Opinion

Edward Hadas

Candidates as consumer products

Edward Hadas
Nov 21, 2012 15:06 UTC

Barack Obama did not win the election because more Americans thought he would be a better president than Mitt Romney. More Americans voted for the incumbent than for the challenger, but it is Obama’s superior campaign organisation, and not his personal appeal, that deserves most of the credit. In particular, his product managers were better than Romney’s at using the technique of “data mining”.

The technique, pioneered by supermarkets, is conceptually simple: measure everything and tweak as necessary. In practice, it is a delicate affair. Suppose a popular soft drink has 4 percent higher sales when it is stocked next to a salty snack than when healthier raisins are its shelf-neighbour. Should shelf locations be swapped? There are many variables: the effect on sales of salty snacks and raisins, the profit margins of the different products, and customers’ sensitivity to any price changes. Most of the effects are tiny, but the study of millions of data, including a large number of computer simulations, can increase a retailer’s revenue and profit by a few percent.

In elections, data mining can bring votes to candidates and can increase the supply of contributions which pay for vote-gaining advertising. The work is detailed. Time magazine reports that the Obama campaign carefully tested how much more likely undecided voters in each close state were to yield to the blandishments of local rather than to out-of-state volunteers. The superiority in detailed computer work – “We ran the election 66,000 times every night”, as one expert explained to Time – probably gave Obama a few more percentage points of votes than Romney. It was the margin of victory.

Is data mining good, bad or ethically neutral? Supermarket executives may say that the practice is good because it increases profit, but profit should not be the only goal of any company. A more nuanced judgment is appropriate. The careful study of purchase patterns is truly valuable insofar as it helps consumers shop more wisely and helps stores reduce wasteful investment in inventory. It is pernicious insofar as it manipulates consumers into buying things they do not or should not really want. By this higher standard, commercial data mining is at best a mixed blessing.

In politics, political data mining would clearly be a good thing if votes were all that mattered. In the terminology of marketing, this scientific electioneering is a proven, cost-efficient method of improving electoral outcomes. However, an election is supposed to be quite a different matter from a contested retail market or a sporting event. The candidates’ goal should not be to win at any cost, but to help voters shape the nation’s future by giving them a clear choice of policies and philosophy.

The angel is in the detail

Edward Hadas
Nov 14, 2012 15:47 UTC

Barack Obama will not solve America’s most profound economic problems. That is not a partisan political statement about the newly re-elected president. Had Mitt Romney won last week’s contest, he also would not have been able to reduce unemployment, improve the trade balance, rebuild U.S. manufacturing excellence and strengthen the middle class. The fixing of the American economy is just not a one-man or one-woman job.

The Federal Reserve is trying to help with one of those problems, unemployment, but the central bank does not possess the refined tools needed to address this complex issue. Indeed, bold decisions made by the highest authorities cannot resolve any of the developed world’s greatest economic problems. The devil – and the angel – is in the innumerable details.

Of course, there are times when big policy decisions change the course of economic history, as when the new governments of formerly communist countries abandoned central planning, or when the U.S. government rescued its banking system during the last financial crisis. Less dramatically, changes in government deficits and central bank policies on interest rates can moderate fluctuations in the economy by compensating, to some extent, for hyperactivity or sluggishness.

EU for the 2018 economics Nobel

Edward Hadas
Nov 7, 2012 14:44 UTC

It may be a little early, but I want to make a conditional nomination for the 2018 Nobel Prize for economics. If all goes well, the European Union, which has just won the 2012 Peace Prize, will by then have met the criteria for the economics award: a “work on economic sciences of eminent significance”. The EU writes in deeds rather than essays or equations, but the unconventional form only adds to the accomplishment. Here is a preliminary draft of the citation.

The European Union is awarded this prize for its advances in the theory of economic organisation in modern industrial economies. The EU has added to our knowledge of the relationships between the economic good and political goals, between bureaucracy and entrepreneurial initiative and between private and state ownership. It has also contributed to the study of managing economic change. The EU’s “European theory” is supported by the most persuasive evidence: a unified, prosperous and fairly just economy.

The European arrangement is sometimes called the Social Market Economy. That title captures two key tenets: that the economy should always be considered as part of the broader society, and that competitive markets should play a major role in modern economies. However, “Social Market” misses several important European ideas: that regulation and enterprise should be mutually reinforcing; that supranational and national governments can perform complementary economic tasks; that many economic activities, including health care and education, are best offered by enterprises which are neither under direct government control nor purely private and profit-seeking; and that meritocratic bureaucracies can make valuable contributions in all parts of the economy.

  •