How do we discourage politicians from gambling with our futures? Nicholas Agar looks at the ‘Hail Mary’ tactic, arguing politicians must own their misjudged forecasts 

Recent polls suggest this could be a very one-sided general election. It is useful to be forewarned about some of the tricks available to aspiring leaders when times are tough and an election is imminent.

It can be tempting – and indeed rational – for politicians down in the polls to try what American football fans call a ‘Hail Mary pass’ – a pass made in desperation in the final minutes of a game in the hope it will lead to a fortune-turning score. Few Hail Mary passes come off, but in the dying moments of a lost game why not give it a go?

Many of United States President Donald Trump’s assertions about Covid-19 make sense when we view them as Hail Mary passes thrown by a politician trailing in the polls, facing a November election and not averse to a gamble.

Trump’s statements about coronavirus contain many assertions like this on February 26 in the pandemic’s early days: “… when you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” Then there’s this March 10 statement about the virus to Republican senators: “… we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”

Today, these claims look absurd. Clearly Covid-19 didn’t just “go away”. But that didn’t make the claims crazy from the perspective of a gambler like Trump who did particularly well out of his big bet on Manhattan real estate in 1980s.

Eventually, many viral infections do “go away”. They kill the infirm, confer some degree of immunity on the young and healthy and run out of fresh bodies to infect. Viewed from March 10, it wasn’t impossible Covid-19 would just go away by mid-April. If it had just gone away, Trump would have entered the 2020 US election looking inspired – the man who divined a happy future when the supposed scientific experts were all doom and gloom. His Hail Mary coronavirus pass would have turned the game.

When it’s our future being speculatively hurled up field, it’s important for us to recognise when an aspiring leader has decided on a despairing gamble. As Americans are learning – with over 150,000 Covid-19 deaths and climbing – punts that make sense for politicians behind in the polls can turn out badly for them.

How do we discourage politicians from gambling with our futures? I think we should take some advice from Canadian-American political scientist Professor Philip Tetlock, who has studied the traits that enable people to offer useful advice about the future. Tetlock says that if you are serious about making predictions, you should look at your past record of success, acknowledge your errors and own them. Tetlock urges forecasters to conduct “unflinching postmortems” of their forecasting errors asking: “Where exactly did I go wrong?”

It’s hard to imagine a gambler like Trump seriously asking himself why his Covid-19 forecasts went wrong. New Zealand politicians are thankfully less brazen in their claims about the future. There are few Kiwi coronavirus howlers on the scale of Trump’s. But politicians aren’t in general an especially introspective breed and will avoid owning up for past errors if we let them.

We need a political culture in which there is no shame about being wrong about the future – who has a crystal ball? – just so long as you own your past errors and are candid with voters where you might have gone wrong.

During election campaigns, candidates should be forced to answer questions about their history of forecasting or speculating about the future. What do they think now about a call to end lockdown early or to reopen sooner to Australian skiers? There should be no shame in saying: “Yes, I did say that. Here’s what I was thinking then. I now see that that might have been a mistake.” Or: “I did say that. I can see why you think that would have been wrong, but here’s why I still think it would have been the right thing to do.” Either option is better than refusing to answer in the hope voters might have forgotten. Dodging the question suggests the earlier statement was really just a gamble about the future that didn’t pan out.

Debates often feature questions in which candidates are quizzed about broken promises and unmet commitments. When it comes to falsified claims about the coronavirus and its economic consequences, we should reward politicians who accept they might have been wrong but own their errors. We should view politicians who refuse to own up in the way American voters treat the standard line from presidential candidates that “if elected I will find the cure for cancer”. This commitment has been trotted out by both Trump and Democrat Joe Biden. Yes, we’d love a cure for cancer – but we’ve heard that line too many times to think you’ll actually do it.

Nicholas Agar is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Australia and Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

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