize system based on the long-term savings/costs for a winning policy... the longer the benefit, the more you win.

"...realistic projections of their impact"

There's the rub.


Would a good economist have enough time to judge “…realistic projections of their impact” within the limitations of a one hour show?

You may be interested in Geoffrey Robertson's "Hypotheticals". Geoffrey Robertson is an Australian-born barrister (lawyer) in England specialising in, among other things, human rights law. In the late 1980s, he hosted a small series of shows in Australia, called "Hypotheticals", in which he led a discussion between guests on weighty and frequently policy-relevant questions. You can see the full list here:

"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.)"

That's easy. Threaten that if they go ahead with the divorce you will withhold any services that they like.

You've never been divorced, have you? ;-)

There *is* a large number of public policy game shows. They are usually called internet political forums, though. There are participants, watchers, hecklers, and all the other usual assortment of characters. The prize is, basically, attention and respect.

A visit to such forums will quickly show problems inherent with "civic engagement" through such methods. To quote Churchill (from memory) "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with an average voter".


What he said.

But as Aristotle said (well, maybe he would if was here today), it is the average voter (middle class) who experiences the effects of decisions made by rulers. So their approval is generally needed to maintain stability.

Sounds like Miller is asking for a socialist revolution.

Previous comments are not nearly effusive enough. This is a GENIUS idea! Genius!

I really like this idea, it could be fun!

Like SteveX above, I too think that the main problem would be the selection of the policy-judges. How to select unbiased, non-ideological experts with knowledge? And how to convince the viewers in a politicized democracy of that unbiasedness of a good selection? Analysis from one judge which went against the beliefs or preferred policies of large or important social groups would always face the criticism of ideology. I fear that in view of this problem, there would be a pressure to select judges proportionally from all political parties as well as from important interest groups. Such a selection would predict a lot of political posturing and not a lot of thoughtful analysis from the judges. The incentives the judges face from outside of the game show might dominate.

Still, I wish that a corageous entrepreneur tried to overcome these problems and tried to realize this idea.

I think this is a major issue, but I don't necessarily need the judges to be free of bias, so long as they're using some reliable guide and staying relatively close to mainstream disciplinary standards. If the show has viewer voting, there will be plenty of strategic gaming of those votes, in any case. The goal of the judges should be to correct the obvious mistakes and to supply the facts when they're available.

A show like this should try to draw attention to the issues that matter, even if this also draws our attention to the uncertainties or disagreements that matter.

So, the idea is to do for public policy what American Idol has done for music. And this is a good idea because...?

"What would the world look like if people talked as much about financial regulatory reform as they do about American Idol?"

If the government didn't suck and took care of their business I would get to talk more about American Idol.

Questions that are rarely asked? I'm lucky. I was just reading the stuff: "The Koch Brothers — What You Need to Know About the Financiers of the Radical Right" The chapter "Bankrolling the right wing" has a disturbing line: George Mason’s Mercatus Center—$9,674,500. So my question: What are you doing with the Koch Brothers spare change?

No concerns about Soros, huh?

I'm pretty sure tv and radio do not need more shows with talking heads screaming at one another about public policy.

Well, we can edit the screaming out. But if they don't like a contestant, the audience could downvote screamers (or anyone who said "I didn't come here to make friends," for that matter.)

I suggest to call the program PLAN B for the simple reason that U.S. Presidents seem never to have a good argument for Plan A. For example, I imagine a situation in which the President is the main participant and ask him what your PLAN B is for Libya and he answers to exit Libya on the Summer of 2013 because this Summer the military are exiting Iraq and the Summer of 2012 they will be exiting Afghanistan, and as any good community organizer knows, every Summer the military need to practice how to exit! Assuming that the audience approves his answer (he needs a 2/3 majority of voters selected by Bryan Caplan), then he has the opportunity to earn the right to take another Marbella vacation if he's able to answer the Plan A question --Why Libya?-- and the audience approves it. So he may say because I wanted to please Samantha, Susan and Hillary --while playing Aladdin they agree that my best option to be re-elected was to overthrow a Mid-East dictator and they came out with Qaddafi (at that time I didn't know that he was such a large benefactor of our Harvard U.). In sum, given the expectation of a terrible Plan A, the show should focus on PLAN B and hope that the answer always is to repeal whatever Plan A has been.

I'm not so sure the project would pan out. Perhaps if marketed right. But Plan B sounds like a cool name for it. It could take the pressure away from the idea that those policies would necessarily be actually used, possibly allowing for some more civil discourse.

At present, I don't think the electorate is well enough informed. (I would be surprised if that statement applied to any of the readers of this blog, although there are commonly different views). Among Canadians and Europeans (as far as I know), American voters are generally perceived as very poorly informed about most public policy issues.

I think the problem of poor quality information in politics is common to most places though, and is commonly linked to the nature of media.

In that sense, I like the idea because someone's trying to think up innovative ways to use media and entertainment to push for a more informed public debate on important issues. That's great.

But, I'm just not sure that it's the right format.

So is Paul Krugman the truck driver or the scuba diver?
Seriously, these ideas completely ignore the basics of politics as it is actually conducted.
As previously mentioned, we DO have a reality show to select the president. Two parties vote candidates off the island until only one remains. For the final round, the winners face off.
Would I prefer that the campaigns engage in more serious discussions? Of course. Why don't they? Because the revealed preference of the voters is for unserious discussions!
We have PRECISELY the form of politics that the country desires. The last two major candidates to try to run serious policy campaigns were Steve Forbes and Ross Perot. Perot's campaign did better _because_ he is a nutjob. (Media support didn't hurt, of course.) Alan Keyes was another "serious issues" campaigner. Most third-party candidates are "serious issues". See the pattern?

Ah, deliberative democracy. While there is left-leaning support for deliberation, there is another literature that argues that we expect too much from deliberative democracy. Interests are too fragmented to believe that deliberation will lead to, for example, even an articulation of the public interest.

Indeed, deliberation is often associated with deontological ethics and truthful speech, as in Habermas. It is unrealistic to believe that we will ever get there.

Now, I support the idea of a game show. I think it will at least be informative in that a regular TV audience will be a bit more exposed to the ugly details of making policy but I do not think we should confuse it with deliberation.

And, even if we could formulate public policy through deliberation, we are left with the question of implementation.

Is there any evidence that public policy is not a game show?

Yes! Finally a show where we can discuss public policy prob zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Instead, they should have a Public Policy Survival Island.

Contestants would be forced to eat and live their own policy, with no exceptions, with only other true believers on their island.

Would the Libertarians form a government, or form uncoerced consensual contractual coalitions or would they each go to their own hut?

Would there be group hunting parties, and if so, how would the spoils be divided?

Would there be taxes to cover the costs of random events that would befall our happy islanders, or would they each set aside their own coconuts for their old age, oversaving coconuts for those who died early without using them, and undersaving coconuts for those who lived, unfortunately, a long time.

On this island, the life of man would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" --or not.

What's the relative popularity of college debate tournaments and college basketball tournaments? ;)

Let's say the show gets one-tenth of the audience of the Daily Show. Is 360,000 people enough to sustain a reality television show?

How 'bout a mud wrestlin' contest and the winner gets to do whatever they want. Oh wait, that's what we do.

In a lighter vein, Scott Adams had raised this question side-splittingly hilariously in his dilbert blog some time back :

The interesting thing is that there are indeed such TV shows -- in China! You'll be amazed by how socially engaged many Chinese citizens are, given the political censorship. There are discussions on everything from one-child policy to the possibility of Korea unification; the only censored topic is really the Communist Party and the political process. Perhaps there's a trade-off - when people don't have a specific party or politician to attack or vote against, they actually think more about the policies.

I think for most people, politics already basically is a game show.

Dear god, you all should get involved with competitive debate, either at the collegiate or high school level. It's the best version of a "public policy game show" an involved citizen could ask for.

Quarterfinal of the World University Debating Championships:
Should courts enforce wills that discriminate on the basis of race?

Grand Final of the US Universities Debating Championships
Should the US gov't actively facilitate the circumvention of internet filters in other countries?

In the spirit of this blog's economics focus I wanted to post the video on the motion that governments should tax intellectual property, but that particular video was awful, I'm told.

no, for the same reason there are more actors than actuaries. can't dress up a dull subject...

We had this in Canada - it was called "Canada's Next Great Prime Minister." It was a mix of game-show style trivia and "real-world" challenges. The final four contestants would participate in a debate judged by former Canadian PM's in the finale. It was pretty interesting, and I think the ratings weren't bad (as far as Canadian television goes) - not sure why it got cancelled.

Ha Ha HA. Best joke I have read in a long time. There are a number of fairly intelligent people that I work with that just do not care. When two of them said they were not voting in the last election, I told them thank you. If you can not be bothered to educate yourself on the issues, do not vote. It is too abstract and too long range for many people to pay attention.

Comments for this post are closed