Monday, January 7, 2008

Pirmary Information Cascade

Another information cascade sweeps through yet another primary as everyone starts talking about change. Barack Obama’s vapid speeches has moved the media, the electorate and the other candidates to embrace an amorphous promise of something new. There is no substance in what is being said. It’s all emotional and, supposedly, heartfelt.

Don’t get me wrong. Emotions are important and powerful movers. But a yearning to be better without a concept of what is really wrong and how to improve our condition is profoundly dangerous. It’s what makes us sit in tantric positions only to develop sever joint problems. It’s what makes us elope into disastrous marriages.

The primaries for selecting the presidential candidates of the two main U.S. parties are ideal breeding grounds for information cascades. A small group of people in a few states are sequentially given the opportunity to voice their opinion. After Iowa has made its decision, the media interprets, turns and twists the meaning of their caucusing into speculative arguments often presented as fact. Then it’s New Hampshire’s turn to propagate the cascade. And then, finally, South Carolina, yet another relatively unique state.

At the end of this sequence, many facts have been invented out of thin air. Candidates are attributed characteristics not derived from a personal analysis of their traits. The characteristics have been attached by a small number of talking heads and bloggers using the tally of a poorly cross-sectioned electorate as guide and proof. With every subsequent primary, the overall population shifts its opinions based on these fabulations.

The primary process is often presented as something good. Underdogs are given a chance, politicians are forced to talk directly to the people, etc. But what it leads to are things like Bush and Obama: support for politicians who profess to be agents of change without any specifics. Bush was the unifier who you supposedly wanted to have a beer with. Obama is now being depicted as the gracious golden boy with a uniting smile. I believe this idealized image of Obama is as detached from reality as that of the old chummy beer buddy Bush.

One good thing about Democratic caucusing in Iowa is that it does try to produce a candidate that most can live with. By forcing those groups that constitute less than 15% of the caucus attendants to choose another candidate, people are allowed to express their secondary choice (i.e. one they are likely to accept and eventually support). What is bad about it is that a local faction tries to make a choice that should belong the constituency as a whole, which in the case of the Democratic nominee to the U.S. presidency is the entire Democratic U.S. electorate, not just that of Iowa.

And it has real consequences. Candidates that might have insufficient support in Iowa to receive any delegates, but who has some yet untapped greater national support, drop out of the race. These candidates might not have much chance to become the nominee. But they might forfeit a chance to be the eventual nominee’s running mate, or at least sending a pivotal set of delegates to the national convention.

The state based sequential primary process is such a ripe breeding ground for the worst types of information cascades that it needs to be replaced with a single national primary process. When voters decide independently of each other who is their best choice, they are much wiser than when they act based on brewing mass hysteria. But I’m afraid it will be a long time before the primary process is subjected to any real major…change…

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