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Rob Fisher on SuperFreakonomics on 10 O’clock Live

Here is a good piece by Rob Fisher about the latest episode of Channel 4 TV’s 10 O’clock Live. Particularly good bit:

Another highlight was the interview with Stephen Dubner, a co-author of SuperFreakonomics. The interviewers Jimmy Carr and Lauren Laverne failed to say anything remotely intelligent, but it thankfully didn’t matter too much because they did at least let Dubner speak at length. He made some good (and downright subversive) points about the incentives of politicians. He suggested that they sign up for long term projects such as “improve education” and they get paid at the end of 5 or 10 years proportional to the results. The idea is to align success in politics with success at achieving goals, and he compared this to how businesses succeed and fail. Getting this kind of thinking into the mainstream – not necessarily agreeing with the specifics but just getting people to think about economics and game theory and how politics really works – is great stuff. Well done Dubner and Channel 4.

I agree with Rob. My preferred attitude to spreading ideas has always been to unbundle them, to try to spread them, at any rate in hostile circumstances, one at a time or at least only a very few at a time. Bundling among friends is also, if you think about it, often saying just the one thing or just the few things, that the bundling of this with that and maybe also with that makes sense – this, that and that having already been long agreed about separately.

I haven’t watched 10 O’clock Live beyond episode one, but applaud Rob for doing so. We need our people everywhere, and watching (between us) everything.

13 comments to Rob Fisher on SuperFreakonomics on 10 O’clock Live

  • Just one question. Who measures success and how?

    How do we know the metric is genuine especially in the field of something as nebulous and gameable as “improving education”.

  • NickM

    Actually, that’s exactly what I mean about one idea at a time. Yes, you are right, that point is fluffed. But the point that is not fluffed is: compare the incentives facing businessmen with the incentives facing politicians.

    When you are on these type of shows, you just can’t say everything. You have to concentrate on saying something.

  • TDK

    I’m with NickM here.

    It’s not clear that governments could ever be faced with the sort of incentives businesses face. Politicians control too much of the process to ever be caught out in an outright fail. The usual answer is that politicians need to be re-elected but surely I don’t need to rehearse the old argument about the problems of representative democracy providing mandates – thousand of issues but only one X every 5 years.

    The problem is that the state is a poor solution to issues such as education. Even if we agree what makes a success it is always easier to game the stats rather than produce real tractors.

    So statements like Dubners are interesting but dangerous. They contain the implicit idea that states can solve problems, just that we need a solve the problem of incentives.

    Great! Haven’t we just gone through 13 years of Labour goal setting? Good for consultants but not for a better health service or education system.

  • Laird

    TDK makes a good point when saying that Dubner’s statements “contain the implicit idea that states can solve problems”. Indeed, that is a theme which runs throughout Freakonomics (I haven’t yet read the sequel, although I probably will). Dubner and his co-author, Steven D. Levitt*, do a good job of raising interesting issues from an unorthodox perspective and making you think. They’re also entertaining writers, always a plus, and their book is certainly worth a read. But they bring an implicit statist mindset to many of the problems they address. John Lott wrote an excellent rebuttal to many of those ideas in his Freedomnomics, which is also worth a read.

    * Levitt is the actual economist of the pair; Dubner is just a professional writer, primarily for the New York Times and the New Yorker, which should give everyone at least a slight pause.

  • Jamess

    Incentives for politicians would be nice. I’d suggest that every year there was a budget deficit whilst we had a national debt politicians should be paid something lower than the national average. If there was a surplus, politicians could use some of that to pay themselves a bonus.

    Not perfect, but would have avoided the disaster of the Brown years (and the coming disaster of the Cameron ones)

  • mdc

    This is sort-of what happens already, with league tables, targets and so on. It’s not exactly pay proportional to results, but politicians do have an incentive for these metrics to show improvement.

    Which means the game is now about gerrymandering the league table criteria and min-maxing provision to give the best possible scores regardless of the overall quality that results. Hence people left waiting in the corridor in hospitals when there are empty beds so they won’t show up as having left too long between being found a bed and seen by a doctor, police harassing the “technically guilty” because they’re easier to catch in bulk than actual criminals, etc.

  • Wolfie

    I was pleased to see Bjorn Lomborg interviewed on that show. He was actually treated rather well by Jimmy Carr – after asking a couple of incredulous questions he allowed Lomborg to answer the points uninterrupted. Many people who had never heard of Lomborg before will have got to make their own minds up without the usual parisan sneering.
    Jimmy Carr will never get a part on Newsnight!

  • The problem is that the state is a poor solution to issues such as education.

    And if politicians were properly incentivised, the ones that tried to increase state meddling in education would fail and the ones that decreased it would succeed. It might take a while for them to realise what we all know, but they would.

    Of course Dubner is assuming that the correct things can be measured and the politicians won’t be able to game the system. Details…

    The real point is to make people realise that politicians having the incentives they do means they will inevitably fail. That’s what I thought was so subversive. Making people think that politicians will always fail.

  • Laird

    I once suggested that politicians be put on straight commission (i.e., they get to split 25% or whatever of the budget surplus in lieu of a salary). I was roundly excoriated.

  • TDK

    I once suggested that politicians be put on straight commission (i.e., they get to split 25% or whatever of the budget surplus in lieu of a salary). I was roundly excoriated.

    Even a simple statistic like this can be gamed.

    I was part of a management team that took over a profit centre in a blue chip. The previous management were not performing and were pushed out. The first act we did was to declare that the previous admin had hidden the losses and declared a massive loss. Some of this was true but much was exaggerated . This “loss” was effectively capitalised and could be drawn off during the next months and years ahead when it was required to turn a higher profit. This is common practice in business. The old management has gone so everyone takes the opportunity to clear out the skeletons without personal risk.

    This already occurs in politics. So much so that most ordinary people hear the talk about budget deficits but do not register it as true. It is regarded as an inevitable artefact of politics.

  • More thoughts. My original article was mainly about how David Mitchell was very clever but the rest of them were a bit useless. For instance, Jimmy Carr is puerile, what is the point of him?

    However it occurs to me that, much as Dubner sneaks in the big idea that no politician will get anything right because the incentives are all wrong by dressing it up with the razamatazz of Freakonomics, perhaps 10 O’Clock Live is cleverly sneaking Dubner’s ideas and David Mitchell’s insightful monologues in front of an audience that was originally attracted by Jimmy Carr’s knob jokes.

    No-one will watch a show full of only clever people. But they are putting clever ideas in amongst knob jokes. I need to watch more episodes to see if this is true.

  • John K

    David Mitchell insightful you say? News to me, I had him down as a snarky leftist fuck, but you live and learn.

  • Laird

    FYI, I had to google “knob jokes”, and when I finally found it, it wasn’t even what I expected!