We’ve found a witch; may we fine her?

Paul Raven @ 14-02-2011

Via Freakonomics, an odd story out of Romania:

A month after Romanian authorities began taxing them for their trade, the country’s soothsayers and fortune tellers are cursing a new bill that threatens fines or even prison if their predictions don’t come true.

[…]

In January, the government changed labor laws to officially recognize the centuries-old practice of witchcraft as a taxable profession, prompting angry witches to dump poisonous mandrake into the Danube in an attempt to put a hex on them.

After reading that piece, I can’t say I’ve got much pity left for AP’s struggle to monetise their business for a new era; it’s full of dumb racist clichés and stereotypes, for a start (“the land of Dracula”… that’s really the best you could do?), and extraordinarily thin on actual story. But then so is almost every other write-up I can find on the web right now – anyone out there got a Romanian connection for the local viewpoint?

But the Freakonomics mention is my real reason for posting, because – flippant as it may seem – they make an interesting point:

… if I were Queen Witch (for a day), I might frame my argument a bit differently: As soon as the government starts to punish all fortune-tellers — including macroeconomists, financial analysts, government officials, sports pundits and the like — for their wayward predictions, I will gladly join the throng. Until then: no deal.

It’s a matter of accountability: if you make a living from predicting stuff, you should do less well if your predictions are regularly wrong. Personally I’d suggest that governments aren’t in the best place to enforce that sort of accountability – it’s not really in their best interests, as they’re arguably the most consistent sinners – and that this a job for reputation economics and radical transparency. Indeed, as foresight becomes an increasingly important part of pretty much every industry and ideology, increased scrutiny of accuracy is inevitable; there’s probably a really good business model or two lurking in that idea space.

I’m not sure why the witches are so upset, though; homeopathy is a taxable “profession” in the UK, for example, and shows no sign of dropping off the map as a result. No matter what technological leaps me make, I suspect Barnum’s adage – which, appropriately enough, wasn’t even his own adage – will hold true for a long time yet…