Politics Versus Mario Kart

One of the first theories I ever heard about "why Donald Trump won the election" was that, at the end of the day, Republicans would rather vote Republican, even when their candidate is not particularly Republican on any major issue. Seen from one angle - that the only thing Republicans stand for is being against Democrats - this criticism strikes me as being unfair. Seen from another angle, though - that "he may be a bastard, but he's our bastard" - and it makes a little more sense.

Suppose that you were like me in 2016, and you had no one good to vote for. In a choice between two terrible candidates who will both make your life worse, but each perhaps in their own unique way, the decision criteria shift away from the issues and toward more petty concerns. For example, I know more than a few people who voted for Trump mainly to spite Hillary Clinton and all those who desperately wanted her to win. I don't condone spite, much less using it as a basis for national political decision-making, but that doesn't mean people don't make decisions based on spite. There was an old blog post from The Last Psychiatrist that argued that if schools make grades basically meaningless, then employers will start basing hiring decisions on things like racial prejudice, since they have no useful way of using grades to make a hiring decision. I don't doubt for a second that, absent a solid policy-making argument for Hillary or Donald, many people just chose to vote "against the woman" or "against the pig."

It's sad that national politics has to come down to something like this, but that's the direct consequence of a lobby-corrupted two-party government duopoly whose main purpose is to enrich themselves at the expense of the taxpayer and at the price of pandering to the public employment sector.

It isn't surprising, then, that people would tend to lose interest in national elections and voter turnout could be generally pretty low. I looked into the data and found voter turnout to be roughly flat for the last 100 years, so even despite cataclysms like World War II and the Great Depression, and even the Civil Rights Movement, people have about as little faith in politicians as ever. I think many of us see through the charade. Out of that enlightened population, a few become anarchists, a few more become insufferable cynics, and the vast majority become people who would just rather go home and read a book.

Losing interest and going off to do something more productive is precisely the best response to this kind of futility. If the average person can't move the political needle in any positive direction without doing even worse damage, then clearly the best response is to hold a Mario Kart tournament in your game room with beer and pizza. It may be sub-optimal, but it's Pareto sub-optimal. (That's a joke, folks. I know that I'm describing an optimum. Don't @ me.)

But the hallmark of a great economic mind is that such a mind will think at the margins, no matter how bad the margins get. Just because you're circling the drain doesn't mean you can't circle it a little better; just because the odds of disaster are 98:1 doesn't mean they couldn't be 97:1 with a little creative thinking. We just have to ensure that the cost of going from 98 to 97 isn't higher than the opportunity cost. For most people, the opportunity cost is a foregone Mario Kart tourney, and is thus too steep. For a very few of us, it involves much smaller shifts in perspective.

How do you know which group you're in? Pay attention to the conversations you're having. If your political discussions tend to be highly partisan in nature, and to re-hash a lot of the same points again and again, the odds are pretty good that you should be playing more Mario Kart. If your political discussions tend to be had with very learned people who are experts in their field and who respond to you in long form rather than short form, then you're probably in the latter category of people who can afford to try to push the needle in a positive direction.

Push the needle in a positive direction by arguing at the margins. You'll probably never convince your friend that taxation is a form of theft, but you could probably very easily sway him to reconsider the worthiness of a new tax. You might never convince someone to change from one stance on abortion to another, but put to him a pretty good case for why a new abortion law should be tweaked slightly toward your end of the spectrum.

And if you can't, just stop talking and go play some Mario Kart instead.

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