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March 27, 2019

PTI and the Dunning-Kruger effect


March 27, 2019

Successful politicians communicate and rally people around their vision. Statesmen are successful politicians who deliver on their vision. Take, for instance, Quaid-e-Azam. The idea of Muslims as a separate nation in the Indian subcontinent had been percolating at least since the 1857 War of Independence and Muslim thinkers such as Sir Syed had been advocating this idea.

This notion was made more aspirational by the All India Muslim League and its leaders ,including Allama Iqbal. But it was our Quaid who brought that concrete vision to the diverse Muslims of the Subcontinent, got them excited about this idea and then remarkably delivered on that almost impossible promise. No wonder, he is considered one of the most successful statesmen from the last century.

Of course, not all politicians are able to deliver on their promises. In fact, some promises are so outlandish and fanciful that there is never any possibility of them coming good. But still politicians continue to make them. Are they just fooling their potential voters or do these politicians think they can make the impossible happen?

I recently came across a proposition called the Dunning-Kruger effect and have been thinking about its application to some promises our prime minister and his associates have made. Let’s look at these promises first:

• The PTI will double the tax collection. No time was specified but it was meant as if it was going to be doubled in a year.

• The PTI will bring back $200 billion of hidden wealth stashed abroad by Pakistanis. Money laundering will be stopped and tens of billions of dollars will be saved.

• Foreign investment will grow rapidly and foreign remittances will rain upon Pakistan once the PTI is in power. Both these things will happen simply because the PTI will come to power. (The PTI coming to power is reason enough).

• Pakistan will not go to the IMF or any country for loans. Once the PTI comes to power, there will be no need for any loans. (The PTI coming to power is reason enough).

• PTI claimed it will turn PM House into a university. Having failed to do so, it just announced it has.

• The PTI will build five million new homes. (The PTI probably never checked that five million homes is more than all the pucca homes in Karachi and Lahore).

• The PTI will provide ten million new jobs. (The number of jobs an economy creates depends on its growth. To create ten million jobs in five years, Pakistan would need to grow by an average of over seven percent. It’s not clear to me that PTI leaders ever considered the link between jobs and growth. In their 100-day plan, they talked about jobs without talking about growth in the same context).

• The prime minister won’t use a private jet for overseas travel and shun protocol. (It is now clear that, from governors to chief ministers to PM Imran himself, the protocol taken by PTI leaders is far more than that used by PML-N leaders. However, in the new nomenclature we call it security.)

None of these promises has or is likely to come true. So why was PM Khan making such promises, not just when he was an opposition leader but also when we was PM-elect? After the election he promised he won’t go to the Fund, or (in his words) “beg” other countries for money, or use protocol or perks. Yet he’s done almost everything diametrically opposed to his promises. Why?

Some of the promises are borne out of just politics. For instance, the PTI’s opposition to the PML-N’s motorways and metrobus projects. Imran Khan kept saying between 2008 and 2013 that he would have invested in health and education instead. But when his government took power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa not only did he fail to improve education or health facilities relative to Punjab, he actually started to build the hated metrobus project in Peshawar. Ironically. that metro project is three times as expensive as the Lahore metro.

Then there is the PTI hypocrisy whereby the standards it uses to judge others are relaxed when judging its own. Hence, the tolerance for turncoats (or those formerly called corrupt).

But the promises are more than just due to politics and hypocrisy. How do you explain the prime minister’s belief that he will be able to double tax collection? Or that he will be able to avoid taking any foreign loans. Or build in five years more houses than exist in all of Karachi and Lahore. Or that he will be able to make public-sector enterprises profitable. Or that Pakistan will become an economically strong country with government provision of health and education after just a few years of PTI rule.

Indeed, how do you justify selling the central PTI proposition that Pakistan is awash with wealth, doesn’t have serious policy challenges with only the greed of its politicians as the hindrance and that once sincere leadership comes, Pakistan will quickly become a Singapore or a Dubai?

One plausible way to explain this tendency of PM Khan to make outlandish promises is the Dunning-Kruger effect, referred to above, that was introduced in an article in the Journal of Personal Social Psychology titled ‘Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments’.

Essentially, this effect is a cognitive bias of low-ability people who, without being aware of the limits of their own abilities, develop a sense of superiority and consider themselves more competent than they actually are. There is an aphorism ascribed to Socrates: “the more I know, the more I realise I know nothing”. Dunning-Kruger is the flip side of this coin: the less one knows, the more one thinks one knows. And the more one is sure of one’s knowledge or ability.

So perhaps PM Khan has been making these exaggerated promises because he never understood the complexity or difficulty of governance given his own lack of experience and competence in governance. He thus developed a false sense of his ability to solve complex problems in no time. This false sense of superiority and competence leads him to make these fanciful promises.

For at least a decade he has sold a simplistic and false vision that corruption is the only thing that was wrong in Pakistan and once he comes in and ends corruption, everything will improve. So when he was finally brought to power the nation was expecting to see many positive changes. But the reality is very different. Unfortunately, PM Khan and his supporters never understood the real problems faced by Pakistan and how steep a climb we have to make to achieve true development.

Looking at the PTI, I am reminded of the book ‘How Great Expectations in Washington Are Dashed in Oakland’. In Naya Pakistan too all the grand plans made in Bani Gala are dashed everyday when you try to buy groceries, pay utility bills or get stuck in traffic because “minister sahib’s motorcade” is passing. Minister sahibs may have changed, but the Pakistani citizens seem more stuck than ever.

The writer has served as federal

minister for finance, revenue and

economic affairs.

Twitter: @MiftahIsmail

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