Friday, February 19, 2021

Oliver Hartwich: Mastering the art of Democracy

A couple of weeks ago, (see below *), I wrote about my humbling experience playing the new politics simulation Democracy 4. Running a country successfully and getting re-elected were near impossible tasks, I concluded.

Shortly after we published Insights, Twitter user @brijo247 sent this helpful hint:

“I’m yet to master Democracy 4, and as @oliverhartwich writes, it can be difficult. But my free tip for D3 is to slash superannuation, add a winter fuel subsidy and pump up tech spending. Works a treat.”

Intrigued, I returned to my laptop. These were not the policy choices I would have made. But hey, if the purpose is to get re-elected, who cares if my decisions make any sense?

Once again, I chose Australia as my political battleground. But this time, I did not mean to run it well. All I wanted was to stay in power.

For a start, I established that winter fuel subsidy. Then I showered the country with tech grants. However, I didn’t touch pensions because pensioners are voters too.

As it turned out, Australians warmed to me. Encouraged, I continued my spending spree. No initiative was too insignificant not to enjoy some extra dosh – even causes I did not care about in the least.

The budget deficit increased, but that was only the beginning.

People like their handouts, but they do not like paying for them. So I cut taxes. Well, I abolished them. No income tax, no corporate tax, no sales tax – all gone.

With revenues of about A$10 billion left, I now had to fund A$110 billion of expenditure. My quantitative easing programme came in handy.

While my economic advisors were in despair and ratings agencies downgraded the country to BBB, my popularity soared.

Next up was political management. Where I previously selected my cabinet for competence, I now went by loyalty alone. Big difference.

I also discovered the art of the media stunt. I ate breakfast in a builder’s café. I fought judo with the special forces. I got filmed feeding a baby lamb. I wasted no time on policy.

The election campaign was fun, too. I spread optimism and promised everything. I had no intention of keeping any of that. So what?

Democracy 4 was impressed with me. I unlocked the ‘Subsidy Sam’, ‘Successful Liar’ and ‘Spotlight Junkie’ achievements.

Better still, voters re-elected me twice. By the third term, my popularity was as stratospheric as the country was bankrupt.

I had turned into a born-again Hugo Chávez – and mastered the game of Democracy.

For a public choice-trained economist, it was not all too surprising. Just very depressing.

*Oliver Hartwich: Simulation of life

Call me a tragic but even in my spare time, I am thinking about politics. Thus, over the summer holidays, I stumbled across a new computer game: Democracy 4.

The developers’ promotion got me interested: “Have you ever wanted to be president? Or prime minister? Convinced you could do a better job of running the country? Let’s face it, you could hardly do a worse job than our current political leaders.”

With my ego so firmly stroked, I paid the $36.99 and downloaded the game.

What followed was a sobering experience. I could do a job much worse than our political leaders.

Democracy 4 is a game for realists. It starts from the premise that voters are self-interested. There are parents, capitalists, socialists, liberals, conservatives and other groups. You must keep them all happy.

But they are not the only ones. Your cabinet ministers are a rowdy bunch. They are not all equally capable, but they make up for it by being opinionated.

Add to that your party’s donors. Change your views too much, and you lose some. Go against their views, and you lose them all.

You play Democracy as leader of one of the world’s great nations.

Well, not quite. You can only pick from the UK, the US, Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Canada and Australia. Full credits to the developers for trying to model Australian politics, though.

Then the fun begins. There are myriads of policies to introduce. But you can only do so much at each turn. Plus, it takes time for effects to show. And you are always at the mercy of your cabinet’s competence.

Life then throws unforeseen stuff at you. Or, as Harold MacMillan put it, “Events, dear boy, events.”

Players in Democracy 4 will fight fires on every front all the time.

The deficit balloons because your tax cuts do not immediately stimulate the economy. The new highway is not yet built to please the motorists, but it already annoys the environmentalists. Taxpayers don’t thank you for cutting subsidies, but the previous recipients punish you all the more.

For me, the ordeal is always over after the first term. Not because I had enough of the game but because voters had enough of me. In the low double digits, my party will be turfed out.

After many attempts at Democracy, I am happy to cut our political leaders some slack. I would never want their job.

And so, my gaming escapism has shifted back to football and flight simulators.

It’s a world where my crappy club wins the league, where we can travel internationally again – and where I need not worry about politics.

Dr Oliver Hartwich is the Executive Director of The New Zealand Initiative think tank. These articles were first published HERE. 

1 comment:

DeeM said...

If they ever develop a NZ option of Democracy4 then anything favouring an indigenous minority will trump all least that's the way this government's time in office is playing out.
Hopefully the game's only started and they'll crash and burn as their policy choices come home to roost. Play on!