SPECIFIC TRAINING NEEDED
In every sector of society, qualifications play a critical role in determining the minimum level of knowledge and skills required for a given profession or occupation. Qualifications define what a person needs to know – and be able to do – to carry out a certain activity, but no such entry requirements apply to the group of people who are elected to run a country.
Around the world, politicians need no formal training before entering parliament. Those running for public office are elected by citizens, many of whom rate charm and charisma over ability and competence. Most voters in modern democracies do not make informed decisions about the capability of candidates or the efficacy of their policies.
Plato, the father of Greek philosophy, was one of the earliest to see democracy as a problem. He, like later critics, argued that democracy meant rule by the ignorant, or worse, rule by the charlatans who hoodwink the people. It would be much safer, Plato thought, to entrust power to carefully educated wise guardians who would decide upon matters on behalf of citizens.
Fast forward to the present and John Hewson, the former Liberal opposition leader, believes that Australia’s contemporary parliamentarians aren’t qualified to run the country. Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, Dr Hewson lamented that politics is dominated by career politicians who concentrate on winning points rather than delivering good policy and good government. He states:
Unfortunately, the skill sets and experience required of a career politician essentially make them incompetent to govern effectively. Their career path is often from university, community or union politics, through local government/party engagement, perhaps serving as a ministerial staffer, to pre-selection, then election, and so on.
We would not let an unqualified teacher educate our children nor allow a physician without a medical degree to perform surgery on us. Yet, we place no job prerequisites on those seeking to become members of parliament (MPs). In Australia and elsewhere, it is not mandatory for MPs to take part in initial or ongoing education and training programs specific to their role.
While I’m not advocating minimum education standards for aspiring politicians, there is a case for introducing compulsory Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for all parliamentarians once elected to office. This happens in other professions (and many occupations) to ensure continued proficiency and capability in one’s chosen field.
As lawmakers, politicians – either directly through regulation or indirectly via industry bodies – compel professionals like doctors, lawyers, engineers, and accountants to undertake CPD as a condition of their ongoing professional registration. Politicians the world over, however, are not subject to defined education and training standards for accreditation thereby creating a double standard.
Like all CPD programs, the learning activities for politicians should include a combination of structured activities (such as training courses, online modules, and seminars) and unstructured activities (such as reading documents, articles, and publications). Any formal or informal learning activity which improves or broadens an MP’s knowledge or expertise can be included in the CPD toolbox.
MPs are involved in decisions that have far reaching consequences for the populace at large and deal with an almost unlimited range of subjects. As noted in one report, “those elected to public office are expected to possess indefinable qualities to accomplish an indescribable job”.
I am the first to acknowledge that developing CPD programs for politicians is a huge undertaking. Nonetheless, it should be done and the two subjects that I would place at the apex of CPD curricula are debunking economic fallacies and understanding game theory. Please let me explain each in turn.
One of the primary activities of modern governments is to determine economic policies. In every country, the government takes steps to help the economy achieve growth, full employment, and price stability. Given this, it’s vital that elected representatives be economically literate, even though many politicians display an astounding ignorance of economics.
Over recent years, for example, populist politicians have driven an anti-globalisation agenda by promoting protectionists and isolationists policies. Specifically, the peddlers of populism have challenged the undeniable economic benefits of free trade (which has lifted millions out of poverty) and immigration (which has increased the size of economies).
Economic ineptitude was also on display following the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Politicians in many nations (including the UK and Greece) adopted fiscal austerity measures which proved catastrophic. Pleasingly, politicians in Australia and America implemented fiscal stimulus policies which gave their economies a much needed boost.
One of the reasons that governments adopted fiscal austerity measures post-GFC was to keep a lid on government debt loads in the mistaken belief that government debt is bad. This old chestnut is arguably the single biggest economic myth of all and is called the household fallacy.
Politicians fuel this fallacy by constantly drawing false parallels between household budgets and government budgets. Our elected leaders love trotting out the familiar line that governments – like households – need to live within their means. Yet every time they espouse this untrue analogy, they engage in unnecessary fear-mongering about government debt.
Around the world, ill-informed politicians claim that governments should somehow have a balanced budget year-to-year. Politicians show empathy with the electorate by promising to cut government spending in line with belt tightening by households. Governments that run deficits are erroneously accused of being poor financial managers.
In Fifty Economic Fallacies Exposed, Geoffrey Wood – Professor Emeritus of Economics – examines a range of popular economic misconceptions and explains how these mistaken beliefs misinform economic discussion. It should be mandatory for all politicians to read Professor Wood’s book. My recent post, Why it’s important to understand economics, provides a precis of three of the most common economic myths that we encounter.
Let me now turn to the second subject that I would include in CPD curricula – understanding game theory. Game theory is a framework for examining competitive situations where “players” have conflicting interests. It models human actions on the presumption that everyone tries to maximise their potential gain against everyone around them.
At its core, game theory – which is a special branch of mathematics – is used to study decision-making in complex situations. It examines how our choices affect others and how the choices others make affect us (so-called “games”). The “games” involve two or more opposing parties pursuing actions in their own best interest resulting in an outcome for each that is worse than if they had cooperated.
Game theory is applied in a number of fields and a classic example can be found in the arms race between two superpowers. Both countries are clearly better off when they cooperate and avoid an arms race. Yet the dominant strategy is for each to arm itself heavily. If a new weapon is invented that is more destructive than any in existence, acquisition of this weapon is seen as enhancing the security of one’s country. But if both act accordingly, everyone’s security is jeopardised rather than improved.
Game theory was used most notably during the Cold War. Both the United States and the Soviet Union quickly saw its value for forming war strategies. A balance was struck in which neither nation could gain advantage through nuclear attack as the reprisals would be too devastating. This became known as the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).
MAD is founded on the notion that a nuclear attack by one superpower would be met with an overwhelming nuclear counterattack such that both the attacker and the defender would be annihilated. Given this lose-lose outcome, it is said that only a madman would engage in such a self-defeating strategy.
By this logic, Vladimir Putin has been labelled a madman given his recent announcement that his nuclear forces are on “high-combat” alert. He is playing the madman card, threatening the use of nuclear weapons to get what he wants out of his war with Ukraine. With 6,000 plus nuclear warheads, Putin can end our world as we know it.
While many suspect that Putin is unhinged, I believe that he is a cunning expansionist with dreams/delusions of restoring Mother Russia to her former greatness. He is a megalomaniac who is obsessed with increasing his power and will do almost anything to get his way. The dilemma the West faces is how to deal with Russia without risking nuclear war. As the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, recently warned: “The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility”.
Putin’s actions in brandishing the nuclear option are reckless. If Putin and every other politician on the planet truly understood game theory, they would not threaten the use of nuclear warfare. Nuclear weapons are an intolerable threat to humanity. Instructing politicians in the nuances of game theory would teach them that a nuclear war cannot be won and therefore must never be fought.
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At the risk of sounding defeatist, I accept that studying game theory will not be made compulsory for world leaders let alone rank and file politicians. Equally, I’m sure that politicians will not be forced to study economic fallacies. This is disappointing as both of these educational initiatives would make the world a significantly better place.
One can only dream!
Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer