Risk, Uncertainty, and Political Prognostication


Tim Fernholtz makes a great point here that I want to rescue from association with Donald Rumsfeld:

Anyway, I did want to draw attention to this commentary by Christian Brose, which does a good job of laying out what Huntsman’s probable assumptions are about his political future and that of his party. But readers, remember: No one has any idea how the politics of 2012 will shake out, and any political calculation based on current assumptions is just a mistake. Looking at Brose’s conventional wisdom handicapping of the 2012 GOP, I don’t see much to disagree with, but now we have to get into Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns territory. Remember when everyone thought George Allen was a front-runner for the 2008 GOP nomination? Hillary Clinton for the Democrats? The permanent Republican majority of 2004? The never-ending Democratic majority in Congress for most of the latter half of the prior century? You get my point. Whatever Huntsman’s calculus is, I hope it isn’t entirely predicated on the political climate three years from now.

Rather than “unknown unknowns,” I think the issue here is the difference between risk and uncertainty. Risk is the odds you know you face. If a flip a coin and bet on heads, it might turn up tails instead. Uncertainty is the fact that other kinds of chance intrude on the real world. If a flip a coin and bet on heads, someone might come running through the halls and knock me down while I’m in the act of tossing.

Political prognostication tends to fall prey to a failure to adequately appreciate how much uncertainty there is in politics. Nobody knows, ex ante, the odds that any given politicians’ re-election bid will be derailed by a weird blowup at a rally. And less abnormally, political outcomes are heavily shaped by events in the real world. But people aren’t very good at predicting events in the real world. The politics of 2012 will have a lot to do with the state of the global economy in 2012. But while people can make some informed judgments about the likely future, nobody really knows what will be happening and nobody knows what policymakers will be doing in response. Nobody knows what foreign crises will emerge over the next 2-3 years and nobody knows how they’ll be resolved. The future, in other words, is pretty inherently murky.