Economists Do It With Models

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Why Economists (And Homer Simpson) Don’t Vote, And How Kevin Costner Movies Come To Life…

August 5th, 2010 · 5 Comments
Decision Making · Game Theory · The Simpsons

In general, I am very much of the mindset that understanding basic economics is crucial to not sucking at life. Think about it- economics can help people be smart consumers, can prevent people from being fooled by politicians, etc. That said, being the type of person who turns life into one big cost-benefit calculation can sometimes be socially counterproductive. Wait, what? Let me explain with an example.

I read somewhere a while ago that economists have below average voter participation rates. (We also have lower average rates of charitable giving, but that is a topic for another time.) In a way, I’m not surprised, since a majority voting system is ripe for coordination failure. In a majority (aka popular) voting system, the only way your personal vote matters, all else being equal, is if you really cast that one deciding vote between candidates. In most cases, the chance that your vote actually tips the scale is very small, and voting takes time and effort. Therefore, it is completely rational for a lot of people to decide that it’s not worth the effort to go to the polls.

If everyone thought this way, it’s quite likely that voter participation rates would be much lower than what we observe today. They wouldn’t necessarily be zero, since as the number of expected votes decreases each vote becomes more important, and this would eventually tip the scale from not voting to voting. Therefore, there is some positive equilibrium level of voting where everyone who votes does so because the chance that it will matter is enough to justify the time and effort, but it wouldn’t be worth it for more people to start voting. (You can also ponder the selection effects here, since not everyone has the same value of time.) We, as a society, generally place value on high (read, less low) voter participation, so in a way we’re lucky that not everyone thinks about voting in this way.

Now, I don’t usually pay attention to the results of Republican primaries in Michigan. (Democratic primaries, on the other hand, keep me on the edge of my seat.) However, I couldn’t help but notice the following result (courtesy of Gawker):

I think Benishek owes someone a fruit basket, and I am now having flashbacks to November 2000 when my friend came down with a cold and couldn’t fly back to Florida. We had to sit and watch on TV how the vote for president was going to come down to the choices of 18-to-29-year-old males in Broward County, Florida. There was a lot of yelling at the TV that week. Apparently Homer Simpson is not as easily bothered as I am:

A Single Vote Can Matter

(Apologies for the video quality- I’m still playing around with the quality/size tradeoff.)

Heh. I’d always thought that my first Kevin Costner reference would be a Field of Dreams one, or perhaps Bull Durham, but certainly not Swing Vote. Although I suppose I indirectly made a Waterworld reference in one of my BP posts.

Tags: Decision Making · Game Theory · The Simpsons

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 The Unqualified Economist // Aug 5, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Wow; Gawker posts a Table and you make a Swing Vote reference in the same thread.
    My head hurts.

    Just kidding. But in all seriousness, low turn out for economists is not surprising, since they tend to be the folks who best get incentives or lack thereof.

    That said, I am guessing that economists (if there was a way to measure this) also tend to broadcast their political views more than almost any other group, despite their own low voting turnout. And I don’t necessarily mean in class–though, I am sure, *some* do 🙂

  • 2 Sean // Aug 5, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    Interesting. Now whenever someone asks why I hesitate to rush the polls, I can say “blame my undergrad degree in economics.”

    And almost mean it.

  • 3 Scott Ritchie // Aug 5, 2010 at 11:43 pm

    Of course, it’s not rational to vote under bad voting systems. Winner-take-all (plurality) voting is particularly terrible at this, since it wastes about half the votes (and even moreso when it’s a one sided election, as is very common with gerrymandering).

    You might appreciate voting in a multi-winner single transferable vote election. With 9 seats to fill the amount of voters needed to guarantee a seat is 10%, making it much more reasonable your favorite will win if you organize.

    Moreover even with a modest number of candidates (say 30) there is a MUCH greater chance a very small number of votes will affect the outcome. The reason is that, rather than making one comparison (first vs second), you’re making 21 comparisons that are far more likely to be close (last vs second last).

  • 4 Matt // Aug 8, 2010 at 10:10 am

    There’s a section in the book Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler that examines why voting may be more important than a first-pass cost-benefit analysis might imply. The authors quote research that suggests that when you vote, you make people you know more likely to vote, who make people they know more likely to vote, out to three degrees of separation. And since people in general tend to hang out with others who have similar political leanings, your one vote can result in a cascade of additional votes for your preferred candidate. It wouldn’t matter in a landslide, but I guess it would in Michigan.

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