SIMPOL – Campaign Promises

A piece written by Simpol supporter, Rob Hickey, raising some questions for us to answer…

The day after watching John Bunzl’s presentation on the Political Prisoner’s Dilemma…

…I jolted up out of my bed in a cold sweat, thinking about something he said during the presentation. No…it was not that dramatic, but I was drinking a beer, and jolted up from the couch and over to my computer to write something down. That something, you are now reading. I like thinking about real world applications of game theory (from a non-mathematical perspective mind-you), particularly when I am sitting in my car in an intersection after cars from all four directions have pulled into the center, and traffic is jammed. Somehow, I think, we could all have avoided this is we had just had a little more foresight and were, perhaps a little bit more enlightened.

Anyway, one section of the talk I felt was glossed over a bit, was that regarding the actual implementation of the SIMPOL Pledge once a politician has agreed to it. In this scenario, voters will have already voted for them on the assumption that they would implement it. John told us that it would simply not make sense for them to not make good on their promise to their electorate as it would destroy their reputation as a politician. I found this questionable as this happens constantly as is seen as standard operative procedure in politics. John partially allayed my fears by telling us that politicians will only implement the pledge when all nations (or sufficient nations) have agreed to implement the reforms that the pledge highlights, simultaneously. It is only at this point that a chance to backtrack on their pledge is possible as it is the only situation under which they might act together. However, it is at this point where John says that “not implementing the simultaneous policy would just be completely nuts for anyone” (This was from 14:08-14:14 in the video). I am not sure that it would be completely nuts for politicians not to implement it, using the same game theory logic that John highlights earlier in the talk.

At this point, it would still be possible that not implementing the policy may still be in a country’s, or perhaps more accurately, an individual politicians self-interest. On the country level, this situation would occur where the countries would be a net short-term loser with regard to the simultaneous policy portfolio such as when a huge long-term mining contract was about to be signed between a government and a multinational (although John mentions that a Tobin tax might help assuage those fears). On the personal level, if political speech was protected so well enough (as in the US) that special interests have shaped politicians decision-making through campaign contributions and organizing fund-raisers (you know, the old tried-and-true lobbying techniques), the incentive structure may still be skewed towards the direction of inaction.

Forcing a politician to implement all of the campaign promises that they have made is a ludicrous proposition and is unenforceable in practice. Political negotiation and bargaining between parties must happen and the circumstances and context within which those promises were made may have changed, making implementation harmful or even impossible. Imperative mandate, whereby parliamentary deputies can only enact policies that those electing them tell them that they can enact have been ruled illegal in some jurisdictions. This has happened in some cases because such a policy limits the freedom of the representatives themselves and helps mitigate extreme views or populist tendencies among the electorate.

In the U.S., making false statements regarding ones military accomplishments has been regarding as protected speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution (the amendent protecting the freedom of speech and also the right to petition the government, which protects lobbyism) in the case of United States v. Alvarez in the US Supreme Court in 2012. This seems to point in the direction that any attempt to restrict speech in a political campaign, even if made in bad faith would fail on constitutional grounds. As such, a legal solution to this tradition of breaking campaign promises has nearly no chance of success despite its distastefulness to many voters. Some bottom-up approaches have been attempted to address this issue though, such as the Tampa Bay Times PolitiFact website that tracks the degree to which President Obama has kept his campaign promises and which has won the Pulitizer Prize for its work1. But the degree to which this affects election outcomes is questionable, I think.

I am, yet again, playing devil’s advocate here as I believe that a bottom-up approach to solving global issues, as SIMPOL attempts, is a valiant effort. I just deeply fear that for the reasons previously mentioned that such an approach will not happen fast enough, or deep enough to address global issues. This is most clearly visible regarding climate change, where some scientists claim that the extremity of measures measures needed to meet current climate targets have reached the point of absurdity and by implication, impossibility2.


6 thoughts on “SIMPOL – Campaign Promises

  1. Hi Rob,

    The points you make are valid and quite often made by people, but I think they stem from what I call a “time – circumstances mis-match”; that is, these points arise if you transpose TODAY’s circumstances to a time in the future when the implementation of Simpol had arrived. By that time, I’m suggesting, the culture, degree of public support, degree of severity of global problems will be quite different to what they are today. In other words, what people regard as in their self-interest at the time of implementation is likely to be that global problems will be so far around our necks that implementing Simpol will, by then, be seen as very much in their interests.

    But of course none of this excludes the POSSIBILITY of what you are saying. No one can FORCE nations to actually implement Simpol when the time comes. So there are no guarantees of success. And of course, in life there never are!

    As ever, then, Simpol is offered because it offers a PLAUSIBLE and LIKELY chance of success and, to my mind, arguably the most powerful means around to even GET us to a stage of implemnting solutions to global problems.

    So I guess the situation is to recognise that while there are, of course, no guarantees of success with Simpol, the question is: do we have a better idea?

  2. John,

    As I mentioned in the piece, I am firmly behind the ideas and motivations of SIMPOL and write this with these feelings in mind. I wish not to be only a critic of SIMPOL (which I feel that recent blog posts may allude to) but rather point out its weaknesses to as to make them stronger through discussion.

    And I love the quote by Theodore Roosevelt copied below which I think has some applicability on this issue:

    “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

    My point is essentially, and I think it still holds despite your commentary on the “time – circumstances mis-match”, that by this point negative momentum on these global issues will already be such that efforts to turn the tide will no longer be able to avoid catastrophic damage (particularly relating to climate change). Up until that time, when negative repercussions may still be possible to deny, incentive structures may still be skewed.

    I also do not want to create some kind of schism in my thinking between the SIMPOL bottom-up approach and a leadership driven top-down approach to climate change. In fact (and this is what, I believe, an integral approach will help us understand) such varying viewpoints are not at odds with each other, but each has some validity to them. I feel that foresight in political leadership is a necessary element of, but not enough on its own, to address climate change.

    So, do we have a better idea? I read somewhere that something difficult always seems impossible until its done, and maybe thats the trap I am falling into here, I just can not let go of that nagging feeling that strong top down approaches (which admittedly have been less than stellar) as also key to this equation.

    • Hi Rob,
      Yes, I agree with you. Of course top-down approaches coming from national leaders will continue, and let’s hope they’re successful. But I guess Simpol is there as a kind of “back-stop” that citizens can take advantage of in case our leaders aren’t successful. Moreover, the two approaches are not a schism or opposed to each other, but complementary. So both can be pursued in parallel, right now. That way, we back both horses.

      As to whether either approach will come to fruition in time to avoid a complete melt-down, well, that is of course another question and not something we can know or directly affect. As such, my feeling is that it’s best to focus on what we CAN influence and hence the ‘back both horses’ approach.

      Liked the Roosevelt quote. Excellent.
      all the best for 2013!

      • Happy New Year to you as well John. I feel that trying to address climate on a personal level are also neglected, particularly by myself. For example, I still eat a fair amount of meat, more than I “need” to, drive my car more than I “need” to and could allocate more money to energy efficiency improvements on my house. In trying to be the change we want to see in the world, I am interested to hear your opinion about whether this approach, while helpful to some extent, distracts us from the larger, commercial/economic issue that is the brunt of the problem. Not that they are mutually exclusive, but rather if you are an aggressive proponent of such measures.

      • Yes, Rob, I agree again. Of course personal, individual action is important and, like you, I don’t do as much as I could. But I do also feel that the whole climate issue is far too focused on personal action anyway, so masking the vital dimension of collective action. For if collective action is ignored, personal actions alone won’t save us.

        To some extent the focus on personal action is understandable because, when it comes to collective action, people probably feel they have few options other than to simply hope governments do their bit – or, if they don’t, to support NGOs and protest. And so people kind of figure that beyond protest, lobbying, etc. (i.e. beyond supporting conventional NGO approaches), collective action is closed off to them. But given the severe competitive constraints governments face, the prospect of our leaders acting decisively with or without NGO pressure is looking increasingly forlorn. NGO approaches, in other words, simply aren’t working. (And they’re not working exactly BECAUSE they take no account of destructive international competition!)

        So alongside personal action and NGO approaches, Simpol I feel now offers us a new and very powerful outlet for collective action; an outlet which, if governments continue to fail to deliver on their own, might well prove to be a life-saver.

  3. I have never understood the prisoner’s dilemma (except from a theoretical point of view), because it completely ignores the possibility that somebody might do something simply because it is the right thing to do.

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