The Electoral Consequences of Pandemic Failure Project

by Dale1 min read7th Jan 20212 comments

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COVID-19 pandemicInstitutions for future generationsPolicy changeInstitutional decision-making
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Some countries have performed extremely well in the face of covid. Their governments have effectively synthesized the relevant scientific information and take intelligent action to limit the spread, provide fiscal support to the economy, and distribute vaccines rapidly.

Others have performed very poorly. Their governments have ignored the evidence, issued policies that that actively encouraged disease spread, were unnecessarily authoritarian, and are continuing to retard the vaccination effort.

Part of the reason for the second group is that many politicians think their electoral prospects are not aligned with controlling the disease. They don't want to annoy restaurant owners, or parents, or protesters, so they impose few or weak restrictions. As new evidence comes in they double-down on earlier policies, emphasizing hand washing over ventilation. They ignore the nature of exponential growth, pretending that the virus is just going to fade away.

Unfortunately, I think they are often correct in their judgement of the politics. Many governments remain quite popular with voters even after unnecessarily subjecting their populations to an extremely unpleasant year. This will discourage them from doing better next time.

So maybe there should be an EA project to support those leaders that did well in their next elections, and oppose those that did badly. We could come up with some objective criteria (e.g. age-adjusted deaths-per-million, vaccinations distributed by January 31st, rise in unemployment), use them to score leaders, and then publicize this to the media.

For example, in the recent US election, there could have been a press release along the lines:

The Pandemic Accountability Project rates President Trump's reaction to the pandemic as BELOW AVERAGE. The US has seen significantly MORE DEATHS per million and HIGHER UNEMPLOYMENT than most countries. If the US had done as well as average, X lives and Y jobs would have been saved. If the US had done as well as New Zealand, X' lives and Y' jobs would have been saved. As a result The Pandemic Accountability Project recommends voting AGAINST President Trump.

Fortunately, good performance on the pandemic does not seem very closely linked to political ideology, which should help improve the credibility of the recommendations. For example, due to Israel's exceptionally strong vaccine distribution policy, the project would likely end up endorsing him and his Likud party in the upcoming march elections. Because the project previously opposed Trump, this recommendation would have additional weight.  

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This does sound somewhat interesting; I would hope that Congress conducts some kind of post-mortem, although I imagine it would probably have a lot of political bias problems. When I read over this, I generally agreed that such a thing would be nice, but two questions/concerns came to mind which perhaps you could address: 

  1. It seems like it may be rather difficult to objectively determine the extent/effect of certain factors, given that the ratio of N (countries) to relevant control variables (e.g., cultural norms, urbanization/density, levels of government, respect for human rights, economic performance and characteristics) seems really small. I'm not saying a decent analysis/report can't be done, I just think that it will be much harder to be more confident of the findings--and to make the findings persuasive, which plays into the second concern:
  2. I'm worried this kind of organization might do some preaching to the choir, but otherwise struggle to persuade the most important target audience (i.e., people who voted for bad politicians) to actually change their opinions/beliefs, let alone their voting habits (at least in the highly-polarized United States).

As a side note (and as part of the reason why I was particularly interested in reading this), I have long wanted/dreamed of some kind of decently impartial "performance/character evaluation" organization that would rate politicians along certain metrics (e.g., do they lie a lot, do they consult experts), perhaps similar to something like accreditation (or "GiveWell but for politics: VoteWell"). (I know of various scorecard organizations/projects, but I think all the ones I've seen are narrowly focused on a policy area and/or are heavily politically biased.) The underlying reasoning would be something like "it's far more efficient to sample test the organization's analysis and then rely on their credibility when voting than it is to individually evaluate every person you are thinking of voting for." Of course, such a grand project (of the type I'm describing) seems like a total pie in the sky. :/

I agree that 1. is a problem. I think you want to keep things fairly simple for the sake of transparency, which would mean you end up being e.g. unfairly positive towards leaders of asian countries with conscientious populations and strong hygiene norms. One thing you could do would be to add "which is better than other similar countries like X, Y and Z" - but then there is still some subjectivity about which peer countries to include.

I'm less concerned about 2. Even if the majority of voters are impossible to persuade, the marginal voter theorem suggests that you only need to influence a few people. And even in a state where one party has basically no chance, there is often competition at other levels. For example, if Cuomo is the Democrat nominee for New York State Governor, he will almost definitely win - but this might help a rival Democrat challenge him for that nomination. 

Your project sounds like a good one... but I agree it would be very hard. Focusing on covid only seemed like a tractable smaller version.