Why Fuzzy Math Makes Sense in Politics

Most of the economists agreed with Gore that debt reduction was a better use of the surplus than tax cuts and that repealing the estate tax was a bad idea. Most agreed with Bush that tax credits (as opposed to deductions) were not an effective way to stimulate savings and that simple tax policies were better.

Substantial minorities of the economists were much more open than either of the candidates to raising the retirement age for Social Security and limiting disbursements for those with sufficient assets. And an outright majority were in favor of a tax on consumption rather than income.

I was a bit surprised that the economists’ evaluations were so low. (Disclosure: I’d have given Clinton an A, Gore a B+, and, for opposite reasons, both Bush and Nader a C.)

The most interesting result of The Economist survey, however, was the uncertainty and wide range of expert opinion on most aspects of the candidates’ economic plans.

Learning to Say, ‘Beats Me’

Given these well-reasoned but different opinions, I wonder why the candidates so seldom say anything remotely like “I don’t really know,” “I’m not at all certain,” or, simply, “Beats me.” Surely, this sort of admission is the correct response to so many of the economic questions put to Gore and Bush by Jim Lehrer that its non-utterance should be something of an intellectual scandal. It isn’t.

Alas, one reason for politicians’ pose of confidence and surety is not hard to fathom. They fear that voters will confuse a slow, qualified response with ignorance or evasiveness, while they hope voters will confuse a quick, glib response with knowledge or resolve. As a result, candidates feel they must sometimes square their jaws and forthrightly make pronouncements that are the political equivalent of predictions from the Psychic Network.

But might the electorate not be more impressed by an occasional and courageous confession of ignorance — not ignorance of basic facts, but of the economic consequences of adopting a particular policy? Certainly economic history, the mathematical discipline of chaos theory, as well as common sense, strongly suggest that uncertainty and tentativeness frequently are more than justified.

Of course, I could be wrong. My electoral accomplishments have been limited to a losing campaign for high school senior class treasurer.

Professor of mathematics at Temple University, John Allen Paulos is the author of several best-selling books, including Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. His Who’s Counting? column on ABCNEWS.com appears on the first day of every month.

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