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Pundits and the PP’s Tipping Point

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

This column was written before November 6 and assumes that Barack Obama has been convincingly returned to the White House. (If he hasn’t—ooops.) One of the interesting issues about the US election was the punditry–the supposed “neck-and-neck” nature of the race, especially in the last month—with which the US media made hay.



Every expert knew the race was 50-50. But they were all wrong, and one person was right: Nate Silver, who writes the 538 blog for the New York Times.


Silver is a statistician, and his predictive models were 98 per cent accurate in forecasting the 2008 US elections. His model, using polling results and historical data, had consistently projected Obama the winner since January. You wouldn’t have known this from the US media, which were presenting their flawed opinions as fact and presenting a tight, down-to-the-wire race.



There was at least one rational reason for this, a tight race has drama, a walkover has little. The relationship between news and entertainment is strong, if it’s not admitted to, as a driver of the media business. The public wants a toe-to-toe cliché-ridden slugfest. Whoever delivers that, wins.


But two other reasons were proposed by Nobel laureate and NYT columnist Paul Krugman: stupidity and dishonesty. Naturally, this brought my mind to Trinidad, as these are the twin engines of our republic. Following radio reports of the march last Friday, and hearing over and over again that people vex, marchers in the thousands, de gubbament mus’ go, blah, blah, blah, I found myself thinking the PP had finally burned through its political capital, and gone into overdraft.


Then the Jahaji blog published an aerial shot of the march and produced a counter-narrative to the story, it was only a bunch of opportunists and overheated trade-union people, plenty cussing, little substance. These counter-facts did appear in the papers but the broadcast media (which communicated the immediate impact) and the trend of the coverage were decidedly march-friendly. (That is to say, PNM-friendly and incompetent—dishonesty and stupidity.)


Where does the truth, or at least the facts, lie? Has the PP reached its tipping point? How does the public feel, really, about the Government? In brief, where’s our Nate Silver? Alas, he emigrated after UWI told him it ent have no maths in we cult-yere.


Momentous decisions are made and positions taken by media, and large swaths of the public, based on little evidence, the flatulent opinions of the media commentariat, and the naïve reporting of ill-equipped journalists. Equally apparent, government decisions are made the same way—policies which entail the expenditure of huge sums of money depend on who has the decision-maker’s ear at the moment.


An ongoing example of how spurious opinions, policy, and wasting money are related can be found in the $100 million pumped into Carnival every year. Nobody can tell you how, exactly, but the magic maths say they does get back $1 billion. This is the maths that created those success stories we call Clico and the HCU.


And the trend continues, as I saw in the culture consultation last Monday at the Centre of Excellence. The business started with Efebo Wilkinson assuring the crowd that no matter what they did, nothing would happen, and giving examples of previous consultations which had yielded impressive documents, which were thereafter ignored.


The few pages of policy documents presented to the participants were preamble with no actual policy. As for general information, the audience knew more than the minister and the civil servants. Apparently many cultural institutions, like the Film Company, are being closed down to form a super-company.



There is talk of a huge facility being built in Caroni (you know, like the Caroni Racing Complex) which the contributors knew about, but about which the ministry people were clueless.


But it’s not just that useless projects which rely on the public purse are undertaken on whim, without numbers or economic rationales (cf Tarouba; tall, empty buildings in PoS; rapid rail). It’s that critically important information about the country is not gathered either by Government, media, or UWI, whose job it is to do this.



These data include opinion surveys, information on poverty, literacy, crime etc; and more complicated data like happiness, social mobility, or competitiveness. (These data, incidentally, are collected by foreign institutions like the World Values Survey, the World Economic Forum, the World Bank and IMF.)


Needless to say, the news is not good from these agencies’ reports. But you’d never know this from the local media: all you’d know is that de Government bad. And apparently the government is good with that, since hazy animus is preferable to sharp facts, which probably paint a far uglier picture.


And there’s another even more poisonous consequence of policymakers, media and institutions making decisions by means other than data-supported rationality. The public, witnessing this in action over decades, has come to understand that the only relevant issues in making decisions are opinions, whatever is shouted the loudest, and whatever strokes your biases. (Also known as calypso.)


The consequences of this way of thinking are evident from the recent protests. The barest consciousness of recent history (four years ago) would give the organisers pause to think, the same thing happened under the PNM, blow for blow. They tief, we march, protest, cuss, and the PNM got kicked out.



Three years on, we’re seeing a play-by-play repeat. Clearly the problem is not the players, it’s the game. And to fix the game, you need more than marching and gun talk. You need, first of all, reliable information and the ability to think clearly. Without those, all we have to look forward to is what we have now.


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