By Wei Seng
Since my return from Canada, I have been trying, but failing, to catch up on my last issues of The Economist before my subscription expires.
I was reading the special report published in the April 23rd issue on Democracy in California, and amongst all the generally very good articles about politics and democracy in California and America, this article caught my eye: how voters decide based on their limited amount of knowledge, which they think is sufficient to make a decision but think that their fellow voters are not as well-informed to make the same decision as they. I attempt to summarise the findings here, but you should read the original article for the full statistics and studies.
A survey of voters done in California apparently indicates that "fewer than half of respondents" have "confidence in their fellow voters to make public-policy decisions at the ballot box", which would naturally mean that they probably have more confidence in their own decision-making, that the decision they make is a well-informed one.
We learn in Economics that perfect information / knowledge can never take place because there will never fail to be gaps and loopholes in our knowledge (through breakdown / misunderstandings in communication for instance), which would then inhibit how we make decisions. So certainly there's no expectation for a voter to be omniscient. But how much information is sufficient for one to make a wise decision when voting?
A follow-up poll done indicates that many claim to have "'some' or 'a lot of' knowledge about how state and local governments spend and raise money". But when they were then assessed about their knowledge, i.e. asked to answer questions pertaining to various aspects of the state spending and budget, the percentage of voters who got it right (i.e. really know their stuff), suffice to say, are much, much lower than the percentage of voters who think they got it right (i.e. think they know their stuff but actually they dont).
But what's disturbing, according to the survey, is that apparently the older, more educated, wealthy and attentive voters are actually more prone to being misinformed or not have accurate understanding of the issues at hand. It is suggested that this is because of "self-interest" and maybe "a potential blindness to issues outside of one's own experience". Which probably means that someone who has the experience with the issue is more likely to fall back on what he observes in his experiences rather than what is truly the situation, which he might not have exposure to or knowledge of.
The article alludes to another reason for people not knowing their stuff - misinformation. Which is quite a valid concern in California, given that in the previous and subsequent articles there is a lot of talk about how interest groups with the most money flood the airwaves and broadband with their "misinformation". Which, when combined with ignorance or with the tendency to sympathise with your own beliefs, is a deadly combination for the polls. Plus it doesnt help that their official documents are dripping with "legalese" and obscurities.
Link back to Singapore. In the election that just passed, I have seen people who are either staunchly pro-PAP (People's Action Party, for our foreign readers) or staunchly pro-opposition. And when I ask them why, many of them quote from their own experiences to formulate their own stance and hence their own vote. So while in an ideal election people vote based on what is best for them and for everyone, on the basis that they are as well-informed as possible about the benefits, disadvantages and trade-offs of the various parties, it will never come to be an election that truly operates in this way, because we are all shaped by our experiences, thinking that we really know it all when in fact we just "know".
Which can apply to me as well. Do I really think I am well-informed when I write about this article questioning people's knowledge?
It is interesting how I have got a friend who once commented that all forms of market failure is a result of imperfect information. He says that people are consuming too much or too little of a product because they don't have perfect information about the impact of the products, and so basically all the inability to analyse cost and benefit is a result of imperfect information. Likewise, to this friend of mine, technological advancement is basically slowly discovering information, truths that we previously know nothing of. Of course, that's a little extreme and basically demanding perfect knowledge as well. For him, perfect knowledge would naturally be attained from having sufficient information.
The digital age ushered in lots of information; so much that we don't have enough time to process them. In fact, even cataloguing them might be troublesome enough and the process generates meta-data, which in fact is information about information. They would prove useful though they actually add to the information heap. Say for example I give you a quote:
The setting sun, and music at the close,
As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,
Writ in remembrance more than things long past:
If I don't provide the source, it's not particularly helpful unless you're able to identify it from just the content. It's from Shakespeare's The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. But then that's just a little bit of metadata; there's more: it comes from Act II Scene I. And even more: it's from Line 14-16. The ability to manipulate all these data themselves would create more information too. And they all might just prove to be way too much.
Economics have definitely become more complex thanks to the flood of information. Technology has allowed suppliers to maintain tighter inventory and reduce idle capacity but reality seem to drift further away from classical economics even as the economic agent are becoming more equipped with the information necessary to create a more perfect market. It appears, the next big assumption of Economics about the real world that needs toppling is in fact the idea of independence.