The Trump Uncertainty Principle
Two Books Explain How So Many of Us Got 2016 So Wrong
Wednesday, December 28th, 2016
During my holiday/Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Festivus break, I read two books, Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project and Richard Thaler’s Misbehaving that explore (at least in part) how people make decisions, predictions and choices in life. Written about behavioral psychologists in the former and by a behavioral economist in the latter, what struck me is the significance of the biases we carry with us impacts how we predict “the outcome of uncertain events.”
The books explore concepts such as: hindsight bias (believing you knew something was going to happen all along,) theory (or confirmation) bias (in which you have a seemingly good idea, ergo, it must be correct,) and the law of small numbers (in which the results of a relatively small sample size are given outsized weight to their actual validity.) The bottom line? Even with our perceived experience, our ability to predict anything, let alone Donald Trump’s victory, sucks.
In 2016, myself, and hundreds or thousands of other pundits, media types and political professionals who badly missed Donald J. Trump’s election, are prime candidates for study. The wisdom, or perhaps blindness of experience told us that Trump’s election was an impossibility. Next, because so many other smart people with whom we like to email, tweet with and jointly appear on television believe as we did, we served as a reinforcing echo chamber to our own theory biases. There is safety in numbers after all.
As Lewis’ book states, one cannot believe an uncertain outcome is possible if one does not believe the events that led to its occurrence. For example, much of the political elite (of both parties) and the media probably saw President Barack Obama’s election as transformational, but perhaps did not see his time in office as a radical departure from those who’ve served previously. We might have had some dim recognition that there were rumblings in the hustings, but having studied our electoral maps like they were the Talmud, we could not see anyway that Trump could possibly break the “Blue Wall.”
We reviewed national survey data that was both too small in its sample size, sometimes no more than 700 or 800, rarely more than 2,000 to expound on the beliefs of more than 200 million American voters. We regularly saw in black and white that Secretary Hillary Clinton, even on the “worst” days of Trump’s campaign, could barely escape the margin of error. While those same national surveys may have been accurate regarding the popular vote, they missed individual states badly; an enormously significant oversight given the Electoral College decides the presidency. An existing and significant non-response bias among certain demographics must also be studied and fixed moving forward.
Too many of us spent far too much time with Nate Silver and his 538 prediction team and far too little time reading the excellent pieces by reporters such as Salena Zito and Nick Riccardi, both of whom spent extensive time outside major metropolitan areas exploring the country in which many exurban and rural Americans now live. Their story is a much different one than what we saw throughout the campaign; happy singing urbanites cheering on a highly damaged septuagenarian who promised little more than the status quo.
Obtaining the analytical and individual rigor necessary to achieve a truly bias-less outlook on future events would take the discipline of a Vulcan; an unending and unsparing logic that is unrealistic in most human brains. In 2017, we should at least try to take a more clear-headed view of what Donald Trump’s presidency is likely to be.
If you believe that Trump is a boorish, self-dealing monomaniac, it will be almost impossible for you to envision how he could be successful in the White House. Conversely, if you voted for Trump as the change agent Washington needs, you are likely to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least for a while.
But there are few things more uncertain than an individual presidency. The terms of presidents are inextricably tied to major events in human history and said leaders are given outsized credit or blame because of it. While Ronald Reagan had put in motion the demise of the Soviet Union, it was on George H.W. Bush’s watch that the Evil Empire fell and the Berlin Wall came down in a spasm of freedom.
You could argue that President George W. Bush’s presidency was shaped by little else other than uncertain or unexpected events — 9/11, the Afghan and Iraq Wars, Hurricane Katrina and ultimately the 2008–2009 financial crisis. Barack Obama saw the BP oil spill occur and ISIS rise on his watch.
Trump is different in so many ways, not the least of which is his near-daily creation of uncertainty. If we believe he’ll handle running the White House like he did his businesses; with a cadre of sparring underlings vying for his favor and attention, then we won’t be surprised when that happens.
But what happens to Trump when an event truly outside his control; another terrorist attack or a Category 5 hurricane bears down on the Gulf Coast? Will he be the leader the country needs or will his peculiar management style lock up the resources of the Federal Government? We do not, and cannot accurately know.
We have as a society now conditioned ourselves to jump at everything the President-Elect says, does or Tweets to take on some larger significance. In the case of foreign policy, does Trump really want to change the “One China” agreement we’ve had for decades, or is sewing his own uncertainty into the equation?
Do his dealings with companies like Carrier, Boeing and Lockheed show that he will meddle in the affairs of individual corporate titans to achieve a larger outcome, or is he simply enjoying wielding the ability to conjure up CEOs at a moment’s notice? Given the president-elect’s willingness to take any position on any issue on any given day, unpredictability and uncertainty are his stock and trade.
Given how Trump ran and won the 2016 campaign, there are many, myself included, who remain skeptical of his ability to govern without the messiness of his own ego and self-interest getting in the way. But we don’t know that to be the case for sure. January 20th looms large on the radar screen for millions of Americans — some in hope that Trump will “drain the swamp” others in fear that he will deconstruct our republic as we’ve known it. Fate and events play a central role in presidencies. Before we wear out our “Jump to Conclusions map” we should take the little we know empirically and apply it to ensuring that he governs for all Americans, in all their interests.
If evidence and facts are in short supply, it is incumbent upon those making predictions or reporting to ensure we’re getting our information right as often as possible. Otherwise, let’s just all be fake-newsers and call it a Republic.
Copyright 2016. Jedburghs, LLC.
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