On Political Calibration

If I had to choose one word that describes why I despair of politics, it is "calibration."  Recently, it has been observed that Ron Paul, for example, cannot possibly win because he sticks to a basic set of beliefs and never calibrates his message to the electorate and recent polls.  On the other end of the scale, Hillary Clinton is famous for endlessly calibrating everything she does in the hopes of maximizing the votes she receives.

Calibration is one of those dangerous words that tend to obfuscate the underlying reality.  Because, there are only two possible definitions of calibration as used in this political context:

  • Lying, i.e. telling the electorate what they want to hear with the intention of acting differently once in office
  • Total nihilism,, i.e. willingness to shift beliefs based on whatever is effective

Russell Roberts describes the situation pretty well:

But there is little difference between Republican and Democratic
Presidents in what they actually do. In what they say? Sure. Both
Reagan and Bush talk about individual responsibility and the market
blah blah blah. Bill Clinton talked more about feeling people's pain
and the downtrodden blah blah blah. Similarly, in the current
presidential campaign, there are stark rhetorical differences between
say Giuliani and Romney on the one hand and Obama and Clinton on the

But will the actual results be different? Will Hillary double the
minimum wage? Change our health care system to be more socialized?
Eliminate corporate welfare? Will Giuliani make the health care system
less socialized? Eliminate the minimum wage? Get rid of farm subsidies?
Stop spending federal money on education?

Most of it is talk and it's not just because change is hard to
achieve. It's because they really don't want change. Did Bill Clinton
get rid of income inequality? Dent it? The share of income going to the
top 1% rose throughout most of the Clinton administration. Was it his
policies? The steady rise in the share of income going to the top 1%
started rising in 1976. Was it Carter's doing?

Was Bush or Reagan a hard core free trader in practice? Nope. They
used protectionism when it was politically expedient. Just like Bill
Clinton signed welfare reform and NAFTA and then chose not to enforce
the truck provision of NAFTA because the Teamsters didn't like it.

Government gets bigger under both Republicans and Democrats. What
they spend money on is a little different, yes. But to hate George Bush
for being a free market guy is to miss what is really going on. And to
hate Hillary because she doesn't understand the power of markets and to
love, say, Mitt Romney, is to misunderstand both of them. They use
rhetoric to dupe you. Don't be duped.

This all leads to the question of into which category should we place Paul Krugman - lier or nihilist?

Paul Krugman worries that,
although trade between high-wage countries is mutually beneficial,
"trade between countries at very different levels of economic
development tends to create large classes of losers as well as winners"
- and so is suspect because it likely harms ordinary American workers
("Trouble With Trade," December 28).

A famous trade economist
argues that this concern is misplaced.  In a 1996 essay, this economist
- responding to a protectionist who fretted that western trade with
low-wage countries would harm workers in the west - wrote that this
protectionist "offers us no more than the classic 'pauper labor'
fallacy, the fallacy that Ricardo dealt with when he first stated the
idea, and which is a staple of even first-year courses in economics. In
fact, one never teaches the Ricardian model without emphasizing
precisely the way that model refutes the claim that competition from
low-wage countries is necessarily a bad thing, that it shows how trade
can be mutually beneficial regardless of differences in wage rates."

Oh - the economist who wisely warned against the pauper-labor fallacy is none other than Paul Krugman.


  1. Frink the Foolish:

    I would recommend "The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies" by Bryan Caplan. That'll give you even more reason to despair. In it he argues that lying is a good thing because it allows the politician to push for sound policies while in office even though he probably campaigned on protectionism, nativism, and class warfare.

  2. Sameer Parekh:

    The thing about Krugman is that he isn't doing this for the sake of winning political office. He's doing it for--- who knows? I really have no idea what has turned Krugman into a leftist nutjob. He was a great economist. Maybe he's been taken over by socialist aliens.

  3. M. Hodak:

    I'm wondering if Ron Paul's recent admission of not believing in evolution--after specifically not raising his hand on this issue when asked earlier--represents item (a) or (b) in your choice above.

    I still intend to support Paul because I'm interested in doing my little part in at least placing libertarian concerns on the agenda of the eventual nominee. I know the real choice will ultimately be, as always, between "Giant Douchebag" and "Turd Sandwich." Paul, despite this little flip-flop, still doesn't qualify on this count.

  4. Josh:

    I've never heard the word used this way before, but it sounds incredibly stupid. Just as stupid as the term "pretexting" . I can only hope it fades as quickly. But rest assured, people will continue to use softer-sounding terms, annoying as it may be, because for a news anchor to say that a presidential candidate is "lying" or "dishonest" would simply be too inflammatory.

    M. Hodak, I belive Ron Paul's admission is neither of the above. I'm sure he realizes that it will alienate as many people as it attracts. I'm not aware of any instance where he has compromised his principles for political gain.

  5. dearieme:

    "calibration": we used to call it "trimming".

  6. Billy Beck:

    "Total nihilism,, i.e. willingness to shift beliefs based on whatever is effective."

    Actually, that's known as Pragmatism.

  7. Bearster:

    There are a few other reasons why, perhaps, some people would not vote for Ron Paul. One is that he does not seem to acknowledge that islamists are waging a war to anihilate us. Another is his disturbing connections to white supremacists (e.g. Stormfront), 911 "truthers", and other nutjobs. His online toady army doesn't help his image either.

  8. Daublin:

    Lying and weak thinking are not the only two possibilities for "calibration". It is also possible to shift emphasis. If you are giving a speech in Florida, then you talk a lot about Fidel Castro. When you give a talk in any other state, you don't mention him at all.

    That said, I agree with the theme, and I am mystefied and disturbed by Krugman's shifts. Krugman isn't just changing his emphasis, he is completely reversing his early comments. I am more disturbed by the whole "guess what they will really do" aspect of listening to. In Bush vs. Kerry, you could go by Bush's prior record on what he would do, but Kerry was extremely hard to pin down on what he really believed in and would plan to do.

    As an answer, maybe a good angle is to work on the public getting smarter and better educated. Keep posting good posts, not just flames, and ideally go weight in on blogs where people might get misled by nutjobs. If the public gets smarter, the politicians will respond.