It’s official. Time magazine recently anointed Barack Obama as the 2012 Person of the Year. With all due respect to the editors of Time—and to the president himself—I would have recommended someone else whose name didn’t even make it onto the short list. That would be Nate Silver, statistician extraordinaire of fivethirtyeight.com.
You see, what makes Nate stand out is the contrarian territory he’s staked out for himself in the dichotomous era in which we live. It’s odd, is it not, that every Tom, Dick, and Harriet has at the touch of a keyboard access to a mother lode of information and data. Yet our public discourse and public-policy decisions seem to rely less and less on such facts and figures. Nate, on the other hand, demonstrates how inhabiting a universe of facts yields sound, verifiable outcomes.
Remember election eve? Nate tidily dispatched every Republican pollster, every snide Conservative pundit and Fox News lackey with his stats, charts, and spot-on predictions of the electoral outcome. He even dispatched the entire Romney clan who seemed to have retreated en mass into Bizarro-Land by election night.
Nate’s election predictions proved to be stellar, but that’s not the whole story. Nate deserves his bespectacled face framed by the magazine’s red borders because his data-based methodology—and the accuracy of the results that flow from it—is a stark reminder of how our failing, dysfunctional political system could still fix itself if only we’d follow Nate’s roadmap.
Let’s look at some of the dysfunction we’re facing. Many of our policy decisions have risen to crisis level because one of our two major parties no longer governs from facts but from ideology. As I write this (during the quickly diminishing hours of a lame-duck Congress), our representatives are mired in a self-inflicted crisis of budget and fiscal negotiations. Coming in January, with a revised cast of congressional players, we should finally have a long overdue legislative debate on two other major crises—gun violence and climate change.
What If those debates were actually grounded in the world of facts? Surely, as President Obama put it (and Nate would certainly agree), “facts matter.” If facts held their rightful place in our governing process, wouldn’t legislation blowing out of the halls of Congress look radically different?
It’s not that our political culture lacks sources for informed advice. There are more than seven thousand institutions of higher learning in this country, educating more than fifteen million students. Every year our universities churn out an average of more than nine hundred PhD’s in economics alone. Yet rarely does the expertise of that deep brain trust find its way into the halls of Congress or mainstream media. More often we hear the second-hand opining of politicians and journalists with little or no expertise in the matters they’re discussing.
Take as one glaring example the bargaining over tax cuts and which income levels will retain those cuts or which will see tax-rate increases. How much of the support for retaining tax cuts for those below $250,000 or $400,000 or $1 million is based on factual data and the real-world effects on budgets, the economy, and individuals’ economic futures? How much is stubborn ideological toadying? How can we even know the answer if the discussion resembles haggling in a back-alley bazaar rather than the sober consideration of facts and figures?
Nate’s way is the better way: Define the problem. Find the data. Crunch the data. Discuss and debate solutions based on hard data, then craft rational legislation. The more often I sample Nate’s illuminations on his website, the more I realize that Nate is a national treasure who time and again pulls back the curtain on our false wizards and, if we’re willing to pay attention, shows us a way to confront our false assumptions.
So here’s my invitation to Nate. Even though this year you didn’t get the public recognition you deserve, would you consider stepping more directly into public service? There are two much-needed functions only you could fulfill.
The first would be in the Oval Office. If President Obama were to pull up a second chair behind his grand desk, would you be willing to settle yourself down in it from time to time, set up your laptop, and share the insights of your data one-on-one with him as he mulls over his policy prescriptions? That way we could trust that the president would be getting just the facts and nothing but the facts.
The second would be in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The American people would demand the establishment of a permanent, honorary seat for you in both houses of Congress. As representatives and senators spout their unsubstantiated opinions, you would be there for us, sounding the alarm every time a piece of bullpucky gets rattled off.
Admittedly, these two functions are not nearly as sexy as being named Person of the Year, but I assure you, Nate, the American people would be, as someone once said, eternally grateful.