In the 1950’s or so, it was very easy to find good investments, because the market was still very inefficient. There were few people actively reading through financial statements and no bots, so people like Warren Buffet could simply look at a few metrics and buy a company at a discount. There were companies that were valued less than all their assets minus their debts. You can’t go wrong with a company like that. As more people began to do this, it got more difficult, so metrics that were once useful ceased being useful. Now the investing gurus began recommending to look at one or two metrics and to base your judgement on those alone. You won’t get it right 100% of the time and you won’t get extreme bargains, but you’ll still outperform the market.
With politicians, you’re faced with a similar problem. You can compare a hundred variables, to see who might be the best politician to run your nation, but the information you get is subject to diminishing returns and increasingly hard to judge. It seems like a good idea to judge what positions your politician takes on policies. Do a test, fill in your own opinions on issues, see who comes out on top, then vote for them. The problem of course, is that you don’t know how politicians will deal with unexpected problems. Bush promised that he wouldn’t engage in “nation building”. Then 9/11 happened, two wars happened and the rest is history.
You might vote for a politician because he supports abortion rights, wants to tackle climate change, increase inheritance taxes and do other stuff that you like. But then a new cold virus pops up in China, your grandma gets the flu and now you’re followed by an unmanned drone to make sure you’re really headed to the supermarket instead of the local park. Suddenly every metric you thought was important ceases to be relevant. You thought the big issue was going to be X, but it turned out to be Y instead.
When you’re faced with extremely complex problems, often there is no point in trying to understand the problem itself, because your own inability to understand one small aspect of the problem may prove to be sufficient to lead you to an exactly opposite conclusion of what’s right. As an example, people in some parts of the world are now killing bats, thinking this will stop viruses from spreading. What they don’t understand is that they’re intervening in a complex system. Bats migrate and you’re never going to exterminate them all. The now empty caves are an unfilled ecological niche for them. They enter these caves, reproduce and now the cave is filled with young bats, who are actually much better at spreading viruses to humans than old bats.
Similarly, it’s kind of a lost cause to judge politicians based on their positions on the issues. Bernie Sanders seems to get most of the issues right. We don’t want endless wars, we don’t want to live in some sort of post-apocalyptic hellscape, we don’t want to be fired from the Amazon warehouse by a computer algorithm and we want to be able to visit a hospital without having to declare personal bankruptcy afterwards. So, people vote for Sanders and two times in a row he allows the Democratic party to screw him over. It doesn’t matter if your positions are right, when you don’t have the courage to stand up for them. On the other hand, Trump managed to book actual success, because he simply refused to play by the unspoken rules. His position on the issues tends to be terrible, he doesn’t understand the topics he needs to make decisions on, but he won’t let people screw him over.
When you need a driving instructor, it’s relatively easy to judge him. There’s one metric that matters: Do students pass the test or not? If a high percentage of his students pass, you want to sign up with him. A politician needs to deal with a thousand possible problems. When faced with a situation like this, we need to start relying on simple heuristics. What do we look for in a politician? We could say that we want a politician who is “smart”. This sounds like it makes sense, but does it? To start with, few people think of themselves as stupid, but some of us must inevitably be stupid without knowing it. Do we trust that a smart person will represent the interests of stupid people? The stupid people who voted for Trump made a wise decision: He’s not very smart himself, so he may empathize with them in a way that smart politicians like Obama don’t. The president doesn’t so much have to decide between good decisions and bad decisions, as he has to choose between the interests of one demographic versus another.
Similarly, we might think that we benefit from having a president who is successful. The problem is once again, that a president who is successful is the kind of person who is going to empathize with successful people. What made Sanders such an interesting political candidate is that by all measures, he’s just not a particularly successful person. He spent his twenties and thirties barely employed, living in rural Maine and reading obscure literature. Often he was so poor that he couldn’t afford to heat his home. Through some sort of miracle he became mayor and then he started making a career for himself. Young people who don’t have their shit together, who live in some expensive apartment, wait tables and can’t afford to settle down and have children, look at a guy like Sanders and think “it took him so long to get his shit together, he’s going to empathize with people like me”.
If you wanted someone who is smart and successful you should have voted for Buttigieg, but it was painfully obvious that the guy wasn’t going to represent the interests of the rest of us, who aren’t smart or successful. So, we can conclude that we don’t particularly benefit from a smart or successful president. The best we can hope for, is a president who empathizes with us. This is one thing Trump supporters get right. Trump is a narcissist. The only thing you need to do as a poor person to get him to look out for you is to cheer him on. If black people cheer Trump on, Trump will be doing whatever it takes to help out black people. If gays cheer Trump on, Trump will help out the gay community. To have a fifty year old Trump as president would have been interesting, because back then he still seemed to be reasonably intelligent. He didn’t look like a well-read man, or an intellectual, but he did look like someone who had a decent intuitive understanding of how the world works. I have a friend like that, what sets a guy like that apart is that they’re destined for success in life.
People are afraid of narcissists, but they don’t comprehend that narcissists are reliable people. You shouldn’t fear overt narcissists like Trump. The people to watch out for, are the covert narcissists, because they are dishonest about their motives. These are narcissists who see themselves as special, but they’re afraid of being open about it. Instead they channel it into various other pursuits. You have to be extremely careful of narcissists in healthcare for example. Did your doctor enter the profession because he wants to “help people”, or because he enjoys the idea of being perceived like a virtuous person who wants nothing else in his life than to “help people”? Hint: The loudest most outspoken doctors on social media right now, who want the whole world to know how many lives they are saving in the ER, are covert narcissists. And, while I’m at it, they all tend to look the same way: Good-looking blonde women in their early thirties.
So what’s the right way to pick a politician then? You want a simple rule. You want someone who looks out for your interests and empathizes with you. He (or she) needs to be competent enough to be capable of representing your interests. But competence is subject to diminishing returns. Beyond a certain level of competence, it doesn’t really matter what the guy knows, because one small error in his mental model of the world can lead to an outcome entirely opposite of what he expects. Most of us thought it was a terrible idea for Trump to kill an Iranian general. In hindsight it worked out perfectly for him because of information we didn’t have: The Iranian government is so incompetent that they shot down their own airplane. We thought it was terrible that Trump didn’t take corona seriously, because the virus seemed really dangerous to those of us who kept track of it. Then more information started coming in and it became clear that he was right about all his stupid rationalizations: It will genuinely go away when the weather gets better, the death rate is genuinely much lower than the WHO said, the cure is genuinely worse than the disease, etc.
Sometimes, our subconscious knows more than our conscious mind. Out of all the information we receive, just a small fraction enters our conscious mind. Sometimes you’ll read a book and you’ll have a sudden thought about a particular word further down the page. Your subconscious picked up that piece of information before passing it onto your conscious mind. In a similar manner, when it comes to picking a politician, you know stuff about him at an intuitive level, that you don’t consciously think about. If you just observe Sanders, you like the guy, but you also worry about having him as a leader: When people try to screw him over, is he going to fight back? If you just observe him, you’ll see that the answer is no. He can get 100% of the issues right, but it doesn’t matter if he’s not arrogant enough to push through his own opinion.
Similarly, your brain is entirely designed to keep track of whether someone is a friend or an enemy. These sort of processes operate continually in the background. You don’t consciously understand why you don’t like someone. You grasp at straws, to justify your dislike of them. Why didn’t people like Buttigieg? It’s not the issues. He just doesn’t pass the smell test. You’re convinced when you look at him that he is a product of the machine, designed to serve the interests of Fortune 500 companies. So, if your intuition tells you that a guy isn’t going to watch out for you, then you shouldn’t vote for him. If you don’t vote for a guy and the only reason you can come up with is that you don’t like his Boston Brahmin accent, you’re entirely justified in that. Why are only middle-aged lesbian women willing to show up for Hillary Clinton rallies, despite Sanders being much earlier in supporting gay marriage? Clinton gives off the right vibe to them. They look at her and they intuitively see her as part of their tribe. She stopped bothering with looking attractive to men around the time her husband became governor. Lesbians notice that and empathize with that.
What I noticed when I attended climate change activist groups is something similar: These people don’t vibe with me. I entirely agree with them that climate change is a big problem, but I feel about as comfortable around them as I probably would at a Mormon wedding. When I look at Peter Thiel or Elon Musk, or even Martin Shkreli, they do vibe with me. I have more faith that Peter Thiel and Elon Musk are going to solve global warming than the world’s climate change activists. “What? Shkreli is a psychopath!!!” Yeah, compassionate people realize that they’re vulnerable, so they often hide their compassion underneath a facade of ruthlessness.
When Shkreli raised the price of that drug, it was like a modern day performance art piece: He rubbed it in your face how broken the system is. Shkreli’s entire interest in chemistry and biotech is the result of having a family member with treatment resistant depression. I can’t believe that Shkreli is a genuinely evil person, for one simple reason: He vibes with me. I’ll take this a step further. If Martin Shkreli ran for president, I would vote for him. This arrogant Wu Tang Clan listening chess playing hedge fund manager resonates with me in the same way a pantsuit wearing career politician in a sexless marriage like Hillary Clinton resonates with middle-aged lesbians. I entirely trust that Martin Shkreli would look out for people like me.
You need to seek out people who vibe with you for reasons your conscious mind doesn’t understand. You don’t just need them as friends. You need them as your political representatives. Let me give you an example of what I mean. When Macron got elected, I knew this was going to be bad. I don’t know what his opinions on the issues are. I don’t care. What tells me everything I need to know, is that this guy doesn’t have children, but helps his former school teacher raise hers. This guy married his teacher. What that demonstrates is that something in his brain works entirely differently from how it works in most men’s brains. In fact, I would argue that Macron is mentally ill, it appears as if he suffers from an extreme Oedipus complex. The corona pandemic is a perfect opportunity for him to unleash his own pathologies on his population.
Similarly, we can look at how politicians like Merkel and Rutte are handling the Corona pandemic. Merkel is an old chemist without any children. Rutte has no children, but also appears to have no interest in relationships with other people whatsoever. Here’s a question: How is Rutte going to empathize with young people? How is Rutte going to empathize with the parents of young children? Rutte has the appearance of an accountant and the personality of an accountant. During the economic crisis, he urged people to consider buying a new house “if the number of children has increased”. That’s his way of saying “we have a newborn”. When politicians make errors like this, it gives you an insight into the workings of the mind. And for Rutte, the Netherlands is basically one giant corporation he is tasked with keeping financially afloat. He’s not going to reflect critically on the advice his experts give him, because he doesn’t have practical life experience to reflect upon. During the Corona pandemic, I want my prime minister to come home to a crying five year old daughter who misses her friends in kindergarten. That’s what human beings with children experience and that’s what leads them to take balanced decisions.
Let me give you an example of a country that handled this reasonably well: Denmark. They were the first country in Europe to close their borders, but they rapidly began doing tests, to figure out how widespread this virus is. When it became clear to them that it’s very widespread and that it’s just not dangerous to children, they made the decision to open the schools again. Who is their prime minister? A 42 year old woman with two children. That’s someone who doesn’t just fall asleep after a hard day at work and dreams about GDP growth rates and unemployment statistics. That’s someone who has to deal on a daily basis with a wide range of aspects of life.
I don’t expect that a 42 year old woman with two children is going to perfectly represent the interests of me, a guy in his late twenties. But that’s fine: I have sufficient empathy to want my society as a whole to thrive. Although I would like to have Martin Shkreli as president, I can already be very content with someone who has an understanding of life through their responsibilities as a parent. What I see across Europe, are politicians without children, who are proclaiming that this is the “new normal” and that we had better get used to it. Here’s a radical suggestion: You’re excessively afraid of death because you’re a middle aged bureaucrat without children. Here’s a second radical suggestion: I don’t want a new normal. I want to go to festivals. Festivals are not some sort of new invention of decadent youth, they have been part of life for centuries in various incarnations. Medieval people had festivals. A mentally healthy mother understands that her daughter wants to sow her wild oats at some point in life and isn’t going to interfere with that. A sterile bureaucrat like Rutte on the other hand will happily sacrifice youth to make the numbers in his Excel spreadsheet work out.