If I were a Senator

Donald Trump is officially the 45th president of the United States. Next the cabinet nominees will be voted on by the senate for confirmation. Republicans have a majority, but it would take only three Republican senators to prevent the appointment of a nominee. Technically a Democrat might vote for a nominee, but considering how many Democrats aren’t participating in the inauguration no Democrats will probably vote yes on the more controversial nominees. The question is if you were a senator that doesn’t like Trump or a certain nominee should you vote for them anyway to protect your position in the senate?

This is a complicated decision given what we know about Trump’s low favorability rating. A YouGov/Economist poll asks questions about how voters view Trump and his cabinet picks. Some picks aren’t as controversial like mates who has the highest favorability among non-Trump voters in the poll. But the Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson and Attorney General nominee Jeff Session have the lowest favorability among non-Trump voters. You have to consider that the majority of voters didn’t vote for Trump in the election, and the majority of voters have neutral or negative opinions in most polls. This decision is difficult if you don’t like the nominees, but as a Republican senator feel obligated to support your party.

Here is what I would do if I were a Republican Senator. I don’t think most of the cabinet picks are qualified or good candidates for their positions. I know that independent and democratic and a portion of Republican voters don’t like some of the cabinet picks. Not voting for a nominee would hurt me, it would probably anger my colleagues and lower my favorability with my constituents. Not voting for my party’s nominee would probably make national news and may not be beneficial for me. However, if I vote against a nominee and it turns out they don’t get confirmed, it probably wouldn’t hurt me that much. If I run for reelection and Trump and his cabinet are unpopular my dissent could help. If I don’t vote for a cabinet candidate, but they still get confirmed I would have risked my position for nothing. This scenario is complicated and an example of a prisoner’s dilemma game (more info here). The idea in this case is voting against a candidate is only worth it if it blocks the confirmation of that candidate and it turns out that Trump is not favorable at the time of my reelection. But the payoff is higher if I vote for the nominee regardless of the actions of the 51 other Republican senators. I also know that the rejection of this nominee doesn’t mean that the next nominee going to be a better nominee. Knowing these things the only nominees that I would consider voting against being Sessions and Tillerson because those are high power positions and are unpopular enough to increase the chance that my vote would prevent their confirmation. So it wouldn’t surprise me if almost all the senate nominees get confirmed.

Coincidences: A Lesson in Expected Value

As I followed the election I noticed the frequent mentions counties (or cities) that have been known “predict” the presidential election winner. The idea is that a the winner of a certain county has matched the winner of the election for multiple elections. Let’s look at county A for an example. To simplify things lets assume the odds of predicting a winner in a presidential election are 50-50. This would mean that the probability of getting 8 elections right would be 1 in 256. This means that it is unlikely that county A would predict the election by chance. But what about the rest of the counties in America? There are over 3,000 counties in America (according to an economist article found here: http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2016/11/economist-explains), so we can expect about 12 of these counties would have “predicted” the winner of the presidential election.

Rare events happen all the time. Rare are rare, but rare is not impossible. Let’s say that there is a (hypothetical) free sweepstakes with a 1 in 100 chance of winning $100. You may not think that you wouldn’t know anyone who won, but if a sweepstakes like this exists you might be surprised about the likely outcome. It may not be likely that you specifically win, but if all your Facebook friends enter the contest someone you know is probably going to win. If you have at least 99 Facebook friends it is likely that you or someone you know will win the sweepstakes. You may think its a coincidence or luck, but it is really math. Expected value can’t tell you who is going to win, but it can tell you someone you know is likely to win. Now expected value is not a magic bullet. You may have 0 friends win or 2 friends win, but the most likely event is that someone will win. Unfortunately (legit) sweepstakes like this don’t exist, but it is a good example of how your perception of probability may not match reality. Another example is it probably going to rain 1 in 10 days where the probability of rain is 10%, but it is easy to pretend like it never rains when the probability of rain is 10%.

You may wonder why expected value matters. But it’s actually quite important when looking at everyday events. Sometimes it is easy to underestimate the chance that something odd or rare would happen. You may think it’s odd that runs when the meteorologist says the chance of that happening is 10%. Or that it only takes 23 people to have a 50% chance of there being, two people with the same birthday (details here). It is easy to forget that once in a lifetime event do happen once in a lifetime. How you think about probability is important. So before you yell at the TV meteorologist that said there was a 10% chance of rain but it rained, try to remember that unlikely does not equal impossible.