Would a "Tax On Bullshit" Improve Political Commentary?


“Talk is cheap.”

“Put your money where your mouth is.”

Writers on PolicyMic and everywhere else make predictions constantly. "The Supreme Court will rule x." "Team y will win the championship." "The odds of U.S. intervention in Syria are z." 

It is nice to be able to read without any regard for the author, to just consider the claims and logical steps made. But sometimes it’s hard to verify claims on your own and it saves time if you can trust the writer.

Their credentials can help. If someone is a Harvard professor writing in the New York Times editorial section, they’re probably not completely making things up.  But relying on status can lead to unchallenged groupthink.

There is also the problem that those making predictions benefit from making especially bold predictions that appeal to an audience. Someone out there will predict something that appeals to people and draws attention to its proponent.

To minimize some of these problems Bryan Caplan, Robin Hanson, and others in the economics blogosphere have been pushing bets as a way to discourage pure speculation. So if someone expecting others to take them seriously argues that a candidate has a 75% chance of winning an election, they should put their money where their mouth is and bet on it.

Alex Tabbrok calls bets a “tax on bullshit.” And less bullshit sounds good to this frequent political commentary reader. The New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan disagrees and criticized Nate Silver for suggesting a bet with a critic prior to Obama's reelection. She suggested it makes him seem biased, even though he could have been asked to take either side of the bet given his belief in the likelihood of Obama’s reelection.

Tyler Cowen has made the loudest critiques of such bets. He thinks commentary and innovation have been solid in the past without individuals having additional stakes in their ideas in the form of bets. He also points to the fact that most of the bets bloggers will agree cannot be very large — maybe a hundred dollars. And that is not enough to keep people from holding an irrational belief they may be heavily invested in in other ways. These bets represent small amounts relative to a person’s total portfolio of assets.

Cowen is right that bets are far from perfect in revealing beliefs, as they don’t impose overly high costs on irrationality. And Eli Dourado may weaken the pro-bet argument further by suggesting we don’t have too much bullshit because “society advances from the adjudication of competing bullshit claims.”

But within certain parameters I think bets can ensure participants in the conversation are serious. With sports, for example, I’ve found it useful to shame people who make claims about their sports teams and aren’t willing to bet.

What do you think, PolicyMic?