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Should I Play the Bad Guy to Get My Way?

All the World’s a Strategy

by JOHN K. WHITE

It seems everyone is playing the bad guy these days. From the ever deadlocked, hold-no-prisoners U.S. Congress and its sand-box politics to the ongoing finger-pointing between the super and not-so-super powers over what constitutes New Europe. From how unequal the world has become to the pages of online commentary about whether Miley Cyrus is a new feminist model or Bob Dylan is a sellout. Indeed, tit-for-tat, he-said-she-said stuff is the new strategy for dispute resolution.

Not very polite, productive, or strategic. And quite dangerous should the brinksmanship escalate beyond control. But can’t we all just get along? Or do we always have to burn down the house to prove our points?

Case 1. Negotiation in Washington today is little more than a game of chicken. In the ever postponed debt-ceiling talks between Republicans and Democrats both sides draw lines they say cannot be crossed with regard to spending cuts and tax revenues, forever threatening government shutdowns and default. The non-stop adolescent vroom vroom posturing follows. Over and over (as we will again shortly see).

For a government to function, however, it is best to cooperate or swerve away from the oncoming car in the chicken analogy, especially when the cost of losing is extremely high (death or loss of face or election disaster) and, thus, it never pays to dig in one’s heals or escalate a conflict too much.

The same goes for most relationships and even the survival of a species according to the basics of evolutionary theory. We wouldn’t be here if our ancestors played too hard to get with potential mates. Indeed, a compromise must be reached to proceed, even up to burning the midnight oil while the fireworks explode over the Potomac on December 31st. It doesn’t matter that it’s funny money and that no one will ever pay back $18 trillion (and counting). You still have to be nice.

Case 2. In New Europe, we must remember that Russia is not a democracy even as we condemn its old-world aggressiveness and the shenanigans of an ex-KGB man well past his sell-by date. Of course, it is easy to argue that the United States isn’t a democracy either; more like a dollar democracy with its Super-PAC, billion-dollar-funded campaigns. But that doesn’t mean NATO should keep picking off former Soviet territory like a frontier Daniel Boone gone mad. You woke the bear from its slumber.

As a result, the most dangerous of games now has no rules. The post-Cold War world might not have been perfect, but it was relatively peaceful. Alas, everyone is arguing about who did what to whom, without empathy, consideration, or even manners in a game of high-stakes nuclear-capable checkers (chess requires deeper thought). They either want to punish bad Vlad or expose the full extent of U.S. meddling. No one is constructively conversing.

Case 3. In what passes for modern economics, the argument of the day is about inequality. Whether it is increasing or not (it is), and if so whether the increase is harmful to society or not (it is very harmful). How do I know this without backing myself into my own name-calling corner and without using the obvious statistics which seem to go unheard? – e.g., the wealth of 85 people = 3 billion! Common sense or if you like two examples, one a simple playground parable and the other a computer-simulated model of a trading society, called Sugarscape.

In the playground parable, imagine a game of baseball where two teams are picked by the school principal. Team A is made up of superstar letterman athletes and team B un-coordinated, fumbling Sheldon, Leonard, and Raj mathematical physicist types. To be sure, this game won’t last long, with the mercy rule applied after one inning. There will be tears, name-calling, and potential life-long fear and shame for some. Of course, an inquiry into the obvious administrative corruption would be welcomed, but sadly there won’t be one.

Sugarscape simulates a trading society and was developed by a doctor and a computer modeler, both professors associated with the Brookings Institution. They wanted to model cellular evolution and interacting cultures to help understand the basics of resource sharing. In their model, sugar is traded according to various rules, resulting in naturally occurring markets, with fluctuating prices and differing individual holdings over time.

It is easy to imagine that a perfectly flat distribution of wealth is unlikely to result, not least because commerce is not the main interest to some, contrary to traditional economic thinking that assumes we all make decisions for selfish, money-driven reasons. Indeed, some think an unequal distribution of wealth will always occur in any trading society, a power-law dependence between wealth and ownership, as in the Pareto principle (i.e., 20% own 80%). That might be true if modern economics wasn’t stacked. At this point, 20% owning 80% would be a dream when 85 people, in fact, equal 3 billion, impossible in any freely trading society.

Do such alarming numbers make us take note any better? A recent New York Times article about the every widening wealth gap (April 21) cited Thomas Picketty’s recent calculation that 1 percent own 50 percent of the world’s wealth but more alarmingly in 30 years 0.1 percent will own 50 percent, because invested capital keeps doing better than the economy. Simply put, that’s because beholden governments won’t make the money game fair for all.

To be sure, what is common in each of these scenarios is the game playing. It’s not so bad in the home, in the playground, or on the baseball diamond, but can be disastrous for debt deadlines, clashing empires, and put-upon workers a.k.a. slaves. When there are no rules and everyone is arguing, people just quit or the board gets turned over.

Of course, collaboration is always the better way. A number of farmers agreeing to share the cost and use of a purchase, a coordinated discount organized by large numbers of buyers as in bulk buying to avail of much-reduced block sales, someone lifting another through a window to enter a locked door – results that individuals cannot achieve alone. In game theory parlance, a non-zero-sum game. Sharing works.

In Filthy Lucre: Economics For People Who Hate Capitalism, Joseph Heath noted how a more socialized government arose in the farmlands of Saskatchewan, where mutual aid and proper insurance was (and is) essential to protect against crop failure and volatile prices, while a more conservative government arose next door in Alberta’s less-capricious ranching and oil-laden lands. The hard-to-get-at truth is that most of the world is more like Saskatchewan than Alberta.

Cooperation works in marriages, government, and nations, not only because of specialization, but because of directed organization, that makes all of us better when ideas, resources, and labour are shared. That’s obvious isn’t it?

Nonetheless, a better world does not always follow, and some are left out, which leads to conflict and group wars. As such, fairness is of utmost importance to ensure against systematic abuse, including those who control money and infrastructure, as is sadly becoming more apparent with today’s banks and internet monopolies. We can argue whether Republicans or Democrats are to blame for logjams in Congress or whether Putin or Obama are transparent in their dealings as you would hope between mature allies. But we can’t deny that the bickering is destructive.

Indeed, we are all partly to blame, and should look at our own specs before criticizing everyone else’s logs or at least walk a mile in another’s moccasins. As for today’s level of inequality, such callow selfishness is inexcusable – disgraceful even when some dismiss the catastrophic effects on the lives of many. When does the mercy rule apply in a world of slaves? It is in all our best interests – especially when different goals are evident – to cooperate.

As for the proliferation of keyboard-powered pundits insisting on only one way in the minutia of today’s online commentaries, overflowing with endless levels of shameful vitriol, hopefully we can learn how a virtual world can mimic the real world. I shake hands when I meet in person to show no weapons. I don’t become gruff online because I can’t distinguish between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization as George Bernard Shaw lamented about newspapers.

As for my own online two bits, I hope Miley Cyrus struts her humanity more than her sexuality and that Bob Dylan finally decides he has enough money. To shill your songs for ING Direct – a bank! Jumping Jehoshaphat BoDyl41, you were supposed to be a good guy.

JOHN K. WHITE, an adjunct lecturer in the School of Physics, University College Dublin, and author of Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). Do The Math! is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at: john.white@ucd.ie.