Thursday, December 3, 2009

Play the Game

I was watching The Daily Show two months ago when Jon Stewart introduced one of those academic/author guests he likes to have on--a man by the comical name of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. Mr. Mesquita (I'll just call him "Bruce" from here on out) had written a book called "The Predictioneer's Game," and the initial banter clued me in to the fact that the author is an expert in game theory, and that in predicting geo-political events, he is twice as accurate as the CIA (according to the CIA itself).


The author described game theory as basically creating an algorithm of self-interest based on the influential parties involved in any dispute or negotiation. I then expected the conversation to turn to doom and gloom, because as we all know, the world is coming to an end.

Instead, the interview concluded with Stewart saying, "So actually, you think some good things are going to happen in the next 10 to 20 years, right?" "Yes," replied Bruce.

What?! The last thing I would ever expect right now is a rational case for optimism (dare I say hope). I bought the book the next day. Yes, it's dense in parts, but the overall thesis is compelling (the self-interest part, that is). Here are the highlights:

- Cultural distinctions play a minimal role in resolving disputes. Through the lens of large-scale national and tribal conflict, human beings are basically the same the world over. I find this both liberating and disappointing.

- There's no such thing as a perfectly "fair" election. The most memorable story from the book relates how the author got a company's board of directors to elect the least-likely candidate as its new CEO. How? Through bribes? Tomfoolery? Dirty tricksterism? No, by engineering the election process in a way that everybody thought was perfectly fair. (Is instant runoff voting, just approved in St. Paul, better than the existing system? Yes. No. And maybe.)

- Iran will always threaten to build nuclear weapons, but it won't actually build them. The details on this escape me, but basically, we're doing the right thing there. I've always thought Ahmadinejad was just a big talker. True.

- The best way to stabilize the most serious threat to world peace (Pakistan) is by massively increasing aid to that country and sending a lot more troops to Afghanistan. Pakistan is on the verge of collapse, and no matter how you feel about politics and war, you can't deny that an Islamist regime armed with nuclear weapons is not a good thing. In light of Obama's speech this week, I think he might have read Bruce's book.

- Global warming is a self-correcting problem (this one I don't buy). In the simplest sense, the problem creates more wind, rain and fire, and the key to a more sustainable energy system is basically more wind, rain and fire. (Again, this is one area where the author falls short. The other is in arguing that corporations would be a lot more forthcoming about their transgressions if they didn't face such severe punishments for doing so. Sorry, but the threat of punishment is the only thing keeping most large corporations doing the right thing at all.)

Ultimately, Bruce's book--and game theory in general--accepts the idea of a true and locked "human nature." We are creatures of self-interest. That might be hard to accept, but it's also hard to argue from an evolutionary perspective. Keep in mind that true self-interest is a great deal more complex than the term implies. (Being selfish, after all, is not always in one's self-interest.)

But this is the crucial debate the book should promote. Are we creatures with a consistent and predictable human nature? As another author, Chris Hedges, puts it: Are we a species that can evolve biologically and technologically, but never morally? Or is it a mistake to think of a species as adaptable as homo sapiens as being "locked" and "unchanging" in any way? My friends (and clients) at The Delta Center would likely take the latter point of view.

On the moral side, I find the issue troubling and unresolved. A strong case can be made that human beings do not, in fact, progress morally. That for every emancipation there is just another enslavement to balance it out. On the other hand, any argument about humans being pre-programmed or hard-wired (at least biologically) is also easily proved wrong. Just watch as the hysteria over the uber-causal power of genes will grow more and more challenged over the coming years.

Does an adaptable and constantly changing biology, including within our brains, enable us to change (improve) morally as well? I take some comfort in the fact that Bruce is always fiddling with his algorithm.

That comfort is quickly mitigated by the fact that his algorithm is only getting more accurate.

3 comments:

Malaproposition said...

The problem with your question is that it asks if "we" can evolve morally. The answer is no. Game theory relies on the invested self interest of a collective (a nation state or some other group) acting as a united entity. Whether you belong to the Realist or Pluralist camp of game theory the fundamental operator involves a group acting as a unit. In other words, a person can evolve morally, but people cannot. At least not in any consistently predictable way. Sucks huh?

Marc Conklin said...

Not true, my Libertarian friend. Game theory is about measuring and weighing individual self-interest to predict what a group of individuals will do when faced with an issue that affects those various self-interests. Any group acts as a unit when you collectivize their actions. In fact, things are more predictable on a macro than on a micro level (whether you're talking about the stock market or molecular/atomic/subatomic particles). So to say that a "person" can evolve morally, but "people" cannot makes no rational sense. If enough people see moral evolution as a benefit, then "people" can evolve. The disturbing thing is that apparently we don't.

Malaproposition said...

I think we're saying the same thing but drawing different conclusions. Which is, of course, awesome. We're talking about converting individuals into a group that then becomes a unified actor. So the individual is removed from the collective conscious. People behave differently as part of a group than they do on an individual basis. That's why your assertion that large numbers are more accurate is correct. Because as the size of the group grows it's singular identity erodes the more evolved morality of the individual into a homogeneous group collective which favors the interest of the immoral majority. This explains the idea of the "mob mentality" or the success of the Snuggie. This of course means that unless a majority instantly becomes moral, the collective will of the immoral majority will dilute the morality of the minority to an extent that renders any individual action irrelevant and statistically insignificant.