Monthly Archives: May 2012

Why politics is as it is and how to change it

Politics in all democratic countries is dishonest, propagandistic, riven by special interests etc. From time to time politicians who promise to change this arise. Mostly these politicians fall into the old ways and create no change but sometimes they turn their countries into dictatorships.

It is very difficult to change the way politics is done because there is a reason why politics is the way it is. Not many people set out to lie and cheat their way to the top. Mostly they start with good intentions but gradually adopt the tactics generally used.

The reason for dishonesty is that politics is an evolutionary process (mutation, selection, reproduction). People invent new ways to manipulate others all the time (mutation). Those who use the kind of tactics generally used in modern politics are likely to get elected (selection). Their tactics are then copied by the next generation of politicians (reproduction). The end result is a thoroughly dishonest political class because lying and cheating work as ways to get to the top. There is no lack of idealists trying to do honest politics but mostly they won’t get elected because their restriction to honest methods severely limits the crowd-manipulation tools available to them. If they do get elected, they will be outnumbered by the dishonest ones.


Proposed method of change

Trying to get enough honest politicians elected to change the system just won’t work because honesty limits their tools of making people elect them. Politicians use dishonesty because it works and gets them power.

In a democracy the power ultimately rests with the people. If all people or even just a bare majority were rational and perfectly informed, there would be no room for manipulation and dishonesty. The present political situation is only possible because people are stupid enough to be manipulated into electing the people who create such a political situation. Every nation deserves its leaders.

The way to lessen dishonesty in politics is to make people recognize and dislike it. Most people are not clever enough to see through the manipulation themselves, so the media and perhaps scientists should help them.

When televising speeches of politicians the news agencies could place a running commentary on the speech in the subtitles, pointing out logically or factually wrong statements, demagogy and meaningless phrases, giving examples of the politician’s possible motives for saying certain things, pointing out the interest group to whom a promise is aimed.

The news agencies could keep a file on every politician of sufficient influence. The file should contain their earlier promises, statements, voting record and press releases. Every time the news agency runs a story containing that politician the online version of the story should have a link to that politician’s file. If the politician contradicts his or her earlier talk, it should be pointed out by the news agency and a link to the appropriate place in that politician’s file placed next to the reference.

People could be educated in basic mathematical logic so they could notice some logically false statements (one can never teach most people enough to make them recognize factually wrong claims, that is what the politician’s file would be for).

In countries where a certain number of citizens can initiate laws, those interested in honest politics could campaign for a law recalling a politician who has lied. Then a referendum can be organized to pass that law because politicians themselves certainly would not do it. Lying would need to be clearly defined in the law so that uncertain statements and slips of the tongue would not empty all government institutions. In some cases, however, it can certainly be proved that what the politician said contradicts the facts or is logically false.

Suggested questions for admitted graduate students

For people admitted to PhD programs in economics, here are some suggested questions to get answers to before choosing the program.

Answers from online search and other sources

What is the ratio of faculty members to students?

How many faculty members does the department have in the field you are interested in? Count only those whose primary field that is, not the ones who once wrote one paper in it or who hang out at the seminars for the free food.

How many years and how many hours a week are students expected to TA during their program?

What is the ratio of students on the job market to the size of the incoming class?  Equivalently how many students were mysteriously lost in the grad school process? Average across multiple years if possible.

Answers from faculty members

How many hours a week do you spend advising graduate students (reading their work, talking to them about their research)?

How many hours a week are graduate students expected to spend on TAing?

Answers from graduate students

How many hours per week or month do faculty members advise you (read your work, talk to you about your research)? Use the number of graduate students (perhaps exclude first and second years) and faculty members in the department to compare answers to this question from faculty members and graduate students.

How many hours per week are you supposed to spend on TAing and how many do you actually spend? Compare the student answer to the faculty answer.

What is the average number of years students take to reach the job market? What is the length of the stipend? How hard is it to get campus jobs (TAing, RAing) that pay for living costs after the stipend ends?

How many students are kicked out after the first year? How many in each year leave without a PhD after passing the first year exams? Divide by the average size of the incoming class for cross-university comparison.

How much time do star faculty actually spend in the department? Some professors are on the faculty at multiple universities (Dekel, Phillips) and may spend between two weeks to six months per year at any one place.

General comments

You can ask a question and look stupid, or not ask a question and be stupid.

Take into account that the graduate students who come to the visit day events and talk to admitted students are a biased sample – those who care the most about the department and those who have the most extreme opinions to share.

The field of interest may change during the graduate program, but for most people it does not.

Ask the same question from multiple people and compare answers. This gives an indication of honesty, or at least preparation and coordination of lying.

The PhD comics, especially the earlier ones, are a very accurate description of the lives of graduate students. Note the absence of smileys in this sentence.

The questions admitted graduate students should be asking have been discussed in academia.stackexchange and in forums.

Automating Facebook conversations

Facebook makes it easy to remember people’s birthdays, it just displays an automatic reminder. Other calendar programs like Outlook can also be made to do that. Every time someone receives a reminder of an acquaintance’s birthday, they send a birthday greeting – it is almost automatic. So why not make it fully automatic by writing a program to check Facebook every day and send a happy birthday message to anyone whose birthday is on that day?

The person receiving a birthday greeting usually replies with a thank-you note, which is also a repetitive action on a computer and can therefore be automated. Continuing this way, Facebook conversations can be made fully automatic without any human input whatsoever, apart from the initial writing of programs. But Facebook accounts could come with these programs built in, so anyone creating an account will automatically start participating in these computerized conversations. This takes the idea of virtual friendships to its logical limit.

The same virtual conversations can be created using other email and calendar programs – if the calendar displays someone’s birthday, an automatic email is sent with a greeting, and the recipient’s email program sends an automated reply.