A friend of mine from graduate school, Art Carden, has developed an interesting way of credibly committing to doing things. When he has work that absolutely, positively has to be done by the end of the day, he’ll post on Facebook: “Art is going to finish X by the end of the day, or he owes [insert person's name here] $100.” (Art — I think you should change it to “the first person who likes this status” as a way of making people pay attention to you more; just a thought.) Or he has even changed it to “Art will not be on Facebook for the next 24 hours, and will pay $100 to anyone who catches him on Facebook.” If at any point Art fails to meet his goal, he’ll pay $100. And if he doesn’t, then the next time he tries to make a commitment like that on Facebook, the person he cheated will probably post something on Art’s status calling him a liar, and at that point Art can no longer expect people to hold him accountable.
I brought this up in my Managerial Economics class yesterday while we were discussing the Stackelberg model of duopoly, and was mentioning that a big public announcement of a new factory or purchase contract is one way for a firm to commit to a high level of output even in the fact of competition. Making commitments public is a great way of ensuring that you’ll actually follow through with them. If you don’t, nobody will believe you and it’s much harder to get anything done in the future.
It reminded me of an episode of 20/20 that ABC did a few years back about game theory. As part of the story, they took a half dozen significantly overweight people that had been trying to lose weight for years and never seemed to be able to do it, and told them they would help them lose weight. Why would the results be different this time? The participants all signed a contract, agreeing to let ABC take pictures of them in their bathing suits (bikinis for women, speedos for men) at the start of the weight loss challenge and, if they did not meet their weight loss target, ABC would show those pictures on the broadcast.
By making these people credibly commit to taking their weight loss seriously, game theorists expected that they would actually be successful. And they were basically correct. All but one of the people met their weight loss target, and they all said that the threat of public humiliation was a significant factor. So ABC showed the picture of the woman who failed, right? Wrong. After creating a whole piece about the importance of credible commitment, ABC chickened out and did not show the bikini picture of the woman who did not lose weight because they didn’t want to embarrass her. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that ABC hasn’t done anything like that again. After all, who would believe them?
[On a related note, my girlfriend points me to www.flaab.com, where people make public statements combining both monetary loss and humiliation that are supposed to ensure they achieve their weight loss goals. I doubt the monetary pledges are legally binding, and I'm not sure that the shame of a small online community of strangers is enough to be effective, but I guess it might work for some people.]
I am sick of politicians lying to us. They break promises all the time. Guantanamo’s still open, six months after we were promised it would be closed. People earning less than $250K have seen their taxes increase, when President Obama promised they would not. Republicans say they’re for states rights, until there’s an issue they don’t like and then the federal government must intervene (Terry Schiavo, anyone?). The excuse is “it’s just politics.” It’s not a lie, it’s a “misstatement” or a “factual inaccuracy” or they were “taken out of context.” If “it’s just politics” means you get to lie to your constitutents and not follow through on your promises, that’s not an excuse for politicians — it’s an indictment of our political system.
So I propose something new. Politicians should figure out exactly what their most important issues are and take a public stand. Not just a “political” stand where you say one thing and can back out of it. Have a press conference and sign a pledge that says: “I agree to do X while in Congress, and if I don’t do it, I agree to …”
You can fill in the blank on your own, but I have a few ideas. How about stating that you will not run for office when your term is up? Or how about putting a significant portion of your wealth in an escrow account and agreeing that should you violate the specific pledge you have taken, that money will be donated to charity?
Very few politicians have any credibility left. They keep making promises, then breaking them, and we keep re-electing them. Now that I think about it, we as voters don’t have much credibility either. You can change that: vote out anybody who has ever lied to you. Then maybe the voters will gain some credibility and politicians will be forced to actually tell the truth.